This article was published more than 5 years ago. Some information in it may no longer be current.
It’s a cold Saturday evening but, inside the night club, things are getting hot. Prostitutes in racy underwear are gyrating on customers’ laps while the band plays loudly on the balcony and the emcee simulates obscene acts with two dancers. Some of the regulars are drinking themselves into oblivion. Who knows? Maybe they just lost their jobs. The economy is tanking, after all. But what good is sitting alone in your room?
Welcome to Fort McMurray, the 2015 version. The night club in question is the infamous but fictional Kit Kat, and its louche decadence – once the trademark of this northern oil boom town – exists only on stage in an amateur production of the musical, Cabaret.
At the intermission, the audience of 600 sips white wine in the lobby. After the final curtain, they get in their SUVs and pickups and go home to liberate the babysitter and walk the dog. Maybe home is one of the new detached houses in Thickwood and Timberlea, the quiet suburbs north of the Athabasca River. Maybe it’s a nice condo overlooking the Clearwater River, or one of the fancier places in Waterways, the oldest part of town.
Compared with the Kit Kat, the city’s real bars and clubs are quiet, and it’s not because of the current drop in oil prices.
The truth is, the lurid 2006 version of Fort McMurray embedded in the Canadian imagination – the wild-west town where transient oil workers with pockets full of cash abuse drugs and alcohol, and prostitutes solicit clients outside the 7-Eleven on Franklin Avenue – is gone. Less than 10 years after being swallowed whole by the social disruptions inherent to boom towns, this city has pulled itself together.
Today, Fort McMurray is a family town. Nestled along the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers a half-hour drive south of the oil sands, it’s a city of 75,000 with an aging, slightly seedy downtown surrounded by comfy suburban developments and dotted with large, pleasant green spaces. Indie coffee joints and hipster eateries compete with the usual food franchises and family-run ethnic restaurants. There are shiny new schools as well as elaborate recreational and arts facilities, almost all sponsored by industry.
A whopping 69 per cent of residents are married, according to an eye-opening survey done last year by the Canadian Index of Wellbeing at the University of Waterloo. (The national average is 47 per cent.) There are more than 100 live births a month at the hospital. The local malls and grocery stores suffer stroller gridlock.
But as Fort Mac grows up, new fault lines are being exposed. There is a growing gap between the living conditions of newcomers and lower-income earners and those who own homes or condos in the subdivisions. As well, the results of the wellbeing survey point to a potential mental-health crisis. People here work long, gruelling shifts while trying to raise a family, and they are clearly feeling the stress.
Then there’s the question of the future.
On Wednesday, a group of prominent Canadian and U.S. scientists and academics called for a moratorium on further development of the oil sands. On Tuesday, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said the industry faces a decade of slow production caused by fal-ling crude prices and worries about higher royalties and environmental costs under the province’s newly elected New Democratic Party government.
But possibly the biggest blow came Monday, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed a declaration committing G7 nations to the “decarbonization of the global economy” by 2100. He subsequently qualified the goal as “aspirational,” but that doesn’t change the fact that the world has basically put an expiration date on Fort McMurray just as a new generation of residents is more determined than ever to bring a sense of permanence to their home.
The unresolved tensions between Fort McMurray’s past, present and future have led to a bitterness among many residents. There is an abiding suspicion that people in the “south” deliberately discount the fact that Fort Mac has become a modern, livable city, preferring to see it only as the remote headwaters of a river of oil royalties.
In fact, Alberta doesn’t even consider Fort McMurray a city, even though it’s far bigger than officially designated cities such as Airdrie, Grande Prairie and Medicine Hat. It used to be a city, until the province amalgamated it as one of eight “hamlets” in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in 1995. Most of the RMWB, a giant inverted apostrophe the size of Nova Scotia, is muskeg and boreal forest. The next-biggest hamlet, Fort Chipewyan, has a population under 1,000.
The region’s total population is approximately 116,000, including the work camps in the oil sands. But most of the roughly 35,000 workers in those camps at any one time never even see Fort McMurray; the planes bringing them in from across the country land at an industry airfield well north of the city.
“There’s three kinds of people who come to Fort McMurray,” says resident Peter Fortna, a historian and consultant, and an active supporter of the provincial NDP. “There’s people who come to make a quick dollar and get out. There’s other people who come with a five-year plan – ‘We’re gonna make our money and then we’re going to move back.’ And then there’s people who come here and want to make a community of it.
“Those first two types of people put a lot of pressure on the third type, because it takes a lot to build a community. There’s a lot of people in Calgary, Edmonton and elsewhere who are depending on Fort McMurray. Somebody’s gotta be here to answer the bell.”
The residents vented their frustrations on the Progressive Conservative Party in last month’s historic general election. Both of the PC incumbents in the provincial ridings that represent Fort McMurray and the rest of Wood Buffalo were turfed. Voters instead elected the Wildrose Party candidates, with the NDP a close second.
“All kinds of people have opinions about Fort McMurray, and nobody’s ever been here, right?” says Mr. Fortna.
From boom to bust (repeat)
Massy Boucher is mad – at an otter. “Son of a gun,” he mutters.
Then, “I’ll get him!”
The object of Mr. Boucher’s ire has made a detour around one of the traps he has set beside a rambling stream near his cabin. The wiry 73-year-old Métis trapper dives into the low branches surrounding the stream and, in a few minutes, has moved the trap to intersect with the otter’s tracks.
Then he stabs long twigs into the ground on either side, saying: “That way he won’t go round it.” Behind him is the sound of traffic on Highway 63, which connects Fort McMurray to Edmonton, 436 kilometres to the south.
When Mr. Boucher was young, back in 1960 before the oil-sands industry took off, Fort McMurray was a Métis trapper town of 1,200. He grew up in the area, working out of Fort Mac on railway jobs, and trapping. There were Dene and Cree, too. The place was remote and small, crammed into a narrow plain on the south side of the Clearwater, where the river winds into the Athabasca like a sine wave.
The arrival of the Great Canadian Oil Sands (later Suncor) and Syncrude changed everything. The population of Fort McMurray more than doubled between 1971 and 1976, going from 6,847 to 15,424, according to Statistics Canada. Then it doubled again between 1976 and 1981, rising to 31,000. There was a pause in the 1980s and 90s, though, when the price of oil plummeted from $35 (U.S.) a barrel to less than $10. A major oil-sands project was cancelled and, for a while, Fort McMurray was on hold.
But it didn’t last. The industry took off again in the 1990s after Ralph Klein became premier and changed the royalty regime in the companies’ favour. The result was $150-billion in development between 2000 and 2008. Output jumped from 375,000 barrels a day in 1992 to 1.1 million in 2006. (Today the figure is approaching two million.)
The oil sands were exploding once more, and Fort McMurray was a mess. The population went nuclear, going from 33,078 in 1996 to 61,374 in 2011. The city was in the impossible position of trying to keep up. This boom hit harder than any of the previous ones because, by this time, there was a generation of young people who’d grown up there and thought of it as home.
“I graduated high school in 1998, and I could not move out of my parents’ house,” says Colleen Tatum, who co-owns an automotive-services company and was elected to the Wood Buffalo council in a by-election in late March.
“No one would rent to me because I wasn’t a contractor. They wanted all the people with the ‘living out allowance,’” she says, rolling her eyes.
Those “LOAs” of the 1990s remain an object of scorn in Fort McMurray. Transient workers from across the country were given huge living allowances, so landlords jacked their rents. The city was then largely confined to the downtown core – Thickwood and Timberlea were still nascent. People were desperate for housing of any kind. Ms. Tatum and her husband had to buy a home in order to live on their own.
“Everyone said we were crazy,” she says. “A single-family house with a double attached garage, 1,500-something square feet for $206,000. Best thing we ever did and, thank goodness, because we would never have been able to afford the rent increase, rent increase, rent increase, rent increase.”
Everyone who lived through that boom has stories about the madness. “Trying to go to the grocery stores or any of the stores in town, it was like Boxing Day every day,” says Matt Youens, a Syncrude human-resources employee who arrived in 2006. “Like, you just had pallets on the middle of the floor, empty shelves, huge lineups.”
And then came Al Gore and the world’s sudden awareness of the perils of climate change. The international media turned their gaze on the city just as it was struggling, and failing, to cope. Suddenly, Fort McMurray was the poster child for climate change and boom-town excess. The images of the tailing ponds around the mine sites, and of the muddy, stark landscapes of the open-pit mines themselves, became symbols of our overreliance on fossil fuels at any cost.
At the same time, Canada’s new western prime minister was selling the oil sands as the motor driving the country’s economy. In one of his first major speeches after being elected in 2006, Mr. Harper called Canada an “energy superpower” and boasted to a London audience of “an ocean of oil-soaked sand … under the muskeg of northern Alberta – my home province.”
Al Jazeera, the CBC, the BBC, Vice and The Guardian – they all came between 2006 and 2008 to report in sensational tones on the classic downsides of a boom town: drugs, prostitution, homelessness, aboriginals left out of the economy, people living in trailers or crammed into apartments and houses, paying mad rents.
Since 2010, rocker Neil Young, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Titanic director James Cameron and his leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, have used their star power to draw negative attention to the oil sands by visiting Fort McMurray and the mine sites. “The fact that this filth is being created now, when the link between carbon emissions and global warming is so obvious, reflects negligence and greed,” Bishop Tutu said when he was here last year.
It has reached the point that, when you see the oil sands for the first time after hearing so much about them, it’s like meeting a celebrity. There’s a frisson of excitement. The mammoth scale adds to the moment: the towering cokers belching thick clouds of smoke, the 30-metre-high berms holding back the tailings ponds, the massive machinery. Especially the machinery.
The giant trucks that can haul 400 tonnes of bitumen each cost $7-million; the shovels that load the stuff into them cost $40-million. The pressure on the tires of a fully loaded haul truck is so great that they can spontaneously catch fire inside. Drivers call these “puffers” and keep an eye out for them, watching for smoke from one of the six $50,000 tires on their co-workers’ trucks as they go back and forth.
Then there’s the smell coming out of the cokers that upgrade the bitumen. The stench is a combination of pulp mill and curry fart. It’s memorably unpleasant – powerful enough to overwhelm the senses when first experienced and cause a panic attack, complete with an elevated heart rate.
Blessedly, you can smell it only when directly downwind from one of the coking units. The stink rarely makes it to Fort McMurray – at least not in the wind.
“When I was a little kid growing up here, Dad would come home with his lunchbox and his boots, and there’d be that smell on his clothes,” says Jared Collins, who moved to Fort Mac in 1977 with his family, when he was 3, and who now works for a company that supplies heavy equipment, haul trucks included.
“Smells like home. Anybody that grew up here would say the same thing.”
Mad shifts and Australians
Brad Enright, one of the young bartenders at the hip Wood Buffalo Brewing Company in downtown Fort Mac, makes a drink for a regular and, as he sets it on the bar, says in his Australian accent, “I saved a life today.”
It turns out that, when not shaking martinis, Mr. Enright, 23, lifeguards at the MacDonald Island recreation centre, a giant complex of pools, rinks, a library and other facilities, all sponsored by industry. A mother turned away for a second and her toddler sank to the bottom like a stone. Mr. Enright jumped in and pulled the girl out.
On-site or off, people in Fort McMurray work hard. Many of the transient younger crowd working in bars and restaurants rent single bedrooms that cost as much as $1,100 a month; they need more than one income to survive. Some stay for longer than others; a lot of them make money and then travel, like Sydnee Porter, a popular server at Wood Buffalo Brewing who has big plans to see the world.
For people working on-site and trying to make Fort McMurray their permanent home, life can be gruelling, even if the pay is high. Jennifer Best, senior director of community services at the Wood Buffalo YMCA, knows this all too well. Her husband drives a haul truck on the “14 and seven shift.” That means he works seven days straight, then seven nights straight, and then has seven days off.
“We can go essentially 14 days without seeing each other, if I’m working late and he’s going to work,” Ms. Best says. “It’s really really tough on him.”
The hardest part of the 14-and-seven shift is the “short change” when workers switch from days to nights. Back when the boom was peaking, men doing a short change would finish work, drink all night in a bar, then pass out, sleep it off and wake up in time for work that evening.
“There was no ownership to what Fort McMurray was in 2008. It was just a place to come and make money, and leave,” says Ms. Best, whose employer is one of the city’s main providers of social services.
That has clearly changed. There are kids everywhere: teens walking to the mall in open jackets when it’s minus 25 (why do teens do that?); toddlers splashing in the pools at MacDonald Island; boys draining jumpshot after jumpshot during open hours on the basketball court at the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre at Keyano College, the city’s only postsecondary school.
“The party’s leaving Fort McMurray,” says Ms. Best. “We’re more family-oriented now.”
But the shift work and daily commutes are hard on families trying to make a life in Fort McMurray. “We have very young mothers raising children essentially as a single parent, because the other person’s out at site working those long shifts,” she says. “When they actually do have time together, they’re kind of in their own worlds. They’re not a functioning family unit. And then the breakdowns start to happen.”
The Canadian Index of Well-being revealed that only half the working population in Fort McMurray has a regular daytime shift, well below the Canadian average of around 70 per cent. The other half is working evenings, nights and rotating shifts that routinely last 12 hours (one in five respondents said they work more than 60 hours a week).
Shift work is hard on employees and has been associated with health issues including injury, heart disease and cancer. It makes child care difficult, weakens a person’s sense of connection to the community (20 per cent of respondents complained of this) and causes people to feel rushed – all of which, and more, were reflected in the survey.
“Fifteen per cent reported that they could not get going in the morning – that was one of the big alarm bells,” says Ms. Best. Another alarm bell was that 2.6 per cent of the respondents said they had “poor” mental health, a level she calls “concerning.”
“It would be better if industry was willing to adjust work times, even make them eight-hour shifts or something that would help offset the time away,” she says.
“But money doesn’t pay attention to sleep deprivation.”
The new inconvenient truth
The other major problem facing the new Fort Mac is the growing income gap. In a city where half the households earn more than $200,000 a year, people are being left behind. A tragedy that captured international attention in February was sadly emblematic of this reality.
Nida Habib and her husband, Syed, had a basement unit in one of the older buildings downtown. Their five young children were being ravaged by bedbugs, so Ms. Habib sprinkled a pesticide in the corners of the apartment – an illegal and deadly pesticide that relatives had given her on a holiday trip home to Pakistan. The pellets gasified and poisoned all the children. The two youngest died in hospital.
The day of the tragedy, two young Mounties posted down the hall from the Habibs’ apartment said that, when they started their shift, they had thrown out garbage left rotting on a stairwell floor.
Conditions like these are a hangover of the boom years and living-out allowances. Most of the social services like the YMAC are still downtown, so that’s where newcomers settle. They take what they can get, apartment-wise.
The maddening thing for Ms. Best is that the rents downtown remain high even as the city expands into the new suburbs.
She feels “rage against the landlords … who are charging the equivalent of a three-bedroom townhouse mortgage. They need to start investing the money that they’re receiving into maintaining these buildings.
“In the boom time, people turned a blind eye. It was just accepted. But as we start to become a community, we will not accept that sort of failing attention.”
Ms. Best has an interesting theory – that it has been in the provincial government’s interest to let the old narratives of Fort McMurray boom-town insanity stay in place. “We keep getting stolen from by government,” she says of the oil royalties that flow to the province and Ottawa. “They just keep raping, for a lack of a better word. We’ve kind of been kept a little bit of a secret. That, you know, media has portrayed us as this crazy town – there’s hookers and blow.
“I believe that there was a certain element [for whom] it was okay, so that there was no value put on what was actually happening here.”
Others say the same thing – that the provincial government ignores the fact that a new generation of residents is turning Fort McMurray into a viable, long-term community. It’s the new inconvenient truth.
Ms. Tatum, whose automotive-services business saw its first year-on-year sales decrease in a decade in February, says she has long pushed for some clarity about what the province and Ottawa see as the future of the city where she was born.
“What is our plan long-term, going forward? Is industry going to work with us to create a sustainable community? Are we going to be able to achieve that? Or are we going to continue these boom-and-bust cycles that never really address the core issues of housing, stability, livability?”
But how does a government plan the future of a single-industry town that produces a controversial, non-renewable resource whose price is set by capricious global forces? Does it build long-lasting infrastructure, or procrastinate and wait to see what happens next?
“If that’s your plan, be honest,” responds Ms. Tatum. “Let’s just be honest about it and say, ‘You know what, we’re never going to invest that money there because we don’t see the value in it.’ I won’t agree, but at least we can stop hoping and trying.”
In the meantime, Fort McMurray is getting on with it.
The city is as diverse as Toronto. There are more than 100 ethnic communities, with the latest influx of immigrants coming from East African countries such as South Sudan and Somalia. But whereas Toronto’s communities tend to be more segregated over the vast expanse of the country’s biggest city, in Fort Mac everyone is shoulder to shoulder.
If there is one place where this is most apparent, it’s in the Catholic schools. The publicly funded Catholic system now has more students than the Fort McMurray Public School District. This is partly because of the city’s large Filipino and Newfoundland populations. But it’s also because parents from the growing Muslim community like the idea of a faith-based education for their children, even if the faith isn’t their own.
Thirty per cent of the Catholic board’s students are non-Catholics, says George McGuigan, the superintendent of schools. They, too, attend liturgical events every month and have to take religion class.
The Catholic board is also reaching out to aboriginal students, graduating them at a rate that is significantly higher than the provincial average.
“We pay attention to them,” Mr. McGuigan says. “It’s a conscious, targeted effort that everybody inside the system knows and understands, that we are here for the aboriginal students and we need to keep working with them and making sure they’re being successful.”
In Fort Mac, aboriginal people make up 10 per cent of the population but 40 per cent of the homeless. If you meet First Nations people here who are in their 50s or 60s, chances are that they were taken from their families in the terrible “Sixties Scoop” and put in residential schools hundreds of kilometres away. The legacy of destroyed aboriginal families is as deeply felt here as anywhere, and all the riches flowing from the oil sands can only do so much.
The Fort MacKay First Nation, which lies in the heart of the oil sands north of Fort McMurray, has made millions, thanks to the companies it created.
The reserve of 600 has its own hockey arena, an outdoor amphitheatre that seats 1,200, and dozens of new homes for band members.
Other reserves in and around the hamlets of Wood Buffalo have seen their situations improve, due to oil-sands money. Many aboriginal people work in the industry.
But some reserves, such as Janvier, are still decades behind – many homes have no running water and there are no paved roads. In Fort Chipewyan, band members are concerned about a high rate of cancer that they believe is being caused by oil-sands pollution of the Athabasca River.
And everywhere, the land that aboriginal trappers and hunters rely on to provide for their families is being squeezed.
Mr. Boucher is one of the remaining few who try to make a living off fur. Last year, he earned $2,700. This year, it will be less, because his harvest has been unusually low – only one lynx, and fewer martens, otters and fishers.
“They didn’t find my traps,” he says by way of explanation. But others blame all the development, the constant highway construction, the oil and gas extraction and the increase in the human population for the decline of the animal population.
Paul Cree, a former band chief who lives in Anzac, south of Fort Mac, says that he now has to drive 200 kilometres from the oil sands to find a moose.
You only need to look at a map to see what has happened. When the First Nations and Métis of the Athabasca region signed Treaty 8 with Ottawa in 1899, they were told they would always be able to use their lands in traditional ways – except for any areas needed for development or settlement.
Now, when you lay a map of the government’s oil-sands leases over the traditional traplines and hunting grounds along the Athabasca River, every single inch is taken. There is almost nowhere left to be an Indian any more.
From Argos to Aerosmith
This weekend, Fort McMurray is playing host to a Canadian Football League pre-season game between the Edmonton Eskimos and the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The teams will play at Shell Place, a brand new, $127-million outdoor stadium beside the MacDonald Island rec centre. Two weeks later, the Eskimos return for a regular-season game against the Toronto Argonauts; on July 19, the Jurassic-period rock band Aerosmith is coming.
The arrival of Shell Place is another moment in Fort McMurray’s transition from boom town to comfortable Canadian city. But where other cities of its size may become a little, let’s say, staid, Fort Mac still has that frontier edge.
Cabaret was community theatre on a par with professional work: raunchy, funny, unselfconscious, dark, fearless, expertly staged and wonderfully acted. The audience cheered on the actors, occasionally letting out a catcall at a scantily clad friend. The abrupt, dark ending – an empty stage, projected documentary images of a Nazi concentration camp, and the sound of a train clacking on the tracks – was remarkable for its willingness to forgo a curtain call for the deserving cast.
Afterward a woman in the lobby said the fact that a community theatre troupe could produce such professional work was a “Fort McMurray thing.”
When you remember that Fort McMurray has gone from 1,200 people to 75,000 in 55 years, you understand what she means. Everyone here is from away, or one generation removed from it. People literally reinvent themselves in Fort McMurray, leaving behind old lives, go-nowhere careers and, in the case of many immigrants, trouble.
“You don’t pick up and move your family to Fort McMurray just because,” says Mr. Fortna, who works with many aboriginal and environmental groups. “You’re coming from economically depressed areas … sometimes, war-ravaged areas.
“A lot of people saw what bad really looks like, and they’re much more willing to be part of something good, and they can see it in Fort McMurray.”
“It’s all opportunity,” says Mr. Youens, the former Syncrude employee, who moved to Calgary this spring after his wife was transferred there. “It is here for you to take, if you work at it and you’re open to saying yes when things come your way.
“It’s almost like dog years. Like, for every year that you’re up here, and you’ve got your teeth in something, it’s like two or three years’ experience elsewhere.”
No one was more emblematic of the “Fort McMurray thing” than Diana Moser, who starred in Cabaret as Sally Bowles, the role made famous by Liza Minnelli.
Ms. Moser, 28, came from Hamilton in 2011 fresh out of university to work as a curator at the Oil Sands Discovery Centre. Her previous stage experience had been as part of musical-ensemble shows in high school. A year ago she appeared in the chorus in another ambitious Keyano production, Les Misérables.
“What have you got to lose” is how she described the attitude required to perform a revealing and difficult musical role with no formal training.
“I think it’s because so many of us come from different places but for similar reasons. And so, when we’re all together in this community, we just think, ‘Well, I’ve made this choice to come here and I’m going to make it the best that I can.’”
In a way, Fort McMurray is the Hollywood celebrity of Canadian cities: overanalyzed, hypercriticized and suspected of only being in it for itself by people who’ve never come within a hundred miles of it.
And then you go there.
“You think you know Fort McMurray,” Ms. Moser says, “but you never know what to expect.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this article said incorrectly that Matt Youens used to work for Suncor. In fact, he used to work for Syncrude.