Skip to main content

Churchgoers sing at the Fort McMurray Seventh Day Adventist church on Dec. 25, 2014. The congregation has several members from Zimbabwe.Colin Freeze/The Globe and Mail

In a gospel chapel that's hidden in the belly of a Fort McMurray junior hockey arena, Joseph Akinde shouts over a rollicking rock band as he expresses two Christmas wishes.

His first is that everyone in the world would get to know Jesus like he does. His second is political. He wants the winds of change to blow across his homeland during elections scheduled for early 2015.

"I love my country, Nigeria, but the corruption is eating into the fabric of the country," Mr. Akinde, a 40-year-old geologist, said on Thursday. "Because we lack good governance, we decided to come here and live a quiet and peaceful life."

He isn't the only one to find a home for his faith in the recesses of a hockey arena on the Prairies.

Fort McMurray is a surprisingly diverse city, one that has doubled its population over the past decade. It has rolled out the welcome mat to thousands of immigrants from around the world – including parts of Africa, whose people have brought their families and their traditions with them.

Many of these migrants arrived to Canada knowing well that resource-rich lands do not in themselves create a more equitable lifestyle for ordinary citizens. As several of them celebrated Christmas, they expressed gratitude that Canada manages and shares its resource wealth relatively well.

"Africa does not need to be bought grain," said Andrew Manyevere, a former farm owner in Zimbabwe. "It's not about land – it's about productive land."

Mr. Manyevere, the head of the Fort McMurray African-Canadian Association, blames the 30-year rule of Robert Mugabe for Zimbabwe's disastrous agricultural policies. He came to Canada as a refugee a decade ago.

In an interview earlier this week, he pointed out that waves of asylum seekers continue to flee Zimbabwe – or try to – to this very day. "People are literally eaten by crocodiles crossing to South Africa," he said.

A Fort McMurray resident for years, Mr. Manyevere says he found opportunity in Canada. He ran a multicultural group and unsuccessfully ran as a city councillor during the past municipal election.

In his spiritual life, he worships at a local Seventh Day Adventist Church. Missionaries for the U.S-based sect got traction in Africa decades ago and now several migrant Zimbabweans worship at the local church on the outskirts of Fort McMurray.

This includes churchgoers such as GuGu Maponga, a young nursing student who sang Christmas carols during Thursday's celebration. She said she travelled from Zimbabwe to Alberta by way of Ontario – the province where she moved to as a girl but which she recently gave up in favour of Alberta.

"I don't see myself going back there," Ms. Maponga says, adding that she likes the opportunities – and low taxes – she has found during her two years out West.

Burkina Faso's René Kaboré came to Fort McMurray around the same time, after spending several years in New Brunswick.

The civil engineer was celebrating Christmas at St. John's Catholic church hall, with his newborn daughter. "She just got her baptism in this church," said Mr. Kaboré, adding that he wants to raise Jolene in Alberta. "My hope is that my daughter has a good education."

Burkina Faso is a well-run country, he said, and has escaped much of the corruption and religious sectarianism that afflicts nearby parts of Africa. "In my country, Muslims and Catholics celebrate Christmas together," he said, Mr. Kaboré pointed out this is no longer true in other parts of West Africa, where Islamist extremists are gaining notoriety for terrorist attacks and kidnappings, and thereby making a religious divide more polarized.

More than 250 Nigerian families are estimated to have moved to Fort McMurray in recent years. Many of them are professionals who had a straight path to immigration, having honed the valuable skills they use in the oil sands on their home country's oil patch.

Mr. Akinde, the Christian geologist, says escaping chronic corruption and faltering security are the two biggest reasons why people now leave Nigeria. The Daystar Chapel church he helps run has aided many of his countrymen in making the adjustment, he said.

The hangar-like building may be the only place in the world that houses both ice-clearing zambonis and the Redeemed Christian Church of God sect, which was started by an obscure Nigerian Christian prophet in 1952.

Many Nigerian women dressed in flowing headdresses and gowns scrambled out of the minus-30C weather and into the arena's theatre, not far from the ice sheet where the Fort McMurray Oil Barons play their home games.

"What you see right now is the fastest growing Christian church in the world – and it all started in Nigeria," Mr. Akinde said.