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The Globe and Mail

Fort Mac claims its rightful pride of place

Preston Manning is the founder of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.

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After being trashed and maligned for years by left-of-centre politicians, environmental extremists and media commentators who have never been near the place, Fort McMurray is finally getting due recognition for its importance to Alberta, to Canada and our economy. It's only regrettable that it has taken a terrible disaster and the endangerment of tens of thousands of human lives to bring about this realization.

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I first visited Fort McMurray when its population was around 3,000 and the price of oil was $3 a barrel. My father was premier of Alberta at the time and he wanted a "heads up" to be given to the Fort Mac locals that the first commercial oil-sands plant, to be built by Great Canadian Oil Sands, was about to receive a permit to proceed.

So I and a few others went door to door with what we thought was the good news, only to be greeted with, "Sonny, we have been hearing stories like this since Alexander Mackenzie came through here in the 1700s." It was true: There had been dozens of oil-sands extraction schemes, research projects, pilot plants and false starts, but until then no one had come up with the combination of money, technology and entrepreneurial stamina required to build a commercial plant.

This time, all that was provided by J. Howard Pew, head of Sun Oil Co. of Philadelphia. Nearing 80 at the time he went to Fort McMurray, Mr. Pew (contrary to popular belief) wasn't there for the money. He was already one of the wealthiest men in the United States and had willed much of his fortune to a family trust that supported a variety of benevolent causes.

No, Mr. Pew had a very different reason for being in Alberta, a reason that put him decades ahead of most of his business and political contemporaries. The Pew family had made most of its original fortune through ship building, in particular building many of the oil tankers that supplied petroleum to the Allied navies and armies of the First and Second World Wars.

Mr. Pew was an authority on how many of those tankers had been sunk by enemy battleships, submarines and mines. This convinced him that North America was vulnerable to a disruption of vital oil supplies by foreign belligerents and he believed that accelerated development of conventional as well as "unconventional" oil sources (such as oil sands) should be a North American priority. Hence, his presence in Fort Mac.

The first time I ever heard the phrase "North American energy security" was when it was uttered by Mr. Pew – years before the term entered North American political or economic discourse in any meaningful way.

So that first plant was developed, with many ups and downs – fires, freeze-ups, technical problems galore. But lessons were learned which benefited others and future plants until Fort Mac eventually became one of the major sources of Canadian petroleum production.

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Think of all that has been accomplished in that community since those early days: the technological challenges that have been overcome; the hard work expended in developing those plants and building that community; the creation of tens of thousands of jobs; the generation and distribution of billions of dollars in wealth, wages and taxes.

Then think of the economy and life of that community threatened by disaster, as it has been with the wildfires of the past month. All of Canada has rightly taken notice, and responded with immediate aid.

Fort Mac residents acknowledge that exploiting the oil sands raises significant environmental challenges that need to be better met. But when the crippling of that one community and its production base threatens to reduce Canada's projected growth rate from 2 per cent to zero for the second quarter of this year, that should drive home to all Canadians – including those who oppose the oil industry, and those who take it for granted – just how dependent this country has been on the wealth-creating power of Fort Mac and its resource base.

I can think of no community in Canada more deserving of the outpouring of sympathy and assistance that we have witnessed in the last few weeks and which, one hopes, will continue long into the future.

So here's to Fort McMurray, its people and its economy. We need you, our hearts are with you, and we wish you a speedy recovery.

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