'Negative press helps in a way. People rally to dispute inaccuracies. I mean, you don’t see prostitutes on every comer.'
MELISSA BLAKE, MAYOR OF FORT MCMURRAY, TALKS TO KATE FILLION ABOUT THE OIL BOOM, COCAINE, AND HOW SHE’S ACTUALLY NOT A SINGLE MOM
Q: You're 36 years old, which sounds young for a mayor, but compared to the rest of the population in Fort McMurray, you're actually—
A: Ancient? I know. The average age here is 31.8. And this job has certainly given me a few grey hairs.
Q: In the media, Fort McMurray is portrayed as a rough and tumble place where the streets are lined with gold, cocaine and prostitutes. Accurate?
A: Not at all. We have quite a few young families, and most people who live here are extremely busy because they work very long hours. But I suppose that is a less interesting article.
Q: Well, a lot of articles have mentioned that more money for addiction treatment is on your wish list. So drugs are a real problem, right?
A: It’s true that we need more funds for addiction treatment, and that drugs are a concern. I think because wages are relatively high, people have more disposable income, and that may make them more likely to get involved with drugs. It’s also true that many people are here without their families, and the lack of family support may also contribute to drug use.
Q: Since you were elected two years ago, you’ve been saying the massive new oil sands projects are actually creating significant issues for the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo and particularly for Fort McMurray.
A: The issue is not growth itself, but the pace of growth. Our growth rate is eight to nine per cent a year, which is very overheated, and that rate has been holding steady for six years. In 1996, the population of Fort McMurray was 34,000, and today it is 64,500. We also have what we call a shadow population: a significant number of people commute into town for work. And although the number fluctuates, there are currently about 13,000 people living in work camps. Now, many of the camps consist of trailers, with several people sharing a trailer, and some of them are as nice as hotels. I moved here when I was 12, and there have been work camps as long as I can remember, though they weren’t always inhabited year-round.
Q: How has the place changed in the past 24 years?
A: In some ways, not much, in other ways, very much. It is more diverse now, because there are people from all over the world here. At last count 40 different languages were being spoken. Obviously, it’s much larger now than it was when I was growing up. And there’s a Wal-Mart, that came in seven or eight years ago. But it’s still just a beautiful place to live, because of our incredible location, with rivers and hills. And the people are still warm and friendly.
Q: But how do you create a sense of community in a place where there are so many newcomers and the population is so transient?
A: That’s a big challenge. Interestingly, negative press helps in a way—people rally around to dispute inaccurate depictions of our community. Just to give one recent example, Chatelaine printed an article about how much prostitution there is here, and referred to the downtown as grey and windswept and constructed of cinder block.
People were upset on a number of different levels, because it really did not reflect what it is like to live here. I mean, you don’t walk down the street and see prostitutes on every corner. What we have are a lot of escort services listed in the Yellow Pages, but that would be true in many cities. The reality is that this is a great place to live.
Q: What are your biggest problems right now?
A: They're all related to municipal debt and qual ity of life. We simply don't have the infrastructure we need, given our pop ulation and the pace of industrial development. Roads, housing, hospitals, schools, recreational facilities, waste water treatment plants—everything we have was built for a much smaller population, and we have spent as much as we as a municipality are allowed to spend.
The province recently granted us a $136million interest-free, capital-free loan to help complete a waste water treatment plant, but of course we now have a higher debt load. What we’ve had to do is the equivalent of maxing out your credit card, but we will need close to $2 billion over the next five years in order to provide the basic services people elsewhere in the province take for granted. Obviously we cannot come up with that amount by increasing municipal taxes.
Q: It seems bizarre that a community that~s gener ating so much wealth should actually be cash poor. Similarly, it's strange that you have a relatively large homeless populatio?i. Just how many homeless people are there?
A: The last count was more than 400. Some of it is related to the cost of living and to our housing shortage, which means that rents are extremely high. Some people are drawn here by the promise of jobs and high wages, but they arrive and can’t find a place to live, or in fact don’t have the skills necessary to get the kinds of jobs they thought they would. And some are homeless for the more traditional reasons of addiction or mental health issues.
Q: You’ve tried to slow the pace of development by asking the Energy Utilities Board to delay approvals for multi-billion-dollar expansion projects. That’s a bold and aggressive strategy, but how successful has it been?
A: Not very. Recently, the EUB acknowledged the problems we face, and pointed out that there is a window of opportunity for the province to address them.
Q: Essentially tossing the ball back in the province’s court?
Q :And the province hasn’t exactly been sympathetic. Ralph Klein even said recently that infrastructure projects should wait until the economy slows and labour is more affordable.
A: It doesn’t make a lot of sense, because the expansion projects are continuing yet we do not have the infrastructure even to support the people who are already here. We can’t really wait to be able to flush our toilets or drive on safe roads. And because of our location, there’s always been what we call a Fort McMurray factor, where we see a premium of 30 to 40 per cent added on to construction projects.
The other issue we face is that we are competing with the oil industry for labour, and the kinds of fees we can pay, compared to those paid for working on an oil sands megaproject—we’re not exactly even matched.
Q: Speaking of safe roads, why does the one between Edmonton and Fort McMurray have such a high death rate?
A: It’s true that many people have perished on Highway 63. Part of it is simply that it’s the only road to Edmonton, so it’s very crowded. And part of it is just bad driving habits. People get impatient sitting behind some big rig, and they start taking risks, pulling out to pass, or speeding. But the province and the federal government have committed to spending the money to twin the highway, which will help—when it’s completed, which could be up to five years from now.
Q: You must be happy that by the end of the month, Alberta will have a new and potentially more responsive premier.
A: The difficult thing now is that it’s hard to get much accomplished before that person takes office.
Q: An astronomical amount of natural gas will be required to power the extraction operations of all the oils sands projects announced so far. Jim Dinning, the front-runner in the provincial leadership race, has said that if he’s elected, he’d consider building a nuclear reactor to fuel the extraction. What do your constituents think about this?
A: I think many people are nervous about the idea of having a nuclear plant close to home for the same reason many Canadians would be nervous. They've heard all the negatives and may not completely understand the potential positives.
Personally, I am committed to preserving the environment, I drive a hybrid, and I am interested in hearing more about what this would mean and what the real risks and benefits might be. My mind is open. Not that, at the municipal level, we will actually have much say over this.
Q: Fort McMurray has a reputation as a macho, sexist place. Is being a woman a liability, politically?
A: I don’t feel it’s been a hindrance. Let’s put it this way: it hasn’t prevented me from doing the same kinds of things our previous mayor did.
Q: But after losing the election, he said, “Lady mayors don’t go over well in industrial towns.” Was there any truth to that remark?
A: No! I think in some ways Fort McMurray is quite progressive. A lot of what you read about gender imbalance and gender issues here is, quite frankly, just not true. The imbalance is only about 10 per cent.
Q: Do you think it matters to your constituents that you have a child and are unmarried?
A: No, actually. I think they care about whether I can do the job, and so far, they seem to think I can. But I’d like to correct a mis-impression: I’m not a single mom! I have the most amazing partner, and I could not do what I do without him, as I have told journalists again and again.
Seeing myself referred to as a single mom really has, more than anything else, made me jaded about the media. Now, as it happens, he’s my fiancé: one thing led to another and we did get engaged last Christmas. We’ve been too busy to get married but it will happen some day.
Q: Are you planning to run for a second term?
A: I would’ve said yes until this year. But I haven’t accomplished what I’d hoped to accomplish by this point in my first term, which is disappointing and frustrating. To make progress, and to improve the quality of life here, we are dependent on increased funding. The province’s answer so far has been that it’s unfair to favour one municipality over another.
But we are growing faster than any other municipality in Alberta or even in Canada, and the oil sands developments are creating revenues and jobs for the whole province and in fact the whole country.
'I think in some ways Fort McMurray is quite progressive. A lot of what you read about gender issues is, frankly, just not true.1
Q: You once told a reporter, “I’m not a political animal. Truth be told, I’m an introvert.” Has being mayor changed you?
A: I’ve adapted to the demands of the job. But I’m still happiest lying on the couch at home, watching Cars for the 18th time with my son, because it brings him so much pleasure.
Q: Who’s more difficult to deal with: your three-year-old, or Ralph Klein?
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