This Canada

A mean town matures

Wayne Skene October 13 1980
This Canada

A mean town matures

Wayne Skene October 13 1980

A mean town matures

This Canada

Wayne Skene

The name unfortunately evokes a bizarre array of fanciful images, half-truths and damning misconceptions. Fort McMurray. It carries a symbolic ring, perhaps not quite as pernicious as Sodom and Gomorrah, nor as golden as Dallas, but almost, to some minds. To unemployed Canadians, Fort McMurray is Syncrude—steady jobs with the highest wages in the country. For social scientists, Fort McMurray is the continent’s largest and most exciting litmus test—the place where unreasonable expectations, mixed with isolation, convert easily into a statistical human casualty list of broken marriages and crime. To other Canadians, it is simply Alberta’s endless “boomtown,” that badly mangled and abrasive term that points to the locus of Alberta wealth. For the media, Fort McMurray is a veritable Pandora’s box of curiosity where the human shards of rapid growth are piled conveniently • for inspection. In bad times, there is little so well received as the news of someone else’s misfortune.

For better or for worse, Fort McMurray is now an indelible part of the Canadian lexicon. In 1973, when the OPEC nations set the world on its collective ear with a 300-per-cent increase in the price of crude oil, the 10,000 citizens of Fort McMurray were wrestling with a housing crisis attributed to a 25-percent increase in their population over just two years. In retrospect, the 1973

“housing crisis” would prove a minor irritant. In less than a decade, the population of the town (it became a city last month) would increase by almost 300 per cent to 28,000. In 1973, Syncrude began construction of its $2.2-billion oil sands extraction plant. The plant was the second in the area, following on the 1964 establishment of the smaller Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor Inc.) plant. Syncrude was the first major effort to tap the estimated 900-billionbarrel crude oil potential of the Athabasca oil sands. Fort McMurray, 470 km north of Edmonton, happened to be the “fortunate”community sitting on 20,000 square miles of oil formation.

The oil sands hold twice the potential crude of Saudi Arabia, enough, as author Joseph Fitzgerald explained in his book Black Gold With Grit: The History of the Alberta Oil Sands “to pave a fourlane superhighway the 250,000-odd miles... to the moon, with ample to spare for approaches and exit ramps....” The frantic scramble to convert this immense latent wealth into 250 billion barrels of synthetic oil was the catalyst for Fort McMurray’s rapid growth, its repugnant reputation and the social quandary it was thrown into.

More than 8,000 construction workers invaded Fort McMurray over a fouryear period. It is estimated from studies that between 1974 and ’78, while the Syncrude project was under construction, as many as 40,000 members of a “shadow work force”—workers coming and going as their personal situation dictated—passed through the town. At the peak of the construction period in the spring of 1977, Fort McMurray was both the magnet that attracted Canada’s itinerant gold-seekers and the microcosm of Alberta’s boom syndrome. Highway 63, cutting its way through northern Alberta wilderness to Fort McMurray, carried a constant stream of trucks and battered Volkswagens, filling the Athabasca Valley town with concrete, steel and unreasonable human expectations.

Like a scene reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath, the less fortunate and the less perceptive camped in drafty tents and trailers along ditches of the highway leading into Fort McMurray. The few hotels that existed then were always full. New bungalows—when available— were priced at $80,000 to start. Recreation facilities for the population of 18,000 consisted of a single community centre and any tavern where you could grab a seat. Like ghosts from a Dawson City daguerreotype from the turn-ofthe-century gold rush, Fort McMurray inhabitants lined up for the once a week delivery of fresh vegetables-at-the Safeway store.

The town was hurting. It was a mean place. And it showed. Crimes of assault, juvenile delinquency, alcohol and drug abuse and sexual offences led all Al-

berta statistics. This, at a time when Alberta led the nation in most of those categories. The per-capita sale of liquor was double the provincial average. Predictably, the number of marriage breakdowns and divorces soared to figures double those of, for example, Ontario. Fort McMurray was all things Canadian communities are not supposed to be—visually uninviting, socially sordid and violated by an invasion of single, unemployed transients. But that was 3 V2 years ago.

Today, Fort McMurray is a surprisingly stable city of 28,000 proud citizens.

“We did it and we survived,” claims Judi Dicks, a seven-year Fort McMurray veteran and community editor for the Fort McMurray TODAY daily newspaper. “We didn’t fall apart at the seams, become gibbering idiots or end up in Valium city, either.” The crime statistics have fallen dramatically with the exodus of the Syncrude construction workers in the winter of 1977-78. Plans are under way on how to cope with the next construction boom—the $8-billion Alsands Oil Sands plant to be located north of the Syncrude site. Fort McMurray shows every evidence of having not

only survived, but of maturing as well.

First, though, the city must put up with another invasion that is currently under way. This swarm is not made up of the denim-clad unemployed. Instead, the new invaders, attracted like moths to a bright flame, wear three-piece suits and carry cassette tape recorders. They are the Fort McMurray watchers—social scientists and media reporters. Each week at least one visiting journalist “discovers” the problems of Fort McMurray. In the past five years, 18 major business and academic studies have been conducted by visiting and resident social scientists.

“Very often what is written about us, doesn’t reflect the here-and-now,” says Mayor W.E. (Ted) Mason. The softspoken Mason is the town’s former RCMP staff sergeant and has been a resident for six years. Almost apologetically he informs Maclean's that this is the second interview he has given this day, the first to a national business magazine studying growth and development in the fishbowl called Fort McMurray. Mason’s pleasant manner clouds somewhat when he refers to a recent piece in The Globe and Mail. Titled “The Bleak Side of Boom Town” and bordered in black, the article incensed local residents.

“It was unfair and grossly out of date,” claims Ken Flaherty, a 29-yearold resident and tour co-ordinator at the Suncor Inc. plant. The article, written in August by a free-lance writer from Montreal, focused, as had CBC television and radio, National Geographic magazine, a West German television network and The New York Times, on the seedier side of Fort McMurray. It portrayed the town as a sin-and-sex capital, complete with a higher than average divorce rate, alcohol-related and juvenile offences and the hint of sexual deviance. “We’re still looking for the signs of sexual deviancy,” says Judi Dicks. “God knows we’ve all looked.... Turns out the writer based her article on a study done three years ago.”

The study—written by Charles Hobart—was principally aimed at assessing the impact an added Alsands plant would have on Fort McMurray and the surrounding area. The study probed the pitfalls of rapid economic growth, assessed stress factors related to strange new community environments and the high cost of living in isolated places such as Fort McMurray, as well as the shortage of community services. uThe Globe and Mail described Fort McMurray in a way that might have been legitimate three or four years ago,” says Mason with reference to life during the Syncrude construction period. “It was an inconvenient period to be sure,” says Dicks. “You learned to shop on Thursday morning when the produce trucks

were in. Traffic was bloody awful, especially when the “Beasties” (as the construction employees were referred to) roared through town on their way to Edmonton on Friday nights. But it didn’t affect the quality of my life. I still went shopping—for escargots when it was available—and didn’t get knocked over the head or raped.” Now, although hard statistical data isn’t yet available, Mason claims from his RCMP experience that crime in Fort McMurray “is probably normal on a per-capita comparison with other Alberta communities.”

If Fort McMurrayites have difficulty recognizing their community when it is paraded before the country by national media, it is probably because they have been able to carve a little social sanity out of the isolation of the Alberta wilderness. They point proudly to a modern, efficient transit system, a $4.5-million 590-seat-capacity theatre where a resident theatre company performs works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and West Side Story, a new 300bed hospital and even a wine-tasting society. In newly constructed restaurants, patrons are asked politely if they prefer smoking or nonsmoking seating—a service rarely volunteered even in supposedly sophisticated downtown Edmonton.

“Fort McMurray isn’t a lot different from Edmonton or Scarborough, Ontario,” says Tilda Gifford, social worker, former Torontonian and oneyear resident of McMurray. “There are still a significant number of people moving in and out but, the longer I live here the less ‘unique’ the social problems of Fort McMurray appear.”

The mean age for Fort McMurray residents in 1980 is 25, four years less than the provincial figure. Only 125 residents officially claim they are “retired.” Statistically, 73 per cent of the citizens have lived in Fort McMurray less than five years. “But that’s one of the more fascinating aspects of the city,” says Mason. “The new people provide us with

a definite multicultural flavor.” A 1978 report refers to the city as a “little United Nations.” It possesses a large francophone population as well as German, Philippine and Ukrainian cultural organizations. Studies show that more than 5,000 people from the Atlantic provinces live there. In business and professional waiting rooms, the most popular magazine is Atlantic Insight. The receptionist at the Suncor plant wears a T-shirt declaring: I LOVE CHATHAM, N.B. Newfoundland licence plates outnumber other out-of-province plates by 2 to 1. One splendid statement on the community’s diverse character was the dusty pickup driving down the main drag—Franklin Avenue—sporting Newfoundland licence plates and rear-wheel mud flaps that read: ALBERTA-CANADA’S OIL CAPITAL.

Whatever sense of isolation and fear in Fort McMurray that may have survived the rugged time of construction has evidently been overcome by a strong sense of community. “I think people look at this community and say, ‘It’s got most everything we need now—good schools, health care, recreation facili-

ties,’ ” says Mason, who keeps a copy of Thomas More’s Utopia on his desk . . . for reference purposes only.

There is still one more threatening wave approaching Fort McMurray and that is the Alsands project, which could attract 8,000-plus construction workers. To lessen the impact of this next invasion, more studies have been conducted with a view to establishing a separate townsite, located closer to the Alsands plant, some 80 to 90 km north of Fort McMurray. A pleasing prospect? “Of course,” says Mason, reminded for the moment that Fort McMurray has almost no neighbors and depends largely on inter-company rivalries for sports entertainment. “It’ll give us another hockey team to play against.” lt;£»