Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Dunvegan Disturbance = Community Cost

Recently there has been some controversy regarding Dunvegan Gardens, a local greenhouse and landscaping business. Dunvegan has been a fixture in the city for many years, several of those years primarily in their previous location on Gregoire Drive. A couple of years ago, though, Dunvegan closed the Gregoire store to concentrate their business at their larger location on Draper Road. This move has allowed them to expand their business and offer even more goods and services to the community. I think it has been a positive move in many ways for both the business and the city, but it seems that not everyone agrees.

If you've lived here for any length of time you've probably been to Dunvegan. It's where many residents have been getting their floral hanging baskets, tropical plants, and pre-started vegetables and flowers for years. They also have a large selection of gifts, garden needs, and seeds. At Christmas they sell live trees and ornaments. They work with schools to run fundraising projects for things like class trips.  Dunvegan is also well known for being a strong contributor to the community, donating to local events and charities, and has also been responsible for many of the beautification projects in the city. There is no doubt that this is an important community business, and one that is supported by many city residents.

The current issue is that other residents on Draper Road, and one in particular, have determined that Dunvegan's expansion has created problems in the area. They object to Dunvegan storing top soil on the property, and they object to the amount of traffic the business has created (especially business equipment traffic, which they claim starts very early in the morning). The area is apparently zoned for residential and small holdings, and while Dunvegan's greenhouse constitutes a small holding the other residents feel they are contravening zoning by running a fairly large-scale landscaping business.

I am not without sympathy for the other residents of Draper Road. I imagine the noise level and traffic can be frustrating. I suspect they bought on Draper hoping for a peaceful existence and find that this business intrudes on that life. However, I must say that I think Fort McMurray desperately needs Dunvegan Gardens, and that the business they are running is essential to this city. I also suspect many of those residents complaining have in the past purchased landscaping supplies, garden plants, or other items from Dunvegan and have thus contributed to keeping open a business they are now trying to cripple. And losing the landscaping end of the business would cripple Dunvegan. They might limp along for awhile, but if their profits decline enough they may of course eventually decide to close the business - and then where would we buy our garden things? Would we buy frost-bitten half-dead plants from Canadian Tire? Perhaps drive 4 and 1/2 hours to buy our flowers? Where would all those people moving into brand new homes purchase their landscaping supplies? Would they be paying to truck them in from other towns and cities? These are not enticing prospects. Losing a local business is always a blow, but the loss of Dunvegan Gardens would be enormously detrimental to the city.

I'd like to think that the unhappy residents of Draper and Dunvegan can come to some sort of settlement. Perhaps they can address the early-hours noise issue. Perhaps they can achieve some form of compromise. I fear, though, that sides have become entrenched and that this fight could become nasty. As evidence of the potential for nastiness I cite what occurred at Dunvegan's recent Easter Egg Hunt, which was attended not only by area children but also by bylaw enforcement and the RCMP when someone called to complain. If emotions have become so deep that someone will complain about what can only be described as a very positive community-minded event then I wonder if compromise can ever be found. That is incredibly unfortunate in my opinion as I don't think anyone can argue that the city would be better off without Dunvegan Gardens - even those other residents of Draper Road. I truly hope that both sides can attempt to find a way to address the issues in a way that allows Dunvegan to continue to operate. In the final analysis if compromise cannot be found then the biggest losers aren't going to be the Draper Road residents or Dunvegan Gardens - it will be the community as a whole.

Fort McMurray Today Article

Save Dunvegan Gardens Facebook Page

May 01, 2011

Please note - A reader has commented on this blog post, and I have chosen to respond to those comments here : Dunvegan Disturbance, Revisited

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Why This Just Might Be The Most Exciting Time To Live In Fort Mac - Ever.

When I moved to this city one of the first people I encountered was a woman who hated it here. I mean she deeply and truly loathed it with every fibre of her being. She was probably not the best person to meet upon arrival, but her passionate hatred made me think it couldn't possibly be as bad as she claimed - and it wasn't, at least not to me. The problem for her was that it wasn't  "like home", home being a city in eastern Canada. I never said it to her but I kept thinking that of course it wasn't like that other city - it's northern Alberta, it's a different population base, and the industry is very different. When she finally moved away I don't know about her but I know I was relieved because her hatred was infectious, and it spread to so many it touched.

When I first arrived here almost ten years ago the city was different from what I was accustomed to, and was in some ways disappointing - but what has been so amazing to me is how it has improved since then. Yes, you read that right, I said improved. How? In recent years there has been a tremendous influx of new people, new ideas, and new life into this city.

I look at groups like Events Wood Buffalo, which I think has totally breathed new life into the events they organize. Under the leadership of Claude Giroux I think they've done an incredible job. I'm always amazed at how well organized they seem, and at their enthusiasm. They aren't afraid to take risks, which is so refreshing.

I look at new publications, like McMurray Girl, the brainchild of editor  Kyla Getty. It's a polished, professional publication, and I think it stands up well against similar publications in much larger cities. Again, Ms. Getty took a risk with this publication, and I'm delighted that it appears to be successful. I think it adds immensely to our community to have this kind of magazine showcasing our residents and businesses.

It seems every day I am discovering someone has undertaken a new venture in this city, whether it be a podcast (YMM Podcast), a new website devoted to current events (Everything Fort Mac), or a new retail store of some sort. There just seems to be a sense of possibility in the air, and it seems just as infectious as the hatred I mentioned earlier.

There have been new public facilities built, like MacDonald Island Park, that give the residents a place to play and learn and recreate. MIP is second to no other facility in our province, and has already played host to several sports events attended by athletes from all over Alberta, and even further afield. The potential for more events seems limitless, and what I think is so terrific are the partnerships being formed between groups like MIP and Events Wood Buffalo. These partnerships, along with involvement from the municipality, allow us to explore even more new ideas and possibilities.

In recent memory there have been events like WinterPlay and the Northern Classic. In the near future we have Kiss, arguably one of the most famous American bands ever to hit the stage, coming to play the Canada Rocks festival. I can't speak for anyone else but I find all of this incredibly exciting. I feel like we are on the cusp of something very special in this city. It's almost like we are seeing the birth of a true community as opposed to a loose collective of people who happen to live here.

It seems we are beginning to attract more and more people of vision, enthusiasm, and ability to our city. These people bring with them the skills and ambition to improve the community, and the best part is that they also embrace it and make it their home. I can't help but wonder what the woman I mentioned above who hated the city so much would say about it now. Perhaps she would look around and see all these exciting developments and be as hopeful as I am about the future for this city. Perhaps she would still hate it because it is not that city in eastern Canada. If she chose the latter I would say it is her loss, because frankly I think we have the potential to be a far better community than we'd ever dreamed or hoped to be. The secret, people, is that achieving that potential is up to all of us, not just these new visionaries and enthusiasts. It is up to every resident of this city, new and old, to contribute to making this not just a city but a community. Get out there and make it happen, people. Let's spread this infection.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why You Should Spend An Hour Of Your Time With YMM Podcast

Around the same time that I began to set up this blog I discovered that some local guys were also venturing into cyberspace to discuss our home city, although they were doing so through podcasting. I am a writer at heart but was intrigued so as soon as I could I checked out the first episode of YMM Podcast - and these podcasts are totally worth an hour of my time, and of yours too, I think.

What impressed me the most I suppose is that this podcast originates with a couple of guys who I suspect are in their twenties. Now, I'm not going to tell you what I was doing in my twenties, but what I wasn't doing was caring at all about the city I lived in. I happened to be living in one of Canada's largest cities at that time and while I loved living there I never gave it a lot of thought. I was pretty self-absorbed and being concerned about civic matters never even occurred to me. So the fact that these two guys care enough about Fort McMurray to actually run a regular podcast? Very, very cool, in my opinion, and a sign of hope for this city, too.

I will warn that the language and subject matter can be a bit explicit - again, it's a couple of guys in their twenties. There is a raw honesty to their discussions, though. It's like eavesdropping on a conversation between a couple of locals, and I love hearing how people in their generation view this city, because their experience is bound to be different from my own.

Now, I don't always agree with them on every topic, but again that's the beauty of the whole thing. The joy of the internet is that it's the great leveller. The opinions of a podcaster and a blogger are on equal footing, and there is room enough for all of us on that great big web.

The latest episode, Episode 6, was particularly enjoyable as they had a couple of guests, two young women, who brought yet another perspective to the table. The topics ranged from the current controversy over Dunvegan Gardens (more on that in a future post) to midwifery to the federal election. It's a wide ranging discussion for sure, and what's lovely is one of them will head off on a tangent for a bit and then another will gradually rein them in and back onto topic (or another topic entirely, which makes for fascinating segue bits). These guys aren't professional radio jocks or broadcasters, and that's why I think I enjoy it so much - because there is that genuine sincerity in their attempt to bring their thoughts on the city to the listening public.

I have to admit listening to them has given me much fodder for future posts, too - the concept of young people growing up here who achieve career and financial success very early and thus "peak" too soon is a fascinating topic I hope to explore as I think there's a great deal of truth to it. Again that's the beauty of this all - we share a common goal in bringing our thoughts on our home city to the reading and listening world, and we can springboard off each other's ideas as we do so. We can reach people through the written and spoken word, and we can share our experience of Fort McMurray and the people who live here. So, people, give YMM Podcast a listen. You can find them on iTunes and on Stitcher (which I wasn't even aware of until they mentioned it, and now I'm loving it!). You can also find them at their site, of course, and on Facebook. Check it out - you won't regret it!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Fort McMurray Rocks - With KISS!

The McMurray Muser was delighted to be invited to attend a press conference today at Macdonald Island Park. City councillor Russell Thomas was kind enough to extend an invitation to this blogger, which pleases me to no end as I believe bloggers may well be the new face of the media - but I digress. The press conference was being held to announce the line-up for this year's "Canada Rocks" Festival over the Canada Day weekend. Rumours about the major headliner act had been flying for weeks, but today was the day...and well worth the wait in my opinion. Tickets go on sale at noon on Friday May 6th - and you might want to clear some room on your credit card right now, people.

On Saturday July 2nd Fort McMurray will play host to possibly one of the most famous American bands ever - Kiss. This is a major coup for the planning committee of Canada Rocks, and frankly a major boost for our city. I was actually a bit stunned when they announced it today - I expected something big, but Kiss is actually a bit bigger than I'd dreamed. I'm not a Kiss fan, to be honest (I do like Gene Simmons and "Family Jewels"), but I do recognize what a major draw this band is, and how huge their fan base is. This is a band that usually plays major cities. To have them come here puts us in the ranks of those cities and on the national stage - and in a good way for once.

Now, this is going to require some effort, people. They have indicated the call for volunteers will be going out almost immediately, and I urge anyone who can volunteer time at the Canada Rocks Festival to do so. This is a chance for our city and our residents to shine. This event will likely draw fans from all over western Canada, and this is our opportunity to showcase our city and ourselves in the way we wish to be seen. Let's show Canada that Fort McMurray rocks, people.

Canada Rocks 2011 Festival Schedule

June 30

Free Community Concert Series
Chilliwack (headliner)

July 1

Canada Day Parade
Canada Day Activities
Multicultural Food Pavilion
Celtic Concert Series
The Navigators (headliner)

July 2


Monday, April 25, 2011

Apathy, Elections, and Red Markers

One week from today you have an opportunity, Fort McMurray. You have a chance to give your opinion, to say what you think, and to express yourself. What is this wonderful opportunity, you ask? It's the option to vote in the federal election, people.

I know. It's pretty easy to yawn and say "what's the point?" when the end result of the election in this riding seems a foregone conclusion. I must admit even I have expressed that thought a couple of times - not because I don't care about the election but because I've just become a bit jaded living here when the status quo (at least in provincial and federal politics) never seems to change. The thing is, though, that that isn't really the point. I could talk about how people in other countries fight and die for the right to hold democratic elections. I could talk about how we have had world wars to preserve democracy for all of us. I could go on and on about how we have a civic responsibility to vote - but I won't.

What it boils down to is this : vote, and express your opinion, or don't complain when things happen in government that you don't like. This is your chance to either contribute to the local incumbent's likely landslide win or to say "hold on, you know what? I don't agree with you". Your vote DOES matter, whether it's just another vote for what appears to be the inevitable victor or if it's a vote for the ones who were actually courageous enough to stand against him. That's takes some bravery, people, because who wants to be in a fight you pretty much know you'll lose? I think those people deserve to know some people support them, too. Even if all you do when you vote is to draw a big black X across the entire ballot you have expressed your opinion and made clear where you stand (even if where you stand is thinking not a single one of these parties should be in power).

 Incidentally if you are so inclined you can express your opinion of our leadership all year long, too. Know how I do it? When you get those flyers from our local MP in the mail do you toss them in the trash or recycling? You know, the ones that say things like "Do you want your government to do more about crime?". I always feel like responding "well, gee, no, I think we should empty all the prisons and let them all wander the streets!". Of course I want more to be done to address crime - I just happen to differ on what I think needs to be done, and how to do it. Anyhow, I have this terrible tendency to grab a red marker and write "Mr. Jean, please stop wasting my money on these flyers" all over the flyer, and then send it back to him. Yes, Brian Jean, that's me, not some cranky 95-year old. And I mean it. Stop wasting my tax money on those flyers, because I strongly suspect most of them end up in the trash. You keep sending them, and I swear I will keep sending them back to you with my red-marker plea to cut it out already.

And yes, I am still jaded. Regardless of where your political sympathies lie it's tough to drum up a lot of enthusiasm for a race where you all pretty much know who the winner will be. Unless every closet non-conservative suddenly decides to vote next week we all know who the MP representing our riding will be. Our voter turnout for elections ranges somewhere between "abysmal" and "oughta be a crime". We tend to have electoral turnout statistics like 21%. That's past horrendous, and if we aren't careful "elections in Fort McMurray" will appear as a synonym for "apathy" in future dictionaries.

Jaded or not, though, I'll be headed to the polls on Monday. I hope you will be, too. Stand up and be counted, people. Voting is a right and a privilege. Use it! And get a red marker, too. I suspect you're gonna need it...

Sunday, April 24, 2011

McMurray Musing - Places of Note

There are places in this city that deserve special mention and recognition. One hears a lot of complaints about services and businesses in this community - poor staff, poor quality of work, or just generally poor atmosphere. I think it's time to shine the spotlight on some of the stellar services and businesses in our city, and to acknowledge those that do what they do very well. Today's spot is one of my very favourites, and has been since I first moved here - the Fort McMurray Public Library.

When I first arrived in the city the library was housed in the red government building downtown. While the location was convenient in some ways, like being close to the main public transit hub, it was atrocious for parking. It also felt rather small and cramped for all the items and activities it housed. The library is now located at MacDonald Island Park, and what an astonishing place it is (and with lots of parking, too!). Two floors provide ample space for all the patrons. The main floor houses the main circulation desk, the children's collection and seating area, and the public access computers. The second floor houses the adult collection, magazines, meeting rooms, and dozens of places to sit. What is especially lovely about this is that with children on the main floor the second floor becomes a much quieter place, and they even request you turn off cellphone ringers to keep the noise level down. For some who have spent time in other libraries recently you know they are often not the quiet places of old but rather like coffee shops that happen to house books. I rather like the quieter section of this new library as it allows a place to truly sit and read, think, or work (like blogging, for instance).

The library offers the usual services, of course. They lend books and magazines, and have a large selection of both. I have often commended them on their new acquisitions as they manage to almost always have whatever newly-published book I am desiring, no matter how obscure it seems. They have a large selection of audio books as well, which is wonderful for those who want or need to hear their books. They also lend out DVD's, which is terrific as these are expensive items to purchase and often not watched more than once or twice. The library does so much more than these usual services, though.

The public access computers at the library are free to use. This is a wonderful service for those who need access to email or other Internet services but don't have a computer of their own. It also means people without a computer can polish up and print those resumes or other documents they might need. The library also offers free Wi-Fi, a terrific service for those who do have their own computer but occasionally like to get out into the community while remaining connected (again, like some bloggers I know). The library runs regularly scheduled programs for children, like story times, and programs for young adults. It hosts book clubs for adults, and an ESL group. They have even begun lending out e-books for those who have ventured into the age of the digital book.

During the course of a year the library hosts dozens of special events - craft days during spring break, and special themed days with games, crafts, and other activities. In the children's area they appear to even have a Wii game system for public use, as well as toys, puzzles, and other ways to entertain a child on those miserable days when it's too cold to be outdoors but too confining to be at home.

What I think is best about the library, though, is the staff. They are unfailingly polite and helpful. They know I haunt the new book rack, and when they see me at that rack will often tell me they have new books at their desk that haven't gone on the shelf yet but that I am free to browse through. They answer my questions with good cheer, never comment on how many books I reserve (which is many - I am an avid reader and often have 3-4 books on the go at one time, meaning I need a fairly constant supply), and never yell at me when I show up to sheepishly pay my overdue fines (and once when I told them my fines accrued as I was called out of town due to a family emergency the fines simply disappeared). They seem to genuinely enjoy their jobs, and while that is a beautiful thing anywhere it is especially so in a library where you secretly hope the employees love books as much as you do.

There are dozens more things I could say about the library, but my hope is that you either already visit this wonderful place, or that this blog post will convince you to do so. I promise that it will be far more than you ever expected to find in a city of this size, and a visit to the library might even change your perception of the community. You might go in thinking this is a city that doesn't read or support literacy, or that it doesn't offer things of interest to those who are accustomed to big-city libraries. A quick visit to the library will show you the fallacy of those ideas, and you will very likely become a regular patron. If you see someone with a stack of new books at the self-checkout kiosk, or with an open laptop sitting in a comfy chair typing madly away, do give a wave - because it might well be me.  Hope to see you there, Fort Mac!

Friday, April 22, 2011

What Not To Wear, Fort McMurray Edition

Perhaps you've heard of "What Not To Wear". It's the show on TLC where poor unsuspecting people with hideous fashion sense or style are pounced on by two fashionistas and forced to reform (well, bribed, really, with a trip to New York and a credit card worth $5000 to buy a new wardrobe). I'm a bit of a fan of the show. I have to warn you, Fort McMurray - I've been considering giving Stacy and Clinton a call. Why? Because frankly, we need help.

I'm not a stylist or a clothing designer. I don't own a retail clothing store or work in one, either. I do have an opinion on a few things, though, and I'm going to share it. You don't have to agree but there is a reason I feel this way, so just hear me out. I considered going around the city taking photos but I don't think I need to. If you live here you know exactly what I'm talking about, and you don't need pictures to remind you. My greatest fear is that photos of people here are going to start showing up on People of Walmart, and I don't think any of us want that, do we?                                                                                                                                    

First off, pyjama pants in public. Don't get me wrong, I love pyjama pants. At home. In bed. While having my morning coffee. I don't love them at the grocery store, the doctor's office, the bank, or anywhere else where you find other people who don't happen to live with you. Unless you are in elementary school and it's pyjama day why on earth would you wear your pyjama pants in public? And seriously, it doesn't matter how cute or stylish they are - you aren't fooling anyone. They're still pyjama pants and all it says is that you're too lazy to put on real pants to face the world. So, put on a damn pair of pants already, and preferably clean ones. That simple step makes you look one hundred percent better.

Second, torn-up, raggedy sweats. I'm not really a huge fan of sweat pants regardless, seeing as how they are shapeless and often pretty sad looking. But if you're gonna wear them how about wearing some that don't show your underwear, or, even worse, that you aren't wearing any underwear? Know what I don't want to see at the Safeway? Your butt showing through your ripped up sweat pants, that's what.

Third, clothing that is dirty, smelly, or torn (and not in a fashionable sense, just shredded). Okay, I get it. You just got off work and need to pick up milk on the way home. That's cool. Putting on those same clothing items the next morning to go out for breakfast, though? Not cool. Surely you own something clean, or at least not looking (and smelling) like it's something not even the homeless would wear.

I know this rant might sound condescending, but it's not. The issue I have with the above fashion faux pas is that they make it look like people in this city have just given up. You wander around downtown some days and wonder if everyone in this place is deeply depressed, because it's often the deeply depressed who just give up on how they look or present themselves to the public. You go to other cities and see homeless people collecting change who are better dressed and seem to have more pride in their appearance than some of the regular folk here. And c'mon - we all know you can afford clothing that is, at the very least, clean.

When those news crews come to our city to do stories on how horrible Fort Mac is how do you think they form their impressions of us? Do you think they don't notice the people who look like they just stepped out of some post-apocalyptic nightmare? The thing is that when people dress well they also tend to carry themselves well and with some pride in their demeanour. When they dress in clothing that is dirty and smelly and ripped they often slouch along looking ashamed that they even have the audacity to exist.

 Let's take some pride in ourselves, people, and by osmosis give some of that pride to our city. When you leave the house consider dressing well because frankly it will make you feel good, too. It may well change how you interact with other people and how they treat you. You will make the entire city look more presentable and give those camera crews less fodder for their "evil Fort McMurray" stories. Leave the pyjama pants, shredded sweats, and smelly overalls at home. Don't make me call Stacy and Clinton on you.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


The four little letters that title this post are pretty much internationally recognized. They mean, of course, "Bring Your Own Booze". Except here in Fort McMurray. Here they mean "Bring Your Own Bag". And it's not a suggestion. It's a command, because single-use bags have been banned in this city by municipal bylaw.

Banning the use of single-use bags has occurred in other places in North America, and in the rest of the world. Ireland, for instance, has been charging a levy on single-use bags since 2002. San Francisco banned single-use bags in 2007. What do we have in common with these places? Nothing, really. What we do have, though, is a pretty enormous case of environmental guilt. You've probably heard of survivor's guilt, that form of guilt one can experience after surviving an event that has killed or maimed others. Environmental guilt is a bit similar, except it can infect an entire city, and it's because one feels guilty about our own actions and not about something that has happened to us. I'm not saying this kind of guilt is wrong or misplaced - but there is no doubt in my mind that it helped to fuel the local single-use bag ban.

I'm actually a huge fan of re-usable bags. When I was a kid Superstore opened up in my prairie city. My parents loved Superstore - the prices, the bulk quantities, the variety. Being frugal people what they didn't love was the charge for plastic bags that Superstore has had as a policy for decades. My mom, being an accomplished seamstress, hit her sewing machine with a vengeance and whipped up several re-usable canvas shopping bags. She was decades ahead of her time, it seems. These bags were virtually indestructible, definitely practical, and used within an inch of their little fabric lives. Those bags lived in the trunk of my dad's car, and in my mind's eye I still see them there. So, a few years ago, way prior to the bylaw banning single-use bags, my husband and I decided we would purchase re-usable grocery bags and stop using plastic or paper grocery store bags. After growing up with re-usable bags it really wasn't a big deal to me, and we grew accustomed to the change quickly.

Since the enactment of the local bylaw, though, it has been embraced pretty slowly, and with a great deal of grumbling. You can always tell who is new to town because at the grocery store they have 52 items at the checkout, no re-usable bags, and an expression of shocked dismay at being told they aren't going to  be given bags, either. You then see them heading to their car, either with brand new re-usable bags with price tags still attached, or trying to juggle said 52 items without dropping the eggs and still get the car doors open. Once people know about the bylaw, though, they seem to be pretty decent about remembering their bags and not hassling the checkout people (who incidentally didn't enact the bylaw and really often aren't much happier about it than their customers).

I am also a fan of the single-use bag ban. The movement to ban them was spearheaded by a local Grade Twelve kid who kind of reminds me of Craig Kielburger (this is the Canadian kid who became an activist at the age of 12 and founded "Free the Children", an organization that combats child labour around the world - he's an impressive kid, trust me). This local kid even looks a bit like Kielburger and sure seems to have the same kind of motivation, which I think is great. He could have been playing on his DS and swigging back 2-litre bottles of Coke (or worse), but instead he was lobbying city council. That's pretty cool if you think about it, no matter what your opinion on the bag ban.

I do admit I have an ever-growing collection of re-usable bags. My favourites are a couple of thin nylon foldable ones called "EnviroSax" that I received as gifts. They are not only durable but come in stylish patterns so look pretty great, too. I carry one in my purse all the time, and it's been a lifesaver more than once. For those who don't agree with the single-use bag ban - well, I do kind of see their point. I know it may be more of a "feeling like you're doing something" case as opposed to being an "actually doing something" to help the environment, and that it may not make any significant difference.  But I also know using re-usable bags never killed anyone. Both my parents lived into their 80's and I assure you neither of them died from re-usable bag-related causes. If there is just a fraction of a chance that it either helps the environment or makes us just think about the environment a bit more then I think it's a good thing. You don't have to agree - but if you live here in the Mac you do, in fact, have to bring your own bag!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Middle Ground

Since this blog is quite new I've sent a link of it to a few people - family, friends, aquaintances - to seek their opinion. I received some feedback recently from someone who has read other things I've written, things not about my home city, and who commented that they sense that I don't like Fort McMurray very much. I was a bit surprised by this reaction, and wondered if others who read this blog came away with the same sense. It bothered me, you see, because that's quite honestly not how I feel about this city.

It seems that residents of this city often fall on one of either end of a pendulum swing when it comes to their feelings on Fort McMurray. One far end of the pendulum holds those people who hate it here. They refer to the city as a "shithole'. They talk about all the problems - the drugs, the dirt, the cost of living, the traffic - and when confronted with something positive quickly deflect it with a comment such as "lipstick on a pig". The other end of the pendulum is those who profess great love for it here. They adamantly insist there are no unique problems, that every city has issues, and that this city is no different from anywhere else. They have their rose-coloured glasses firmly in place and I suspect would never admit to witnessing drug sales, homelessness, or being stuck in traffic for two hours.

To me either end of the pendulum does great injustice to this city of ours. The first group overlooks or refuses to acknowledge wonderful community events like Interplay (our version of the Fringe Festival) or our recent Winter Carnival. The second group's refusal to admit the problems means finding a solution to the issues just slips farther away (just as in addiction the first step is always admitting we have a problem). I suppose I want to be a person who seeks the middle ground. I want to be someone who celebrates and trumpets our successes as a community, and who tries to find solutions for our problems (or at least recognizes they exist and the need for solutions). I don't want to be the negative end of the pendulum because frankly life is too short (and for those who feel it is a shithole I suggest leaving - not because they are not welcome but because life is too short to live somewhere you hate). I don't want to be the Pollyanna positive end either, because ignorance is not bliss. It's just ignorance.

There is so much potential in this city. There is great potential for those who come here seeking a new start or beginning a career. There is potential for those who wish to start a family. There is also peril, of course, and potential to make unwise decisions. That is what this city is, though - potential. And just as the city has potential, so does each person who lives here. We have the potential to see it as perfect with no need for improvement, or to deride it as horrible (and do nothing to improve it). My advice? Let's aim for the middle ground and work on the issues while we also celebrate the successes. Let's see what we can become together.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fort McMurray Dating Scene, Round Two

So there is another instalment in the YouTube videos about the local dating scene. If you've read earlier entries in this blog you saw Episode One, where we are introduced to Steve and his delightful attempts to pick up a woman. In this new instalment Steve stalks a waitress at a local bar...and yes, I've seen this happen, too. If you live here, so have you. Check it out:

Once again, liquidtrendz, the creator of these videos, has hit the nail squarely on the head. Not all men here are like Steve, as I said in my previous post. Enough of them are, though, to make this video astonishingly funny, and, sadly, accurate. Steve is obviously a stereotype - but like so many stereotypes there is a grain of truth in it.

My favourite line from this video? "This is not real work. I drive truck at site. That is real work". That is truly the attitude and belief some have here. Are you a doctor, lawyer, engineer, real estate agent, retail clerk, or, god forbid, a waitress? Not real work in the eyes of some in Fort McMurray. Real work means "working at site" and preferably in a manual labour position (managers and the like? Not real work, either). It's almost a reverse discrimination based on employment. In other cities people may look down on those who work in blue collar jobs, and here it's the opposite. It's yet another one of those things that make this city a bit topsy-turvy and just different from anywhere else I've ever lived (and I've lived in one of Canada's largest cities, and in a very small town). In some ways this city is like any other city in the country, and yet in some ways it is absolutely unique. I doubt any other city has a character quite like Steve that is so readily identifiable and resonates with almost every person in the city. I do rather wonder if the "Steves" of this city watch the video and recognize themselves, though. Or perhaps they laugh at the other "Steves", not realizing that they have in fact become this stereotypical character?

It's an intriguing city, this Fort McMurray. Now I'm going to go pick up some milk from the local convenience store - which twenty do you figure I should pay them with?

Friday, April 15, 2011

No Right Turn

You know what I love about this city? Never a dull moment. Things that in other places wouldn't get a second glance become topics of debate, argument, fights, discussion, and downright mayhem in good ol' Fort McMurray. Today's topic? The line-ups at the Tim Horton's drive-thru, of course!

If you live here you already know the deal. The issue is that people trying to get into the drive-thru at the two Tim's locations in town have a terrible tendency to form a line-up that extends out onto the city streets, blocking traffic and just begging for collisions. This is particularly pronounced at the downtown location, where those making a left turn from Highway 63 onto Hardin Street can find themselves turning directly into the Tim's line-up. This leaves them with nowhere to go as they cannot complete their turn, often stuck in the middle of the intersection as the light changes. I've had it happen to me several times, and it drives me nuts every single time. And making a right hand turn off the 63 at that intersection? Forget about it. Just keep driving, folks.

For years people have been asking for some solution. It's intriguing, though, because I've had people defend those line-ups (don't get between some people and their Timmie's - it's bloody dangerous). They say it's just the way it is. It's just the reality. There are no better options. Suck it up, buttercup. Wonder if they'd still say that after they'd been rear-ended in that line-up when someone plowed into the car at the back of the line and caused a pile-up? Because that will happen some day, trust me. Someone won't be paying attention, will make that turn...and boom. Doesn't matter that they are at fault - it's still your car that's been rear-ended, and whoever is "right" becomes pretty immaterial.

So, after years of pleading the city decided to put up some signs. What did the signs say? "No right turn", meaning no turning right from Hardin Street into the parking lot where the Tim's drive-thru is located. Yes, that simple.  It seems, though, that the signs have had an exceptionally short life and have already been covered up. Those Tim Horton's fans are potent lobbyists, apparently. Now the municipality is "in talks" with Tim Horton's to "co-ordinate". I imagine they are trying to find another solution. I can think of a couple. Uncover the signs and, well, suck it up, buttercups. Or, and here's a shocking idea, people could park, get out of their car, and WALK into the Tim's. I get that some people might have to use the drive-thru - but for some it's pure laziness, and they may as well just admit it now (hey, I'm guilty, but just at other drive-thrus - I'm trying to reform). 

Any place else this story would be a non-starter. Here those new no-right-turn signs have been twittered about, facebooked about, blogged about, discussed on local radio, and written about in the Fort McMurray Today. Like I said, never a dull moment in this city, even when it's really a pretty dull story. Only in Fort McMurray, folks. Sometimes I think we really need more to do....

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Raven Revelations

It's always interesting when I tell people that I think ravens are amazing birds. Most people respond negatively, commenting on how dirty ravens are, or how they eat garbage. All I can do is smile and shrug. I think ravens are incredible animals, and having spent almost ten years in close proximity to them I've certainly had the opportunity to study them.

Ravens are everywhere in Fort McMurray. Some cities have songbirds, and we have those too - but our signature bird is truly the raven. Ravens are on the sidewalks and the lamp posts. They hover around the downtown core, and in the suburban neighbourhoods. They land on the driveway when I am shoveling and watch me with those beady, cunning little eyes. I must admit that them watching me does make me a tad nervous. I suspect they are waiting for me to keel over while shoveling and then start picking at my carcass. Maybe, though, they are just being companionable. I haven't quite figured that one out.

What I have figured out is how resourceful these birds are. They don't wait for things to happen - they make things happen. If a dumpster is closed they find a way to weasel inside it, open it, or slowly tease bags out of it until they find something to eat. If they find something tasty they don't want to eat just yet they will hide it, perhaps in a snowbank or under a leaf. And they are always watching for someone to leave something shiny where they can reach it - a bottlecap, a coin, a sparkly earring. They have a weakness for shiny, sparkly things (and they and I have this in common, it seems).

There are times they annoy me, like when they hang around my yard and frighten off the little chickadees I try to attract to my bird feeders. There are times when I see they've gotten into the neighbour's garbage and dragged it all over my lawn. I am always astonished, though, to see how resilient they are. They survive the coldest days and the leanest times. They use that little bird brain to work out fairly complex problems (I've seen them open things that I was quite sure they'd never figure out - never underestimate their intelligence and pure persistence). I guess they remind me a lot of the people who live in this northern city. To survive here you need to be resourceful and resilient.. You need to be willing to make things happen, not to just let them happen to you. You need to be persistent, and well, just like the ravens, many here have a fondness for shiny things (often a shiny new car or motorbike). Perhaps that is why so many people don't like the ravens. Maybe they are just a bit too much like us for our comfort.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Condo Chaos

Picture this : It's almost midnight, and you hear a knock on your front door. Standing there is someone who tells you that you have 10 minutes to collect some personal belongings and then leave your home as it has been declared structurally unsafe and you are in imminent danger. Can you imagine? At first you must think it's a joke, and then panic must set in when you realize it isn't. The sad thing is that this actually happened on March 11, 2011 to the residents of the Penhorwood Condominiums in Fort McMurray.

The Penhorwood Condominium development is a group of seven condominium buildings located close to Keyano College in the downtown sector of the city. There were 168 units that were occupied, and all were evacuated after an inspection determined that the buildings were in a state that created the potential for gas line breaks and subsequent fires. The reason for this state? The buildings, built a mere seven years ago in 2004, are collapsing.

To say this is a debacle is an understatement. I'm not going to try to assign blame as there seems plenty of that pie for everyone to have a slice - the developer, the architect, the engineers, the contractors, the company that issued the permits, and, yes, the municipality. The lawsuits are beginning to fly like the ravens over the dumpster behind The Keg, and I fear in the end if will cost every taxpayer in this city dearly. More than the financial cost, though, is the personal cost to those who owned and rented these condominiums. Many of these are, I suspect, those least able to afford this kind of tragedy. They likely bought these condos as they are one of the least expensive options to owning a home in this city. To see them bear the brunt of this - to continue to make mortgage payments on a home they cannot currently reside in, and that will likely need to be demolished entirely - is a travesty.

The residents were forced to leave most of their personal possessions behind when they evacuated. They have been granted minimal access to the buildings since, in time slots of 15 minutes or so, to try to retrieve what they can. They are only allowed in 2 or 3 at a time because the fear that these buildings could collapse and cause loss of life is ever present. A new report has stated that some engineering groups feel the buildings have reached a point of "geotechnical equilibrium", enough to allow residents to remove all their property, but there is dissension on this as well with one geotechnical firm stating that they feel the risks of allowing access outweigh any benefits.

The anger and frustration for the residents and owners of these condos must be ferocious. I can only imagine how I would react in their place. Everyone involved in the development is, of course, rapidly trying to assign blame to anyone else. The developer says that the buildings can be remediated and should be habitable again. This does not appear to be the prevailing opinion, however. All I can say is that this is a stunning story, shocking in how it speaks to some very real problems in our city. I must say that when I drive by any new development I am now looking askance at them, wondering if they too suffer these kinds of issues but haven't yet had them detected. I drove by Penhorwood to take the photos that appear in this post, and to see the development surrounded by chain link fencing with signs warning of security is unsettling to say the least. Seeing balcony lights that were left on in the haste to depart, personal possessions still on inaccessible balconies, and a forlorn "For Sale" sign hanging outside one unit was simply too poignant for words.

I've spoken to some engineers I know, people who have worked all over the world, and asked if they have ever heard a story like this. They uniformly shake their heads and say no - maybe in the third world, just maybe - but not in a country like Canada. So why did it happen here, in Fort McMurray, a city with such known affluence? Perhaps because this is a city that has grown too fast, and because there is such affluence. It is a lure for those wishing to make an easy buck, an opportunity for those to cash in on such opportunities and then walk away whistling with lined pockets. It seems unconscionable for this to happen, but sadly it does. There has long been questions about the quality of things here, particularly of new houses and new developments, and this story seems to be the epitome of it all. It speaks to life in a boomtown, and it speaks to some issues we desperately need to address before we find ourselves with our houses fallen down around us.

**For further information and reading on this story I highly recommend visiting Penhorwood Place Evacuation. This site chronicles the story as well as hosting photos of the buildings showing the signs of impending collapse and other structural deficiencies. A copy of the lawsuit being pursued can also be accessed on this site. I truly think every resident of Fort McMurray owes it to the residents of Penhorwood, and also to themselves as citizens, to visit this site and educate themselves on this topic. Please note that everything that I have written above is solely my opinion. I leave it to you to form your own.**

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

White Out

Oh, Mother Nature, you have such a sense of humour when it comes to this city, don't you? Yesterday I wrote the post below about our lovely fifth season (the season known as "Brown"). I suspect someone was listening and as penance had a lovely surprise planned for me. This morning, when I woke up, our city was again carpeted in fresh snow, covering up all that delightful brown and pushing thoughts of spring just a little further away.

Being an obstinate sort I leashed up the dog, walked the kid to school, and took the dog on a trek through the forest trails to check out this fresh snow. One of us enjoyed the walk and one of us got a bit whiny and wanted to be carried when they got snow stuck in their paws (being 35 pounds she was pretty much out of luck on that request). I thought I might find this last kick at the can by winter to be depressing, but it's really quite the opposite. These late spring snowfalls are a sure sign that spring is right around the corner, and I know this new snow will quickly disappear and perhaps even shorten the brown season and hasten the onslaught of green (and in the spring the green in this city is astonishing).

Part of living in a city like Fort McMurray is being ready to be surprised. It is an unpredictable place to live, constantly changing and growing. Sometimes the surprises are a new store, or a new service, or a new-to-town friend - and sometimes they are an April snowstorm that reminds you that you live in the north, where anything can happen, and probably will.

Fifth Season

Most likely in elementary school you learned about the four seasons we have in Canada. In case you need a remedial lesson they are, of course, spring, summer, winter, and fall. What shocked me when I moved to Fort McMurray is that here in this northern Albertan city we have an extra season. Yes, that's correct, a fifth season, just for us! It occurs between winter and spring. In my house we like to call this season "Brown".

"Brown" isn't my favourite season. It occurs just after all the snow melts and before the trees and grass have clued in to the fact that the temperature has warmed. Everything is brown. The trees are brown. The grass is brown. The roads are brown with dirt and gravel from the winter sanding. The siding on the houses is brown. The boulevards are brown. The cars are brown. And, if you aren't cautious, your mood can become quite brown, too. The promise of spring is there - the sun is shining, and the snow is gone - but it seems elusive. Soon enough the first green leaves will appear, and the grass will begin to take on that subtle green sheen. Then the brown season seems a distant memory until it reappears again next year, between winter and spring.

Monday, April 11, 2011


The picture I have chosen to head up this blog has a problem. Do you see it? Look closely. No, it's not mis-spelled. No, it's not that everything is a lovely shade of brown (that's just what happens when you take photos here right after all the snow melts). The problem, you see, is that it says "Welcome to the City of Fort McMurray". Why is this an issue? Because Fort McMurray isn't a city.

Oh, we have the population to qualify as a city. In fact we were a city for 15 years, from 1980-1995. In 1995, though, the city and surrounding area underwent amalgamation to become "The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo", and became officially designated an "urban service area". This is all very arcane, of course, and matters little to the average resident. Apparently we are the largest such municipality (by area) in the country. That is something of which to be proud, I suppose, but it seems a little bit odd to live in what is obviously a city although it lacks the official title. It can make for entertaining arguments at parties, though, and I've witnessed a couple. As these arguments tend to go these days eventually someone hauls out their iPhone and starts searching the Wikipedia entry.

I must say I find the welcome sign amusing, though. Clearly it predates the amalgamation, and is from a time when one could say they came from the city of Fort McMurray as opposed to being from "the urban service area known as The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo". Frankly, I still say I'm from the city of Fort McMurray. And I'm not stopping until they change that sign, either.

Fort McMurray Dating Scene

Recently someone recommended a Fort McMurray-specific YouTube video to me. Apparently the video was made by someone local and is meant to reflect the dating scene here. Now, some disclaimers - not all men in Fort McMurray are like this. Not all men here drive truck "at site" (meaning at the oilsands sites). Not all men here are obsessed with how much money they make, or what they drive, or owning a quad. Not all men are named Steve. But there is a lot of truth to this video, and every woman in this city has probably had this conversation at least once. I know I have, and the similarity to the video is eerie. Check it out:

Perhaps this is to be expected in a city where there are so many men, and so few women. There is a definite disproportion in the gender numbers in this city, and there are times when it is blatantly apparent. A couple of weeks ago I met my husband for lunch at the Hearthstone Grille, the restaurant in the Sawridge Hotel. When I walked in it was quite busy, and what I noticed almost immediately was that I was pretty much the only woman there, and certainly the only one wearing a skirt. My husband looked at me and said "It's been a long time since I had lunch with a piece of meat". That's exactly what it felt like, too. Wearing a skirt in this town is like chumming for sharks - except that I bet the sharks play harder to get. I don't want to scare off any women who are thinking of moving or coming here to work - but be prepared to get some attention, even if you don't want it and aren't looking for it. Oh, and my advice?  Stay away from Steve!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Fort McNickname

One of the things you notice pretty quickly here is that this is a city that attracts nicknames. The names are often not flattering ones, but they are reflective of what people think of the city. Some of the nicknames arose here, and some, I suspect, were devised by those from other places. Regardless, the  nicknames provide a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of Fort McMurray.

The first nickname I heard was "Fort McMoney". That's a pretty simple one to grasp. Fort McMurray is a city that attracts those who wish to make money. It's one reason it's so popular with those from the east coast of Canada, particularly Newfoundland. This city represents the potential to earn the kind of money beyond what most can dream, particularly since many jobs don't even require the kind of education lucrative jobs often do. Truck drivers on the oilsands site can earn an astonishing amount of money, and in the case of those from the east coast it can be more than enough to buy a house "back home" and eventually retire there in comfort. There is a catch, though - money is addictive. I've met dozens of people who have "made their fortune" here, gone back east to retire - and are back again within a year or two, drawn back in by the lure of the dollar. As a nickname "Fort McMoney" is right on target, I think.

The second and far less flattering nickname is "Fort McCrack". This one definitely alludes to a darker side of this city, meaning the drug culture. Yes, there are drugs here. This is true of any city or town in Canada but I suspect the drug traffic here is higher due to some simple realities - money, time, and boredom. Too much money, too much free time, and too little to do can easily result in people developing bad habits. As a species we are prone to addictions (whether it be drugs, or alcohol, or gambling, or shopping) and when people have the means, the time, and the opportunity some will fall prey to them. This isn't to imply that drugs are everywhere here - if you lead the kind of life I do you rarely encounter them. But I imagine most people here have either witnessed a drug buy or seen someone who was obviously high - I know I have. For me "Fort McCrack" is a nickname that refers to a pretty specific aspect of our city, but I would guess for some it's the defining one.

The last nickname is "Fort McMommy". This one takes a little explaining. Fort McMurray is a young city, and there are many young families here. Young couples come here for the "McMoney" and end up staying because the female partner becomes a "McMommy". Really all this means is a woman with children who happens to live here. Often young, maybe in their twenties, with several children in tow, the "Fort McMommy" is a standard fixture about town. Unlike McCrack the McMommy is, in fact, everywhere.

There are other nicknames, I'm sure. Those are just the ones that have always really stood out to me because they all speak to some characteristic of this city. The first one, McMoney, encompasses both the potential and the peril of our city. The second, McCrack, cautions about that peril, the underbelly that every city has but seems just a bit more pronounced here. And finally, McMommy represents some hope in this city, at least in my eyes. A city with children becomes by it's very nature more of a community and less of a working town, and thus I see every McMommy as contributing to changing the face of this city. McMoney and McCrack just don't seem to stand a chance against McMommy.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Road Rage

There are four words that strike terror into the heart of anyone who lives in this city. Those four words? "Accident on the bridge". You see, Fort McMurray is a city divided by the Athabasca river. On the south side of the river you have the downtown core, the hospital, most of the office buildings and services, and some residential areas (as well as the only highway out of town, the infamous 63, or, as some call it "the highway of death"). On the north side you have residential areas, some shopping and offices (more in recent years as the population on the north side has surged) and, of course, the two largest oilsands sites, Suncor and Syncrude. The sides of the city are connected by two bridges, each with two lanes. On one bridge traffic heads south, and on one it heads north.

This might not seem to be an issue until you've been stuck in a traffic jam for two hours trying to cross a bridge. All it takes is one accident on the bridge and traffic grinds to a complete halt. I actually never leave home with less than a quarter tank of fuel for fear of being trapped and running out of gas (has never happened but there is always a first time). This seems absurd in a region with a population of 104,000, but the point is that the roads here are woefully inadequate for the traffic they see. Not only are there the "real" residents using them, but also contractors, consultants, and delivery vehicles. You share the road with dozens of enormous trucks carrying all manner of supplies for the sites. Toss in some ambulances and police cars with sirens screeching and you have complete mayhem, even on a good day. Crossing the bridge, which should be a 5-minute journey, can become an exercise in frustration.

The real problem is that this is growing worse every day, and is likely to continue to do so. Common wisdom is that the city is headed into another boom, and while new bridges are being constructed the progress seems slow. I watch every day for hopeful signs but it appears it will be some time before the new road system will be functional. There will be overpasses to help speed traffic along, and the new bridges will be nothing short of miraculous. Until then when I hear the words "accident on the bridge" all I can do is hope like hell that it's the bridge headed the other direction and take my chances along with everyone else. Well, that and keep a full tank of gas.

Life in The Mac

For some time a friend has been encouraging me to start blogging about life in Fort McMurray, Alberta.  I suppose it's because I have lived in Fort McMurray for almost a decade now, and have gained some perspective on life here. I'm not interested in or planning on writing about the controversies surrounding the oilsands, as you can find that anywhere if you know how to google. What I want to do is write about life in this city - and yes, there is life here.

The true catalyst for me starting this blog was an incident that occurred recently in the Vancouver airport. I was returning home after a few days in Vancouver, and I started chatting with the security officer directing passengers to the various security checkpoints. He complimented me on my outfit (a red trench coat and a great hat I had bought there but couldn't pack so had no choice but to wear), and then asked to see my boarding pass. He looked at it, looked at me, and asked incredulously "What is there for anyone to do in Fort McMurray? Nobody like you lives in Fort McMurray". I looked him square in the eye and said "Well, some of us do live there, and just like me". He replied that he thought people only worked there, not lived there, and then the gentleman standing behind me in line, overhearing the conversation, commented that he was "sorry" to hear I lived in the Mac. I responded that I was not sorry, and told the security officer that while, yes, people DO work in Fort McMurray people live there as well.

It wasn't the first time I've had an exchange like this, and I doubt it will be the last. When I travel I find myself explaining, defending, or otherwise discussing my chosen home. And that is what it is - I have chosen to live here.  I am not an oilsands employee or an environmental activist. I am not an apologist for the local oilsands industry or an employee of the city. I am not a publicist. I am not a real estate agent trying to sell you a house. What I am is a resident and citizen who has been here long enough to have formed some thoughts and opinions. If you work or live (or work AND live - shocking!) in Fort McMurray you may or may not agree with my thoughts, and that's fine as we all have different perspectives on the city. If you don't happen to live or work in Fort McMurray then maybe I can tell you a bit about living here - the myths, the madness, and maybe even about how some of us are makin' it. There are thousands of stories in the oilsands city - and this is just one of them.