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

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Fort McMurray, British GQ, and Opening the Door

I got the email as I was headed down Highway 63 with my husband and the Intrepid Junior Bloggers. It was Teacher's Convention Week, and the ideal time to get away for a few days before things get crazy when spring arrives (as they always do in my house). I opened up the email and found an attached file, and as soon as I read it I went "uh oh" - because it was the story about Fort McMurray from the British edition of GQ magazine.

For those who missed it a pair of GQ reporters visited Fort McMurray late last year. The duo consisted of journalist A. Hannaford and a photographer, and they came to write a story on the city. As when any journalist arrives I was delighted that they actually came to visit as opposed to writing the story from thousands of miles away without ever setting eyes on the community, but when I read the story my delight faded away frightfully quickly.

I admit it. I saw red when I began reading the story. When we arrived at our hotel in Edmonton I took to Twitter and began spreading the story around so others could read it - and I contacted Mr. Hannaford almost immediately. Look, people, I'm not one of those who sits around and takes pot shots at people from off in the distance. If I have a problem with you then I'm bringing it to you - and that's what I did with Mr. Hannaford. I knew that he has a good reputation as a journalist, and I didn't question the veracity of the story - I know the demographic he wrote about exists in Fort Mac. What I wanted to know, though, was if the angle and focus of the story had been predetermined before ever arriving in the city. I wanted to know if the angle was always intended to be negative, and the focus narrow - and I wasn't surprised to discover it was.

I asked this :

Mr. Hannaford replied with this:

Mr. Hannaford commented that he had "hurt some feelings" in the city, and I replied with this:

I found his reply quite amusing. Of course we still have problems. Mr. Hannaford is originally from Great Britain, a place that has had "problems" since before the fall of the British Empire - but I digress.

Through our exchange I think we established the piece was always intended to have a narrow focus, although I wondered about something. I wondered if it was about the environmental fallout why only seven short paragraphs had been devoted to that, and I wondered if it was about social fallout why only the negative fallout was noted. What about the positive social impact of oil sands developments? So, I asked:

And I followed it with these comments, too...

I was bemused that Mr. Hannaford stopped answering entirely. He didn't answer why none of the positive impacts had been explored, and he didn't respond to any of my other questions or thoughts, either. Totally his right, of course, but I found it entertaining. So, I read his article again - and this time I actually laughed when I read it.

You see, it really IS the same old tired story so many journalists have written about Fort Mac. Sex, drugs, money, blah, blah, blah. A bit of a snorefest, really. Nothing new. Nothing creative. Nothing inventive. I think there are some REAL stories here, and I'm not talking whitewash, "rah rah" cheerleader stories, either. I'm talking stories about how people who live in homes worth over a million dollars are rubbing shoulders in the Safeway parking lot with the homeless who live in tents on the Snye. There is a dichotomy and division here that is startling, not just in depth but in proximity. I've lived in other cities, including places like Toronto, and there the wealthy and the poor are divided not only economically but often geographically, too. Not so here, though. I've spent days with our homeless population and then gone to luxurious galas that same evening, leaving me with a case of economic and emotional whiplash. That, to me, is a true story, along with in-depth explorations of the real problems we have with drug trafficking and crime rates. Or one could write of our amazing cultural diversity, about what it would be like to come to this place as an immigrant (instead of dismissing our culturally diverse population as consisting of "Somali drug gangs"). I'd love to see a journalist explore these stories instead of a rehash of the same ol', same ol' story - but the GQ article isn't it, and that's ok, too. Mr. Hannaford wrote the story he came to write, and it's not a "bad" story (it's well written, without a doubt). It's just not even close to the whole story (and I'd argue it's not even all that interesting, either). 

You see, the demographic in the GQ story does exist, of course. I'd never deny it, but it's just a part of the story. There is much more to Fort McMurray, but perhaps, as a friend of mine noted, we need to stop relying on outside media to tell it as it seems quite apparent they never will. Maybe we, the citizens of this city, need to tell the stories we want to see told. Maybe it is people like me who should be writing of the dichotomy here, telling of both our strengths and our weaknesses. A friend has encouraged me in this regard, saying I should begin submitting pieces to national publications, and I admit this frightens me a bit because I am not, and never claimed to be, a journalist. But I have something else, and that is an insider's perspective on the city that a journalist who comes to visit for a few days could never have. And so this is an idea I must consider, even if it makes me nervous, and perhaps an idea others in this community should consider, too.

I debated a long time about whether or not to blog about the GQ article. I asked my Twitter followers, I asked my Facebook friends, and I asked my family. In the end I asked the Intrepid Junior Bloggers, and they both said I should write about it - and so I did. Last night, after we got home from our trip, I sat the younger Junior Blogger down with my iPad and showed her the story. I should mention that while she is twelve she is twelve-going-on-thirty-two, and a caustic, cynical, sarcastic thirty-two at that. This is the kid with an average in the high 90's, and a slightly scary combination of her father's logic and her mother's tenacity. This is the kid who reads CBC news every day, and has an app on her iPhone to keep her apprised of the latest developments in the robocall scandal (and she knows far more about that whole thing than I ever will, and can discuss it at length). This is the kid who scares even me a little bit. When she read the GQ article I sat beside her and listened with amusement to her snorts of derision (after several references to this being the "frozen north" or "as remote as you want to get" she said "exaggerate much?", and asked if the journalist had ever looked at a map of the true Canadian north and seen how much further north and more remote it gets). She read parts of the article out loud in a condescending, snooty British accent (having spent time in central London she does that accent astonishingly well). When the journalist commented that we are "wary of outside media" she looked at me and said "geez, wonder why, dumbass". She suggested that the author might not want to return to the local bar scene after dismissing most of the patrons as "douchebags" (and darkly muttered something about it taking one to know one). And, when he commented that he was pleased that his RCMP tour was in a car and not on horseback, she looked at me, rolled her eyes, and said "this guy doesn't get out much, does he?". Yep. Sliced n' diced by a twelve year old.

So, in the end what do we have, people? We have some issues we need to address, certainly, like our problem with drugs and related crimes. We have some folks who come here and feel very disconnected, and as my friend Nolan Haukeness stated in his column in the weekend edition of the Fort McMurray Today we need to try harder to engage them and make them feel like part of this community. We have a wee problem with drive-by journalists who come here, see only a narrow spectrum of the city, and present it as if it is the whole. We have some stories, amazing stories, that aren't being told, and that we need to start telling. We have some strengths and some weaknesses, and there are things we can and cannot change. Not everyone will love this city - ever, and we need to accept that. There will continue to be journalists who come with a narrow focus and write stories that reflect only that focus. There will continue to be problems - because there is no utopia, and never will be. But we can change some things, people. We can look at stories like this, acknowledge the truth in them, discount the the stuff we know is hyperbole, and then we can move on, making the changes we need to make, engaging those in the community we need to engage, and reading these stories with a bit of a laugh as we think about how the opportunity to write an interesting story was squandered. But we also have this : 

And I mean it, every word, and not just for Mr. Hannaford, but for other journalists and photographers - and just average people. We can all open our doors, to both those who come here from other places and those who live here but aren't sure about it quite yet. They might not always walk away seeing us as we hope they would, but at least we have tried. I think we all need to take every opportunity to show everyone OUR Fort McMurray, whatever it happens to be to us, whether it is our families or schools or recreation centres - or strip clubs. Because we are all those things, not just one or the other. Just like every other place in this world we are the good and the bad, the light and the dark, the positive and the negative, the recreation centres and the strip clubs. We are all those things, and more - and frankly, I love this city in all it's dichotomy and craziness and Ed Hardy and pick-up trucks and galas and million dollar homes and tents on the Snye and schools and bars and people of every description. It's funny, because in the end this story reminded me of how much Fort McMurray means to me, so I guess in a sense I owe that to British GQ - but it doesn't mean I'll be buying a subscription anytime soon ;)

For an interesting discussion on the GQ article
be sure to check out YMMPodcast - You, Me, and GQ.

Photo credit to Wordans


  1. Brilliant! Thank you!

  2. I love your spirit. I have only been here a year but believe that we should take pride in our community and enjoy our time here.

  3. I am totally with you on this. I grew up in McMurray and taught there for 14 years until a 'have to take it' job offer came along for my husband. I always shuddered at the articles that would come from visiting reporters. They always seemed to go to the Oil Can (a bar most 'real' residents were not likely to go to) or other seedy establishments, ignoring completely the world that I would say those who consder themselves 'real' Fort McMurray residents live in. Would any of them have goen to a Keyano Theatre production? Would any of them have toured Westwood and seen what was happening in those classrooms? Would any of them have explored the active recreational community that many, many local parents volunteer in for their kids? No - that's not where the lurid, sensationalist stories are. I have defended and stood up for Fort McMurray countless times as I have had people (who have never been there) describe to me a community that 'has no culture' (ahem, what? My experience alone destroys that argument), that 'there is nothing to do but drink and do drugs' (again, totally not my experience) and that it is 'remote, and lacks modern ammenities' (they obviously have never been inside any of the homes I have). Anyhow, I rant. It is my mutual pet-peeve. I encourage you to write - or start a McMurray Stories (with contributers from around the city - new and long-time residents). I long for the true story of McMurray to get out to the rest of the world, but until then, I will keep defending her!

  4. Got any Dairy Farms???? But then I have to get in with the Alberta Holsteins newspapers, as it wouldn't fly with the BC Holsteins News!

  5. Where is the link to the article. I'd love to read it in full. Verily, this "journalist" doesn't get out much as your daughter so accurately put it. I spent 6 years on Baffin Island, which I consider to be north. this journalist seem to be quite geographically challenged. In fact, many of the points you brought up here could apply to Nunavut so I can definitely relate to the myopic and misinformed points of view that many people out there have about our city.

  6. I wonder why they wasted the money to come here. They could have written that same ol boring story basing it on fiction as much as truth. I tweeted him too and was called an "eejot", must be British for beautiful person.

  7. I think the article was great and an accurate depiction of Fort McMurray.
    There's not much positive you can say about a place such as Fort McMurray.
    It has the highest suicide rate in the country for men 18-24, has a homeless population that is proportionately two to three times that of Calgary or Edmonton and has a lower doctor-patient ratio than Uzbekistan. And that's not to mention the drugs, prostitution, infidelity or crime rate.

  8. McMurray MusingsTuesday, July 24, 2012

    This comment made me giggle, as I have been writing this blog for over a year and found endless positive things to say about Fort McMurray. Let's see, I've lived here for a decade, raising a child here, and been a part of the community since the day I arrived. Anyone who thinks the article is an accurate depiction of anything but a small segment of our city clearly hasn't spent much time with the thousands of families who call this home. Not sure where you are from but I'm betting wherever it is there are issues too ;D