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

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Not Your Father's Fort McMurray

This post was originally written and submitted to Huffington Post Alberta for the blog I write there about life in Fort McMurray. It received such a positive response that I felt it worthwhile to share it here on the community blog that inspires those emails and messages I get from across the country.
Not Your Father's Fort McMurray
In my life as a community blogger I occasionally get emails and messages from those curious about where I live. Sometimes they come from those who have been to northern Alberta, and sometimes they come from people from countries far away, wondering if this is the place they have been looking for to change their fortunes. And, on occasion, they come from someone who has heard about this place, through national media or anecdotes, and who have stumbled across my blog - and a different perspective.
Recently I received a message of the latter kind. As many know this region is not only home to many but also a place where many choose to work, but not live. They live here in rented rooms or hotels or work camps, away from their families while they work. They have, for whatever reason, decided they do not wish to live here, and instead this is simply a place where they derive their income. It has always been this way to some extent, as the person who contacted me recently explained. You see her father worked here many years ago, but left his family at home in a province far away. He would come home from his time here and tell his family stories of this rough, wild n'tumble place in the northern bush. I guess in the end that is why she contacted me, because she found my blog, and she had some questions.
When she wrote me she commented that the place I write about does not sound at all like the place her father described. She told me how he would call it "the real wild west", and how he said it was no place for families, or children. She told me he thought of it as a giant work camp, nothing more, and not a place he would ever take his family - and so she has never seen it. She said to me: "I guess you are either making up the stuff you write about Fort McMurray, or it has really changed since then". I found this comment intriguing, because there is a third option, too.
I can guarantee I am not inventing the story of my life here. This place truly is an astonishingly diverse community with dozens of nations represented. This is a place of amazing generosity, as shown by our keen interest in philanthropy and volunteerism. This is a place where the average age is 31 and with a skyrocketing birth rate, a place of baby strollers and toddlers and young families. This is a place of great natural beauty, the boreal forest and dancing northern lights. This is a place where thousands have decided to build a career, a life, and a home. All these things are true. And while things quite likely have changed since my correspondent's father worked here I think something else has changed, too. I think the way those who live here feel about our community has changed.
I believe there have always been those who were proud to live here, but in recent years I think this has skyrocketed just like our birth rate. Just in the eleven years I have been here I have seen that transition, as people have become not just proud but almost over-the-top ebullient about this place. Citizens began to not only feel pride but to display it, to talk about their community and what is good about it, not just the problems (and yes, we do have those problems, just like every other community, and we are working on them, too). So while I am not lying about the nature of this place, and while it has changed over the decades I think something else has changed, too - the people who choose to call this home.
When I read the message from the woman who has never been here I considered my reply carefully. When I did reply I suggested that she might want to come and visit to confirm that I am not, in fact, making anything up, and that I did think this place has changed as it has grown so much since her father was here. I then suggested something else. I asked her to consider bringing her father with her when he comes to visit to see if just maybe this is no longer the "wild west" he recalls, and if maybe he was wrong about it even all those years ago, as there have always been those who called this place home. I started my reply to her just as I have titled this post - "This is not your father's Fort McMurray", and I meant it. For him this place was never home, and it was not his Fort McMurray - but it is mine, and that is why I choose to write about it and share the story of my life. This is not your father's Fort McMurray, and not the Fort McMurray of infamy and lore. This is my Fort McMurray, a place of community, diversity, generosity - and my home.


  1. This is a great post! And if I'm surprised at how much growth and change I've witnessed in the scant time I've lived here I can well imagine how it must seem to folks who have lived here much longer.

  2. I'm curious as to how old this person is. I grew up in Fort McMurray in the 80s, and while there were aspects of the "wild" about it (ie. we spent a lot of time playing in the woods, and riding our bikes on trails, etc.), there were many families even then who had chosen to make a home and a life there. Even as a child, it had a vibrant arts and culture scene, lots of recreational opportunities, and a distinct culture. Maybe in the 70s it was a little more "wild west", but I couldn't comment on that because I'm not old enough!

  3. Thanks for your blog. I am one of the few who can say they grew up in Fort McMurray. I was three when we moved there in 1969 "for a few years". It turned out to be more than thirty-five years for my parents! Back then, Highway 63 was unpaved. I can recall when Franklin Avenue got paved. It was a big deal! For a time in elementary school, we had to go to school in shifts because it was impossible to build schools fast enough. There were shortages in housing so many people lived in mobile homes. They were fun times. Parents working and kids being kids. I will always have a special place in my heart for my hometown.

  4. I am always surprised at how people who have never been there describe McMurray. I grew up there - moving there in 1978 when I was in grade 6 - I loved it. It was much bigger than the two places I lived before in my life. It was also growing. I loved it so much I went back and taught up there for 13 years after I got my degree in Edmonton. I have since left and I miss it for a lot of things. The people who describe it as 'rough' clearly do not see all of it. Maybe they only go to the Oil Can (is that still there?). Maybe they do not check out Keyano Theatre or the fabulous recreational facilities? Maybe because they have left their families away they are just living a party life - maybe the life they describe is more about the way they live their life than McMurray. Are there rougher places in Fort McMurray - yes - but there are in Edmonton and Calgary and any city. They are a small part of what McMurray is. To me McMurray was family centered with activities for kids and young families and older residents. I got to work with some fabulous artists who were brought in to the theatre. I worked at one of the best schools (Westwood - Holler!) with great resources and amazing kids, many of whom I am still in touch with. The whole is much bigger than it's pieces.