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

Friday, December 6, 2013

We Are Not the Walrus

He is a gifted writer, of that there is no doubt. It is a joy to read his words, as it always is when you read the work of someone who can make words sing - and then too how troubling it is when the song is off-key, discordant in some fundamental respect.

And so it was when I read this piece in The Walrus, a piece entitled "Big Mac", and all about the place I call home. I read it quickly at first, speeding through it, and then again and again, slower these times, and even printing it to jot my thoughts onto it. I have only rarely done that with an article about our community, but I did with this one because at times the author came so close - so close! - to grasping who we are here, but sadly in the end the reach exceeded the grasp, and another author fell short. 

I am not surprised, really, or even disappointed, because I have come to realize that no author or filmmaker or television reporter will ever truly be able to grasp the nature of this place unless they live here for some time. I have come to stop expecting others to tell our story to the depth it deserves, because I am not sure you can ever truly capture the tone of a place in story of 2000 words. It is too much to ask of anyone, really. How can anyone truly tell the story of a place, a community, thousands of people, in a magazine article? It can only ever be a snippet of life here, and so I expect nothing more now from those who come to visit us and try to tell "our story".

I have plucked a few sentences out, ones that really spoke to me for one reason or another, and I respond to them here. The sentences from the article are in bold print, with my thoughts below them. I appreciate that the author came to visit us - I truly do - but I am afraid that once again another writer has missed the mark in telling the entire story. That he told part of the story is certain - but only part, and with some of his own judgements thrown in for good measure. I titled this post "We Are Not the Walrus" a bit tongue in cheek, but the reality is that the elephant in the room - or in this case the walrus - is that the world's dependence and reliance on oil drives the economy in this country. I am not sure if anyone has done the financial calculations on the impact to the economy and subsequent impact on millions of people were the oilsands to disappear tomorrow, but I think it is safe to say it would be substantial. Perhaps the dialogue needs to be less about Fort McMurray, and more about the world's reliance on a resource that comes with both great opportunity and great responsibility. Regardless, these are my thoughts on this article. I would encourage you to read the original article and perhaps share your thoughts there if you see fit. This post serves as my response to a beautifully written article that is in my opinion marred only by a narrowed view of our community.

"Big Mac"

Most are here for the overtime, for the paid vacations, for the blue-collar jobs that pay six figures, for the work.

Oh how this amuses me. Isn't that why most of us live where we do, because we can earn a living? if we can't earn a living isn't that when we choose to move on to where we can - and recently hasn't that place often been Fort McMurray? How does this desire to be here for work truly differ from why most of us live where we live?

This means that all of the bad things you’ve heard about Fort McMoney are true: the traffic really is murderous, there are liquor stores (many open until 2 a.m.) in every strip mall, and the place has a depressingly large population of desperately lonely guys blowing ridiculously fat paycheques on steroids, tattoos, monster trucks, and peelers.

Traffic is bad on occasion, but murderous? The author comes from Montreal, not exactly known for easy traffic, and the assertion that there is a liquor store in every strip mall is clearly an exaggeration as I can provide examples of many where there is none. And as for the last comment - well, that's a value judgement and one that troubles me as it seems based on some assumptions and assertions.

I decide to do what almost nobody here does: go for a walk in the woods.

What almost nobody does? The trails in this community are alive at almost any given time of day, from dog walkers to hikers to runners to bikers to moms with strollers. I am not sure where he was walking but it clearly was not in my residential neighbourhood where the trails are utilized heavily on a daily basis - and even in winter when the cross country skiers emerge.

This is another Fort McMurray you don’t hear about, a year-round community with bake sales, supermarkets, and elementary schools.

This sentence is where I thought he was getting close to understanding - but it was nothing but a throwaway sentence, a quick nod to this aspect of our community, and he chose to not delve any further into those bake sales, supermarkets, and elementary schools. Such a shame, really. He was so close.

Among the many things wrong with their Fort McMurray: The winters are brutal.

This is northern Canada, and some of us who grew up on the prairies don't find the weather particularly troubling. It is simply part of this place, and part of our reality - and not something one can change, and so you either accept this one, or move on. This is not some facet within the control of this community - this is the reality for much of Canada.

“We either sit at home and do nothing, or we work.” 

This is very telling, isn't it? This comment from those who hate it here - and perhaps there is a correlation? If all one does is work and sit at home in any city what is your quality of life? I suppose at this point I would have asked when the last time they volunteered was, walked a dog at the SPCA or sorted food at the food bank. Perhaps they are into film-making and could join our filmmaker association, or they are into the arts and could join our burgeoning arts scene. Staying at home and doing nothing is a choice here just as it is everywhere else - and a choice destined to lead to dissatisfaction.

In other words, Fort McMurray will have to do a better job of convincing people like Brandon and Alaina to stick around for good.

When I moved to Toronto in my early twenties I didn't say "okay Toronto, prove yourself to me!" and wait for my life to be handed to me on a platter. I found jobs and friends and places to live and things to do and I created a life. Is it truly incumbent on a place to "convince" you to stay, or are the places we live what they are because we contribute to them and help them to build to become the places we want to be? I would argue we have a responsibility to create our homes where we go, and not expect the place to convince us why we must stay. I think part of belonging is contributing to building a community - and then it doesn't need to convince you to stay, because you have become part of it.

Kicking your conscience to the curb, I realize after a week, may be the only way to survive a place like Fort McMurray. 

My conscience has not been kicked to the curb, and while the author may believe one has to do so to "survive" here I would argue that one can thrive here with their conscience quite intact. I make no apologies for what we do, and in fact I am proud that we are constantly trying to develop our resource in a more sustainable and responsible way. Every day technologies are being developed and implemented to make the industry cleaner, and while we have a long way to go we are committed to doing it. This is a generalization and assumption that I doubt few here would agree they have done or are doing. Perhaps this is the only way the author could survive here - but that it is his perspective and should not be seen as reflecting that of everyone.

“The bottom line,” says Todd, a firefighter from New Zealand who paid off all of his debts after three years here, “is that living here is like selling your soul—and you can only sell it for so long.”

Apparently for some selling their soul means staying long enough to pay their debts - but others who stay here don't feel they have sold their soul at all. Not only is my conscience clear but my soul remains my own, and is not for sale on any auction block.

The ones most open to making a life here have no home to go back to. 

Recently I wrote about choosing to stay in Fort McMurray. I could move anywhere in this country and find work, and likely be happy. I defy this belief that the only ones open to making a life here have no home to go back to, and so do thousands of others who have chosen to be here because we have found this place to be where we want to be. Many of us have homes to go back to - and yet we choose to stay here, even those of us who don't earn tremendous amounts of money and instead work in other sectors where we may earn less but contribute just as much to community in other ways.

By flying from Montreal to Fort McMurray, renting a mid-size car for a week, and going up in this helicopter, I have pumped one tonne of carbon into the atmosphere. 

I am pleased to see the author acknowledge this - but what about the city where he resides, Montreal? That is a city that requires huge resources to function, and I am willing to bet that many of the goods he purchases are trucked in by vehicles using oil. The very laptop or PC he types on has been touched by the oil industry. How about all the homes across this country, perhaps not his own but others, that are heated by natural resources? Farms and lives dependent on oil? Mouths being fed around the world because of oil? If only it were so very simple - except we are all reliant on oil, and until a better alternative comes along then we need to find a way to develop the resource in a responsible manner.

But there is no avoiding the bitter truth: Fort McMurray’s is a multiculturalism of desperation.

Who's truth is this? Not mine, and not that of the thousands who choose to stay here not out of desperation but rather out of a genuine affection and commitment to making this a better place. I have never, not once in twelve years, felt desperation in this community, and the generalization that this is what makes up the multiculturalism in this community troubles me deeply.

By their mid-forties, even these most ardent defenders of the community will be gone.

And yet here we are in the middle of a huge community debate and agonizing process over the development of an aging place facility, and why? Because of all of those who stay long past their mid-forties, and choose to spend their golden years here, once again defying this belief that everyone leaves. Some families have been here for generations - where do they fit in this belief?

In short: I don’t want any part of a prosperity that is predicated on the destruction of the planet.

Oh but dear author you already are. I am betting you were paid for your piece on Fort McMurray, and the only reason anyone paid you to write it is because there is interest in this place. Did it hurt to kick your conscience to the curb to accept money to write about this place, to pay your mortgage or buy your food, with money you earned writing about this community? Even you are benefitting from our prosperity, simply through choosing (and it was a choice) to write about it.

And finally:

A ghost town.

Fort McMurray was not a ghost town before the oil sands. This region has a long and rich history, and while there is no doubt we are highly reliant on the industry we will never be a ghost town. I am saddened, I suppose, that this author did not speak to any of the leaders in our social profit organizations, and that he did not delve further into the world of elementary schools. It seems he spoke to none of our senior citizens who have retired here, and to none of those who intend to. It seems he spoke to no young people who are happy here, building lives and creating a community and finding ways to do many things other than "stay home and do nothing". Or perhaps he did speak to them, and chose to not include them in this piece. I don't know that part, but what I know is that it fell short of capturing so much of this place that we call home. It is his perspective and I respect it for that - but it only reflects a part of this place, and not the entirety.

It is a beautifully written piece, and the author is a talented and skilled writer who can make words on paper sing. It is just a shame that the song has such a predictable melody.


  1. Agreed -a well written article lightly peppered with arsenic.I too he'd have stayed longer to really feel Fort McMurray and its people. When regularly running, cycling and walking our beautiful trails I see many out enjoying. Maybe the writer went out midweek when the trails are vacant, in which don't be surprised of the great solitude. As for the Abasand trail with its remnants of the old 1940's bitumen plant, yes it does need further protecting like many other places on this planet.
    It's not Fort McMurray's job to convince people to like it here and stay. We need people to stay who 'get it'. If they're bored...Poor things! They can't think out side the box and get creative with their time. They just wistfully wait and wish to be else where while sadly counting the coins.If you're here just for the money...then take it and shut up, move, make money with misery or CHOOSE HAPPY!
    The multicultural part of McMurray is what make this place truly unique. I love learning about other people's places of origin, traditions and what they bring to our environment. Everyone has a story and we all didn't come here because of desperate measures and tragic circumstances.We may have come due to economic changes but we stay because we actually like it here.
    There are so many things that needs improving (as I was held in down town traffic for an hour in a short distance...I knew that). however it continually blows my mind how the media masses and washed up celebs want to buffoon us with the boomtown image instead of recognizing that good things go on here.

  2. Can I respectfully add what phrases I pulled out of the walrus article?