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

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Definitive Narrative of Fort McMurray

On occasion I have fielded several requests in one week.

They come from all sorts of sources – print media, television shows, film makers – but they all centre around one topic: Fort McMurray. Often the requests are asking to meet with me to learn more about our community, to get an “inside” perspective, to reveal the “true Fort McMurray”. This summer, though, the requests have dropped off significantly as compared to the last couple of years, and frankly I am deeply relieved as I think we may have begun to approach a tipping point in media coverage of our community.
We have seen it covered from almost every angle. There have been stories on being a young man in Fort McMurray and on being single , female and dating in Fort McMurray. There have been interactive online web games and documentaries filmed by “serious” commentators and by comedians. The coverage has been almost obsessive in nature as the curiousity about the region seemed to grow as stories about the oil sands did. I think, though, we are seeing some degree of media burnout, and I can imagine the conversations with editors and project funders occurring now:

Filmmaker/journalist: I want to pitch a story about Fort McMurray...
Editor/funder: What’s the angle?

Filmmaker/journalist: Young men in a bustling boomtown, the drugs, the crime...
Editor/funder: It’s been done.

Filmmaker/journalist: The gender disparity, the dating challenges, the men vs. women dynamic...
Editor/funder: Also been done.

Filmmaker/journalist: An interactive web game, a comprehensive documentary, a sweeping portrayal...
Editor/funder: Also done.

Filmmaker/journalist: The impact of the oilsands on the community, the environmental costs, the destruction...
Editor/funder: Done like dinner.

Filmmaker/journalist: I want to pitch a different story about a different town now...

The reality is that I think many of the stories that have been told by external media in recent years have revealed one very pertinent truth: Fort McMurray is not all that different from anywhere else on the planet. Far from being the home of some sort of compelling deep and dark stories that chill the soul or make you despair for humanity Fort McMurray is kinda like everywhere else, with some tremendously positive stories and some that are quite sad. Far from being so vastly different from anywhere else Fort McMurray is similar enough to other places that those reading about it begin to suspect the stories being written and told could have come from almost any other community in Canada.
Oh, there are unique aspects, like the average household income and disposable income, but for the most part Fort McMurray is a lot like all the places where those reading or watching these stories happen to live – and so, with each new story told, the belief that somehow it is some alien place begins to disappear until it blows away in a puff of smoke.

Now, this is not to say that there are no stories in Fort McMurray, as there are thousands, as many as there are people. But what is lacking are the lurid stories that some are looking for, the ones that get the heart pumping with outrage or disgust. No, those stories might exist but they are not the “definitive” Fort McMurray story, only part of a much larger picture of life.
Speaking of that “definitive” story – an interviewer recently asked me for the definitive story of Fort McMurray. I stared at them blankly. I said I could tell them MY story, but that it was not definitive of the community, just of me. They pressed again for the “true narrative” of the community and I looked at them and said: “What is the definitive narrative of YOUR community?”. They stopped, looked at me, and replied: “That really is a pretty dumb question, isn’t it?”, and then we talked instead about my story of life in the community, just one small slice of this place I call home.

I don’t miss those interview requests I once fielded, as I could on occasion meet with three different journalists or filmmakers in one week and it was exhausting. I also don’t miss the intense interest from outside eyes, as the scrutiny was occasionally unnerving (and like Schrodinger’s cat I often wondered if the observation would affect the outcome of the experiment). I know the interest may pick up again some day and the requests may start again, but for now I am quite content to simply observe my community from within, our strengths and our weaknesses, our triumphs and failures, seeing thousands of “definitive narratives” acted out every day on our small stage in the world.
Fort McMurray is not devoid of stories - it is in fact full of tens of thousands of them, every single one just as unique as the individual who tells them. The funny thing is, though, those stories just aren't that different from the millions of unique stories every individual in this country can tell - and perhaps that similarity is truly the narrative that defines us all.

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