Fort McMoney, Fort McMordor, North St. John and Fort McCrack - all nicknames that Canadians have drummed up to describe Canada’s most infamous city, swathed in prejudice, located deep in Alberta’s oil country.
Fort McMurray has been in the media spotlight for years as the epicentre of the country’s economic growth and the battleground for conflicting politics, but thanks to the city’s remote location and bad reputation, few Canadians have actually been there. For most, its reputation far precedes and likely kills any desire to visit.
Instead, the majority of Canadians rely on scandalous media stories, a plethora of nicknames and their own vivid imagination of rampant crime, drugs and debauchery to understand the oilsands boom town.
The city’s leaders want those myths debunked. The bad press must stop, they say. Life in Fort McMurray is unique, yes, but the community is making huge strides since 2007 when a media report suggested it was easier to buy cocaine than pizza.
Leaders speak out
Melissa Blake, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, has been battling the bad press on Fort McMurray over her nine years in office.
“The problem, quite frankly, is the representation that you get from outside sources or media,” Blake said, adding that the stories often appear predetermined and ignore reality.
“If the story happens to be about the cost of housing or about drugs or crime, they are not taking into consideration reality in the region, which is very dramatically different,” she said. “They conceive this to be a blue collared working town and nothing but…That’s just not the community.”
Wood Buffalo RCMP superintendent Bob Couture has been in the hot seat for one and a half years now as the officer in charge of Fort Mac. He confirmed that the reality is far from what people imagine.
“There are perceptions and innuendo that the crime rate is high and there’s all kinds of bad things that happen in our community that is not true at all. Wood Buffalo is a very safe community,” Couture said.
Ric McIver, Alberta’s Industry minister, said he’s been to Fort McMurray many times and he feels the stigma surrounding the oilsands boomtown is simply ignorance.
“The best cure for an inaccurate statement is information. I don’t feel that way (unsafe) because I’ve been there a number of times,” he said, adding that the city has some unique challenges, but also incredible resources at its disposal.
Permanent population increasing
Both Blake and Couture say the rapid growth of Fort McMurray from booming industry presents demographic challenges for the city, but the key to balancing that is by attracting a permanent population.
For the last several years, the city of 119,000 has seen a staggering growth rate of around 7 per cent per year, but much of those newcomers are long-term rather than transient, Couture said. “There are people here that are coming to live, work and play – to put down roots,” he said.
In 2012, the Fort McMurray hospital had a record 126 live births, an indication the community is changing, Couture said.
To continue attracting permanent residents, Blake said the city has been steaming ahead with plans to rebuild the downtown in order see it densified, modernized and beautified.
The city has already made huge strides with infrastructure, including a new roadway through the city with brand new bridges over the Athabasca River. Blake said the community is already feeling the benefits.
Southern Albertan Ty Konschuh moved to Fort McMurray a year ago to work for a pipeline outfitting company.
“When I first had to go to Fort Mac, I was like, ‘Holy crap, I don’t do drugs, I’m going to get torn apart,’ but my initial impression of the city was ‘Wow, it’s really nice,” he shared with The Journal.
McMurray not without problems
Despite their optimism, leaders and residents of Fort McMurray recognize there are unique problems to life in the boomtown.
Fly-in workers commuting to the oilsands camps make up around 40,000 of the total 119,000 population of the municipality. While their reputation is worse than the reality, Konschuh said there is a dark side that comes with a large, young demographic bent on making quick cash.
“There are a lot of drugs there if you look for it, but if you stay away from it it doesn’t even phase you. That seems to be my experience,” he said.
An inflated cost of living also presents a challenge for wage earners who don’t make the big bucks off the oilsands or are battling other social issues.
“We do have an issue with homelessness within our community, but one that is not significant and no different than any other large municipality within Canada,” Couture explained.
Like in other municipalities, RCMP in Wood Buffalo work with local service providers such as the Centre of Hope, a homeless shelter downtown Fort McMurray.
The Centre for Hope has been operating in Fort McMurray since 2005, serving the community’s homeless and working on “stigma reduction and awareness.”
“Our community has a lot of positive energy. There’s a lot of growth happening,” said Barbara Rex, spokesperson for the centre.
Rex said they do have a lot of transient users of the shelter, but they pride themselves on the community integration they have fostered over the past several years.
“Our community is so giving. The resources that are available to us in terms of a close knit community are really a benefit and it’s really something that we are very fortunate to have,” she said.
Looking to the future
At the end of the day, Couture said people tend to focus on the bad, but it’s time to start seeing Fort McMurray’s good.
“Why not focus on what’s this is all about? This community is about the people that are making this place work,” he said.
Konschuh said he can feel the atmosphere of change in the young boomtown and expects more educated people with families will come looking for work and choose to relocate.
“You give that town 10 more years and it’s going to be way more of a suburban, happy place to live,” he said.