By Dennis Tkach. Drive five hours north of Edmonton on Highway 63 and you will find, nestled near the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers, one of the most fascinating and interesting cities in Canada.
Being a Fraser Valley man, if one were to look for analogies between Fort McMurray and the ‘three principal bergs of Lotus Land (note: definition of Lotus Land – the lower mainland of BC excluding Vancouver) there would not be many to offer.
For a geographical setting it would be hard to beat the picturesque mountains that surround Chilliwack.
Abbotsford, on the other hand, is not nearly as scenic. While one can see the mountains to the north and south, the city is still basically surrounded by flat farmland.
Langley, used to be a beautiful city full of lovely groves of trees (before the ticky tack developers tore out most of the verdant growth and replaced them with ‘condos’ and ‘townhouse’ complexes that are a sad statement of today and an even sadder portent tomorrow’s affordable family housing.)
Fort McMurray, by contrast, is nestled deep in the heart of Canada’s boreal forest belt. A beautiful variety of trees fill the city and the picturesque rolling hills that surround it. White Spruce, Trembling Aspen, Balsam Poplar, White Birch, are the most prominent, but one can also find stands of Black Spruce, Tamarack, Jack Pine, and even some of the more exotic species such as European Aspen, Blue Spruce, and Sand Cherry.
Approaching the city from the south, the imagery presented by the rivers, hills and forests (excluding Banff and Jasper) is the finest wild rose country has to offer.
Weather-wise, the Fraser Valley, (regardless the season as we of the webbed feet clan well understand,) is prone to rain, rain, interspersed with fog, infamous Sumas Flats winter white outs and more rain.
I have been in Fort Mac since mid-July and can truthfully count the days of precipitation from then until now on one hand. The rest of the summer and fall to date has been filled with naught but glorious blue skies, sunshine and weather in the 20’s to low 30’s. It is true that before my arrival the local residents had to cope with record setting precipitation that caused some flooding in the lower lying areas of the city (not dissimilar to what has occurred in the wetlands around the Fraser in recent Springs). It is also true to say last winter here in the hinterlands was unusually snowy with some nasty low cold snaps.
Still, having been born and raised in Winnipeg, Fort Mac is a poor country cousin when it comes to winter. Oddly enough, (and probably due to the higher elevation) Edmonton, far to the south of oil town, has much nastier winters.
The population of the actual ‘city’ (incorporated as a city in 1980, unincorporated in 1995, it is now listed as an ‘urban service area’ specialized within a municipality,) is 80,000.
In other words, Fort McMurray is as populous as Chilliwack. The area, including the communities and work camps enclosed within the greater municipality of Wood Buffalo contains a population around 130,000, larger than Langley and comparable to that of Abbotsford.
However, there is one eye-popping statistic regarding population growth in this area. In recent years 20,000 acres of crown land has been released for development. Huge tracts are currently being prepared for up to 60,000 new housing units. I have never witnessed a construction boom on such a large scale. There are more jobs, with the best pay in North America, than there are tradespeople. Men and women, skilled and unskilled are flowing in from all over North America and the city is rife with Asians on easy to acquire work permits. The current growth rate is 8 – 10% a year and accelerating. In 20 years the population of Fort McMurray is projected to double.
City Hall and those charged with creating an attractive urban center for easy living want to do more than appeal to new families to call this company city home. Their goal is to create a place where the quality of living conditions will result in those families planting generational roots.
Local government, working hand in hand with the companies that give Fort McMurray it’s raison d’etre along with the province are investing infrastructure dollars that would make most other urban developing centers envious indeed.
Fort Mac is a very expensive place to live. Housing rivals Vancouver, Toronto, and would be ridiculously unaffordable if it were not for the equally ridiculous wages to be earned working in the oil sands. Restaurant food, whether fast or classy, is about 25% higher than back in the lower mainland. Everything from haircuts to oil changes is a big drain on the wallet. But always remember, if one is making $50, $60 or more an hour, (yes, you read me correctly) and if you are a double income family, you can truly live the good life in this much maligned and misunderstood pocket of Canada.
Fort McMurray may be the most expensive city in Canada to live, but it is also the most giving. For six straight years the workers and companies of this small center of industry have donated, through The United Way alone, more than any other city in North America. This year, $6,750,000.00 alone!
Recently Shell Albion Sands, Chevron and Marathon Oil donated $1,000,000.00 for a science and technology center at the city’s Father Mercredi High School. Young men and women will have the opportunity to graduate from high school fully trained and ready to step into some of the highest paying work in the world.
The city has more green belts than The Jolly Green Giant has peas. Broad avenues, and flowers, flowers, flowers, everywhere. Housing zones back on to woods full of walking trails. Parks are everywhere. Homes are better built than lower mainland abodes, a necessity because of the prairie winters. But the actual neighborhoods are as beautiful as anything to be found in the ‘upscale’ neighborhoods of any city in the lower mainland.
There is a bridge and freeway construction boom that would make the Vancouver budgetary accomplishments blush with shame. If you think the widening of the Trans Canada through the Fraser Valley is impressive, check out Highway 63 with it’s bridges, multi-lane interchanges, and highways and bi-ways.
On the negative side, traffic at certain times of the day can be a nightmare. This, I have come to accept, is a fact of urban living wherever one hangs one’s hat. 200 Street in Langley, for example, makes me crazy.
There is a shortage of good restaurants in town, and by hit and miss visitations I discovered a few really bad ones. But, there are some nice culinary surprises too. The local food court at the Peter Pond Mall has franchise outlets that are affordable while providing excellent fare.
Movies. A definite shortage of theatres in this boom-town. Only one six screen house with stupidly high ticket prices and inflated goodie bar offerings the cost of which made me gag as I did my solitary research visit.
For summer enjoyment, Lake Gregoire, a half hour drive from town is a beautiful sand beach and fresh water escape with shade trees and picnic areas for families and water lovers of all ages.
For all year round recreation, but minutes from downtown Fort Mac you will find the largest non-profit family entertainment and sports fun center in Canada. With a jaw dropping water park, one for babes and toddlers, one for family, large swimming pools, indoor water slides, gigantic family whirlpools, steam baths, indoor tracks, tennis, badminton, hockey, you name it and Macdonald Island has it all. Here is one place where individual and family memberships are very affordable and on par with lower mainland offerings.
I know, with time, many of the good name restaurants will arrive, as will the super shopping centers and the mega box stores. After all, the scent of money is what feeds the corporate thirst and hunger, does it not?
Probably the biggest shock is living in a town with only one 7/11 store but two Tim Horton’s. It is not uncommon to see continuous block long line-ups of cars and trucks patiently waiting to get their daily caffeine fixes.
Lastly, on another positive note, I have a message for all of our brothers and sisters from The First Nations. Shell alone provides over $100,000,000.00 a year (yes, that is one hundred million!) to First Nations companies such as the Fort McKay Group and if you are aboriginal, regardless of your education or lack thereof, you can make an amazing salary, AND PAY NO INCOME TAX! To all of the indigent, feel sorry for themselves welfare addicted and socially downtrodden of the lower mainland, Fort McMurray holds great opportunity for even such as you. Jump on a Grey Hound and come to work for any of the scores of native companies that are thriving in this land of the feel good.
In conclusion, Fort McMurray, despite all of its drawbacks, is still a great place to work and live. I have two sons and their families who are investing the prime working years of their lives in order to generate a financially secure future where unlimited opportunities will become possible because of astute savings, and planning.
The oil sands are not for everyone. But the promised wage for the workers in this particular ‘vineyard’ are truly amazing and when coupled with one of the most dynamic healthy communities in the land, Fort McMurray has few equals.
Dennis Tkach is a Chilliwack resident, currently residing in Fort McMurray, who is well-traveled and has a long history in the entertainment business. A music aficionado, a voracious reader and world traveler, his columns can be found on all three Today Media Group community websites regularly.
If you have something you think Dennis should write about send him an email at: Dennis@TodayMedia.ca