Step Into The Dangerous City At The Heart Of The Alberta Oil Sands

Fort McMurray

Photo: Robert Johnson

Mining the world’s second largest oil deposit requires a huge, skilled, and dedicated workforce, and getting it to the wilds of northern Canadian requires more than just a beefy salary.It requires a city that appeals to a global population, their kids, and their spouses. A city where oil workers can blow off steam after several days cramped up in remote dorm rooms, as well as a place where a young PhD from a big city would be happy to call home. A tall order.

Check out photos of Fort McMurray >

For better or worse that city is Fort McMurray, and meeting the needs of residents and oil conglomerates alike falls to one 42-year-old woman with a husband and two young sons of her own. Melissa Blake has been the mayor of Fort McMurray for eight years, and thinks her city gets a bum-rap.

She believes crime isn’t as high, and problems aren’t as vast, as the media makes them out to be. But the city’s residents are a unique bunch, and they live demanding lives.

When they’re on the job, many workers live by their mine in a camp with strict rules and schedules where they rotate several days on, and an equal number off. When they’re off work, many head back to homes and families in the Fort McMurray area. Many others come back to have fun. 

And there are a lot of people here, in a small space wedged between a couple of rivers and some hills. Once an old trapping town, Fort McMurray’s population has more than tripled in the last 20 years. By 2028 it is expected to more than triple again to around 230,000 people. 

I dropped into the the city aboard a Cenovus Oil corporate jet after a full day touring a distant drilling site that showed no more ecological impact than a water treatment plant.

It had been snowing all day, flakes nearly the size of tea saucers on May 1. I was wet, cold, and mildly frustrated that the closest I’d been able to get to an actual chunk of oil sand was inside a Syncrude research site in Edmonton the day before.

The media reps and Canadian Broadcast Corp reporters on the plane told me “Ft. Mac” was a rough town, but most admitted they hadn’t been there in years. They all seemed to agree the Oil Can was the quintessential bar, but told me to be careful because it was dangerous.

They didn’t think much of the place.

That’s thing about Fort McMurray, everyone has a strong opinion about it, but no one is completely correct. 

Fort McMurray is about where the green dot is and the most active oil sand mines are just to the north, though the sands range everywhere within the red circle

Even if you fly into NE Alberta and drive to Fort McMurray — there's really only one road in and out of town

There on the left — Route 63 is called the 'Highway of Death' because it's host to so many fatalities — a family of seven died driving the day I arrived

But it's the one road that leads to the Alberta oil sands north of town, and with the mining expanding and the hiring increasing, people will continue to brave the dangers

While oil sand isn't the only industry in Fort McMurray

There is some retail

And a family owned lumber mill

People come here from around the world for jobs in the oil mines, and they help make up one of the largest forces in the Canadian economy

A huge mix of workers and their families live in Fort McMurray — from oil executives — to international scientists — to laborers — and Mayor Melissa Blake is in charge of it all

From her window Mayor Blake looks out over the city she's guided through its most recent boom for eight years — while trying to raise two young sons of her own

The city is torn between embracing its past — assuming a new identity — and keeping residents safe from dangers like biker gangs and Somali gangsters

All this while courting a highly educated international workforce that expects a certain quality of life

Most people here realise who is running the show — hard to miss with a community centre costing hundreds of millions of dollars sponsored by a local company

MacDonald Park sits on an island just outside the centre of the city and is without a doubt Fort McMurray's most visited attraction

When it's - 50 degrees Fahrenheit outside and dark for most of the day — this indoor water park is a nice escape

And there's never a question where that relief comes from

It comes from local companies that contribute to the nearly 48 million tons of CO2 emissions to come from refining the oil sand each year

It's those companies that draw people to live in camps like these behind big metal fences

And leave their families behind in local homes like this costing several hundred thousand dollars

While their kids go to school

And their wives work whatever job they can find — while they go to the sands and bring home more money than they can make anyplace else

Many workers head north to the mines at 4:30 a.m. and from 5:45 to 7:45 in the fall, one lane of Rt. 63 is shut down for buses to keep residents' cars at home

But if they do drive or receive visitors there are signs everywhere explaining the rules

Reminding workers of the life they chose

And the sacrifices they make everyday to preserve it

There are plenty of standard suburban communities in the hills east of town — but inside the city it's like most others with a large working class population and a bit of money to spend

So the city faces many of the same challenges other places deal with — like homelessness

Law enforcement keeps pretty busy — I went on a ride-along with an officer one Friday night from seven to midnight — the station is very new and quite nice

My Royal Canadian Mounted Police guide was cordial and after he had me fill out some papers...

I was given some instructions on the car...

Told how to unlock the shotgun should my guide be too badly injured to return fire and save us from some debacle — and we were on our way

This is one place in town where the homeless can go to get off the streets and away from cold that can reach -50 F

But those aren't the problem spots in town. My police escort said this 7-Eleven is where many of the city's drug deals go down — the saying in Fort McMurray is that cocaine is easier to get than pizza — from what I saw I'd almost agree

The locals can be rough — This bar (shut down in July) across from the 7-11 had a crowd come out one night after a blackout that started throwing bottles at police who had to scramble back to the safety of their cars

A majority of the calls come from this casino during my ride-along — All of these places are in the centre of town near the nicest restaurants and hotels

We make a quick stop at the jail — and while locals aren't arrested for public drunkenness

To be sure there are not an abundance of entertainment options — this is the only movie theatre

The other movie theatre sits empty after being shut down

There is a mall

But it is not terribly big

And while new buildings are going up and progress is being made

And the only jobs available to most of them now are destroying their heritage and the land that supports it

Cancer clusters among native people that live near the Athabasca River and fish deformities have been reported for years

So no matter the lifestyle or the individual — everyone in the area is concerned with the environment — and these two students were taking samples on a Sunday

They were flown in on this super-quiet helicopter to avoid spooking wildlife — the water is tested daily following the spring runoff

People here know that education and becoming informed about what's happening in the mines around them is truly important

Because no matter how much money the oil sands contribute to the local economy —residents still live near mines like this

And as another generation grows up and heads off to work

And building accommodations for a new generation continues

Everyone here knows that if the oil companies can't get places that look like this...

Back to looking like this — then there's no telling what will be left for the next generation to enjoy

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