Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

More on the Social Meltdown of Fort McMurray

Oilpatch braces for new arrivals
Dec 04, 2007 09:07 AM // Dean Bennett

FORT McMURRAY, Alta. – Fifty-seven year old Gerald Morrison has only 18 months to go before he can "get out of Dodge" and retire to Port Hawkesbury, N.S.

But until then, the Syncrude refinery technician has to get a roomie to meet the $2,950 monthly rent on a three-bedroom apartment north of the downtown core, which comes complete with leaks in the ceiling, frosted-over panes and window sills spongy with rot.

"We're paid a good wage, but if I didn't share (the apartment), two-thirds of my take-home would go to putting a roof over my head," said Morrison.

"It's going to be quite the lifestyle change, but it's either that or leave town now – or move into somebody's basement."

For tenants in Fort McMurray, one of the hotspots of Alberta's supernova oilsands industry, the future doesn't appear to be getting any rosier.

New census details from Statistics Canada show that Alberta hasn't lost its grip as the province considered by Canadians as the country's promised land.

More than 225,000 people moved to Alberta from other parts of Canada between 2001 and 2006, the latest census figures show.

A slight drop from the last census period, the figure still maintains Alberta's status by far as the province with the highest net gain of population due to migration from other provinces.

As has been the trend now for a decade, most of those who arrive in Alberta come from British Columbia, Ontario and Saskatchewan.

And one of the province's "it" spots is oil-rich Fort McMurray.

Browse the classifieds in this city of more than 67,000 and mobile homes are selling for $400,000. Single-family homes are $600,000-plus and rising, making it one of the top five expensive housing markets in Canada.

The population has doubled in a decade. Besides the 67,000, an estimated 10,000 live in oilsands work camps scattered around the region.

Unofficial estimates say as many as 10,000 Newfoundlanders are making the 6,000-kilometre commute to earn oilsands salaries of $110,000-a-year and up. They fly in, work for a few weeks, fly home for a stretch, then repeat the process.

Milly Quark, head of the local real estate board, isn't surprised by trans-Canada commuting.

"It's pretty hard to put down roots and purchase (a home) with our prices right now," said Quark, who has been selling for two decades in the remote city, located 475 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.

"There are people having to take low-income jobs and they're staying at the homeless shelters in town. It's kind of sad."

She estimates prices will rise in the new year, as new housing subdivisions are delayed because of backlogs in sewer and other services.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is scrambling to keep up, aided by a $400-million boost from the province over the next three years, but is fighting a losing battle.

The waste-water treatment plant is being upgraded but won't be able to handle a population that is expected to hit 100,000 by 2012.

There's a shortage of doctors and nurses. Crime is well above the provincial average and the city is facing a growing problem of pushers peddling crack and crystal meth. The city is home to 15 escort services. Nightly, players jam the Boomtown Casino to play stud poker or blackjack, or sit on stools and feed $20 bills into flashing coin games labelled Bucks Ahoy, Mr.Cashman, Milk Money, Money Tree, or Money Mania.

Drive in this land of the driven and you're condemned to circle parking lots, crawl through stop lights or have a monster pickup ride your bumper and overwhelm your rearview mirror with the cursive Ford, the blockish GMC, or the ubiquitous Dodge ram's head.

Cruise the main drag of Franklin Avenue and you see urban planning gone haywire. Main street has angle parking but bumper-to-bumper congestion.

A block from the public library is the Oil Can tavern and Teasers strip club. Children at the K.A. Clark elementary school play beside four lanes of traffic across from the Liquor Depot and kitty corner to a car dealership. Multi-family units rise in the shadow of Superstore.

On Highway 63, the expressway that bisects the city, tankers, flatbed trucks, pickups, triple-axle cement trucks, double-trailers, cars and coaches with mud splashed up to their windows roar past the Centennial campground where, despite the fact it's the dead of winter, hundreds live in a state of permanent transience.

Motorhomes and trailers are wrapped in insulation against the cold. Satellite dishes are perched on tree stumps. The sign on the office reads `No vacancy.'

One man from Random Island, N.L., fingers brittle to the cold, hammers up a vestibule for his trailer.

He's been here for six years and has recently moved to the campground because he could no longer afford his rent. He doesn't blame the landlords in a market where the vacancy rate is less than half a percent.

"We're the crazy ones. Can't blame them if they can get the money," said the man, who declined to give his name.

Some who can't afford a roof are heading back to the work camps – housing put up around the region by the oilsands companies for their workers.

Drive a half hour out of Fort McMurray and you can see the camps built beside the Syncrude refinery, a sprawling warren of steel tubes and smokestacks, winking with lights. Anyone trying to count the smokestacks and plumes will lose track after 15. Smoke obscures the horizon. The sound is the persistent hum of machinery, like living a block from an expressway – the relentless hum of progress.

Off in the distance is the mining, where shovels peel back the muskeg skin of the earth to rake and shake the prized bitumen that, at ground temperatures, is as viscous as a hockey puck in an oilsands area estimated to be the size of Florida.

The workers live in rectangular dorms with tiny windows stacked one on top of the other. Icicles hang from the roof. The licence plates tell the story of mobility – B.C., Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

Alain Moore, public affairs advisor for Syncrude, says the company hired 750 workers last year and expects to hire that many next year, one third of whom will come from outside Fort McMurray, perhaps from Atlantic Canada.

"There's huge critical mass here," said Moore.

"There's a very strong Atlantic Canadian community in Fort McMurray. And so when we find ourselves going to communities like Stephenville, Nfld. or Port Hawkesbury in Cape Breton a lot of people we're talking to already know somebody here."

"That helps bridge the big leap when they come out west."

He said they take steps to ensure workers feel at home as much as possible. Almost one in 10 workers are aboriginals and Syncrude flies them back and forth from distant Fort Chipewyan to help them keep roots in that community.

The newcomers come from outside Canada as well – the Philippines, Britain, Venezuela, Fiji and elsewhere – purchasing homes across the Athabasca River in neighbourhoods like Timberlea and Thickwood Heights. These are bucolic sections of churches, schools, fields, playgrounds, winding roads and cul de sacs with names like Hillcrest Drive, Signal Road, Signal Cove and Hilltop Crescent. The medians and boulevards are lined with tiny trees held in place by sticks and wire – the promise of community.

"We have a ton of permanent people who have moved here and made Fort McMurray their home," said Annelies Geisler, who runs the Import Connection store, which has food flown in from all over the world to make foreign workers feel at home: dates, papayan nectar, quail eggs in water.

Some newcomers, however, aren't putting down roots but are pulling up stakes, including some Morrison has worked beside for years.

"After three big rent increases in three years, they said, 'That's it,"' he said.

"They're peeved off."

"They've had enough."


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