Sex, Drugs and Alcohol Stalk the Streets of Fort McMurray
Calgary Herald October 22, 2005
Deborah Tetley; With files by Paul Haavardsrud
It's just after 7 p.m. on payday Thursday and downtown Fort McMurray is a gong show.
Inside the storied Diggers bar, dozens of oilsands workers are poised like bingo dobbers over beers, waiting for their name to be bellowed over the PA system so they can cash their paycheques.
At a going rate of $2 on every hundred, it's the best deal in town, outside of $3.50 highballs.
Workers cheer when their names are called, like they've won the lottery.
Some say they have.
Times are good in this northern Alberta oil-rich boom town, which means drugs and sex are plentiful near the 7-Eleven at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Main Street.
The corner doubles as a drug den. Inside one business, druggies smoke meth in the washroom. A frustrated clerk hangs the Out of Order sign on the door - -- again. Her $11 hourly wage isn't worth the hassle, she says.
The entrance to the nearby Mr. Liquor store is littered with loiterers, as is the parking lot. Some are selling, others buying.
"What d'ya want? Coke? I can get you crack, coke, whatever you want," slurs a fortysomething man who staggers over from the Oil Can Tavern. "I can take you to a crack house the cops don't know about, break in, we can smoke it there.
"Meth, how about meth?"
Near the curb, a woman wearing flip flops and a pony tail is asked for sex, twice, by the same man in a Jeep. RCMP insist prostitution is practically unheard of in Fort
The phone book features 10 pages of escorts, including low-cost lovers promising cut-rate service within 20 minutes.
When beat police circle the block, drug dealers -- mostly twentysomethings - -- scatter like the infamous oilsands beetles.
In the Oil Can parking lot, an overweight man with sunken eyes lounges under a quilt in his truck, eating jerky, drinking pop out of a glass bottle and chain-smoking.
He's not ashamed to admit that each night, he sits and watches the show.
"It's better than TV," he says.
By 11 p.m., the arrests start, as lusty drunks spill out of the bars and strip club looking to fight. Druggies scour the block for a fix.
A man in a pickup truck demanding sex screams to a crying woman he's through "negotiating." Thwack, someone is slapped.
Kitty corner to 7-Eleven, kids too young to legally drink and too old to hang at the mall smoke cigarettes and pot on the provincial government building's steps.
Locals say not much is awry this Thursday night at Fort McMurray's Franklin and Main.
"The Grim Reaper lurks on every corner of this town," says Darrell Murphy, a tall, lanky redhead recently arrived from Newfoundland, who says he's struggling to stay clean, the way he lived back home.
But with a wad of cash in his jeans from his Syncrude job and his roots out of reach, he's finding it tough.
"There's a lure around every corner, a vice there to grab you," says Murphy. "Whether it's gambling, coke, meth, crack, weed, hookers or drink, there's always something there that's going to try and take you away from your ethics, morals and money."
While Fort McMurray's debauchery is most evident within a one-block radius in the downtown core, drawing conclusions is akin to observing nightly activities outside Calgary's Cecil Hotel and painting a picture of crime in that city.
However, lawlessness -- particularly drug use -- is evident in all corners of this city of 60,000. An additional 10,000 people -- mostly males -- live at the oilpatch work camps.
Big money makes for big problems in a city where the average age is 31 and the average income is $91,000.
"Fort McMurray has a lot of money, transients and a young population, making for an interesting dynamic," says RCMP Cpl. Ann Brinnen.
"There are stresses that go along with that. For some people, it's physical assault. For some people, it's drugs."
Cocaine abuse is one of the area's fastest-growing crimes, she says.
Of the 354 drug-related incidents in Fort McMurray last year, 100 of those involved the trafficking or possession of cocaine, according to the latest RCMP data. Four years ago, there were only two such incidents.
In a similarly sized city, such as Lethbridge, the numbers are about half that amount.
"This town is awash in cocaine," says longtime Fort McMurrayite Darrell Payne, an autobody shop owner who has watched as friends struggled with drug addictions.
"People have more money than they know what to do with."
Fort McMurray ranks number one in the province for drug abuse, according to the most recent data from the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission.
The numbers are staggering at a rate of 16.82 per 1,000 people aged 15 and older using illicit drugs. Lethbridge, by comparison, has a rate of 2.64 per cent, while Calgary sits at 2.41 per cent.
Drugs such as ecstasy and crack have also surfaced in the northern city, although none is as rampant as cocaine.
Unlike other cities, what you won't hear much about is grow-ops or meth labs. The vacancy rate is so low, there simply are no houses available for production. Police say meth and pot are the poor drug user's vices.
"We're not seeing an increase in crystal meth so much because, like pot, meth is a cheap drug," says Brinnen.
"Cocaine is an expensive one and because we have a high level of income, they can afford to do a more expensive drug."One week in mid-September proved that to be true when Mounties recorded three significant busts, including the largest cocaine haul in the city's history, worth $250,000.
Two people face charges after police found 2.5 kilograms of coke, 300 ecstasy pills worth about $6,000, a loaded semi-automatic handgun and $30,000 cash.
But it was the Hells Angels clothing found in the residence that stunned police, who only weeks earlier told the Herald the motorcycle club had few ties to the city.
"We do have people that gather together for criminal purposes but, as far as we know, they're not setting up shop here -- not in an organized crime fashion," Brinnen says. "We don't have organized gangs."
Following September's record bust, however, Brinnen says organized crime had been "disrupted."
Mayor Melissa Blake is straightforward about the presence of gangs, saying a well-known motorcycle gang owns a condemned hotel and adjacent strip club at the south end of town.
A 2004 Criminal Intelligence Service Alberta report noted an influx of organized crime groups linked to the drug trade in the region.
"With a young, vibrant citizen base and net incomes almost double the national average, Fort McMurray represents a tremendous market for illegal substances," the report reads.
"The influence of an
Edmonton-based criminal Asian group is evident . . . as well as that of criminally active aboriginal males and outlaw motorcycle gang members."
The report also highlights two self-identified aboriginal criminal groups in the region: the Indian Posse -- with established drug networks -- and Redd Alert, said to have grown in "numbers and brutality."
RCMP blame, in part, the transient population for the steady increase in crime, saying contract workers don't have "emotional" ties to the community.
But local leaders say the situation is more complex than that.
Both the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce president and an aboriginal leader are calling for an increased police presence to tackle the "exponential" jump in crime.
"We phone the police daily," says the chamber's Mike Allen, who until recently owned a music store near the 7-Eleven. "I've been offered sexual favours at a quarter to eight in the morning, getting out of my car."
Jim Boucher, chief of the Fort MacKay First Nations, agrees with the need for a stepped-up police presence.
"The RCMP are visible, sometimes, but I think they need to be more visible," he says. "They . . . need an ability to respond to complaints in a much more timely manner."
RCMP say, while the force could use more officers, they aren't understaffed - -- despite handling nearly 30,000 calls a year.
In September another two officers were added to Fort McMurray's ranks, bringing the number of officers to 98.
Newcomer Murphy, and others like him, count on law enforcement, in part, to protect them from the vices on Fort McMurray's streets.
"I'm going to try to be different than a lot of those other guys out here," he says.
"I'm a good guy, still a little green. I'd like to come out here and find myself a woman I can take home as my wife.
"But first I gotta beat the Grim Reaper who's been following me around this town for two weeks already."