A Tale of Two Cities: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Fort McMurray
To the Tar Sands
Fort Muck: place of sex, drugs, violence, homelessness, massive trucks, polluted air and contaminated water. This is what we were told we would find at the end of deadly Highway 63, or in our case Secondary Highway 881. The city of 70 000 has been growing at a most alarming rate. In response, city council has gone so far as to call for a moratorium on new developments. The municipality simply can not keep up with endless stream of new arrivals and the associated demand for services.
Back in Fort Saskatchewan, or Upgrader Alley, as it commonly called, I asked our contact Lyn Gorman about the rumoured culture of sex and drugs up in Fort Muck. Before moving to Fort Saskatchewan with her husband three years ago, Lyn spent twenty-seven years working as the Executive Director of the Wood Buffalo HIV & AIDS Society. Her husband worked for Suncor and now works as a rep for the CEP Union there. Lyn currently works as the Prairies Coordinator for the Council of Canadians. Needless to say, Lyn is well acquainted with the going-ons of Fort McMurray.
“The drug of choice changed overnight, from pot to coke, and it changed with good reason”, starts Lyn.
She tells me how cocaine leaves the system within 24 hours, whereas pot remains for weeks. When companies began instituting mandatory drug tests, the dealers starting pushing coke instead of marijuana. I ask Lyn for her take on the high levels of drug use in the relatively small community:
“They have the cash. Blue collar, white collar, ordinary people, it’s everyone really. There are parties where you go upstairs to do heavy drugs and downstairs to drink.”
The sex trade in Fort McMurray has kept pace with the booming oil industry, and goes hand in hand with the increase in hard drug use. Escort services are the norm as is evident by the expanse of advertisement pages in the phone book, “from two to twelve in only a matter of years”, claims Lyn. “Strolls” are less common, but can still be found. There is concern that the high risk sexual behavior is fueling an epidemic of disease, notably Syphillis and HIV. Sexual health statistics for Fort McMurray are near average, but according to Lyn, most people seek treatment in Edmonton or Calgary, and so it is impossible to accurately track transmission.
“I’ve had boys barely out of high school come into my office freaked out over their sexual identities after getting drunk and having gay sex for the first time, and often unprotected. It’s just plain sad to see”.
“The women have an easier time getting out of the sex trade, as they often get pregnant, or are simply deemed less attractive as they age. The men have a harder time leaving, and they often make less money at it, since unlike the women, the men do not set the price upfront, it’s based on outcome, if you will”.
“Does everyone do it [engage in high risk sexual behaviour and drug use]? No, but the fact is we have a Syphillis outbreak in this province, and these workers go back to where they are from and it spreads. There are health centres at the work sights, but people don’t go to them for fear that it’ll get back to their employers. It’s an unacceptable situation, but the municipality has bigger things to think about and so the problem is not dealt with effectively”.
Surely, there is some truth to the horror stories floating around, but as we discovered during our visit to the booming oil town, there are two sides to every coin.
During our stay in Fort McMurray, we stayed with the lovely Morgan, her husband Bruce, and their two young boys, Marshall and Kane. Morgan recently left her job as a tour guide at the Syncrude facility to stay at home with the kids. Bruce operates heavy machinery at the same Syncrude facility. The boys like to watch Shrek and wield light sabres.
While genuinely concerned for the future of their children and the environmental impacts of the industry they work for, both Morgan and Bruce demonstrate a great deal of pride and passion for their community and its backbone – the oil sands industry.
“It’s human nature to focus on the negative. It makes for a better story. I just wish people would realize that there is an actual community here in Fort McMurray with good things happening. People come here and they are surprised to see that we have a hospital and a library and a YMCA. It’s like all they expect are a few run down shacks, a bar and general store”, says Morgan.
“You can find sex and drugs in every community, if you look for it. I don’t worry about that so much. My main struggle is to teach my kids the value of a dollar. There is just so much money here. When the tooth fairy is giving out ten dollars for a tooth, how do you explain to your child that his tooth is worth only a buck?”
“Sure we have our problems, but they are no worse than anywhere else. Here in McMurray, we have what’s called the shadow population – people living here for six to twelve months stints, or commuting from away. They don’t pay property taxes, yet they use all the services, the roads, the hospitals, the water, the swimming pools, etc. They aren’t invested in the community, they don’t respect themselves and they don’t respect their surroundings. They give the place a bad name. Meanwhile, there are people like us who feel a real sense of pride in the community here. We are invested and this is our home, but no one asks us what it’s like here”.
Morgan admits to the the existence of a drug problem in town, but chooses to keep it in perspective.
“If you are fresh out of high school and away from home for the first time, or if you just moved to town and chose to finance everything right away, or if you are doing shift work and commuting from other parts of the province, separated from your family, then yes, you are bound to get stressed out like anyone else, and you might just look to escape now and then”.
“But if you work for the oil companies, which is pretty much everyone around here, then you face mandatory drug testing. Coke leaves your system in twenty-four hours. You can party hard on Friday and by the time your back to work on Monday, you’re fine. It’s unfortunate, but it makes sense when you think about it”.
Lyn and Morgan’s account of Fort McMurray are so radically different, that it’s hard to believe that they are talking about the same place.
The Fort McMurray experience varies, as should be expected. To each his own, right? What can not be denied is the gross scar being made upon the land, a mere thirty kilometres up the road, on Highway 63. The scene is unearthly. A choking stench fills the air. Water levels in the Athabasca River are lower than they’ve ever been. Residents no longer trust the water, nor the fish that swim in it. Huge plumes of smoke jet out from the towering stacks. Air cannons let out loud blasts to scare the birds and prevent them from landing in the highly toxic tailing ponds that stretch well into the distance.
Never have I felt so out of place on a bike, as I did on that cold, wet and windy Sunday, when Dylan and I biked back from Fort MacKay in the midst of rush hour. Never had the world seemed so bleak and scary.
I now know more about the Tar Sands than I will ever really need to. I can tell you all about SAGD, about royalty regimes, or about the process for settling particles from the tailing ponds, but in the end, an overemphasis on details does nothing but detract from the hard fact that we live in a time of peak oil and climate crisis. As my friend and fellow cyclist Aftab put it, “oil as a product is invalid”. It is imperative that we address our collective addiction to oil and begin the transition to something better. This is the ugly truth.