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Fort McMurray is My Heaven

Fort McMurray is a safe haven and a new home for refugees from around the world. People fleeing from desperate situations come here to find a fresh start and a secure new life. Most of us think of refugees as people fleeing from war torn or impoverished countries but a refugee can be anyone escaping bad circumstances. In that light Fort McMurray is a community of refugees. Most people here have come from somewhere else in order to improve their lives as in the case of Shirley, originally from Newfoundland.

A Life Changing Decision

It was in December 2006 that Shirley made a life changing decision. “My sons would not come home for Christmas that year and I knew that it was because of my husband. He drank too much and they did not want to be around him. Then I thought: why am I staying here? I put up with so much verbal abuse. If someone tells you over and over again that you are stupid you begin to believe it.”

Courageously at the age of 60 Shirley decided to change her life for the better, bravely booking a flight to Fort McMurray. “The night before I left my husband said, ‘You have no job there’,” and I replied, “No but I have a ticket and I am leaving tomorrow.”

On March 17th, 2007 Shirley arrived in Fort McMurray. After nearly 40 years of marriage she was on her own. “I was 60-years-old, had no job, knew nobody, and had no place to stay, but I had to come.”

A New Start

Upon arriving Shirley rented a tiny room in a shared apartment and quickly found employment as a cleaner. “The mops were very heavy and it was tough on me. I was not young anymore but that’s how it was,” she says with a laugh. “At least I had a job so I stayed there for a while.”

One day somebody said to Shirley that Garda was looking for security guards. “Me being a security guard? Oh my, I never thought of myself in a job like that!”

For two years Shirley worked as a guard in a camp. Her mother was terrified of her daughter living there. “She thought I would live in a tent and that it would be the roughest place on Earth, but when she came up to visit me her fears were erased. The camp was heaven for me,” Shirley says. “My own room, nice coworkers, good food and a job I liked.”

She recalls her first night on the job: “My manager told me, ‘Okay Shirley, now it’s time for your first assignment.’ There was a fight in the camp bar and I had to break it up. I felt uneasy about it. I am a person who does not like confrontation.”

Facing her fears Shirley quickly entered the bar where two beefy men were duking it out! Not knowing what to do Shirley calmly told the two raging bulls to stop, and to her surprise they listened. “Maybe it’s because they’re away from their wives that they forget their manners, so it takes a woman to put them into their place.”

After two years on the job Shirley’s manager quit and Shirley was promoted to her position. “I love my job and the people I work with!”

The Past Calls Back

Shirley had built a new life for herself in Fort McMurray, but within that time her husband in Newfoundland became ill and had to be moved to a live-in care facility. “We sold the house but it wasn’t enough to pay off the mortgage so I still had to make payments. I had no contact with my husband for two years but one day I received a call from a nurse. She said that she knew my husband and I were no longer together but he was gravely ill and was asking for me. I immediately hung up the phone and did not know what to do. Then two days later, it was on a Thursday, the phone rang again. This time it was a doctor. He told me that my husband would not make it through the weekend. I hung up the phone and thought about it. He was an only child. There was nobody there for him. No, I could not let him go like that. I could not do that.”

Without a second thought Shirley bought a plane ticket back to the man she had fled. “I remember that I was standing at his bedside and at first he did not recognize me.” Shirley pauses and her eyes wander for a moment as if wanting to find something that is no longer there then they begin to burst with tears as she continues her story. “I told him, ‘I thank you for the good times and I forgive you for the bad times. You can let go now and be at peace.’ He started crying. Tears rolled down his face. That night he died.”

Fort McMurray is Heaven

“But life goes on,” she says wiping away tears. “I started going to the Salvation Army Church.” Shirley’s face lights up like the sun finding its way through thick clouds. “And every time I went, there would be this guy sitting at the other side of the church. For three years I saw him sitting there. I would go to events in the community and he would be there but our paths never crossed.”

Shirley’s friends began to notice the two lonely planets orbiting around each other and intervened even though Shirley wanted nothing to do with men. But Cupid always finds a way and what started as two friends enjoying tea and conversation blossomed into a passionate love. “Fort McMurray is not only my heaven but also my city of love,” she says with a smile. “We just got married on Valentine’s Day.”

Like many people here Shirley has found a second chance. Now 68, she proves that you are never too old to change your life for the better. Starting as a refugee, Shirley has worked her way up to the life she has always wanted. With a new love, a great career, Shirley happily calls Fort McMurray not only her home but her heaven.

Photos: Life is fun: Shirley on a road trip with her sister and Shirley and Eric at their wedding in February this year.


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