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John Wilson: Community Champion

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I’d been talking to John for about 15 minutes for this article, discussing a bit about his history, the reason he came to Fort McMurray nearly 40 years ago, his family. A lot of this discourse inevitably centred round his donated work and time. There may be someone in the community who has spent more time giving freely of his abilities as a volunteer in Fort McMurray, but I doubt it. Even now, at an age when most people are either retired or contemplating such, John has a schedule that would wear out people who could spot him half his life.

Given this commitment I was ready to ask the obvious question, why?

I was, I admit, expecting the platitudes I’ve heard so many times before: giving back to the community, the ability to leverage his position to do some good, care for his people; maybe even my favourite, something with the word ‘stakeholders’; blah, blah, blah.

And then he surprised me. “Plant the tree,” he said. “It’s something Leslie always says.”

It’s a measure of the man (as I found out) that he would credit a philosophy that has guided so much of his life to his wife. Over the course of our conversation several things became obvious. John Wilson believes in spreading the credit around, he believes in people, and he believes in this community.

What he doesn’t believe in are sound bites or platitudes. He’s a no-bullshit man who doesn’t even need to use words like bullshit. Everything he says, every word he speaks, is measured for its worth, yet the brevity does not take away from the value of his thoughts or his clarity of purpose. You could imagine him herding a collection of misguided steers towards the railroad. The taciturn cowboy, quiet yet driven. You know that while he’s in the saddle they’ll get through to Dodge and the bandits will end up far back down the trail as hungry, angry rustlers. John Wilson is the archetypal western hero.

Too fanciful for you? Read on. Here’s a partial list of what he’s been up to in the community. It is by no means exhaustive, the editor only wanted a 1,400 word article and a long string of achievements, while impressive, does not make for exciting reading.

He either is, or has been, the Chair of the Western Canada Summer Games, the Syncrude Sport & Wellness Centre campaign, Vista Ridge, the Keyano College Board of Governors, the Fort McMurray Regional Business Development Centre, the Fort McMurray Aggregate Users group, the Fort McMurray Construction Association, The Airport Business Advisory Committee and the Arctic Winter Games. He has also sat on boards as diverse as local hockey team the McMurray Oil Barons, the non-profit ‘Careers: the Next Generation’, and the Alberta Chamber of Resources. He knows how to be in the right place at the right time, to be most effective. Just like that guy on the horse, steering things along.


Three words. A simple concept that encompasses much of the way John lives. It embraces the ideas of starting small, of growing, of having ambition. A tree begins as a seed, like an idea, and it grows into a sapling, vibrant but still fragile. But if it is nurtured it becomes a bold living canopy, branching out in new directions to grow and thrive and to give warmth and shelter.

So how did John grow into the person he is? He was raised in Dryden, Northern Ontario, youngest child and only boy of four, and spent as much of his life outdoors as possible. Given that the weather there is not that different from ours, winter sports were an important part of his life and are still a passion for him today. Along the way he has kept up with his skiing, ran the Boston Marathon and also taken part in water skiing, squash and triathlons. None of those sports are for the faint of heart or weak of limb and they are perhaps more useful an indicator of his drive and zest for life than any victory in the boardroom he may ever have had.

Indeed I imagine that anyone competing against John would know they were in for a contest. That doesn’t mean he is a win at all costs kind of person. Far from it. But in addition to “Plant the tree” I sense there is another saying that has affected the way he has lived. If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

Anyway it was the mid-seventies and Ontario was going through another economic downturn. John’s dad, Howard, ran a paving company and for the moment they had nothing to pave. Until a friend in Fort McMurray suggested they come up for the summer.

They did, driving all the equipment across the prairies and not really knowing what they were getting themselves into.

There’s no surprise that they did well, this is not that kind of story. The paving season dovetailed fortuitously with John’s summer vacations, first from the University of Manitoba, later from Lakehead U. in Thunder Bay. He was already spending about a third of every year in Fort McMurray so it was an easy decision at graduation to move to where the work was. He’s been here ever since.

The company that he and his Father built, H. Wilson Industries Ltd, has been a business staple in town now for over 35 years. The red trucks with the red on white lettering seem at times to have multiplied with the community, and are as ever-present as the forests that surround us.

In 1976 the population of YMM was less than 16,000. Today, depending on which numbers you believe, it is anything from 80,000-120,000, and those of us who live here know that even the bigger number is likely an underestimation (the water usage indicates it could be as high as 160,000 with a lot more people hot-bedding, crammed into rooms, apartments, trailers).

That’s a tenfold increase, and H. Wilson Industries grew along with that, branching out from paving into heavy equipment work, hauling and excavation. The mechanical descendants of those four trucks they drove across half of Canada nearly forty years now have over 80 earth-moving siblings, and the only fleet bigger in town is the bus company.

I said at the beginning that I expected, when John and I met, to hear the odd cliché about teamwork, pulling together, working hand-in-hand. I would even have forgiven anything as egregious as ‘the view from a thousand feet’, ‘think outside the box’, maybe even a bit of ‘best practices’. After all he’s seen his fair share of boardrooms in his time. You could almost excuse him for succumbing. But as I have said, he didn’t, and I thought about the difference between John Wilson and all the hundreds of other leaders I have met.

Cliché is often the hideout for intellectual and business torpidity, people who have run out of things to say and are still afforded the time to say it. John doesn’t have that time. He always has something else to do; somewhere else he has to be. Yet when he is with you, when you are in the moment of that conversation with him, his dedication and his care is ferocious.

When he sold his company nearly five years ago he insisted on staying on for three of them as a consultant to the new owners. Part of it was because he wasn’t just selling a company, he was selling a brand. The brand that was right above the front door in the name; Wilson Industries. John remained so the customers would see the continuity and same level of service, and he also stayed to care for the staff.

Often in a takeover the workforce become unsettled and either move on or are moved out. That wasn’t part of the deal with H. Wilson Industries, and John stayed, like the Captain of the Enterprise, to make it so.

And then when he was done and could walk away he went out and bought two more companies and volunteered on two more boards. Dedication, and maybe there is a little bit of an inability to slow down. When life is lived at 200 mph, the passenger seat of a truck seems a bit bland.

If that is so, if John isn’t slowing down, then that is good for the community. Every town needs people to make things happen. Fort McMurray has some but there’s never enough. I’m glad that John thinks retirement is a four letter word, I’m happy that, outside the ski season, he still spends a lot of time here and I am grateful for all he has done and all he continues to do.

And if you have the time John, and can work one more minor miracle, I just one little, teeny,tiny, personal request.

Can you get us 20 more restaurants and a Costco?

Photos by Greg Halinda Photography


Kevin has been writing for YMM since the first issue. Many of his articles have been pseudonymous, hidden behind the tags Keyano writer or YMM staff. Kevin has been a columnist for many years, working for some of the leading newspapers of the world, including the New York Times and the Devon Dispatch.