The History of MacDonald Island
Whether 80 years ago, 50, 20 or just yesterday, MacDonald Island has been a place for families and friends to gather.
Fort McMurray has a rich history of intrepid and tenacious pioneers and they include those families who once upon a time called MacDonald Island home. But who is the namesake of the acreage that continues to be a favourite gathering place?
John MacDonald, that’s who.
A read through historic documents from the Fort McMurray Historical Society has MacDonald listed as the first permanent settler in Fort McMurray, arriving in the area in 1872 to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company under Henry Moberly.
He would have been in town soon after the post was made in 1870, and worked primarily on the transportation aspects of the fur trade. The original HBC post was located at the end of Franklin Avenue beside the Athabasca River, and so the island was close to it, but still partially isolated because of the Snye.
MacDonald – who had been born in 1856 in Winnipeg – set up residence on what was then called McMurray Island. After the Fort McMurray area was surveyed in the late 1800s, he was granted the land by the Department of the Interior 15 years after originally settling in Fort McMurray. Subsequently renamed MacDonald Island, this place he now called home is where he raised his nine children as well as many grandchildren.
Though born after MacDonald’s death in 1942, Cecilia MacDonald knows there continues to be descendants of his living the area.
“I’m one of them,” she chuckles.
“My mother is a MacDonald. She married a Boucher. Her dad is William MacDonald. My grandfather William would be John’s illegitimate son.”
Since they were in the town before the first lumber mills were built, the MacDonalds used milled lumber from the partially destroyed scows to build their home, and then put tar on the roof with sand over it so that the tar would not melt away. Other inhabitants following the MacDonald family also used this easy and effective way of building a solid house on the island.
After the fur trading economy started to fall in 1890, the MacDonalds were among very few inhabitants in Fort McMurray until the town’s population began to increase around 1910. As a result, MacDonald used to take his furs by foot to Edmonton to sell twice a year. That was because HBC was inadequate and he needed to buy clothes and groceries for all of the children, including his grandchildren. The amount he bought varied upon the price he was able to obtain for his furs in Edmonton on his trips which would take up to a month and a half.
When other people began to move to Fort McMurray, the population on the island started to increase. Rafton Canning, the chief fire ranger; Joe Bird, a river pilot; and Emile Shot also lived on the island for a while. The Stroud/Furlough family purchased three-quarters of MacDonald Island in the 1920s and retained ownership of the land until 1930s. They used the land for their dairy farm until Fred Furlough sold their land to the O’Coffey family.
Once John died, the houses and buildings, which were still in good condition, were torn down by one of John’s sons who no longer had any use for them. No one has resided on the island since 1942, and eventually the land came to belong to the municipality.
And there lies the rub as there is a common belief the land was stolen from the MacDonald’s and Métis community.
When the O’Coffeys ran into some financial troubles in the 1950s thanks to the poor economy of the time and left town around 1955, the land reverted to the province for back taxes and was soon annexed by the town, which ended up taking the entire island.
Bill Loutitt, president of Métis Local 1935 and president of the Nistawoyou Friendship Centre, remembers the island in later years being a lively place in the summer as families planted gardens and did all their harvesting.
“There’d be strawberries then they’d go and do the raspberries and then blueberries. Every family would pick. There was an abundance of it in the area.”
There were a lot of families here then, many of whom have descendants still in the area.
“There was a real sense of community back then because of all the families. My parents talked about the Christmases and celebrations; big gatherings; similar to Thanksgiving where everyone was welcome. Much like we still do today with our Elders’ suppers and Christmas dinners at the friendship centre,” says Loutitt.
He also remembers the wildlife being plentiful. “Rabbits used to be rampant downtown,” he chuckles. “There were a lot of stories told about how their packsacks would be full of rabbits.
“There was always moose. Where Thickwood is now, we used to go hunting in there.”
Then there was the fishing – always for food, never for sport.
Bill MacDonald, a grandson of John’s, was born in 1900 on MacDonald Island. In an interview with a reporter from Fort McMurray Today, he recalled his grandfather and his time growing up in the island. In the account published in September 1980 under the title The MacDonald Saga Darlene Comfort wrote she first met Bill in 1975 while he lay dying in the local hospital. Through a series of chats, she learned that Bill had been raised by his grandfather until he was almost 14. His grandfather told him stories, fed him, cared for him and embarked twice a year on foot to Edmonton to trade furs for food and clothing for all the MacDonald families in Fort McMurray. She wrote that throughout their chats, Bill would stop and complain MacDonald Island was stolen from his family.
John’s wife, identified as Josephine Cook, who was half French, came from Manitoba. He recalled that in their home, four languages were spoken: Cree, Chipewyan, English and French.
“The island was for all us MacDonalds, as long as we wanted. The government took it from us,” wrote Comfort of Bill’s complaint.
Born and raised on the island, along with his brothers and sisters, Bill remembers “We used to have cattle, horses, chickens on the island and big patch opened up to cut hay.”
He remembers that back in those days, they didn’t sell any of the furs in McMurray.
“You couldn’t sell them to the Hudson’s Bay people here. They had no money and nothing to buy, but a few bags of shot, a few kegs of powder and two or three shorts,” he told Comfort.
“Granddad used to take the furs out to Edmonton. He’d leave in April and then he’d come back with groceries for all the MacDonald families. He bought all the clothing – in all sizes – for all the kids. It’d take him about a month and a half and he’d get drunk at the same time. He’d go back again in September and get the same amount so I knew he took an awful big bundle of fur and he must have gotten a good price because he’d bring back a good load of groceries and clothing.”
Speaking of the other families on the island, Bill recalled “There were about four families, but for many, many years we were the only ones that lived in McMurray.”
The homes on the island were log houses. Given they were built before the lumber mills came to town, the lumber came from the scows. They brought these scows up on the river and then they would use them because they were no longer seaworthy for use on the Athabasca.
“We used to take the tar to put on the roofs. The tar was liquid so you just took a pail and dipped into it with a pot. My granddad used to mix his with sand. He’d put the tar on top of the roof and then throw sane on it so the tar wouldn’t melt away.
“Granddad’s house was a real good house and if it hadn’t been torn down it’d be there now. It was maybe 30 foot by 30 foot and Douglas windows, storm windows, a good roof and a lean-to kitchen.
“In 1942 when granddad died, and he was the only one left on the island, my uncle tore down the buildings on the island. There’s been nobody there since.”
Soon after, MacDonald Island was joined to the Fort McMurray floodplain mainland during 1965-66 for flood protection purposes, to reduce the chance that the island and downtown would be affected by the periodic flooding which had previously destroyed many buildings. With the flooding regulated, the town could then look for ways to use the vacant island.
The construction of the dike, paid for by the town, was one of the requirements needed to achieve new town status which improved the town’s financial strength.
It was during these years the municipality began to look at the development of MacDonald Island.
By 1966, Charles (Chuck) Knight began campaigning for a year-round recreational facility. The change to new town status greater financial independence and borrowing power, which meant that for the first time Fort McMurray was able to afford to undertake major infrastructure projects such as a much needed recreation centre. It had been long held that there were adequate facilities in Fort McMurray because of the rivers and lakes surrounding it. But the long cold winters and lack of ‘safe’ hiking trails away from wildlife made it difficult for citizens to get enough exercise outdoors causing “cabin fever” in the rapidly increasing population.
At a town council meeting in 1971, the idea of a recreation centre was being discussed, Knight a previously unknown citizen, stood up and began to make a case for MacDonald Island to be built. Knight’s charismatic speeches about the need for better year round sports and recreation facilities essentially made his political career, earning him a place on town council and then ultimately the role as the mayor in 1973. He held the office until 1979, and again from 1983 to 1989. Under Knight’s direction, Fort McMurray Town Council appointed a steering committee to oversee the construction of the MacDonald Island Recreation Complex in 1975. Community members Dave McNeilly, Danny Law, Woody Milroy and Keith MacLeod joined Knight on that committee. Volunteer groups completed construction of the Miskanaw Golf & Country Club on the Island in 1976.
The MacDonald Island Recreation Complex opened in 1977. In addition to a golf course, it boasted three baseball fields, a football and soccer field, four tennis courts, cross-country ski trails, a cricket pitch, archery, as well as the indoor facility, which included ice rinks and a 12-sheet curling rink.
In 1987, the golf course was lengthened to a par 72.
On behalf of its citizens and its council, the City of Fort McMurray then Mayor Guy Boutilier renamed the complex the C.A. Knight Recreation Centre in 1993. The complex continued to be an important meeting place in the community. This was reflected in 1996 by visit from then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien who met with the presidents of 18 of Canada’s largest oil companies at MacDonald Island to sign a historic Declaration of Opportunity outlining further oil sands development in the region. This agreement allowed for new oil sands projects to begin, and further increased the population and recreation requirements of the municipality.
And as the area’s population grew, the new amalgamated Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo approved the redevelopment of MacDonald Island Park and the C.A. Knight Recreation Centre. As a result, the centre was closed for upgrades and repairs from 2006 until 2008. This first expansion was the target of much derision given the cost of the project ballooned to $170- million, more than seven times the original projected cost.
In a May 2008 Fort McMurray Today story, it was reported that while council members said the cost overruns were a painful lesson, many continued to stand by the merits of the project, noting the need for a full-size aquatic centre and other recreational facilities in Fort McMurray.
“The project is the right scope for Wood Buffalo...,” said Mayor Melissa Blake during the meeting. “I don’t regret a single thing that was put into this project.”
Council’s decision after midnight May 6 came after two third-party auditors released reports on the project, noting a lack of adequate supervision and an ever-changing scope to the project contributed to the cost overruns, said the article.
The newly expanded and renamed Suncor Community Leisure Centre at MacDonald Island Park opened in 2009. The centre was highlighted by two NHL-sized arenas, an eight-sheet curling rink, an indoor playground, two indoor field houses, an indoor running track, a fitness centre, squash and racquetball courts, meeting and banquet facilities, among other world-class amenities.
The Syncrude Aquatic Centre at the centre was completed and opened in 2010 opened, making MacDonald Island Park Canada’s largest community recreational centre. The aquatic centre houses an Olympic-sized pool, a splash park, and two water slides.
Mayor Melissa Blake and MacDonald Island Park hosted an official ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2011 during the Mi Town, Mi Community Celebration. During the ceremony, the street leading to MacDonald Island was renamed C.A. Knight Way and Knight was honoured inside of the complex with a memorial waterfall in the lobby of the Suncor Community Leisure Centre.
Two years later, construction work started on a new $127-million expansion to the recreation centre.
The outdoor expansion – named Shell Place after a $2.5-million donation –includes an outdoor performance stadium, community pavilion, shared space and conference centre, skywalk to the existing Suncor Community Leisure Centre, interpretive trails, badminton centre, turf field house, restaurant and expansion of the fitness, wellness and golf spaces.
The 2,300-seat baseball/softball tournament centre will have the capacity to hold 5,500 spectators with the accompanying ‘Berm’ and ‘Party Zone’ areas.
The entire project includes about 165,000 square feet of buildings plus about 18 acres of site development. Offering so much to do for so many, let the gathering continue.
Yukon sleighs in front of MacDonald Island, circa 1915. Photo courtesy of the Fort McMurray Historical Society.
John MacDonald. Photo courtesy of A.T. Penhorwood, FMHS.
An aerial view of the northern end of Fort McMurray around 1930. Photo courtesy of Eugene Burton Collection, FMHS.
The offical turnover of keys - Fort McMurray Today, 1978