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Friendly Hospitality, Environmental Beauty - What YMM Means, and Why It Matters

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I used to be a public opinion researcher. And at one industry conference I met someone whose sole polling expertise was measuring cities – specifically the gap between how favourably residents felt about their city and how favourably outsiders felt about that city. Whenever traveling, I often think about this insider/outsider comparison. After my recent visit to Fort McMurray, I’m embarrassed to admit how greatly Fort McMurray exceeded my expectations; my surprise reflects both on my ignorance as well as the high quality of the city and its people.


The summer time setting

Fort McMurray’s setting was indescribable. Nestled within some of the country’s most beautiful surroundings, every area of the city is a short distance from incredible green space, including some of the best hiking trails and riverside bluffs I have seen. Nationally there is much talk about the devastation that the oil sands cause near and farther north of the city, but there is little discussion about the lesser-impacted habitats immediately surrounding it. Fort McMurray’s setting is more conducive to a healthy, outdoor lifestyle than I imagined.


The people

Fort McMurray residents are exceptionally welcoming and kind. The hospitality and generosity they showed – at restaurants, events, and even on the street – was consistent with all the traditional friendliness of the prairies in the boreal forest. There are many rumours about the hard-partying lifestyles in Fort McMurray, but those stories were quickly overshadowed by first-hand interactions with kind families, elders, and front-line service staff around town.


Problems remain, but so do solutions

This isn’t to say that Fort Mac doesn’t have any problems. There are many social problems. Fort McMurray has a higher than average rate of sexual assault. There is also high-risk drug and alcohol abuse. And thanks to the recent drop in oil prices and subsequent economic stagnation, there is growing hunger and poverty in the city. But a city that is more than a geographic collection of people, that is a true community, has the capacity to tackle such problems. And judging from the standing-room-only city council meeting that I attended while there, or the bustling Western Canada Summer Games office, there is enough community engagement to tackle these tough problems.


The politics of the oil sands

The hardest part about loving Fort McMurray is its symbolism to the environmental movement. This conflict between the economic need and environmental harm of the oil sands is something I’ve long grappled with.

When I was eight years old, I wrote a letter to the President of Brazil asking him to stop allowing for the destruction of the rainforests. Years of environmental jobs and volunteer roles later, and I am no less concerned about climate change. And finally it’s beginning to feel like the world is catching up – Obama announced the US’ first ever limit on greenhouse gas production, environmental investing is catching on, and Canadians are making more everyday eco purchases.

But all the environmentalism won’t negate the fact that Canada is a resource-based economy, heavily reliant on the oil sands. Recent moves by the Bank of Canada are proof that oil sands woes drive monetary policy, because a weak barrel means a weak economy.

I used to look at Fort McMurray as a symbol of our country’s over reliance on the oil sands, as a failing of market support and government planning for energy diversification. But that’s not fair.

When the Great Depression hit, individual companies marketed against the individual – focusing on all the products that workers should buy to help themselves getting a job, like better razors or suits or perfume. In fact, the Depression was the result of macro-economic forces and thoughtless public policy. No individual deserved to take responsibility or blame for the aggregate economic system, let alone its failures. The same principle holds true for the workers in the oil sands versus the industry itself.

Fort Mac may be intimately tied to the oil sands, but it is not the oil sands. Nor is the city’s existence a broad endorsement of it. There exists everything from broad approval to disapproval for their extraction industry. There is a complex richness in the city, and it’s okay to have a complex richness in your feelings about it. Loving Fort McMurray does not mean I love the oil sands, but it does mean respecting and appreciating the working face of it.


Thank you!

When you travel enough in Canada – for work, school or family – you start running out of new cities to visit, new Canadian places to love. Visiting a new city livens you to the size and diversity of our country. Fort McMurray renewed my sense of admiration for our country. The city represents all of our country’s good and bad, not to mention our full spectrum of weather. And in this complexity and depth, there is great beauty. After all, winter is what makes summer sweetest, especially in Fort McMurray. 

Denise’s favourite things to do in McMurray:

MacDonald Island Park

“It’s a really good time for all ages. Everybody loves waterslides!”


Saif Restaurant (Morrison Centre)

“They serve the best Somali food I’ve had in all of Canada. I’m jealous of everybody who lives here and gets to eat it all the time.”


Birchwood Trails (Con Creek Valley)

Just as nice as anything I’ve hiked in BC, and with so many wild raspberries. It was a treat.”


Born in Lethbridge, Denise Brunsdon has lived and worked in Vancouver, Victoria, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and London, but now resides in Calgary. Denise has a BA in economics from McGill University, and a JD/MBA from Western University. You can connect with her @brunsdon and She is grateful to her former colleagues and long-time friends Krista Balsom and Jay Telegdi for inviting her to visit Fort McMurray.