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The Great YMM Influencers of 2013

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Illustrations by Robert Woodbury

Fort McMurray is a dynamic community, no one doubts that. It is increasingly important on a provincial, country and global scale due to the oil sands industry and thus has been given a great deal of influence. I set about creating a list of the important influencing issues that affect our region and even tougher, we have created a list of the people we believe have been great influencers in our region in the last year. With hundreds of people who could qualify for this list, this was a monumental task, and one that can be completely subjective. Do we claim to have it perfect? No. But what we have done is compiled a list of 20 people (with a few extras bubbling on the surface) that we believe deserve recognition for their efforts in building, shaping and working towards an even greater, more prosperous and exciting region for us all to live in.

The five most influencing issues…

Fort McMurray is not just about the people. Sometimes there are other influencers, things that profoundly affect our hometown and the way we interact, and react, to each other. The floods of 2013 demonstrated a community spirit that shows we are more than growling snarly people stuck in traffic, and often the best of us is seen in our reactions to forces beyond our control. We help dig out neighbours, present a united front against ignorant talking heads from Hollywood, cry at every tragedy on Highway 63. And like everyone else, we still haven’t a clue when it comes to the price of gas when we fill up, except it’s always too much. Here then, are the other influencers on our fair city…

1. Highway 63/881

For many years, the crime that the Alberta Government perpetuated on Fort McMurray was their seeming indifference to how many people died on the single lane roads that ran into our town. It took a horrifying accident in 2012 for them to realize finally how much of the Albertan economy and corresponding Alberta coffers are tied up in the supply chain of people and goods that travel up and down these routes. We are still just one chemical spill away from a disaster, and we need ring roads yesterday, not in fifteen years time. The other fights for safer roads are in our near future, and they will be loud and tough ones as we have started to learn how to make the Premier listen; but at least 63 is being twinned, for now.

2. Oil Prices

In our part of the world, the economy is defined by price of oil. Although the larger companies try to marginalize the fluctuations in the market through a combination of canny trading and self-funding of development, we are still a one horse economy in this town. As long as the horse is firmly tethered to the rail outside the McMurray saloon, everything is fine and dandy. But if the horse breaks free and runs off we work hard trying to keep up with its flightiness. And we don’t even want to talk about what would happen if the horse died.

3. Land Release

The Provincial Government, which controls all the land that surrounds us, has graciously decided to sell some of it back to us in the UDSR agreement recently announced. Forget about how devious that sounds and look at it from this point of view. Now that the land is available it will allow the town to develop to its full potential. If it is successfully controlled so the property market doesn’t tank, and if it is used as a resource to encourage development as it is supposed to, then we are in for some exciting times. Just remember what the Trump is alleged to have said when he made and lost a billion or two in the nineties. “I develop property because Russian roulette wasn’t exciting enough.”

4. Mother Nature

We have an abundance of weather in Fort McMurray. In any given year we can go from +35°C to -35°, through fog, hail, sleet, rain, wind, floods, ice break-ups, sun and storms. We have bugs that’ll drive you nuts, bears that poop on the fairways, deer running through the neighbourhood and ravens that are smarter than some of our politicians. We have snow too, a fair amount for our latitude; but it’s the ice that gets us. It manifests in so many different forms, at different temperatures and in different guises. And it’s always accompanied by some version of, “Have you not freakin’ learned to drive in Winter yet, ya moron!”

5.The Environment

Here’s a fact to put things in perspective. Macleans magazine wrote in June this year that ‘Oil-sands emissions represent, for example, one-thirtieth of emissions from coal-fired plants in Missouri alone’.

If Greenpeace and ForestEthics really want to save the planet, why then don’t they do thirty times as much good by going after Missouri’s 18 plants, followed by all the others in the USA and the more than 600 in China.? Or does it have anything to do with how protesters are treated? In the USA they’re trying to change the laws so environmental groups are ‘terrorists’. In Saudi Arabia they cut off the part of you that annoys them, and in China they disappear. In Fort McMurray? They’re provided with water, food and porta-loos by the company they’re protesting against!

As a nation, we believe in responsible gun control. This is laudable and stops us from shooting at environmentalists. But can’t we at least fire over their heads?

The 20 Great YMM Influencers…

1. Melissa Blake

No list based in this town would be complete without the Mayor. Melissa Blake heads into her 4th term growing in stature as one of the most accomplished politicians in the province, maybe even the country. Politician, however doesn’t describe her adequately. She is disarmingly polite yet thoroughly well versed in every aspect of municipal affairs. Yet she hardly looks the part. I mean, she still has freckles, which up close make her seem far too young for her responsibilities. She’s not though. She has become the symbol of all that’s good and potentially great in Fort McMurray. She has the aplomb of a Queen, the grace of a Princess and the moral rectitude of a Duchess. Defender of local faith and true believer that we live in the best community in Canada, she will cringe at such hyperbole. So be it. Her choice of descriptors? Probably mother, wife, community member and–somewhere farther down the list–her job title.

2. Don Scott

Don Scott has large feet. Not champion swimmer size, but large enough that he finds it easy to keep balanced, in posture and in life. That may be the description most apt to his influence in the Provincial Government. He was an MLA for less than three weeks before the Premier showed her confidence in him by making him one of her Ministers, and he has repaid her with genial loyalty and us with the respect he thinks we deserve. There may have been longer serving representatives of this region, but there have been none better. One day, when he moves on, he will leave behind very large shoes to fill.

3. Wade Kolmel

Wade Kolmel is the Director of Sports and Wellness at Keyano College and the man responsible for the program of increased excellence that has taken the Keyano Huskies from also-rans to national contenders and respected opponents in three years. Along the way he was named 2011 CCAA Athletic Director of the Year. He’ll be the last person to say he’s responsible for the success of the teams, or for the Huskies endowment fund that helps to allow players to concentrate on sport and studies. But everything started to improve when he took over, and that’s the kind of influence that gets you honoured on pages like this.

4. Mark Little

Mark Little is a huge fan of the works of Malcolm Gladwell and will count the author’s visit as one of the highlights of his year. Prior to heading up Suncor locally, Little was among other things the head of overseas production, responsible for ensuring ethical business practices at Suncor facilities in troubled areas like Libya and Syria. It should be more peaceful here, but as Suncor moves closer to the 50th anniversary of GCOS in Fort McMurray their huge influence on YMM will be felt even more, as will its local leader. It used to be, ‘As Suncor fares, so fares Fort McMurray’ and while that position is less so today, Mark’s involvement in the town is genuine and durable, and fares well for YMM.

5. Kevin Nagel

Kevin Nagel walked into a hotspot not of his own making when he took over at Keyano two years ago. Cuts that were already in place were blamed on him and he was unfairly labelled as a man driven only by budget numbers. However it is both his experience and collegiality that have allowed him to work with local businesses, taking Keyano College further down the logical academic road of a community college that services a unique industry, one that is the backbone of the country. All educational institutions specialize. It has taken a while for the town of Fort McMurray to realize what specialties are easiest to bring to the educational table, and someone like Nagel to understand how to keep that table full.

6. Erika Ford (Hornsey)

Erika volunteers, a lot. She makes a difference when she is volunteering, and then she gets you to volunteer as well. She was also one of the visionaries, at a time when more and more people seem to wish to divide up the volunteer pie, to voluntarily merge into what has become the Volunteer Wood Buffalo, Leadership Wood Buffalo, and Nonprofit Sector LINK Merged Entity. Props to her work both behind and in front of the scenes and good luck in her future endeavours; all they need now is a better name for the organization.

7. John Wilson

John Wilson is a stand-up guy. Anyone lucky enough to be his friend will tell you that. He’s also old-fashioned in another way. His word is as good as a contract and he believes in getting things done. The company he helped build in turn helps to build YMM, and John has been a patron of sport, business development and education for many years, and with more, we hope to come. Many of the influencers on this list are recognized for a singular event. John is here for years of sustained dedication and hard work to the people of Fort McMurray.

8. Pastor Glen Forsberg

Pastor Glen Forsberg was one of the key people in the Abram’s Land compromise, the agreement that his Gospel Assembly would work with both the local Roman Catholic and Islamic communities to agree to a shared facility. Not only did this speed up the development agreement, it served as a model of cooperation that much of the rest of the world could learn from. The Pastor leads one of the most vibrant and dynamic churches in the town and his opinion, when sought, is always pertinent and valid. Fort McMurray is lucky to have such a good man. It would be nice if there were many more like him.

9. Tito & Toddske

It seems to be cheating to list two people in as one influencer, but the anarchic artistry of Tito Guillen and Toddske Bradley-Thomas works best when both are on, and in the room together. From their irreverent YMM podcast to their involvement in the YMM film community, the effects of their campaign of mayhem and fun may only be fully realised in years to come. Find them at YMM Podcast, then on Youtube. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter and enjoy the ride. The future may recognise them as certified geniuses; they are already certifiable now.

10. Glen Laubenstein

If Glen Laubenstein had known he was on this list he’d be unhappy. The CAO of the Municipality would shun the title of influencer and is happier working in the background, allowing others to shine. Glen has had a long and stellar career in Municipal Government, and the challenge of being part of the Council’s vision for the region may well be the crowning achievement of his career. Glen and his wife live in the downtown he is helping to transform, and their free time is mostly spent in Houston with their son, or in Winnipeg with their daughter and her family.

11. Kim Rizzi

Kim Rizzi has some experience in games events. These will be the 15th set she has worked on and her goal is to make these the best Western games ever. With an eventual team of around a dozen full time staff, they will host about 14,000 athletes and visitors in 2015. Already, the work she is doing is raising the profile of our community exponentially. Expect to see her here for the next couple of years as well.

12. Elsie Yanik

Elsie Yanik has done so much, not only for the Aboriginal community in YMM and Alberta, but for the community as a whole, that all the space set aside for these awards could be devoted solely to her and not list all her accomplishments. Her faith, her example to the youth and her status as a respected elder are just part of what has made her such an important influencer in our region. As one of many examples, she has been a driving force for Aboriginal education for decades, and she still exerts such a positive influence that it is hard to imagine the region without her. It would be hard to find someone more deserving of this recognition.

13. Scott Clement

Scott Clement doesn’t seem to know when to stop. Retiring as a pilot and the former head of the RCAF would have been enough for most people, yet Scott has gone to carve out an entire second career in Airport management and administration. When YMM’s new terminal opens in 2014 and we all ooh and aah at the airport we deserve as a community, then you’ll realize how smart we were to put him on this year’s influencers list, and how we’ll probably have to do it again next year.

14. Marty and Deneen Giles

Marty and Deneen Giles are people who give back to the community. Marty may now be known as the fastest radio man not at the races, but it is as a pair that they are most recognized in Fort McMurray. It’s hard to find something they don’t support, the Canadian Cancer Society and the United Way being two of the biggest beneficiaries. Both have been huge boosters of the economic and family benefits of doing business here in YMM and that is why they are worthy members of this list.

15. Darby Allen

Not many people know who Darby Allen is, yet for a period in June while the town was poised on a flood-alert razor’s edge, the Chair of the Regional Emergency Operations Committee (who is also the Fire Chief) didn’t get home much. In comparison to other parts of Alberta we were in the end quite lucky, but we were about three inches of rain away from canoeing on Franklin again. A lot of people worked really hard during the emergency, and Darby would give credit to everyone else if he could. But at crunch time he was in the hot seat, and all the decisions that were made were the correct ones.

16. Tim Reid

When Tim rode into town, the Mac Island project was overspent and running late. It seemed like a miracle when he was able to present to the council a new accounting and timeline, and stick to it. Today, MacDonald Island is heralded as the best community centre in the province, and maybe the country. So it’s no surprise that everyone has taken for granted that the next phase, currently under construction, will be on time. After all, Tim has said so. Is he a miracle worker? Maybe, but he would probably describe himself as a pragmatist. He gets the job done, and that’s a respected talent in this community.

17. Jean-Marc Guillamot

How does a hotelier end up on the YMM influencers list? Jean Marc runs over 40% of the hotels in Fort McMurray, and while his vacancies during the Oil Sands working week tend towards zero, weekends give him the leeway to partner with sports groups and cultural organizations. The discounts he is able to offer attract functions to town, and he works closely with any organization that wishes to increase the profile for our community. It’s good for business, of course, but it’s also good for the town, and Jean-Marc is the kind of businessman this town needs more of.

18. Diane Shannon

Diane Shannon runs the most successful United Way program in Canada, possibly in the whole of North America. When you compare apples with apples, amount donated per capita, no one gives more than our community, or has done for a long long time. Yet Diane has worked towards these heights by preaching consensus and cooperation. The involvement of so many people – sometimes it seems as if the whole town is part of the fundraising – is a tribute to her leadership and ability to remind people that for all the perceived wealth and riches in our community, people still fall through the gaps. When they do, Diane and the United way are part of the reason they don’t fall far.

19. Bob Couture

Bob Couture is on his second distinguished career already, having started out in the Canadian Military before his time in the RCMP. As the RMWB’s senior policeman he treads the fine lines between security and perception with ease, proving with statistics that the problems here are similar to any growing population and far less than the media make of it. The Mounties have just celebrated their centenary of partnership with the community. Bob is here to make sure the next 100 continues where the old one left off: making YMM a safe place to live and raise a family.

20. Alison Redford

This may seem like cheating a bit, and the Premier is the only person on this list who doesn’t live up here, but her influence is such that it is impossible to leave her off. The Oil Sands has become such a political hot potato that the Legislature dare not ignore it. Redford is smarter than most when it comes to realizing how vital Fort McMurray is to her political survival and keeping on the good side of the citizens of Wood Buffalo is to her advantage as well as ours. Her influence is felt in YMM perhaps more than any other Premier because, for now at least, she understands what we mean to Alberta and Canada.

Bubbling under the chart… Picking 10, or 20, or even 500 people means that many worthies are left out. These people are some of the ones that deserve to be on the list, and they were left off only due to space constraints and, well, the top 500 influencers isn’t as catchy a title as the top 20. Expect to see some of them up there next year.

Political influencers

Kyle Harrietha, Allan Vinni, Keith McGrath.

Social Prosperity - people on the cusp

Arianna Johnson, Kim Nordbye, Erica Angel, Susanne Chaffey, Lee Funke.

Heart and Soul people

Heather Kennedy, Ramona Morrison, Diane Slater, Joanne Roberts .

Media messagers

Theresa Wells, Kyla Getty, Jerry Neville, Andriya Browne, Kevin Thornton.

Sports Hall of famers

CJ Phillips, Sandy Bowman, Tyler King, and a special mention for Phil Meagher, who attempted both the bravest and craziest event of the year.

Business producers

Scott Sullivan, Tony Mankowski, David and Nicole Bouchier, Bill de Silva, Roger Ibbottson, Mark Hannah.

Arts and culture

David Whitelock, Florence Weber, Russell Thomas, Carolyn Goolsby, Zaid Sulaiman, Christine Burton.

The next generation

Tyran Ault, Paula Ogonoski, Erika Beauchesne, D’Andre Wilson-Ihejirika, Nolan Haukeness, Massey Whiteknife.

Now, we’re probably going to do this every year so if we missed a category, or a person, or even if we put someone in you don’t think deserves the honour then please go to our website and let us know.


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