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Middle Age Bulge

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Our Cultural Mix: One of Our Greatest Treasures

I had posted something about the cultural diversity of Fort McMurray on Facebook a few months back. A friend who grew up in in the community but moved away eight or nine years ago questioned the seriousness of my comment, thinking that I was making a hyperbolic statement of some kind. I was happy to clarify that the Fort McMurray he knew, at least from a multicultural perspective, is not the Fort McMurray of today.

You see the ethnic richness in the grocery stores, in the faces of the people walking around in our city centre and in our neighbourhoods, and you most definitely see it in our schools.

In my small circle of friends and colleagues, I know of people who have come to Wood Buffalo from countries around the globe: Philippines, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, China, Sudan, Congo, Venezuela, Brazil, Germany, Sweden, Moldova, South Africa and many from the United States and Mexico, to name but a few. In many cases, these wonderful souls have embedded themselves in our community by getting involved: volunteering and leading.

This cultural shift has happened slowly and surely over many years. One Gujarati family (from India) in 2006 grew to 10 to 100 to 700. At a Diwali celebration that I attended a couple of years ago, they were suggesting that the number of families was now well over 500. The Pakistani, Sudanese, and Nigerian communities have experienced similar growth.

In our downtown neighbourhood, the shift has happened incrementally as well, the cultural mix becoming more pronounced each year. People of all creeds and colours, religions and traditions, wake up each morning, go to work and school, attend community events, and strengthen the fabric of our residential area, and indeed, the larger region.

As a parent, I am grateful to raise our sons in a global community, a place where they get exposed to so much cultural richness. I grew up in a very different place. I was aware of one Muslim, one Jew and a single black man who lived in our small prairie town, my limited exposure to cultural diversity in the first 15 years of my life. I thought we had made a great leap forward when an East Indian gal joined us in Grade 12.

Meanwhile, Ben and Dylan have only known diversity. Names that I struggle to pronounce, they say easily and without a second thought. Cultural sensitivity, which I am still trying to learn, they know inherently, as it is the new normal.

We were in Guelph for Canada Day a few years back. It was the only time I saw the late Jack Layton, former leader of the NDP; he was a few feet away from me among a throng of people gathered to celebrate our nation’s birthday in a large park. The overwhelming thought I had at the time was the fact that the thousands of people were largely caucasian. It made me feel rather uncomfortable and out-of-place, as I have come to appreciate the melting pot quality of Fort McMurray, and see it as a reflection of what Canada has become, what it means to me and to the rest of the world.

“What is that beautiful language you are speaking?” I’ve asked on numerous occasions in public places where strangers are engaging in conversation in a foreign tongue. The looks I get back are priceless, bright beaming smiles and pride in being able to share some things about languages and cultures.

“As-salamu alaykim,” I say to my Muslim friends, a traditional greeting that roughly translates to “peace be upon you”. It’s a simple and easy gesture, one that communicates acceptance, respect, dignity and trust.

We are still learning to adapt to our rapidly diversifying population, but I think that we’re on the right track. Fort McMurray is known for a lot of things, but our cultural richness is unquestionably one of the narratives that deserves to be shared and celebrated, alongside our oil sands resource and unparalleled opportunities.

Russell Thomas writes a regular blog at and can be followed on Twitter @rvthomas67.


Russell is a 19 year resident of Wood Buffalo, a community builder, facilitator, social media practitioner, actor, director and artist. He began his Middle Age Bulge blog as a way of capturing his journey to wellness. It has morphed into a daily journal about all aspects of life in the north. Russell works with The United Way of Fort McMurray and co-owns Birdsong Connections with his wife Heather.