Fort McMurray: A little context goes a long way

While the tales of our towns are told far and wide, they are much more reflective of our realities when those tales are taken in the context of actually being here, not just visiting for half or even a few days, writes Melissa Blake, mayor of the Wood Buffalo Regional Municipality
Mayor Melissa Blake says portrayals of Fort McMurray written by journalists who are in the community for a few days don't always reflect reality. (CBC )

I want to extend a warm Wood Buffalo welcome to the CBC in its new Fort McMurray office!

While the tales of our towns are told far and wide, they are much more reflective of our realities when those tales are taken in the context of actually being here, not just visiting for half or even a few days.

A little context goes a long way.

For those who don't know, Canada really is teeming with energy resources. As luck and nature would have it, Alberta has a significant share of those hydrocarbon resources. Wood Buffalo is home to the Athabasca deposit which alone contains 180,000,000 barrels of bitumen accessible with today's technology and up to 1.7 trillion barrels when we find ways to unlock these resources.

Wood Buffalo came to be in 1995, encompassing some 68,000 square kilometers with 10 communities, five First Nations, and a number of Métis locals. We have drawn citizens from every province and territory in Canada, and we may well have people from every country around the world with over 150 nationalities represented in our region.

A few hundred years ago, our Aboriginal people welcomed early explorers and traders. Today, they are just as welcoming and even better with modern trade. In 2014 the Oil Sands Community Alliance survey showed that aboriginal companies in the Wood Buffalo region performed over $1.5 billion dollars in contract work with member companies.

The dynamic of intense industrial development, and a population influx that largely exceeded community capacity, has regrettably allowed the challenges to overshadow our reality in the stories told by the media.

We have experienced both the good and bad of explosive growth.

Our region has seen price escalation on everything from businesses to homes and rents, urban traffic congestion, highway mayhem, crime rates, daycare and health care shortages, land supply constraints, work camp proliferation, and funding simply not keeping pace with growth.

This is the bad -- the 'difficult to shake' reputation and the pervasive stereotypes of a region so different – and way better - than the hype.

Truth be told, I have felt more than once that these bandwagon-type portrayals were probably written before the reporter even stepped off the plane.

A quick trip to the local coffee shop, casino or bar would give the story quotes from a few people with negative experiences  or perspectives. I don't deny that they exist, they just don't dominate our normal existence.

Young, diverse population

Now for the good of explosive growth.

I often say our greatest resource is not oil but people. They are young, diverse and among the most giving people in the country. In fact, for close to a decade now, the United Way has ranked  Fort McMurray and Wood Buffalo as the most giving community per capita in Canada.

The incredible growth brought not only challenges, but along with it, many opportunities to  create our own future. Everything new was needed, and indeed, that's what began to take form.

The Alberta government started to truly invest in education, health and highways in our community. Industry stepped up with strong support for almost every community cause, and in incredible ways. Yes, they even got their name on assets because their contributions were over and above what we levy for municipal taxes.

Because our population is so young, the kind of investment choices that we made over time delivered many family-friendly assets. We supported a cultural renaissance, and competed to host provincial, national and international sporting events all delivering exceptional experiences for residents and visitors alike.

Our beloved MacDonald Island Park is a special place surrounded by two historic rivers and reserved exclusively for recreation and community events.

Beginning in 2012, we started construction on the expansion of the existing Suncor Community Leisure Centre (already Canada's most expansive recreation centre when it opened in 2009), redeveloped Miskanaw Golf Course to make it a model of sustainability, and then added the spectacular showplace SMS Equipment stadium and baseball stadium, complete with a lighted artistic canopy that mimics the Northern Lights. It opened last summer and it's called Shell Place.

Not only does it house some 30 social profit agencies and a large conference centre, Shell Place was the home base for the 2015 Western Canada Summer Games, which was the highlight of a year of very trying economic circumstances. We even kept these  young athletes in a work camp at Noralta Lodge to their absolute delight!

This region is filled with big industry, big paychecks, big problems and even bigger hearts. Times are certainly tough, but so are we. Our First Nations partners have persevered for thousands of years in this region, adapting as needed, and so must we all now. Strong. Resilient. Always.

So welcome, CBC, to traditional Treaty 8 territory, to the heart of the oilsands, to the multi-cultural, multi-talented, multi-generous, multi-marvelous Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

The ability for CBC to represent our region from within will tell the stories of what this special place really is. Pretty soon you'll call this place home, too. We look forward to it!

Melissa Blake is the mayor of the Wood Buffalo Regional Municipality which includes Fort McMurray.


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