Edmonton·First Person

Beauty and heart, not flames and tar: Fort McMurray was far from what I'd imagined

Karly Ellis used to imagine Alberta’s oilsands city with veils of thick smoke and molten lava. After living there for two years, she discovered a bright collective of people who make up this unique place.

Alberta’s oilsands city gave me a teaching job and then taught me its stories

A smiling woman wearing a bike helmet and sunglasses stands in front of a forested area.
Karly Ellis discovered a place of natural beauty and friendly people when she moved to Fort McMurray in 2020 for her first teaching job. (Karly Ellis)

This First Person column is the experience of Karly Ellis, who lives in Edmonton. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Like many of those who call Fort McMurray, Alta., home, I was driven there by necessity.

I needed a job.

As a Calgarian who'd never been north of Edmonton, Fort McMurray seemed like a land of mythical proportions — a dark place with piles of flaming tar shrouding a brooding, treeless landscape, too removed from my everyday life to exist apart from the stories that surrounded it. The prospect of me living in an Alberta folktale, a place famously compared by Canadian activist Maude Barlow to the barren Lord of the Rings landscape of Mordor, was never a legitimate life prospect. Until it was. 

The oil industry was visible all around me in Calgary. I watched my friends head into the University of Calgary's pristine Schulich School of Engineering to attend classes in the hopes of one day working in that sector. Downtown, I saw the Louis Vuitton-clad masses funnelling into gleaming buildings owned by giants of the oil and gas industry.

But as a student of music working in the arts, I felt detached from it. The closest I ever got to the gears and cogs of Alberta's energy sector was attending opulent Stampede week parties thrown by oil companies. My understanding of what it meant to work in oil and gas was a fat paycheque and a lavish downtown desk job. 

A night scene showing vehicles driving away from an industrial site with flames lighting the dark sky.
Images like this, showing vehicles leaving an oilsands facility in 2009, helped shape Ellis’s perception of Fort McMurray. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)

Somewhere in my distant thoughts, I had a vague notion that a slightly nefarious place in the far reaches of the province was perpetuating this grand machine. Calgary and Fort McMurray seemed only peripherally connected; the latter was certainly not connected to me.

Then, in spring 2020, the phone rang.

It was the early and uncertain times of the pandemic and the Fort McMurray Catholic School Division was offering me a job. After finishing my undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary, I spent several years working and travelling before getting my education degree in Edmonton. I was keen to start teaching.

The world seemed just unhinged enough — and I was just eager enough — to venture past the precepts of my imagined future and into the mystic north. My husband and I loaded up our truck and headed toward the unknown.

I was first struck by the rugged abandon of the landscape. For most of the five-hour drive past Alberta's capital, there is not much but rolling hills, thick pine forests and a smattering of lakes. Then we reached Fort McMurray itself, proudly sitting on the banks of the powerful Athabasca River that carved its way through the city. 

As Highway 63 descended into the expansive river valley, we saw the city unfold in front of us. Its small downtown core was completely enfolded by nature. A thick canvas of trees clung to the steep slopes of the river except where large patches revealed the wounds of the near past. The wildfire of 2016. The flood of 2020 that happened just a few months before we arrived.

We passed over the roaring Athabasca and started our climb up the other side of the river bank. The forest continued to envelop us but it's full and vibrant over there, untouched by the fire. I was so aware of the nothingness around me. 

An abundant community of people balances the wild emptiness. It's a vibrant mix of Atlantic Canadians, Indigenous peoples from the nearby First Nations and Métis communities, and other people who've arrived from all over the world. 

Because nearly everyone is from somewhere else, they've all known what it's like to be new so they open their arms widely in welcome. 

A small city downtown with a river and green forest in the distance.
The northern Alberta community of Fort McMurray, seen here in September 2014, is surrounded by forests and water. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Those from Newfoundland did so loudly by inviting us to shed parties and feeding us potato salad that looks like mounds of brightly coloured playdough (it's delicious, by the way). We came to understand that shed and garage are interchangeable terms and our new East Coast friends like to host parties in both. I'd go for runs in my neighbourhood and see garage doors open and ready to welcome guests, the flag of Newfoundland and Labrador proudly hanging inside each. 

Everyone I met was eager to recite the tale of how they got here.

A cacophony of stories echoed through the high school I worked at uptown. Each room in the school was an audible collection of the complexity of life in Fort McMurray.

In one corner of the school, I taught English to students who had recently arrived in the country. For an assignment, I asked them to write about their heroes. One student wrote of his mother, who came on her own to Fort McMurray for work and eventually earned enough money to bring over her husband and children from the Philippines. As I read through the accounts from other students, I realized this story is not unique.

Down the hall, I taught English and a career and life management course to teens who had grown up in Fort McMurray and whose families worked "on-site" at the massive oil operations to the north and east of the community.

When classroom discussions turned to topics surrounding climate change, some students become defensive, leading me to feel that I was threatening their parents, their family's livelihood, or their own future employment. I strove to remain unbiased and offered them space to shape their own informed thoughts and opinions. 

Our school regularly invited First Nations and Métis community members to share their knowledge with staff and students. Through them, I learned how to lovingly harvest and braid the sweetgrass that grows naturally in town. I learn about bannock-making and beading and try my hand at both.

I heard firsthand accounts about communities and people being relocated. I was given the opportunity to engage with cultures so deeply connected to the land I stand on and I received it as a privilege.

Coniferous trees circle a snow-covered clearing under a blue sky
Scenes from a winter's day on the edge of town. (Submitted by Karly Ellis)

During the winters, the waIk home after school felt like an Arctic expedition. I trudged through thick darkness between snowbanks piled as high as my shoulders. 

Sometime around May, the winters abruptly ended and the weather became hot. My husband and I would sit on our patio and our conversations would be momentarily interrupted by the roar of trucks from the street. After the noise dissipated, we'd hear children laughing in the playground beyond the trees near our apartment. 

Over our two years in Fort McMurray, I missed my friends and family in central and southern Alberta, but the highway can be dangerous and the drive was long. The pandemic led to many suspended flights from the Fort McMurray airport so it was difficult to get out. I talked to my colleagues about feeling homesick and learned that many feel the same. Missing birthdays and holidays took a toll and I increasingly felt like I was stuck on an island. 

It was exhausting, and in 2022, my husband and I decided it was time to move on. 

Green northern lights in the night sky are reflected in the still water of a pond.
Fort McMurray's beauty shows up in northern lights, like these ones photographed by one of Ellis's neighbours while living in the northeastern Alberta city. (Troy Hrehirchuk)

When I started to tell people, they did not want to hear our reasons for leaving. It's a conversation that is all too familiar to them. Instead, they wanted to tell me why they choose to stay: the wild swathe of nature to explore, great schools, good jobs, the rich community, and the chance to offer their families a good life.

Fort McMurray was nothing like I had envisioned. Being there gave me a deeper understanding of the connections it holds all through the province and country. 

I no longer imagine Fort McMurray veiled in thick smoke and molten lava; I see a bright collective of people that constitute a unique place I hold a fondness for. I am thankful for the time I spent in Fort McMurray; for the people I met, the stories I was gifted, and the perspective I was given. 

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Karly Ellis

Freelance contributor

Karly Ellis is a teacher in Edmonton. She enjoys expanding her understanding of the world through literature and seeking out new experiences. She is always hopeful both will involve a good cup of coffee.