Fort McMurray now one of Canada's most diverse cities

AbdulWarris Ajagbe is a little boy with big dreams - to learn all the languages of his classmates, to take what he’s learned in one of Canada’s most diverse cities and show the rest of the world how to get along.

More than 80 languages are spoken by people living in Alberta's oilsands region

Multicultural day brings new experiences to Fort McMurray students

6 years ago
Duration 0:40
In Fort McMurray, one student brought in a traditional outfit to show students in his class.

AbdulWarris Ajagbe is a little boy with big dreams — to learn all the languages of his classmates, so he can "respect people in their culture" when he one day travels the world.

The 10-year-old was nervous when he first arrived in Fort McMurray a year ago from his native Nigeria, worried he would stand out from the other kids at Walter & Gladys Hill Public School.

Now he wants to take what he's learned in one of Canada's most diverse cities and show the rest of the world how to get along.

"It was very welcoming," AbdulWarris said of his new school, where one-third of his classmates are also English-language learners. "And me seeing for the first time new people, new languages, new foods, seeing people dancing."

The most recent data shows more than 80 languages are spoken in Fort McMurray. With a population of slightly more than 60,000, that makes the city more diverse, per capita, than Toronto.

'People settle wherever there's space'

6 years ago
Duration 0:32
Mary Thomas arrived from Mumbai seven years ago, and says Fort McMurray is the most diverse city she has ever lived in.

"I think this is the most diverse place I've ever lived in my entire life," said Mary Thomas, who arrived from Mumbai seven years ago. "I think it's an amazingly welcoming and generous community and very, very inclusive."

As head of the local multicultural association, Thomas has worked hard for that inclusion. She hosts a monthly webcast called "Meet the World in Wood Buffalo," which tackles sensitive subjects such as racism and hijabs.

"In Fort McMurray, we want everybody to be able to say that to people who come here — welcome home," Thomas said.

Among the list of achievements, companies have installed shower heads for Muslim employees to wash before prayers, and parents can download a multilingual form to communicate to schools their children's religious dietary needs.

In May, a new welcome centre opening in the Wood Buffalo Regional Library in MacDonald Island Park's will become a one-stop shop, connecting newcomers with the services they need.

Thomas said no community is free of racism, but in Fort McMurray people "stand up and say that's not acceptable."

She thinks her city could set an example for the rest of Canada.

"We don't have small little silos that different communities make," Thomas said. "Because of that, people settle in wherever there's space.

"So there is no little India, no little China, little Philippines. My neighbour on the right is Korean, my neighbour on the left is from Newfoundland. And so it's really amazing, because you have so much diversity all around."

Babar Nawaz arrived from the Middle East eight years ago to work for Syncrude. He stayed because of Fort McMurray's vibrant Muslim community and religious inclusivity.

According to community representative Waj Arain, the growing Muslim population has now swelled to roughly 8,000. 

Fort McMurray growing more diverse

6 years ago
Duration 0:31
The existing mosque in Fort McMurray can only hold 250 people and is close to capacity. The muslim community is still growing.

People trying to get into the Markaz Ul Islam Mosque for Friday prayers can easily find themselves waiting in line. The mosque is so overcrowded that prayers are scheduled in shifts, and when possible moved to a school gymnasium. 

"I've lived in Edmonton, I've lived in Calgary," Nawaz said. "But the connection which we have here, we are going to lose if we move. You cannot get that community in any other city. We have a deep-rooted connection here."

Near the edge of the city, a 100-acre development may one day become a testament to that inclusivity.

"Basically, it's a great big subdivision for all different faiths," said Greg Wolf, a member of the joint-venture group that developed the project.

Christians, Hindus and Muslims have plans to leave overcrowded houses of worship and move to the new subdivision, known as Abraham.

Already in the construction phase — the new Islamic Centre will be a place to pray but will also include a school, a daycare and a recreation centre.

The church Wolf attends, the McMurray Gospel Assembly, owns a plot just next door. Several other faith groups, such as the Daystar Chapel Fort McMurray and Sanatan Mandir Cultural Society, have plans to build nearby.

Embracing diversity from a pastor's point of view

6 years ago
Duration 0:48
In Fort McMurray, 100 acres of land has been set aside for a development that will include people from many religions.

Like many in the city's growing Nigerian community, which now includes 300 families, Daystar chapel pastor Kunie Oladebo came to Fort McMurray to make use of his expertise in the oil and gas sector.

Finding land to develop in Fort McMurray isn't easy, Oladebo said.

"So the city has done a good job of acquiring a parcel of land, and say we're going to put all the faiths there," he said.

The symbolically named Abraham project is the result of a decade of work by an interfaith board, backed by the municipality.

"He was called to leave where he was and go and find a new land," said Wolf, adding the Muslim, Christian and Jewish religions all consider Abraham a prophet, a symbol that unified the group.

"It is a powerful testimony to all peoples around the world that you can be side by side working together and working on a common goal and getting something like this accomplished," Wolf said.

Back at Walter & Gladys Hill Public School that lesson isn't lost on AbdulWarris, who keeps track on his iPod of ideas for things he wants "to do and change."

He plans to one day return to Nigeria to apply what he's learned in Fort McMurray.

Among the goals, to become president and promote world peace.

"These people could know those people," he said, pointing to different countries on a world map. "They could be friends. The whole world would know each other. There wouldn't be wars going on because you already know each country."

@andreahuncar   andrea.huncar@cbc.ca


Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca