Economic bust: Fort McMurray's new normal

Four years after oil prices crashed, business leaders say the only good thing about an economy filled with bad news, is it's unlikely to get any worse.

'If we were to be able to make amends with BC and ... get our oil to open market, it would help all of Canada'

Next year marks four years since oil prices crashed and sent Fort McMurray’s economy into a tailspin. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

Taking the Pulse is a series from CBC News examining how Albertans are coping with today's economic conditions.

On a Wednesday afternoon in December, a customer browses Fort McMurray's Popeye's Supplements, the store to himself.

Owner Brad Malley is used to customers competing for his attention in a store stocked with protein bars and canisters of fitness powder.

Brad Malley is the owner of Fort McMurray’s Popeye’s Supplement store. (David Thurton/ CBC)

"We're not as busy as we have been in past years," Malley said. "We don't have the volume of people coming through the store."

"We're getting a lot [fewer] camp workers coming through."

When oil prices crashed, Fort McMurray's economy fell in a tailspin.

Now almost five years later, business leaders say the only good thing about an economy filled with bad news, is it's unlikely to get any worse.

Fort McMurray has reached a period of stability and there's some economic green shoots, said Bryce Kumka, Chamber of Commerce president.

The oilsands is no longer shedding jobs and most homes destroyed in the 2016 wildfire are getting closer to being rebuilt.

About 30 per cent of homes of the 2,579 homes destroyed are move-in ready while over 60 per cent are framed and insulated, according to Wood Buffalo's latest rebuild statistics. 

However home prices continue to fall, Kumka said, which is a double-edged sword because people leaving the community are selling their homes at a loss, but home ownership is more affordable.

Bryce Kumka is president of Fort McMurray's Chamber of Commerce.

In November, the average single-detached family home in Fort McMurray cost about $500,000, compared to upwards of $700,000 during the boom times.

"The rationalization of the real estate market is good for the community because we have very much lived in a bubble for the last decade," Kumka said.

Canada 'being held back'

Steep economic declines have also levelled off in the rural communities south of Fort McMurray, one First Nation chief said.

The Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, south of Fort McMurray, takes 80 per cent of its revenue from in-situ oilsands projects that dot the landscape around the community.

Chief Vern Janvier has watched his nations's annual revenues decline over the last four years from $16 million to $5 million.

But these days, band members are not getting laid-off from jobs in the oilsands at the same rate, and he doesn't expect any more significant job losses after production cuts were announced to narrow the oil price differential.

Vern Janvier is chief of the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation. (David Thurton/ CBC)

But the question on Janvier's mind as he enters 2019 is how does his community and the oilsands region move from a position of stagnation to growth.

The obvious answer is pipelines to move oilsands bitumen to new markets overseas, Janvier said.

But for that to happen, First Nations and the provincial government in British Columbia need to look at what's in the best interest of the nation and support the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, he said.

"Right now we're holding Canada back," because Indigenous people don't want development, Janvier said.

Canada needs to come together

At the same time, Janvier, using the loss of B.C.'s salmon as an example, said governments and oilsands companies need to understand that Indigenous communities bear most of the risk of energy projects and need to be better compensated.

"The Government of Canada and the Government of B.C. and the oil industry need to understand why the salmon is so important to the people there," Janvier said. "And what that loss or the risk of that loss means to them."

"When (First Nations) see the return from the development is the same from what they get from salmon, then I believe they will move."

Malley agrees growth in Fort McMurray depends on a pipeline and getting Canada united behind it.

"If we were to be able to make amends with B.C. and manage to get our oil to open market," Malley said, "it would help all of Canada.

"People don't realize with extra funds for the government to use, it helps every citizen in the country."

Connect with David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca 

About the Author

David Thurton is a national reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He's worked for CBC in Fort McMurray, the Maritimes and in Canada's Arctic.