Suncor flew a plane full of business people up from Edmonton, where they are attending the National Buyer Seller Forum from points across the country. They were given a tour of Suncor and oil sands then brought to MacDonald Island Park for a networking session with members of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, NAABA (Northeastern Alberta Aboriginal Business Association) and the Economic Development department at the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. I was honoured to have been there with Mayor Melissa Blake and Councillor Don Scott.

I chatted with managers and CEO's from Miramichi to Surrey and a few spots in between. For most of them, this was their first time on the ground in Wood Buffalo and their first real-life exposure to the oil sands. I was very interested to understand how they see us and our industry.

"Everybody knows Fort McMurray," said Steve from Thunder Bay. "We all know what's happening out here."

What became clear in our conversations is that we absolutely have an image problem. The bad stuff, from crime to dead ducks, rises to the top and becomes the gut-level impression that is pervasive about our community. But we are not alone in this ever-challenging task of creating a better sense of balance between perception and reality.

"Thunder Bay has an image problem," said Steve. "So does Winnipeg. You are not alone."

I was struck by the similarities between ourselves and the city of Thunder Bay. Nestled on the northern shore of Lake Superior in the middle of the great Canadian Shield, the city is isolated, misunderstood, underestimated. It has vast supplies of chromium, one of the largest in the world not attached to a country ruled by a fanatical despot, a metal desired greatly by our neighbors to the south. Available serviced land is in short supply, growth pressures are everywhere, and after years of neglect, plans are finally in the works to develop their beautiful waterfront. Sound familiar?

We have several talking points that we repeat ad infinitum when telling our story:
  • we are per capita the most giving community in Canada
  • if we can dream it, we can make it happen (Northern Classic)
  • we are sitting on the second largest supply of recoverable oil on the planet
  • people come here on the "two-year plan" and stay for a lifetime
  • we are ethnically rich; people come to Wood Buffalo from around the world
I think we still have a lot of work to do in sharing these stories. Sitting down for coffee the other day with Sue Huff, acting leader of the Alberta Party, I discovered that some of the things of which we are most proud have not hit their mark down south. She hadn't heard about the incredible hockey game we hosted in November (possibly not a hockey fan) and she didn't know that we had the most successful United Way campaign in the country (several years running).

Festivals and culture are to Edmonton as the Stampede and corporate are to Calgary, their personalities breed perceptions. What is our personality? For me, it's a key question.

Unfortunately, these wonderful people who ventured north yesterday to discover Fort McMurray and oil sands were implanted with images of crime, partying, way too much money, and dead ducks. With visits like this we are creating understanding and balance one person at a time.

They were impressed with what they saw and how they were treated. And after their Buyer Seller Forum has wrapped up and they have returned to their homes and businesses from coast to coast, they'll tell our story to two friends, who will tell two friends, who will tell....


  1. High time then to make sure our new airport is telling the right story, don't you all think?

  2. I second that, Louise ..... that is the gateway to Fort McMurray and the first impression for any new comer. But superb piece Russell! Shared consensus!


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