20 Things I LOVE About Fort McMurray

I was honoured to get an invitation to share some thoughts with Inside Education's Canadian Oil Sands Education group on Tuesday morning - high school teachers from across this great country of ours who are spending several days on the ground here in Wood Buffalo to learn about our community and our oil sands resource.  The presentation was supposed to have happened on Monday night, but the group of 45 were left waiting for their charter flight at the airport in Edmonton, victims of rolling blackouts that riddled much of the province on that record hot day.

My goal was to communicate the passion, excitement and sense of opportunity that exists in our home using the Pecha Kucha format, or 20 slides x 20 seconds per slide.  Much like my social media life, 20 Things I LOVE About Fort McMurray, is partly political, partly business and very personal.

I arrived in Fort McMurray for a job interview in the deep dark of winter 1996.  It was -43 as I drove through the south end of town and into the river valley.  So cold that the shocks in my 1989 Cavalier had stopped working, the lights shining up to the heavens through the ice fog as I came down Beacon hill for the first time were stunningly beautiful.  To quote the long-running Keyano College/Suncor initiative We I Love the Winters Here.

I was hired as a mid-level manager at the OK Radio Group, previous owners of what is now Country 93.3 and Rock 97.9.  There was an expectation for managers to get involved in the community, which I would have done anyway, but having the boss's encouragement helped it happen almost immediately.  I got involved with the Fort McMurray interPLAY Society under the leadership of Barb Galbraith, and transitioned into the role of president of that organization the following year and for the next 15.  I'm convinced that I would never have been given that kind of community leadership opportunity anywhere else on the planet.  It proved to be the greatest period of learning in my life, and a journey that developed countless connections and many dear friends.

As I sat in the hot tub with Stormin' Norman - the morning guy on CJOK in 1996 - during a backyard barbecue party in Cartier Park I began to realize the joy of living in a community where so many people come from away.  We had a number of winners of this traveling party from the east coast who provided us with unbelievable hospitality and a welcome like I had never experienced before.  The "come from away" element is strong as ever as people move here from around the world to seize the opportunities that this region offers.

Dylan and Ben get to attend a school with students who have come to us from over 40 different countries.  They bring with them their languages, traditions, global perspectives and an inspiring sense of citizenship.  I believe it is a great gift to raise our sons in a community that is so multi-cultural, a place of inclusiveness and tolerance, where diversity is divine.

Wood Buffalo achieved the designation of delivering the most successful United Way campaign per capita in Canada a number of years ago, and in all the years since.  We gathered over 50 people on the front lawn at Keyano College to create a picture of a heart.  Unfortunately, we didn't have enough people to fill the heart shape that had been marked out on the lawn.  So, the photographer has us all move into three or four different positions in the heart and they Photoshop'd it all together later.  It was a wonderful illustration that was one of the pillars of our first big spirit campaign. It is a fantastic memory of being a part of that shot and that campaign.

In the summer of 2010, a small group of visionaries came up with the idea of doing an outdoor junior hockey game.  They shared the concept with a room full of community leaders at the end of August and asked the question if we had the capacity and interest to pull it off.  There was instant consensus that we could do it, and three months later we hosted a million dollar hockey game, the first outdoor contest in Canadian junior hockey history in front of the largest crowd in AJHL history.   This is one of many examples of the can-do attitude that is part of Fort McMurray's character.

We hosted one of the greatest rock bands in history during CanadaROCKS in 2011.  KISS put on a spectacular show for over 12,000 fans, the largest concert gathering in our community's history.  Many of us had the opportunity to meet the band, including Dylan and I. It was the best 45 seconds of my life.  (I'm not exactly sure what the heckler said after this slide, but it was something to the effect of "I bet you hear that from all the girls."  It took awhile to get control of the room after that jab. LOL)

Travel Alberta has a phenomenal campaign called Remember to Breathe.  I shared these four shots of my favourite spot in Fort McMurray, at the confluence of the Clearwater River and the Snye.  This is a mere two blocks from my front door - absolutely beautiful.

I arrived in Fort McMurray just before things took off.  After the change in the oil sands royalty structure, a community that had been struggling to find its legs finally began a growth curve that out-performed all predictions.  We continue to live in a region that is in a state of almost constant change.  I love it.  Every time I drive across the bridge to the other side of town, there is something new to see.

Even after living here for 16 years we get surprised by what we discover.  Recently we went to the site of the original Abasands Oil plant that burned to the ground in 1945.  What remains are a series of accessible roads, ruins, and a beautiful view of the Horse River.  It's a great spot to dip your toes in the water and imagine what life was like 67 years ago when this spot was home to a fully-functioning, dynamic operation run by some of our industry's pioneers.

We recently did a social media presentation for about 100 colleagues from colleges across North America at a major conference in San Francisco.  Strategically, we veered away from the topic for a short pitch on our community and the industry that drives it.  When I shared that the number of American jobs expected to be created by what's going to happen in our neck of the woods between now and 2035 is a staggering number of 465,000 - we saw jaws drop.  Global impact? Oh yah!

Fort McMurray has such an incredibly rich history, one that includes the legendary (or notorious, depending how you read the history) Peter Pond who in 1778 discovered the Methye Portage which connected the Churchill with the Athabasca and MacKenzie rivers.  For about 75 years, the Clearwater River was part of the water highway that connected Canada from east to west.  We also had a healthy fur trading industry and were a significant supplier of table salt in the previous century.

With long days in the late spring and early summer, gardens absolutely thrive in Fort McMurray.  My wife Heather is the gardening guru in our family and has been recognized by Communities in Bloom for her horticultural efforts.  We have a raised garden in the back that we built almost a decade ago that produces a nice supply of fresh produce. The flowers in the front add tremendous colour and life to the yard and neighborhood.

I love the fact that my favourite fishing spot is just two blocks from my front door.  The I actually catch something once in awhile is a bonus.  This is my favourite Zen activity, sitting in my lawn chair, watching the tip of my fishing rod, waiting for a fish to nibble.

I think it's generally known (by those of us who live here anyway) that our community and region tends to be misunderstood thanks to years of negatively slanted media coverage.  As a marketing and communications professional, I love the challenge of trying to address this perception gap.  Just in the past month, I've had a chance to share our story with the Governor General's leadership group, an influential columnist with the National Post, and the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Bob Rae.  It is my belief that the best way to communicate the beauty and wonder of this region and its people is to do so one conversation at a time.

If you were teleported into one of the hallways at Keyano College during a busy day, it would be hard to discern what country you were in.  The number of languages being spoken as students go from class to class is remarkable.  The new normal at Keyano is rich diversity.  I love the picture above of the fellow from our graduating LINC class who expressed what learning English means to him: "I can order tea at Tim Hortons".  Wonderful!

A number of years ago, leaders from all the different sectors gathered to figure out what was in the water in Wood Buffalo that consistently resulted in people coming here on the proverbial two-year plan but staying for a lifetime, or at least for their working life.  What is it about this place, these people, this industry that gets into your heart, generating an affinity unlike anywhere else you've lived before?  Working with an agency, we went through a number of branding concepts and lots of different language.  Nothing resonated with all of us until Big Spirit was pitched.  The room was silent, as it absolutely hit the bull's eye.  Some six years later, it still captures that elusive intangible quality of Wood Buffalo that makes it one of the earth's very special places.

We are about to go through a transformation unlike any we have seen before with the City Centre McMurray development.  Catalyst projects like a civic centre, city square, arena, arts centre, bus transit way,  pedestrian bridge and MacDonald Island expansion will inspire private investment expected to range between $15 and $20 billion.  These would be a heart-stopping numbers in any major city in North America.  In a smaller centre like ours, it is truly amazing and is rippling through the development community in a way that is going to ensure we become "a global model for sustainable living in the north."

Our CAO Glen Laubenstein got it exactly right yesterday when he was speaking to a group of community leaders and visiting MPs at a luncheon being hosted by our Member of Parliament Brian Jean.

"Home and family can become the first things to fall off your priority list," said Glen.  "But the greatest reward in life will come from what you accomplish there."

"I've never heard of anyone who at the end of their life wishes they had spent more time at work," he said.  "We need to build a city where people would be proud to raise their family."

Fort McMurray and Wood Buffalo have delivered on that promise for us.  The best decision I ever made was to travel north to Fort McMurray as it has provided a wonderful place to raise our children and enjoy a quality of life for which we are completely grateful. With a focus on developing a community that is world-class and even better for families, I can't imagine a better place to be right now.


In closing, I'd like to share what some of my Facebook friends had to say about why they love Fort McMurray.

“Great place to raise a family.” - Cindy

“My hometown.” - Sara

“The sense of community! Most McMurrayites are willing to work together for the good of the community and are incredibly generous with their time and resources.” - Jenny

“The opportunities may bring you to Fort McMurray , but it is the people that keep you here!” - Paul

“The people! The sense of community, pride and compassion is amazing!” - Mary-Ann

“City size but small town feeling. We are not afraid to say hi to your neighbors or complete strangers. Excellent working trail, Friendly people, helpful friends and strangers. Best volunteers in the country. Friends and neighbors are the greatest asset in Fort McMurray.” - Rose

“The insurmountable generosity of the people in our community. Without a second thought, the first thing people ask upon hearing of another’s hardships is: “How can we help?” There is also very much a “go big or go home” mentality here when it comes to fundraisers, events, etc. and I think it just proves how big our hearts really are.” - Jennifer

“Opportunities in your field that you will not find anywhere else.” - Tony

“HUGE opportunities and mass multi-culturalism. I was speaking with a daycare teacher several weeks ago. She gave a great example of the highly diverse population by stating that out of 22 children represented in a class, 17 different ethnicities were represented! You can get a taste of the world without REALLY having to leave your own backyard. I love it!” - Elizabeth

“The amazing Aurora Borealis, beautiful trail system, sense of community, life in the north, the long summer days.” - Deanna

“The can do attitude which people have, how ideas get translated into action in the blinking of an eyelid, the pace and community is great! People from all over the world come here and get lost in the fabric of Fort McMurray; networks are so strong!” - Mary

“The people, the community, the opportunities. There are partnerships and collaborations here that can’t happen elsewhere. They are the result of small town caring and big city dynamics.” - Tamarra

“Great for your families.” - Christa

“Opportunity brings everyone here. Community is what keeps them here.” - Ken

“The people. I came here not knowing a single person and have created an entire life I can’t see leaving anytime soon. It’s home. Second would be the generosity. We sure do make a lot of money here but people are so willing to volunteer and donate to any cause.” - Shawna

“The incredible opportunities available are unsurpassed and the memories created by becoming part of a wonderful vibrant community created a place called “Home” that will forever be part of the mosaic of my life.” - Pauline

“Keyano Theatre, Full Moon Cafe, interPLAY, WinterPLAY, all the multicultural groups, nature all around and accessible, our connections with our First Nations people, people from all over Canada coming for the job and staying for the lifestyle, the friendships, the endless possibilitlies, the abililty to pitch in and make a difference in our friends’/neighbours’/community’s lives.” - Hope

“Working at the college - I love the fact that a couple of years ago - in one day - I had prospective students from 5 different countries come into my office - what an amazing day, multiculturalism at its best!” - Liz


  1. This is by far the most all-encompassing piece on our city ever written! I loved the presentation as well.. more skills I need to glean from you!

  2. Thomas, thank you! This is the beautiful story of Fort McMurray. A story I have been trying to tell others for years, you nailed it and I'm sharing it. I have called Fort McMurray home for 31 wonderful years. Coming here was the best decision I could have made. Hilda :)


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