Page last updated at 09:17 GMT, Thursday, 18 December 2008

Canada boomtown under pressure

Jaz, a homeless woman in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada
Jaz, a homeless woman in Fort McMurray, sleeps in a tent in the woods

By Sarah Shenker
BBC News, Fort McMurray, Alberta

I meet Jaz at the Centre of Hope homeless drop-in centre in downtown Fort McMurray, Alberta, on a freezing cold morning.

She comes here during the day, but says she spends the nights in the woods and offers to show me where, for a fee. I explain that BBC policy forbids it, but she takes me anyway.

We stomp through the snow along the Athabasca River, past apartment blocks. She leads me through some thinly spaced trees to a campfire. A bit further on is the tent she uses to store food, and a second tent she sleeps in.

Jaz, 34, originally from the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan, is fairly media-savvy. With a smile, she describes being photographed for National Geographic magazine a few months ago. That was not her first media encounter.

Map of Alberta
Fort McMurray has attracted a lot of attention as the boomtown at the heart of Canada's oil sands rush.

Established as a trading post in the late 19th Century, by the 1960s Fort McMurray had grown to a modest town of about 6,000.

With the commercial development of the oil sands industry in the late 1960s, the town grew to 32,000 in 1982.

Its current population is more than 65,000, with an extra 18,500 people in the so-called shadow population - oil workers who live in hotels or residential camps on the outskirts of town.

Population growth has averaged 9% a year for the past six years, and soared to 16% last year. Local police say they are working on the assumption that the population could reach 250,000 by 2030.

"We're bursting at the seams. We've got this massive population growth, and we don't have the infrastructure to accommodate it or service it," says Fort McMurray's mayor, Melissa Blake.

Working town

Ask any newcomer what brought them to this remote part of northern Canada, and the answer is always the same: money.

"People come here for the work, the whole town runs on the plants," says John Keegan, an oil worker who arrived from Ireland almost 30 years ago.

The workers come mostly from other parts of Alberta, and from depressed parts of eastern Canada such as Newfoundland.

To attract and keep workers in a remote community where the jobs are often dull and repetitive, wages are high. Truck drivers can make C$175,000 ($146,000, 95,000) a year with overtime.

Teenagers working at a local fast food chain can make C$14 a hour - almost twice the minimum wage.

Housing costs are among the highest in Canada, with a small bungalow costing from C$550,000, about C$100,000 higher than in large urban centres such as Calgary or Edmonton.

Claude at the Salvation Army
'Everything here is expensive,' says Claude, who lives at the Salvation Army

Rent for a small apartment can range from C$1,800 for a one-bedroom flat.

"A lot of people do come here thinking the streets are paved with gold and that they're going to walk into the big paying jobs," says Mayor Blake.

"But the housing market is inaccessible to those that don't have the highest income."

Claude works as a carpenter on a building site but lives at the Salvation Army shelter, which charges him a basic weekly fee. He says he is earning enough to clear debts back home in Quebec, but cannot save anything.

"Everything here is expensive. People are being fooled - it's easy to find work, but not good work. And you have to have money to come here, it's like the Klondike," he says.

And then there are the long working hours, with 12-hour shifts as standard, sometimes for weeks on end without a day off.

Many men leave their families behind.

Shannon, a pipeline foreman, earns C$200,000 a year, but lives in a camp and only sees his family four days a fortnight. "I'm just about divorced over it," he says.


Fort McMurray is a small city with big city problems.

"When the men have been in camp for a week, two weeks, three weeks at a time, and they come out, they're looking to blow off a little steam, they're looking for have a little fun," says Constable Leigh Drinkwater of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Alcohol is not the only means of escape.

"Crack cocaine is the drug of choice here," Constable Drinkwater says.

If you look for something, you'll find it. There's bad stuff in Edmonton
Valerie Erickson

Some attribute the drug's popularity to the relative speed with which it is flushed through the body, allowing employees to pass drug tests when they return to work from leave.

There are few places to spend money. There are bars in town, and a strip club where the dancers earn C$400 a night.

Then there is the aptly named Boomtown casino. "More than C$1m gets spent here on a Saturday night," says one of the security guards, John, who originally comes from Rwanda. "I've seen people lose C$5,000 in one go. Do people ever win? No."

Amanda Parker, 41, moved to Fort McMurray six years ago from Ontario with her children and husband, an oil worker.

"There's too much money and people don't know what to do with it," she says.

"The opportunities are great here," she says, "but the downside is the drugs and alcohol. There are parents doing shift work, they give the kids money and the kids do what they want, so you get kids out of control.

"My 12-year-old told me everybody drinks in his school. My 16-year-old says 'there is not one person I hang around with that doesn't take drugs or drink'," she says.


John Keegan says the high wages have even affected the town's homeless population. "I've been asked, 'Can you spare me $20, $50'. It's becoming a little inflated," he says.

Fort McMurray has a higher per capita homelessness rate than the province's largest city, Calgary.

It also has the highest per capita rate of sexually transmitted infections in the country.

For long-term residents, the changes brought about by the oil boom have been hard to accept, but should be put in perspective.

Casino in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada
Wealthy oil workers mean boomtime for the casino on Saturday nights

"If you look for something, you'll find it," says Valerie Erickson, 46, at a local hockey match. "There's bad stuff in Edmonton. But there is more temptation here because of higher wages."

Lynne Hiscox, 62, came to Fort McMurray with her husband and young family in 1978. Both work for oil sands companies.

"It was a great place to raise kids, it had real small town appeal. It's still beautiful, but I'm not happy with the changes. It has grown too fast," she says.

Cindy Blanchard, 40, a driver for an oil company, has lived in Fort McMurray since she was three years old.

"The change because of the growth takes a bit of adjustment. I'm a small town girl, but it has given my children opportunities. But we don't have the infrastructure," she says.

Public services have not kept up the pace of growth. Mayor Blake says the number of doctors has not significantly increased from 1996 levels, when the city was half its current size.

Hockey game
Hockey games are one of the few distractions in town
A new school, St Martha, needed additional temporary schoolrooms on its first day. Schools and non-profit groups struggle to find staff that can afford to live here, small businesses struggle to afford high rents.

Traffic is a constant problem - a half-hour journey can take hours.

Ms Blake says the situation is improving with additional investment from the provincial government, which says it has earmarked C$1.8bn for infrastructure projects in the region.

But the mayor still wants a halt on new developments - from 1.2m barrels a day currently, the oil sands industry expects to expand to produce three times that amount by 2020.

"I'm probably one of the few that's relieved to have the oil commodity value diminishing, to have the companies say they're going to hold off on some of the expansions," she says.

"To me it's a second chance to create the kind of community where people will be able to make a home for their families.

"We've got to get it right now."

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