By JILL MAHONEY
Wednesday, March 13, 2002
FORT McMURRAY, ALTA. -- If you stare long enough at the lush boreal forest that envelops Fort McMurray, you can almost sense money growing on every tree.
With a supercharged economy fuelled by one of the world's richest sources of oil, the booming northern Alberta outpost is a magnet for job seekers from far and wide.
"The money is good and there's so much of it you don't have to worry about it," said Newfoundlander Walter Andrews, who moved to Fort McMurray in January. "It's a lot steadier, a lot more secure than it is back home, that's for sure." Like thousands who have travelled before him on the well-worn path from Newfoundland to Alberta, Mr. Andrews had no problem finding a steady job when he uprooted his young family in 1999. And though he is homesick for the Rock, he figures he is here to stay.
"Alberta is so far ahead with regard to work and that's the main reason that everyone like myself is packing up and getting out," said the lanky plumber and mechanic who now earns $20 an hour and logs up to 60 hours weekly.
In the census released yesterday, Alberta claimed the title of Canada's fastest-growing province with a population of 2,974,907 in 2001, up 10.3 per cent from 1996. Cochrane, a bedroom community west of Calgary, recorded the largest rate of expansion for any settlement of more than 5,000 in the same five-year period, surging 58.9 per cent to 11,798.
Like all of Alberta, Fort McMurray is experiencing mind-boggling growth. The dead-end city and surrounding area about 440 kilometres northeast of Edmonton had 41,466 residents in 2001, an increase of 17.8 per cent from 1996, when the most recent boom began.
"It's unreal, it's grown quite a lot and it's getting bigger and bigger," said Melvin Pickett, a Newfoundlander who moved to Fort McMurray in 1977 to work as a heavy-equipment operator at Suncor Energy and subsequently helped many family members relocate. "It's all fast-paced up here, you're always going, going, going."
There are so many Newfoundlanders in Fort McMurray -- they make up an estimated one-third of the population -- that they brag it is the third-largest city of Newfies in the world, after St. John's and Gander. Many transplants gather at the McMurray Newfoundlanders Club, a lounge where Mr. Andrews and Mr. Pickett discussed their fate.
"When they're new in town, I would say they probably come here first," said Doreen Best, the club's assistant manager and a Newfoundlander who moved to the city six years ago after visiting her sister and meeting her future husband, who is also from the Rock.
However, the influx of people from across Canada and beyond has brought significant problems to Fort McMurray, most notably a lack of housing.
In the summer, campgrounds are jam-packed with newcomers who can't find or afford homes, which sell for an average $228,000, or apartments, which rent for about $1,000 monthly for a one-bedroom unit. Others juggle two jobs, take on roommates or stay at friends' homes.
"The word affordable is a mystery to us all. What is affordable in Fort McMurray? The prices are so high," said Mayor Doug Faulkner, a former clergyman who, on the advice of a cousin, moved to the city from Newfoundland in 1980 with $26 in his pocket and soon found work in the oil patch.
Mr. Faulkner, who is loath to hype Fort McMurray's work opportunities, urges people not to move unless they have both a job and a place to stay.
"Yes, there are jobs here, but there are jobs here for skilled labour, jobs here for tradesmen, jobs here for engineers."
The high wages offered by Suncor and Syncrude Canada, which have extensive operations to extract oil from the vast quantities of oil sand that surround the city, have put pressure on all employers. Though service-sector jobs pay more than $8 an hour, businesses still have trouble attracting employees and some have had to close.
"Staffing is always an issue . . . the turnover is big," said Glenda Schwandt, a clerk at Decorator's Choice, a home-accessories store that advertised for a part-time worker one month ago and received just two applications.
Mr. Faulkner, who longs for the day when homes are affordable and the economy is diversified, is keenly aware that Fort McMurray twists and turns on the price of oil and that a serious recession would transform boom into bust.
"I don't want to be responsible for young couples losing everything," he said. "That is my biggest nightmare."