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Oil fuels rush to ‘Fort McMoney,’ Canada

Doug Struck

FORT McMURRAY, Alberta–The plane from Calgary touched down as a cold dawn cracked the sky, and Rob Smaldon, a compact man wearing a baseball cap, sighed, “Ah, back in paradise.” He was joking.Smaldon was feeling blue. As he does every 16th day, he had just left his wife and two young children in Olds, Alberta, 400 miles to the south. He would work for the next 13 days straight before going home to see them for another three days. Then he would leave again.”It’s hard. You’re like a stranger to the kids,” he admitted. “I really need to get home more.”Smaldon, 43, a heavy-equipment operator, was one of an army of workers drawn to this oil boomtown by fat paychecks and abundant jobs. So many have come to Fort McMurray in recent years that towns in the rest of Canada have voiced alarm.”Everybody’s going out there for the money. We’re losing some of our best, brightest and most experienced people,” said Beaver Paul, an economic development expert nearly 3,000 miles away in New Brunswick, one of the Atlantic provinces hit hard by the exodus to Alberta’s giant oil sands fields.Alberta’s oil sands reserves are the world’s second-largest, behind Saudi Arabia’s, and have helped make Canada the biggest oil supplier to the United States. That export has reaped billions of dollars for the oil companies and filled government coffers with tax money. With revenue from oil cooked out of tarry black sand, once-poor Alberta has paid off its debt, embarked on a spending spree and still had enough left over last year to send each of its residents a $400 check.But building and running the giant machines that carve the earth and extract the oil requires a huge workforce. Nearly 100,000 new workers have streamed into Alberta each of the past two years, and plans for new oil sands projects are likely to keep them coming.Many arrive in this town, a work-weary place crawling with muddy pickup trucks and plastered with “help wanted” signs. Those who have committed to stay, moving their families into tight new suburbs cut out of the pine forests, warily regard the waves of single workers who come for a few months or a few years, living in camps or jammed into shared rooms. But all are here for the same reason: big money.”We’re just chasing the bucks,” said Richard McNabb, 50, who lives in a 1962 Edmonton city bus in a trailer park outside the town. The master electrician had paneled the interior of the bus and set up a computer room, a bedroom, kitchen and lounge. It is comfortable.”I’m looking for a goal of putting 250,000 (Canadian) dollars in the bank,” he said, about $215,000 in U.S. money. “I’m almost there.” McNabb makes $65 an hour and pockets most of an extra $3,000 a month living allowance.So many people have come from the hardscrabble Maritime Provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island that the oil companies now run regular charter flights from there directly to Fort McMurray. The provinces are feeling the loss.”Tradespeople are hard to find here,” groused Barry Butler, 53, who runs a roofing company in Fredericton, New Brunswick. “You train them, give them some experience, and they pick up and go west.”Worried by the exodus, provinces have sponsored job fairs in Fort McMurray and taken out advertisements in a bid to convince former residents that life is better back east. “Buy a home or two,” Nova Scotia’s billboards here advise, needling Alberta’s runaway housing costs.But the lure of “Fort McMoney” hangs over workers’ conversations throughout Canada, dividing even families.”If I was 20 years younger, I’d go,” Floyd White, 62, who runs a construction company, said over a lunch at the Red Lantern Inn, a workingman’s bar in Fredericton. “That’s where the money is.””You couldn’t pay me enough to leave,” countered his son, Trevor White, 38, who works in the company with his father. “Money isn’t everything. You work seven days a week. What kind of life is that?”It can be a profitable one.”One of the smartest decisions we ever made was to move here,” said Cliff Needle, 29. He and Holly Hooper, 34, were roasting hot dogs New Year’s Day on a wood fire in the snow outside their Fort McMurray home, a mobile trailer with insulation taped onto the outside walls.The couple moved from New Brunswick more than a year ago, when the salmon-processing plant where they worked was sold and their wages were slashed. Needle’s pay for driving a truck was cut to $11.50 an hour. Two days after he arrived in Fort McMurray, he was working as a driver at $16 an hour. Now he is a crane operator making up to $132,000.”We’ll be able to sit back and retire in five or six years,” he said. “We still have a house in New Brunswick.” Or maybe, the couple mused, they will move to Mexico.Without counting the 10,000 to 20,000 men in mine camps on any given day, Fort McMurray has doubled in size in a decade to 65,000 official residents, with uncounted others in basement apartments and illegally rented rooms. Housing prices have soared. New homes are snapped up for $500,000 each; modular homes can fetch up to $300,000. The new owners rent out rooms for up to $850 a month to help pay the mortgages.”Housing clearly is at the apex” of the city’s needs, said Melissa Blake, 37, the mayor of Wood Buffalo Municipality, which encompasses Fort McMurray. She has a long list of strained resources: Fort McMurray needs new water and wastewater treatment plants and a new landfill. Roads are rough and heavily used. New bridges are needed over the Athabasca River, and the hospital is sorely short of staff.But city officials wince at the boomtown image, which one sums up as “too many single men, too much time, too much money, too much trouble.” They want to focus on the growing permanent population and perks like the huge new recreation facility being built on the edge of town.”People get their fill of money in short order, and then they start to see families as more important,” said Blake, the mother of a 3-year-old. “We are trying to build a community to allow people to think of those other things.”To many, Fort McMurray isn’t there yet.”It’s too hard here,” said Bouh Omer, 35, a scaffolder who stopped on a cross-country drive from Toronto two years ago and never left. He shares an apartment with two other workers. “I’m making money here, but I’ve got no life. There’s no good place to go. There’s nothing to do. And everywhere there’s a line–it takes 40 minutes to get a cup of coffee.”When Ontario native Sherry Goncalves, 39, arrived, her boyfriend’s cousin “welcomed us with open arms and charged us 1,000 (Canadian) dollars a month for a room in their trailer.” One person had to step outside to allow the other to stand up in the small space.She has not yet fully decided to stay, she said.”Fort McMurray can be cruel,” she said. “People aren’t friendly. Everybody is just here for the job.”In the slim city telephone directory, the two pages of listings for “engineers” are followed by 10 pages for “escort services,” advertised with little subtlety: “Born to Ride,” “We have what you want.” The swivel chairs in front of the slot machines at the Boomtown Casino fill up soon after opening each morning.”It can be a rough town. There’s a lot of money here, so there’s coke and crack,” said Cindy Alexander, 40. She has been in Fort McMurray for 18 years, since it was a small town. “There are some gold diggers, too, 20-year-olds doing what 20-year-olds do everywhere,” she said. “But there are a lot more women working hard, working two and three jobs.”Hard work is necessary. Fast-food clerks can make $12 to $14 an hour, but that isn’t enough to live on in this expensive city, so dreamers often fail here, city officials say.”Unless you’re prepared to live with three or four or five other people, you can’t make it” without trades skills or a partner with a higher-paying job, said city spokesman Don Reimer.But there are many successes, according to Mike Allen, a musician who came here to open a music store in 1993 and now heads the local chamber of commerce. Allen said he can sit in his hot tub at night and watch the northern lights play across the boreal landscape. “Five minutes outside the city, it’s beautiful.””I know a lot of people who moved here to make a few bucks, 25 years ago,” he said. “They’re still here.”Researcher Natalia Alexandrova in Toronto contributed to this report.


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