Rooted and Connected to This Community
As Canada’s energy hub, Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo often finds itself in the spotlight with not only the eyes of the country on it but the eyes of the world, as well.
With that attention comes scrutiny, assumptions, misconceptions, and misnomers. Rarely are the opinions spoken by the people who live, work, and play here. They’re the voices from the outside looking in.
In this section, you will hear from a handful of people who contribute meaningfully here in Northern Alberta day after day. They have lived experiences, they are rooted and have a connection to this place that is full of natural resources that benefit so many.
Our family moved from the Okanagan Valley in 1967 – nervous but full of anticipation and pioneering spirit. My father, Bernard Jean, landed a job at the Great Canadian Oil Sands plant (GCOS) and throughout the region, you could feel the excitement of new possibilities.
Only a year after moving to this frontier town in the middle of the great boreal forest, my father was able to help my mother with one of her greatest dreams – in 1968 they opened their first store called Jean’s Gifts. The store was 5,000 square feet located on Fort McMurray’s main drag. We sold everything from fine china to school supplies, parrots to canoes, books, toys, cutlery and more. During our annual three-day sidewalk sale we sold more toys than any other store in Western Canada, and each Labour Day weekend my mother would delight in seeing every child in town come through our doors to pick up their bag of school supplies (and they may have also gotten a candy or two before they left).
Fairly quickly, things began to boom, largely due to Dr. Karl Clark who discovered the original technology of extracting the oil that clings to the sand along our riverbanks and in our soil. Together with Frank Spragins, founding President of Syncrude, who spent years researching the viability of oil sands, and with Premier Peter Lougheed who worked to save the industry from the National Energy Program, they initiated one of the most exceptional and beneficial resource discoveries in Canada’s history.
By 1970, the population in McMurray had grown to 1,500 people. At that time, my mother – a business leader and community builder – was concerned there was no effective way for residents to communicate with each other. Of course, she did the only logical thing and started the first newspaper, The McMurray Courier (now the Fort McMurray Today). With forethought, she kept a bound copy of each issue to preserve what she knew would be the history Fort McMurray was making.
We watched countless float planes, boats, canoes and people from all over the world arrive. Many of them saw the beauty and opportunity and never left. And because of oil sands jobs being created in Fort McMurray, my parents, like others, were able to employ thousands of people over the years, helping them to grow their families, put down roots, and create amazing lives in this beautiful region.
I’m telling these stories in the hope that those who slander our region and advocate against the oil sands might begin to understand a different perspective.
Not only is it made up of incredible people, families, businesses, and tradespeople, but it is also beautiful, clean and mostly untouched, unlike the lands in and around Canada’s bigger cities. Not only do we extract oil with the most stringent environmental standards in the world but we have provided millions of jobs, billions of tax dollars and an increased quality of life for all Canadians.
Throughout my many years serving and representing Northern Alberta, I have always emphasized these points. At this time, it is critical for everyone to understand that the future of Alberta and Canada will be shaped not only by those we attract to this region but also by those who set energy policy.
Fort McMurray can continue to provide Canadians and Albertans with an increased quality of life in a globally responsible manner as long as those we elect are clever enough to see the potential of our region and its people – past, present and future.
Brian Jean has called Fort McMurray home since 1967 and raised his family here. He served as Member of Parliament for the region and Parliamentary Secretary to the Federal Minister of Transport and Infrastructure as well as Member of the Legislative Assembly for the region, and Leader of the Official Opposition in Alberta.
Prior to public service, Brian practiced law for over a decade, primarily as a litigator and has owned and operated many successful businesses. He founded the Fort McMurray Business Revitalization Zone, served as a Director of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, and was President of the Downtown Business Association. He served as the Honorary Chair of the Children’s Health Foundation for Northern Alberta, Chair of the Alberta Summer Games Volunteer Committee, and Director of the Olympic Torch Committee for Fort McMurray. Brian also founded the Jean Family Aboriginal Scholarship for aboriginal students applying to Keyano College, where he taught statistics and business law.
I have been an oil sands advocate for just over seven years. I’m proud to say that I was there at the very beginning shortly after Ezra Levant wrote his game-changing book, Ethical Oil, which began to shape the way Canadians saw the oil sands industry.
Over the last few years, I have seen the reputation of the oil sands go from incredibly bad to being cherished and praised by political leaders at all levels of government celebrating our amazing resource. Not so long ago, celebrities were using Fort McMurray and our industry to pump up their own brands and spread exaggerations and misinformation. For me, the catalyst was when Leonardo Di Caprio flew to Fort McMurray in a multimillion-dollar jet. I realized that something needed to be done at a grassroots level, so I helped create the I Love Oil Sands movement. People in Alberta were hungry for a way to express their support of the industry. They wanted to show the rest of Canada that they were proud of their jobs and proud of our industry.
I left the I Love Oil Sands movement in 2016 and went on to form a group that I still run called Oil Sands Strong. One of our first wins in the uneven, media hype-fueled conversations swirling around the industry was when I squared off with multi-millionaire international celebrity and hypocrite Jane Fonda. I’m very proud of this moment because it’s the very first time Fort McMurray stood up to celebrity eco-nonsense and to being used as a pawn in the eco-celebrity game.
Since then, I have travelled the country coast to coast speaking at pro-oil and gas rallies — big and small — and in every city, we have heard positive stories about how the oil sands benefit the lives of Canadians. Between COVID-19 and a convoy gone wrong, our movement lost its voice for a while, but we are reclaiming it.
When Premier Jason Kenney announced the opening of the Canadian Energy Centre, then known as the “War Room”, I was asked to attend the opening. I stood on stage and held up a sign to support this new collaborative effort. I felt very proud that we were finally collectively and assertively taken our newfound fortitude to the next level by joining the grassroots movement, industry partners and our provincial government.
Sometimes I wonder if this was the proper decision. Instead of continuing the fight, we seem to be accepting this nonsense of a “Just Transition” instead of celebrating the collective accomplishments of our amazing industry. I am no longer going to apologize or feel ashamed in any form that I support our fossil fuel industry. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as true “Green energy”. By adopting the narratives of our foes, we are setting Fort McMurray and our industry up to die the death of a thousand cuts – and our community will die along with it.
I’m going to do everything I can to stop that from happening. That is why I’m Oil Sands Strong. To the rest of Canada, if I’m fortunate enough that you read this: please turn on the news and watch what’s going on in the Middle East right now. No matter what political stripe you support as a Canadian and as a citizen of this amazing continent of North America, I’m sure we all agree that what is about to happen to the Afghan women and children now that the Taliban have taken back control is appalling, shameful, barbaric, and wrong. The more we can build our great nation and our resources, the stronger our country is; and the less reliant we are on OPEC dictator oil, the more we can showcase Canada as a strong and beautiful country with the potential to be a beacon of hope for the rest of the World.
Instead of vilifying and shaming our natural resource sector, we should be building it, celebrating it, and protecting it. It’s time for all Canadians to wake up and do the right thing.
Robbie Picard is a business owner and an internationally known Oil and Gas advocate. He started the I Love Oilsands campaign and founded Oil Sands Strong. He is best known for his confrontation with celebrity activist Jane Fonda.
Fort McMurray is a place of opportunity: to work, live, and thrive. While the oil sands are often the initial lure for people and businesses to come north (or west, east, or south), it’s the sense of community that keeps people here. My parents moved here in 1972 for work – my dad was a school principal and my mom a nurse – but they quickly discovered a beautiful landscape and a growing community that would provide their young family with opportunities.
Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo’s long list of impressive infrastructure – from our award-winning airport to North America’s largest recreational, leisure and community centre, to our golf courses – demonstrates a strong investment in making this place an attractive place for work-life balance.
As Suncor Energy prepares to become the operator of the Syncrude project by the end of this year, many local Fort McMurray business owners are contemplating what impact the change will have on their businesses and our community at large. As a local business owner myself, I see this as a positive sign for our region, and a strengthening of Canada’s position on the global energy stage. When we lead, we grow and grow stronger.
Neighbours across Highway 63, Suncor and Syncrude have been building the oil sands and the Fort McMurray community for over 40 years. Together, they will synergize and achieve scale to increase global competitiveness of a Canadian-owned business. Canada should be rightly proud of our ethical and environmental standards – the highest anywhere – for producing an energy source the world needs. Our country’s energy industry is committed to carbon capture and getting to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands operations by 2050. Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus Energy, Imperial Oil, MEG Energy and Suncor Energy have formed a unique alliance to accomplish this. Of course, it will take the collaboration of all players – the federal and provincial governments, Indigenous partners, environmentalists, and industry – working together to meet this goal. And together, we will do it.
For almost half a century, our region has been a leader in energy production and innovation. This spirit of innovation leads to new opportunities to diversify, such as Suncor’s collaboration with ATCO on a potential clean hydrogen project near Fort Saskatchewan.
While pursuing my nursing degree, I worked as a summer student at Suncor, then started my career at Syncrude as an occupational health nurse. In 2012, I founded Hines Health Services (HHS) out of my passion to provide optimal occupational health services with a customer-oriented approach to industry leaders in the Fort McMurray area and beyond. In the last decade, my business has continued to diversify, now offering medical staffing and dedicated Emergency Medical Services. We have hired over 200 people to assist with the COVID-19 pandemic response in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo. We have become a strategic partner to energy companies and health authorities in the region, in an effort to protect the health of our people and our economy.
It’s remarkable how many entrepreneurial success stories have come out of Fort McMurray. It’s a place of hard work, ingenuity, and resiliency. I believe these core values have forged a vibrant community that is contributing to the rest of Canada and beyond.
Kristi Hines, Founder and Director of Hines Health Services in Fort McMurray, is Chair of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and the first female Chair in the Chamber’s 125-year history, Treasurer of the Alberta Chambers of Commerce executive committee, serves on the Board of Directors of the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development and Tourism. She is a business leader in occupational health, workplace safety and emergency medical services. A registered nurse, Kristi holds a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the University of Alberta (collaborative program with Keyano College) and an Occupational Health Nurse Graduate Specialty Diploma (with Distinguished Honours) from St. Lawrence College. Hines Health Services provides professional occupational health services in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and across Canada. https://www.hineshealth.ca.
Two-Spirited, Métis, Drag Queen and an Oil Sands Professional. To many that may sound like an oxymoron, but it is my reality. As I approach my 10 years of calling Fort McMurray home, I’m amazed at how much growth and change I have seen in this region. What most people don’t know about this region is the pride we have in both our industry and our community.
Like most people my family was brought to the region by the job opportunities. I came to live with my family here, while I got my Business Diploma at Keyano. What started as a two to three-year plan just to go to school, has turned into nearly a decade and a successful career, thanks to the community that I have found here.
When I think back to the week after I arrived in town, there was an attempt to have a Pride celebration. I didn’t want to attend, which ended up being for the best. To say it didn’t go well would be an understatement. Now, nine years later we have a week-long Pride Festival with over 1,500 attendees. We have a growing drag scene with frequent shows and other drag entertainment options, like Bingo and Paint Night. The queer community in Fort McMurray is more visible and tight-knit than ever before.
Working in the energy industry, I have seen that same shift first-hand as inclusion becomes more of a focus to companies. Inclusion and Diversity moments that coincide with safety moments have become more of the norm. Industry has learned that safety in the workplace includes psychological safety, which only comes from an innate sense of belonging. The support and growth of Employee Inclusion Networks that both foster a sense of belonging and create opportunities to educate are part of this shift.
Have I had to deal with blatant homophobia as well as more subtle microaggressions? Absolutely, but I encounter less of it every year. As awareness surrounding 2SLGBTQ+ issues increases, our allies are more empowered to stand up and provide support. In the past where people would stand by and allow homophobia to happen, people are now standing up and using their voices to shut it down.
One of my favourite things I get to do is bring some of my closest friends to town to perform with me. They each come with their own preconceived notions of what Fort McMurray is and by the time they leave, each of them has a completely different opinion. They can see the community that has been built here, they can feel the love and support that’s grown here, it’s palpable. Getting to show off my hometown is such a privilege.
Let’s be honest: people come here to work, but they won’t stay if there’s nothing to do when they’re off. Arts and entertainment are a huge part of this community and we have them in abundance. From theatre productions, to open mics, from drag shows to comedy shows, there is something for everyone. Many people would be surprised by the level of talent that is in this region but for those that live here and seek it out you already know it. If your idea of Fort McMurray is just a bunch of rig workers and dive bars, I challenge you to look a little deeper cause there’s a lot more here below the surface.
Mitchel Bowers is a Métis 2 Spirit Drag Queen mostly known by their stage name Simma Downe. As Simma, they have been performing in drag all across Canada for over five years. Her campy style and larger than life personality have made her one to watch. She has won numerous awards and titles including a Halifax High Heel Award, a Pride YMM Leadership Award and a Arts Council Wood Buffalo Buffy Award. As a founding member of the Oil Royals, she has helped create the drag scene in Fort McMurray. Out of drag, Mitchel is the Chair of Pride YMM, the vice-chair of RACIDE and a Director for Art’s Council Wood Buffalo.
Like many people I have met in Fort McMurray, I’m not originally from here. I’m a first-generation Canadian, raised in Vancouver where my parents settled after moving to Canada from the Netherlands.
I moved to Fort McMurray five years ago, to take the position of President & CEO of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority. At the time, the Fort McMurray International Airport (YMM) was one of the top 12 airports in Canada. I was excited at the opportunity to be part of something big – we’ve all heard of Fort McMurray being referred to as the “economic driver of Canada.” I couldn’t wait to lead one of the crown jewels of the community and region.
YMM is the gateway to the north, connecting and supporting residents, visitors and the many operators, investors, suppliers, and workforce associated with our oil sands industry. The relationship between the oil sands and YMM’s activity and success is evident. When the industry is thriving, so are we.
Fort McMurray has had challenges in recent years, including a significant market adjustment, resulting in low oil prices and a changing investment climate. But we do not let that get in the way of celebrating our successes as an oil sands industry, airport, community, and region. We endure the ups and downs together. Now, more than ever, it’s critical we continue our work together to attract and retain residents, workforce, and investment in our region.
While I originally came to Fort McMurray for the professional opportunity, I have come to discover just how much the region has to offer: from the community-minded people, beautiful Birchwood Trails and surrounding boreal forests, state-of-the-art recreational facilities, to the rich indigenous roots. People come here from all over the world to find jobs, start a business and experience a quality of life that is unique in Canada.
By offering flight services throughout the pandemic, YMM has continued to meet travel demand. Thus, delivering on our mandate to be a community-serving organization, ensuring our region’s needs are met and the oil sands industry remains strong.
YMM is ready to get you where you want to go safely, so we can all reconnect with our loved ones, grow our businesses, and contribute to the economic well-being of this place we call home.
With passenger numbers increasing month over month, I believe the future is bright for the oil sands industry, airport, and Fort McMurray / Wood Buffalo as a whole.
RJ Steenstra is a turnaround catalyst and agile executive leader who transforms airport authorities into thriving and sustainable enterprises. He joined the Fort McMurray Airport Authority in 2016 and has since chartered a new course for the Airport Authority focused on revenue diversification, fiscal responsibility, and employee engagement. He is a leading voice in the industry, at both a national and international level, being repeatedly called upon to contribute, speak or present at national, transborder, and global conferences and events. RJ’s commitment to serving his community and industry is demonstrated through his many roles on boards, committees and general volunteerism.