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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Near the oil sands

FT. MCMURRAY, ALBERTA -- In this somewhat overpriced hotel room, I can smell, not so faintly, oil. This place is boom town, revisited.

In 1980, upon my return from Africa and despite some useful credentials and experience, there were no newspaper jobs available -- two major Canadian dailies had just closed their doors, flooding the job market. But I was offered a job at the Ft. McMurray Today.
I declined, knowing that living costs would be outrageous and if I had any real intent of meeting the woman of my dreams and starting a family with her, Ft. McMurray would be the last place to go. I ended up in Ottawa, instead, working as a PR person for the federal government, with good money and benefits, and a working environment that stifled my independence and entrepreneurial spirit. Still, I don't regret the Ottawa choice. Despite the efforts of some local boosters, Ft. McMurray is a place right now to visit, make some money, and leave. In many ways it is the same town it was in the late 70s -- just a whole lot larger.

After meetings with senior executives at PCL and Stantec in Edmonton-- I've written a story which, once editing is complete in the next day or two, I'll publish in our Canadian newspapers and post on the websites -- I took the bus to Ft. McMurray. The five hour bus ride turned out to be an experience, but not quite as dramatic as I thought it might be. The bus company has one simple rule it strictly enforces -- no drugs or alcohol are allowed on board. (The driver said he welcomes reports from any passengers noticing abuse; if it happens, the offender will be invited to leave the bus at a safe, lighted spot.)

Chugging northward, for five hours, we watched a couple of movies on tvs in the bus, checked in with our cell phones, and I spent a fair bit of time reviewing business strategies and issues on my laptop. Along and along the bus went, through the darkness and cold on a two-lane road. I could see other trucks and buses going both ways; the scale and distance impressed me. There were a few women on the bus, but as I thought, most were guys, and most got off in Ft. McMurray at the transfer point for local transit to the Oil Sands camps.

Then, dropped off at a desolate and dark bus station, I realized I didn't exactly know how to get to my hotel. "Do you know where the Raddison is," I asked the driver. "No," he said. "I know nothing about Fort McMurray except that it is a place I leave as soon as I arrive." Then he got in his bus and drove it, empty, back to Edmonton.

So I walked, and walked, along the cold Franklin Street, seeing buildings, schools, stores, and the like, before finding a gas station and convenience store. The person behind the cash register called a taxi for me, and I eventually got to the hotel.

The hotel desk clerk, the taxi driver, the person who helped call the cab for me; they are all from somewhere else -- the taxi driver said he is one of 2,000 Somalis in Ft. McMurray. Health services, schools and community facilities are limited; but if you wish to buy a pick-up truck and have bad credit, someone will be able to help you.

In a few minutes, I'll be heading to the airport for my flight back home via Toronto. The Fort McMurray Today is still a daily newspaper, but I think, indeed, I've had enough of this city for now.

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