Syncrude plant, 1978. Photo by Glenbow Archives (NA-5059-4)

Editor’s note: When Winnipeg writer Larry Krotz visited Fort McMurray, Alta., in late 1977, the town’s population stood at 20,000 — for the moment. Newcomers were arriving in the oilsands boom town at a rate of four families a day. But Krotz noted that the average stay was just two years. “If you stay for five years, you are a veteran,” he wrote in The Observer 40 years ago this month. Ministering to a transient community posed real challenges for the new United Church minister, Rev. Dale Irving, who conducted services in a school auditorium. A permanent United Church building that opened in 1983 escaped damage in the 2016 wildfires that destroyed an estimated 2,400 buildings in the area. Today, congregation numbers continue to ebb and flow with fluctuations in oil prices. No longer a separate city but a population centre within a regional municipality, Fort McMurray is now home to about 73,500 people. A recent census placed the transient worker population in the region at more than 40,000.

In Canada’s instant towns, where everybody is from somewhere else, the only roots are in the church.

Fort McMurray, Alta. has 20,000 people. But it only recently opened a community cemetery. The truth is that few people die in Fort McMurray and most of those who do want to be buried somewhere else. Fort McMurray, in the words of its United Church minister, Dale Irving, is a town where people go to work rather than to live, and that makes all the difference.

Fort McMurray is commonly called a boom town. It is the residential and supply centre for the massive oil mining projects on the Athabaska tar sands 270 miles north-east of Edmonton. Two oil extraction plans are now operating, Great Canadian Oil Sands and Syncrude; there is talk of starting a third this year. Fifteen years ago, Fort McMurray was a tiny fur trapping and river shipping town of 600. People speculate that its population by the end of the century could be 60,000.

Though Fort McMurray is different, it is not unique. In a sense, it represents the "new Canada," a string of one-industry resource towns that stretch from west to east across the resource frontier. They spring up in months rather than years — often built by the company that is doing the resource extraction. Though isolated from the southern string of settlements that we otherwise call Canada, they do not look like northern towns. They attempt to reproduce a southern suburban atmosphere, through housing services and life-style, to replace the communities the largely professional residents of the new town have left behind. No expense, from subsidized housing to lavish recreational clubs, is spared.

Pierre Berton, writing in Maclean’s in 1958 about Kitimat, B.C., described a pristine town of new bungalows and green lawns. He also called it "a town without a main street, without a downtown, and without slums, but with the largest beer parlour in Canada. Although there are 3,500 children, half the men are without women, there are scarcely any old people and there’s a single girl to every ten bachelors."

That was 20 years ago. We have been producing Kitimats in much the same form ever since. They have names that elicit visions of wealth and ready jobs; names like Thompson, Elliot Lake, Schefferville, Labrador City and, of course, Fort McMurray. As our resource extraction economy continues to expand, as it seems it will, there will be more such towns; more of us will live in them. Why they are built, how they are built, how they last and what we may expect from them are questions that will become even more important.

Important to church people is what these towns mean to our traditional views of community and of ministry. Though we may try, some things prevent us from transposing southern ministries intact to places like Fort McMurray.

The United Church was not part of Fort McMurray before it boomed. As in most northern places, ministry was historically divided between Roman Catholics and Anglicans. In 1967, when the population began to grow, the United Church started flying in a minister from Edmonton every second Sunday. The first full-time United Church minister arrived in 1971. The current minister, Dale Irving, has been there with his wife Chery and two children since 1974. Irving, a short, quiet-spoken man with rusty hair and a bushy mustache, says he came to Fort McMurray specifically for the challenge of a growing town. There is no United Church building, though a start will be made on one this year. He has his office in the Anglican church, and his congregation of 140 meets in a school auditorium. There are 200 children enrolled in the United Church Sunday School.

Dale Irving says he personally like to use community facilities, such as the school, rather than pour money into a separate building. But he observes that in a place like Fort McMurray most people both miss and need the structure of a church because everything else around them is so transitory.

The transitory nature of the community is the first distinction to be made between our resource towns and the Canada with which most of us are familiar. In Fort McMurray the average stay is two years. That two years makes you an old-timer. If you stay five years, you are a veteran. Most people are oil company employees, for whom Fort McMurray is one stop in a string that includes Sarnia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and the Mackenzie delta. Dale Irving says that most people invariably have plans to settle somewhere else. The annual turnover in the schools is about 50 per cent.

In such a town, where people come to work for a while but not to retire or die, or even to call the place home, Irving feels his greatest challenge is to build up the church. But he adds, “It is a difficult town in which to find church families unless they come forward. Church families who come in from elsewhere often go into hibernation for a year while they are here.”

The transience makes it hard to get people involved. Irving admits it will be hard to build a church with a congregation that won’t be there long enough to use it. It also creates severed leadership problems. Dale Irving says, “We lose key people every year. In my first year here, the chairman of the board was unexpectedly called back to Edmonton a month after I arrived. The same thing happened with the Sunday school superintendent.”

After transience, a second characteristic of Fort McMurray and other instant towns is the amount and speed of change.

United Church people Clifford and Sally Grant underline this. The Grants moved to Fort McMurray from Nova Scotia in 1976 when Clifford took a job as counsellor at the composite high school. Says Sally about the transitory nature of the town, “This was the first time we had been in a place where people weren’t settled. We would get to know people and they would suddenly leave. Five women left from the UCW. Clifford bought so many farewell mugs he got to know the salesgirl at the china shop by her first name.”

After transience, a second characteristic of Fort McMurray and other instant towns is the amount and speed of change. Four families a day continue to move in. The town is perpetually under construction. Families move in at one end of a street while at the other end, foundations are still being dug. In 1976, Fort McMurray issued building permits worth almost $90 million and ranked ninth in western Canada in construction starts, just behind larger cities such as Edmonton, Vancouver and Burnaby, B.C.

Every day, town landmarks disappear. People complain that commercial, social and recreational services have not kept up with population growth. The schools say they are a year behind the houses in their construction. The police say they are understaffed. Even the mayor, Chuck Knight, says that he would like to see things slow down. For Dale Irving, the second great challenge is to keep on top of this constant change and to gather people in spite of it.

There is, to be sure, a certain excitement generated by the constant station that disappeared one morning when the new highway into town was being built. To a degree, people expect disruptions and tolerate them as people in more settled communities never would. But the change also take its toll in disorientation and loneliness. Dale Irving feels that one of his important tasks is counselling. He spends a half day each week working out of the Community Counselling office and a public social service centre, and counsels through the church. “There is a lot of loneliness in this town,” he said from that experience.

Part of it results from the changes and the transience. Part of it is from the isolation. There is isolation from Edmonton, which represents the rest of the world; and because of the town’s layout with scattered suburbs, isolation from other residents. It is difficult for women who don’t have jobs or interests outside the home. It is difficult for those who find it hard to join. Fort McMurray is a town of opposites. You are in or you are out. People are either totally involved or not involved at all. It is a great community for those who find it easy to join. If you join one organization, you can end up joining 20. If you are backward about joining, you can quickly find there is nothing to do.

“People who are fairly well adjusted have no problems living here, “ Dale Irving says. “But some people come here already having disrupting family problems. They think that perhaps the big money to be made working up here will alleviate their personal problems and they sacrifice everything for those financial gains.” It doesn’t work. Irving does not claim that there are more disturbed people in a boom town than anywhere else. But he makes it clear that a transitory, changing place can compound their difficulties.

Fort McMurray lacks some things that other communities depend on for community and family and personal stability. It is a town with few traditions. There is evidence that annual events such as the winter carnival or the summer blueberry festival are pursued vigorously by the townspeople in an effort to start some of the traditions that make a community. But people come and go so quickly that on-going leadership is hard to achieve.

Fort McMurray is also a town without the extended families that many of us take for granted. It is a town of many children but few or no uncles, aunts and grandparents. One person told me that if you see an old person on the street whom you recognize, you know it is a visitor.

To compensate for all of these things, every Friday night sees a two-hour traffic jam on the road heading south to Edmonton.

To be fair, there are balances to the seemingly negative aspects of living in a new town, a boom town. While Fort McMurray may be short on the traditions that create the framework for a community, it is similarly not stifled by the traditions that make some older town choked, hard to break into. John McFarland, a United Church man an an engineer who has been in Fort McMurray for four years, says, “We found it easier to move in here than other places because everyone was looking for friends; no one was established. We found that we all had something in common because we were all new.”

McFarland admits to having a restless temperament that sees him rarely wanting to stay in one place more than four of five years. For him, Fort McMurray is perfect. Clifford Grant says it is easier to get involved in Fort McMurray because people are eager to have you join. “I’m chairman of the board of the United Church after being here only one year. Nowhere else could that happen.”

Dale Irving says that the informality of their meeting in a school auditorium has given the United Church the reputation of being a friendly group in town. “People come closer together through the physical activity of setting up chairs to get ready for church. In a city church, you might not say anything to anyone for six months except hello to the minister. He adds that though he is depressed every spring when people leave, he knows that a new group invariably arrives every fall and the empty leadership slots are filled.

But these things don’t change the fact that Fort McMurray can be a difficult place to live and work. The Fort McMurrays of Canada are really communities caught between two worlds. They cannot be understood from the standpoint of traditional southern communities.  The people who want instant Edmonton are bound to be disappointed. Neither can they be understood in terms of simpler northern frontier towns. Since rapid change is their central unifying characteristic, they are almost impossible to study: they won’t hold still long enough. Physically, they are created by our own needs. They are built by the boundless optimism of engineers who believe that anything is possible. Socially, it is another question. We mix into them the people who are required to get a certain job done, and pray that it will all work. A lot is left to chance.

For the church, the challenge is massive, and it is not lost on people like Dale Irving. The church can do its best with clergy who are sensitive to the loneliness and hurts of individuals, and who are not easily frustrated by the huge organizational task of pulling a church together in such a place.

But could it be done better? Could better planning and preparation make the church’s work easier and more effective? Ecumenical co-operation and church environment in the early planning of the community are partial answers, say some.

Ryk Allen, on the staff of the Manitoba Conference of the United Church in Winnipeg, has experience with northern resource towns through a stint at Red Lake, Ont. He says that, invariably, the church has not been involved in planning new towns. The towns are built by the company extracting the resource; the churches come in after and try to pick up the pieces. Rarely is there an ecumenical thrust that would make both good use of buildings and good community development sense. “To my knowledge,” says Allen, “we have never been involved in the planning of a new town, nor do I know of any urban planner on church staff.”

Dale Irving agrees. “We’re an afterthought, usually, and have little to do in the town plan but to pick church sites.” He feels that the church could make a contribution through humanizing the planning process and making sure that the kinds of services that make a community more livable are provided. He also sees an ecumenical approach as being important in achieving that but emphasizes that the churches need to get together before they can expect developers to take them seriously.

The new boom communities – these suburbs built in the wilderness where people live in comfort but keep their bags packed, where only work unites them and not family or tradition or history – demand very special ministries. And they ask the church to be prepared to provide them. The Fort McMurrays are on the cutting edge. As the northward push for resources is intensified, there will be more such towns. Many more. And many more of us will live in them.

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