Tuesday, November 29, 2005

$16.00 Bucks an Hour to Flip Burgers!

Sounds great but there is a downside to living in Northern Alberta: It's 40 below, your 300 miles from anywhere, a single room rents for $800.00 per month and there's nothing to do but smoke crack-Here's an amazing story on life in a frontier boomtown, Fort McMurray:

Boomtown faces major social challenges

Fort McMurray is a boomtown on steroids, so much so that it makes Calgary’s boom seem insignificant in comparison.

Pickup trucks continually jam the Tim Horton’s drive-through lane, and long lineups often wind outside the doors of local restaurants. All over the city of 61,000 you see lines of men waiting in their work gear to get picked up by Diversified Staffing buses and driven to the oilsands for their shift. The oilsands are in operation 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, which means there’s always traffic on the roads.

Every small business in Fort McMurray is desperate for employees to serve the continuous stream of customers. The Brick is offering $18 an hour for a sales representative, Dairy Queen is willing to pay $13 to $16 an hour. McDonald’s is offering full-time benefits for those slinging fries, and promises "to work around your schedule." Locals complain about having to wait in long lineups at the grocery store because there aren’t enough cashiers to fill all the checkout aisles.

Fort McMurray is essentially the Dawson City of the 21st century, except instead of gold there is a whole hell of a lot of oil and it’s enticing people from all over Canada, and even the world, to seek their fortunes.

There are many people living comfortable middle- or upper-class lifestyles in the remote northern Alberta city, but not everyone. Hundreds of people live in campgrounds, some year-round, because housing is too expensive for them. An average single detached house cost $430,000 this month. In October, two-bedroom apartments were advertised for as much as $2,500 a month and a single room without a private kitchen or bathroom was advertised for $800 a month. The Regional Issues Working Group estimates 6,000 new housing units will be required in order to meet demand for housing by 2010.

In mid-October when Fast Forward visited a couple of Fort McMurray campgrounds, campers were preparing for winter by taping insulation on to the outside of their RVs or fifth wheels.

Vera Gladue lives in a converted school bus equipped with a wood stove. She is housekeeping at a local hotel and can’t afford to buy or rent anything in Fort McMurray.

"It’s so expensive to live in town. It’s a lot cheaper here," she says.

Gladue and her husband spent last winter in the campground as well, but she says she’s noticed more campers planning to stay year-round this year.

"Sometimes I’m sick of living here. There’s not a lot of space. It’s pretty cluttered," says Gladue. "It’s all right to live here in the summer, but not year-round. I hope it’s my last winter."

Karen Charlton lives in the same campground in a 24-foot RV with her five-year-old grandson, her 19-year-old son, her husband, two cockatiels, a cat and a dog. This will be their second winter in the campground as well – they can’t afford housing in town. Charlton says last winter was fine, except for the time trees fell onto campsites during a big storm.

"There was one that came through a friend’s trailer right beside her TV," she says. "When the trees come down, they come down pretty good. We were OK where we were."

Charlton’s RV is crammed with family photos and knick-knacks. She says even though the family gave away most of their wordly possessions before moving into the RV, it’s still hard to find enough space. For example, the cat’s litter box is currently in the bathtub.

But Charlton is surprisingly positive about the fact that she and her family are living in a campground and could be for some time. She says she likes the close-knit campground community and finds the northern Alberta scenery to be beautiful. Prior to moving to Fort McMurray, the family lived in Cold Lake, where they couldn’t find any work.

"There’s a lot of people that come up for work and they’re struggling. They’ve been out of work for a long time and this is the place to come," she says. "The steady job is here and we’re getting some money saved through RRSPs."

At another local campground, Denis and Pauline Landry are preparing to spend their first winter in their brand new RV. They lived in the community for 12 years previously and owned a house, but they sold it, and moved away not expecting to return. However, after buying their dream house on Newfoundland’s coast, they realized they had to return to Fort McMurray to make some more money for retirement.

"I’m not going back in debt for the rest of my life for a house," says Denis. "We didn’t really want to come back, but this is where the work is and the money is."

They’ve already got a plan in place if the weather gets too frigid.

"If it gets down to -30 C and -40 C and we can’t stay here, we’ve got lots of friends and family we can stay with," says Pauline.

Denis says there are lots of people from Newfoundland working in Fort McMurray and saving up to retire on the rock.

"You don’t need much to live in Newfoundland," he says.

Rod McDonald, executive director of the United Way, says oilsands employees tend to do well in Fort McMurray, but for almost everyone else it can be tough to afford to live in the community.

It’s difficult for social service agencies to recruit and retain employees, he says, because they can’t pay employees enough to factor in the cost of living. In some cases, small businesses are paying their employees more than social service agencies can afford to.

"The social service sector can’t compete with fast food restaurants," says McDonald.

Even RCMP officers, teachers and nurses, who would normally be middle-class, find it tough to get by due to the cost of housing, he says.

"They’re all really up against it here," he says.

In Fort McMurray you can qualify for low-income housing if you make a combined family income of $60,500 a year.

"It’s unlike anything else I’m aware of in Canada right now. It’s kind of exciting. It’s almost like being caught up in the old gold rush. You really feel like pioneers up here, but there are issues that go along with it," says McDonald. "It’s not all a bowl of gravy…. We get people who hear the stories about the prosperity that’s in this region and they throw their family in their station wagon and all their belongings and they show up here and they expect that they’re right away going to be able to go to work, but they get here and the reality sinks in."

The reality is that if you are a skilled tradesperson or an engineer, you can make a lot of money, but if you’re not working at the oilsands, getting by is tougher.

"They soon find out that, that job at $15 or $18 an hour that sounds pretty good when you show up in Fort McMurray, when you go to rent accommodations and cope with the other higher costs of living that are here, you find it’s just not nearly enough," says McDonald.

He says people then end up in campgrounds or the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter.

Fort McMurray conducted its first homeless count in November 2004 and found there were 355 homeless people. However, Edna Moman, executive director of the Centre of Hope, says she estimates that number has gone up by at least a hundred in the last year.

The Centre of Hope is a house on Fort McMurray’s main street that’s been converted into a drop-in centre for the homeless. On a cold winter afternoon, the centre is packed with homeless people hanging out on the black leather furniture and watching TV.

Moman says people often arrive in Fort McMurray thinking $1,000 or $1,500 will tide them over until their first paycheque, and then discover they can’t rent anything at all for that.

"Some have come thinking that this really is the land of opportunity… and they’re working in the service industry and they haven’t got enough money to pay the rent of an apartment," she says. "Many of us have said we really haven’t got a middle class. We have the upper middle class, who can afford the big-ticket house, and then we have those who struggle here on a daily basis."

Dave, who would only give his first name to Fast Forward, is a regular Centre of Hope client. He’s been living in the bush outside Fort McMurray for the past two years trying to recover from a crack cocaine addiction.

Dave is an instrument mechanic who says he was making $3,000 a week working at an oilsands company, and spent it all on crack.

"It wasn’t logical for me to work. I would have $3,000 in my pocket Friday night and Monday morning I was bumming smokes, so why should I work? It was hurting me more than helping me because I spent that amount of money," says Dave. "With nothing, I can’t use (crack) that much. My biggest fear is the money."

Dave says crack is huge in Fort McMurray and many other people are in the same situation as him.

"I don’t really like it here because of what it’s done to me or what I’ve done to myself here. I don’t have good memories," he says of the city.

Moman says Fort McMurray needs an expanded detox centre where people can dry out and an alcohol and drug treatment centre where people can get long-term treatment. She says the community is also in dire need of more affordable housing.

Much of the land around Fort McMurray is Crown land owned by the provincial government. The government has promised to sell close to 1,000 acres of Crown land to developers. The province expects that 6,000 housing units will be built on that land over the coming years. Jason Chance, spokesperson for Seniors and Community Support, says developers will be required to "explain how they will contribute to the overall affordability of housing in Fort McMurray." Chance says 310 affordable housing units have been built with joint federal and provincial funding in Fort McMurray since 2002.

Gilles Huizinga, chief administrative officer of the Wood Buffalo Housing and Development Corporation, says the corporation plans to have 875 new affordable housing units built by 2009.

"We feel in the next two years we will start seeing real catch up… and the market will start seeing some modest stability," he says.

Despite the obvious social challenges facing Fort McMurray, many longtime residents have a fierce loyalty towards their community and become easily annoyed about any negative media coverage.

At the end of an oilsands tour, Alain Moore, a media relations spokesperson for Syncrude, took Fast Forward on a tour of one of Fort McMurray’s new suburban neighbourhoods.

"It looks like northwest Calgary," he says, pointing out young mothers pushing toddlers in strollers and joking that the crying kid in the stroller isn’t representative of the average Fort McMurray child.

Moore’s parents are from Newfoundland and moved to the community decades ago. Now they have grandchildren there, including Moore’s three-year-old son, and no plans to leave. He says he and his wife are able to hang out with lots of couples with children because Fort McMurray has a young population.

"I like it. A lot of us like it. That’s why we’re very protective. We don’t always like the way our community is depicted in the media," says Moore. "McMurray is a great place in a lot of ways because a lot of people are from somewhere else. It’s a very warm community as a newcomer. People are very accommodating to new people. We often have a saying, ‘Fort McMurray is a community where your neighbour becomes your family.’ A lot of your extended family are somewhere else because you came here and started a career… so a lot of people are able to build a social and support network with their friends and neighbours."

Moore says Fort McMurray has a strong community spirit – 5,000 people volunteered when the city hosted the Arctic Winter Games, and it has one of the highest per capita donation rates to the United Way in Canada.

Moman has also lived in the community for decades and now has grandchildren there.

"I love Fort McMurray. Fort McMurray is our home and our grandchildren are here and we’ll retire here," she says. "I’ve heard so many negative comments about Fort McMurray and as an oldtimer and a person who has a vested interest in this community, I get a little annoyed because I live quite happily here."

However, Moman says she’s concerned Fort McMurray is losing its small-town feel as the population grows so quickly.

"It used to be a fairly laid-back, easy-going community and now it’s hustle and bustle and some of those small-town components have been washed away," she says. "Many days it feels to me like people are just here for the buck."


Anonymous Roy said...

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9:27 PM  

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