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Making Fort McMurray Home: Space and Place on Canada’s New Frontier of Oil Production

Se sentir chez soi à Fort McMurray: Notions d’espace et de lieu sur le front pionnier pétrolier canadien
Sentirse como en casa en Fort McMurray: nociones de espacio y lugar en el frente pionero petrolero canadiense
Sentir-se em casa em Fort McMurray: noções de espaço e de lugar na frente pioneira petrolífera canadense
Sandrine Tolazzi


La ville de Fort McMurray, au nord de l’Alberta, accueille depuis les années 2000 des dizaines de milliers de nouveaux arrivants attirés par les hauts salaires d’une industrie des sables bitumineux en pleine croissance. Dans ce contexte, il est primordial pour la municipalité et pour les entreprises de faire en sorte que les employés et leurs familles s’installent de manière durable pour parvenir à établir une véritable communauté. Cet article vise à expliquer comment ce défi est appréhendé en prenant pour cadre théorique les travaux de géographes humanistes tels que Yi-Fu Tuan ou Edward Relph, afin de mieux définir les concepts d’espace et de lieu, et donc d’expliquer ce qui est entendu par “se sentir chez soi à Fort McMurray.” Il s’appuiera sur des travaux de terrain menés en octobre 2014 qui viendront souligner les différentes stratégies mises en place par la municipalité et les entreprises du secteur des sables bitumineux afin de définir l’identité de la ville et de faire en sorte que ses habitants puissent adhérer à cette définition. Enfin, il s’intéressera au rôle joué par le secteur associatif dans l’attachement de la communauté au lieu. A partir des concepts d’espace et de lieu développés par la géographie humaniste, cet article vise à analyser la manière dont cet enjeu est abordé.

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  • 1 The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, founded in 1995, is a result of the amalgamation of the (...)

1Though its written history goes back to the 1770s, when independent fur traders formed a joint venture in the area (Huberman 7), the city of Fort McMurray, 435 km north of Edmonton, Alberta, came to be known more recently throughout Canada because of another resource which is at the heart of today’s global battle for energy: oil. Indeed, Fort McMurray lies over oil-rich sand deposits from which an estimated 175 billion barrels could be recovered, making Canada’s oil reserves third only to Venezuela and Saudi Arabia (Le Riche 11). But while scientists started to speculate over the potential of the oil sands as early as the 1880s, it was not until 1964 that Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS) moved in, bringing newcomers that irredeemably altered Fort McMurray’s character while multiplying its population by five in the span of a decade (Huberman 204). However, this was nothing compared to the developments of the 1990s, and then the first decade of the 21st century, when the geopolitical context forced many countries to turn away from the Middle-East and look to Canada for their oil supplies. Even though oil is much more difficult, and therefore more costly, to extract from the oil sands than from conventional sources, the general rise in oil prices and the need to turn to safer suppliers increased the demand to such an extent that by 2013, 1.98 million barrels per day were produced in the oil sands–which made Canada the United States’ main oil supplier (CERI ix). Meanwhile, the total population of the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo, of which Fort McMurray had become a part, had more than doubled in ten years:1 it reached 116,407 people in 2012, stretching the city’s infrastructure to its limits (Regional Municipality, Census, 28).

2What the 2012 census also shows is that, out of the 116,407 people living in the Wood Buffalo municipality, 72,944 (62.6%) lived in the city of Fort McMurray while 39,271 (33.7%) lived in the work camps built to accommodate temporary workers (Regional Municipality, Census, 17). These workers, who usually come for a few days or weeks at a time, form a “shadow population” seen as disruptive to the less transient population: they are “the people who come to make a quick dollar and get out,” putting pressure on those “who come here and want to make a community of it” (Scowen). The municipality also believes that it is necessary to retain these workers so that their taxpayers’ dollars will not go elsewhere, while the city is bearing the brunt of an increased burden on its services. And companies themselves realize that in time, they will have to reduce their turnover if they want a reliable workforce (Wittmeier). Therefore, the main challenge in the future resides in “making Fort McMurray home” (Fort McMurray Tourism 60), so that the shadow population is reduced and the families who come to Fort McMurray stay for more than a few years. Drawing from geographers Yi-Fu Tuan and Edward Relph’s concepts of space and place, this paper will take a closer look at the ways the municipality, the oil sands companies, and the non-profit sector are dealing with this challenge. In order to do so, we will first study how humanistic geographers such as Yi-Fu Tuan and Edward Relph have defined the concepts of space and place so as to elaborate on this idea of “making Fort McMurray home.” Then, relying on field work conducted in October 2014, we will attempt to underline the ways the municipality and the oil sands companies are trying to frame the identity of Fort McMurray and promote identification with it. Finally, we will look into the part the non- profit sector plays in fostering a sense of place in this boom town.

  • 2 For a discussion on this idea of the “frontier”, see for example LeMenager (158).

3Representations of time, space and place in Fort McMurray attest to their existence as social constructs closely tied to the history of the development of one particular resource: the oil sands. Accounts of Fort McMurray’s history begin with the great flood that occurred almost 10,000 years ago, leaving the oil deposits north of Fort McMurray close to the surface. And even though it was not until the 1960s that the quiet town turned into a new frontier of oil production,2 narratives of the first expeditions of Peter Pond at the end of the 18th century, or John Franklin and John Richardson at the beginning of the 19th century, mention their interest for the substance “oozing from the banks of Lake Athabasca” (Huberman 7). Today, the organization of space in Fort McMurray is tied to the development of this resource, which makes an analysis of space and place according to David Harvey’s theory quite tempting. As a prominent thinker in Marxist geography, Harvey draws a link between Marx’s ideas about capital accumulation and the way space is shaped by capitalism, producing “new networks of places […] around which new territorial divisions of labour and concentrations of people and labour, new resource extraction activities and markets form,” and resulting in a geographical landscape which is “not evenly developed but strongly differentiated” (Harvey 7). Nowhere is this more true than in Fort McMurray, where roughly half of the population is employed in resource-based industries (Regional Municipality, Census, 95) and thus physically leaves the city every day or lives on-site.

4Yet, Harvey’s preoccupation with capitalism and how it produces an “economy of space” tends to act as a barrier to multiple interpretations of people’s relation to space and place in Fort McMurray, and in particular to the study of the subjective feeling of “belonging,” of “connection” with space and place – a concept which humanistic geography has sought to explore. As a discipline focused on human activity and on the individual’s interpretation of place, humanistic geography was defined more specifically in an article written in 1976 by Yi-Fu Tuan, one of its most prominent thinkers (Tuan 1976). Rejecting the “hard-science” approach to geography, Tuan sought to reflect on the more profound meaning of human existence as the experience of “Being-in-the-World,” and on the individual’s personal or collective relationship with the environment (Rodaway 426). Thus, Yi-Fu Tuan asserts that, rather than being an objective reality, geometrical space is actually cultural space, i.e. “a sophisticated human construct the adoption of which has enabled us to control nature to a degree hitherto impossible” (Tuan 1979, 389). The individual or collective spatial experience becomes what defines space. Within this context, place becomes a node in space which combines “spirit and personality” – the emotional link that people have with place – “sense of place” – a visual, aesthetic or sensory connection – and “stability.” It is manifested in public symbols, which make it significant, or “fields of care,” i.e. networks of interpersonal concerns which are tied to the environment, such as neighbourhoods (Tuan 1979, 408‑419). Following Tuan, Edward Relph also believes that space and place are social constructs, and that the two are dialectically linked. Rather than being an objective reality that can be scientifically defined or mapped and referred to as the location that “contains” place, space has to be understood in relation to the way people experience it (Seamon and Sowers 44). As an example, Walrus journalist and writer Taras Grescoe gives an account of Fort McMurray and its surroundings that shows the way he organizes space according to his personal experience of it. First, he provides his reader with a grim description of a “boom town” where:

the traffic really is murderous, there are liquor stores (many open until 2 a.m.) in every strip mall, and the place has a depressingly large population of desperately lonely guys blowing ridiculously fat paycheques on steroids, tattoos, monster trucks, and peelers.

5But then he experiences “the woods” of Fort McMurray very differently and expresses his surprise at “this secret that almost never comes out of the Mac”:

  • 3 The “coureurs de bois” (runners of the woods) were the French-Canadian woodsmen who roamed the wood (...)

Here, I walk among Jack pines, backlit and lichen draped, straight out of a Tom Thomson painting, and centenarian black spruce that soar skyward like the corner posts of a Scandinavian stave church. This is no flyover forest, some easily dismissed strip of scrubby green between cottage country and tundra. It is substantial woodland, the historic stomping ground of the coureurs de bois,3 the numinous homeland of Dene and Cree.

6He also identifies another type of “space” as he walks around the neighbourhoods:

Then, I’m in maze of tightly packed houses that could have been airlifted from the exurbs of Phoenix, Orlando, or Las Vegas. Every metre of curb space seems taken up by late-model SUVs, motorboats, four-by-fours, and radically lifted pickups. On the sidewalk, a woman in a jet black burka, pushes twins in a navy blue stroller, and at a half-finished playground down the street a half-dozen South Asian boys are schooling a good-humoured weightlifter in the finer points of cricket. This is another Fort McMurray you don’t hear about, a year-round community with bake sales, supermarkets, and elementary schools.

7Finally, as he flies over the oil sands, he writes:

From 1,000 feet, there is no hiding the operation’s staggering reach. […] The sweeping landscape of oil-slicked craters, rectangular tailing ponds, parched earth, and a cat’s cradle of dirt roads is beyond lunar. The boreal forest has been erased, probably forever.

8In Grescoe’s account of his own perception of space, we do not only have an idea of the organization of space as we can see it on a map – the city centre, the neighbourhoods, the trails and recreation areas, and the oil sands projects – we also understand his individual experience of space. Through the emotional charge that is conveyed in his account, we can also see that he has gone beyond “space” to experience a sense of “place,” as Tuan or Relph mean it. In the end, Grescoe can be said to have provided us with his own personal account of the identity of Fort McMurray as a place.

9Yet, it is useful to distinguish here between identity of a place and identity with a place. The latter depends on the intensity of the feelings of attachment a person or group has for a particular place (Seamon and Sowers 45). In the case of Fort McMurray, identity with the place can be linked to what it takes for its inhabitants to call it “home.” The individual’s identity with a place is all the more important as more recent philosophers and humanistic geographers like Jeff Malpas have underlined the fact that place itself is also constitutive of one’s identity (Malpas 2‑4), thus bringing another dialectical link between people, space, and place. Keeping this in mind, we will now look into the role of the town council as well as the oil sands industry in shaping Fort McMurray’s identity and, in turn, the identity of its inhabitants.

10Given the fact that the history of Fort McMurray is closely linked to the development of the oil sands, and that space has also been shaped by the industry, it would be hard not to include this element when trying to promote representations of Fort McMurray as a place. Yet, images of trucks the size of a house hauling ore across the scarred land, or stories of wildlife dying among toxic tailings ponds are not bound to convey any emotional connection or feeling of attachment to the area. Therefore, the challenge resides in acknowledging the oil sands as part of Fort McMurray’s identity while putting some emphasis on the positive values associated to this identity and bringing to mind the other elements that may be constitutive of space and place in and around Fort McMurray.

11A quick look at the 2014 Visitor’s Guide published by Fort McMurray Tourism attests to the way the municipality would like space to be represented in people’s mind: though it does mention an oil sands tour organised by a company, it does not exactly state where the oil sands are located, but instead advises readers to visit the Oil Sands Discovery Centre and Heritage Park within Fort McMurray to learn more about their history, or to go to a reclaimed tailings pond which manifests the company’s efforts to reintroduce native plants and animals to the area. Some pages are devoted to the city and the attractions it can offer, either downtown with Peter Pond’s shopping centre and the restaurants, or in the different neighbourhoods where people can enjoy the urban park trail system, unless they want to take advantage of Canada’s largest recreational facility, MacDonald Island Park. But a lot of emphasis is also put on areas which are much more connected to nature, such as Wood Buffalo National Park or the Athabasca sand dunes, though the guide does not mention the fact that one is more than 500 km away from Fort McMurray, while the other is only accessible by boat or float plane. Getting out of the city to see the northern lights, staying at a fishing lodge, or going skiing figure among all the activities that are also mentioned. Space is therefore highly differentiated, and contact with nature strongly emphasized, which may appear as an attempt to move away from an identity that may be too closely linked with the oil sands industry. In doing this, the municipality tries to shape the identity of Fort McMurray as a place and to promote connection with it. It also tries to frame the representations of the community itself by showing a much more diverse group of people than what the media can portray – not the transient male oil workers with six-figure salaries blowing money on drugs and prostitutes, but men and women from all over the world involved in a whole range of activities. In fact, the 21 “Faces of Fort McMurray” displayed on the municipality’s Big Spirit website include a helicopter pilot, a maternity nurse, an imam, a cook, and even a buffalo herder but, interestingly enough, no oil sands worker. They are referred to as “the people who call this place home” and are said to be sharing a “desire to make the most of their lives here and to inspire others to discover a Fort McMurray they never knew.”

  • 4 Canada’s largest outdoor gym, built in 2009.

12Yet the oil sands industry seems to be what most people have in common in Fort McMurray. Without it, the helicopter pilot trying to give entrepreneurs “a more balanced approach to what’s actually going on here,” or the buffalo herder showing how managing wood bison can be done successfully under an oil sands operation would not have a job. The cook, whose parents came to Fort McMurray to work for Suncor, would have ignored the place. And the nurse would not have been able to reflect on how her job has given her “a greater perspective on how people live day to day in the oil sands.” In fact, the municipality itself would not have enough resources to work on building Fort McMurray’s identity as a place. Though it might not be directly apparent, places designed to be “fields of care” (to use Tuan’s terminology), such as the Birchwood trails and the outdoor green gym,4 were financed thanks to a tremendous increase in the municipality’s budget due to the taxes flowing from the oil companies: between 1998 and 2013, Wood Buffalo’s budget went from $65 million to $1.1 billion (Grescoe 23). Conversely, the more recent drop in oil prices leaves doubts as to whether the redevelopment of downtown Fort McMurray, with a new sports and entertainment centre set to become a new public symbol, will take place as planned (Wingrove).

13Oil companies also take an active role in developing a sense of place among Fort McMurrayites by financing some projects in a more direct manner. McDonald Island Park, another public symbol, thus hosts the Suncor Community Leisure Centre, the Syncrude Aquatic Centre, the Total Fitness Centre, and the brand new Shell Place, a multi-purpose stadium. Indeed, these companies – Suncor, Syncrude, Total and Shell – know that they will reduce their turnover if Fort McMurray becomes more attractive to families, which is why the city, with the collaboration of the oil giants, now offers more in terms of leisure and entertainment facilities than most cities of comparable size.

  • 5 This slogan can be found on a shirt featuring a big truck at the Oil Discovery Centre’s gift shop.

14Even though the municipality tries to promote a sense of place that does not exclusively relate to the oil sands activity, the fact that the history of Fort McMurray is closely tied to that of the oil sands, as the Heritage Park attests, is what gives stability to this sense of place. Moreover, the presence of the industry in the public symbols that define the city (such as the Oil Sands Discovery Centre), but also in the general connection that people have to the place, cannot be overlooked. Hence, the values associated to the economic activity of the city, such as masculinity, or a pioneering character, have become emblems of Fort McMurray, which can be traced all the way to the city’s slogan – Big Spirit – calling to mind the big projects, big trucks, and big companies in a place where “size matters.”5

  • 6 The Canadian company Suncor holds one of the largest positions in the oil sands.

15In a “boom town” which aspires to be a “family town” (Scowen), the municipality and the oil companies seem to be essential in defining the identity of the place. But they have also realized how important it is to foster a sense of community so that the dialectical relationship between the identity of a place and the identity of its inhabitants, as explained by Malpas, can be established. In Fort McMurray, the non-profit sector seems to be playing a particular role in creating this sense of community. With 110 social profit organizations, 70 registered charities, 4 public foundations and 1 private foundation, the municipality of Wood Buffalo can boast a wide range of organizations, employing 902 people in 2014 (FuseSocial, Bluebook, 2014, 7). More than half of the non-profit organizations are engaged in cultural and recreational activities–activities that are bound to be offered to the whole community and therefore ought to strengthen feelings of belonging among participants. The size of the non-profit sector attests to the fact that many people are engaging with their community and are concerned about its well-being. Recently, through the creation of FuseSocial, an agency which results from the merger of three organizations, Wood Buffalo has acquired a “backbone organization for the social profit sector” (FuseSocial, Annual Report, 2014, 3). With the financial help of the municipality of Wood Buffalo and the Suncor Foundation,6 FuseSocial seeks to help social profit organizations become stronger through capacity building programs. The goal is to build a better community (FuseSocial, “About Us”) – a goal that is shared by the two donors aforementioned. They have greatly contributed to the group’s revenue, which reached more than $1.6 million in 2014 (FuseSocial, Annual Report, 2014, 15).

  • 7 Lac Labiche is a municipal district which is also situated in northern Alberta and whose economy mo (...)

16Both the municipality and the oil sands companies finance a great number of individual organizations, in the hope that this will strengthen the community. In her 2014 speech on the state of the region, Mayor Melissa Blake expressed her satisfaction at seeing the municipality work closely with the non-profit organizations and explained that “business is the backbone to our economy… customers are the muscle, but our social profits and charities are the tendon… the tough tissue that brings together the muscle and bone.” Referring to the International Air Show that was about to take place in Fort McMurray, she said she was “delighted that the anticipated proceeds of the Air Show will donate no less than a hundred thousand dollars to local charities” (“State of the Region Address”). The Oil Sands Developers Group, which represents oil sands operators and developers, has also grown more concerned about the quality of life of the people who live in the region, and has recently changed its name to the Oil Sands Community Alliance (OSCA), in order to reflect its adoption of a more community-based approach (“About OSCA”). With a vision statement that includes pursuing “innovative solutions that help to build thriving communities” (“Q&A”), OSCA recognized in its first e-Newsletter, Community Connections, that a key for success lies in “providing the quality of life in our communities to ensure employees in the industry and their families come to live in the region not just work there.” It also mentioned that members made corporate donations of over $10 million in 2012 to groups and organizations in the Wood Buffalo and Lac Labiche regions,7 and that an additional $8 million was attributed to programs specifically aimed at Aboriginal communities (OSCA 2014).

17A 2014 personal interview with Mary Thomas, the executive director of the Multicultural Association of Wood Buffalo, confirmed that fundraising was no great challenge for them: the municipality and the industry were willing to support the different events that they organized – the latest had brought together around 2,000 people. Clearly, the organization’s vision matches it main sponsors’, since it is about integrating the different people coming to Fort McMurray from other places in Canada or in the world, in order to create a sense of community. Thus, Mary Thomas talks about how her family got a “red carpet” treatment from Suncor when they moved from India in 2009: the company, which had recruited her husband, came to pick them up at the airport and brought them to the house they had rented for them. Food was already in the fridge, and for the following weeks they had someone take them to all the different places they needed to go to in order to get settled. After a few years, Mary Thomas started a radio show called “Making Fort McMurray Home,” which, she says, was “my way of saying ‘I wanna make this home. How am I going to do that? How am I going to feel at home and make my kids feel at home?’ ” Since then she has worked in encouraging people to take pride in their culture and to share it in order to build the community – a multicultural community that, to her, has become more family-oriented over the years. The growing organization, which at the time of the interview employed 7 people altogether, also finds it easy to recruit volunteers who share its vision and are willing to help. What it finds more difficult is to keep these volunteers and also to find male volunteers: as many of them work in the oil sands, they often cannot commit to an event because they will rather work overtime if there is an opportunity, considering how much extra money they can earn by doing so.

18Angelina Gionet, who has been at the head of the French-Canadian Association of Alberta (ACFA) for 8 years, also finds it hard to recruit workers and has to admit that none of them have stayed long enough to make a difference (Personal Interview). On the surface, the association’s goal is very similar to the Multicultural Association of Wood Buffalo: it welcomes new arrivals to Fort McMurray, helps them find services and integrate to the community, and organizes cultural events. There is, however, one major difference in that its services are aimed at the French-speaking community of Fort McMurray, which represents about 10% of the population, and its main challenge resides in creating relations between the French-speaking host community and the new French-speaking arrivals. Therefore, it does not aim specifically at building a strong multicultural community in Fort McMurray, but rather strives to create a strong French-speaking community and to provide for its needs in a larger community which tends to reject “le fait français.” This explains why the French-Canadian Association of Alberta stands apart from other associations and does not get as much funding from the municipality or the oil companies. Today, it is mainly financed by the federal government, under Canada’s official policy of bilingualism (Gionet).

19What these examples show, however, is that people working in the non-profit sector attest to the existence of a community in Fort McMurray, but also to the need to integrate new arrivals to this community so that people may think of Fort McMurray as “home” – a goal that is shared by the municipality and the oil industry.

20From this study, we can state that there seems to be a common desire among the people who are involved in the non-profit sector, the municipality and the oil industry, to work on building Fort McMurray’s identity despite all the changes and constraints its growing population has brought about, and to ensure that Fort McMurrayites think of themselves as a “community.” A question remains, however, as to the link between place and community, which is important to determine identity with place, or insideness, i.e. “the degree of attachment, involvement, and concern that a person or group has for a particular place” (Seamon and Sowers 45). The “Look into Wood Buffalo” community wellbeing survey seems to be showing some degree of attachment to place, since it found out that the respondents had lived in the Wood Buffalo region for 14 years on average – more than the “5 year plan” most people seem to have – and that two thirds of them would recommend it as a “great place to live” (Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo 19). However, for all the data collected through this $120,000 survey, what really stands out is the fact that only 560 people in Wood Buffalo – 496 people in Fort McMurray – actually completed it. Not only does this show how few people actually felt concerned by the outcome of such a survey, but it might also point at a bias in the results, since the people who actually answered it might be those who are actually the most likely to be involved in the community.

21Other elements might leave doubts as to whether there is a real connection between community and place in Fort McMurray, such as the fact that public symbols and fields of care are almost always related to some form of entertainment or leisure. As such, they become commodities – places where people shop, swim, eat, watch a movie – but do not necessarily turn into “centres of meaning,” or give “prominence and an air of significance to localities” (Tuan 1979, 413‑415). Yet there is a need for such public symbols among the population –hence the call from Mary Thomas that downtown Fort McMurray be completely redesigned and that the theatre be “like Sydney’s Opera House” (Personal Interview). The places that should celebrate the history of Fort McMurray and give a sense of stability to it can also be open to criticism: a visit to the Heritage Park in October 2014 left us quite frustrated when the staff at the gift shop let us know that the park was closed because of the floods that had occurred more than a year before, in June 2013. The Oil Sands Discovery Centre, by contrast, is a state-of-the-art museum, but it does not focus much upon the community of Fort McMurray. Even though it does offer an account of the history of the people and companies that helped develop the oil sands, it is mostly centred on the industry itself – the machines, the process, or the actions undertaken to preserve the environment.

22All in all, there seems to be three major and interrelated reasons why it is hard for the community to identify with the place. The first is that the connection between space and time is difficult to create because the industry the city is based on lives in boom-and-bust cycles, making it difficult to plan anything in the long term. As journalist Peter Scowen puts it:

How does a government plan the future of a single-industry town that produces a controversial, non-renewable resource whose price is set by capricious global forces? Does it build long-lasting infrastructure, or procrastinate and wait to see what happens next? (Scowen)

23Another reason to the lack of identification with place is the difficulty to create a personal and intimate contact with the environment – a difficulty which comes from the hyper-domestication of this environment in and around Fort McMurray. The oil sands exemplify the worst that human beings can do to the landscape: erasing the Boreal forest, scraping the surface of the earth and leaving only bare, charred land and toxic tailings ponds. The community is encouraged to re-create a relation with the wilderness by exploring areas that have been “reclaimed” by the industry, thus giving an impression that no matter where you go, nature has been tampered with. The emotional encounter with the environment that is of interest to Tuan is stained with a bitter taste and even a sense of guilt which may well trigger a feeling of “outsideness,” acting as a barrier to identification with place. Finally, despite all the talks about the community of Fort McMurray, there is no escaping the fact that there is not one, but at least two, communities in the city: those who want to make money quickly and leave, and those who have more long-term plans, even though they might include moving elsewhere in the end. In the words of historian Peter Fortna, “There’s people who come here to make a quick dollar and get out. There’s other people who come with a five-year plan – ‘we’re gonna make our money and then we’re going to move back’.” These people are very different from the “people who come here and want to make a community out of it” (quoted in Scowen). But the latter are under a lot of pressure from the great number of people who believe that “home” is elsewhere – especially when these people form self-identified communities themselves. Such is the case for Newfoundlanders, who started to come in the 1970s, but who still believe that “home” is some 4,000 km east of Fort McMurray. The landlord who hosted the author during her stay there had no kind words for them: they were “uncivilized” people who believed they “owned” the place. They seemed however to be a part of Fort McMurray, so much so that the “local interest” section within Peter Pond’s bookstore included mostly books about… Newfoundland.

24To conclude, despite all the attempts made by the municipality of Wood Buffalo, the oil industry, and the people of Fort McMurray to build a sense of place and community, it is still one of the main challenges the city faces today – though it is not unlike many other resource-rich mining communities in this respect. Indeed, such communities have to deal with two major problems. The first one is that the extractive process damages the environment to such an extent that it is impossible to talk about the “spirit of the place” or feel any kind of “awe” or “affection” for it, to use Tuan’s words (1979, 410). The only adjective that can be associated with “spirit” in Fort McMurray is “big,” and surely one cannot help but be fascinated by the place, but it would be hard to think of anything really positive to say about the landscape as it is left after the extractive process. And even though this process actually takes place outside the city itself, it is too closely associated with its development to be overlooked.

25The second problem, which is also shared by many other mining towns, is the existence of a large part of the population who is simply not interested in taking part in community-building because they are not planning to stay there for long. In this context, it becomes very hard for those who have a vision about the community to act upon it. And even though we cannot deny the existence of a vibrant community in Fort McMurray, the sense of insecurity associated to the boom-and-bust cycles of the oil industry may lead most people to think about leaving at one point or another. The only hope of having a more sustainable community, therefore, is to keep on diversifying the economy.

26What really stands out, in the end, is the impossibility of establishing a dialectical relationship between community and place in Fort McMurray – something that is clearly expressed in the words of Mary Thomas, who is really indebted to Suncor for their welcome, but has ambivalent feelings about the activity that is at the core of Fort McMurray’s development: “at some moral level I still feel it’s not the best thing we’re living on. But we live on it and so we have to accept it and build a community in other ways”. In Fort McMurray, as in many other mining towns, the question therefore does not seem to revolve around the possibility to build a community that identifies with the place, but the possibility to build one despite the place that may help change the identity of the place.

27An update after the 2016 wildfire:

  • 8 See Janet French, “Timeline of evacuation and return to Fort McMurray,” The Edmonton Journal, May 2 (...)

28In May 2016, after this article was sent for publication, a spectacular wildfire swept through the city of Fort McMurray. The population, which was put under a mandatory evacuation order, had to find refuge in surrounding communities – including First Nations bands – before being bused to more southern destinations, like Lake LaBiche or Edmonton (respectively 250 km and 435 km away). The fire destroyed more than 2,400 structures, wiping out entire neighborhoods (90% of thehouses in Waterways, 70% of the houses in Beacon Hill, 50% of the houses in Abasand).8 It burnt until June, destroying about 600,000 hectares of forest, and the inhabitants were not allowed to return home until then.

  • 9 See Wallis Snowdon, “Fort McMurray wildfire costliest insured disaster in Canadian history,“ CBC Ne (...)

29Six months after this event, it is hard to evaluate the damage done to the community. Surely this is the biggest insured disaster in Canadian history: according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the estimated total cost will reach 3.58 billion dollars.9 But the impact on Canada’s economy due to the cutbacks in oil production is hard to assess, and it is harder still to examine the effects on the community itself. Angelina Gionet, the head of the French-Canadian Association of Alberta, has returned from Edmonton, where she was hosted at the Edmonton headquarters of the Association, to the badly damaged francophone school and to her own place, which was entirely destroyed. She is now back to work, and so is Mary Thomas, whose Multicultural Association reopened in July.

  • 10 The Red Cross has launched a $500,000 project designed to study this impact and improve recovery am (...)

30While research currently focuses on the impact of the wildfire on First Nations living in the area,10 there certainly needs to be some as well on how the community’s sense of space and place has been affected by this event.

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HUBERMAN, Irwin. The Place We Call Home. A History of Fort McMurray as its People Remember. 1778‑1980. 2nd ed. Fort McMurray: City Centre Group, 2009.

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LE RICHE, Timothy. Alberta’s Oil Patch. The People, Politics and Companies. Edmonton: Folklore Publishing, 2006.

MALPAS, Jeff. Place and Experience. A Philosophical Typography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Chapitres d’ouvrages

HARVEY, David. “From space to place and back again: Reflections on the condition of postmodernity.” In BIRD, John, Barry Curtis et al. (eds). Mapping the Futures: Local Culture, Global Change. London: Routledge, 1993, 2‑29.

RODAWAY, Paul. “Yi-Fu Tuan.” In HUBBARD, Phil and Rob KITCHIN (eds.). Key Thinkers on Space and Place. 2nd ed. London: Sage, 2011, 426‑431.

SEAMON, David et Jacob SOWERS. “Place and Placelessness, Edward Relph.” In HUBBARD, Phil, Rob KITCHIN and Gill Valentine (eds.). Key Texts in Human Geography. London: Sage, 2008, 43‑51.

TUAN, Yi-Fu. “Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective.” In GALE, Stephen and Gunnar OLSSON (eds.). Philosophy in Geography. Boston: D. Reidel, 1979, 387‑427.


TUAN, Yi-Fu. “Humanistic Geography.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 1976, 66.2, 266‑276.


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SOCIAL PROSPERITY WOOD BUFFALO. “Look into Wood Buffalo” Community Wellbeing Survey Process Report. December 2014. Fort McMurray: Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo, 2014.

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GRESCOE, Taras. “Big Mac. Fort McMurray has ambitions to become more than a one-resource town.” The Walrus, October 9, 2013: 21‑23.

SCOWEN, Peter. “From boom town to family town: Meet the real Fort McMurray.” The Globe and Mail, June 12, 2015.

WINGROVE, Josh. “Falling oil, expropriation, public anger: Fort McMurray’s downtown revitalization plan goes awry.” The Globe and Mail, February 12, 2015.

WITTMEIER, Brent. “Life in a northern work camp: Huge ‘shadow population’ of oil workers flies in, flies out.” Edmonton Journal, January 7, 2014.

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BLAKE, Melissa. “State of the Region Address, January 16, 2014” [en ligne]. <>.

FORT MCMURRAY TOURISM. Northern Strong! Fort McMurray and the Wood Buffalo Region. Fort McMurray: Fort McMurray Tourism, 2014.

FUSESOCIAL. “About Us,” FuseSocial [en ligne]. <>.

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GIONET, Angelina. Personal Interview. October 29, 2014.

THOMAS, Mary. Personal Interview. October 28, 2014.

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1 The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, founded in 1995, is a result of the amalgamation of the city of Fort McMurray with some small rural communities, which are sometimes located at a great distance, thus making the municipality the second largest in Canada when ranked by area.

2 For a discussion on this idea of the “frontier”, see for example LeMenager (158).

3 The “coureurs de bois” (runners of the woods) were the French-Canadian woodsmen who roamed the woods and traded furs with the Native Americans at the time of settlement.

4 Canada’s largest outdoor gym, built in 2009.

5 This slogan can be found on a shirt featuring a big truck at the Oil Discovery Centre’s gift shop.

6 The Canadian company Suncor holds one of the largest positions in the oil sands.

7 Lac Labiche is a municipal district which is also situated in northern Alberta and whose economy mostly relies on the oil and gas industry.

8 See Janet French, “Timeline of evacuation and return to Fort McMurray,” The Edmonton Journal, May 28, 2016.

9 See Wallis Snowdon, “Fort McMurray wildfire costliest insured disaster in Canadian history,“ CBC News, July 7, 2016.

10 The Red Cross has launched a $500,000 project designed to study this impact and improve recovery among First Nations (Vincent McDermott, “Research project will study fire impacts on Wood Buffalo’s indigenous communities,” Fort McMurray Today, November 8, 2016).

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Sandrine Tolazzi, « Making Fort McMurray Home: Space and Place on Canada’s New Frontier of Oil Production  »L’Ordinaire des Amériques [En ligne], 221 | 2016, mis en ligne le 18 novembre 2016, consulté le 21 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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