“I want to work hard and absorb all this information,” he said, sitting on a brown leather chair in a living room covered with plush white carpeting. He is already moving up the ranks at Shell, where he monitors pressures on pieces of equipment. “But,” he adds, “I’m in it for the money, too. Otherwise I wouldn’t have moved here.”
Morin is just one of thousands of people flocking to Fort McMurray, where the rapid expansion of oil sands mining has turned this northern outpost into a bustling small city. Not all of them have fared well, with many succumbing to drink or drugs; one worker at a bar wrote down on a cocktail napkin, so no one would overhear, that crack cocaine was widespread. Other workers spend their money on travel and inflated rents in a city that is bursting at the seams.
“When I was first elected to the council in 1998, there were 35,000 or 36,000 people living here. Oil was $10 a barrel,” Mayor Melissa Blake said. “We were comfortably built for that environment.”
But then the price of oil started climbing, and the oil sands operations expanded. Today Fort McMurray has more than 100,000 people. Its work-camp population has soared to 35,000, she said.
It’s an odd collection. Among the biggest groups of immigrants: Canadians from the perennially poor province of Newfoundland and Somalis. There is even a person named Shafique Khan running for City Council of this onetime outpost for fur trading with First Nation tribes.
The average age here is 32, and the population is overwhelmingly male. The city has the highest birth rate in Canada.
The rapid growth is putting a huge strain on infrastructure. Blake said it’s hard to keep up. She expects the city to double in size, and she’s trying to extract help from the provincial and federal governments, which collect tax revenue from the oil sands. A key bridge is being more than doubled in size, and the city is finishing a big new water treatment plant. She needs more schools. She’d like to lure a cobbler to Fort McMurray so she could get her shoes fixed. If only things would slow down a bit, she and the city planners might be able to keep up and lower the cost of living and building.
“I loved the recession,” she said. “It was great. We got reasonable pricing.”