In Fort McMurray, politics are shifting from hovercraft dreams to reality
The 2021 municipal election is seeing Alberta's boomtown re-imagine itself as just another town
Civic issues in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region once revolved around how to spend the near endless supply of oilsands cash that flooded municipal coffers. Should we build an LRT line from the airport to oilsands sites and a hovercraft to Fort Chipewyan? Can the community replace its landfill with zero-waste programs and support its own greenhouses? Why not build a new hockey arena downtown?
Fort McMurray’s own government predicted 196,000 people would call the region home by 2030 (current population is roughly 111,000, down from 125,000 in 2015). The city couldn’t expand fast enough and it was up to the mayor and council of the day to prepare for decades of continued new arrivals. There were frequent calls for the provincial and federal governments to release more land for development.
But that was then. When the population predictions were made, in 2012, the council of the day passed a $1-billion operating budget for the following fiscal year. The population was more than 76,000 (or nearly 120,000 if you counted the surrounding rural communities and transient workforce). Yet after oil prices crashed in late 2014, ambitious projects were either cancelled or shelved. Requests for land to develop were dropped.
The 2021 municipal election in Fort McMurray is an election of transition — from a boomtown to something more like just a town. What is this region about after breathless growth? This election is in part exploring that.
Melissa Blake, who was mayor between 2004 and 2017, was fond of saying “let’s turn a boomtown into a hometown,” when she talked about the expanding region. But these days, the attitude from current council and mayor candidates seems to be ‘let’s just run the town.’
“Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo will attract new people if we take care of our people that are here now,” said mayoral candidate Sandy Bowman in a speech to supporters when he announced his candidacy in July. “Our biggest issue isn’t that people aren’t moving here, our biggest issue is people are leaving.”
The priorities from serious council and mayoral candidates have been economic recovery from COVID-19 and a focus on improving basic services. Once flood mitigation is completed and rural homes are linked to running water and sewage services, candidates have promised an end to expensive projects.
Some council and mayoral candidates have talked about encouraging commuter workers to permanently settle in the region instead of flying back and forth between Alberta and Ontario, British Columbia or Atlantic Canada.
But no one believes the population growth predicted in 2012 will ever happen, and public opinion has turned against the boomtime spending common to previous councils.
A park project along Fort McMurray’s riverfront has been criticized by many council candidates because of its $30-million price tag, for instance. A decade ago, few would have cared about this amount. In fact, the community was so image conscious from unflattering media coverage and environmental campaigns that the council of the day would have likely spent more on the project.
In 2021, the tone has changed.
“We’re not in a financial situation where we’re having to make major cuts to services and stuff right now,” said Verna Murphy, a mayoral candidate who just finished her first term on council, in an interview with Fort McMurray Today. “But in order to be sustainable long-term, I think that we still do have to keep making smart decisions in the next few years.”
Fort McMurray has also moved on from the boom days at its political level, too. Of the 29 people running for nine council seats, only three people had a political career during the boom days. An incumbent for the rural ward covering the area south of Fort McMurray was acclaimed.
Two of the three mayoral candidates have past experience on council, including former PC MLA Mike Allen. Phil Meagher, the region’s longest-serving councillor, just retired after a 26-year political career that included the start and end of the oilsands boom.
“I didn’t realize everything was going to go boom, boom, boom. That was exciting, but it was a challenge,” said Meagher.
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo—which includes Fort McMurray and seven nearby hamlets—is in a strong financial position for pandemic recovery and managing its new reality.
The local government has no debt or deficits, and is on track to record an $11.2-million surplus. It still taxes some of Canada’s richest companies operating in the oilsands.
But the next challenge will be how to make Fort McMurray just another town.