Theresa Wells Headshot

What We Really Fight About in Fort McMurray

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Sometimes reading the national press makes me giggle. From those news stories one would get the impression the residents of my community fight about things like lack of parking, high rental costs, and our shortage of women. The funny thing is that we certainly have boomtown issues of just that nature, and other ones, too. But that isn't what gets Fort McMurray residents all hot and bothered. What gets people going here are issues that arise over where this community is headed - and one of those issues raised it's head recently over a little body of water in downtown Fort McMurray, a body of water called the Snye.

The Snye is an odd little name for an odd little place, and one that has become the centre of a fiery debate. The Snye has for many years been a place where people launched their boats, played with their jetskis, and where our small cadre of float planes landed and departed. This was slated to change, however, as the Snye is smack in the middle of the plans for the redevelopment of the city centre.

The plans as laid out by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo involved closing the Snye to future motorized traffic - no boats, no jetskis, and no float planes. The vision for a vibrant and energetic downtown core was one that encompassed the Snye, turning it into a pedestrian paradise more along the lines of the river that flows through Saskatoon or Edmonton. Traditional users of the Snye were outraged, however, and groups like Save Our Snye (SOS, a clever moniker) quickly formed to combat what they see as the demise of history and heritage in this region.

It seems on one side is the RMWB, with a progressive and innovative plan to revitalize a badly withered and neglected downtown core. On the other side are those who have used the Snye for years for their own recreation, and who view these plans with alarm when it threatens their continuing those activities. While it has been painted as future versus past or progress versus status quo it really isn't that simple. This is really about a community in transition.

Fort McMurray is on the cusp of a growth spurt unlike any other. The city is changing rapidly even now, and that change is expected to accelerate and deepen. A population that already strains the seams of the fabric of this place is about to more than double in size. An infrastructure that has struggled to keep up is about to see more and more demands in every aspect. And in the middle are the current residents of this community, those who have seen the past, are living the present, and who are here for the ride into the future. In the very thick of it are those of us trying to figure out who we are and who we want to be. In the very middle of it is our identity crisis as we try to negotiate these changes together, as we try to find a way to both survive and embrace the future.

It's interesting to watch this dance between municipal government and citizens, between those who embrace and push for change and those who are less willing to go along on that particular ride. As an interested observer it is hard to not see points on both sides, to see the absolute need for us to re-create our downtown and yet still preserve our rich heritage and traditions. It is most interesting, however, to watch as we grow and change, and to see how we open a dialogue with each other about those changes. It's an exciting time to watch events in this community, although it is a bit painful too as you see that the changes are going to come with costs to everyone involved. But change doesn't always come easy, and so it is in Fort McMurray.

The next time a journalist comes here and asks me about the high cost of living or road rage or the supposed lack of women I will point them downtown and suggest they take a walk along the Snye. I will suggest that perhaps the real story of our boomtown growth isn't about the housing market or traffic or gender but rather about things like a little body of water that existed long before we arrived and will exist long after we are gone. I will suggest that the real things we fight about here, the things that really matter, are about who we have been, who we are, and who we want to be. The real thing we are trying to sort out is our identity - and that's a tough thing to accomplish when it is the identity that will one day reflect 230,000 people. That is the real challenge in Fort McMurray.