09/04/2012 01:09 EDT | Updated 10/28/2012 05:12 EDT

Fort McMurray: Life Beyond Oil Sands

There are those who think of Edmonton Alberta as far north, a place where in winter the cold winds blow and crisp snow blankets the city. And then there are those who head 4.5 hours further north, to a tiny blip on the map, a blip that has attracted media attention -- and controversy. The blip is, of course, Fort McMurray, Alberta, the media attention is both national and international, and the controversy is the development of the oil sands.

There are also those who think that Fort McMurray is nothing but oil sands, nothing but workers in coveralls and enormous dump trucks, the landscape nothing but a sea of tailings ponds and smoke stacks. As with many things, though, the reality is nothing like the hype. The reality in Fort McMurray is a vibrant, active, culturally diverse community that astonishes even those who call it home. The reality is that there is indeed life in this northern town.

Fort McMurray isn't a town, though, and technically not even a city, having amalgamated some years ago into the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, a municipality encompassing several communities. This region, as we who live here call it, is both unique and no different than anywhere else. We have our strengths and our weaknesses, our triumphs and our failures. What we have most, though, is a community.

There are those who seem stunned when they arrive here on a visit or journalist tour and discover the reality of our community. They had not anticipated the number of children, for instance, or all the schools. They did not realize our average age (a mere 31) means we are a city bustling with newborns and toddlers (a recent visitor asked me if people here do anything BUT have babies). They did not expect the diversity as found in our cultural groups and events. They did not realize that life in this northern town -- this northern region -- goes far beyond coveralls and dump trucks.

Fort McMurray and the surrounding Wood Buffalo region are growing at a rapid pace, a growth unparalleled anywhere in this country, and perhaps in all of North America. It is a growth fuelled by industry, but it is also a growth fuelled by the bold and innovative nature of those who choose to live here. This is a place where new ideas are not only sought but also embraced, where the default sentiment is "why can't we" and not "we can't." This is a place unlike any other in my experience, where opportunity and potential are limitless for those who dare to dream. This is a place where things happen.

This is not utopia. There are issues in this region, the issues that plague any boomtown. There are issues both common in the greater world and ones more unique to us -- but the recognition of those issues means we can begin to address them. That bold and innovative nature of the residents here coupled with our growth allows us to seize control of our future. We have the opportunity to forge our own path, and to determine our own destiny.

On occasion I refer to what is happening here as a giant social experiment. We have astonishingly rapid growth, a young demographic, a burgeoning industry, cultural diversity, and a vibrant community. We are, by any standards, a town in the northern reaches of the country. Many of us have chosen to come here, to pursue our own dreams and goals. While we are pursuing them we have the opportunity to both witness and participate in this giant social experiment known as life -- in a northern town.