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Fort McMurray, first time

posted by Maya Rolbin-Ghanie

June 12, 2007

Fort McMurray, first time

I Hitched into Fort McMurray from Edmonton late last night with Dru and Macdonald. It was dark and wet all the way here and having never been so far North before, the trees to me seemed sickly and pallid, pointless as far as trees go. I felt like the straight, black road could cease at any moment and we’d simply fall off the end of the earth.

The plan is to hang out for the next few days, documenting the oil sands mega-project being carried out here, through a series of interviews, photos, and video footage of the pits and tailings ponds, and eventually to move on and pay visits to Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan to talk to members of the Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations and then back down to Peace River to get in touch with the Lubicon Cree, who are essentially being raped of their land and their health. There are reports of increased cancer rates (not to mention other diseases) in Fort Chip since the establishment of oil sands plants upstream on the Athabasca.

Today we roamed trails and roads until we hit downtown Fort Mac. On the way we stopped to ask directions from a middle-aged woman of East Indian descent who was walking towards us. We were taken aback when she barely stopped or looked at us but seemed terrified and continued to walk, answering “I don’t know,” and shaking her head. The three of us agreed that perhaps women may feel less safe living in a place with a large population of unattached men and an atmosphere of racism and sexual harassment.

I’ve heard a lot about a high level of prostitution in Fort McMurray, and when I mentioned it to the man who gave us a lift as far as Athabasca yesterday evening, he nodded, saying, “I never thought of that, but with all the men, that makes sense.” Word on the street tags the 7-11 at the corner of Franklin and Main as a notorious meth corner-market, and a place where women have been harassed for sex by apparently starved men waving wads of cash around on payday. Working the rigs pays well, but is, for the most part, hard and unpleasant labour. Twelve-hour shifts are the norm. Many apparently camp in the overcrowded bush, while hotels with inflated prices boast ‘No Vacancy’ signs.

We walked into town, taking it in: the entire, nondescript sprawl of strip malls and condos that constitutes the core of the city. We spotted two men, backpack-clad, crossing the street, and after springing upon them immediately with questions and cameras in tow, the friendlier of the two, a native man named Rod, led us to Fort McMurray’s homeless shelter. We interviewed a volunteer there, Flex Turner, who expressed a deep sense of caring for the betterment of the community, but who nonetheless seemed able to separate issues of ecological destruction from the destruction of people. His main emphasis was on creating jobs and building affordable housing.

A tour of the Oil Sands costs $25 and should supposedly be booked up to 10 days in advance. A visit to the Oils Sands Discovery Centre costs $6 and will probably not be as wrought with oily details as the full tour will be, but before leaving here, I hope to have a chance to do both.

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