Rising from the Ashes

Senior Consultant
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Posted on January 1, 2017

Ravaging wildfires transformed Fort McMurray from a city that polarized Canadians to one that united them. What comes next?

Vision can be a tricky proposition in the partisan political universe

In Canada, few economic issues have been as polarizing as the development of the oil sands in northern Alberta.

With stark images of the ravaged landscape around Fort McMurray as the background, the debate pitted environmentalists against companies and workers in the oil patch—and all who accepted the projects as simply the price of Canada’s resource-based economy. It was a politically explosive standoff that, amplified by social media, often spilled beyond national borders to involve finger-wagging celebrities.

Then came the wildfires.

As Fort McMurray burned and the entire community of more than 61,000 people was evacuated, a fundamental change occurred. The very community that had fragmented Canada brought it together in an outpouring of support and sympathy for the evacuees. Within weeks, $125 million had been raised across the country from individuals and organizations.

Now, as Fort McMurray begins the painful process of rebuilding—a task all the more onerous because of the depressed world price for oil—we can get a better sense of the broader long-term impact of the tragedy.

While the devastation served as an opportunity to transcend the divide over the oil sands development, reconstruction raises new issues, some of which are overtly political.

The way a government manages a public tragedy has significant ramifications. This is especially the case once the immediate threat recedes and focus shifts to recovery and renewal.

In the case of Fort McMurray, the fire presented a monumental challenge to Premier Rachel Notley’s new and largely untested NDP government. Occurring just one year after the government was elected, the tragedy came just when the province, and particularly northern Alberta, was already grappling with an economic crisis and job losses caused by the falling price of oil.

By the time the fire died down, nearly 1,900 homes were gone and the structural integrity of hundreds more was in question. Even though media attention has moved on to other news, the lives of residents, and the community itself, remain shattered. It remains to be seen what role the tragedy will play in the bitter debate over the oil sands that was put on hold.

Before the fire, Fort McMurray was portrayed and perceived as the very embodiment of the oil sands—a blue-collar town filled with transient workers who were there to make a quick buck and move on.

The crisis put a human face to those workers and exposed that view as simplistic. Canadians responded to the crisis with empathy, not criticism. “Fort Mac,” as people everywhere began affectionately calling it, was revealed as a diverse community of families, thoughtful neighbours, workers, schools, teachers, small businesses and dedicated first responders.

Embedded in this is an opportunity to reframe the narrative about Fort McMurray and its relationship to the future of the oil sands. While it will remain the primary service centre for the mega-projects that surround it, there may also be an opportunity to transform it for the long term.

Before that can happen, however, there needs to be a vision of what Fort McMurray could be, how it can proactively address its dependence on a notoriously cyclical global commodity, and face the uncertainty surrounding construction of a pipeline to carry product to market.

Vision can be a tricky proposition in the partisan political universe. But in the case of Fort McMurray, it’s essential for the future.

Federal and provincial funds, insurance money and donations can be directed in a way that transforms the city’s loss into a new way forward. The building of new energy-efficient homes and businesses, as well as new recreation facilities, community centres and roads will create not only jobs, but a reinforced sense of pride and hope for the future among residents of Fort McMurray and among Canadians who have supported them during the crisis.

As oil prices recover and oil sands production returns to centre stage in the debate over Canada’s economic and environmental priorities, Fort McMurray could play an important role in providing balance. In the end, this is the only way to avoid a reprise of the destructive polarization of the past.

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