Fort McMurray, colloquially referred to as Fort Mac, is a hamlet in the northeastern part of Canada’s western province of Alberta, in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. Although it is commonly referred to and thought of as being a city, Fort McMurray is no longer incorporated. Thus, Fort McMurray has the status of being the largest unincorporated “city” in Alberta.
Before the arrival of Europeans in the late 18th Century, the Cree were the dominant First Nations people in the Fort McMurray area. The oil sands were known to the locals and the surface deposits were actually used to waterproof their canoes. In 1778, the first of the European explorers, Peter Pond, came to the region in search of furs as the European demand for this commodity at the time was strong. Peter Pond explored the region further south along the Athabasca River and the Clearwater River, but chose to set up a trading post much farther north by the Athabasca River near Lake Athabasca. However, his post closed in 1788 in favour of Fort Chipewyan, now the oldest continuous settlement in Alberta.
In 1790, the explorer Alexander MacKenzie made the first recorded description of the oil sands. By that time, trading between the explorers and the Cree was already occurring at the confluence of the Clearwater and Athabasca Rivers. The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West company were in fierce competition in this region. Fort McMurray was established there as a Hudson’s Bay Company post by 1870, and continued to operate as a transportation stopover in the decades afterwards.
The community has played a significant role in the history of the petroleum industry in Canada. Oil exploration is known to have occurred as early as the early 20th Century, but Fort McMurray’s population remained very small, no more than a few hundred people. By 1921 there was serious interest in developing a refining plant to separate the oil from the sands. Alcan Oil Company was the first outfit to begin bulk tests at Fort McMurray. The nearby community of Waterways was established to provide a terminus for waterborne transportation, until 1925, when the railway reached there.
Abasands Oil was the first company to successfully extract oil from the oil sands through hot water extraction by the 1930s, but production was very low. Fort McMurray gradually grew to over 1,100 by World War II, and Fort McMurray was set up by the US and Canadian forces as staging ground for the Canol project.
Fort McMurray and Waterways amalgamated as the village of McMurray (the “Fort” was dropped until 1962, when it was restored to reflect its heritage) by 1947, and became a town a year later. Fort McMurray was granted the status of new town so it could get more provincial funding. By 1966, the town’s population was over 2,000.
In 1967, the Great Canadian Oil Sands plant opened and Fort McMurray’s growth took off afterwards. More oil sands plants were opened up, especially after 1973 and 1979, when serious political tensions and conflicts in the Middle East triggered oil price spikes. The population of the city reached 6,743 by 1971 and climbed swiftly to 30,772 by 1981, a year after its incorporation as a city.
The city continued to grow for a few years even after the oil bust caused by the collapse in world oil prices and the National Energy Program, which was scrapped after the Progressive Conservative Party formed the Government of Canada in 1984. The population peaked at almost 37,000, just before it declined to under 34,000 by 1987. Low oil prices since the oil price collapse in 1986 slowed the oil sands production greatly, as oil extraction from the oilsands is a very expensive process and lower world prices made this highly uneconomical.
In 1995, the City of Fort McMurray and Improvement District No. 18 were amalgamated to form the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. Since then, Fort McMurray lost its status as an incorporated city, and is now technically a hamlet. The entire regional municipality is under a single government, although Fort McMurray is the seat of this government.
Fort McMurray is 435 kilometres (270 mi) northeast of Edmonton, Alberta on Highway 63, about 60 kilometres (37 mi) west of the Saskatchewan border, nestled in the boreal forest at the confluence of the Athabasca River and the Clearwater River. It is located 370 metres (1,214 ft) above sea level. Fort McMurray is the largest community in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
The population of Fort McMurray is 64,441 . It has experienced a sustained annual average growth rate of 8.5 per cent between 1999 and 2006. Forecasts from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s Strategic Planning and Policy Division indicate that the city will reach a population of 100,000 by 2012.
In 1995, Fort McMurray incorporated into Wood Buffalo, giving up its city status and its own municipal government. As a result, it is technically a hamlet. Fort McMurray is a multicultural community, attracting people from all corners of Canada and the world. Albertans make up almost half the number of migrants to Fort McMurray, followed by 17% of people originating from the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Were it a city, it would be the fifth largest in Alberta (after Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and Lethbridge).
Fort McMurray’s climate is subarctic, with cold winters and fairly warm summers. The average temperature at Fort McMurray is -19.8°C (-3.6°F) in January and 16.6°C (61.9°F) in July. Its annual precipitation amounts to 464.8 millimetres (18.3 in) and falls mainly in the summer months, its snowfall is 172.0 centimetres (67.7 in) and appears within a range of 5 to 6 months.
Fort McMurray is considered the heart of one of Alberta’s (and Canada’s) major hubs of oil production, located near the Athabasca Oil Sands. Besides the oil sands, the economy also relies on natural gas and oil pipelines, forestry and tourism. The two largest oil sand mining companies are Syncrude and Suncor Energy.
Fort McMurray’s growth is characteristic of a boomtown; one of the area’s unofficial nicknames is “Fort McMoney.” Housing prices and rents are far higher in Fort McMurray than one would expect in such a remote area. In 2006, Fort McMurray had the highest prices in Alberta. The Albertan government has promised to release more Crown land for residential construction, particularly in Timberlea on the north side.
Fort McMurray Airport (ICAO Code CYMM, IATA Code YMM) is serviced by Air Canada, Air Canada Jazz, Air Mikisew, Corporate Express, Integra Air, Northwestern Air, Peace Air and WestJet with scheduled flights to Calgary, Edmonton, Fort Chipewyan, Fort Smith, Lethbridge, Peace River, Saskatoon, Toronto and St. John’s. The airport is also serviced by various oil companies with corporate and charter flights. Flights are frequently booked to capacity because of the high transient worker population and people unwilling to drive on Highway 63.
Public transit (FMT)
There is a public transit bus system operating in Fort McMurray, with routes that extend to all subdivisions on the south side and most of the subdivisions on the north side.
Greyhound Canada and Red Arrow operate scheduled passenger bus services to Edmonton and other communities along Highway 63, as well as other destinations further south.
Highways and arterial roads
Alberta Highway 63 is the main highway between Fort McMurray and Edmonton. Due to the industrial demands of the oilsands, Highway 63 boasts some of the highest tonnage per kilometre in Canada, and the largest and heaviest loads that trucks have ever carried. The provincial government has announced that road construction to twin Highway 63 will begin in 2008.
The Fort McMurray Public and Catholic School Districts both serve the Primary, Elementary, and Secondary Education needs of students in Fort McMurray.
Private Elementary education is also available in Fort McMurray, through Moberly Hall Charter School.
Based in the Abasand subdivision, Centre Boreal Francophone School serves the needs of Francophone students in the area.
Keyano College is a publicly funded college and vocational institute based in the area known for both its Musical Instrument Repair diploma as well as for its role in training workers for the Oil Sands. Known as the cultural hub of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Keyano College has two state-of-the-art theatres and hosts a variety of musical and theatrical events that attract upwards of 50,000 visitors each season.