Fort McMurray—Strong, Brave and Resilient

by Gord Hume

The fires in northern Alberta in the past several days have produced horror and shockwaves across Canada and the world.  Pictures of the fiery blazes, the towering smoke billowing upwards and the devastation of neighbourhoods and forests devoured in this flaming holocaust are stunning and hideous.

All Canadians are together in this battle.  The only surprise to me is that some media personalities seem surprised at the national outpouring of support.  This is Canada.  These are our friends whether we've ever met them or not.  This is what we do as Canadians.  We help one another, we look out for each other, and in times of turmoil and anguish we respond.

The best thing most of us can do is make a cash donation to the Canadian Red Cross "Alberta Fires Appeal".  It takes about forty-five seconds once you're on-line, but the impact will be huge.  The money goes to helping the victims and your donation will be tripled the Alberta and Canadian governments are both matching dollar-for-dollar.

We all feel a connection to the people of Fort McMurray and the surrounding communities.  And there aren't many of those; this is a fairly isolated city.  One main road in, one main road out.  It is a city that has seen explosive growth as the oil sands were developed.  Money flowed and work was abundant.

My personal connection is that in 2012 the city invited me out for a few days to help them develop a strategy and plan to become a more creative community that would encourage families to live there.  The city had grown concerned that workers were just flying in and then heading for the oil camps and then flying out again, using the city only as a place to buy supplies, some R&R and a base for partying while waiting to fly home rather than actually living in Fort McMurray and helping to build a more vibrant city.

The fact the city recognized this need spoke volumes about a smart, committed city hall and council that wanted to develop a stronger community base.  I gave a couple of speeches and worked with city staff on some strategies and ideas.  It was an energizing time, and the subsequent work by the Wood Buffalo region was paying off in advancing the city.

Fort McMurray Mayor Melissa Blake attended one of my speeches, we chatted for a while and I gave her an autographed copy of one of my books.  Mayor Blake and her colleagues on council struck me as being strong, dedicated and passionate about their city.  They have been providing great leadership as this tragedy unfolds.  Local leadership will become an ever greater focus as the smoke finally clears and the clarity of a brighter day eventually unfolds.

Fort McMurray has and I hope it still has a magnificent community and recreation complex, a modern hospital, city hall, water and sewer treatment plants and a badly-needed new airport terminal that just opened recently.  When they talk about saving the infrastructure in this battle against the fires, these are among the things the city will need when the rebuilding commences.  We now know they have lost power, the water supply is tainted, gas is turned off and there is limited civic infrastructure available for residents when they return.  It is going to be a long, hard battle for the local government.

The devastating reality for thousands of families is that their homes are destroyed, their lives have changed and their future is less certain.  That's where we come in, just as so many Canadians did when Lac-Megantic exploded in that fiery train derailment in their downtown.

I've visited Christchurch, New Zealand which was devastated by an earthquake in 2011.  I was there is 2014.  The downtown had just been re-opened to the public, although it was pretty much a ghost town in the evenings.  It will take $40-50 billion to rebuild that city, and many more years.  They are still doing planning.

We don't know yet how much of Fort McMurray and the surrounding communities have survived, and how and when the insurance settlements will occur. 

After the decline in oil prices over the past year and the layoffs in the oil sector and the subsequent financial problems for Alberta, this disaster seems particularly cruel.

My guess is that this will turn out to be the most expensive disaster in our nation's history.  Early estimates are coming in around the $9 billion mark.  (By comparison, the Calgary flood caused about $6 billion in damage).  It would not shock to see the final figure much higher.

My next guess is that the full impact has yet to be fully understood by residents and the country.  My guess is that it will be more costly (in every sense of that word) than we realize today.  My guess is that some families will simply take the money and go, some no doubt back to the Maritime provinces that have provided so much skilled labour for so many years.  My guess is that it will take Fort McMurray longer to plan, re-design and re-build their city than people expect. 

That is also a unique opportunity that the city will eventually understand.  It will give them a new chance to plan, design and develop their city that can be more sustainable, more environmentally friendly, more creative and using better urban design concepts.  That will enable a wonderful community conversation, but that is well into the future. 

What I do know is this the people of Fort McMurray are strong, brave and resilient.

The city of Fort McMurray is strong, brave and resilient.

Canada and Canadians will not allow this city to do anything but recover, rebuild and redevelop.

That's why I ask you, humbly, to consider making a donation to the Red Cross to help out your neighbours in northern Alberta.

We are Canadians.  This is who we are and what we do for each other.

Gord Hume


Gord Hume is recognized as one of Canada's leading voices on municipal government and is an articulate and thoughtful commentator on civic government and community issues. He is a very popular public speaker, an advisor to municipal governments, and a respected and provocative author.

Gord was elected to London City Council four times. He has had a distinguished career in Canadian business, managing radio stations and as Publisher of a newspaper. Gord received two “Broadcaster of the Year' awards. He is now President of Hume Communications Inc., a professional independent advisor to municipalities.

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