fort mcmurray—When I visited Fort McMurray for the first time last May, I felt like I had returned to Churchill Falls at the height of construction during the late 1960s. It had the look and sound of a normal town but the feel and smell of a construction camp. Everyone seemed to be an itinerant bent on making money. The young man sharing the seat next to me on the flight from Calgary, a fellow Newfoundlander, boasted of making $50,000 in six months. “And that’s after taxes,” he said, adding woefully, “You can make a ton of money but try findin’ a place to live.”
My cousin, an engineer with Syncrude, had invited me to visit him in Fort Mac, even though we hadn’t seen each other since I was five. We’d chatted on the phone a bit about the hot political issue of the day in our respective corners of Canada—oil here and others wanting it, and in Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams’ lowering of Canadian flags outside provincial government buildings. “Man, that guy’s great!” he’d said. “Protectin’ our oil! Where’d they get him? He’s better’n Tobin.”
Since Confederation, Newfoundlanders have been part of an interprovincial diaspora, striking out for gold in Toronto and other Canadian cities for want of it at home. Lately, it’s the black gold of northern Alberta, trapped in the oil sands’ complex mixture of sand, water, and clay. With some 300 billion recoverable barrels and another two-trillion-plus barrels that could one day be retrieved with new technology, and oil prices rocketing toward $100 a barrel, do the math. Newfoundlanders have—there are an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 of us living and working in northern Alberta. My cousin simply laughed when I spoke with him about it: “Newfoundlanders! Don’t be talkin’. The place is crawlin’ with ‘em.” To put it in perspective, a concert featuring Newfoundland’s most popular singing-comedy act, Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers, with tickets at $100 a pop, would fill a stadium in Fort McMurray quicker than a free Stones concert in Calgary.
Coming in from the airport, vehicles were bumper to bumper en route to the Syncrude and Suncor sites. After twice the normal travel time, I arrived at a small restaurant in the centre of town. At seven in the morning, it was a beehive. From the layout to my waitress’s accent to the menu (which includes fried baloney and toutons), the Kozy Korner would make a perfect film set for any of a thousand rural Newfoundland restaurants. The cheerful owner bragged about the menu and the Newfoundland flavour of the restaurant and town. “Even the [former] mayor is a Newfoundlander,” she said.
After a hearty scoff, I headed over to the town’s most popular drinking hole, The Newfoundlanders’ Club. Sadly, Newfoundland beers—Blue Star, India Pale Ale, Jockey Club, Dominion, Quidi Vidi, and my favourite of the lot, Black Horse (Black ‘Arse back home) were unavailable, though several years ago they were brought in by the pallet. I started chatting with a barrel-chested carrot top between shifts at Syncrude. Like the oil sands, his accent was a curious blend: Anglo-Irish and southern American, common to the Conception Bay area back home. He was from Harbour Main and had worked construction in Toronto and Churchill Falls, on the high steel in Boston and New York, and had even done a stint on an oil rig in Nigeria. “Newfoundlanders are everywhere ‘bye,” he laughed, “everywhere!” He’d been in Fort McNewfoundland, as he called it, for twelve years. He liked Alberta well enough, hardly felt like a fish out of water, but would have been on the next plane home if he could find work.
Like many, his hopes for return are set on Newfoundland’s bright new political star, Danny Williams. “Danny Millions is not in it for the money, that’s for sure,” he said. “And he’s protectin’ our oil. Not like the crowd before him. He’s the best we’ve ever had. I gotta lotta fait’ in Danny. He’s put the oil companies on notice.” I asked him how much he thought Newfoundlanders would get for their oil under the premier’s new offshore deal. He laughed hard and raised his index finger. “A billion,” he beamed, “a billion a year. Not [a bad guess] for someone who’s used to raisin’ his middle finger when it comes to politicians and makin’ deals. Everyone out here gotta lotta fait’ in Danny Williams. Even Liberals.”
My friend told me he was heading home for a holiday next month and, if he could find him, he was going to shake the hand of Danny Millions, the messiah being counted on to lead all Newfoundlanders back home.