Fort McMurray 1980 – A Retrospective

· management

(Remembering a time long ago – when I was the Fort McMurray City Manager).

It was arguably, the biggest and best birthday party a community of its size ever had. On September 1, 1980, the New Town of Fort McMurray “skipped a grade” and became a city. It moved in one fell swoop from a lame duck to an eagle – assuming the powers and responsibilities of a city where the day before it had only very limited autonomy. Fort McMurray came “of age,” in the words of one of the many publications that focused on the community that year. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work by a very large number of people at the local level, in the provincial government, and in the oil sands industry. What were the events that lead to McMurray becoming a city on the day that Alberta celebrated its 75th anniversary?

Variously known as “McMurray” and “Fort McMurray” over the years, this town in Alberta’s northern nether regions became a spot on the map round about 1778 when trader Peter Pond paddled through.  Occupation was spotty for the next hundred years until a Hudson’s Bay Post and steamboat terminus were established. Even with these developments, McMurray slept on. Its future would not be decided for some time and that future would be in oil.

Though bitumen had been spotted by Pond, and its value, and means of extraction pondered by him and others, it would be 200 years before a commercial ventre would succeed in the Athabasca Oil Sands.  GCOS (now Suncor) and Syncrude Canada would be the impetus that would drive Fort McMurray into becoming first large, then successful as a city among its municipal colleagues in Alberta.

GCOS’s application was granted in 1964. Three years later, the population skyrocketed from about a thousand to 5,000. By 1973 the population was 9,500 when a project of continental significance was approved. Syncrude would be many times the size of GCOS, and its area impact significantly greater.  It was yet to be seen whether the fledgling community would be able to absorb, and manage growth that would take it to about 30,000 in five years. But that answer was not long in coming.

In 1974 Alberta knew McMurray was in trouble. The Town had run a deficit for several years. Planning and administration were in chaos. Consequently, Alberta placed McMurray under special status. To be now known as a “New Town,” the powers of the local elected council were significantly reduced. Furthermore, the Province appointed a provincial “watchdog” to keep an eye on McMurray’s fiscal management, and a town planning team, reporting to Edmonton, was installed at the New Town Office. Alberta was concerned.

Over the next six years, until Mcmurray became an autonomous city, thousands of new residents arrived from all over the world. Those hired by Syncrude were met at the airport, and escorted to their shiny new homes. But thousands more came who were not met when they arrived. These were the people who came to service the community – to build the homes, playgrounds and shops, to pump gas and to serve drinks at the clubs. For them, the housing and amenities were inadequate and hardly affordable. And many came only with hope and ambition, and shanty towns became their home. Others came because they had nowhere else to go. The suffering of these people was well documented in international media.

Given all these issues, the New Town realized it could no longer ignore the need for a professional municipal staff that could carry it through the trials to come, and deliver the size, shape and flavour of a modern, attractive city to serve the needs of industry employees and the service sector. And while – thanks to a comprehensive national recruitment program – a high competent administration was put in place, it became clear that dealing with the explosive growth that was to come would test the metal of that administration, the North East Alberta Commissioner, and provincial officials who were required to advise, guide and support Canada’s emerging oil sands phenomenon. Planning as one example, could not be imposed from several hundred miles away and expected to work. The New Town of Fort McMurray would have to become deeply and seriously involved in making itself.

The New Town was led by a “Board of Administrators,” elected as would be any town council in Alberta. The head of the New Town Board was called a “Chairman.” He presided over meetings that would not look all that different from any other town council. There were a few exceptions however. The planning officials in the Board meeting room reported to, and answered to the Province of Alberta. Municipal capital and operating financial decisions needed to be ratified by the Alberta Dept. of Municipal Affairs and the Local Authorities Board. Municipal engineering was delivered by an Edmonton firm under contract.

There were significant pressures on the appointed and elected officials at that time. Both knew that the New Town had to deliver results if the institution of local government was to remain a fact of McMurray life as it had been since 1947. While there was no shortage of people prepared to run for office in the New Town, finding senior staff proved a challenge. These were boom times in Canada. Good jobs and good wages were not hard to find. The New Town soon realized that if it was to attract competent staff it had to offer incentives that would be both financially and professionally attractive.

In time, a staff was found, but most who joined the civic administration were not quite prepared to work in trailers, with puddles on the floor whenever it rained. There were frequent power outages, and office overcrowding was quite unbelievable.  Many of the hires did not stick it out with some positions turning over three times in the space of a year. On the other hand, many persevered. Eventually a modicum of stability was achieved and the administration was able to “upgrade” to “new offices” in a converted warehouse. It was luxurious in contract to the previous office accommodations, but in actual fact it was a dreadful place to work.

From this bunker on the Clearwater River, the Town staff managed about $100 million annual in residential and commercial building permits. Social and protective services were formalized and enhanced, and the public works infrastructure was built (and often re-built as growth continued). There were significant innovations. One of the first paramedic services in the province was established.  Top of the line medical and fire services, with modern buildings and equipment were put in place. Water and sewer treatment facilities were designed for an exceptionally rigorous environment, built, and put into operation. A police station was built for the RCMP in spite of (almost) everyone’s instance that “it can’t be done,” given federal regulations concerning new buildings and the guarantee of bureaucratic delay from that end.

Schools were designed and delivered as required in spite of a pesky provincial insistence that, “the people must be there, then you apply for a school.” In fact, once an area was serviced home construction happened at a pace unseen elsewhere in Canada. As soon as homes were finished, they were occupied. And the parents wanted schools available the day they moved in.  In spite of innumerable and some unfathomable regulations and constraints, top quality education and services were developed including an excellent French immersion program. Secondary school programs were implemented through a newly established community college, and  a first rate community performing arts centre opened.

Less one get the impression that these works were achieved in times of tranquility and prosperity, nothing could be further from the truth. Management in the fastest growing community in North America was a trying experience for all, but when that growth is compounded with crisis and catastrophe the challenge is ever greater still. In one year, we were subjected to a flood (due to a river ice jam) that won us national attention as we evacuated lands right up to the Town Office. That was followed soon after by a forest fire within the town limits. Thanks to much needed help from Alberta Forest Services that was soon under control. Then we awoke one morning to see that the entire community had been infested with a plague of tent caterpillars. The roads were slick with them. My wife commented that we were “living in biblical times.” It was a challenge to keep your humour when you see the front of your house covered with a throbbing mass of insects. There were other events and incidents that kept up on ur toes and awake at night. One winter evening the town’s water reservoir broke, flooding an adjoining apartment tower’s garage levels, and immersing dozens of vehicles in zero degree water. That left us with a massive clean-up job as well as leaving us no spare capacity in the town’s water supply.

Importantly, the administration was able to bring McMurray’s chronic and long-standing deficit  under control. Too, the foundation was laid for local town planning and effective citizen participation. In these exercises, no stone was left unturned in a continual, rigorous examination of municipal operating costs. At one point staff examined the hours of operation of municipal street lights to determine whether, by reducing their hours of operation, costs for power consumption could be significantly reduced. When the need for public transit became apparent, staff developed a proposal for shared rides in private vehicles using common collection points in the residential sub-divisions. Neither of these initiatives was implemented, but many more were. (It bears noting that the volunteer transit system that was proposed and ridiculed – named “Give-a-Lift” – has since been implemented in a number of North American cities).

Possibly the most significant management innovation was the “one stop planning and approval process” that was put in place by the administration.Staff discovered early on that “normal” development approval processes would not work. Syncrude’s staffing up schedule demanded  that hundreds of homes and other types of residential accommodation be delivered annually. These requirements translated into full subdivisions of single family dwellings, town houses and high rise apartment towers. Homes had to be available when employees started work, not weeks or months later.

Towns and cities just about everywhere drive developers nuts by stove-piping plan review and development approval, but these functions were integrated in weekly management staff meetings when all issues were identified; and if there were none, a draft development agreement was concluded.

This process also involved proactive negotiation where municipal requirements – of all sorts – were delivered directly to developers and agreements signed before any development could proceed. In these agreements, staff incorporated provisions for education, recreation facilities and parks, fire protection, traffic and pedestrian movement and control, access, religious facilities, “shallow utilities” and off-site levies.Formal development agreements were issued just as soon as they could be prepared, following legal and policy ratification.

As a result of these innovations, McMurray’s urban developers were able to reduce costs, improve their delivery schedules, and meet their targets. (This also resulted in real savings on new housing up-front costs being passed directly to McMurray home buyers, and apartment renters). At the same time, McMurray avoided the pit that most every municipality sooner or later falls into – believing that residential growth is automatically and always beneficial to the local government bottom line. It rarely is.

When a planning team was installed and the necessary management staff were in place, a new thrust was initiated, focusing on public involvement. Essentially, the level of knowledge about local government, planning and development were very low in the community. Furthermore, most everyone was very busy, given the pace of their work and community growth, and the population was skewed toward young families who by necessity had little time for involvement outside the home. But despite these challenges, the need was great to ensure that McMurray did not end up as a cookie cutter community designed and built by non-residents who had no feel for the place. Importantly, they could not be expected to know or care about the social and cultural environment that was developing, or that could and should develop.

In essence, if McMurray was to have a heart and soul, it would have to come from the people who lived there. The immediate real challenge was to ensure that McMurray became more than a place to stay during a work stint at the plant. It had to become a “fully rounded community” that would provide a home for workers and their families. To put this another way, Fort McMurray had a growing population and a lot of houses. It needed – in the midst of that – to work with stabilizing the population and building a community of homes.

That would take more than nice homes and roads. It would take a full social and community infrastructure that could and would not happen by accident or just plain luck. Given the unique situation the community was in and the challenges it faced, there were only a few options. Normally, communities in similar situations hire consultants with expertise in building social infrastructure. Such a notion would have low sales value in a New Town that had been built and badgered by Southern and central hired guns for a very long time.

McMurray decided to solve its problems itself. It would design, and build a community based on the wisdom and ideas of its citizens and other stakeholders. In few other circumstances has an organization, faced with the demands that McMurray had to face, been able (and willing) to undertake the degree of public consultation that was done in the late 70’s.

Similar effort was required on the financial front. The financial crisis was to a large extent a growth issue – caused by building in advance of revenue. And for way too long Alberta was insensitive to the very real needs of Fort McMurray. But there was another important factor. There was too high a dependence on residential/commercial assessment. Only through continual pressure on industry and government, and a very tight rein on municipal spending was the debt and deficit challenge tackled. In this process, the community was not well involved, negotiations being limited to a core group of civic, industry and senior government officials. As indicated earlier, the level of awareness of municipal finance and operations was not high among the young population; and while older more experienced people might well have that knowledge, most were far too busy to get involved.

In these experiments with community involvement, financial management and innovative operations, there were failures, and there were successes. But there were lessons learned, and insights. In time, it became apparent that a critical factor in driving good local management, community maturation and leadership would be an autonomous local government at the helm. McMurray needed that authority to make final planning and development decisions based on the recommendations of its staff and consultants, not spending a huge amount of time and effort second guessing and examining the work of others who did not report to the local authority. In hindsight, it did appear in fact that McMurray was continually being blamed (in the press, and by government) for failure when the power to manage its affairs in a sensible and effective way was denied it.

The Alberta government was, in part, constrained by legislation that was written for normative communities, not for one that was becoming the fastest growing town in North America. This condition was compounded by the provincial bureaucracy’s lack of comprehension, and general distaste for all things McMurray. There were good reasons for this perspective. For many years McMurray politicians had maintained an adversarial position regarding the provincial government – so that provincial initiatives were often challenged or blocked – even when their intent was good. And it does appear that bureaucrats, business people and developers elsewhere in Alberta really couldn’t grasp what was happening in the Alberta oil sands. The numbers – of dollars and people, and the emerging significance of just where synthetic crude would fit in Canada’s energy picture, seemed to be beyond comprehension.

It seems remarkable now, looking back, that the Alberta (and to some extent Canada) view of energy production was well gushers, hydroelectric and coal fired plants. This “strip mine” in Northern Alberta – while interesting – and  while it was attracting media and visitors from around the world – remained a curiosity for a very long time. In point of fact, the hardly exaggerated production estimates for Syncrude and Suncor combined, and the total known reserve contained with the Alberta oil sands did not become part of Canada’s nation energy estimates and predictions for a very long time.

As a consequence of these considerable dynamics, action took place on a number of significant fronts. The provincial government appointed a “Northeast Alberta Commissioner” whose task, ostensibly, was to provide liaison between McMurray and Edmonton. Locals saw his office as yet another imposition, yet another filter on the conduit. There were suspicions, likely somewhat grounded, that the Commissioner’s role was really one of keeping an eye on McMurray. It was becoming evident in some offices that it was one thing to have an army of engineers build a $2.5 billion oil sands plant, but it was entirely another to entrust a group of elected locals with building the homes, utilities, and commercial infrastructure. The media and news magazine reports on McMurray (including US News and World Report and National Geographic!!) all spelled doom for the town and its townspeople.

For its part, the McMurray Town Board came to appreciate that it had an image problem. Accordingly it agreed with expenditures in the area of image improvement, branding and marketing. For the first time, the New Town took a lead role in getting its message out. One prime example of this was the administration’s work with Trade and Commerce Magazine, which was convinced that McMurray ought to be named “Town of the year” – and have the cover show the City Manager and the Syncrude housing development lead. In other areas briefing trips were made by the Chairman, Town Board members and staff to ensure people in Edmonton, Calgary and elsewhere were made aware of the challenges – and achievements – of the emerging city.

In the late 1970’s, staff launched a series of community “retreats” which assessed people’s values and ideas and mapped out a vision for the future of the community.  The leadership of all community institutions were involved in this process. We hired a renowned Canadian futurist to spend a weekend with McMurray community leaders, and delivered a “Vision Paper for the Future” – a paper that has already come about, much faster than any sensible person could have imagined. It was becoming evident that  the “New Town” designation, and civic dependence upon the capital city was not contributing to McMurray’s evolution and image. Image was important. The oil companies wanted to portray McMurray as a “modern progressive city,” but they were forced to describe it as a “New Town” under provincial stewardship. It was also important for residents, newcomers and the Province alike that McMurray, with a stabilized and maturing municipal workforce, was taking charge of its annual budget process and town planning. It was important that the community be, and be seen to be in charge of its own growth and management. Too, it had to solve its own problems because that is also a part of growing up.

But there were growing pains. Some were very serious. The first time we consulted with the wider community on the municipal budget, near mayhem broke out. To the great surprise of the administration, we discovered that taxpayers had almost no familiarity with the estimates and decision-making processes. And worse, we were to discover that the Town Board was almost as oblivious. They stood at the back and referred all questions and comments – some of them very abusive – to staff.

But against the background of disquiet, there were hopeful moments. Perhaps because there had been a long standing tradition of community involvement with its library, school boards and volunteer agencies, the townspeople welcomed the opportunity to help shape their community institutions. It was a rough transition, but it all worked out in the end.

Consultation with the province to formalize a change in status to city government began in earnest in 1978. We knew we had to establish a target date for Alberta, and we knew it was not going to be easy. For one thing, Alberta would have been completely justified had it permitted an advancement only to Town status. But City Status involves significant authorities and autonomy. Could the Province endorse a community that had badgered it for decades? Could it confer authority and autonomy when it was becoming glaringly obvious that the oil sands were more than “important?” There was dawning understanding that sands oil was critical to Canada’s energy supply equation.

We had our eye focused tightly on Alberta’s Jubilee coming up in 1980. We established a “Jubilee Committee” that brought together community leaders to design and develop a smashing program for McMurray’s birthday. They worked hard – and came up with dazzling ideas! The Committee worked out a theme for the event that would come to win both local and provincial approval. That theme is commemorated to this day in McMurray’s Jubilee centre, a name we recommended and which Alberta graciously accepted.

Alberta had no guarantee that inter-governmental conflict would not continue, and perhaps even get worse with full city autonomy. Further, Alsands and other potential oil sands developers were lurking on the horizon, and Alberta did not want to jeopardize its ability to accommodate new plants. An argument could be made that 1980 was hardly the time for change. Alberta was doubtless especially cautious about McMurray because of the world-wide attention the community received. A “failure” in McMurray would reflect badly on Alberta’s management competence. What McMurray had to do was convince the province that it had a success on its hands, and that it was timely for it to confer autonomy.

Negotiations were protracted, and at a very high level. Ministers and Deputies had to be convinced that the community was ready to govern itself.  In the year leading up to City Status, much had to be done. The Northeast Commissioner and oil sands plant executives had to be on board. Any one of them could have killed the initiative.

McMurray  used the media to full advantage. In the year leading up to September, 1980 media crews were in town from all over North America, Europe and Asia. Government officials from other countries, fascinated with the notion of building a modern city in isolation, came from everywhere. The Commonwealth Study Conference visited as did the University of Alberta Senate. Even the Lord Mayor of London came to town. There were bus loads of media and corporate executives – many of them guided by interpreters.

When Alberta finally concurred with a conferral of City Status – and it was at the 11th hour, we let out a collective “whoosh.” We didn’t actually know that we had been holding our breaths. We had bought things, arranged things, and made countless contracts and arrangements that would all be for naught if Alberta said “no.” Perhaps Alberta had been impressed by our 1978 success in convincing Canada Post that it should issue an oil sands postage stamp, and that the stamp should be released – in Fort McMurray. We were very gratified when the Postmaster General of Canada appeared to officiate at this event, meet townspeople and tour the oil sands plants.

Though Alberta agreed to City Status, they shocked us by declaring it could not happen on the date we selected. Being in the midst of Provincial celebrations, they said all Provincial officials were tied up elsewhere. This was a potential catastrophe. As mentioned, we had signed contracts in place. The special food ordered for the several city dinners had been ordered. Halls were booked. Invitations were printed. Speeches were written and in hand. We had invited former McMurray politicians and their spouses, children and survivors to be with us.

We put ourselves in high gear and called everyone and anyone that could reverse this decision. And – to our utter amazement – we made it happen. True, some officials that we would have likely to see present were not able to be with us – but many were.

Alberta’s 75th anniversary proved an excellent context within which McMurray came into its own. The town  capitalized on the hype surrounding the province’s birthday. Linking the province’s hopes and aspirations with McMurray’s allowed the town to achieve a not insignificant degree of image re-definition. And not of minor consequence, there was significant provincial funding for City Status events.  We were delighted that the centrepiece for the event – our new Jubilee Centre – would set a new municipal / provincial relationship in stone (we would be next door to each other under the same roof). This was a complex project proposed and negotiated by New Town staff. It was built on New Town land, in a configuration that had never been done elsewhere before. The net financial benefit to McMurray from this agreement would prove very significant. Alberta went even further. It featured McMurray in provincial publications, sent profuse greetings and senior officials to help the new city celebrate.

Four days of events were arranged. Featured was an inaugural (ceremonial) first meeting of the City Council. A printed and bound agenda was printed. It contained letters from the Premier and his Ministers, industry officials, other Alberta cities and the heads of community organizations. The Jubilee Committee that had been empowered by the New Town Board arranged luncheons, dinners and dances. An extravagantly designed McMurray / Alberta 75 birthday cake was served on the banks of the Clearwater, with City staff appearing in bright blue blazers that featured the new community colours and municipal insignia. Thousands participated. We were delighted to relegate the “New Town” designation to history.

With the transition the people of McMurray came totally on board. We now saw Alberta as a partner in helping realize the Northern Alberta Oil Sands Dream.  The oil sands plants were apparently happy with all that had happened and were very generous as a result. All was well – or so it seemed.

The new City Council, perhaps feeling they had to make their own distinctive mark on this emerging community,gutted the administration …… dismissing the ones who had toiled away in trailers with floors filled with water – never knowing where their next crisis was coming from. They decided the management structure that had brought Fort McMurray from New Town to City Status was not up to the task of managing a city. They decided that a tight, integrated management team was not the model they wanted to work with in the years ahead.

The City Manager form of government was replaced with a large, expensive and cumbersome form of government that the City of Edmonton was at that moment freeing itself from. It was more than a little ironical, and amusing now that I look back on it, that after leading Fort McMurray’s development was as consultant to the City of Edmonton. I was tasked with advising the Council on how to move from a Board of Control to a City Manager government, and in bringing forward candidates for the post of City Manager.

What of the future? Well McMurray, though its economic base is oil, still has an important trade and transportation role that will continue to grow. In 1981, in my annual report to City Council, I suggested that the day will come when Fort McMurray will have as much a leadership role in the region as a government centre, as it does in support of oil sands development. And that too has come to pass.

[David G. Jones was New Town, then City Manager of Fort McMurray during the years leading into City Status. Following a career in management consultancy and service to local government, he entered the federal service as an executive with the Treasury Board (TBS). He retired in 2005 having served TBS, the Privy Council Office, PWGSC and the RCMP. David was named an Honorary Fellow of the University of King’s College as a result of his work in adult education and the promotion of university affairs at King’s, Athabasca University and Royal Roads. In 2002 he was named a recipient of the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for his work with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He continues to write and lecture on the subjects of organizational governance, strategic planning and peace.]


This little story is dedicated to former Fort McMurray Mayor and New Town Board Member, the late Claire Peden – a man of great wisdom who provided support and guidance during very challenging times.



Interested in managing without conflict – in your personal and professional life? Think that war is inevitable? Here’s my book on the way to peace.


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