Almost two decades ago, when I first moved to Fort McMurray, someone approached me at a house party and asked what our plan was. They were someone who had lived here for awhile, and I told them our plan was to buy a house, and maybe I would find a casual job…and they laughed. They asked what our PLAN was – were we here on the three, five or ten year plan?
I remember how puzzled I was. They went on to explain that virtually everyone who came here did so with a time-limited plan; a built in exit strategy that guided their choices over that time span.
I have never forgotten that conversation, as it had a profound impact on me. Fort McMurray was in a period of prosperity then, and for many years after that continued to be, attracting residents from across the country and around the world; and many of them came with a plan.
The plan was fundamentally based on money. Get in, earn lots, maybe flip a house as the market was then still red-hot and then get out with your cash, often with the intent to go back to where you had come from. You know – to go home.
This line of thinking troubled me as what it meant is that some who lived here on such a plan did not consider this home. Undoubtedly, that shift in thought affected how they interacted with the community. I recall a neighbour who said they wouldn’t volunteer as after all, this wasn’t really home and they wouldn’t be staying past three years. The transient nature of the community was very real and very tangible; people came and went with an intensity that made me often wonder if the Klondike gold rush had felt similar. In this case though, they came to pan for black gold, helping to draw bitumen out of the earth.
And then, as things often do in a resource based region, things changed. The oil industry, once the economic engine of our community and really our country, began to struggle due to low oil prices and high production costs. And with it went the overtime and bonuses and massive wages on which many of those year-plans were based.
And then, the fire in 2016. The economy of oil had set the stage, but the wildfire truly set the play in motion as those who still clung to the concept of the plan found themselves facing a decision: return to Fort McMurray and accept the challenges ahead, or opt out for another life elsewhere?
Some returned. Some left. There is and should be no judgement in that; they made their decisions based on criteria known only to them and valid in each and every case; but I think the fire was perhaps when the concept of the five-year plan finally died.
You see, when I meet people now – people who have arrived after the fire – they never mention the five-year plan. They talk about why they have come here and what they have found since arriving; they talk about what they hope to do. But what they do not seem to do anymore is to discuss their exit strategy based on the concept of getting in and getting out with pockets full of cash, as while we are still home to great opportunity and potential, we are no longer an oil rush city.
And I, for one, do not mourn the death of the five-year plan. It was such an odd phenomenon to me, and one that I think was truly detrimental to the work being done to build our community, because the pattern of thought it encouraged – to consider this only a stopping place, not home – affected the way people invested emotionally.
I am not saying those who lived here under such a plan did not contribute, as I know they did; but what the plan did is limit their ability to commit fully and completely to this place as in the end their mind – and their heart – was elsewhere.
The economic challenges we have encountered, along with the recovery from the wildfire, have not been easy. What I have found is that many of the people who have remained here may have come once long ago on a time-limited plan, but it has long been abandoned. And those who are arriving to this place with fresh new eyes, those who have not seen the times of boom and flames, come with optimism and no time limits; they come because their end goal isn’t necessarily to leave.
I find it tremendously refreshing. The last house party I attended was bustling with people talking about their work, their hobbies, their kids, their volunteerism…and nary one single comment about “the plan”. I looked around and thought about how the transient nature of this community has finally changed; how those who are here and those who are arriving are choosing to call this home, not a stopping place.
It hasn’t come without challenges, and there are undoubtedly more to come. But when I asked someone new to the community about their plan – asked if they were on the three, five or ten year plan and they looked at me with deep puzzlement – I knew that we will be okay, because the five year plan appears to be dead.
And I, for one, won’t miss it.