The place they love to hate

By Theresa Wells

The link in my email inbox appears innocent enough, but of course I know it is anything but. It has arrived with an angry note from a friend, not angry with me but angry with the author and publisher of the article the link will lead to. I click on it and it leads to yet another piece on my community, my hometown – my Fort McMurray, but it is not really about MY home at all.

Fort McMurray, Alberta: home of big oil, big industry and big dreams – and catnip for every journalist hoping to sell a story of booms gone to bust and dreams gone to dust. It is easy pickings in many ways, a small community in the far north of Canada where it is unlikely many of their readers have ever visited or have any knowledge, and a small population that forms only a fraction of the readership of their publication. They believe they can write about it with impunity, not even necessarily needing to get the basic facts correct or do much research, just come up with a premise, interview a few people, file their story and collect their cheque – or at least that is how some of them seem to think.

There are others, of course, journalists who are thoughtful and who come here with a more open mind and willingness to see that this is not a place of black and white and stark contrasts but every single shade of grey. I have sat with them often, spending hours over coffee discussing those shades, but I have been saddened to see how few of their pieces ever make it to print. Perhaps there is just no appetite for those stories, the ones that tell the tale of triumph and tribulation, of success and failure, of the real Fort McMurray.

In the last few weeks several stories have come out about Fort McMurray, our region and our industry. We seem to be the centre of the media bulls-eye yet again, with stories appearing nationally in publications like The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s and even internationally in an Italian magazine. Some of the pieces were decently researched and written, while others, including one that a glaring lack of research, were little more than opinion pieces just like the one I write today – but in their case they masked them as “journalism”, supposedly unbiased, objective and fair.

It is a dichotomy indeed to be both the place touted as the “economic engine of our nation” and the one that seems to be the place people love to hate, whether for the very industry fuelling that engine or the community that is portrayed in less than flattering light by story after story. We find ourselves reading about our lack of urban planning, our crime rate, our demographic, our social functions – but all from the perspective of a visitor who has no fundamental understanding of this place and who has been here just long enough to see the black and white and has not yet developed the vision to see the shades of grey. We find external “experts” decrying our issues and yet when we who live here are interviewed and we discuss them we are dismissed as being too close to it, almost as if we are victims of Stockholm Syndrome and unable to form objective and fair opinions about our own home and community. It is, undoubtedly, frustrating for a resident of this community, and particularly so for those who write because we know the stories here, the good and the bad and the in between, and while we try to tell them we know we dance on a local stage while others are choreographing their tales for national and global audiences.

We are very reactive, responding to these stories with angry blog posts and newspaper columns and the like, and I am every bit as guilty of this reactionary response as everyone else. Some try to say it doesn’t matter, that what external media says about us is immaterial and yet most of us know that while it may not be the rise and fall of our community it does sting when untruths about us are shared or when our stories are twisted to suit an agenda – and we know that as we grow and try to attract new residents from other parts of the country that these stories may be the ones they are reading as they make their decision to pack up the moving van.

I am looking at a new strategy, one that will hopefully put writers like myself and others on a more national and perhaps even international stage where we can share our stories – fair and objective pieces, not whitewashes – written from a perspective of those who know the place they write about. I don’t know if it will be successful. I don’t know if it will even work at all, but I know that it must be attempted, because I live in Fort McMurray, the place they love to hate – and it’s time to change the story.

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