The Stories that shaped Fort McMurray in 2016

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No other community in Canada was tested the way Fort McMurray was in 2016.

Worries from an economic downturn were replaced in the spring by fear and panic, as entire neighbourhoods were nearly destroyed by fire.

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While people are grasping the human and economic fallout of the wildfire, a stubborn undercurrent of hope and optimism continues to hold many connected to Wood Buffalo.

The destruction of Fort McMurray and Anzac scatters thousands across the country

The ferocious wildfire began in a remote area southwest of the city less than three days earlier on an unusually hot and dry Sunday afternoon. An unusually dry start to the season sparked several fires during the weekend, concerning fire officials.

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But “The Beast,” as it was quickly dubbed, overwhelmed forestry workers and spread into Fort McMurray and later Anzac, destroying thousands of homes and causing billions in damages.

Thousands of people fled in every direction, with two people killed less than 24 hours later on Highway 881.

It was only the start of the human tragedy, though. In the months following, thousands of people made the painful decision not to return to Fort McMurray, while others simply could not come back.

The invisible scars to the mind slowly came forward; by August, Alberta Health Services had dealt with 20,000 mental health referrals in the region. Before the fire, the annual average was 1,200.

Emily Stairs argues with a municipal engineer during a public forum for Waterways residents at Shell Place in Fort McMurray, Alta. on Thursday September 8, 2016. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Residents, particularly in Waterways, argue rebuilding efforts are out of touch with their needs

According to the municipality, 1,958 buildings were lost to the fire, including 2,574 individual residences.

A struggling construction industry saw an opportunity in the clearing and rebuilding phase, as the Conference Board of Canada estimated billions of dollars would flow into the Alberta economy in the near future.

Yet questions about clearing debris, health and environmental concerns from the province, and uncertainty regarding flood mitigation in Waterways meant it will not be until 2017 until heavy construction would start, while residents felt their immediate window to rebuild closed from red tape.

The questions lingering about the future of Waterways only exasperated the residents of Fort McMurray’s oldest neighbourhood, where 90 per cent of homes were destroyed in the fire.

Rumours that the neighbourhood would not be rebuilt, or only partially rebuilt, forced the city to hold multiple engagement sessions, where residents did not hold back how they felt they were being treated.

Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Metis, sits next to other rural residents during a council meeting in Fort McMurray, Alta. on Monday June 20, 2016. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Networ

The deferral of the Conklin Multiplex awakens a rural coalition

In late July, council deferred construction of the Conklin Multiplex and several other projects, with supporters arguing this would free money for costly recovery efforts.

But the decision to defer the $50 million recreation centre ignited long-standing tensions from the rural hamlets about quality of life issues.

This led to the formation of a ‘rural coalition’ of Wood Buffalo’s hamlets, First Nation and Métis community groups.

The coalition said the deferral was the latest example of broken promises from the municipality, dating back to promises made in 1995 when the region amalgamated into the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

These grievances included a lack of piped water and sewage systems, few recreation options and a tax system requiring rural small businesses pay five times more than their urban counterparts.

Several councillors reversed their positions. Council voted 7-3 to resume construction of the Conklin Multiplex, and later announced consultations to improve rural-municipal relations.

Gene Ouellette, owner of Four Seasons Power Sports, stands in front of the remains of his Waterways store on Wednesday, August 31, 2016. Cullen Bird/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Already struggling from oil prices, local business struggles worsen after the wildfire

The start of the year was already hard on Fort McMurray’s stores, restaurants and home businesses struggling to survive the economic downturn. The trends of lost revenue and slow business were amplified after the wildfire.

Some businesses that survived the flames were still forced to close, while others warned they were being pushed to their financial brink.

Rural businesses were spared damage from the fire, but suffered lost revenue and customers, a disastrous development in an area charged higher rural business taxes.

To help ease the struggles, the municipality created a three-phase recovery plan with help from Economic Developers Alberta, organizing trade shows, a recovery hotline and a business support centre.

An initial $1,000 was given to more than 3,000 eligible small businesses who registered with the hotline, though some complained that the payment was welcome but too small to make a difference.

Later, it was announced up to $20,000 in financial aid would be available for small businesses. By November, more than 1,500 eligible businesses applied for up to $8,000 in Phase 2 funding.

Tanis McCallum-Robillard, owner of a freight and delivery business in Conklin, Alta., leans against one of her trucks on Sunday September 4, 2016. Cullen Bird/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

The municipality gets breathing room from Bill 21’s tax changes

As recovery brought its own logistical and financial hurdles, the RMWB faced a new threat to its tax revenue from Bill 21, Alberta’s proposed plans to revise the Municipal Government Act.

The bill threatened to rewrite how municipalities could collect taxes from rural areas, particularly non-residential tax classes. The municipality charges this class, which includes oil companies and operators in Wood Buffalo, 18 times higher than residential rates, providing 90 per cent of the municipality’s income. Bill 21 would limit that ratio to five.

In October, council was assured Wood Buffalo would get enough time to make the transition easier. In December, Bill 21 was passed, with the current 18-to-1 rate grandfathered. However, taxes are set to be revisited in 2017.

Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, speaks to people greeting her outside an event at Shell Place for first responders on Friday, June 24, 2016. She joined Governor General David Johnston for a tour of the region, surveying first responders and presenting commendations to first responders and volunteers. Robert Murray/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

A royal visit to Wood Buffalo

Once the city reopened, Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, joined Govenor General David Johnston in a tour of the devastated areas.

Along with Mayor Melissa Blake and Fire Chief Darby Allen, the group toured Beacon Hill, visited Shell Place to meet with first responders.

The two ended the trip with a visit Chief Ron Kreutzer of the Fort McMurray First Nation, while Johnston started the day with a trip to Fort McKay, thanking the First Nation for their assistance during the evacuation.

Commendations were given to local leaders during the fire and both First Nations for their work in the immediate aftermath of the evacuation.

Councillor Allan Vinni reads documents prior to a council meeting in Fort McMurray, Alta. on Monday June 20, 2016. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

A motion makes councillors some of Canada’s best-paid, but outrage forces them to reject the raises

To coordinate rebuilding Fort McMurray, council created the Wood Buffalo Recovery Committee and an administration-led recovery task force in late June.

But four councillors opposed the motion, because it carried steep pay raises for three councillors that would serve full-time on the committee.

Under the motion, councillors Sheldon Germain, Keith McGrath and Allan Vinni would be given $150,000 salaries, while part-time councillors would earn $75,000. The raises made the committee members some of the highest-paid councillors in Canada.

The councillors supporting the motion were denounced publicly and on social media. As outrage grew, more councillors said they would refuse the raises.

By the end of September, council unanimously struck down the new salaries in favour of a compensation system similar to ones already used by the assessment review board.

Bo Cooper is remembered for bringing out the best in people

Unbreakable Bo Cooper spent the final year of his life doing what he did best: fighting.

For 2016, his fight against acute lymphoblastic leukemia inspired the community, as thousands raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for an experimental treatment in the United States.

An online fundraiser brought money from across the world, while local businesses had donation boxes for the Cooper family.

But by the fall, the cancer had overwhelmed his body and a second experimental treatment failed. At 27, he passed away on November 27.

Hundreds of people showed up to his memorial service at Shell Place, as firefighters and police officers marched through Fort McMurray’s downtown in tribute to one of their own.

Pastor Matty Parlee of Fort City Church spoke of how much Cooper inspired people. The 19th century poem Invictus, Latin for “unconquered,” was read shortly before the ceremony ended.

Keyano Huskies forward Liam Van Buren goes past his team’s bench while celebrating one of his team’s first period goals during ACAC men’s hockey exhibition action at the Anzac Recreation Centre in Anzac Alta. on Monday September 14, 2015. Robert Murray/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Big changes come to Keyano College

A sluggish economy forced Keyano College to make decisions that, while unpopular in the community, were deemed necessary by administrators.

The college had already been struggling to define its role in the community when oil prices crashed in late 2014, cutting enrollment and donations.

The new year started with Keyano’s president and CEO Kevin Nagel resigning without any explanation, with a spokesperson saying it was a decision he made himself.

Nearly every portion of the school’s ambitious $332 million expansion plan has been delayed until at least 2030. His successor, Tracy Edwards, cut dozens of staff members and suspended 12 programs.

The most crushing blow came in April, when the men’s hockey team was cancelled after finishing its most successful season.

Despite protests from alumni, the student body and residents, the campus was unwavering in their decision, arguing they would save $220,000 in the 2016-17 budget and the program was too costly to maintain.

In August, Edwards said the college leadership is confident Keyano has an educational role in Fort McMurray and northern Alberta, with plans for new equipment and programs to come.

Mark Ward, CEO of Syncrude Canada, prepares to give a speech at a luncheon hosted by the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce at the Sawridge Inn Conference Centre in Fort McMurray, Alta. on Monday April 18, 2016. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Oil companies change focus, as the days of the megaproject likely come to an end

Suncor continued work on its Fort Hills project and opened the site up to locals, but maintained a commuting workforce would still remain a part of its operations.

The company also successfully acquired Canadian Oil Sands, closing a $4.3 billion deal and adding up to 128,000 barrels of oil per day to Suncor’s production.

But even with that news, a year that began with volatile oil prices meant oil companies were forced to make hard decisions regarding their operations in the oilsands. Workplace fatalities and accidents continued, with the fatal explosion at Nexen’s Long Lake facility the most high profile.

Thousands more workers connected to the oil industry were either laid off or lost hours. In April, Syncrude CEO Mark Ward told the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce that the halcyon boom days of the last decade were “likely in the past” and not coming back.

“We’re starting to think different now. We’re starting to think the environment we’re in today is the new normal. It’s not a short-term aberration. It’s not a short-term dip,” Ward said. “It’s this low price environment, this low commodity environment that we’re going to be in for the long-term.”

The Fort McMurray Monarchs run onto the field to celebrate their victory in the CMFL national championship game. Robert Murray/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

The Fort McMurray Monarchs capture the 2016 CMFL title

The Fort McMurray Monarchs started their year far from home, but brought back the biggest prize of the year to Shell Place.

The team’s first home game of the season took place nearly 500 kilometres away in Spruce Grove after May’s wildfires. Jesse Maddox and his team, coached by Dave Spence, began their season wearing jerseys donated by the Edmonton Eskimos while also receiving equipment from other CFL franchises.

The Monarchs eventually returned home in mid-June, remaining undefeated after a Week Two loss to the Central Alberta Buccaneers. Additions to the team after that loss, most notably quarterback Will Arndt, made the Monarchs’ offence feared by opponents.

The Monarchs had their revenge against the Bucs, beating them on their own turf in the Alberta Football League championship game as they battled the elements in a soggy affair.

That win set the Monarchs up for the Canadian Major Football League championship game in September. In a game featuring an abundance of post-secondary and former professional players on both sides, the Monarchs prevailed over the GTA All Stars, winning at a 59-45 final.

Danny Berg of Saskatchewan holds the 2016 Baseball Canada Cup. The Regional Recreation Corporation announced Wednesday they would play host to the 2018 Baseball Canada 18U Championships in August 2018. Robert Murray/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Fort McMurray hosts the 2016 Baseball Canada Cup

The enthusiasm surrounding the early press conference in January 2015 was high, billed as a big win for Fort McMurray’s baseball community before the first pitch had even been thrown.

While the wildfire didn’t impact the facilities used in the tournament, there was skepticism regarding whether the event could even be hosted properly.

The high-quality baseball, mixed with the perfect weather and the timing for those eager for a brief escape, were the perfect combinations for the weeklong event at Shell Place and Ross Hennigar Park.

The success of the tournament was later backed up in November 2016, with Baseball Canada announcing their intentions to return to Fort McMurray in 2018 for the 18U Championships.

In regards to overall attendance numbers, the event was dominated by the parents of players, which was to be expected, but the atmosphere surrounding the event left a strong impression, and the criticisms of the event’s success quickly fell away.

Connor Brady, Keyano Huskies men’s soccer head coach, celebrates after his team wins their semi-final match against the Capilano Blues during the second day of the CCAA Men’s Soccer Nationals at Shell Place on Thursday, November 10, 2016. Robert Murray/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Keyano Huskies men’s soccer team secures a national silver

In their 30-plus seasons of post-secondary athletic competition, one statistic had always eluded the Keyano College Huskies. In the traditional team sport national championships they had attended, the school had never won their opening game at the tournament, let alone come close to medalling.

That changed in November, as the Keyano Huskies men’s soccer team hosted the CCAA’s men’s soccer national championships. McMurrayite and head coach Connor Brady brought the team out of the basement in the league and led them to an impressive run, breaking the record for the longest undefeated streak in ACAC men’s soccer regular season play, while winning three straight medals at the conference championships.

The Huskies entered the national championship on a high, winning their quarter-final and semi-final games. They ultimately fell in the final game to the Humber Hawks, but the Huskies were the talk of the tournament as their silver was their first ever team medal at a national championship tournament.

With their championship window likely closed due to the graduation of several players and uncertainty about returning players, the medal remains one of the largest on-field successes for the school.

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