January 25, 2007

$400,000 versus a free letter to the editor

Editorial appeared in Fort McMurray Today, Jan. 5, 2007

One doesn't look far to find negative perceptions of Fort McMurray. Letters to this newspaper decry everything from emergency room waiting times to litter to truck-crazy drivers speeding and changing lanes on icy roads. Internet bulletin boards are full of chatter of the impressions of outsiders, residents, and former McMurrayites who leave the city to make their fortunes elsewhere.

Outside press coverage -- think of the infamous Chatelaine article that painted Fort McMurray as largely an uncultured town of cinderblock buildings populated by gold-diggers, escorts, and the men who love them -- tends to focus on the "unusual," which, in the media industry, tends to skew towards the problems afflicting the city. Regional council in November approved $400,000 to combat so-called negative press coverage, but the money spent to counter bad press would be better spent addressing problems that the "negative" stories are about.

For example: a story might focus on Fort McMurray's drug problem. Does this city have a drug problem? Sure does -- but then, so do most cities. So give an extra $400,000 for treatment programs. Tired of reading stories about the growing homelessness problem? Earmark that $400,000 for affordable housing programs or even to local shelters. It would be money better spent, and perhaps then stories could pick up on the ways council is tackling local problems, instead of tackling stories about local problems.

The folly of the $400,000 was laid bare over the weekend when local doctor John O'Connor wrote a letter to the Halifax Chronicle-Herald warning people about the quality-of-life problems being experienced by our rapidly growing community.

The $400,000 won't begin to counter all the new negative attention focused on the city by a letter to the editor -- which cost O'Connor nothing to write -- that tells people "life here is intolerable." O'Connor has long been an advocate for improving working conditions in the local health region, and is unafraid to call things as he sees them.

His letter was overly harsh -- it's not true that there's "nothing to do" for teens, for example (besides, any parent knows that teenagers growing up in Disneyland would have the same complaint) -- and many worry that his letter could scare off workers in industries we desperately need here (like health).

However, keeping silent about problems does absolutely nothing to solve them. Instead of arguing whether O'Connor should or shouldn't have written that letter, let's address the problems he wrote about.

© Copyright 2007, Fort McMurray Today.

January 15, 2007

Streets of gold, or streets full of potholes?

Editorial appeared in Fort McMurray Today Dec. 29, 2006

The streets in Fort McMurray are paved with gold.

This is a phrase that many Canadians, especially those who don't live here, know and believe. Many of those familiar with this phrase probably call us Fort McMoney to boot.

Is it true? Here's a quick analysis:


- While streets, in our real world, are paved with crumbling asphalt, the high wages here lead to the perception. The wages are real.

- Wages at all levels -- from entry level to union positions, specialist computer experts to mining engineers -- are way above the norm.

- Vacancies abound -- the health region alone has more than 100 jobs it's recruiting for and can't find the people to fill. The same is true at the municipality and almost every oilsands plant.

- You want to get ahead? Show up with a few skills and an abundance of enthusiasm and drive -- be someone who never uses the word "never," but search for new ways to do something, and you'll go far.

- Want to be your own boss? This is the place for entrepreneurs. Whether you want to provide a service that's already here or something new, there's plenty of room in the marketplace. And any competitors will probably welcome you with open arms -- you'll take some of the strain off them.

- Looking for a social group to join, or just make new friends? Fort McMurray is probably one of the most accommodating places in Canada when it comes to making connections. While much is made out of the male-female imbalance, it's not as big an issue as it seems. Many other centres have a large female senior overload, while that's not true here. In some age demographics, it's 50/50.

- Like the outdoor life? This region has it in spades. The year-round recreation opportunities are second to none. People come here from across the globe to canoe our rivers. Whether it's hunting, fishing or riding recreational vehicles, we have everything but big mountain ranges. And the paved link to the outside world puts us ahead of remote (and expensive) destinations like the north.

- People here have an upbeat attitude. Those who don't like the region leave after a short while and leave it for the long-timers who love it here.

There's a downside to the gold, too.

- Some are left behind in the rush to riches.

- The fast-growing economy leads to some unsafe lifestyles -- specifically alcohol and drug use and overuse. While these are problems everywhere, from small town to big city, it's possible that big salaries here make it easier to get caught up in a fast lifestyle without due regard for the consequences.

- The Fort McMurray Factor. Things cost more here. Large projects rise 1.5 per cent per month in cost. Some oilsands projects have more than doubled in cost.

- Time away from family. Almost everyone in Fort McMurray now came from somewhere else or their parents moved here in adulthood. Family is the foundation of our society. Without it, many of us are anchorless.

- The pursuit of money for its own sake. Sure, big-screen TVs and trucks with chrome and big tires are valid, hardly the way to an uplifting life. Again, this is a phenomenon of our society, but places like Fort McMurray play their part.

On balance, the gold in the streets is somewhat accurate, but far from the whole story.

If the ill-fated publicity campaign that Wood Buffalo hopes to pursue in 2007 is ever successful, it must address these issues.

© Copyright 2006, Fort McMurray Today.

January 11, 2007

What's on our Christmas wish list?

Editorial appeared in Fort McMurray Today, Dec. 20, 2006

Here's our Christmas wish list for people and entities who made it into the news in 2006 and, we anticipate, 2007.

Guy Boutilier: A Canada and world atlas to help him in his new intergovernmental affairs cabinet posting.

Premier Ed Stelmach: A page out of that atlas with the route up Highway 63 clearly highlighted (Guy already knows the way). Hopefully the anticipated visit by the new leader will be by land, not air, so the new premier can see what McMurrayites are dealing with.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper: No more nonsensical votes in the House of Commons on issues to please the right wing of his party. Stick to issues that matter to Canadians.

New Liberal leader Stephane Dion: English lessons and a fashion consultant.

Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe: Defeat.

Mayor Melissa Blake: Less frustration and more successes in her bid to build the region's future.

MP Brian Jean: Removal of the gag imposed by the prime minister's office to speak on the issues of the day. Hello, Brian?

All politicians, especially those in Wood Buffalo: Rid your speech of "going forward," "at the end of the day," "there was a good turnout," "basically" and "in fact." These phrases are meaningless.

Fort McMurray RCMP: More drug arrests.

Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan: Safety. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

Alberta Transportation: One entire week without complaints about traffic on the revamped Highway 63. Also, a long construction season next year.

Fort McMurray Oil Barons: A winning streak longer than one game.

To CJOK/KYX-98 under its new Rogers owners: More, different tunes, not talk.

To three new radio stations expected to start up here in 2007: You're broadcasting to a local audience, so ensure your content is local, too.

The oilsands industry: High oil prices to ensure growth and production continues, because it seems clear royalty rates are going to be bumped up.

Fort Chipewyan residents: A clear answer on the moose meat contamination issue based on scientific facts, not hysteria.

Businesses in Fort McMurray: Employees who show up for work every day.

To all our readers: A merry Christmas and happy new year.

© Copyright 2006, Fort McMurray Today.

January 09, 2007

Artificial ice in Chip didn't make sense

Editorial appeared in Fort McMurray Today Dec. 19, 2006

Regional council was split on the issue of artificial ice for the replacement of the Archie Simpson Arena in Fort Chipewyan last week.

In stark contrast to many of the issues our local politicians deal with regularly, emotion seemed to play a big part in the call to build the arena without a concrete pad, tubes and an ice plant.

When the former Improvement District and the City of Fort McMurray amalgamated in 1995, there was creeping suspicion by rural folk that the city would come to dominate them, that spending -- with money generated by the oilsands plants -- would gravitate to the big city and away from the hamlets scattered throughout the municipality.

The Improvement District even came to the table with millions of dollars in accounts set up for future infrastructure improvements. They were careful to ensure the money was spent on the needs of rural people.

Considering the high spending today, a few million seems like chump change when compared with the 2007 budget.

No accounting has even been done, but if the spending on everything from pavement to fire halls and other buildings is compared with the small population (more people live in Abasand Heights than the entire rural portion of the municipality), it's likely the dollar/citizen ratio would shift to those former I.D. residents.

The amalgamation was put together on more than money: it was a joining-together of people with the same goals, rural and urban.

It was obvious the decision on the Archie Simpson Arena was not about the money. It was about a community with a recreation board that didn't want to be saddled with ongoing user fees to pay the power bill for the ice plant. It was about a small community without enough young people to keep an expensive operation a going concern.

In Fort McMurray, ice time costs more than $100 per hour. In Chip, residents are not willing to pay anything, regional council was told.

Many other issues were brought to bear by one side in the issue or the other:

Global warming. The argument went that as the winters get shorter, the need for artificial ice becomes greater.

This argument is without scientific merit. While it's generally accepted that global warming is a fact and we'd better get ready to cope with it, scientists talk about a difference of a degree or two Celsius over many decades. While it's enough to affect worldwide weather patterns, it's not significant enough to make the call for artificial ice or natural ice at this time.

Drugs: giving the youth of Fort Chipewyan another outlet for their energy in a hockey arena is certainly a healthy -- and preferred -- alternative to getting caught up in a culture of addictions. While the extent of the problem in Fort Chipewyan is unknown, it's probably not better or worse than in Fort McMurray. That means it's bad.

Will artificial ice that extends the season by a couple of months make a difference? Unlikely.

Regional council didn't go ahead with the Archie Simpson Arena artificial ice because it didn't make sense. The local recreation society was opposed, along with one of the two councillors (John Chadi) who represent the hamlet. The other councillor (Sonny Flett) argued passionately in favour of the project -- his objections may have even delayed it for a year -- but in the end, there was no concrete proof that spending more money would benefit anyone.

Repeated mentions linking the ultra-expensive MacDonald Island project to the Chip arena didn't make sense. While some councillors said Chip residents were welcome at MacIsland, they forgot to add that the access was 250 kilometres away and only good for a few months each year when the winter road is open.

On the other side of the coin, building a project in one part of the region doesn't mean a tit-for-tat automatic entitlement everywhere.

If a case could be made, the Chip artificial ice would be a go.

Amalgamations, like marriages are tough. There must be give and take. respect for other viewpoints. And each partner must put up with the other's foibles.

So far, the urban-rural mix in Wood Buffalo has worked well. This latest case is another example that the amalgamation was a good idea almost a dozen years ago.

© Copyright 2006, Fort McMurray Today.

December 08, 2006

I missed my chance to spy on the Conservatives' priorities

Column: Gimme some grammar appeared in Fort McMurray Today, Nov. 24, 2006

Today staff

I blew it.

I was relaxing at home Monday, on a day off, when the phone rang at half-past noon.

"This is the Conservative Party of Canada. Is it this Michael Hall?"

I answered "yes," by reflex. I regretted it immediately.

The woman went on to ask me if I wanted to participate in a survey, but my mind was racing. I picked the first option that my grey matter offered up: "Uh, er, thanks, but I don't want to participate. Goodbye."

I hung up.

With that stupid answer, I passed on the chance to spy, to be your eyes and ears into what the Tories are wondering about. Are they checking up on how well Brian Jean is doing? Are they checking up on how well Stephen Harper is doing?

Are they judging their chances if the government falls on a vote in the House of Commons and they call an election? The new Liberal leader will be in place in a couple of weeks, and he'll be raring to go.

I blew all of that. Dang.

Then I got to wondering. How did the Tory pollsters know that Michael Hall answered that phone? My name is not in the telephone listings.

I figured it out. The bastards purchased my name from some other company's list! It may be that gift subscription I bought my wife for Chatelaine, or my own subscription to Macworld magazine.

Could it be the contest entry at the trade show, or even -- gulp -- my ticket in the Oil Barons Dream Home lottery?

Who knows which list the Tory polling firm was using. There are a million of them.

The fact that the party is doing telemarketing in this way makes me very unhappy.

While there's a wave moving slowly through the federal government right now to crack down on this evil practice, to make a do-not-call list a reality, there's no way politicians will ever allow it to apply to themselves.

All parties have a stake in permitting everything from calls to homes to spam in our e-mail boxes and sign-pollution along highways to continue.

I'm thankful for the end of the Tory leadership race either this weekend or next. Almost all the candidates (except Gary McPherson, -- thanks, Gary) have been spamming my work in-box for the last couple of months.

I tried to politely ask one of the campaigns to stop sending me something, but was ignored. Another one didn't offer a way to remove myself.

Stop sending me e-mail I never asked for!

I mean, the Viagra, penis enlargement and stock picks e-mails are bad enough. I have to put up with Ted Morton's policy issues, too? Who the heck has a different view on something every day?

I'm still kicking myself for not playing along with the Tory pollster, however. I could have fed the woman nonsense answers and really screwed up the results.

It would have been delicious.

I hope politicians don't take this the wrong way, but their partisan machines, built to do nothing but win elections, are worthless to the average citizen.

Keep your back rooms in the closet. Don't inflict them on regular people.

* * *

On the subject of politicians, it was interesting to see the coverage of Stephen Harper's visit to Vietnam.

It seems the Prime Minister and his aides hate the press so much, they ended up shooting themselves in the foot. The stories out of the trip weren't about what the PM did or didn't do, but about how Canadian reporters got better and more timely information from Chinese officials than their Canadian counterparts.

And how Harper ticked them off.

Newspapers rank down there with collection agencies in the eyes of the public. Harper may feel that giving us the cold shoulder will only enhance his image among voters.

But if it interferes with his message -- that he's supposedly a strong advocate for Canadians abroad and human rights in general (I write supposedly because I don't know if this is true or not -- seriously), then he's blowing it.

Interestingly, Alberta government officials, for all of the criticism that is aimed at the province and Premier Ralph Klein, almost always return calls from the media asking for information, and do so in a patient, timely, and understanding way.

It may be the result of a number of many newspaper and wire service colleagues being hired by the Alberta government. In return for being called flacks by us still writing news, they get big pay increases.

But they know we get ticked off when no one returns our calls. Left to our own devices, we do things like phone opposition politicians.

This lesson, it seems, has not been learned by the prime minister's office.

I'm thankful for the end of the Tory leadership race ... almost all the candidates have been spamming my work in-box.

© Copyright 2006, Fort McMurray Today.

Where, exactly should the workers go?

Editorial appeared in Fort McMurray Today Nov. 22, 2006

It's a balancing act.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo has appeared before a third Alberta Energy and Utilities Board hearing to speak against proposals by oilsands companies to build or expand here.

The theory behind the opposition is sound: the region needs help to cope with the growth.

That argument is unassailable. It's bomb-proof.

When taking it further, however, officials open themselves up to criticism that might prove hard to handle.

Mayor Melissa Blake and other officials have consistently stressed they're not opposed to investment by industry in this region -- a key point -- they just want help. The infrastructure deficit must be addressed, they argue. Quality of life is suffering, they say.

Most citizens would support that argument wholeheartedly. Those who live here don't have to be schooled in the Fort McMurray disadvantage.

So far, so good.

But oilsands plants are adapting to gain the upper hand.

Starting with Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., and continuing with Imperial Oil's Kearl, almost every new project is looking at the fly-in and fly-out strategy.

It seems to be a win-win for the plants and for the region. Workers are parachuted in from Edmonton, Calgary and across Canada. They have little effect on the local economy, because they don't live here -- they live in camps to the north.

Kearl is more than 70 kilometres northeast of Fort McMurray. Even if the company could find homes for its construction workers here -- and that's a big if -- they'd spend hours a day on buses. Some plants have compensated for this by putting the employees on the clock when they step on the bus -- but at a big cost.

Blake is arguing against oilsands plants that house employees in town and don't do more to help the municipality in the form of infrastructure. She's looking for financial help. It's a just cause.

She's also arguing against those plants that don't use infrastructure -- like housing or the highway -- because those workers don't use services in the city, thereby contributing to the local economy.

Wood Buffalo cannot have its cake and eat it too.

The first plant expansion that municipal officials opposed -- Suncor Energy's Voyageur -- was approved.

While the arguments have been refined in each of the subsequent oppositions, they may ring hollow if the words are ultimately ignored.

It's obvious the panels that listen to submissions and rule on the applications are made up of smart, savvy people. They said Wood Buffalo's objections to Voyageur should be addressed by the Alberta government. They handed a political issue off to other politicians.

Saying we don't want new workers in town and we don't want them out of town is a rough road to traverse.

When funding requests end up in the laps of provincial politicians, they can use this argument to turn Wood Buffalo down.

This balancing act will work until someone slips and falls. Wood Buffalo must be sure of its footing.

© Copyright 2006, Fort McMurray Today.

November 21, 2006

John Malcolm wins a battle, not a war

Editorial appeared in Fort McMurray Today Nov. 10, 2006

It's been a long, hard fight for John Malcolm.

The man who calls himself chief of Wood Buffalo First Nation has met with roadblocks at every opportunity.

A stop sign has blocked him at every turn on the road to official recognition for him and his supporters. Official recogition could be leveraged into land and funding for his cause.

As a result, Malcom has appeared at regulatory hearings for new oilsands plants over the years: Pan-Canadian Petroleum in 1999, Canadian Natural Resources in 2003, and recent hearings for Suncor Energy and Imperial Oil's Kearl project.

Until now, Malcolm and the his group that calls itself Wood Buffalo First Nation have been rebuffed. They've received no funding to pay for consultants and lawyers, like some other groups. While he's been permitted to talk at hearings in the past, it seems the final rulings by the regulatory agencies have not taken his arguments into account.

Part of this story goes back more than 100 years, when federal agents were fanning out over Alberta to sign treaties with the Indian bands that existed at the time. Many were missed.

In this region, the five first nations that are now joined together as the Athabasca Tribal Council were signatories. They are now negotiating, or have arrived at agreements, with oilsands plants and at least some members are reaping some rewards as a result.

The story is unclear from here: the federal government has broken many promises over the intervening century. Even the definition of who is entitled to assistance and who is not is still debated, despite many court rulings.

Does Malcolm qualify? Are his claims legitimate?

He will likely cite this editorial to help prop up his argument: his success has been that elusive. That would be wrong.

The entire issue in Alberta and across Canada has been mishandled. With a minority government in Ottawa that seeks to tear down progress made by the Liberals, don't expect any progress soon.

In the meantime, Malcolm's victory in signing agreements with Imperial Oil is one step.

Will there be more success for the unaffiliated aboriginals in Wood Buffalo?

There is still no answer to that question.

Don't expect John Malcom to stop trying, however.

© Copyright 2006, Fort McMurray Today.

October 27, 2006

Editorial appeared in Fort McMurray Today Oct. 13, 2006

Syncrude Canada and Suncor Energy in the top 10 of companies across Canada contributing to greenhouse gas emissions?

That makes sense.

But what does it really mean?

Let's suppose you were an average Canadian living in Ajax, Ont., or Truro, N.S., and you were called by a researcher seeking opinions on the subject.

Given the facts collected about the tens of thousands of tonnes put into the atmosphere by the Ontario Power Generation utility, TransAlta and Sask Power, the reaction would likely be one of alarm.

Fort McMurray's two leading oilsands companies are also on the list at No. 6 and 7, and in light of the poor nationwide press this region has received to date, some may turn thumbs down in our direction, too.

That's the immediate reaction.

But if you tell the same people the power to their homes would be cut without coal-fired electric generation and gas stations closed with no crude oil flowing into refineries, the answer would be completely different.

People want electricity. They want gasoline. They want to leave lights on all night and drive SUVs.

The fight to cut greenhouse gas emissions is an honourable one. While the vast majority of scientists argue it's a real concern, even the few dissenting voices must admit that doing nothing -- in case they're wrong -- is too dangerous.

It doesn't make sense to change the Earth's ecosystem on a huge scale, lest we make our environment uninhabitable.

If that's being too cautious, tough.

Suncor, almost alone in the oilpatch, has it right.

Officials there know something must be done other than complaining about coming legislation.

Surprisingly, the federal government seems poised to enact a tough set of regulations. Next week, we're told, the new green plan will finally be unveiled. Already, some are blasting away at it, but they're shooting blind at a target in the dark. They don't know where it is, or how big the target is.

The fact that some industries are unhappy bodes well for the plan.

Wood Buffalo MLA and Alberta Environment Minister Guy Boutilier is holding judgment, but he's a realist, too. While Boutilier may not always please the environmentalists with his drive to cut emissions with the help of advanced technology, he's not pleasing industry, either.

The federal Tories, once thought hostile to any new limits on emissions, may surprise us.

That would be welcome.

Meaningful change won't work by cracking down on industry alone. Every Canadian must do his or her part.

Syncrude and Suncor won't produce the oil if there's no market for it.

That's where the feds can do some good with laws and regulations.

© Copyright 2006, Fort McMurray Today.

October 24, 2006

A fed-up consumer's tips to avoid the dreaded telemarketers

Column: Gimme Some Grammar appeared in Fort McMurray Today Oct. 13, 2006

Today staff

There was a time when I didn't get too many telemarketers calling my house.

I assumed it was because the firms doing the calling were in big cities. With long-distance rates chewing up the budget, perhaps it would be less attractive to dial us here in Fort McMurray.

That limitation is now gone: with Internet-based telephone service moving into the mainstream, we get calls from far afield, the accents on the callers sound like they're calling from a wide range of Third World countries.

I get lots of calls. I assume most of you reading this do, too.

I've tried all of the tricks:

- Say "just a minute," then put the phone down for the next 30 minutes. Believe it or not, the caller was still there once. When he heard noise that indicated I picked up the phone, he started yelling at me.

- Say "put me on your do-not-call list." Some do, some don't.

- Check your caller ID to see who is calling. Oops. I don't have caller ID.

- Try to reason with the telemarketer. Most are very rude.

- Simply hang up. This is very rude. I have to admit this is what I do for the most part, however.

I don't want to hang up. Contrary to my reputation, I'm not a mean guy. But it's the easiest thing to do.

Telemarketers are people, too. The people who call are regular Janes and Joes, trying to make a buck. If it's a Third World country, they're likely trying to make a buck or two a day.

Jerry Seinfeld had a bit in one of his shows. here's one version:.

"Tell the telemarketer you're busy at the moment and if they give you their phone number, you'll call them back. The telemarketer will say, 'We're not allowed to give out our number.' You say, 'I guess you don't want anyone bothering you at work, right?' The telemarketer will agree. You say, 'Now you know how I feel!'"

The ultimate fantasy is to construct an argument that will force the telemarketer to see the utter fallacy of what he or she is doing and quit the job on the spot. That's never going to happen.

Edmonton Report (which morphed into Alberta report, then Western Report, went out of business, and is back in another form as Western Standard) was the king of telemarketing. The magazine's message, based on old-fashioned morality, had big loopholes: it sought subscriptions by bugging people at home. That's a morally questionable practice, in my view.

Its telemarketers were especially tenacious; they were ready and willing to debate issues when they called me.

When I'm at home, I don't want to debate. That's part of my daytime job.

Now Western Standard is up to the same tricks. I've been solicited at least twice by their telemarketers in the past year.

They have a script at the ready if you try to politely put them off. I don't feel bad hanging up on them.

The former federal Liberal government, for all of its failures, passed a law to establish a "do not call" registry. The job is now on the shoulders of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. They held hearings and invited comment earlier this year. I don't know when they'll unveil the registry itself.

I sure hope the Conservatives aren't eyeing this baby as a cost-cutting possibility. It will be worth its weight in gold.

Will the registry cull the offshore telemarketers? I'm not sure.

This is the precise thing we look to our governments to take care of.

With the Conservatives coming through on laws to limit the excesses of the payday loan industry, this is another area where they can do some real good for average Canadians.

- - -

Fall is here. The leaves turned, then hung around for a while, but they fell to the ground in big bunches on the weekend.

Winter is coming.

I'll put it this way, instead of dreading winter, I'm looking forward to spring.

- - -

Everybody's talking about it.

Construction on Highway 63 through town is out in the open and on the tip of many tongues.

At the regional council meeting this week, Coun. Jim Carbery took the optimist tack: he praised how well the new lights at the bottom of Thickwood Boulevard are moving drivers to their destinations.

He's right.

A pessimist out there might gripe about the overall slowness of every portion of the project: from the almost-finished Beacon Hill/Gregoire Park intersection, to the almost-but-not-quite-finished Thickwood Boulevard link, to the unknown downtown bypass.

A reporter asked, and was told, the project is on schedule. It's on schedule until it's behind schedule, I guess.

If you asked local McMurrayites if it's behind schedule, you'd likely get a different view.

One aspect of the job is really ticking some people off.

With new pavement on Beacon Hill -- wasn't that stretch paved about eight years ago? -- many drivers treated the road as if there were three lanes all the way up to the Beacon Hill turnoff.

When lines were finally painted on the asphalt, the clear message is that vehicles in the right lane should merge left, then go back right to turn a few hundred metres later.

It's obvious the lines were dictated by someone who doesn't know local traffic patterns.

Will the province, who is in charge of the project, reconsider? Stay tuned.

© Copyright 2006, Fort McMurray Today.

October 03, 2006

Sex and the single girl in the Oilsands City

Another Point of View appeared in Fort McMurray Today Sept, 20, 2006

Today staff

Like many of you, I read the recent October 2006 Chatelaine story, Down & Dirty in Fort McMurray, with dismay.

Not because I'm one of those knee-jerk boosters who flat-out denies we live in a utilitarian boomtown with a healthy number of male oilsands workers who stave off the long hours and loneliness by spending their fat paycheques on drugs, booze, gambling, and hookers.

In fact, when I arrived one year ago, I thought I'd never seen a downtown with less character and charm: strip malls and parking lots as far as the eye could see. And living downtown, I've witnessed many a drug deal and dodged dozens of crackheads and drunks.

But I've never felt threatened; I actually feel safer walking at night in McMurray than I do in my hometown, Toronto.

I've also learned to enjoy McMurray's many charms, like beautiful parks and trails, small-town friendliness and relief from big-city gridlock and crowds.

But back to that Chatelaine piece.

What really alarmed me was its portrayal of Fort McMurray's single women as heartless gold-diggers who won't date/bed a man until they know the size of his, ahem, salary.

In a breathtaking generalization, the reporter states that "every last guy in Fort McMurray claims to have been through a similar experience" of women bypassing the 'getting to know you' stage and heading straight for the wallet. That can't be, I thought: I know lots of single women here (all younger and prettier than I), and none is in the gold-digging business.

But my illusions were shattered last weekend at a popular restaurant's bar, when a friend-of-a-friend turned to me and asked, "You know what I hate about this f--king place?"

He had plenty of liquor in his system and gold in his pockets, he would later inform me.

"What's that?" I said, wincing.

"The fact that women, even some really f--king ugly chicks, come up to me in bars and ask where I work and how much I make."

"It's like, why the f--k would I wanna f--k you? I wanna yell!"

So it really does happen -- even to average-looking guys with no manners.

Let me be clear: At my age (in my 30s), it's been awhile since I walked into a bar and anyone did a double-take -- much less in a dance club aimed at 20-somethings like Cowboys, where the Chatelaine writer did much of his research. So, who am I to talk? What do I know about how young men and women hook up these days?

Well, I learned two things from that conversation: Apparently, some women do ask the money question. And in the process, they've helped to create at least one woman-hating creep.

God help us if there's many more like him out there.

But what the Chatelaine writer did not ask is, Why are women (who I presume are gainfully employed) doing it? What do they want, exactly, that they can't buy themselves?

It was my mother who taught me a thing or two about sex, money, and power.

To my teenaged self, she said: When you go on a date, pay your own way. If you don't, it's harder to say no if the guy demands something in return that you don't want to give.

Later, she gave the grownup version of that advice: that financial independence is a woman's best friend -- for the simple reason that not relying on a husband's or boyfriend's handouts gives her the freedom to live her life as she chooses.

But another value she (and my father) passed down was this: The amount of money someone earns is not a measure of his or her character.

How sad if, in our relationships, however casual, we stop seeing the person and see only a walking bank account (or an instrument for sex.)

I can hear the howls of protest already: 'It's my choice what I do with my body!'

That's true. But in this case you're using it for monetary gain. Whether you like it or not, that's called prostitution. The guy could be looking for a relationship, or just mutual interest in a one-night-stand. Heck, it could be only friendly conversation he's after. But putting a dollar value on any of it is a form of cynicism that will kill the fun of flirtation quicker than you can say, "three-fifty an hour." And if he isn't expecting it (say, by calling an "escort service,") he has every right to feel resentful.

Is that how we want to interact? Do we want men to suspect our motives when we show interest? Do we want them to hesitate (for the wrong reasons) before approaching us?

Women today can hold almost any job they want and get fair compensation for their work. Sexual harassment in the workplace is against the law. And all because feminists have been fighting for 100 years to convince men we're more than sex objects and baby-makers.

Let's not turn back the clock. Let's get past the idea that our bodies are mere commodities, and men should pay the price.

What we'll get in return is worth more than its weight in gold -- including a generation of available men (rich or not) who don't hate and distrust us because we're only after their money.

You can't put a price on that.

The Chatelaine magazine story that stirred up a controversy

© Copyright 2006, Fort McMurray Today.