Boom towns have a culture all their own, and they are not always pretty. Boom towns like Fort McMurray, Alberta are established when a valuable resource is discovered in the vicinity of the town and the city grows rapidly with the efforts to harvest the natural resource. The term “boom town” is typically applied to mining cities that are excavating for oil or precious metals. Because of how workers flock to boom towns to make money, and because of how the towns struggle to accommodate the influx of new residents, boom towns are known to have particular surpluses and deficits, both moral and logistical.
The things boom towns tend to have too much of are men, jobs, money and population. Because boom towns are typically built upon labor trades, it is men who seek and obtain a majority of the jobs. This leads to an imbalance in the town’s population between men and women, making it male dominated. Boom towns obviously have a surplus of jobs or they would not be boom towns. While a boom town is a boom town, its primary industry is ever expanding, creating new jobs daily. The work is highly profitable and earns its employees an impressive wage that they could not make anywhere else. As more and more people pile into town to make their fortune, the population grows to an unmanageable size.
But where boom towns have an excess of some things, they have a deficit of others. Boom towns commonly lack women, space, infrastructure and entertainment. Because it is men who flock to trade jobs, boom towns typically do not have enough women contributing to the population and turn into a heavily male dominated culture. Space for people becomes very limited as the town’s population grows at a faster rate than its infrastructure, causing overcrowding and tension. As the governing bodies struggle to provide basic services to the rapidly growing population, recreation for town residents gets put on the back burner and neglected, which consistently leads to debauchery among bored boom town residents.
The oil worker population is largely made up of displaced men, averaging 30-years in age, who have often separated from their support systems in order to be there. The work sites and camps are full of testosterone, energy, angst and boredom. When these things are fueled by large paychecks, addictions and substance abuse run rampant.
Particularly in winter when conditions are harsh and frigid, there is simply nothing for the oil workers to do for recreation and the lack of recreational activities in Fort McMurray and in the surrounding oil camps is in part responsible for the area’s extreme addiction and substance abuse problems. The reasons for this are numerous. Only ten years ago, Fort McMurray had a population of 50,000 people; a number that has more than doubled in the present day. This kind of growth is almost unprecedented for a city, though it is common for a boom town. Predictably, the city and municipality have been unable to keep the city’s infrastructure relative to the size and the needs of the population, so recreational amenities are lacking.
However, there have been some efforts to provide entertainment for the oil workers. Oil giant Syncrude recently built a huge recreation center near the downtown area to give oil workers access to gym and game amenities – an effort to give employees much needed physical activity while they are not working. The trouble is, the draw to Fort McMurray is so massive and the wages are so lucrative that the city should look vastly different in order to support the needs of its population. The residents of Fort McMurray are able to afford a lifestyle full of entertainment, but the area they live in is cramped, unequipped and overwhelmed with people.
Currently, Alberta’s addiction treatment services are overextended, and many people have expressed the need for more recreational facilities and addiction service centers. Whether or not this goal will come to fruition remains to be seen, and people in need of treatment are venturing out to other provinces for help.
In Northern Alberta, on-site at the tar sands, a culture of addiction and substance abuse has emerged among the oil workers. The working and living conditions promote this way of life and perpetuate it every day. The winters are extremely harsh and recreational opportunities are very limited, yet the pay rate is incredibly high. This leaves workers with a lot of time on their hands and very minimal ways of spending it, which is how addiction and crime gets in the door. A number of addictive substances and activities are available to the largely male population in place of healthy activities. Statistically, the two most prevalent addictions in the Fort McMurray, Alberta area are alcohol and cocaine.
Alcohol is one of the oldest addictive substances in the world, and has been abused as long as it has been around. Canada, Russia and other Northern lying regions that turn frigid in the winter are known for their alcohol abuse. Alcohol is widely available throughout these parts of the world, which is likely because it has a numbing effect when consumed heavily and gives the feeling of a false warmth. In Fort McMurray and the tar sands area, alcohol is immensely popular as a way of coping with the -60-degree temperatures that can ravage the region in January and February. Alcohol sales in Alberta are privatized, meaning there is less government regulation on the sale of alcohol than in some other provinces. It is also an affordable substance, with a wide range of qualities and prices to accommodate any budget, making it widely available and very popular.
Unlike alcohol, cocaine is an expensive substance to purchase, but because most of the people living in Fort McMurray work for the oil industry, money is not an object. Illegal cocaine sales are some of the most lucrative in the country in Fort McMurray. Residents of the city have claimed that cocaine is a staple at almost every party. The Hells Angels are a presence in Fort McMurray and are largely responsible for the illegal drug trade and the access the city has to cocaine. Appropriately dubbed the “rich man’s drug,” cocaine is thought of as the favorite way to kill time among oil workers. It has even permeated the local culture through language; in time off from work, short-changes are commonly referred to as “snort-changes” in reference to cocaine use. Residents of Fort McMurray who are struggling with addiction or substance abuse problems such seek out the services of a Fort McMurray rehab right away.