Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Community by Necessity: Security, Insecurity, and the Flattening of Class in Fort McMurray, Alberta

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Community by Necessity: Security, Insecurity, and the Flattening of Class in Fort McMurray, Alberta

Article excerpt

Fort McMurray existed before the oil sands industry. It is not the result of a corporate takeover nor is it a classic company town. However, like all resource towns, it exists because of fixed, valued resources that multinational corporations want to commodify. Although it was a permanent settlement in the 1860s (as a Hudson's Bay Company storage post), the site of another attempt at resource development (salt mining in the 1920s), and an overnight stop en route to the Yukon gold rush, Fort McMurray remained a remote outpost of under one thousand people until the construction of the Great Canadian Oil Sands Company in the 1960s (Huberman 2001). Following two successive booms and the mushrooming of multinational investment in the oil sands, its population is now part of the global flows of capital and people. In this context, the idea of community is attractive to big oil for the labour force stability it can provide. Attempts to create community amid complex class relations are now part of a place that was once made up of seasonal trappers, barge workers, small businesses, and--ubiquitous in remote resource towns of Canada--the Hudson's Bay Company.

In 2011, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB), headquartered in the large urban service area of Fort McMurray, launched "What's the Big Idea?" a public consultation phase of the Municipal Development Plan (MDP). It included open-house charettes and, over a six week period, invited commentary via web-based questions such as "What are your big ideas to make our region a leader in sustainable development?"; "Do you feel safe in your community; why or why not?"; "Are all the services you need available in Wood Buffalo? If not, what's missing?"; and "What makes your community feel like home?" The MDP, a twenty-year guiding document approved on 25 October 2011, included over 11,000 "conversations" (www.bigideawoodbuffalo.ca/) that were more a list of one-off comments than a back-and-forth dialogue. This was a fairly typical online comment:

   Wood Buffalo is filled with people who have a genuine sense of
   community. So many of us are from places far from here, and it is
   through community groups and the efforts of the RM that we are
   finding this a great place to live. I would love to see
   improvements to the public transit system and a much-needed
   improvement to shoveling public sidewalks in and around town. Not
   everyone drives! I hope that the MDP helps Wood Buffalo become a
   welcoming and functioning community for ALL. (17 March 2011)

A less typical and much shorter comment, printed on a post-it note at a Big Idea open house, stated: "Encourage community living rather than community working" (16 March 2011).

The MDP process is informed by aspirational citizenship (Raco 2009): if your voice is not heard or you are not reflected, it is because you did not stand up and have your (virtual) say, and did not choose to be engaged in projects spearheaded by institutions such as municipalities (Wilson 2004). In this mode, as Creed (2006a, citing the work of Nikolas Rose) argues, community functions as both the language of being self governed and the spatial container--such as a city--of self-governing behaviour. Tethered to the oil industry, the municipality uses a Habermasian legitimation crisis intervention: it uses itself, an already existing institution (Bell and York 2010), to promote community. A "genuine sense of community" is not clarified, nor does it need to be, because ultimately, community is whatever Big Idea individuals want it to be.

De Genova (2005) argues that community is the "conjuncture of social relations"; it is composed of numerous places, and is established through the everyday social interactions and practices of various migrating groups, capitalist ventures, and the nation-state. Community is thus open to multiple interpretations: the municipality can exert itself as a central scale in that process, while sometimes, contradictorily, (virtual) action can be assumed to be community (Herbert 2005). …

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