Raising Fort McMurray
Fort McMurray has been called a lot of things. Many people think of it as the ‘Wild West of the North’, where the rough and rowdy come to earn big bucks in the oil sands. For those of us that live here, the reality is much more than money and oil.
We are festivals and world-class sporting events, beautiful forests and trails. We have some of the best schools, teachers, nurses and emergency responders in the country and a population made up of every race, religion, sexual identity and socio-economic class. Our winters are long and cold, but celebrated with wonderful family events and frequently enhanced by a northern light show. Our summers are long and warm, and packed with activities, concerts, playgrounds and splash parks.
We have survived market crashes and natural disasters. We rely on each other when times get hard and are confident that we can do so. We are #fortmcmurraystrong, and have proven it.
For all the families and individuals that live here, and the next generation that is born and raised on the muskeg, this is our home. YMM Parent introduces you to six families who live here and love calling it that.
Kristel Rensmaag and her wife, Cristina Rensmaag-Izaguirre (pictured right), are both educators in Fort McMurray. Kristel has worked for the Fort McMurray Public School Board for the past 12 years and is currently the school counselor and one of the physical education teachers at École McTavish. Cristina has worked at Keyano as an instructor in the Business department for the last six years. They live in Thickwood with their daughter, Kenzie, who turned three in August 2018 and their ten-year-old Yorkie, Gracie.
“I moved here in September 2006 because my cousin had been telling me about all the opportunities here for teaching, and I was at the beginning of my career,” said Kristel. “I only planned on staying for a few months. But after six weeks, I was hired on, full-time and I’ve been fortunate ever since.”
In the spring of 2012, after major knee surgery that would keep her off work for six months, Cristina decided it would be a good time to move to Fort McMurray to be with Kristel. As fate would have it, she got a job offer as soon as her disability was up. Soon after, they decided they were ready to settle more permanently into life here and start the next chapter as a family.
“We had two amazing and beautiful wedding ceremonies in the summer of 2014,” said Kristel. “We had the legal ceremony (“I Do BBQ”) in my parents’ backyard in Maple Ridge, BC, and then we had the symbolic ceremony in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where we exchanged the rings.”
For the legal ceremony, Cristina surprised Kristel with a performance by Fort McMurray-born, Canadian Recording Artist Amy Hef, who played ‘their’ song “Perfect.” Then just a year later, in 2015, their beautiful daughter was born at the Northern Lights Regional Hospital.
“The nurses and staff, in the maternity ward, were so amazing,” said Kristel. “They were caring and compassionate to all three of us.”
One of the reasons they choose to raise their family in Fort McMurray is because of all the opportunities it has for people of any age. They are avid Husky fans and active themselves in numerous sports.
“Our daughter has taken part in the parent and tot classes for both gymnastics and swimming,” said Kristel. “We recently registered her to start dance in the fall and, once soccer registrations open up again, she will be in that too.”
Kristel played indoor women’s soccer for her first six to seven years in Fort McMurray. Currently, she plays women’s volleyball and co-ed slo-pitch and coaches Junior High volleyball, badminton and track and field.
She is also one of the committee members for Pride YMM. Cristina has been involved in women’s volleyball and slo-pitch (both women’s and co-ed) since she moved to Fort McMurray. Additionally, she sits on several committees at the college and enjoys attending Huskies’ games to support student-athletes.
“That’s something Kenzie and I, especially, love to do together,” said Cristina. “You can often hear us cheering together in the stands.”
Photo: Kristel and Cristina with their daughter Kenzie during a newborn photo session in 2015. Kenzie turned three in August 2018. Photo by Citrine & Olive Photography
“How do I describe a typical day in our house?” laughs Brandy Fitzpatrick, as she sits in the kitchen of her rebuilt home in Abasand earlier this spring. “One word – chaos.”
Brandy and her husband BJ, a firefighter/EMT at Suncor, have four children: Noah is eleven, Logan is eight, Ari turned one in May, and baby Cash is just seven weeks old. Prior to June of 2018, they had split their time between two homes – one in Abasand and one in Fort McKay. Now they are living in their Abasand home full-time.
“Noah is in grade six this fall. And, even though it’ll be tough to leave his friends in McKay, there are more opportunities academically for him in McMurray,” Brandy said. “We had planned to move back into town a few years ago, but it got delayed after we lost our home in the fire. Plus, we have so much family and support in McKay that it makes it hard to leave. No matter what, it’ll always be our home.”
The family has lived in Fort McKay since before the kids were born, and BJ’s family dates far back into the history of the community. His mother is Chipewyan. After he graduated from Father Mercredi High School, completed his firefighter and EMT program in Edmonton, he came back to Fort McMurray and joined Suncor under the Aboriginal Recruitment Opportunity.
In 2009, BJ received the Governor General’s Medal of Bravery for an incident he responded to with his crew.
“That was a pretty cool experience,” said Brandy. “They flew the whole family to Ottawa to watch BJ receive his medal, and we were all very proud of him.”
These days, they spend most of their time between school and sports activities – mostly hockey and baseball. BJ also runs the local Power Edge Pro training camp, which is an on-ice player development system that is utilized by players from grassroots hockey all the way up to the NHL. He was also the first Aboriginal Level 3 Certified Instructor in Canada.
“Sports and being active are a huge part of our life and our kids’ lives,” said Brandy, who is a certified yoga instructor and runs the dry-land training for the hockey camps. “Wood Buffalo has so much to offer when it comes to recreation and family activities, too, so we feel lucky to live here.”
Brandy grew up in Abasand and most of her family still lives within Wood Buffalo. Her mother and stepfather live in Fort McKay, her two brothers live in Fort McMurray with their families, and her father lives just a five-hour drive away in Leduc.
“I love that we have this whole next generation of McMurray kids growing up here,” said Brandy. “And that my kids get to spend so much time with our extended family. This community has given us so many life opportunities, and we feel blessed to be able to provide our kids with the same opportunities we had.”
John and Mary Louise McCormick live in Abasand with their three children; twelve-year-old Hailey, nine-year-old Kadence and six-year-old Jayden, along with their family cat Simba and dog Maggie. John is an Outage Coordinator at Syncrude and Mary Louise is a math support teacher at Father Beauregard Elementary.
“Our two youngest children attend Father Beau and our oldest just finished up her first year at Holy Trinity Catholic High school,” said Mary Louise. “John moved to Fort McMurray in 2000. I followed, shortly after, in 2002. All three of our children were born here. And, we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Like many other residents from the East Coast, they chose to move here with hopes of finding good-paying jobs and make enough money to eventually return to their roots in Cape Breton. However, after 16 years of making friends and establishing successful careers, they both agree that this is now their home.
“We feel lucky to live in a wonderful community. We are blessed with such a great group of friends that have now become what we call our ‘Fort Mac Family’,” she said. “Fort McMurray is so much more than just a “Money Town”. This community is full of amazing people and opportunities for our children.”
They attribute their reason for staying to all of the opportunities – the school system, an abundance of extracurricular activities, indoor/outdoor playgrounds and recreation facilities.
“Our son has kept us busy over the years with swimming lessons, skating lessons, superhero camps, hockey and baseball,” she said. “Our two girls are very involved in dance, and one has been to competitions all over Alberta and even to British Columbia by the young age of nine.”
“Enough can’t be said about the amazing dance family we have here, along with the opportunities it provides. Their instructors are always exposing them to new opportunities and hosting guest dancers and teachers from all over the world.”
This summer their youngest daughter attended a dance camp at MacDonald Island Dance, which was led by a guest instructor that travelled here from New Zealand along with eight of her dancers.
“How many towns give you the opportunity to dance with people from New Zealand?” exclaimed Mary Louise. “We are also one of the lucky families that got to host two of these dancers, so our children were able to interact with them and learn about their country.”
A typical day in the McCormick household involves commuting to work and school, after-school activities, and squeezing in any community events that may be taking place. One of the events the family looks forward to every year is the Halloween events put on by the Fort McMurray Boys and Girls Club, which include a haunted house and Junior Boo.
They have numerous experiences and examples of times they’ve had to rely on their ‘Fort Mac Family’ and the community for support, but one in particular stands out.
“One of our children was having a really hard time dealing with anxiety,” she said. “Her school and the amazing staff were truly there for her and us every step of the way, providing guidance and so much support. I don’t know how we all would have ever got through it without them. Father Beau rocks! And so does Fort McMurray!”
“I guess you could say it was the reputation of Fort McMurray that kind of drew us here,” said Dane Neufeld. “I remember seeing a play in Toronto called Highway 63 and it made us think about Fort McMurray and its various challenges and unique opportunities.”
Dane is a minister at All Saints Anglican Church in downtown Fort McMurray. He and his wife Juanita, who works in human resources at Suncor, have four children; Anton is eight, Clara is six, and the twins Leo and Maggie are three. Life is quite busy in their household with two working parents, school, activities, and church.
“We always try to eat dinner together when I get home at 5 p.m., and then it’s off we go,” said Juanita. “We love all the rivers and trails around Fort McMurray, and we spend a lot of time biking, walking and paddling as a family.”
Both with Alberta roots, Dane grew up in Calgary and Juanita in Grand Prairie.
“We met at the University of Calgary,” said Dane. “We lived on either side of a duplex that was rented for a University Christian fellowship.”
They were living in Toronto prior to their move to Fort McMurray.
“Anton and Clara were both born in Toronto,” said Juanita. “Coming out of my second maternity leave, we had to decide if we were staying in Toronto or if we should move. Alberta was always home for us. And, since Dane could finish his Ph.D. from anywhere, we decided to make the move to Fort McMurray for my work.”
“We both wanted to try something a little different,” said Dane. “And we felt a draw to understand a community that many people thought so little of.”
They’ve been here almost five years now and have no plans of leaving anytime soon. Their kids are involved in basketball, baseball, gymnastics, soccer, swimming and piano lessons. They are also members of the Ptarmigan Nordic Ski Club. However, it’s their church family that keeps them grounded in their new home.
“Our church has been a wonderful community for us, as a family,” said Juanita. “There are so many kids, every Sunday, and our kids love going. Many of our closest friends in Fort McMurray are ones we met at our church.”
They’ve also experienced how this community rallies around each other in tough times to offer support, and how a negative can quickly become a blessing. One of the biggest challenges we face living far north is how difficult life can become when a family member needs specialized medical attention, and the nearest hospital to offer the treatment is almost a five-hour drive away.
“I had some medical complications in my pregnancy with our twins that required me to be in the hospital in Edmonton for two weeks prior to the birth, and one week after. It was tough trying to manage that with two little ones at home,” said Juanita.
“When we returned home from Edmonton with our twins, they were still so tiny and needed lots of additional care. My mom came and stayed with us, but even then, we were a little overwhelmed by it all.”
Members from both Anglican churches in Fort McMurray showed up with meals almost daily for a month. It fed their family but also gave them an opportunity to show off their babies to friends without having to leave the house.
“It was a trying time in many ways, yet we felt so cared for,” she said.
At first glance, Gina Power and her little millionaire family of one boy and one girl look like they could be straight from the pages of a celebrity magazine. However, this family had its share of ups and downs. They choose not to let it define them.
“We moved to Fort McMurray from Brooks, Alberta when Mackenzie was seven and Matthew was one,” said Gina Power.
“We are originally from Newfoundland, but had a lot of family up in Fort McMurray already. I wanted our kids to be close to them, so then my husband – at the time – Calvin and I bought a place in Abasand. Fort McMurray has been our home ever since.”
Even though they are no longer married, the pair has created what many would consider a successful co-parenting relationship and tries to incorporate some of the same family traditions and values whether the kids are at mom’s or dad’s house.
“Family dinner was always a special time growing up, and we both felt that we wanted to keep that tradition alive with our kids,” said Gina. “Every night we are all home together, we make sure to take the time to eat dinner at the table, as a family, and talk about our day and what’s going on in our lives. It’s something Calvin and I think is important and I think our kids really appreciate it, too.”
She said if she had one piece of advice for anyone moving to Fort McMurray with their family it’s to not be scared of the housing prices because it all evens itself out. Wages are still higher here than a lot of other cities, and that offsets the cost of housing.
“Also, make sure you get your kids out and involved in the community because Fort McMurray has so much to offer. When my kids were younger, I used to take part in a lot of the activities and playgroups and camps around town. I met a lot of other moms and parents that had kids close to the same age. Many of those people are still friends to this day.”
She describes Fort McMurray as the kind of community where most people are from somewhere else and living far from family and support. So, residents are forced to build these other support systems in their neighbours and community groups.
“It’s kind of cool how this community can bring people together. And it’s nice to see this next generation of kids who were born in McMurray keeping that community spirit alive, even in times where the economy and oil prices and other factors are so uncertain,” said Gina.
“I guess it can be said that even though oil is what brought us together in the first place, and jobs and money, it’s not what keeps us together. What keeps this place going, even after one of the biggest natural disasters in Canadian history, are the people that live here. This little northern community has become our home, and I dare anyone to talk bad about her!”
In February 2007, Nargis Zaid and her husband, Zaid Sulaiman, immigrated to Canada from Karachi, Pakistan with their two then-young children Hussain and Hamna. Two years later, they welcomed their youngest daughter, Haniyah.
“My brother encouraged us to move here. He had been living here prior and spoke often of the opportunity for a better life and education for our children,” said Nargis. “Providing a better future for our children was a key factor in our decision to move.”
Although it was not easy to leave their family and traditional lifestyle behind, they quickly became aware of the plentiful job opportunities this community had to offer and how welcoming and peaceful it was. They also became very active community members in their new hometown.
“I’ve always been involved and interested in my own Pakistani culture and embracing it,” said Nargis. “I like to bring people together and unify, which is what lead me to start my own business – H&H Eastern Wear – selling Pakistani attire to the small community here. This helped me meet many families and people with similar stories.”
Her business was the first to offer traditional Pakistani wear in Fort McMurray.
Although she closed her clothing business in 2010, it was through her interactions with her customers that she recognized a need in Fort McMurray for a formal Pakistani group.
So, she co-founded the Pakistan Canada Association, also known as the PCA of Fort McMurray and currently serves as Vice President of the women’s wing in the association.
She was also a member of the Municipality’s Regional Advisory Committee on Inclusion, Diversity and Equality (RACIDE) from 2012-2014.
“I am heavily involved in coordinating events for the PCA, which includes the annual celebration of the Pakistan Independence Day, volunteer appreciation days, the Fun Gala for kids and our Eid Parties,” said Nargis.
“Through all these functions and events we have brought a voice to the Pakistani community of Fort McMurray and are able to promote our culture in the region.”
Their kids have certainly followed in their footsteps and are always with them at community events, helping out with everything from setup to cleanup. Hussain was part of MACOY and student council at Holy Trinity High School.
In 2013, he was selected to be MLA for a day in the legislature. Hamna has volunteered with 91.1 The Bridge at community events and has a passion for poetry.
Just this year, one of her poems, “There’s So Much More to Him”, was selected to be published in the Words of Motion by Wood Buffalo Regional Library. Haniyah, their youngest, is too young to be involved as a volunteer on her own, but she loves being at all the events.
They are also a very physically active family. All three kids are passionate about basketball, and Hamna is on her school team. They utilize the facilities at the YMCA and the HUB a lot.
“The YMCA was affordable and offered many things for my family and me to do, especially when weather forced us indoors,” said Nargis, “The same is true for the HUB and MacDonald Island, but I believe we need more facilities in the north of town uphill that offer lower rates for the people of Fort McMurray. Not everyone can afford their prices every day.”
Her son graduated from Holy Trinity and is currently exploring university programs outside of Fort McMurray. Nargis wishes there were more university options closer to home, so he wouldn’t have to leave home to pursue his degree. Her eldest daughter is still at Holy Trinity and her youngest attends Christina Gordon Elementary School.
“A typical day in my family can get hectic,” said Nargis. “With three different-aged kids and two working parents in the house, you basically have five different routines running throughout the day. Although busy, my family has found an orderly process and is quick to compromise for on another. We are a close, love-filled family who embraces our heritage throughout the day with our values, language and food!”
She said that while they don’t experience many challenges integrating into the community now, things were much harder when they first moved here.
The community was not as developed and, like any immigrated family, they faced language barriers and challenges with starting a new life in a foreign place, making new friends, finding affordable housing, getting a job and adopting some of the Canadian ways of living.
“What I love about Wood Buffalo is how supportive, family-friendly, happy and accepting most people are of new immigrants,” said Nargis.
“We, as a community, are quick to help our neighbours or stand and unite for a good cause, all while being accepting of all races, ethnic, cultural and religious differences. I love how diverse and multicultural we are in Wood Buffalo.”