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Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Fort McMurray: Geographical and Historical Context
  4. The Newfoundland Cultural Landscape in Fort McMurray
  5. Conclusions
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References

Symbolic landscapes, which have long held the attention of cultural geographers like Doug Meinig (1979), Peirce Lewis (1979), Wilbur Zelinsky (2001) and J.B. Jackson (1984), can give us clues to the values of and place-specific meanings for particular culture groups and can be used to interpret the cultural, regional, or national identities present in a geographic area (Meinig 1979; Jordan-Bychkov 2012). One way in which symbolic landscapes, and their interpretation, can be applied is in the identification and analysis of the presence and impact of migrants in their places of destination. Migrants from any place of origin make visible marks on the landscapes in their destination, whether they are automotive workers from Michigan relocating to Texas, or Filipinos working on Carnival Cruise Lines, and new symbolic landscapes are the result.

In Fort McMurray, Alberta, symbolic landscapes provide evidence of the array of culture groups who reside (permanently or temporarily) in the area. This article explores the imprint of one particular cultural community in the city–Newfoundlanders. I observed, and came to better understand, the significance of these imprints during fieldwork sessions in Fort McMurray in 2009 and 2010. Through interviews with Newfoundlanders and other migrants in Fort McMurray, I was able to connect the cultural markers left by Newfoundlanders on the landscape with the sense of attachment felt by Newfoundlanders toward their province of origin (Newfoundland and Labrador) as well as to particular spaces in Fort McMurray.

Fort McMurray: Geographical and Historical Context

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Fort McMurray: Geographical and Historical Context
  4. The Newfoundland Cultural Landscape in Fort McMurray
  5. Conclusions
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References

What is today Fort McMurray was established by Peter Pond in 1778. The city is located five hours driving time north of Edmonton, Alberta and at the confluence of the Athabasca, Horse, and Clearwater Rivers (Figure 1). The town was named for William McMurray of the Hudson's Bay Company, and as this affiliation indicates, the town was an important location during the height of the fur trade. While early accounts of the area describe a black tar-like substance oozing out of the soil, it wasn't until the twentieth century that the oil wealth of the region was truly recognized (Huberman 2001).

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Figure 1. The location of Fort McMurray (relative to Alberta's capitol, Edmonton) and the city of St. John's, Newfoundland (Cartography by Kevin Cary, Department of Geography and Geology, Western Kentucky University).

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The first significant oil extraction program began in the 1960s with the Great Canadian Oil Sands project. By 1970, Fort McMurray's population had grown from 1,200 to over 6,000. This growth began to slow in the mid-1970s when oil companies were heavily taxed by the federal government, and the trend did not reverse until the late 1990s when renewed interests by Canada and the United States in the “secure” oil resources of this region sparked unprecedented growth and expansion of extraction projects (Huberman 2001).

This renewed interest in the oil sands sparked unprecedented exponential growth throughout the region. Extraction and refinement of bitumen increased, population grew as labor shortages and high wages attracted workers from across the province and the country, and as a result of the influx of people and disposal incomes, economic growth expanded.

Today, Fort McMurray boasts a population of 76,797, which is an 80% increase since 2000 (Planning and Development 2010; Gilbert 2011). At one point in the last decade (2006), population growth was so high that the vacancy rate for housing was zero. Hotels, motels, and even campgrounds were at capacity, and the average cost of renting apartments or buying a home was higher than in Toronto.

But Fort McMurray is more than just a city with a growing population. While many of the city's residents are migrants, many have bought property and have other family living with them or nearby. The diverse group of migrants share a mutual dependency on the oil sands development projects and the subsidiary industries supported by that development. The prominence of the oil industry is evident in the landscape by the existence of businesses such as the Oil Can Tavern and Oil Sands Hotel (Figures 2, 3). The shops in the mall downtown do not sell high end fashion designer labels, but rather work clothes necessary for the construction projects and jobs in the oil sands development sites (Figure 4).

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Figure 2. Entrance to Oil Sands Hotel in downtown Fort McMurray.

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Figure 3. The Oil Can Tavern in downtown.

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Figure 4. Entrance to Work Authority store in the downtown mall in Fort McMurray, which sells clothing required by oil and construction companies of their employees.

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Into this landscape of wealth and development fit the Newfoundland population of Fort McMurray. The remainder of this article describes the symbolic landscape created by this culture group.

The Newfoundland Cultural Landscape in Fort McMurray

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Fort McMurray: Geographical and Historical Context
  4. The Newfoundland Cultural Landscape in Fort McMurray
  5. Conclusions
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References

While the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (into which the city of Fort McMurray falls) conducts a community census every two years, no data on province (or country) of origin is obtained. Nevertheless, city planners in Fort McMurray estimate that about 30% of the city's population is from the island of Newfoundland (pers. comm. 2010). This statistic is not surprising if one considers push factors, such as Newfoundland's struggling economy. The fact is that in recent years, more Newfoundlanders have left the island for Alberta than for any other province (Statistics Canada 2009). Pull factors in the migration to Fort McMurray include employment options and wages, and the benefits and opportunities presented by chain migration. The end result is a sizable portion of Newfoundlanders living in the city of Fort McMurray. The presence of Newfoundlanders in the city can be heard in the regional accents they carry, their involvement in specific community organizations like the Salvation Army (which had a strong presence in Newfoundland), the local hospital, and particular churches, and in the way that Newfoundlanders visibly display their connection to the island.

One of the most common symbols displayed by Newfoundlanders is the provincial flag, or a variation of it. The flag is used by Newfoundlanders in Fort McMurray to mark property (Figures 5, 6), indicating that a Newfoundlander resides in these places. Anthropologist Craig Palmer (2010) noted the location of these symbols in his work on the material culture of Newfoundlanders in Fort McMurray. He posits that the display of such symbols not only shows the residents hold attachment to the island, but that the symbols are an important means by which newcomers to Fort McMurray build social capital, as their presence may encourage other Newfoundland to build relationships with those displaying the flag.

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Figure 5. The Newfoundland flag displayed on the porch of an apartment building in a Fort McMurray neighborhood.

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Figure 6. A Newfoundland flag displayed on the front of a private vehicle parked in the driveway of a home in Fort McMurray.

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The presence of symbols collectively identified by Newfoundlanders on places of business may serve the same purpose. The McMurray Newfoundlanders' Club (Figure 7) is a non-profit social organization that has a physical presence through the building where social activities take place. The Club dons its walls with Newfoundland photos and other forms of material culture, and hosts touring bands from Newfoundland. Its large bulletin board displays announcements about work and lodging availability in Fort McMurray for new arrivals. Crisby's Lounge (Figure 8) also displayed Newfoundland paraphernalia, and all its employees were from Newfoundland originally. While these two establishments are open to anyone in the city, my conversations with the managers of these bars indicated that the displays of the Newfoundland flag on the signs for these businesses are purposefully meant to attract Newfoundlanders in Fort McMurray.

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Figure 7. The McMurray Newfoundlanders' Club is a volunteer-run, non-profit restaurant and bar in downtown Fort McMurray.

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Figure 8. Crisby's Lounge is advertised as a gathering place for Newfoundlanders and others from Atlantic Canada, and their friends. It is located in the Gregoire neighborhood south of downtown Fort McMurray.

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Another way that businesses, especially restaurants, try to attract a Newfoundland crowd is by advertising traditional Newfoundland food. One such popular Newfoundland food tradition is eating Jiggs Dinner, a meal typically served on Sundays in Newfoundland that consists of salted meat (often pork), potatoes, greens, and figgy duff (a rice pudding). Rusty's Best Canadian Motor Inn, for example, serves this meal every Friday (Figure 9). Another Newfoundland-owned restaurant, Mrs. B's, serves Jiggs dinner when the ingredients are available, hence the handwritten advertisement on the specials board and the absence of this option from the regular menu (Figure 10). Finally, the presence of the fried chicken restaurant franchise, Mary Brown's (Figure 11), is another Newfoundland element in Fort McMurray's cultural landscape. This restaurant chain, originally called “Golden Skillet”, was first opened by two Newfoundlanders in St. John's, NL in 1969. The business expanded to other provinces and the name was changed to “Mary Brown's” as a way of honoring the wife of the original recipe creator (Mary Brown's Website 2012). Although the franchise is now headquartered in Ontario, Newfoundlanders consider the business to have Newfoundland roots, and these roots were often recognized by other non-Newfoundlanders in Fort McMurray with whom I spoke.

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Figure 9. Rusty's in Fort McMurray offers a traditional Newfoundland Jiggs Dinner on Friday nights served in the restaurant.

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Figure 10. Specials menu in the Newfoundland-owned restaurant Mrs. B's in Fort McMurray promoting the traditional Newfoundland Jiggs Dinner is an option that day.

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Figure 11. Mary Brown's fried chicken fast food restaurant in Fort McMurray is a Newfoundland-based franchise.

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Some elements of the symbolic landscape of Newfoundlanders cannot be seen from the street and are not used to attract people into a business. Rather, these elements indicate the existence of a community of Newfoundlanders who desire these products in the city. A stop in a recorded music retail store shows music from eastern Canada (including Newfoundland) segregated in the music store with its own label, East Coast Music (Figure 12). The Newfoundland-owned restaurant, Mrs. B's, sells Newfoundland music CDs at the check-out counter, including recordings from the Fort McMurray-produced Newfoundland radio show, “The Banks of Newfoundland” (Figure 13). Finally, while walking through the mall in downtown Fort McMurray, I came across this display of original artwork (Figure 14). What caught my eye was the Newfoundland flag draped over the corner of one table, and images by the artist depicting scenes from rural Newfoundland communities (Figure 15) and the strong relationship Newfoundlanders share with the ocean (something they are far from in Alberta). In conversation with the artist, I learned that this particular image was his most popular and best-selling one, as it reminded his clientele of the landscapes they had left behind (and often missed) in Newfoundland.

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Figure 12. The “East Coast Music” section of a CD store.

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Figure 13. Newfoundland music CDs displayed at Mrs. B's restaurant.

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Figure 14. Nathan Pinsent's artwork kiosk in the mall in downtown Fort McMurray. Note the Newfoundland flag draped over the corner of the table.

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Figure 15. One of Nathan Pinsent's pieces depicting a scene generic to Newfoundland's rural communities. Note the Newfoundland flag in the picture.

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Cultural markers of Newfoundlanders in Fort McMurray not only speak to the connection Newfoundlanders have with their homes in Newfoundland, but also to the connection between Newfoundland and Fort McMurray. A collection of t-shirts in the gift shop at Heritage Park, an historic interpretation site in Fort McMurray, allow the wearers to declare “This is what a Newfie looks like” (Figure 16), remind others that Newfoundland has been “keeping Canada supplied with Newfies since 1949” (Figure 17), and that Fort McMurray is “The Capital of Newfoundland” (Figure 18). It should be noted that the term “Newfie” is used to refer to Newfoundlanders. When used by Newfoundlanders themselves, it is considered a mark of pride, but can be interpreted as derogatory if used by someone who is not from Newfoundland. Also, the reference to the year 1949 refers to the year when Newfoundlanders voted by a very narrow margin to join confederation with Canada instead of remaining independent.

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Figure 16. T-shirt sold in Fort McMurray claim, “This is what a Newfie looks like.”

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Figure 17. A t-shirt in a Fort McMurray gift shop that declares, “Newfoundland: Keeping Canada Supplied with Newfies since 1949.”

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Figure 18. T-shirts in a Fort McMurray gift shop make an interesting geographic claim, “Fort McMurray: Capital of Newfoundland.”

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The presence of these t-shirts in a Fort McMurray gift shop speaks to the connection between Newfoundland and Fort McMurray established by both the permanent and temporary migration of Newfoundlanders to the oil sands region. Furthermore, the t-shirts paint a larger picture of the issue of out-migration from Newfoundland to other parts of Canada. Finally, they are an expression of the role that Newfoundlanders (often marginalized geographically and culturally by other Canadians) feel they play in the larger Canadian economy and cultural landscape.

Another link between Newfoundland and Fort McMurray, and an element of the cultural landscape of downtown Fort McMurray, is the store front for the radio station K-Rock 100.5 FM (Figure 19). This radio station and its personnel are actually based on the island of Newfoundland, a fact I discovered when I called the station manager to request an interview while I was in Fort McMurray doing fieldwork. The station, which airs a fair amount of Newfoundland content, rents store-front advertising space in downtown Fort McMurray. According to the station manager, the implication that the station has a physical presence in Fort McMurray is an important mechanism to maintaining a listening audience of Newfoundlanders in the city, even though the station broadcasts from Newfoundland. My research on radio listening in Newfoundland indicated that it was important to listeners that radio stations maintain a physical presence for their audience. Some stations do this by sending their DJs to music concerts and festivals around Newfoundland, and all stations in Newfoundland have an open door policy for musicians who are welcome to stop by, drop off a recording, and solicit feedback from station personnel. The K-Rock station in Fort McMurray tries to give the appearance that they have a physical presence in the city, but behind the store-front sign lies office personnel for another radio station altogether. Not only does the K-Rock situation in Fort McMurray imply that a large listening audience of Newfoundlanders exists in the city, it shows that the station is willing to go through considerable expense to maintain this audience, as commercial rental space in Fort McMurray is very expensive. It would seem that a Newfoundland audience that expects to be able to walk into a station and talk to a DJ would soon uncover the façade K-Rock has created, but none of the people I interviewed in Fort McMurray indicated they knew what the real situation with the station was. Therefore, in this way, the K-Rock station creates a link between the island of Newfoundland and the city of Fort McMurray, a connection visibly displayed in the landscape of Fort McMurray.

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Figure 19. Radio station K-Rock 100.5FM is located in a store-front in downtown Fort McMurray along the city's main street. Behind this façade is another business all-together, in no way related to the station, because the station is actually based in Newfoundland.

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The arts, especially music and theater, also indicate cultural links between Newfoundland and Fort McMurray. Even though music and theater are harder to recognize in the symbolic landscape, a look at recently released CDs and a new theater production speak to these connections. A new CD by the Navigators, a band from Newfoundland that performs occasional concerts in Fort McMurray, contains two songs with references to the Newfoundland experience in Fort McMurray. One song speaks about the difficulties finding housing and having to live out of someone else's basement while the other talks about the act of migrating from Newfoundland to Fort McMurray. Finally, while in St. John's, Newfoundland in March 2012, I saw advertisements for a touring theatrical production with the title “Highway 63: The Fort Mac Show” (Figure 20). This production, according to the play bill, is a dramatization of the migration process to Fort McMurray, which is located along highway 63 in Alberta, and the experiences and challenges faced by migrants in this context. The play has three main characters, one of which is a Newfoundland migrant. The existence of a Newfoundland character in the play is testimony to the presence of Newfoundlanders in Fort McMurray. Furthermore, the show (which was also playing in Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa in the upcoming months) speaks to the prominence of this migration at a national scale and indicates that the cultural landscape of Fort McMurray as created and experienced by the migrants is unique from other population shifts in Canada's history.

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Figure 20. A poster advertising the theatrical production, “The Fort Mac Show,” being produced in St. John's, Newfoundland, a play about the migration experience in Fort McMurray.

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Conclusions

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Fort McMurray: Geographical and Historical Context
  4. The Newfoundland Cultural Landscape in Fort McMurray
  5. Conclusions
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References

The presence of Newfoundlanders in Fort McMurray is visibly evident on the landscape. Some of these cultural markers are displayed by Newfoundlanders themselves as expressions of cultural identity, connection to the island, and opportunities for building social capital. Other markers are meant to attract Newfoundlanders to particular businesses, or provide the community with a means of cultural expression through the display of Newfoundland-themed products. Culture markers are also evidence of the relationship between migrants' place of origin and their destination.

It is important to note that Newfoundlanders are not the only culture group whose presence in Fort McMurray is visible in the city's cultural landscape, although they are the main focus of this article. There are also visible minority groups, many of them immigrants to Canada, in Fort McMurray (Through casual conversations, the presence of ethnic restaurants and their employees, and consulting the list of cultural/ethnic organizations in Fort McMurray, I have identified at least three African cultural groups, South Asian cultural groups, Southeast Asian culture groups, and East Asian cultural groups), but Newfoundlanders are the only culture group that, for example, are the intended recipients of targeted radio programs. The Newfoundland community is spread throughout the city, while the visible minority groups are clustered in the downtown area. This clustering is partially a result of the trend that most of the lucrative jobs in the oil sands developments are given to Canadian citizens, leaving the immigrant communities with employment options in the service industry as food service providers, cleaning personnel in hotels and motels, and drivers of taxis and the city buses. These jobs provide the lowest levels of pay, and thus make the purchase of a home out of the question for many immigrants. Furthermore, many immigrants, like one Somali taxi driver I spoke to, live in places like Toronto permanently, and are only temporarily working in Fort McMurray. Because downtown Fort McMurray is the location of the largest concentration of rental housing and the least expensive residential market in the city, many immigrant groups (and their places of employment) are clustered in this part of the city. The presence of minority groups is evident in the landscape through the options of different ethnic cuisine, the different ethnic organizations that operate in the city, and by cultural markers such as the mosque in downtown Fort McMurray.

The combination of cultural landscapes discussed in this article (those created by the oil industry, by Newfoundlanders, and by visible minority groups) supports Arjun Appadurai's claim that cultural landscapes of group identity today are not bounded, homogenous, or accidental (Appadurai 1991). Rather, as this article suggests, these cultural landscapes overlap, especially in downtown Fort McMurray where one finds the Oil Sands Tavern (referenced earlier), a variety of ethnic cuisine, a mosque, and the McMurray Newfoundlanders' Club (among other identifiers).

While this article focused mainly on the cultural landscapes of Newfoundlanders in Fort McMurray, it is important to consider the larger geographic context of these landscapes. Various push and pull factors, and the wealth gap between rich and poor countries, has created global migration patterns. The Population Reference Bureau (2012) calls the United States “a nation of immigrants,” and the appropriateness of this phrase is evident when one considers not only their own genealogy, but the symbolic cultural landscapes of migrants in their own community. While the Newfoundland symbolic landscapes discussed here are unique to Fort McMurray, the process by which symbolic landscapes are created is not. They are present everywhere as a result of these global forces, and our innate ability to attach meaning to places. The Newfoundland cultural landscapes of Fort McMurray are, therefore, both a contribution to and product of the broader impact of the oil sands developments on labor pools, migration, and supply-chains at a continental scale.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Fort McMurray: Geographical and Historical Context
  4. The Newfoundland Cultural Landscape in Fort McMurray
  5. Conclusions
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References

The author would like to thank those who have assisted her in field research in Fort McMurray: Scott Youngstedt, Craig Palmer, and Emily Groom. She would also like to thank the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. and Saginaw Valley State University for providing the funds to do this research. Finally, she would like to thank the generous residents of Fort McMurray for giving her their time and attention, and including her in their lives.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Fort McMurray: Geographical and Historical Context
  4. The Newfoundland Cultural Landscape in Fort McMurray
  5. Conclusions
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References
  • Appadurai, A. 1991. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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  • Lewis, P. 1979. Axioms for Reading the Landscape: Some Guides to the American Scene. In The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays, edited by D. Meinig, 1132. New York: Oxford University Press.
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  • Planning and Development Department. 2010. Municipal Census 2010. Fort McMurray, AB: Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. [http://www.woodbuffalo.ab.ca/Assets/Corporate/Census+Reports/2010 + Municipal+Census.pdf].
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  • Jordan-Bychkov, T. G., Domosh, M., Neumann, R., and Price, P. 2012. Fundamentals of the Human Mosaic: A Thematic Introduction to Cultural Geography. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
  • Palmer, C. 2010. License Plates, Flags and Social Support Networks: The Symbolic Cultural Landscape of the Newfoundland Diaspora in Ft. McMurray, Alberta. Material Culture 42 (1): 124.
  • Population Reference Bureau. 2012. [http://www.prb.org/Educators/LessonPlans/2005/GlobalMigrationPatterns.aspx].
  • Statistics Canada. 2009. Interprovincial Migration by Province and Territory of Origin and Destination, 2007/2008 (Table 24.12). Canada Yearbook Online. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Industry. [http://www41.statcan.ca/2009/3867/tbl/cybac3867_2009_000_t12-eng.htm]. [http://www41.statcan.ca/2009/2621/grafx/htm/cybac2621_001_1-eng.htm].
  • Zelinsky, W. 2001. The Uniqueness of the American Religious Landscape. Geographical Review, 91 (3): 565585.