Casinos are fascinating places. In Las Vegas, the Strip and the old downtown are a visual delight of glitz & glamor. Every fountain, every tower, every plaza (indoors and out) is a place to stare and dream. But that amazement is not at the casino next to the shopping mall in downtown Fort McMurray.
I am told that local charities take turns running things at this Fort McMurray casino in exchange for funds—improbable as that sounds. Outside the casino are scores of last nations people: skinny, wrinkled-faced, bowed shoulders hunched over a last-seeming cigarette. Inside the slot machine scene is as sad as any Las Vegas casino, with fat ladies chained to machines that eat coins and colored paper for an occasional spit-out of promised riches. This, as everywhere, is a field of blank, bamboozled faces and mechanical arms. I fled across the snow and sand drenched parking lot to the lighter side of life that Blockbuster represents.
There I chatted to the third Newfoundlander I met today. She was the third to tell me that Fort McMurray is the second largest capital of Newfoundland, and I believed her. Her ambition is to make money enough to go to Victoria, BC where she says she prefers poverty and rain to riches and cold. But she has been here ten years a-planning that move, so there is no hurry just now.
Bleak as the roads and sidewalks, that much more cosy are the bars and pubs. Basic and unbedeviled by pretensions of glass & brass, the pubs hum with $100 bills, rowdy patrons, and the hardest-working staff I have ever seen. The two guys and the two gals in the pub tonight moved fast and unceasingly, almost running from patron to bar and back from the kitchen with deep-fried foods. They had about them an intensity of concentration and energy that I have not seen before in other places where a more leisurely pace rules. Must be the tips–or is this a special breed with a burning desire to make it in a new place?
The good thing about Fort McMurray is that it has reminded me Canada is a two-language nation. Here I have heard more French than in thirty years in Vancouver. It is surreal to hear a group of burly guys walking down the road, or sitting in a pub, or awaiting a plane, chattering in real French.
Then there is the observation that here, more than anywhere else, I have seen more young guys with two ear-rings. And they all look tough. Just like most other people here; and that is probably what is needed to leave Newfoundland or Quebec or your wife and son to live in a new town to make money, an industry, and a country. But I suspect they will succeed–and good for them.