Today we headed to Fort McMurray, ground zero of the tar sands project. It was a five-hour drive on a highway many call “Highway to Hell,” as there is an accident every week on the highway like clockwork — numerous are fatal. But what I came to find on the highway, like much of Fort McMurray itself, was that there were more myths surrounding it than facts.

The highway was no riskier than driving on my local highway, the 401 in Toronto. As for Fort McMurray, many complain about high drug abuse levels, prostitution, violence and low civic engagement as just some of the social fabric falling apart in this town due to the tar sands rapid development. But when we arrived in Fort McMurray, the social ills seemed no different than cities in the States and Canada.

Yes, these social problems shouldn’t exist at high rates in a small town. And yes, it is a boomtown with more transit money-grabbers than locals that reside in the town permanently. But it wasn’t the “hellish” place many had described it as. The locals genuinely were trying to maintain a sense of community with sports gatherings and celebratory events. The mayor seemed hard at work getting infrastructure built for the rush of people that came to Fort Mac.

The boomers themselves hoping to fulfill their dreams with “black gold” weren’t the source of all ills either. These were struggling individuals across the country, even across the world with temporary foreign workers that were now seeing a light at the end of the financial tunnel.

One of these boomers was my relative who I visited with today. He has a large family that eight years ago was near to filing bankruptcy because he could get little work in construction. When they uprooted their lives to Alberta, the oil sands project had provided him with full-time work year round and at a hefty paycheque. Now, his family stays back in their home province while he works in Alberta every second week. They own a house, a car, have tuition money for their kids and he plans to retire soon.

But in Fort McMurray, it wasn’t what was on the surface or the individual people that presented a problem. What was scary about Fort Mac was how there was something subversive about the town. The driving force behind the town and literally beyond the horizon, past the trees, was an empire that ruled — dirty oil.

It was this dirty oil that everyone in the town either directly or indirectly had a job from. The town’s economy was dependent on oil, the rapid population and infrastructure was coming from it, in turn Fort McMurray had been put on the map because of it. The boom it had created was the source of social evils. And because of the transient nature of the boomtown, few felt that Fort Mac was a home and there was an underlining sense that everyone just wanted to leave.

Fort McMurray was haunting because of this. On the outside, it looks like any town you’d find in North America. But underneath, dirty oil is king. And just as the town has very much been created on oil, it can all go just as fast when the oil boom is over — making it a ghost town one day. Here it is clear that life and communities are but a cost of prosperity.

Emily Hunter’s Journey to the Tar Sands airs this fall on MTV News Canada.

Emily Hunter

Emily Hunter is an environmental journalist and activist that resides in Toronto, Canada. At 25 years-old, she is the eco-correspondent for MTV News Canada and the chief eco-blogger for THIS Magazine....