FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – A study is suggesting that Alberta’s oilsands capital is not the wild and woolly, crime-ridden boomtown it’s sometimes painted to be.
“It seems clear, by looking carefully at the best available data, that crime is not rampant in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo,” writes author Neil Boyd, head of criminology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.
Municipal officials put out a call for someone to do a crime study in Fort McMurray after repeated magazine and news stories suggested the city was a dangerous place to live.
Boyd concluded that while “Fort McMoney” may have a bit of a cocaine problem, violent and property crimes are not only lower than national averages but are falling faster.
A British outlet said Fort McMurray was “synonymous with crime, an explosion in prostitution and the tough, young, bored single men with too much money and little to do, who are fuelling the chaos.” A Canadian magazine used official statistics to rank the city as the eighth most dangerous in Canada.
Those statistics are part of the problem, said Boyd, whose bid to conduct the study was chosen by the municipality.
Federal census figures don’t count Fort McMurray’s so-called “shadow population.” Including people who live in work camps in the area adds 80 per cent to the number, making a huge difference to the crime rate.
“We’re not calculating crime rates on the right population,” said Boyd.
He calculates Fort McMurray’s rates of break-and-enter, robbery and sex assault are substantially lower than seven other similar-sized cities. They are also lower than the Alberta and Canadian average. The city’s sex assault rate is slightly more than half the Alberta average and its robbery rate is three-quarters the provincial one.
And while crime is decreasing across Canada, it’s falling faster in Fort McMurray.
Boyd said his figures show the amount of all Criminal Code violations fell by 47 per cent between 2003-2012 in Fort McMurray. The Canadian average was 28 per cent.
Violent crime in Fort McMurray dropped 44 per cent over that time, said Boyd, while falling 17 per cent in the rest of the country.
The community’s rate of cocaine-related crime was almost four times the national average and its vehicle theft rate approached double. But other crimes such as marijuana possession or prostitution were in line with where they are elsewhere.
Boyd suggests the young, single men who flock to Fort McMurray are there for one reason — work.
“People are either eating, sleeping or working,” he said. “It’s that kind of a life when you’re in the camp.”
Boyd also credits the increasing prevalence of no-alcohol work camps for keeping crime down.
RCMP Supt. Bob Couture agrees that Fort McMurray isn’t the rowdy place it once was.
“It was probably a little rougher than it is today,” he said.
“We see huge improvements in our downtown. We had some well-known facilities that attracted bad behaviour. Those are closed, bulldozed and gone.”
Couture said that over the years “this has developed into a young, sustainable community. People are moving here to put down roots.”
Boyd guesses that the community of Fort McMurray gets tarred with the same brush that taints its main industry —the oilsands.
“People have environmental concerns about the oilsands and they bring those concerns to the community itself.”