Michael Jesso’s Fabulous, Derailed - Moccasin Flats
There isn’t one person in Fort McMurray who doesn’t know what it is like to be forced from their home. When fire ripped through the city and 88,000 people were evacuated, people said goodbye to their homes not knowing if they would ever see them again. Most were lucky, but for a few thousand people, they came home to nothing. The same thing happened to Fort McMurray homeowners from 1978 to 1981, although there was no fire. Just greed, racism, and a bulldozer.
On the picture-perfect banks of the Syne in downtown Fort McMurray, directly between the water and the River Park Glen Syncrude Towers property, there used to be an Indigenous settlement called Moccasin Flats. Home to dozens of Métis, Dene, and Cree families, the picturesque settlement was the perfect Northern Alberta home allowing fishing and hunting right out the front door. Some families worked their traplines in the winter and returned in the summer, for most, it was home sweet home. The settlement was there for as long as there were people in the area, dating back to the 1800’s.
During the 1970’s as Fort McMurray began to boom, with Thickwood, Dickensfield and Timberlea not yet developed, City Hall officials and Syncrude Canada were looking for land that would hold hundreds of people and quickly connect to the city’s infrastructure. The Moccasin Flats were eyeballed for the number one spot as they were closest to water and sewer facilities that used to be on MacDonald Island (itself named after the prominent Métis family who originally resided there) and the Borealis Park Pond, not requiring expensive upgrades to allow for heavy density housing.
A major problem for the city at the time was that they had no jurisdiction over the land that the Moccasin Flats stood on. That didn’t stop them, though. First, City Hall closed down the road that led to the properties. Homeowners could now no longer access their driveways. This allowed Syncrude Canada’s owned and operated Northward Developments division to purchase River Lot 5 and get permits to start building on the site. City Hall then got the Alberta government to redefine the Moccasin Flats as Crown Land and gave it to the city. City Hall immediately sent out eviction notices to all the homeowners through expropriations.
A smear campaign by city officials, the Fort McMurray Today Newspaper, and local residents soon followed. The headlines read “Squatters” and “Shanty-Town Community”. Racial slurs were a day-to-day occurrence as the push to leave grew stronger. As if all of this wasn’t enough to deal with, Northward Development workers began throwing chunks of concrete, tools, and garbage at the Indigenous residents below. Once people moved into the towers, the taunting didn’t stop as new residents shouted racially-charged insults from their patios.
While some families chose to settle with City Hall and leave for lesser quality homes, others didn’t. For those families, that was their home; most were born there. This is where they celebrated birthdays, raised their families, and practiced their traditional lifestyle. As time stretched on and people weren’t leaving, City Hall went to some pretty extreme lengths to complete the removal. In one round of removals, they required homeowners to attend a mandatory meeting at City Hall, locked them in a meeting room and sent bulldozers to level properties. When people returned home there was nothing. In the last round of removals, there were no warnings, police showed up and told people to leave their homes as bulldozers started to knock things down. Naturally, tempers flared and some homeowners were arrested and charged. In the end, the city and Syncrude won, but at what cost?
As I researched this story, I was surprised at the lack of photos in any of the Alberta Archives. In sifting through thousands of photos, none existed of the Moccasin Flats. It was as if someone wanted this story to never be told. It wasn’t until I thought about checking the Northwest Territories archive did I find anything. It was almost as if whoever was supposed to be getting rid of the photos, placed them all in the NWT archives for someone to find one day.
The amount of racism, lack of human respect and greed it took to pull this atrocity off is astounding. For Syncrude to go on record recently and tell the CBC “the high rise buildings that displaced the indigenous community were developed by a third party” is insufficient and disappointing. Anyone can go online and read how the company is structured and see Northward Development sticking out like a sore thumb.
This story is far from over. The local McMurray Métis office has launched a review to dig deeper into who is responsible and what the long term impacts have been to families who were ripped from their homes. While so many local residents know what it’s like right now to return home to nothing, at least they can blame natural causes. The Moccasin Flats neighbourhood disappearing was completely man made. It should have never happened.
If you, your family or friends lived at Moccasin Flats or have firsthand knowledge of the evictions that took place there, please contact the McMurray Métis 780-743-2659 or email@example.com or via Facebook.
Photos courtesy of the NWT Archives and the Provincial Archives of Alberta