The stories that shaped Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo in 2023

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Well, that was something.

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The past summer was the busiest wildfire season for Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo since 2016. There were problems with encampments and housing. The opioid crisis claimed the most victims in 2023.

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But there were also events to celebrate. The Arctic Winter Games was a celebration of northern sports and culture. Construction began on massive transportation projects and the Northside Arena, and continued on flood mitigation. There were plenty of cultural, artistic and religious events that were hosted.

Have a great 2024, everyone!

Fort McMurray hosts wildfire evacuees from Fort Chipewyan and N.W.T.

Roughly 1,000 people were able to safely leave Fort Chipewyan when wildfires threatened the community in May. Everyone started returning three weeks later. Many people lost private cabins, but the wildfire stayed out of Fort Chipewyan and nearby reserves.

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Evacuating Fort Chipewyan and coordinating evacuees, emergency workers and volunteers was a massive logistical undertaking. Wildfires this year in the region burned more than 3,643 square kilometres, mostly around the Fort Chipewyan area.

More than 350 people from Fort Smith, NWT and Fort Fitzgerald were flown to Fort McMurray in August and stayed in the city for more than a month.

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The municipality spent more than $4.1 million responding to wildfires in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region last summer. 

A local breakdown of funding spent by Alberta Wildfire, the Canadian Armed Forces, the province, dozens of fire departments that arrived in Fort Chipewyan, and other businesses and government agencies is difficult to calculate. However, wildfire officials say the total is high.

Fort McMurray also had more smoky days than any other year, including 2016. Air quality breached safe air guidelines nearly 4,000 times since wildfire season began in April.

It’s hard to predict what next year’s wildfire season will look like locally, although federal and provincial officials worry dry fall conditions and minimal snowfall across much of Alberta will turn many of the province’s forests into tinder.

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Northern sports and culture celebrated at the Arctic Winter Games

The year started with a celebration of the athletics and culture of the north at the Arctic Winter Games.

The biannual event is the largest of its kind hosted in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo. Roughly 2,000 people traveled from Alaska, Greenland, and the Sámi territories of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Canada sent athletes from northern Alberta, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Yukon and the Nunavik region of northern Quebec.

Local athletes won dozens of medals in alpine skiing, arctic sports and Dene games, badminton, basketball, figure skating, boys’ and girls’ futsal, boys’ and girls’ hockey, snowboarding, and snowshoeing. Indigenous people from across the north bonded over their traditions, cultures and struggles. Two teachers at Holy Trinity High School were a feel-good story when they made basketball jerseys after Alaska’s female basketball team lost their jerseys.

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The games had their challenges, though. They were delayed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Russian team was suspended after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The games struggled finding volunteers for events. Freezing temperatures at an opening ceremony filled with long speeches meant most athletes did not get to see the fireworks or the full performance from the Halluci Nation.

Yet, the games are still considered an economic and cultural success. Many games were packed with fans and the curious. Visitors from around the world packed hotels and could be seen shopping across downtown.

Organizers hope the games have proven that Fort McMurray is a perfect spot for sports and competitions of all sizes. While Fort McMurray lost the bid for the 2026 Alberta Summer Games, Baseball Canada is hosting national championships in Fort McMurray during the next three summers. MacDonald Island Park is hosting the New Holland Canadian U21 Curling Championships in March.

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UCP expel Zulkifl Mujahid as candidate, allowing Tany Yao to remain as MLA

Tany Yao, UCP MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, did not have a happy ending to 2022. UCP members in the riding elected Mujahid as their candidate for the May 2023 election. Mujahid had defeated Yao after signing up a massive number of new members.

But things looked up for Yao in April when the UCP ousted Mujahid as their candidate after learning he faced a restraining order—which has since been replaced with a mutual no-contact order—and a lawsuit that has yet to be heard in court. Yao was appointed the candidate in late April.

Mujahid pleaded with Premier Danielle Smith to take him back as candidate, and hoped other UCP MLAs would come to his help. When this didn’t happen, Mujahid ran as an independent and finished fourth. He also turned against the UCP and accused Smith of corruption. He organized a protest outside a fundraiser dinner in Fort McMurray just before the election.

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Local UCP members said Mujahid’s nomination victory created a chaotic atmosphere. His opponents claimed Mujahid was poorly informed about local issues and did not understand what an MLA does. Mujahid does not deny this but says he received little help from UCP members.

Yao’s appointment was also polarizing to UCP members. Critics felt Yao should have actively campaigned against COVID-19 measures. Others said Yao had not accomplished much in the riding. When Smith told members Yao would replace Mujahid, some party members were furious they would not get to have a nomination race.

Yao was victorious in his reelection. Smith has appointed Yao as parliamentary secretary for small business and northern development. Yao ignored Mujahid during the election, but took one shot at his failed campaign on election night.

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“The more people I talked to, the more doors I knocked on, I realized people were focusing on all the right things in the election and that was the economy and jobs,” said Yao. “They weren’t being distracted by some individuals who had personal visions of glory.”

Plenty of protests in Fort McMurray

The year was marked by plenty of protests in Fort McMurray, most of which were either supportive or critical of the 2SLGBTQI+ community.

In April, ousted UCP candidate Zulkifl Mujahid led a protest against Premier Danielle Smith while she hosted a fundraising dinner at MacDonald Island Park. Mujahid and his supporters were mad Smith would not let him back into the party as their candidate.

Mujahid later led protests in downtown against teaching sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in schools. In September, hundreds of people marched through downtown carrying signs and shouting slogans against SOGI policies.

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The Fort McMurray protest, which was part of a nationwide protest, was larger than most past rallies against COVID-19 restrictions. At one point, a group of children cheered as they approached a chalk drawing of the Progress Pride Flag and threw water and water bottles at it, spat on it, and threw dirt and rocks at the flag.

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A second protest in October fizzled as no more than 30 people showed up for a protest outside the Fort McMurray court house. Dozens of people showed up in a counter-protest organized by Pride YMM and took up most space outside the court house.

Former Catholic school trustee Jonathan Higdon also faced criticism from the 2SLGBTQI+ community and its allies.

Higdon posted to his Facebook comments that were called homophobic and transphobic by groups like Pride YMM. But about 75 per cent of a crowd of dozens packed the meeting and gave Higdon a standing ovation when one person shouted his support for the trustee.

In November, Higdon resigned citing a busy work schedule. He denied the backlash to his posts were responsible.

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Fort McMurray has also seen hundreds of people protest against Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. Since the Oct. 7 attacks against Israel, there have been weekly protests in Fort McMurray calling for a peaceful end to the crisis. Wood Buffalo RCMP says all protests in Fort McMurray have been peaceful and without major incidents.

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L-R: Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Chief Vern Janvier of the Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation and Chief Neil Cheecham of Fort McMurray #468 First Nation at a press conference at Acden’s headquarters in Fort McMurray on September 7, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo struggles to fight its worst drug crisis

Data from the Alberta government shows 2023 is the deadliest year locally for opioid deaths and on track to be the deadliest year for drug poisonings. The same data shows deaths across Alberta are also reaching all-time records.

The most current data covers January to September, and drugs and alcohol have killed 21 people in Fort McMurray. Opioids were involved in 18 of those deaths. Methamphetamine was involved in six deaths. Cocaine and alcohol were present in four deaths each.

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Suicides, drug overdoses and alcohol have killed more people than COVID-19 did in the region’s five First Nations. The chiefs of these communities declared a state of emergency in September as they demand improved access to mental health and addiction support in their communities.

The crisis has killed more than 60 people in the five First Nations. When Alberta lifted most pandemic restrictions in March 2022, COVID-19 had killed two residents in the region’s rural and Indigenous communities, and 23 people in Fort McMurray.

Fort McMurray also became the fifth community to open a drug treatment court outside Edmonton or Calgary. The courts will give non-violent offenders chances to enter recovery programs instead of prison.

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The Pastew Place Detoxification Centre wants to run a supervised post-treatment program for people recovering from their addictions. This program would give people a chance to rest, search for jobs and housing, and create new habits for a healthy lifestyle.

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A home in Conklin in October 2023. Image by Willow Springs Solutions

Major construction projects approved, Conklin housing frustrates leaders

The Alberta government has signed agreements with three First Nations to begin work on connecting Fort McMurray and Peerless Lake with a 218 kilometre, two-lane gravel highway. This will join Fort McMurray and the Grande Prairie region, which leads to B.C., the Yukon and Alaska. The entire project is expected to take five years to finish.

The Alberta government is also spending $117 million over a three-year period twinning nearly 12 kilometres of Highway 63 north of Fort McMurray.

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RMWB council resurrected the Northside Twin Arena after the project was shelved in 2016. Councillor Ken Ball pitched resurrecting the project because of ice time shortages in the community. The municipality will spend $50 million until 2025 to build the project in Abraham’s Land. 

Council approved funding for flood mitigation, its largest capital project. The 2024 budget includes $33.8 million for flood mitigation. Another $103.9 million is needed to finish the project by 2028.

Some projects have not done well, though. Conklin’s leadership blamed RMWB red tape for holding up a housing project in the municipal hamlet. Despite millions of dollars from industry and government for housing, they say no homes have been built since the first announcement was made in early 2020.

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The RMWB admits it took longer than usual to send inspectors to Conklin. However, the RMWB says the housing project is still within a normal timeline compared to similar projects.

A report from consulting firm Willow Springs Solutions estimates between 75 per cent and 85 per cent of Conklin’s 178 people live in housing considered unsafe or insecure.

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CEO and president of Suncor Energy was photographed at the Suncor office building in downtown Calgary on Tuesday, May 9, 2023. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

Suncor cuts 1,500 jobs, will look for new areas to trim in 2024

Suncor Energy cut 1,500 positions this year, with many of those workers living in Fort McMurray. Chief executive Rich Kruger said Suncor will continue looking for areas to trim as part of a wider efficiency push.

The company’s fleet of autonomous trucks is also expected to grow from 31 to 91 by the end of 2024. Other new trucks will be ready to accept driverless technology.

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Kruger said on an earnings conference call that the cuts are expected to save $450 million a year, or about $50 million more than what they expected when the cuts were announced in June.

While he did not mention Kruger or Suncor specifically, Energy and Minerals Minister Brian Jean said in a year-end interview that oil companies rely too much on transient workers. Jean added the work camps housing this mobile labour force hurts nearby communities. He also criticized other industries outside Fort McMurray for embracing commuter workers from outside Alberta or their home communities.

Brutal year for Imperial Oil’s Kearl site

There were no good headlines for Imperial Oil this year regarding their Kearl site.

The company confirmed a tailings pond that had been leaking since May 2022 was still leaking in late January. This update was made because 5.3 million litres of industrial wastewater had just spilled from a tailings pond into surrounding forests and wetlands.

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Indigenous communities, especially ones downstream from the oilsands operation, were furious. Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) said his nation’s positive relationship with Imperial Oil was broken. He also accused Premier Danielle Smith of minimizing the crisis.

The government of the Northwest Territories also criticized the Alberta government’s handling of the matter. Scientists from Environment and Climate Change Canada said the spills likely harmed fish.

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A report concludes the Alberta Energy Regulator followed its rules on communication after the spills and seepages. The report also found the AER’s existing procedures on communication are significantly lacking in details or poorly defined.

In October, documents filed by Imperial Oil show the company and AER knew for years that tailings at Kearl were seeping tailings into groundwater. The next month a scheduled release of treated water had to be halted when the company accidentally released roughly triple the legal limit of total suspended solids.

As 2023 came to a close, a black bear at Kearl was euthanized when a contractor accidentally hit the bear’s den. The den was missed during earlier sweeps for them.

When Energy and Minerals Minister Brian Jean said in a year-end interview that oil companies rely too much on transient workers and the practice hurts Fort McMurray, he singled out Imperial Oil as an example.

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Here’s some more photos of events from 2023.

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Ayden Cote of Team Fort McMurray yells during a game against Team Quebec at the 2023 18U National Baseball Championships at Shell Place on Saturday, August 19, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Ayden Cote of Team Fort McMurray yells during a game against Team Quebec at the 2023 18U National Baseball Championships at Shell Place on Saturday, August 19, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
“Buckshot” Bobby Brake at the debut of Monster Pro Wrestling in Fort McMurray at the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre on Saturday, September 2, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
“Buckshot” Bobby Brake at the debut of Monster Pro Wrestling in Fort McMurray at the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre on Saturday, September 2, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
People cheer while watching the debut of Monster Pro Wrestling in Fort McMurray at the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre on Saturday, September 2, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
People cheer while watching the debut of Monster Pro Wrestling in Fort McMurray at the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre on Saturday, September 2, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
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Protesters in the ‘Save the Children of Gaza’ rally in downtown Fort McMurray on November 12, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Serhii Stepko is hugged by Olga Skhidnytska after he wins the Fort McMurray Marathon at MacDonald Island Park on September 24, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Serhii Stepko is hugged by Olga Skhidnytska after he wins the Fort McMurray Marathon at MacDonald Island Park on September 24, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A counter-protest supporting sexual and gender education in schools, organized by Pride YMM in downtown Fort McMurray on Saturday, October 21, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A counter-protest supporting sexual and gender education in schools, organized by Pride YMM in downtown Fort McMurray on Saturday, October 21, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A child throws rocks and mud at a chalk drawing of the Progress Pride Flag outside the Jubilee Centre during the 1 Million March 4 Children on September 20, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A child throws rocks and mud at a chalk drawing of the Progress Pride Flag outside the Jubilee Centre during the 1 Million March 4 Children on September 20, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A dancer in regalia at the Athabasca Tribal Council’s cultural festival at Snye Point Park on September 16, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
A dancer in regalia at the Athabasca Tribal Council’s cultural festival at Snye Point Park on September 16, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Police officers stop protesters from entering the Fort McMurray Public School Division during the 1 Million March 4 Children on September 20, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Police officers stop protesters from entering the Fort McMurray Public School Division during the 1 Million March 4 Children on September 20, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
People lay flowers at a cenotaph at J. Howard Pew Park commemorating workers who are injured or killed while working during National Day of Mourning on April 28, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
People lay flowers at a cenotaph at J. Howard Pew Park commemorating workers who are injured or killed while working during National Day of Mourning on April 28, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
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Steven Page, formerly of the Barenaked Ladies, performs with the supergroup Trans-Canada Highwaymen at Wood Buffalo Ribfest in Fort McMurray on September 1, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
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Children look at replicas of a whip and crown of thorns at the Walk with Jesus event at Northlife Fellowship Church on April 1, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Delia Therriault of Team Yukon competes against Team Alberta during compound archery at Shell Place during the Arctic Winter Games on Tuesday, January 31, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Delia Therriault of Team Yukon competes against Team Alberta during compound archery at Shell Place during the Arctic Winter Games on Tuesday, January 31, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Jody Fox fires his handgun as he competes in an International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) competition at the Fort McMurray Fish and Game Association on Sunday, July 30, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Jody Fox fires his handgun as he competes in an International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) competition at the Fort McMurray Fish and Game Association on Sunday, July 30, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Workers from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and Fort McMurray-based social profits clear a homeless encampment on Manning Avenue on August 9, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Workers from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and Fort McMurray-based social profits clear a homeless encampment on Manning Avenue on August 9, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Brandon Folmer and Annie Rivers cheer during a drag show at the Pride YMM Festival at Fort McMurray Heritage Shipyard on June 24, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Brandon Folmer and Annie Rivers cheer during a drag show at the Pride YMM Festival at Fort McMurray Heritage Shipyard on June 24, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Dau Dau, 17, at Father Mercredi High School on June 13 to show off his three gold medals and banners won at the Alberta Schools’ Athletic Association (ASAA) Track and Field Championships in Edmonton on June 2 and 3, 2023. Dau Dau set a provincial shot put record and won gold medals in 100-metre dash and 200-metre dash. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Dau Dau, 17, at Father Mercredi High School on June 13 to show off his three gold medals and banners won at the Alberta Schools’ Athletic Association (ASAA) Track and Field Championships in Edmonton on June 2 and 3, 2023. Dau Dau set a provincial shot put record and won gold medals in 100-metre dash and 200-metre dash. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
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Monster trucks with the Monster Truck Nitro Tour perform at Shell Place on September 9, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
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People enjoy carnival rides, games and food at Sustainival at MacDonald Island Park in Fort McMurray on Saturday, June 17, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
People at the Rock The Rails concert watch Teenage Bottlerocket perform at Syncrude Athletic Park in Fort McMurray on June 3, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
People at the Rock The Rails concert watch Teenage Bottlerocket perform at Syncrude Athletic Park in Fort McMurray on June 3, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Firefighters inspect a firebreak outside Fort Chipewyan, Alta. on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. Hundreds of firefighters from across Canada, the United States and Australia responded to a wildfire outside the community, which was evacuated on May 30, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Firefighters inspect a firebreak outside Fort Chipewyan, Alta. on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. Hundreds of firefighters from across Canada, the United States and Australia responded to a wildfire outside the community, which was evacuated on May 30, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Ukrainians stand for Ukraine’s national anthem at Meadow Creek Village’s community hall on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Friday, February 24, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Ukrainians stand for Ukraine’s national anthem at Meadow Creek Village’s community hall on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Friday, February 24, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Members of Special Olympics Wood Buffalo pose with their medals after a bowling practice at The Alley on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. The medals were won at the Special Olympics Arctic Winter Games in Strathcona County, Alta. between Feb. 24 and 26. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Members of Special Olympics Wood Buffalo pose with their medals after a bowling practice at The Alley on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. The medals were won at the Special Olympics Arctic Winter Games in Strathcona County, Alta. between Feb. 24 and 26. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Firefighters with the Fort McMurray Fire Department conduct a controlled burn near Highway 63 on April 27, 2023. The controlled burns are part of the RMWB’s FireSmart program, which is designed to fight and prevent fires and wildfires in the region. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Firefighters with the Fort McMurray Fire Department conduct a controlled burn near Highway 63 on April 27, 2023. The controlled burns are part of the RMWB’s FireSmart program, which is designed to fight and prevent fires and wildfires in the region. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Sara Garen Anne Nilut performs a style of Sami folk singing called a Joik, or Yoik, with an instrument made from reindeer hooves during the Arctic Winter Games’ cultural gala at Keyano College on February 2, 2023. Nilut is a Sami woman from Norway and is part of the Sapmi delegation. Sapmi is the Sami’s traditional territory covering parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Sara Garen Anne Nilut performs a style of Sami folk singing called a Joik, or Yoik, with an instrument made from reindeer hooves during the Arctic Winter Games’ cultural gala at Keyano College on February 2, 2023. Nilut is a Sami woman from Norway and is part of the Sapmi delegation. Sapmi is the Sami’s traditional territory covering parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Jade Wren, a Yupik dancer with the Alaska delegations of the Arctic Winter Games, performs a dance accompanied by a blessing song called Taarvaarnauramkaan during the games’ cultural gala at Keyano Theatre on February 2, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Jade Wren, a Yupik dancer with the Alaska delegations of the Arctic Winter Games, performs a dance accompanied by a blessing song called Taarvaarnauramkaan during the games’ cultural gala at Keyano Theatre on February 2, 2023. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
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Brett scans the horizon for smoke from a lookout tower south of Fort McMurray on September 21, 2023. Photo by Emily Smith for Postmedia Network
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Team Alberta North’s female hockey team after winning gold at Centerfire Place during the Arctic Winter Games on February 3, 2023. Image supplied by the Arctic Winter Games
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Worshippers attend the third day of Murti Pran Pratishtha, which are the opening ceremonies of a Hindu temple, at the Sanatan Mandir Cultural Society in Fort McMurray on May 22, 2023. The temple is Canada’s most northern Hindu temple. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

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