How ’Fort Mac Strong’ became a thing

The label sprang up spontaneously, on handmade signs and locally printed bumper-stickers. It never suited a town so well.
Fort Mac Signs (Photograph by Amber Bracken)

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The phrase popped up in hashtags first, then quickly spread to fundraisers and evacuee tattoos and pretty much everywhere else around displaced-wildfire-survivor Alberta: Fort Mac Strong (or with some variation of the city’s name, such as McMurray or YMM, Fort Mac’s Twitter-friendly airport code). It became a mantra last May as firefighters pushed back the flames’ repeated attempts to feast on more houses, and remained so as more than 80,000 residents waited out a month-long evacuation. Then, in June, it gained new life as evacuees returned to begin the long process of restoring the northern Alberta city.

It seemed a doubly obvious slogan—a familiar idiom from cities that have withstood disasters, man-made and natural, and a fairly plain descriptor of an industrial town whose denizens draw oil from the muck, who have long welcomed job-seekers from Canada and around the world with a casual smile and (in most cases) a comfortable paycheque.

The roots of the “Strong” catchphrase actually predate its links to geography. It originated with the now-infamous cyclist/cancer survivor Lance Armstrong and his formerly ubiquitous Livestrong yellow rubber bracelets, before doping was revealed as a truer source of his strength. In 2006, the U.S. military launched an “Army Strong” recruiting campaign—as in: “there’s strong and then there’s Army strong.” Years later, political leaders and others began coining new variants after hurricanes hit Vermont and New Jersey; then it became a rallying cry after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. “Boston Strong” had greater resonance, as an apt way to characterize that hard-boiled, no-B.S. ethic the Massachusetts city has shown through decades’ worth of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon movies.

But the phrase has never found a more natural fit than last spring, when the smoke and flames tested a city of electrical engineers, carpenters and mining truck operators, along with a small local firefighting corps that got reinforcements from across Alberta.

Since the fire, other tests have come: lingering mental-health impacts, as well as economic struggles that had taken hold before the blaze and proved rather fireproof. This multi-faceted recovery takes an extraordinary level of strength. It appears they know what to call it.

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