Bert MacKay, Q&A
Tell us about your first kiss.
Inverness, Scotland junior school Grade 8 school dance. Valerie was her name. Think I walked her home, otherwise she may be there still.
Do you actually like haggis? Why or why not?
Only after it's blessed by the toast at Robbie Burns' Nights. My research of course showed it originated in Scandinavia of German sausage in its original form. In 1760 Scotland it was a survival food. The word itself is Norwegian not Scots.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Making the decision to come to Canada in 1966 after that job offer from Alberta Power.
If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?
It would be to spend more time with our daughter (Laura) to discuss "extreme sports" dangers since I have a background in risk management. She was killed in Spain two years ago while training for her World Ironman Sports Competitions. We miss her 24/7.
If you had total power, what would you change?
I would ban illegal drugs from the face of the earth. They are the scourge of society and I have witnessed what they did to friends and fellow workers and their families. But I would not put addicted people in jail. I would make recovery programs mandatory, staffed by experts. Our drug policies are not working.
What would you like written on your tombstone?
OILSANDS PIONEER - "An honest man's the noblest work of God" - Robert Burns
St. Albert resident Bert MacKay has watched two premiers cut the ribbons on two projects in which he has personally been involved.
The first came Sept. 30, 1967 when Ernest Manning was on hand to kick off the opening of the first oilsands pump in Fort McMurray. At the time MacKay worked for the Great Canadian Oil Sands Company (GCOS).
Thirty-six years later, MacKay watched as Ralph Klein cut the ribbon to open the redeveloped Oilsands Discovery Centre, for which MacKay had been primarily responsible. He had raised $2.6 million for its refurbishment and helped provide the engineering technicians and geologists with scripts for the museum's displays.
Now living in St. Albert, MacKay is still a constant presence in the world of the oilsands, albeit from several hundred kilometres away.
"I would tell the oilsands companies that they have not told their stories well," MacKay says. "We're talking about 45 years of oilsands and it's only in the last few years with the publicity that now they're starting to tell a reasonable story of the oilsands."
It was in 1967 that MacKay and his family, transplanted from Scotland only a year earlier to work for Alberta Power, first settled in what was then a small town of 2,300. In the subsequent 39 years, both in active oilsands employment and as a retiree, he has seen Fort McMurray explode to its current population, watched the oilsands grow to become Alberta's most significant energy resources and economic engines and helped hundreds of oilsands retirees continue to socialize by founding the Oilsands Pioneers' Club (OPC), which boasts some 650 members in Fort McMurray and Edmonton.
He is an organizer with an eye for detail, fundraising for charities such as the United Way and Big Brothers of Western Canada. He takes his Scottish roots seriously by organizing Robbie Burns events, fundraising for the Robert Burns Museum in Alloway, Scotland, and serving with the Scottish Advisory Council. He might be retired, but you wouldn't know it when you look at his resume.
"He is a very dedicated and committed individual," said long-time friend Prakash Mullick, who met MacKay while working in Fort McMurray.
"He's very community-minded," said another former co-worker Ken Smart, who helped found the OPC. "He's into more activities than you can shake a stick at."
That club might be one of MacKay's signature accomplishments. It receives funding directly from Suncor, formerly GCOS, so that retirees can enjoy banquets, golf outings and barbecues at little cost. When a member becomes ill or dies, the club is there to help widows collect on their husband's pension.
"When somebody passes away and the widow is left, she doesn't know what the hell to do," MacKay says. "We make sure we get in touch, fill out this form, and then his pension is transferred to you. So stuff like that we are really happy to do. It worked really well."
But for all his giving, MacKay also knows the sorrow of loss. In 2010 he lost his daughter Laura, one of his four children, in a tragic accident when the Ironman triathlete lost control of her bike on a ride in the Canary Islands and slammed into a rock face while descending a winding road, dying as a result.
MacKay remembers his daughter, a classical pianist and psychologist, as a free spirit who secretly earned her parachuting certificate at the age of 17, drank tea in the bushes of Fort McMurray with homeless people during her early-morning runs, and cared for people.
"She was a healer, regarded herself as a healer. She was still competitive so God knows how that brain was made up," MacKay said.
To list all of MacKay's accomplishments would take pages, his life's history another two and his opinions several more. He has published books, developed safety standards and co-hosted the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh to Fort McMurray in 2005. At the age of 73, MacKay has accomplished more than others, and he's by no means finished.
But come back to the subject of the oilsands and he's more than willing to share his thoughts.
"We're dealing with a science story, not a political story. It's a science story and how that came about and how it's one of the world's biggest energy deposits – the whole story of that is not told."