Fort McMurray presses for more affordable housing for seniors

The glossy photos and a professionally edited video leave little doubt that Fort McMurray will get a new seniors facility for residents who need medical care and assisted living.

But advocates say the missing piece remains any plan for affordable housing for seniors who can live independently.

Several government departments told CBC News there is no commitment to expand the number of units for seniors within Fort McMurray after the Willow Square Continuing Care Centre is built in 2020.

Advocates have been calling for affordable senior’s housing alongside a continuing care facility at the downtown Willow Square location.

Linda Mywaart, the chair of the municipality’s advisory committee on aging, said she is waiting for answers on whether the government is listening to those calls.

“There are more seniors here in town,” Mywaart said. “There are seniors who desire to live here and there is a gap between living entirely independently and needing something like a Willow Square continuing care centre.

“So there are questions about what will that will look like.”

Advocating for answers

Earlier this month, the province unveiled plans for the 144-bed Willow Square Continuing Care Centre, a project that had been stalled for more than a decade.

The project will occupy 70 per cent of the 21,000 square-metre site in downtown Fort McMurray. The remaining portion has been allocated for future development, such as affordable senior’s housing.

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The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo promised $10.5 million if the province committed to building an aging-in-place facility.

Mayor Don Scott said he’s still waiting to hear from the provincial department.

“We are going to keep on advocating for the next step, which is the aging-in-place facility,” Scott said. “We haven’t gotten firm answers. We are going to keep on twisting arms.”

Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Alberta Health Services, Alberta Infrastructure and the department of seniors and housing all said they are not involved in the aging-in-place project.

In a statement, Alberta Seniors and Housing said the project is “locally driven,” and the municipal housing corporation could submit a business plan if it thinks the facility is needed.

Senior population expected to grow

Henry Hunter, CEO of Wood Buffalo Housing & Development Corporation, said the corporation has no immediate plans to build an aging-in-place centre at Willow Square.

Instead, in consultation with the municipality’s committee on aging, Hunter said the corporation will submit a funding request to conduct a housing study for the entire region.

“If you were to ask me what the future looks like, I think there will be something built on that land,” Hunter said. “Not in the next year. It’s probably further out, in the next five, 10 or 15 years.”

Willow square

Artist renderings of Fort McMurray’s new senior’s facility, Willow Square. (Alberta Infrastructure)

Hunter said Wood Buffalo Housing has 69 units dedicated for seniors across three buildings in Fort McMurray. All are full at the moment, but he said there is no waiting list and the corporation can absorb seniors in its other units.

Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA Tany Yao said he expects the number of seniors and the need for affordable housing in the region will rise and governments should be prepared for increased demand.

“Our senior’s population is exponentially growing, not just in Alberta but right across the country,” Yao said.

The 2015 municipal census identified 1,589 seniors living within the region.

Follow David Thurton, CBC’s Fort McMurray correspondent, on Facebook and Twitter, email him at

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