Telling the story of my life in my home - Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Welcome to Fort McMurray, Leo

Greetings Mr. DiCaprio,

Last night my social media feed exploded with the news that yet another celebrity was visiting our region - in this case, you. There was a great deal of excitement - after all, you are a well regarded actor, respected for your work. And then there's that whole "hottie" thing, which made my own Intrepid Junior Blogger, who normally ignores all things Hollywood, demand we cut short our Florida vacation to rush home on the mere chance she may get to glimpse your face (as much as I love my kid, though,we will return as scheduled). But I know you aren't in the Wood Buffalo region to film a movie or meet fans - you are there to learn about the oil sands.

Did you notice how I welcomed you to "Fort McMurray"? That's because I am welcoming you to our home, a community much like any other in North America. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo might encompass the oil sands projects, but Fort McMurray is the bustling little city at the heart of the region. Now, some recent visitors have had some trouble differentiating between industry and community, going so far as to compare Fort McMurray to Hiroshima and then when challenged claiming that everyone knows that when you say Fort McMurray you mean the oil sands.

Not everyone knows that, Mr. DiCaprio. In fact within the urban limits you will not find one oil sands site or project. While the community is heavily involved in the industry, as all resource based communities are, it is not synonymous with the industry, a key point to remember. Fort McMurray is home to thousands of people, including families and individuals of every demographic. Our culturally diverse and vibrant community is something of which we are justifiably proud. We have built a resilient, energetic and strong community in Canada's north, and while you may have concerns about our industry you would do well to acknowledge and recognize that.

About those concerns regarding industry? Well, you aren't alone. Many of the people in this community share the belief that we need to ensure our industry is as environmentally friendly as possible, pursuing every innovation to improve what we do while we continue to meet the world demand for our product - because until an alternative is found the demand will not end. We have a responsibility to do it right, but simply "shutting off the tap" won't solve anything, and it won't just impact the people of my community but the people of communities across North America who rely on our industry for associated employment - and for the oil we produce.

I hope you get the opportunity to meet some of the local people. I don't just mean the ones from industry, either. Speak to people in our hotels, restaurants, coffee shops and businesses. What you are likely to find is that we are no different from any other place. Our home is not perfect, but we love it regardless and have chosen this place to live, work and play. Some may stay only for the jobs, but others - like me - have stayed because we have been so overwhelmed by a community of such generosity, with a can-do spirit and energy unparalleled in our experience.

I'm not expecting you will come away with a glowing report on how wonderful the industry is. I hope you will be balanced and fair and avoid the use of hyperbole and exaggeration and rhetoric. What I truly hope, though, is that while you see the industry you also see the community, a place where your visit has created both excitement and trepidation as we fear being maligned as has happened far too often in the past when "celebrities" have visited. 

I welcome your visit and your opinion of our industry, and I will give your opinion the consideration and respect it deserves as we all have the right to hold and express one - but I hope you will give Fort McMurray - my home and my community - the consideration and respect it deserves as well when you speak of us after you leave. As a visitor to my home I don't think that's too much to expect, and I have  faith that you will extend that consideration and respect to us, because frankly you don't seem like the kind to be a rude guest who slams his hosts as soon as he has closed their front door behind him.

Welcome to Fort McMurray, Mr. DiCaprio. Enjoy your stay, fill yourself with the knowledge you seek and if you happen to see a petite, beautiful kid with salmon-coloured hair and a t-shirt with some sassy slogan about science that would be my kid (a kid who shares your concerns about the environment, our world and the oil sands industry). Maybe you could give her a wave - because she adores you and she loves her home, too. Please don't disappoint her - or us, your hosts in the community of Fort McMurray. Enjoy your stay.

Warmest regards,

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ice, Fundraising, Disease and Cynicism

If you've been on any form of social media in the last week you've seen it. My feeds have been filled with the videos, overflowing with them in fact, much like, well, a bucket of ice water. The ubiquitous ice challenge to raise funds and awareness for ALS has not only filled social media with videos but with controversy as people debate the angles: Does this really help with awareness of ALS? Is it right to put people on the spot to donate to a charity when they may prefer to give to a different cause? Is this kind of viral fundraising a form of "slacktivism"? Are people just jumping on the bandwagon and forgetting the cause at its heart? Or is this a form of clever and inspired fundraising, designed to take advantage of social media, peer pressure and our herd mentality, using them for good?

Here's where I stand: I don't think there is one "right" answer, but I think the cynicism is a bit overblown given the very success of the phenomenon.

I think the ice challenge has done a great deal to raise at least some degree of awareness of ALS. It is a disease with which I am familiar not through personal experience as thankfully it has spared my family and friends but through my fascination with disease and disease processes (little known fact about me: when I was younger I toyed with the idea of a career in virology, the study of those tricky little viruses that plague us, literally). ALS is one of the terrifying ones, a disease that destroys individuals, families and lives, but one that is far too often in the shadows as it is not exceptionally common. The ice challenge has ensured that even those who have never given it much thought have heard the acronym, and there is some degree of success in that alone, I think.

There have been those who suggest it is wrong to put people on the spot for a cause such as this, as perhaps the cause closest to their heart is another disease or issue, and I suppose I see some validity in that line of thought, although donating to one cause does not preclude donating to another.

And then there is the charge of slacktivism and bandwagon jumping. I suppose both are true to some degree, but what true harm - I mean real, genuine harm - comes from a fundraiser of this nature? Slacktivism in this case seems preferable to nothing-ivism, and I've seen people jump on worse bandwagons and with far more detrimental effect. Perhaps there are those who will dump a bucket of ice on their head, not donate a cent and never give it another thought. Or perhaps it will inspire a few people - just a few - to look up ALS on Wikipedia and learn more. I would suggest if it encourages even a few to educate themselves or donate then it has had a beneficial effect, and perhaps our cynicism, while understandable, should be toned down a bit.

Is it clever and inspired fundraising? I would say yes, and it has effectively utilized social media to achieve a goal. Will it be a distant memory in a few weeks? I would also say yes, but the benefits will linger both in terms of the money raised and the simple fact that every person in North America has probably seen three letters - ALS - far more often in the last week than they likely have in their entire lives. I must admit I was initially skeptical about the entire thing until I realized how much those letters were filling my social media feeds and what that meant in terms of public relations for ALS-related organizations. It is, as they say, the kind of publicity money can't buy.

The final question? Will I be dumping a bucket of ice on my head?

No, but I did send a donation in support of ALS, something I had not done before as while I was familiar with the disease even I hadn't thought about donating as my usual donations go to diseases that have touched my life. So, in a sense, I am living proof that the ice challenge works, because it worked for me, reminding me that at times it's good to give to a new worthy cause and reminding me of a disease that I've known about for years but only thought about rarely.

The ice challenge for ALS: no right answer, and maybe not perfect - but I don't think anyone can argue the effectiveness of a viral fundraising campaign that has, to date, raised an estimated 41 million dollars for research, a remarkable achievement by any benchmark, even those thought of by cynics like me.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Try Everything

A modern day cruise ship is, quite frankly, a marvel of engineering and business practice. When the Intrepid Junior Blogger first floated the idea of a cruise vacation I was a bit hesitant. In my head I had a vision of cruise ships as the final bastion of the elderly vacationer, those too frail to cope with iffy hotels in foreign countries and bouts with food poisoning from hole-in-the-wall roadside restaurants far off the beaten tourist path. The IJB was insistent, though, and the more I learned the more excited I became as I realized that cruising - and cruise ships - had changed.

Never one to start at the bottom, the IJB opted for the largest cruise ship on the ocean - Allure of the Seas. At the time I had no idea this choice was inspired by a video from her Grade 7 science class that showed the design and building of the Royal Caribbean Oasis class ships, of which the Allure is one. In fact I didn't learn that part until we were on a beach in Labadee, Haiti. Once I knew that, though, I put the information together with an offer from the cruise line to participate in a behind the scenes tour that would take us deep into the ship and onto parts most passengers never see.

The tour was not inexpensive, but it was easily worth every penny. From seeing the IJB glow in the engine control room as she carefully looked at displays showing what appeared to be complete chaos to me but were actually intricate electrical circuitry, to her face when we stood on the bridge and the second officer called her by name, it was an amazing experience, three hours that may well have been the best moments of the cruise. We stood on the helipad which passengers can't normally access, we saw the crew quarters including their pubs and restaurants, we went backstage at the theatre and in the massive galley kitchens. We eschewed the plush carpeted stairs for the guests and moved instead on the narrow and steep steel crew stairs, discovering the laundry facility (with the million dollar plus washing machine) and the garbage sorting room (where they recycle every scrap they can and minimize environmental impact as much as possible). We met a Sous Chef, the Laundry Master, the Second Officer (who seemed quite taken with the IJB as she has this air about her sometimes and I suspect he saw a potential ship's officer in her, too), a Ship Engineer, and more. But there was one person we met who struck me and who said something so profound it goes far, far further than a cruise.

His name is Hendrick (coincidentally the name of my beloved gin, too) and he serves as the Provisions Manager on the Allure. Now maybe this doesn't seem like a big job, unless you consider that the Allure is fundamentally a town afloat. 6,000 passengers and 2,000 crew depend on Hendrick's ability to make sure all provisions on board are sufficient for the cruise, as all supplies are brought onboard in the USA and no quick trips to the closest island grocery store are allowed to replenish the stock. Hendrick has in his hands the entire cruise in many ways, because if his order is faulty it will affect the ability of the passengers to enjoy the cruise, the ability of the crew to deliver the excellence they promise and result in disappointment. But it wasn't really Hendrick's job that impressed me most, although I was quite impressed by the magnitude of it and his calm demeanour given the task. No, it was what Hendrick said to those of us in the tour.

"Try everything," he said. "Do all the things the ship has to offer, enjoy every minute, don't waste a second when you've worked all year for the holiday."

It was one of the most profound things I've ever heard, because I think it's pretty much the motto for a good life, off and on cruise ships and vacations.

Try everything. Two simple words but what a world they hold.

Just over three years ago there were several things I would have never tried. I would have never submitted an article to a magazine, I would have never agreed to write a weekly column in a newspaper, I would have never auditioned for TEDx, I would have never applied for a job doing communications professionally, I would have never agreed to emcee an event, I would have never danced with the stars, I would have never done a fashion show, I would have never bought my own house, I would have never...well, I would have never done all the things I have done for the last three years. And then I tried those things, which led to trying more things, because trying everything is like a disease where you suddenly want to try ALL the things. This year the IJB and I plan to try more things, as we have a few plans, ideas and schemes in the works. We are going to launch head first into trying all the things, because, well, she and I are on this ship together and we have the chance. And as we go I will use a new hash tag I've adopted thanks to Hendrick, designed to share my new adventures with others. I am always delighted to see a hashtag I coined over two years ago (#ymmshoutout) still pop up on occasion, and so this year I introduce #tryeverythingymm - my nod to Hendrick, a brilliant philosophy for cruise ships and life and a community where you have the opportunity to try everything.

Try everything. Not just on a cruise ship but on life. Life is, after all, just a slightly longer cruise ship ride. We embark one day as novices to the whole experience and depart one day hopefully having had the time of our life - literally. We need to do all the things life has to offer, enjoy every minute and not waste a second when we have spent our entire lives working just to be where we are.

Try everything, friends. Try everything.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

We Got 99 Problems But That Ain't One

I count myself as guilty as anyone, really. It's such a standard thing to do in Fort McMurray. We complain - often vociferously - about the things we don't have or should have or want to have.

We want more retail, we whine. An airline cancelled our direct flights to Vegas, we moan. We have to wait for hours in the ER to see a doctor. Our roads are bumpy, our traffic jams too long, our governments too slow to give us what we want, which usually involves putting more of the money we generate back into us to improve our quality of life.

And I get it, I really do, because I have been one of the complainers, but on occasion you go somewhere and realize how relative it all is. For me that place was Cozumel, Mexico.

Cozumel is a wonderful place for tourists or cruise ship passengers like me. This little island greets visitors warmly and welcomes them and their cash, and when we arrived our tour guide wanted to ensure we enjoyed Cozumel. We were heading to do some horseback riding and then on to the beach for some rest and relaxation, and it was marvellous to bump along in an air-conditioned Mexican bus playing tinny Spanish music on our way to our destination.

The ranch was wonderful, the ranch hands friendly and warm. We enjoyed our time and then we headed to the beach, a quick stop for some nachos and margaritas and sea and sun and sand.

While at lunch we were approached by one of the ubiquitous beach side jewelry dealers. He claimed he is a gemologist and makes his own wares, although I was dubious as I had seen the same rings and earrings for sale on the ship. It was a game, almost certainly, one designed to attract tourists who would relish the idea of buying handmade jewelry rather than mass produced, and I could not fault his ability to weave such a yarn to brighten his livelihood.

After awhile we finished our nachos and the Intrepid Junior Blogger headed down to the sea, anxious to enjoy the beach while I stayed behind to pay. The jewelry dealer who had approached us earlier (and been rebuffed with the knowledge that I had not come with enough cash to buy) approached again and asked how old she was.

I told him that she is fourteen and he smiled. He then asked what I do for a living and when I said I am a writer he shook his head and expressed some surprise that that could even be a job (I didn't even know how to explain operating social media accounts as part of a career). He asked what the IJB wants to do, pointing to her as she stood on the beach, water up to her ankles and shoes in her hand.

"She wants to be an engineer," I said. "Maybe even work on the space program, designing space vehicles or be an astronaut. Or maybe design ships, she's shown some interest in that after this cruise", I say.

He looks at me and says: "Big dreams, big plans!" And then he shakes his head again and says: "But maybe in Canada these dreams are possible, si Amiga?" and in his face I can see that in Cozumel these dreams, dreams as simple as going to university, may well be big - and unachievable - dreams indeed.

I join the IJB on the beach, and after a time we head back to the ship in our air conditioned bus. The tour guide says he wants to show us some of the real Cozumel, and so we drive through the city, passing the kind of abject poverty that even I have tried to forget exists. At one house - a place where it appears part of the roof and wall have caved in - a group of small dusty children stand beside the road, listless in the extreme heat. They watch as we go by, their faces expressionless. 

As we pass them I wonder about their dreams and their futures. I look at the IJB beside me, her eyes wide as she sees a kind of poverty she has not really experienced before.

We have problems in Fort McMurray. We have the kind of problems that a booming economy brings, the kind of problems people in other parts of this world would give anything to have. Even with all our problems we are rich beyond the comprehension of people like some of those I saw in Cozumel, who would no doubt be astonished at our complaints as while we have problems we have incredible opportunity and hopes and dreams and plans. 

We might have 99 problems in Fort McMurray, but opportunity ain't one. The next time I think to complain about some tediously minor issue in our community I hope to remember an island far away, where opportunity isn't a given, but a dream. 

I don't swear often in this blog, but today I will. We are so fucking lucky, regardless of our 99 problems, and we should never, ever doubt it.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ruined by Community Theatre

It was actually the Intrepid Junior Blogger's idea to go see the musical Chicago on board our cruise ship. Days at sea can become long and dull, so the cruise companies spice it up with more food than you should ever eat, designer handbag sales and live entertainment.

The theatre venue on the Allure of the Seas is bloody impressive, better by far than many land based theatres I've been to. Seat service of cocktails and coffees enhance the experience, and on the stage in front of you unrolls a musical performed by an undoubtedly talented cast, bringing years of theatre and stage experience to their respective roles. And while I enjoyed it I couldn't help but compare it to the performance of the same musical presented by Keyano Theatre. I sat there in the darkened theatre, clapping, but in my heart of hearts I knew a simple truth. Community theatre has ruined me.

You see the performance of Chicago on the cruise was flawless, every line delivered with perfection, every song hitting just the right note and every dance step nailing the choreography - but something was terribly, terribly missing. It felt cold to me, devoid of the personality and warmth of our little cast of community players. It felt perfunctory, perfectly presented, but perfectly without the little thrill of emotion I get from seeing someone I know, either well or only slightly, on stage.

As a writer one of the things I love most is knowing the backstory. With community theatre I often know if this is a performer's first time on stage - or perhaps their last before they leave our community. I might know their mom or their spouse. I might even know them, have watched them as they went to rehearsals and poured more and more of their heart, soul and energy into their performance. The backstory is what gives me that lift, that generates that shiver of excitement when the curtain goes up, the music begins and the first words are spoken or sung.

Community theatre is not always flawless. On occasion lines are missed, props are dropped and scenes go better some nights than others. But the flaws, the backstory, the friends and neighbours and community members, are what fill me with joy, what make me stand up at the end clapping and hooting. And, often, the community cast and crew nail the performance just as perfectly as a collection of polished professionals, adding a new level of delight to the experience. They are what I have come to love about live theatre, and while other performances can be excellent in quality and delivery they will never reach the level of perfection I've found right in our own community. 

At the end of the performance of Chicago on the ship the IJB turned to me and said: "That was pretty good." I smiled, and nodded, and then I said: "Yes, but Keyano Theatre did it better" - and I meant it, too, because our little Keyano Theatre and all the community players in it have captured my heart. Nothing will ever come close to what I feel when those curtains close and the final notes of another heartfelt community performance fade away.

Making A Difference - A Personal Thank You to a Leader, Boss and Friend

I sit at my keyboard in my office, not quite sure where to begin. I leave on vacation in two days and I've just been tasked with drafting the most challenging press release I've written so far in my role at the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo, or the RRC as we call it. Finally I tap out the headline in bold font, and there it is, the announcement that Tim Reid, CEO of the RRC and COO of MacDonald Island Park before the transition was made to the RRC, is leaving Wood Buffalo.

My relationship with Tim goes back much further than when I joined the RRC a year and a half ago. It began very near when this blog first began and I started to attend press conferences and community engagement sessions. I don't even recall how or when I first met Tim - it doesn't matter, really, as now it feels like I have known him forever. Even back then I was captivated and excited by his vision for MacDonald Island, but even more so I was struck by his evident leadership. He had this ability to listen, this way of building relationships, and a quiet but sure air of confidence that made you believe, too. He very rapidly became someone I respected, particularly after he took the chaos that the original expansion at MacDonald Island had become and turned it into a successful organization. That Tim was making a difference in our community and making it a better place was clear from the moment I met him.

I attended so many events at Mac Island that I lost count. Concerts, press conferences, galas, community meetings and events. Tim was always there, his smiling face greeting me a fixture at every event. What amazed me was that every single time he would ask me what I thought - and he listened, not in the false way some people do but in the genuine and thoughtful way that makes you know you are being heard. My respect for him only grew with every conversation, enough so that when the recommendation for Shell Place went to RMWB Council I was proud to speak in favour of the expansion, even though I was terrified and my voice quivered. But I knew Tim believed in my ability to deliver my message about why I thought Shell Place was the right choice for our community, and his confidence in me bolstered my own.

When my life changed two years ago I faced a decision. I was at a crossroads when my marriage ended, including deciding whether to stay in Fort McMurray at all. One of the factors in my decision was my ability to find employment that was not only able to support myself and my daughter but that would make me happy and allow me to feel fulfilled, like I was contributing to the community and making a difference in the place I call home. I saw the posting for a Communications job at Mac Island, and while I was terrified about my skills and my ability to rise to the role I submitted my résumé and waited.

When I received the phone call informing me that I had been chosen for the role I felt many things. I was scared. Nervous. Excited. Thrilled. And I wondered, truly wondered, if being inside the organization would be different than being on the outside looking in. I wondered if Tim was truly the leader I thought he was, or if I would be somehow disappointed once I got closer to the reality.

After almost two years I can say it was different.

It was, in fact, vastly and immensely better than I ever thought possible.

Tim was every bit the leader I had believed him to be, and more. As part of Tim's team I have worked harder than I ever have in my life - and I've learned more, loved it more and accomplished more than I ever dreamed possible. When the RRC incorporated last year with a vision of making a difference in our region every day I could not have been prouder to be part of it - because I have believed since my first day on the job that our role is to make that difference, and it began with Tim and his leadership.

I am so proud of Tim as he embarks on an incredible new opportunity and challenge. I am humbled and honoured to have had the opportunity to work for him - and with him - as part of ONE Team. Even more though I am committed to continuing to make that difference, to working harder, learning more, loving it more and doing more than I ever thought I could, because Tim's encouragement and belief in me has given me the confidence to believe in myself. I work with the most incredible people, a team dedicated to making a difference in the communities of our region, each one of us the beneficiary of the kind of leadership that is both rare and unique.

Thank you, Tim, for everything you have done for our community. Thank you for bringing your wonderful wife Nathalie with you, as she too had a profound impact on the youth of this community though her role as an educator and mentor. Thank you for sharing your beautiful boys with us. But, most of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of your team, to learn and grow and accomplish and laugh. While I know Fort McMurray will always be grateful to you I will always be so personally grateful because your belief in me came at a time when I needed it most, and I will never, ever forget it.

As Tim embarks on his new adventure I wish him well and I know he will bring to Edmonton and Northlands all the amazing gifts he brought to our community. I also know that I will continue to work harder than I ever have, striving to make a difference every day in an organization of which I am so very immensely proud to be a part. 

After all, I know Tim would never accept or expect anything less from me - and now, thanks to my time under his leadership, guidance and friendship, nor would I.

Get Over Yourself

I have now been out of Fort McMurray - and Canada - for almost a week. A couple of days in Fort Lauderdale and a few days on a cruise ship with 5,500 passengers and 2,000 crew members from all over the world have made me realize something: Fort McMurray might need to get over itself.

People in Lauderdale and on the cruise are amazingly friendly. The first question almost always is: "where are you from?" And the conversation always goes like this:

Me: Fort McMurray, Alberta

~blank look~

Me: Home of the oil sands?

~blank look~

Me: Northern Canada?

Them: Oh, anywhere close to Montreal?!? (Don't ask me, it's always Montreal)

The word they trigger on is Canada - but it most certainly is not Fort McMurray or oil sands. So far I've met people from America, El Salvador, Peru, Great Britain, Serbia, France, Italy, Portugal,and Haiti and not one single soul has recoiled in horror when I named my home town or what we do for an industry. In fact they seemed not only indifferent but entirely unaware of any of it, which has led me to suspect that the focus on our community and the oil sands is of interest to far, far fewer people than one might assume when you live in the community and are part of that industry.

The funny thing about being in the bulls-eye is that you may come to believe that all the attention truly is focused on you. You can lose the perspective and realization that you are really just a small cog in a very large machine, one that encompasses a world of billions of people who kind of have their own communities, industries and worries of their own.

We invest very heavily in trying to "change the image" of Fort McMurray. This investment hinges on the belief that there is already an image in people's minds about us, and an unsavoury one at that. The reality is that as you move further away from our community in an ever expanding circle that image, or even any knowledge, of our community fades until it disappears. It seems so vital at ground zero and yet here in the middle of the Caribbean it disappears into a tropical mist.

 I suspect we have two things: a fairly large ego about being the economic engine of Canada and a fairly large chip on our shoulder about being targeted as the bullseye of environmental groups and external media. The reality I am finding though is that both are quite out of proportion with the way the majority of others see us, which is some strange place with a fort close to Montreal.

Last night our server from Morocco asked where we are from. This time I just said "northern Canada", to which he smiled and said "I have an uncle in Montreal!". I smiled and laughed, and said we didn't live close to Montreal, and that Canada is a big place - but that the IJB does speak French, at which point he chattered at her in flawless French.

This cruise trip has been amazing, and it isn't over yet. One of the most enlightening parts, though, has been the realization of one thing. Fort McMurray, we probably need to get over ourselves, because the rest of the world hasn't just gotten over us. Most of them never even knew we existed.