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

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Because We Are Canadian

As I sit and watch it unfold on Twitter I cannot help but be reminded of the looming anniversary of a similar event. It is a date I have thought about a great deal recently, as soon it will mark 25 years since the day that remains seared in my memory.

Yesterday a gunman tried to change our nation when he murdered a young Corporal standing guard at our War Memorial in Ottawa. Were it not for the quick thinking and quick-to-react  Sergeant-at-Arms there would have likely been more injuries and perhaps even fatalities when the gunman continued his journey of terror. Shots rang out in the marble halls of Parliament, a place many of us, including me, have visited and the home of democracy in our nation. It was a sobering day, one that shook many of us to our core and one that took me back a very long time ago.
25 years ago there was no easy access to cell phones, no chattering social media. I recall being mesmerized instead by a flickering television screen, watching the news roll in about a young man who pointed his weapon at young female engineering students and shot them point blank for no other reason than they were women and had the audacity to pursue a career in engineering. I was not much older than them in 1989, and I was struck by how easily it could have been me. In recent months as the Intrepid Junior Blogger has expressed her desire to be an engineer I have thought instead about easily it could be her, targeted simply because of her gender and her ambition.

I don’t know if we called it terrorism in 1989, although we should have of course. Whether these acts are tied to larger groups and militant causes matters little in deeming them terrorist acts, as they are inherently meant to cause terror. Whenever someone brandishes a weapon and shoots others it becomes an act of terror, an act designed to create panic and fear and to terrorize innocent people. And if we let them terrorize us – cause us to change our path or to alter our destiny – they have won.
Yesterday a young Corporal died while performing what most would see as a largely safe and ceremonial role. One can only hope his death does not deter others from following his path, because his loss is tragic and sad but he died serving his country and all of us. He is a Canadian hero, as is the Sergeant-at-Arms who did not hesitate to stop a threat.

As I think about a shooting 25 years ago I think about how this tragic event could have altered my thoughts enough to make me want to discourage the IJB from her chosen path, but it has done no such thing. In fact I think perhaps it has made me more steadfast in my resolve to see her achieve her dream, because there may be no better way to honour the memory of fourteen women than to reach the goal they had torn from them by an act of terror.
Yesterday as I watched events unfold I could not help but think how it would – or could – change our country. And yes, it may change some things, but it will not and can never change the fundamentals. It cannot change that we are Canadians, a nation that expresses its patriotism perhaps quietly but in a deep, fervent and profound way. It cannot change that we will continue to pursue our goals and dreams, whatever they may be and wherever we may find them. It cannot change our role on the world stage, which is strong and respected.

And it will never change our hearts. This was not the first act of terror in our country, and it will not be the last, I am afraid. But we will stand firm in our beliefs, in our hearts and in our nation as we mourn and grieve and then go on, just as we did in on a dark, dark day in 1989.
October 22, 2014 will join December 6, 1989 as a tragic day in Canadian history. But it will not mark the day that Canada changed, because we will not be changed by terrorists, no matter their intent or target.

Because in the end we are Canadian, and that will never, ever change.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


“Why?” she asks.

Her face is curious and genuinely puzzled. “Why,” she repeats, “am I being nominated for an award?”
The Intrepid Junior Blogger has just learned she has been nominated for an award through the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce. The award, dubbed the “X-ceptional Kidz” award is meant for youth who are exceptional in some regard. I have always thought the IJB to be exceptional, but then again I likely have exceptional bias when it comes to her, too.

The IJB is in many ways an average kid. She goes to school, she visits the orthodontist for adjustments on her shiny new braces, she plays video games and she cuddles her cats. But in some ways perhaps she is exceptional, although I have become so accustomed to it maybe I don’t even see it anymore. I am uncertain how many teenaged kids receive alerts on their cell phone on breaking news stories that involve politics. I’m not sure how many have worked on election campaigns (including taking a stab at writing press releases along with delivering campaign materials). I’m not sure how many have argued with their former local MP on Twitter over his grammar (she’s a stickler for grammar, this one). I’m not sure how many can succinctly explain the robocall scandal, discuss the concept of food security, talk about radio demographics, expound on the crisis faced by animal welfare organizations like the SPCA, argue about Schrodinger’s cat with their mother, intelligently dissect marketing campaigns, interview the leader of a national political party and write an article for publication based on that interview AND still giggle like the average teen girl when confronted with a fat cat who wants his belly rubbed. I am sure of this: the IJB is someone who I believe has the capacity to one day change the world, just as so many of our youth do.
Last night the IJB, along with Mitch Murphy, another remarkable youth in our community, was recognized at the Chamber of Commerce awards banquet as an X-ceptional Kid in our region. She was her usual quiet self at our table, only really becoming animated when discussing her science fair project. She tends to be shy with those she does not know, and I often think they must wonder what she is really thinking (and how little they know that at times I have to ask her to simply remain silent for five minutes as she can fill the air with so many ideas and thoughts and questions that they swirl around in my head and make me dizzy). She had asked if she could bring her Physics homework to the banquet, as her main concern right now is keeping on top of her classes, including her Advanced Placement courses in Science and Language Arts. She was perturbed when I said no, but I think all was forgiven when she enjoyed the fabulous food at the Sawridge Inn and enjoyed the company of those at our table.

When the IJB asked why she had been nominated she commented that has done nothing of significant note. She has not gone to space, cured cancer or climbed Everest. She has not changed the world (well, except for mine). What I told her, though, is that being exceptional isn’t always about what  you do but about how you do what you do. It isn’t about going to space or curing cancer or climbing Everest. It is about always doing your best whatever it is you do – going to school, or volunteering, or contributing to your community, or working for social justice, or simply observing the world and noting what you could do to make it a better place. In the end being exceptional is truly nothing more than that – which means everyone can be exceptional.
Now, in my eyes the IJB is, of course, exceptionally exceptional. She is in my view a remarkable young woman who amazes me every day, whether it is her grade average or her thoughts on the most recent world crisis. She is a thoughtful individual who is changing and growing and learning every single day, and every day she inspires me to strive to make the world a better place, because it is her world and she deserves it.

I want to thank the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce for hosting awards that recognize not only local business but local individuals who make a difference in our community. I want to thank Servus Credit Union, the sponsor of the awards banquet last night, and Nexen Energy, who sponsored the X-ceptional Kidz Award (and who I think are tremendous community partners in their recognition of youth in our community, who truly form the backbone of our future). I want to thank those who nominated the IJB and supported her nomination, who have come to know her and view her as exceptional, too.
But most of all I guess I want to thank the IJB. I don’t directly address her often in this blog, but today I will make an exception, as it seems to be an exceptional day:

Dearest Sam,
Congratulations on your award. I was proud of you last night, but to be honest I am proud of you every day and always will be, because I am your mom, your supporter and your biggest fan. A couple of years ago you made me cry when you were asked to write an essay about your hero and you named me. Today I am in tears because you are my hero, and watching you grow and change and develop is a gift for which I can never express enough gratitude. Thank you, Sam, for being you and for not even realizing how exceptional you are. You are the reason I do everything I do, and I am so very, very proud to be your mom.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

A New Narrative in Fort McMurray

There are times in your life when you are humbled to realize you are part of something much bigger than yourself. In recent months I have realized this as I have become part of something so close to me I cannot even quite put it into words, which is why there are several photos in this post instead.

A few years ago, long before taking on the professional role I now hold, I was part of a community engagement process about a proposal for a new development in our community. It was a proposed expansion at MacDonald Island, a bold new vision for an addition to our community and region that seemed tremendously exciting - and ambitious.

I was one of the people who attended the in-person engagement sessions. I filled out the online surveys. And I wrote passionately in this blog about the development and about what I thought it could mean for our community.

I was there when the ground was broken. I was there when the name of the new development - Shell Place - was announced. I was there when the first piece of steel was laid in the field house. I was there when the name of the new football and performance stadium - SMS Equipment Stadium - was announced. I was there when the incredible stage, covered by the most innovative canopy I have ever seen, was named Nexen Energy Stage. In fact for the last three of those I was part of the planning process of the events where these things happened, suddenly on the inside of a development where I had before only been an observer.

Even then I don't think I fully understood the impact on our community, and my world. Someone asked a few months ago what Shell Place would mean to me personally and I said this: "It is a chance to change the narrative about our community. As a writer it is so exciting to have new stories, and this will be a place that is filled with stories, from sports and recreation to events to art and culture to social profit groups through the new shared space anchored by primary tenant the United Way. It will change the narrative of Fort McMurray."

Everything I do is done through a lens of how it will impact the Intrepid Junior Blogger. Will what I am doing make her community a better place? Will it increase her pride in the place she will one day claim as the place she grew up? Is it improving her life?

Two nights ago we were driving home from a late evening errand. Driving towards Thickwood she looked out the window and asked: "What's that?", and there, shimmering away, were the lights on the canopy at Nexen Energy Stage, glowing in the boreal forest blackness, flickering in different shades and undulating in that inexplicable way the northern lights do, a way we all recognize but struggle to explain.

"What is that?" she repeated.

"It's Shell Place, honey," I said, amazed myself and trying not to crash the car as I suddenly find myself a bit tearful and overcome with emotion as it is the first time I have seen the lights, too.

"Really, mom?" she says, her face full of wonder. At fifteen the IJB does not impress easily or often, and she has already been making the noises youth make about how she wants to move to a more exciting place with more to do and more things to see (just as I did at her age in another city and just as all youth do and should do as they grow and their world expands). "Really?" she says.

And then: "Well done, Fort McMurray".

And she smiles at me and in her face I see the pride I know is reflected in my own and in the faces of every person I know who has been part of this experience. I see the future of our community and I see that this, something I am so honoured to be a small part of, has already changed her narrative. She has a new story to tell when she one day leaves this place to venture out into the world, a new narrative of the place she grew up - and deep down I feel more satisfied and more fulfilled than I have in a very, very long time.

Well done, Fort McMurray. Well done, indeed.

Photo courtesy of Toddske-
canopy lighting testing

Photos courtesy of 
Layla Underwood
Regional Recreation Corporation
of Wood Buffalo

Photo courtesy of Phoenix Heli-Flight

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Triple-M Zoo, Minus One

"Mommy", said the voice from on the other side of my closed bedroom door. "Mommy," she said, her voice quivering in a way I've rarely heard it do. "I just went to feed the ferrets." A long pause and then: "Abu is dead."

And so he was, our eldest ferret and the first of the ferret trio who have been part of our zoo for some time now. Abu, who came to us through a previous owner who just wanted him to have love and attention and a home with time to care for him, was gone.

Abu was a sweet if quirky animal, as they all are really. When he first arrived we learned he would nip adults, those sharp little carnivorous teeth leaving a mark, but he never nipped the Intrepid Junior Blogger. He was a funny sort, and when we brought the first of the two ferrets who would eventually join us home he was deeply reluctant at first. He viewed the new ferret with alarm, a bouncy little thing who wanted to tussle and play, but over time they became fast friends, and when the third ferret joined them they became quite the little trio.

While we were a bit sketchy on his age we knew him to be in the older range for a ferret, and for some time I had suspected he had a tumour as ferrets often do (and the cause of death for all three ferrets I owned when I was a young adult). We knew at his age that surgery would be too much and so we decided to keep him comfortable and as long as he was eating and playing allow him to live out his remaining time happily, as he did right up until passing away in his favourite bed in the cage the trio shared. It was in many ways the best possible ending, avoiding the decision making process of putting him to sleep, the call to the vet and that final drive, a time I remember far too well from other beloved pets.

When I was young my father advised me to never trust a man who didn't like children or animals. For many years, in fact, I held people who seemed to not have the "animal gene" in disdain, but over time I found myself pitying them instead. I realized that the bond you develop with an animal is something you either get or you don't, and the love is something you either feel or you won't. Those who don't or won't have my sympathy instead of my disdain now, because it is something that escapes the description of mere words. The trouble, of course, is the breaking of that bond when an animal dies, as happens far too often as their life spans are often so much shorter than our own.

It is a pain other animal lovers know well. It is deep and sad and aching, full of memories and wistfulness for a return of days gone by. It is an understanding of a form of unconditional love that is rarely found between humans but is perhaps the hallmark of our relationship with animals.

The Intrepid Junior Blogger puts on a brave show indeed. As we wrapped Abu's tiny body in a towel and I explained that I would call the veterinary clinic about the body she shook slightly but did not cry. It was only later that evening that I found her cuddling the other two ferrets, her eyes brimming with tears. We talked then about the hard part of loving animals and about a little sable ferret who bounced into our lives several years ago and who yesterday departed very quietly, deeply loved to the end.

The Triple-M Zoo is minus one today, at least in actual numbers. But the memories will stay with us forever and we will hold the other pets just a little closer as we know that some day we will have only memories of them, too.

Rest in peace, little ferret, and thank you for being the true beginning of the zoo. You will be missed.


Monday, October 13, 2014

GOlden Buffalo in Fort McMurray

You probably read the title of this post and thought I made a typographical error. After all, it appears I inadvertently capitalized the first two letters of "golden", but I assure you it was quite intentional. You see when it comes to the proposed Golden Buffalo high-rise complex now seeking permit development approval in downtown Fort McMurray I think there are two operative letters of most importance - and they are the G and the O, or GO.

The Golden Buffalo project is undoubtedly remarkably ambitious, a complex that will tower over our downtown. I am hearing rumblings of concern about that ambition, particularly the height of the development and thoughts that it will somehow be out of place or mar our skyline. I am not one of those who thinks this, you see.

Do you know the Eiffel Tower was almost never built? It was deemed far too ambitious, far too big, far too much for the Paris skyline. It was only built through steadfast belief and perseverance, despite the belief of many Parisians that it was an enormous white elephant that would mar their city forever. And I suspect in many cities the first skyscraper was controversial, with some thinking it would stick out like a sore thumb...right until the next skyscraper was built, and the next, and the next, until the skyline had changed to the ones we now associate with cities like Edmonton and Calgary, where you can see the downtown core long before you are in it, marked by towers that shine in the sun.

I don't know if you have looked at our downtown core lately, but "shining" isn't a word that springs to mind. We have a downtown pockmarked with vacant and abandoned buildings, scarred with graffiti and far too dispirited-looking to reflect the true nature of this community. The catalyst projects once planned for the city centre redevelopment have fallen off the radar for various reasons (and we can argue those reasons but there is no point, as the reality is that they have become part of a faded dream that may one day be resurrected but that for now gathers dust as blueprints on a shelf). The Golden Buffalo complex now may well represent our best hope for a revitalized downtown, a catalyst project for which the taxpayer will carry no burden and an investment from others in our community. We just have to say one small word.


I admit I have been skeptical of the Golden Buffalo proposal in the past because it is not the first large towering complex proposed for the downtown core by private investors. Those other proposals have never come to fruition, but those experiences do not mean we should reject an opportunity to see an amazing complex built in our downtown that may well serve as the catalyst we need to change our skyline - and our downtown core - forever. Perhaps we do not need a taxpayer-funded and municipally-led drive to revitalize the downtown. Perhaps we just need to grant permission to those developers who are willing to take on the cost and risk to do so.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris was built for the Paris Exposition in 1889. Alexandre Gustave Eiffel faced a tremendous challenge when it became apparent that the Exposition committee would only fund 1/4 of the construction costs, leaving Eiffel to find funding for the remainder. It was a daunting task, particularly given the skepticism of the civic leaders and general populace of the value of this structure, one that some even deemed an "abomination". To say that they were wrong would perhaps be the largest understatement in French history, as the Eiffel Tower has of course become the most visited site in France and one of the most iconic structures in the world - and it was almost never built as there were those who wanted to say "no" rather than "go".

I am under no illusion that the Golden Buffalo is some sort of Eiffel Tower of the north - but that it could well be iconic, catalytic and game-changing for our region seems clear. That it could be the very change we seek and the very first step in not only revitalizing but reclaiming our downtown core seems abundantly clear to me. I suppose in this I choose to side with Eiffel, a man who forged on despite the cynicism of others and eventually proved his detractors quite wrong, as well as changing the face of Paris, France and even the world forever. Ideas lacking in boldness are not ones that provoke change. Only bold ideas, ones that may seem unusual or far too outside the box, are the ones that change skylines - and cities.

All we need to do is one small thing - say "go".

Sunday, October 12, 2014

International Day of the Girl

Yesterday marked one of those days we set aside to celebrate and acknowledge a group of individuals. It seems appropriate to me that International Day of the Girl falls just before Thanksgiving in our country, as I know I am personally deeply thankful for the girl - or rather the young woman - in my own life. I think too thought we need to be thankful for the young women and girls around our world who have the potential to change it.

We are truly fortunate in this country. We enjoy a level of equity for women that does not exist in all parts of this world. The Intrepid Junior Blogger has goals and aspirations that are unhindered by her gender, and she sees no reason that being a girl will be an impediment to reaching them. We still struggle on occasion though to ensure all young women in this country understand that all career paths are open to them, and we find ourselves still trying to find ways to encourage them to enter careers that may be considered non-traditional for women, but at least here we have the option of doing so.

It would be remiss of us to forget that this is not the case for girls and young women in every country. In some countries young women continue to be repressed in their desire for education and equality and to achieve the basic freedoms we hold so dear. Young women like my IJB would not only struggle to achieve their dreams but see them as impossible to achieve, not goals but fantasies. This is so deeply sad as there are so many young women out there with tremendous potential to change the world if only given the opportunity and the equality to make it happen.

We are so fortunate to have organizations like Girls Inc of Northern Alberta, which encourages young women to be smart, bold and strong. Earlier this year I was honoured to be selected as one of their Women of Inspiration for this year, as if I can have any role in inspiring young women to achieve their dreams then I believe I have accomplished a great deal in my life. Organizations like Girls Inc. provide opportunities for young women to explore the possibilities in this world, and I am so thankful to have them in our community.

I am grateful too for organizations like the Justin Slade Youth Foundation which encourages young women and men to connect with our world and their community, and that provides them with a safe, secure and welcoming place to develop into contributing members of our society.

There are many more, too, so many organizations dedicated to young women (and men) and I am so grateful to all of them because our youth are not just part of our world - they are our future. It is in their hands - my daughter's precious hands - that our collective future lies. I am so grateful today to acknowledge girls from across the world, and boys, too as in those young minds and hearts resides our every hope for the future, and our very existence on a planet where life can at time be tenuous and fragile.

This Thanksgiving I have so much for which to be thankful, but today I am thankful for the children across the world. Yesterday we celebrated International Day of the Girl but in my mind every day is International Day of the Child, or at least it should be, because we have no more precious gift - or opportunity - than each and every one of them.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Why It Is Okay to Not Be Okay

It is a very human tendency, I think. Someone asks if we are okay and almost without thinking we answer: “Oh yeah, I’m fine!” even when we are not fine and when we are not okay. It is almost like a little white lie we tell ourselves and others, a social nicety and a bluff we carry on in order to not admit that maybe – just maybe – we are not fine.

Recently I ran into someone I admire so tremendously and they shared with me some of their recent struggles. It all began with the simple question of “Are you okay?” and ended with hugs, because they were not okay and they acknowledged it, which perhaps takes far more courage than ever claiming to be okay would do. My admiration for them simply rose, as I know quite well how hard it can be to admit you are not okay.
The last few weeks as I have worked my way through an extremely difficult manifestation of my recurrent eye disease I have been far, far from okay. And while I am fairly well known for stoicism and a refusal to admit to not being okay I have adopted a new strategy with this one, because I have realized that it is okay to not be okay – and even to admit it.

It has been a difficult time, but a learning journey, too. I have found that when people ask if you are okay and you respond: “Do you want truth or social nicety?” there are those who will opt for social nicety to avoid the awkwardness of acknowledging that someone else is not okay. For those people I spin the usual tale, of how it is tough but yes I am absolutely fine! (accompanied with a smile, of course) For those who want honesty, though, I share that I am not okay and that this is a trying period in my life, a life lesson in patience I think as my recovery is painfully slow and literally quite painful, and I am someone profoundly lacking in the virtue known as patience. The reactions are remarkable.
When you share that you are not okay it seems to encourage others to share with you, too. Maybe they are totally okay or mostly okay or not okay at all, but by being frank and honest with them you allow them to be frank and honest, too. You allow them to be vulnerable, if just for a moment, and perhaps that is why it is so hard, because we avoid showing vulnerability at all costs.

It is something I know well. My own Intrepid Junior Blogger has an aversion to asking for help or acknowledging she is not okay because it is, in her mind, admitting vulnerability – or weakness, as she calls it. I suppose it is because of her that I am now exposing my own vulnerability because it is up to me to show her that vulnerability is not something we can or should avoid – it is simply something we all experience.
I have in the past often shown some degree of vulnerability in this blog, but so too I guard myself a bit because I know the risk in doing so. I know there are those who take advantage of vulnerability to attack others, and those who do view it as a sign of weakness and not as a simple state of our human condition. But I think we might just need a vulnerability movement in this world, as lying to each other – and ourselves – about being okay doesn’t decrease our vulnerability. I think, in fact, it makes it far, far worse in the end.

Fort McMurray, it is okay to not be okay. And it is okay to acknowledge it, because there is some degree of relief in saying “no, I am not okay” because the reality is you will likely be okay – just maybe not today. And so today I take space in this blog to share not a story of Fort McMurray but a page and time in my life where I am not okay, but where I have sincere faith I will be okay over time and with the dreaded “patience”. I make myself vulnerable simply to say it is okay to not be okay – and on the brink of Thanksgiving I am grateful to have the ability to open myself enough to simply say it and lay myself open, vulnerability and all.