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

Friday, October 31, 2014

Walk a Mile in My Boots - Poppy Barley

There are few things that make me as happy as coming home to find a parcel waiting outside my door and knowing it contains one of my favourite things: new shoes.

I suppose I have become known for my shoes, and I do own a wide variety of shoes from boots to heels and all points and heights in between. On occasion people will ask how many I own (and there are questions you just don’t ask a lady, like her age, dress size and how many shoes she owns) and what my favourites are. And so while I will not answer the first question I will respond to the second, because my favourite footwear must meet a few criteria.
My favourite footwear must be comfortable, unique and reflective of my personality. If possible I prefer to support local retailers as opposed to large chains. And if at all possible my favourite shoes have a story – which is why my favourite shoes come from an Edmonton-based start-up company called Poppy Barley.

I have been following Poppy Barley from the very beginning of their adventure, and watched with growing delight as they have skyrocketed to success. The concept of custom-designed boots was brilliant in and of itself as many women – including me – face challenges when trying to find boots that fit well. Couple this concept with fair trade, two ambitious women at the head of the company, an expansion into not only boots but flats and now men’s footwear, and you have an Albertan, and Canadian success story.
I now own four pairs of Poppy Barley boots, and a fifth pair is on its way to me. I am so impressed with the quality, the comfort and the story, because the best things in my life have a story. I had the pleasure of meeting Kendall Barber, one of the women who founded the company, some time ago and when she shared her vision for Poppy Barley I knew it would be a success simply because when someone couples vision with passion, drive and good business sense it is bound to do well.

My Poppy Barley boots are an investment in an Albertan company, some individuals I am proud to know and in good-quality footwear that will stand the test of time as well as reflect my personal aesthetic and personality.
To be honest they are my secret weapon. On days when I need to be on my feet all day, days when I need a boost in confidence, days when I want to feel unique, I choose my Poppy Barleys – which means I wear them more than all my other shoes combined, and my front doorway often looks a bit like a small Poppy Barley display.

The IJB doesn’t know it yet but I intend to get her a pair of Poppy Barley boots, too. She is at fifteen on the petite side and struggles to find boots that meet her style sense and fit her well. The boots will be a gift from me to her, much like the designer handbag I bought her in London a couple of years ago and which has become a legacy piece from a style-conscious mother to her equally style-conscious offspring. And so Poppy Barley has become a legacy in my family, too, an Albertan success story that brings me not only great satisfaction in the telling but in the wearing.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Take a Second Glance, Fort McMurray

Every once in awhile a video comes along that carries a powerful punch. While the written word can have tremendous impact we are as a species highly visual, and so photos and videos can affect us in deep and profound ways.

When I saw the video below I was touched to the point of tears, because it resonated deeply with me. In a world of first impressions we far too often fail to take that second glance and look deeper. We see only the surface, making snap judgments and quick assessments that are often quite utterly wrong.
Whether we know it or not most of us have at some point in our lives experienced one of the risk factors of homelessness:

·         Unexpected job loss

·         Physical illness or injury

·         Mental illness, including depression

·         Marital breakdown

·         Abusive domestic relationships

·         Substance abuse or addiction, including alcoholism

·         Unanticipated financial hardships and challenges

Look carefully at that list. See yourself or someone you love on it? Me too. In fact I would argue that almost everyone has at some point encountered one or more of the life challenges on that list, meaning that we have all, whether we realized it or not, experienced one of the risk factors of homelessness. Perhaps we were fortunate enough to have the financial resources to deal with the challenges, or perhaps we had family or friends who helped us through. Perhaps we were some of the lucky ones who found a job again quickly or who had good health insurance. But not everyone does.

Once upon a time I looked at homeless people and saw only the surface. An experience over two decades ago in Toronto, where I encountered many homeless individuals on a daily basis, taught me to look beyond the first impression – to take a second glance. I began to see the story behind the person, and to see homelessness as a condition of existence and not the defining quality of a person.

I began to see the person and not the label.

Watch the video. Take a second glance, and see behind the exterior. Remember that each person faces challenges which we may know nothing about, and every person has a story. Don’t see the label. See the person that the second glance reveals, and realize that the distance between you and them is far, far smaller than you ever imagined.

 This video was made in support of the Centre of Hope, Fort McMurray's daytime drop-in shelter for the homeless and at-risk-of-homeless in our community. Please visit their website to see how they serve our community - and how your second glance can help them to ensure the most vulnerable in our community have the assistance they need. My gratitude to them for the work they do every day, and to Doug Roxburgh for the inspiring video.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Highway of Denial

Photo credit to Huffington Post Alberta

I could engage in some ranting, I suppose, but I just don’t have the energy anymore. I have written about it, done interviews about it, discussed it, lost sleep over it and had it consume not just hours or days but weeks of my life. It seems no matter what I say – what anyone says – it keeps happening.

People keep dying on Highway 63.
In the past two weeks four individuals have lost their life on the stretch of highway that has become famous – or rather infamous – in our country. Less than a week ago I travelled the highway just after it reopened after yet another of these tragic, senseless deaths that rip apart families and tear at the fabric of our community.

There are those who blame the highway, and while twinning will almost certainly reduce the number of head-on collisions and the likelihood of resulting fatalities it will not address the other factor seen on this highway – and if we are honest we all will admit to having seen it, if not engaged in it.
Unsafe driving behaviour is rampant, and over my thirteen years driving that highway I have seen more close calls that I can recount. Speeding, driving too fast for conditions, unsafe passing, aggressive driving, inattention, fatigue and sadly even driving when under the influence of drugs or alcohol are far too commonplace. Just this week someone told me the tale of almost being struck by another vehicle, and watching the police apprehend a driver who was too intoxicated to even exit their vehicle in a dignified way, more "pouring out" of it than stepping out to rest their feet on that stretch of asphalt.

We can blame the highway if we want, decry the length of time it took to secure the commitment to twin it. Or we can acknowledge that while there may be some truth in that the real truth is that we are killing each other and ourselves on that highway. We can deny this all we want, but denial, as they say, isn’t just a river in Egypt. In this case denial is instead a river of tears cried over a small highway in northern Alberta where far too many fragile lives have been lost.
I read on social media how it is the highway to blame, how somehow that stretch of road has reached up to pull us down into it, ending our lives as if it is some living, breathing malevolent force. But it isn’t, of course. It is just a road, and while it may have some imperfections it is the imperfections of those who travel it that cause the majority of these collisions – and these deaths. If we are to be quite frank the twinning is necessary not because it is a bad road, but because we are far too often bad drivers who need to be protected from each other and ourselves.

The highway has seen an incredible increase in traffic, that is true, and so the twinning makes sense for this reason as well. But as the increase in traffic has developed a corollary decrease in our patience seems to have happened, too.  Just at the time when we need to exercise the most caution and patience we seem to have lost it entirely, putting ourselves at even greater risk.
I too am anxious to see the highway twinning complete. I am not naive enough to believe it will end all collisions or fatalities on Highway 63, though, because I know that there are those who will continue their unsafe behaviours and continue to put us all at risk. I believe it will help to staunch the flow of tears – and blood – on that highway but it will not cause it to cease entirely.

I don’t have the ranting in me anymore, you see. All I have now is a deep sense of sadness every single time I hear the words “accident on 63” and a dread of the news that I fear will almost certainly follow. I wish I knew the solution. I don’t. All I know today is that it has happened again.
All I know is that today there is grief and sorrow and sadness, a feeling that has become all too familiar when hearing the words “Highway 63”. All I know is how sad and weary I am of it all.

I have come to think of Highway 63 not as the Highway of Tears or even the Highway of Death as external media often suggests. I see it as the Highway of Denial, where we deny we have any complicity in what happens there, preferring to blame anyone or anything but ourselves. How easy it is to blame a stretch of road - and how difficult it is to shoulder the blame ourselves and realize that our denial is slowly and inexorably killing others - and ourselves.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Will (not) Work for Free

This telephone conversation was starting to get interesting:

“Ms. Wells, we have been following your work for some time and we would like to offer you the opportunity to write a piece to appear in our next publication!”
Well, this sounds like an intriguing offer, I think. I am always cautious, though.

“What kind of piece are you looking for? What’s the deadline? How many words? And what are you paying per word?”
There is a pause at the other end of the line.

“Well, Ms. Wells, we don’t actually pay our contributors. This is a really a chance to increase your exposure...”
Aha, I think. There it is, the catch.

“You don’t pay ANY of your contributors?” I ask. “Do you charge for your publication?”
“Well, we pay some of them,” she replies. “The professional writers, or the known names who don’t need the exposure we can offer. And of course we do charge for our publication or we wouldn’t be able to operate financially.”

“Huh,” I say. “I AM a professional writer – I write all day and am paid to do so – and I would argue I am a known name in my community and maybe even my province. And I need to operate financially as well, because I have bills to pay, too. Does this mean I will get paid to create content for your publication?”
There is a very, very long pause, and the voice says, somewhat sharply: “I am guessing you do not wish to write for us, then.”

“Not for free,” I respond. “Let me know when you are interested in paying for the content I generate, and give me a call.”

I wish I could say that conversation is atypical, but it isn’t. I suspect anyone involved in a creative pursuit of any kind, whether writing, painting, music, photography or videography, has at one point been asked to create content for others for free. Now, to be clear I will often do free work – or ‘pro bono’ as I call it – for friends by helping them with their resumes, or for local social profit organizations that simply cannot afford the services of a professional writer and need assistance. I do that work, however, as a way to give back to my community and my family of friends. I also submit work at no charge to local publications like Northword and to websites like Huffington Post Alberta, but I do so of my own free will and not because they have asked me to provide content to them for free. And for over three years I have written this blog and not earned a penny. When I am writing for organizations or publications that generate revenue and that are asking me to provide content, however, I expect to be paid, and not unreasonably so.
The concept of “exposure” is often dangled as a carrot in front of us who generate creative content. This mythical “exposure” will supposedly lead to more work, hopefully some of it eventually paid, and allow us to actually derive an income from the work we do – and it is work. But the concept of exposure is absurd as what we do as creative individuals is fundamentally no different than what someone in the trades does.

Ever asked a plumber to do work to increase his or her “exposure”? A house painter, a drywaller, anyone who does a clearly defined task? No? So why do we think it is acceptable to do this to artists, writers, photographers and others who do creative work?
The sad part is that three years ago when I began writing I probably would have snatched at that dangled carrot. I would have willingly written for them for free, not even realizing the tremendous bargain they were getting and that they were taking advantage of someone who did not yet understand the value of the work they created. The reality is if someone wants your work then it has value, and if they are asking you to create it then they know it has value.

There is no doubt in my mind that we undervalue the arts and those who pursue them. We anticipate paying tradespeople for their services, but we balk at the concept of paying those who are involved in the creative arts as if there is some difference, and yet we are all trying to make a living doing what we do. I may not be able to fix a toilet, but I can write compelling content that will attract readers. My work is of no less value than what a plumber does – and yet nobody ever suggests plumbers should work for free.
So my work won’t be appearing in that publication, at least not until they are ready to cut a check. I will continue to offer to write for free for my friends and my family and for the social profit organizations I hold dear to my heart. I will continue to submit to Northword, which is where I often bare my soul through my written words, and to Huffington Post Alberta where I write for pure fun. And I will continue to author this blog for free, because it is what I have chosen to do.

But everyone else? Well, they can pay cash, because this writer is no longer wearing a “will work for free” sign. You see, there is no such thing as a free lunch - or, in this case, a free writer.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Part of My Journey of Life in Fort McMurray

I ran into a dear friend on the weekend, someone I had not seen in some time.

"Where have you been?', they asked. "I haven't seen you, and the blog has been pretty quiet lately..."

And so I suppose it has been quiet, although there have been posts here and there, hit and miss affairs for the most part, but my mind and heart and energy has been in other places.

When things happen in my life they seem to have a tendency to happen all at once. For the past few weeks both my personal and professional life went from the usual state of "busy" to "how can one person possibly do this stuff?!?" - and the answer is by sacrificing things like doing laundry, the dishes and writing blog posts.

But today I am back, feeling renewed and energized because while the last few weeks were challenging they were also amazing in so many ways. Life is a journey, but it is one where we don't always pick the road we will follow. Sometimes the road unrolls before us, and we just travel it, one foot after another, knowing where we are headed but uncertain as to what detours life may take us through.

The last few weeks has been a series of detours, some a bit scary and some exhilarating - but the road continues to unroll before me, and I just keep travelling it, because it is the most amazing journey.

Today I want to share with you part of that journey. I have written about it often before, long before I knew how close it would eventually be to me both personally and professionally. Today though instead of words I want to share a video that was created by my talented and dear friend and colleague Layla Underwood.

I won't deny that I choked up the first time I saw it - and when I saw it this weekend on a large screen I broke into very real tears, because this is part of my life journey that I will not only never forget but that is continuing even as I write. I share this because this is one of the reasons I have been a bit quiet recently, as I have been immersed in an experience that has changed my life and that will allow me as a storyteller to tell entirely new and exciting narratives. It is a part of my journey of life in Fort McMurray.


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.