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

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Houseless, But Not Homeless

It was with tremendous sadness that I read a recent blog post from a fellow blogger and a woman I have come to respect. She and I first connected over Neil Young’s visit to our community, and ever since then I have checked in on her blog to read her posts. Last night, however, her post was a heartfelt and troubled missive about the death of her nephew, a man who it turns out was the latest victim in a hit-and-run incident in this community. It also turns out it is a man I knew.

I don’t know that I ever knew his name, but I knew his face as one of the regulars you would see on the streets of Fort McMurray. Albert was someone I encountered a couple of times, a gentle soul who never asked for a thing, always had a smile and always spoke softly to me. Albertahas been described as homeless, which troubles me as while Albert did not live in a house and therefore was technically homeless he was not without a home.
You see some time ago I was at the Safeway downtown with my dog. I had gone inside and gotten some Starbucks and was sitting in the sunshine, enjoying an unexpectedly warm spring day. Two individuals walked by and commented on the dog, both of them stopping to try to get my dog, a nervous creature, to warm up to them, and both shared that they had once owned dogs, too. I realize now that one of them was Albert.

The other one, whose name I also do not know, asked if I had any change. Albert just smiled but didn’t say a thing. I said I had none – the truth as I rarely carry cash – but I offered to go inside to buy them a cold drink since the day was so warm. The one who asked for change asked then for a Pepsi, but as I recall Albert asked for a warm drink instead, hot chocolate or coffee, I don’t recall which, and I realized that despite the warm day he was shivering, likely as a result of sleeping rough outdoors the night before and never really warming up. I went inside, leaving my dog tied up beside them while they tried to convince her they were safe, and purchased their drinks. When I returned I said they didn’t have to sit with me but that I would welcome their company, and they laughed and said they guessed they could spare a couple of minutes and sat down.
We talked a bit about their lives, although it was Albert’s companion who spoke the most. I asked them little but as has often happened when I have spent time with homeless individuals in this community they told me a great deal, from where they came from to where they spent their nights on the street. They were telling the stories of their lives, and I was content to listen, although Albert looked on occasion to be nodding off as the warm drink finally began to warm him and he sat in the sunshine.

Finally I asked the question I have often asked homeless individuals in our community. I asked why they stayed in Fort McMurray. This is a harsh place to experience homelessness, with our frigid winters that last forever. There are far easier places to be homeless, places without six foot snowbanks and -35 degree temperatures that can last for weeks.
The lovely thing about the vast majority of the homeless people I have encountered is their honesty. It is so refreshing to be told you have asked a stupid question, as often as soon as it has left my lips I know it is stupid. This time, though, Albert’s companion didn’t tell me my question was stupid. He asked me why I stayed here.

I replied, “Because this is my home.”
Albert’s companion laughed and said “Ours too!”, and Albert nodded, smiling in agreement.

That was the last time I spoke to Albert, although I saw him since then walking on our streets. I didn’t think much more about that conversation until last night when I learned his name and the nature of his death.
You see I am troubled by describing Albert as homeless because I fear it will somehow diminish him in the eyes of those who hear this story. I fear he will be considered someone who, because he didn’t have a home, didn’t have a community or neighbours, people who cared for him and who will miss him now that he is gone. He was a treasured and valued resident of this community despite his lack of a house. Albert’s community was his homeless friends and the people who encountered him every day, enjoying that gentle smile and soul. Albert might have been without a home but he was not homeless – his home was Fort McMurray, and I am so very, very sorry that he is now gone from it.

I extend my deepest condolences to Albert's family and friends. I am so very angry at the callous nature of the person who struck him down and did not even stop to check on his welfare, but that anger will be held in check for another day as I will not sully Albert's memory with it today. Today is just a day to remember Albert, who called Fort McMurray home.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Many Sides to Every Story

I will post a link to this story without much commentary except to say that I have always believed one thing: there isn't just one side to any story, or even two. There are instead as many stories as there are individuals involved, as every story has perspectives that will differ dependent on the participant.

I was pleased to see this story as I believe every side of the story deserves to be told, and one of the main principals in this one has now told his. It seems he did what many of us have done - negotiated an employment contract - and he secured a generous offer by any standards. Now, some may say it was entirely too generous, and perhaps that is true but I would very much like to meet the person who rejected a job offer as too generous and asked for less salary, fewer benefits or less options for continuing education (for the record I haven't met anyone who has done this, ever). I recognize the controversy the revelation of his employment contract caused, but I think it is of value to hear his side as I think the only way to get a glimpse of the whole picture of any situation is to hear as many sides as possible.

One thing that deeply troubled me in this story was the comment regarding the work of Sacred Mark as creating gifts that one would give as a joke at bachelor parties. Fair trade organizations such as this are far from jokes and work very hard to assist those in the developing world to improve their lives. I support many fair trade initiatives and often purchase items to give as gifts to family and friends, and none of them have been "joke gifts" but rather gifts given to both please the recipient and to help others, an attempt to magnify the positive effects of a gift. I would encourage my readers to check out Sacred Mark for themselves.

Finally, I would suggest reading this story with an open mind. It isn't the first story to come out during this episode of life in our community, and it won't be the last. I think it is vital to read every story - to hear every perspective - with that open mind because a closed mind doesn't do anything but blind us to the other sides of the story - and every story has far, far more than one side.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Who Is Wood Buffalo's Best Citizen?

When I received the email indicating that I had been chosen for some honours in Connect Weekly’s annual Best of Wood Buffalo awards I was deeply touched. To be named Best Local Blogger was truly an honour, and as always I am so appreciative of those who not only read this blog but think enough of what I do to pencil in my name when asked who they thought was best in the local blogging biz (although I would note there are several other local bloggers who are amazing and I am proud to call many of them my friends). I was also touched to be named Local Must Follow on Twitter, although I suspect 1/3 of the people who currently follow me on Twitter are there for shoe pictures, another 1/3 to keep up to date on the antics of the Intrepid Junior Blogger and the family zoo, and 1/3 in the hopes that I will be enmeshed in some sort of melodramatic kerfuffle about tractors or the like. These two accolades are genuine honours for me, but it was the last one that truly got to me. You see, I was named Best Citizen, tied in votes with our lovely Mayor Melissa Blake and our longest serving councillor Phil Meagher – and all I can say is that people, you have it all wrong on this one.

In case someone thinks this is some sort of false modesty and that I am over here preening myself over this Best Citizen business I want to be very clear: While I am deeply touched that people would think I am the “Best Citizen” I also know nothing could be further from the truth. I am not the Best Citizen, not even close – I am just a citizen with a name that people know.
I know so many people in this community who are the best citizens – and yet I don’t even know their names in many cases. The nurses at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre who saw me through my recent health crisis, gently placing IVs knowing that I was anxious and afraid? Best citizens. The folks at Starbucks in Stone Creek Village who greet me every morning with a smile and make my coffee? Best citizens. The many people in our service industry who deliver my pizzas, who make my restaurant meals, who sell me dresses and shoes and do so with great customer service and a smile? Best citizens. The people who run our social profit organizations and work in them at every level, meeting the needs of those who need their help? Best citizens. The moms and dads who are raising our next generation of leaders, who I see out at parks, on the trails and at events with their little ones, bringing them up with love and compassion? Best citizens. The people who touch my life every day in every way in ways both large and small, making my world a better place? Best citizens.

You, reading this blog? You are likely the best citizen in this region in some way because in some way you contribute to making it a better place. Maybe you volunteer or maybe you do your job with a smile or maybe you just love this place we call home and do something to make it better. You are the best citizen, not me. I am just a citizen who has done some things because she loves this place and who happens to have a name a few people know, that’s all.
I believe being part of a community means one very important thing: you have a responsibility to contribute to it. The contribution can be large or small. It can be as simple as keeping a beautiful yard, mowing your neighbour’s lawn or picking up random pieces of litter. Each and every one of those contributions has tremendous value because no one person (or three people as the Best Citizen award reflected) can dictate the nature of the community. Every single person in a community is part of the development of the nature of a community. Every single person has a role to play, and contributes to making it a better, or worse, place.

So, here it is, people. I am not the Best Citizen in Wood Buffalo. You are. You are the one who makes this the place I want to call home. You are the one who inspires me to do what I do. You are the one who makes me want to share the story of the strength of our community, to write about our incredible home, to defend it when it is under attack and to promote it as a place that is far, far more than oil. You are the best citizen in Wood Buffalo, each and every one of you.
To those who typed in my name for Best Local Blogger, Must Follow on Twitter and Best Citizen – thank you. I am genuinely touched and honoured, and not ashamed to admit that when I received notice of these honours I cried because the news came at a very low point for me when I was struggling with a serious health crisis and feeling quite defeated. I am humbled by your kindness, and I am truly grateful. Most of all, though, I am overwhelmed as my life is far, far from what I ever thought it would be and in the last three years has become far happier and far more satisfying than I ever thought possible. And it’s all because of Wood Buffalo’s Best Citizen – you.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Reflections on Highway 63 and Social Media

There is no doubt that I love social media, and much of my personal and professional life revolves around a world of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the other social media applications that fill my laptop and cell phone on a daily basis. There are times, though, when I wonder if social media has affected us in such a way that we have become increasingly disconnected with the others in our world, and if it has, in fact, fostered a much closer relationship with our ghoulish and less compassionate side. A story in the Fort McMurray Today may be an indication of the development of that relationship with our darker side.

The recent tragic collision on Highway 63 left one person dead, another casualty in a string of senseless tragedies to occur on that road. I have a love/hate relationship with that highway, both loving the connection it brings us to the outside world and hating the high cost it has wreaked on our community as more and more individuals see their lives end far earlier than they should. This relationship with the highway surfaces with the news of every collision, and with every new death my relationship with this ribbon of road becomes more and more complicated. During this last incident, though, the RCMP and others attending the scene noted some worrisome behaviour from the drivers passing the mangled wreckage.
The drivers of these other vehicles were taking photographs and videos of the collision scene – while driving.

Now, distracted driving is illegal in this province, and for good reason. The audacity and lack of common sense displayed by these drivers is almost beyond comprehension, as they had just spent a good deal of time held up due to a fatal collision, and then they engaged in a behaviour that could easily lead to similar end results. I think it goes deeper and worse, though, as many of these drivers probably suspected a fatality, but instead of driving by quietly and reflecting on the life lost instead they decided to take a photo, like a tourist at a roadside attraction.
I wonder if these same people would take photographs and videos in an ICU where someone has just died. Would they do it if this was the death scene of a member of their family, a spouse or child or other loved one? Are we truly so disconnected and lacking in compassion that the scene where someone has died in a tragic way becomes nothing more than a photograph snapped so we can share it on our Facebook pages?

I don’t entirely blame social media. This sort of fascination existed even before the advent of Twitter and Facebook, but social media has made it so much easier for all of us to forget that these are scenes where someone has died and instead see them as just another photograph for our Mobile Upload album. We forget that someday it could be the scene where someone we love has died, and how it would feel to know that at least ten people drove by snapping photos and videos of the place where they lost their life.
The RCMP have not only charged the drivers in this incident but ensured that the drivers will have a mandatory court date where they will get to explain their actions to a judge. They will have to face their peers and explain why they felt such photos and videos were necessary, putting themselves and others into the same kind of peril that was just witnessed on that highway. They may not have reflected on their actions at the scene of the collision, but perhaps they will reflect on them now.

I have never taken a photograph of the scene of a collision. I suspect in the past I have shared them, though, and I find myself reflecting on that and finding myself determined that I will not share them again, both out of respect for the deceased, the family and friends of the deceased, the professionals who responded to the incident and a desire to not encourage the kind of behaviour that will find ten drivers facing a judge. I didn’t personally see the aftermath of the recent collision on Highway 63, but I have found myself reflecting on my love/hate relationship with that highway and social media. I have found myself reflecting on my own responsibility as a driver and a human being that aspires to display true and genuine compassion. It seems the drivers who drove past the scene of a terrible collision and decided to snap a few photos aren’t the only ones in need of some reflection on their actions. Maybe that reflection is something we all need.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Inspired in Fort McMurray - Girls Inc. of Northern Alberta

There have been times in the journey of this blog over the last three years when I have been deeply humbled. This happened again this week when it was announced that I was a nominee for the Girls Inc. of NorthernAlberta Women of Inspiration series presented by Syncrude.

I am extremely fortunate to count some of the previous Women of Inspiration as my friends and in some cases my inspiration. It is a bit overwhelming to be included in a group of women I hold in such high regard, and who have done amazing things in our community. I am admittedly proud to be counted among them, and I am unashamed in that pride as I think being proud of what we do or accomplish is not something of which to be ashamed.
I am a huge fan of Girls Inc. as their mission is to encourage young women to be smart, bold and strong. These qualities are ones I hope all people aspire to, but I suppose given the fact that I am a woman and the mother of a daughter I am even more passionate about ensuring young women embrace those qualities.

Being smart, bold and strong will not make the world a perfect place. It will still be a place of challenges and difficult times, but those qualities prepare us to face those moments and to meet them with a mixture of intelligence, strength and courage that allows us to conquer them. Being smart, bold and strong is not necessarily something we are born with, though – we need to have those around us to encourage it, to foster our development as individuals and as human beings. We need to learn those qualities and how to use them – and through their programs and advocacy work Girls Inc of Northern Alberta does exactly that.
I happen to live with a smart, bold and strong young woman. She is intensely opinionated, and she is brave in a way that at times even startles me. She is not perfect (much like her mother) but she inspires me every single day to be a better person, to work harder, to strive for excellence in what I do and to be honest and true to myself in the same way I want her to be honest and true to herself. And the reality is that it isn’t always easy, not for either of us.

Not everyone appreciates strength, intelligence and boldness in women. There are those who find it intimidating and who are threatened by it. I fear that someday my daughter may encounter the same kind of people that have always tried to silence strong, smart and bold women – the kind that every smart, strong and bold woman I know has encountered in their life. But what I want her to know is that there is a group of women who stand behind her and with her, and with all the young women of this world. There is a group of women who will defend the right to be strong, smart and bold, who derive their inspiration from each other and from the young women of this world who are developing their own strength, courage and intelligence. The Women of Inspiration are a just a few of those women, a collective of those who want to encourage other women of all ages to embrace their own strength, courage and intelligence and to share it with the world – even when it seems some in the world want to quell it.
I don’t feel like I am a woman of inspiration, to be honest. I feel as if I am a woman who is inspired by all the women around me who do so many incredible things, the ones who are captains of our industry, who run our social profit organizations, who advocate for causes large and small, who find the courage to deal with the challenges, the intelligence to navigate tricky waters and the strength to forge on building our community every single day.

I am honoured to be a Woman of Inspiration. I am grateful to Girls Inc of Northern Alberta and those who saw fit to nominate me for this honour. I am however perhaps even more grateful to all those, especially the women, who have supported my daughter and I in this community and helped us to achieve our goals and dreams. As a Woman of Inspiration if I am able to inspire just one person – maybe even my own daughter – to strive to be a strong, smart and bold woman then I have accomplished something of which I am deeply proud. Part of being strong, smart and bold is recognizing that it is okay to be proud of yourself at the same time you feel humbled – and today I feel both of those things, and am so happy to be able to share them with you.

Monday, July 21, 2014

When Bad Things Happen in Good Places

Sometimes bad things happen, even in good places. Fort McMurray is no different in this regard, and I have often written about some of the things that have happened here that sadden me. This weekend, though, I heard a story which angered me as well, because what makes it even worse in my mind is when bad things happen to visitors to our community.

Serben Free Range is a 4th-generation old-style free-range family farm. As many in the community know this farm, located near Smoky Lake, has been making the trek up to Fort McMurray for some time to sell their meat products to the people of this community. Now, Serben farms the old-fashioned way, the way my father always farmed and insisted was the right way - small scale, no antibiotics, no growth hormones, no feed additives - none of the nonsense which has come to dominate the world of factory farming. This isn't some corporate farm but rather the Serben family farm, a farm developed through four generations of knowledge, expertise, experience and, I would venture, love.

Recently Serben Free Range has been in the community to participate in the Urban Market downtown. My understanding is that there is significant cost for them to make the journey here, and on some trips their only goal is to break even and not lose money. Why do they come here? Well, to present this community with the opportunity to enjoy farm products that don't come from a grocery store, sealed in plastic and with a questionable history. They come here because there is a demand for the goods they produce, and so they make the lengthy trek north in order to serve the needs of this community.

I follow Serben Free Range on Twitter and Instragram. As the daughter of a farmer I love seeing a little slice of their life, family farming at its finest and a continuation of a profession and lifestyle I honour as part of my legacy. While I still co-own the family farm it is now leased to someone else and in some ways my connection to the land has been broken as my father, due to injury, had to give up farming when I was a young child and I grew up urban instead. But I still feel that bond with farmers as so much of my extended family still farms, and I still feel it every time I visit the farm I own with my sisters and stand on the land my father once tilled decades ago.

This weekend, though, I was deeply disheartened to learn that when the Serben family was in Fort McMurray at the last Urban Market they were the victims of theft. Their money from the market was stolen during their time in our community, and besides feeling outraged for them I felt deeply saddened that our community would treat a guest in such a way. And the Serben family are guests here, deeply welcome ones who we appreciate and recognize for their commitment to bringing to us something we would otherwise not be able to enjoy. I suppose for me it's not even about the produce they bring but the connection they make me feel every time I see them tweet or share a photo about happenings at the farm. They remind me of that connection, one with people who are honest and pure and good. They remind me, I suppose, of my dad.

On July 30 at the next Urban Market I intend to show my gratitude to Serben Free Range for their continued commitment to our community, even when some individuals in our community may be less than stellar examples of the true nature of who we are. I intend to show up and buy some of their products, and I would encourage everyone who has some connection to the land (and for the record that would be all of us since we all eat) and who wish to show them the true nature of this community do the same.

Sometimes bad things happen in good places, and Fort McMurray is a good place where, on occasion, bad things happen. But the most remarkable thing about this community is our ability to take something bad and turn it around, salvaging what has gone wrong and making it right again. We can't erase the experience the Serben family had in our community - but we can certainly show them the Fort McMurray love and let them know that the actions of one person do not and will not define our community. We can ensure they see our gratitude and our appreciation for what they do, and we can show them the real "big spirit" of our community. We can come out to the next Urban Market and support their business, their livelihood and their commitment to this community.

I think it's the least we can do when bad things happen in a good place, really.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Connecting to the World through the Art of Zhen Shan Ren (Truth, Compassion, Tolerance)

I stand there in silence, a deep unease filling me somewhere around my chest. I have just walked out of my office and found the painting directly across from my doorway, and the eyes of the young woman depicted stop me in my tracks. I cannot look away, but it is not because of the amazing quality of the piece (and the quality is amazing). It is because the piece has caught a piece of my soul in some way, and in that instant I feel a connection to it that I don't quite understand and will take some time to figure out. It is my first encounter with the art work of a new exhibition at the MacDonald Island Community Art Gallery.

As part of my role with the Regional Recreation Corporation I have begun to act as MC for the opening receptions at the art gallery housed in the hallway just outside my office door. I have been pleased to MC these events as I have met a wide and wonderful variety of artists and art patrons and had the opportunity to enjoy some incredible exhibitions of various types and themes. The new exhibition, The Art of Zhen Shan Ren International Exhibition, has come a very long way to Fort McMurray as it is mostly comprised of works by Chinese artists, and it centres on Falun Gong, a meditative practice outlawed in China in 1999.

The coincidence in my world is that when we were in Toronto recently the Intrepid Junior Blogger and I were hanging out at Nathan Phillips Square when an Asian man approached us. Middle aged and eloquent, he asked if we knew anything about Falun Gong, and when we replied we did not he spent some time with us explaining the practice, the meaning it has for practitioners and what has happened since it was banned in China in 1999. He explained he was a practitioner of Falun Gong, and that when the practice was banned he was subjected to daily threats and intimidation. He was told he would lose his house, his job and his family. As other practitioners began to disappear never to return he realized his life was in danger, and his choice was to either denounce Falun Gong or leave China forever. Fortunately he had the option to leave and so he did, coming to Canada where he could live a life free from such intimidation and fear and educate others about Falun Gong. It was an intense conversation, and the IJB was just as intrigued and alarmed as I, particularly when he shared the details of the shadowy harvesting of human organs in China, many of which seemed to be coming from prisoners who were members of the Falun Gong.

When we left the park the IJB, who is both a natural and trained skeptic, turned to me and asked if I thought what he said was true - could he be making it all up? I said I didn't know for certain, but that I knew I believed in both our capacity as humans to do tremendous good and tremendous evil - and so we went back to the hotel and we read about Falun Gong, learning the many truths of the stories he told us that day.

What a coincidence, then, that arriving back at work I found a note asking me to MC an opening reception for an international art exhibition depicting both the practice of Falun Gong - and the suffering of those who have been persecuted since 1999 by a government hell bent on total control of its citizens, including what they think and believe.

This is not an "easy" exhibition. Yesterday I walked through it in its entirety, marvelling at the beautiful works of art and the stunning quality of the paintings, enlightened by the ones showing the meditative practice - and heartsick at the ones depicting the persecution and sorrow of the devout practitioners who have been imprisoned, tortured and even executed for their beliefs. I kept reflecting on how complacent we are in Canada, how comfortable we are in our freedom of belief and expression, knowing that we can choose to believe and not lose our jobs, our homes, our children or our lives. By the time I reached the end of the paintings I had to go sit in my office for awhile just off that hallway in solitude as I needed some time to compose myself before continuing with my day. The impact was powerful and deep and combined with the conversation I had in Toronto brought home the real human cost of events in a country far, far away but to people who are in every important aspect just like me.

Today at 2 pm I will have the honour of acting as MC for this exhibition. The opening reception is free to attend and there will be members of the Falun Art Organization present, individuals who can explain Falun Gong and help others understand both the practice and the consequences practitioners who have refused to denounce it since 1999 have endured. This is much more than an art exhibition, you see, as it is an opportunity to learn more about the challenges others in our world face. It is a chance to stand in solidarity with those who are simply asking to be allowed freedom of belief and expression and who are seeing that request denied in the most horrendous ways.

The Art of Zhen Shan Ren (Truth, Compassion, Tolerance) International Exhibition is an absolute Fort McMurray do not miss event. I would advise some degree of caution as the works can be powerful, particularly for those who find artworks emotional. The paintings are beautiful, intricate in every way and lovely - but it is the story being told where the true beauty, and pain, lies. Art isn't always about pretty pictures, you see. Art can be about learning, about understanding the world and even about challenging yourself to put yourself into the shoes of another person, to see the world from their perspective and see both their joy and their suffering.

It was very late Thursday night when I realized why the painting I had seen earlier that day had stopped me so completely. I was raised Roman Catholic, and one of the strongest images in that faith is the crucifixion, the classic pose with Christ on the cross, head slightly lifted. Once I connected the two, those many, many images of crucifixion in my head and the painting, I knew why it had such a deep impact on me. The painting had tapped into a deep emotional reserve inside me, one forged decades ago.

Go see the Art of Zhen Shan Ren. Go see it knowing you may be deeply impacted, go see it and learn more about Falun Gong, go see it and understand how fortunate we are in this country. Go see it and know that at some point you may find your eyes filled with tears, just as mine did late Thursday night when the connection was finally made in my head and the pieces came together as I thought about a middle aged man in a park in Toronto who had escaped persecution and the many others who never would. Sometimes art can even make you cry - and maybe that is exactly why art connects us on every level even when our nationalities and our country borders divide us. Maybe in the end that is truly what art is meant to do.