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

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.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Fort McMurray: The Five Year Plan

One of the very first pieces I ever wrote for publication was on the myth of the “Fort McMurray Five Year Plan”. It was all about how people may come to the community with an “end date” in mind, a “best before” kind of expiry date at which point they will pack up their bags and head outta Dodge – but how those plans often evolved into long-term residents who would still be here seven, ten and even twenty years later. It has actually been some time since I met a new arrival to our community who indicated they were here with a timeline in mind, a five-year plan and their departure date set. We too have evolved, becoming a place where people arrive without that end date in mind, thinking instead they will see how it goes, and for many when they find their place in the community they end up staying far, far longer than they ever thought they would.

I suppose I am an example of this. At thirteen years of residency this is now on the verge of being the longest I have ever lived anywhere, including where I grew up (Saskatoon). I lived in Saskatoon from the ages of 6-20, and those fourteen years mark my longest period of uninterrupted residency – but now I am on the brink of breaking that record right here in Fort McMurray.
The demise of the five year plan is no loss to me. This community desperately needs those who plan to come and stay for the long haul, through thick and thin, good times and bad. It needs those who are going to claim this as home, not a stopping place, because that investment in our community, both financial and emotional, is how we will build a strong community for all of us. But this week the five year plan showed itself again, and in a way I did not anticipate.

A couple of years ago I connected with a business person from another community who was looking at setting up shop in our region. They were quite excited about the prospect, looking for property, gauging the market, thinking about moving staff into the region to provide the manpower they would need – it was all very positive. I realized this week I had not heard from them in some time and so I picked up the phone and called them to see how the plans were coming along, and when we could anticipate their arrival.
I was stunned to learn they are no longer planning to come to Fort McMurray.

They shared their concerns with me, concerns about stalled developments, instability in the oil industry as evidenced by delayed projects, the uncertainty of pipelines...but most of all they indicated that they felt the mood of the region had changed. They said they no longer felt the motivation and drive they had two years ago, the desire to expand and build and develop. They had no doubt that initially their business venture would be a success, but it was not the initial success that worried them. It was the longterm success, the overall viability and the future of the people they planned to move into the community.
What was the five year plan for Fort McMurray, they asked?

My nemesis had once again raised its ugly head. The five year plan was back, but this time it was not one put into place by those coming to our community with a departure date penciled onto their calendars. This time it was potential investors in our region, those who had shown interest in becoming part of this community, dubious about our plans for the future.
I spent quite some time trying to convince them. I told them about all the great things coming, all the wonderful things happenings and sharing all the amazing positives about our community. And while they agreed that Fort McMurray is a terrific place with a great deal of potential they felt it was just not the right time for them to invest their time or money or people...and so they were looking instead at other communities and other places, where perhaps the initial success might not be quite as strong but where they felt confident in the five, ten and twenty year plan for the community.

We talked through the many reasons for their concerns. The one that bothered me most perhaps was their sense of the mood changing, of how their conversations with stakeholders that once left them brimming with confidence now left them feeling a bit shaky instead. And while this one business venture will not be the rise or fall of Fort McMurray I fear they may not be alone in their reluctance to invest in us, to contribute to building our community with their business, their resources and their people.
In the classic understated words of some astronauts who identified an issue: "Houston, we have a problem.”

Our ability to attract developers, investors and new business is crucial to our ability to succeed as a community. If we want to meet our tremendous potential we need to find a way to bolster their confidence in us, to see that we do have a plan for our community and our future. We cannot rest on the laurels of what we have accomplished and we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent, because in terms of communities complacency is deadly. I won’t pretend to have all the answers or to know the right path to address this – I simply know that someone who once was excited about investing in Fort McMurray is no longer interested, and this concerns me deeply because I fear they are not alone. I fear our current state, which sees abandoned and vacant buildings left to rot, new projects stalled out due to squabbles between different levels of government, some instability in our industry (however transient it may be) and our struggle to come to some sort of resolution on things like the development of our city centre as being sharply detrimental to our continued success as a community.
I have always hated the concept of the Fort McMurray Five Year Plan, at least in terms of a plan to leave our community after a short period of residency. This week, though, I realized that there are those who doubt we have a five year plan for our continued success and growth, and that it was hindering their ability to see their potential role in our future.

I believe in Fort McMurray, our future and our ability to develop a strong plan for it, and I know other residents of this community believe in it, too. Now we just need to find a way to make everyone believe just as we do – and to invest in Fort McMurray, far beyond a five-year plan.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Thoughts on Teachers, Fires and Education as Equality

It seems every day of the year is a day to acknowledge someone, some organization or some role. From Mother’s Day to Father’s Day, International Day of Women to all points in between, there is a day to celebrate and recognize someone. On Sunday another one of these special days occurred, but I took particular note of this one simply because of the esteem in which I hold the profession it honours: teachers.

Sunday marked World Teacher’s Day, a day to celebrate and acknowledge the educators in our world. I’ve always had tremendous respect for teachers, but perhaps at no point more than now as the Intrepid Junior Blogger winds her way through her final years of education in Fort McMurray before departing for education in parts unknown. Ever since she was a very young child she knew she would attend university (in fact I recall her being shocked at one time to discover that not everyone actually attends university). After a trip to England and Ireland she determined her plans to study overseas one day, and in the last year she finally settled on what she believes is her true calling: engineering, with a probable focus on physics. Now, never mind that my own mathematical skills and understanding of physics rank pretty low, because I knew what would really matter in her world were the educators – the teachers – who could continue to help her develop this ambition and reach it.
The Intrepid Junior Blogger has attended the Fort McMurray Public School District for her entire educational career. She has now had many, many teachers and I have been so pleased with each and every one, as they have provided her with the skills she needed – but they have done more, too. They have encouraged her development, helped her to follow her dream and challenged her. As she embarks on her final three years at Westwood in the AP program (or Advanced Placement for those kids with a passion and talent for certain areas of study and an intent to pursue them in the post-secondary world) I see her blossoming even more.

A couple of weeks ago a remarkable local program started by some Ecole McTavish Junior High School students challenged me, too. Project Cambodia is a student-driven project to support and build a school in Cambodia so students there can enjoy the educational opportunities we have in this country. As part of this initiative they have started a challenge called “Education is Equality”, asking people to talk about the educator/teacher who made a difference in their life – and for me there can only be one answer.
I have written about her before in this blog, a woman I called ‘The Tank’ during my high school days for her solid appearance and short, steel grey hair. She was my high school English teacher, a woman who tolerated no fools and who had very high expectations, at least when she thought you could meet them. I thought her marking scale, where she graded me with a far more critical eye than others, deeply unfair at the time but over the years I came to realize that she simply believed I could do more. I recall more than one essay handed back with “Try harder” scrawled on it, meaning I got to rewrite it all but far, far better. To be honest she drove me crazy with her expectations and demands, but I also know one very important fact: I am the writer I am today because of her. Her expectations, her demands and her belief in me developed a talent that may have been there all along but that needed to be exercised. It may have taken me a very long time to really use that talent, but Mrs Van den Beuken – The Tank – saw it before anyone else ever did, and to say I am grateful to her is to minimize how I feel about her role in my life.

There are many people who have an impact in our lives, but I would suggest that second to close family none have more impact than our teachers. As children and young adults we spend hours every day with them, and their influence on our lives cannot really be measured. Their ability to teach, share their passion and foster the development of our youth is something we should never underestimate – or fail to celebrate.

I end this post with the video I made for the Education is Equality challenge and my tribute to Mrs. Van den Beuken. I encourage you to visit the Project Cambodia Facebook page and learn more about this incredible student-driven initiative to make the world a better place through education. I recently heard a lovely quote about education that I will share here today, because I believe it to be absolutely true. The teacher who changed my life didn’t fill my pail – she lit a fire, one that burns brightly even today and has, quite truly, shaped my world – and I owe it all to The Tank.