Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

McMurray Musings - A Blogging Year in Review

Yes, it's December 31st, which means it must be the time for year-end reviews, countdown lists, and those dreary "who died this past year" TV segments (those are very cheerful, I find). I may not be a resolutions person but I rather like those retrospective year-end reviews. You always see something you'd sort of forgotten about as so much happens in the course of a year, and it all sort of melds together in your mind. It's certainly been an eventful year for me, and in preparation for this post I went back and scrolled through all my previous blog posts (and even though I wrote the damn things 194 of them was still a chore to go through in one afternoon). I discovered something, though. I remembered every single one. I hadn't forgotten a thing about this year in Fort McMurray.

I began writing this blog on April 9th. So, in some sense, my 2011, at least in terms of this blog, began there. That might seem like a long time ago but the time has gone so fast since then that it seems like yesterday. I began it thinking this would be a quiet little blog that a couple dozen people would read, no one would care about, I could remain anonymous, and life would remain as it always had been. I was quite utterly and entirely wrong, and I've never been so happy to be so wrong. I still think it's a pretty quiet little blog, and that it's pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things - but what it became is a personal adventure of life in Fort McMurray. It became the backdrop to my existence in this community, and it opened doors that I didn't even know were there.

The blog started out slow - I wrote about names and ravens,  taxis and Tim Horton's line-ups, weather and "Steve from site" videos. I suppose when it truly began to pick up is when I attended my first-ever press conference - the one that announced KISS coming to the Canada Rocks Festival. That was my first inkling, too, that the game was changing in Fort Mac. Something big was happening in this community, and I was witnessing it. I had a front-row seat if I wanted it and was willing to work for it - and I wanted it.

I attended a lot of press conferences this year, announcing things like KISS, the successful bids to host the 2015 Western Canada Summer Games, the 2013 Canadian Junior Curling Championships, Don Scott's run at nomination for the provincial PC party, the intent to seek a professional baseball team, and the move of the WBPCN to the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre. I sat in a lot of press conference seats, ate a lot of press conference food (thanks, guys!), and heard a lot of excitement going on. I kept getting the sense of something building in the region - something very, very big.

I also attended a lot of grand openings - Ecole McTavish Junior High School, and Holy Trinity High School. The grand opening of the Suncor Centre of the Performing Arts at Holy Trinity was a special event in my mind, blending an incredible school with a fabulous theatre with an exciting community.

I went to a lot of trade shows, like the Fall Trade Show and the Spring Trade show and even the Oil Sands Trade Show, which was an entirely different experience for me and showed me that I will never fully understand valves, crane lifts, or almost anything mechanical (although those nice people really did try, bless their hearts).

I heard a lot of speeches this year. I heard Mayor Blake give the annual "State of the Region" address (she will forever be my favourite public speaker, I think), I heard Tim Reid of MacDonald Island deliver the "State of the Island" address (I think my favourite speech this year - the numbers contained in it keep popping up in my mind), and I had the honour to hear our new premier Alison Redford deliver her speech in which she called us not a boomtown, but a hometown (a comment that has become very close to my heart). I discovered that a good speech accompanied with a good meal and/or good party makes for a pretty great night.

I wrote about some troubling things, too, like the Richardson wildfire, the Penhorwood condos, the dispute on Draper Road, a local pyramid scheme (even got a vaguely threatening email over that one), and the murder of two twin brothers in Borealis Park. Those stories, particularly the last one, haunt me still. I still on occasion find myself parked in front of the impromptu memorial tree at Borealis Park, and I just sit there and think about our community. That murder affected me profoundly despite not knowing the boys or their families - it made me realize how fragile the fabric of community can be. And it made me want to fight to mend those rips in the soft fabric, and to protect it as best I could. It changed me in ways I did not expect, and which I carry with me even now.

I wrote about sports, and about the people who find their niche in them, like motocross and roller derby. I'll never be the person racing a motocross bike around that track or wearing one of those roller derby helmets but I witnessed communities within our larger community, and it inspired me. It made me want to learn even more about those who form these kinds of groups, whatever the group is. I also learned that I truly know nothing about sports, which I suppose I'd always known but it was a good reminder thatI needed to learn more.

In fact I kept discovering how little I know and how much I need to learn, like when I spent time at the Food Bank and the Centre of Hope. I went to events like Homeless Connect, Take Back the Night, the 2011 Relay for Life, the KD Gala, the Remembrance Day Memorial Ceremony, and the Portraits of Honour Tour - and I found my heart. I also found a lot of tears at those events, often sitting in my car and crying as I tried to compose myself enough to drive home. I discovered a depth and complexity to the world that I suppose I always knew existed, but that suddenly was more real than ever before.

Balancing those tears were the parties I attended, and I went to some of the best. I went to the magnificent Keyano Gala, almost as if I was Cinderella at the ball (and having the best evening of my life). I went to the Festival of Trees Gala, the SMS Wine Auction, the Community Leaders Reception, the RCMP Regimental Ball, and the Premier's Dinner (and I have even had the chance to speak twice to our new premier and discover she remembers me - how amazing is that?).

I went to events at local schools, like Knight Lights at Holy Trinity and the Drama Showcase at Ecole McTavish (those on the same evening, making me thankful for their close proximity so I could attend both!). I was at Father Mercredi on delivery day for Santa's Anonymous, and it's a day I'll never forget, either. The image of all those frozen turkeys outside the gym is burned into my mind, I think.

I went to some concerts, too, like Down With Webster (who I will see when they return in February to MacDonald Island - I might just be their oldest fan and have been known to play "Back of My Hand" at full volume in my car). I not only attended the SummersEnd concerts I had the distinct honour to work backstage at them, and my day spent driving George Canyon and his band and crew will forever be one of my favourite days (I'd do anything for George, people, he's a stellar human being). I made new friends, too, like Ryan Laird and his guys (especially his musician who arrived on a delayed flight, who I broke land speed records to deliver for the show, and who said he'd always remember me because his mom and I share the same first name - aw!).

I wrote about a lot of places in our community, like Coco Jo's (also known as "my office"), the Fort McMurray Public Library, Campbell's Music, MacDonald Island Park, Frames and More, The Centre of Hope, the Fort McMurray Food Bank, Nisa Collection...and learned that each of them touched me, but for different reasons. Some because they are so integral to my life, like Mac Island, and some because they are so central to my heart, like the Centre of Hope. I discovered a story in each and every place and it made me look at every single business, organization, and non-profit with new eyes - because I knew every one had a story, and some had dozens of stories in them. And I wanted to hear them, all of them. I became very, very hungry for stories, not just to write about but to hear for myself.

I went to all the usual events but with new intensity, things like Summer Solstice and the Fire Fighters' Pancake Breakfast and Heritage Day at Heritage Park, and spending all three days (plus some) at interPLAY. I went to the first-ever interPLAY Film Festival and the inaugural Halloween "Film Fear" event, put on by my new friends at the YMMPodcast.

And that brings me to the very best part of 2011. New friends. I wrote about a lot of people, too, like chef Ken Bowie, make-up artist Hina Khawar, fibre artist Michelle Boyd, comedian Shaun Majumder, former Events Wood Buffalo director Claude Giroux, artist Megan Storrar, and Mayor Melissa Blake. I found after writing about them that I considered them friends, and was honoured to discover that they felt the same way. I made even more friends, though, ones I didn't write about but that came to my life through events I wrote about. I made friends that range from city councillors to those who sleep rough on our streets, from people who work in our non-profits to those who volunteer to those who write to those who publish magazines like NorthWord and McMurray Girl and SNAP Wood Buffalo to those who run jewelry companies like Frost by Mucharata to those who hold house concerts to those who run Events Wood Buffalo to those who run YMMPodcast to RCMP officers to local radio personalities to those who work in media and communications...and it just goes on and on and on. My life is forever enriched by all these new people. I don't know if I've ever felt so close to a community in all my years on this planet - and it's because of all these people who have welcomed me, embraced me, issued invitations, and made me feel a part of their world, too.

Finally, 2011 was pretty incredible for me personally as a result of this blog. Not only did I meet all these new people and attend all these great events and get all these amazing opportunities I even stepped outside my comfort zone. I did a radio interview with Nolan Haukeness, recorded not one but two podcasts with my favourite podcasters at YMMPodcast, did a stint as a guest blogger for super-hot Edmonton website Kikki Planet - and even did a CBC radio interview with Kathleen Smith from Kikki Planet to talk about all things Fort McMurray, Edmonton, and neighbour relations. Not too shabby for a woman who finds microphones terrifying and public speaking nauseating. And, in something that tops all of those things, I was asked to be a judge at the Santa Claus Parade, and while that may seem like no big deal to some it's huge to me as I've attended that parade every year for a decade. To be asked to serve as a judge was a huge honour for me, and it said something to me, too.

It said that I was making a difference, and it was being noticed. I want to be very clear here - I think that what I do, in the grand scheme of things in this community, is tiny and insignificant. Compared to what others do to improve life in this community I do NOTHING - I just observe and write. But to be asked to serve as a parade judge in the community I hold dear - to be asked to serve at an event which I have attended every year with my daughter - was an incredible honour, and one I will never forget. What it said to me is that even the little tiny bit I do here has an impact - and it made me wonder about how we can all have an impact, how we can all contribute and enrich the fabric of this community. It made me think about how we can all bring our skills to it - whether we are writers or artists or athletes or politicians or fundraisers or moms or dads or kids - and add to this community in positive ways. Perhaps that's what I learned most in 2011, people.

So, 2012. I'm pretty damn excited, Fort Mac. A provincial election looms, and I've declared where I stand on that (I've got my seat on the Don Scott bus!). I'm looking forward to new events from Events Wood Buffalo under the direction of new executive director (and friend) David Whitelock, who I think brings an exciting new perspective to the position. I'm excited about upcoming conferences, and about some of my favourite city developments, the Municipal Development Plan and the City Centre Action Plan. I can't wait to watch as MacDonald Island Park expands, and our airport undergoes massive renovations. I'm looking forward to new collaborations with YMMPodcast. I'm excited about talking to and writing more about our local non-profit organizations, and sharing their stories with the world. And I suppose I'm most excited about all the new people I will meet along the way. I keep coming back to the people, because that's what makes this community what it is. It's not the buildings, or the government. It's not industry or the schools. It's the people in all those buildings, who run the government and work in the industry and study in the schools. The people in this community are what I care about, what make me want to get up in the morning, go out there, do interviews, attend events, take photos, and then write. It's all of you, Fort Mac. So, 2012. I not only hope to "see" you there - I hope to "meet" you there, people. It's going to be an incredible year - and I'm delighted to have a front seat to it all.

I want to take this opportunity to wish
EVERYONE a very Happy New Year!
Thank you for reading in 2011, thank you
for your kind words and encouragement - and
thanks most of all for your friendship.

Friday, December 30, 2011

McMurray Musings' Resolution for 2012

I admit it. I am NOT a "New Year's resolution" person. I suppose it's because I see these kind of things, special days like January 1, as arbitrary dates. I don't see that attaching "resolutions" to them make them any more likely to be kept. I see it every year at my gym - after January 1 there is a sudden influx of New Year's resolution makers who show up every day for a week. Then it's every three days. By February they've disappeared entirely, until January 2nd of the following year. I suppose that's why I'm so skeptical of resolutions - because no one ever really intends to keep them.

This year is a bit different for me in many regards. I look back over 2011 and am slightly stunned at what I have learned. I didn't realize when I began this year how little I knew, and how little I had truly experienced of the world around me. I discovered a depth and complexity to life in Fort Mac that I hadn't even known existed. I made dozens of new friends, some of whom have become so very dear to me. And, most importantly, I found some things I am passionate about, things like community and the Centre of Hope and the Food Bank. And that's where the resolution began to creep in.

I didn't even see it coming, so apparently these resolutions are sneaky little things. It didn't announce itself, it just quietly formed at the back of my mind and then slowly moved into the front. What did it say? It said "You can do more".

I wasn't sure what it meant at first, but it didn't mean I could do more in terms of buying shoes or going to the gym. It meant I could do more about those things I am passionate about. It meant I could continue to write about them - but I could also put my time into them, time spent volunteering and helping in whatever way I can. That sneaky resolution knew right where to catch me, and it did.

So, my personal resolution for 2012? I'm not going to lose weight or join a gym or spend less or eat locally or grow my own food or start composting with worms. I'm going to listen to my heart and I'm going to volunteer my services and time with whatever group inspires me, captivates me - and will have me. I'm going to start to give back to a community that has given me so very much, particularly in this past year. And I'm going to do it not to write about it, or to convince anyone else to do it, or even for the groups I will volunteer with. I'm doing it quite selfishly for myself, for that feeling I get every time I am close to something I feel passionate about. I'm greedy about that feeling, and I want it more. So this resolution might think it is about doing something for others, but it's just as much about doing something for myself. This resolution might be sneaky, but us bloggers are much sneakier types. I might have made a resolution, but what my resolution doesn't know is that I'd already decided long ago that I needed to do this. It just happens to be starting at the same time as we begin a new year - and 2012 awaits, people. I will see you there, Fort Mac!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

To Serve and Protect

I suppose the title of this post is one people typically associate with police officers. Actually, it was said to me by a police officer once, after I'd been telling him about upcoming events I planned to attend for this blog. He expressed some concern about the possibility of burn-out, and jokingly said that the phrase "to serve and protect" wasn't meant to apply to bloggers - but I think I disagree. I think, in fact, that it applies to all of us.

I don't mean we all need to act as police officers. I mean that we, as citizens of our community, have some responsibilities. I mean that we all have a requirement to serve - to serve others in our community, and to serve our community. I mean that we all have a requirement to protect that same community, too.

This service and protection doesn't need to be a big deal. It doesn't need to be something we declare, or something we even talk about. In fact the people I've met in Fort Mac who do the most "serving and protecting" are the ones who talk about it least. They are the ones who volunteer for our local non-profit groups, from serving on the boards right to serving on the very front lines. They are the ones quick to take action to protect our community, whether it's by watching out for local children or writing letters to misguided media outlets. They are the ones shovelling the neighbour's sidewalk, and practicing random acts of kindness (like buying coffee for the person behind them in line). They are the ones working to improve the community in whatever way they can, often without pay or recognition. There are many aspects to serving and protecting - and we seem to have a lot of residents committed to all of them.

When we fail to serve and protect our community we begin to see rips and tears in the fabric. We begin to see troubling signs of people falling through the cracks, and we begin to see a community in distress. This can be even more worrisome in a city that is rapidly growing as the needs for service and protection grow quickly too, and can outpace those who can meet that need. There is something funny about Fort Mac, though. It seems whenever there is a need there is a rally to meet it. Someone, somewhere rises to meet the challenge, and inspires others. I've seen this again and again in this city, and this says something to me.

What this says to me is that this need to serve and protect is not just something I alone have recognized. I suspect not many others would necessarily voice it this way, they would just say they are doing what needs to be done - and they are. I would say, though, that they are fulfilling one of the greatest possible roles anyone can have in a community. They are providing service and protection, without ever having taken an oath to do so, and without ever giving it a second thought. And perhaps that's what makes it so special, too. Just like those police officers who serve and protect, often without even thinking about what they do and how incredible it is, our residents do the same thing. They may not see it as special, but I do. Frankly, I'm in awe of all of them, every single one. Just maybe that's what is really so special about this community, too. We have so many spectacular people in it, people who "just do what needs to be done", and who don't even realize how amazing they are.  You know, it's a lot like this community. It's amazing, too - and I don't think it even realizes it.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Fort McMurray, Family, and Tradition

There are times I write this blog and I am not sure if I am blurring the line between my private life here and that which is a bit more "public". I have written a great deal about things I do here, from galas to dinners, interviews with local people and time spent with non-profit organizations. Today I decided to share something a bit more personal - a bit closer to my life here, but something still unique to my life in Fort McMurray. It revolves around a Christmas tradition we began shortly after moving here 10 years ago, and something we have done every year since. We call it "Christmas for the birds".

When we arrived in Fort Mac my daughter was only 2. That's about the time you start practicing those traditions you hope will stick, and we had several Christmas traditions already, ones handed down to us from our parents and grandparents. I wanted to create a special one just for our family, though, and our close proximity to the forest in Fort Mac made coming up with something quite easy. I decided that every year we would share our Christmas with our feathered friends, and thus the idea of apple bird feeders was born.

The idea is simple - cored apples, coated in peanut butter, dipped in bird seed, and then strung on twine. To keep them from being too messy to handle I freeze them, and then on December 24th or 25th, depending on schedule and temperature, we take a forest walk and hang the feeders in the forest. A simple idea indeed, but one that has come to symbolize Christmas here in Fort Mac.

I suppose it's because you don't have to go far to find forest here. Most years we have lived within close walking access of a forest trail, so the walk to hang the feeders has been not only easy but a joy. Most years we have been accompanied by the family dog, the first few years with our now gone but still-loved Chesapeake, and now with our much more spunky terrier.

Many years we have gone for another walk a few days after hanging the feeders to see what has become of them, and some have remained untouched, others have been pecked at, and some are nothing but loose, empty strings surrounded by deer hoof prints. That's when we realized that something much larger than birds liked these treats, too. That's when it became "Christmas for the animals".

In the early years I made the bird feeders, coring the apples, spreading the peanut butter, and rolling them in bird seed. It's a messy process, and it took some time before my daughter was able to do it. Now, though, the Intrepid Junior Bloggers are pretty much in charge of the entire process from making the feeders to hanging them, too. Every year when I suggest it's time to pick up supplies they get excited - and every year it's a walk in the forest to remember.

And I suppose that's what traditions are all about, whether they are ones begun here in Fort McMurray or elsewhere. You start them and hope that they will catch on, and that they will be embraced. You never know if a new tradition will be a hit or a miss, or how they will be viewed as time goes on. You associate the traditions with the place they started in your life (like Christmas Eve cabbage rolls forever bringing to mind my mother's kitchen). I imagine that the Intrepid Junior Bloggers will forever think of Fort McMurray when they remember this tradition, even if one day they continue to hang bird feeders, but in another place in the world. It will always be linked in their mind to Christmases spent here, in northern Canada, in a place no different than any other and yet totally unlike any other - because it is the home of their traditions.

The most rare of Fort McMurray wildlife-
McMurray Musings and her
Intrepid Junior Bloggers on
Christmas Day, 2011

Friday, December 23, 2011

My Christmas Wish For Fort McMurray

As Christmas draws ever closer my thoughts have turned to gifts, of course. Not gifts for me, but gifts I want for others. Some are the mundane - I buy things like socks and make-up, gift cards and chocolates. Some are gifts I wish for others but money cannot buy - things like better health, or inner peace, or resolution to a life struggle. And some of the gifts I wish for encompass more than the people I know individually. One of these Christmas wishes is for Fort McMurray.

It might seem absurd to have a wish for an entire community, but many people wish for the gift of world peace or an end to hunger, so perhaps it's not that unusual at all. I wish for those things, too, but I wish for something for those a little closer to home. I wish for something for everyone in my community. In fact, that's what I wish for them - a sense of community.

I've been here for a decade now, and over that time I've met people who love it here, call it home, and are proud of it. I've also met those who cannot stand it - who despise it, hate it, malign it, and find themselves miserable here. Sometimes they have been here only a short time - but sometimes they have been here for years. They have found no sense of community, and no sense of their place in it. That saddens me - because it's out there, I promise. They just need to go find it.

In this past year I have found so many different communities here, built around sports and politics and knitting and everything else. I have found so many people passionate about the things they do here, like motocross and roller derby, and the passion they have for those things becomes a passion about their community, too. They find their niche in this city, and that niche leads them to a greater appreciation of the other residents who share their passion. And suddenly they find themselves feeling like a part of not only a niche community but our community as a whole, too.

I've learned there is a place for everyone in our community, from those with great wealth to those who sleep rough on our streets. I discovered that there are communities within our larger community that embrace with open arms those who seek them out - including, in my case, embracing a curious woman blogger. I learned that there was a place for me, even when I wasn't sure where that place was or what it would look like - but I found it.

I met someone new to the city recently - someone who has only been here for a couple of months. She said she hadn't met anyone here who was negative about Fort Mac, and I responded that this didn't surprise me as you likely wouldn't find them at local events and festivals - and that I suspected there was a link. I think it's easy to keep those negative thoughts when you distance yourself from the community - but as soon as you get engaged - volunteer, join a sport, join a club - that distance disappears. And as the distance disappears so does the negativity. And as the negativity goes something replaces it - a sense of community. Positive feelings about the people in the community. A recognition of the problems we face, but an optimism about our ability to face them.

So, my Christmas wish for Fort McMurray - I wish for a sense of community for all who reside here. I wish for them to be able to find their place in this community, and an ability to see that there is a place for everyone in it. The funny thing about this gift, though, is that it's one I cannot give to anyone. Oh, I can write about Fort Mac, and share my story of my life here - but the gift of community is one I cannot bestow. It's a gift that you must give to yourself, and it is perhaps the most precious gift one could ever receive. So, if you are reading this post, and if you haven't found your place in this community yet, spoil yourself this year. Give yourself the most magnificent gift, get involved in our community in whatever way interests you (sport, volunteerism, anything), and receive the gift of being a part of our Fort McMurray family. After all, isn't Christmas all about family? There's a great big one just waiting to embrace you, people - go out there and find it.

I want to thank everyone
 for reading,
for encouraging me,
and for being part of
my community - and part of my
Fort McMurray Family!
Merry Christmas!!!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Fire Fighters, Radio Hosts, and Community

At this time of year thoughts turn to friends and family, joy and peace. Of course they also turn to shopping mall mayhem, parking lot chaos, and credit card debt. This year, though, my thoughts have turned to something else. They have turned to community, and to those in it who are in need. This year more than any other these thoughts have started to dominate my free time, and it's because of time spent at places like the Fort McMurray Food Bank and the Centre of Hope. And those thoughts are why a video posted on Facebook made me cry this week.

The video was posted on the page of local radio personality Jerry Neville, someone I have come to know over the past few months. Jerry and his girlfriend Jen have become some of my favourite Fort Mac people - relatively new to town they have embraced it, and the people in it. I often find them at events, sometimes as part of the radio stations they work for, but often as volunteers, too. They are out there getting involved in the community, and it makes me so very happy. Added to this they are just genuinely kind people, so it's easy to like them.

This week Jerry posted a video. It was about the Fort McMurray Fire Fighters, a group of people who run into burning buildings when everyone else is running out (and who look damn fine in a uniform, too - sorry, have I mentioned my weakness for men in uniforms?!?). You'd think their job alone is enough to make them heroes, and in my mind it is - but they don't stop there. Oh no, that's only part of their heroism. The other part is how they raise money in the community by doing things like a rooftop camp-out at Paddy McSwiggin's, and like a calendar (mmmm, fire fighters in calendars - sorry, got distracted there for a moment!). And then they take this money and give it away, to things like Muscular Dystrophy research. And this week? Well, this week they gave $10,000 to a place that has become very special to me - The Centre of Hope. That humble little blue building on Franklin, the wonderful people who work in it, and, most importantly, it's patrons, have become a touchstone in my life this year. They taught me that everyone has a story worth sharing with the world. The Centre of Hope helped me find my Christmas spirit this year, it showed me true hope and compassion in action, and it opened both my heart and my mind. So, when I saw the video Jerry posted I cried.

I cried because I'm not the only one touched by what The Centre of Hope does. I cried because of fire fighters who not only risk their lives for us as part of their jobs but also spend their free time raising money for our community. I cried because of people like Jerry who come to this city and who get involved to try to make it a better place. And I cried because of what this community has come to mean to me personally. Sometimes I see all the strings tied together - the fire fighters that I already consider community heroes even without their volunteer service, the places like The Centre of Hope, the people like those who work in our non-profit groups, and people like Jerry - and I am simply overwhelmed with a sense of community.

This is why I fight for Fort McMurray. This is why I defend it against negative media. And this is why I write this blog - because I want to share with the world that this little place, this place so often misunderstood and so often maligned, is special. It is no different than every other community in this country, and yet it is different, too - it's different because it is mine. It's my community. It's my home, and I'm proud of it - and of all those who call it home, too.

My sincere thanks to Jerry Neville for
posting this video, to The Centre of Hope
for all they do - and to the Fort McMurray Fire 
Fighters who risk their lives for all of us -
and yet even then choose to do just a little bit more, too.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Best Christmas Gift Ever - Volunteering

You know, I really hate to admit publicly how clueless I truly am, but it's true. There are times when I learn things that astonish me, but that seem pretty obvious if you stop to think about them. This happened again recently after the annual Syncrude Food Drive for the Fort McMurray Food Bank. I heard that tons of food had been donated, and it had been a successful year for the drive. And then on Twitter the call for volunteers to help sorting the food went out, and the light bulb in my head went on.

You see, collecting all that food is really only the very first step. Once all the food has been collected it is delivered to the food bank, and then it waits to be sorted. It waits in hundreds of boxes and bags. In enormous stacks and piles. It is a jumble of tuna cans and cereal boxes and canned peas and spaghetti goes on and on. And it waits to be sorted, examined, and put in the proper spot. And to be honest, it's a pretty overwhelming sight.

How do I know this? Well, because this week I informed the Intrepid Junior Bloggers that we were going to spend their first day of Christmas break doing something for our community. Instead of staying at home wearing pyjamas all day (tempting in their case) and playing on the x-box and computer (tempting in my case) we were going to spend some time at the food bank helping them with their mountain of donated food. The Junior Bloggers were not quite sure what to think (they had been voluntold as opposed to volunteered, after all), but being good kids they agreed - and that's how we found ourselves at the food bank on Monday afternoon.

When we arrived I was amazed. I'd been to the food bank before, but on Monday the stacks of boxes and piles of bags was unbelievable. There was a ton of food to be sorted, and a ton of work to be done. It's the kind of job where you don't actually know quite where to start, so the only solution is to just dig in and get going - and we did.

First we were asked to sort and stock the toiletries, shampoos and toothpastes and toothbrushes and the like. The girls did this quickly and efficiently, and then it was on to re-stocking the diapers. The girls enjoyed this as it meant they got to take a peek into the upstairs catwalk area where the food bank stores many items, and my girls are much like me in their innate curiousity.

And then it was time to get down and dirty, and start sorting some food. We decided to focus on cans, so we surrounded ourselves with several small boxes, determined what type of food should go in which box, and started grabbing bags. Our conversation became "I have beans! Beans! Which box is beans again?" and "Um, what are bamboo shoots? Animal, vegetable, mineral?". There was some singing, some YouTube re-enactments (don't ask, I've learned to block those out to keep my sanity as they can be done dozens of times in a row), and for some reason the youngest Intrepid Junior Blogger decided to start clucking like a chicken (again, don't ask, I have no idea - she's a kid, and she's mine, no further explanation seems necessary). We sorted bags and bags of cans, and it was hard work, too - down on your knees kind of work, lifting heavy boxes and bags kind of work.

And then we were asked if we would like to make a hamper for a family. I could see the girls' eyes light up, and I think mine did, too. You see, I saw this as showing them what this is really all about, and showing them why that food needed to be sorted and stocked. The warehouse manager of the Food Bank handed us a "shopping list" and a cart with three bins - and off we went. I stood by the cart, calling out the items, and off the girls would go to fetch them. And you know what? It was amazing.

I would say "1 box cereal" - and remind them that this was for a couple with a baby, so perhaps a cereal adults would like. Then they would go and stand in front of the cereals, debating which kind was best, and what made the most sense. Then the youngest Intrepid Junior Blogger would return triumphant, and say "this one looks good", and drop it in the bin. On and on they went, with pasta and soups and cookies and toiletries. I would call out "4 cream soups" and back they would come with a variety, explaining that no one wants to eat the exact same soup for a month. I could see the light bulbs going on in their heads, too, as they thought this through, as they considered the needs of someone they had never met.

When they finished the cart was full, and they looked both tired and very, very pleased. I think that was the turning point in the experience for them. They had been given an opportunity to use those clever little brains, and they had done well. And they had noticed some things, too.

When they picked out a cake mix my daughter noticed there was no frosting - and no birthday candles. I could see the wheels turning, and she asked if next time we went to volunteer if we could bring some tins of frosting and candles. This caught my heart for two reasons - it showed she had noticed something missing, something that she could help with - and she had said "next time". She didn't view this as a one-shot deal - she saw a next time. And a time after that. And after that. And that, people, is how a volunteer is born.

When it was time to leave we said our good-byes, and headed out to my favourite coffee shop where we washed our filthy hands, and sat down for a drink and snack. When we drove home they told me that they had fun at the food bank, and that their favourite part was making the hamper. They were tired, but they were also, without a doubt, satisfied. I think they had caught a glimpse of what I feel when I volunteer - that inexplicable, indescribable feeling you get in your chest. They had seen what it takes to run the food bank, they understood more of the process, and, in the final analysis, they had seen the value of volunteering - not just the value for those you serve, but the value for yourself.

For most of my years in this community I limited my volunteering to my daughter's school, but as she grows older I think it's time to expand a bit, both for me and for the Junior Bloggers. I know we will be back at the food bank to sort food and pack hampers - but I think we will look into other things, too. And we will do it for our community, but we will also be doing it for ourselves - for that feeling you get, that pride and satisfaction in doing good. I think it's opportune that we did this the week before Christmas because I think this was perhaps the best Christmas gift the Intrepid Junior Bloggers could have ever received, even if they don't know it quite yet. They learned the value of contributing to their community, and I think it is a lesson that we will build and expand on - and one they will never forget. Other Christmas gifts can break or get thrown out eventually - but that belief in your community, and that feeling you get from volunteering - well, that never goes away. That is forever. And that makes it perhaps the most precious Christmas gift of all.

My sincere thanks to the 
Fort McMurray Food Bank
for allowing the Intrepid Junior 
Bloggers and I to come in, sort food,
pack a hamper, and cluck like a chicken!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Keyano Global Address - Ron Taylor, City Centre Action Plan

There are posts I write almost the second after I leave an event or presentation, as they feel so urgent. There are some, though, that I prefer to mull over for a bit, consider, and think about before I write - and this is one of those.

On December 1st I had the pleasure to attend the most recent Keyano Global Address. These addresses are a series of lectures given by individuals from various fields, and have included some fascinating speakers in the past. This time, though, the topic was one close to both the community and my heart - the plan to revitalize the downtown core of Fort McMurray.

When I moved to this community a decade ago one of the first things I noticed was that while the city was rapidly expanding the downtown area seemed to undergo little change. Of particular concern to me was the beautiful and yet vastly under used river front area. I grew up in Saskatoon, a city that is fundamentally built around it's riverbanks, and to see a lovely spot like our riverfront so neglected saddened me.

One of the other concerns I have always had is that as cities expand their downtown core often dies. That's how you end up with boarded up storefronts, and empty streets. Those things combined can attract a less savoury element to the downtown area, and suddenly you have an empty, boarded up downtown and a crime problem, too.

So, when the RMWB began to release information about the City Centre Action Plan I was intrigued. I was, in fact, excited, and when I received notice of the address by Ron Taylor I knew I had to attend to see exactly what was being envisioned for my community, and for the downtown I worried about.

What I didn't realize before the address is that Ron Taylor comes with an impressive pedigree. This is a professional who has worked on some amazing projects, from Canary Wharf in London to Queen's Quay in Toronto (one I am very familiar with), and to Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. Ron comes with impressive credentials, and I was very anxious to hear what he has envisioned for our community - and I was not disappointed.

As Ron said during the address we are seeing a window of opportunity open in our region. There is accelerated growth in the industry, a competitive job environment, a demand for office and residential space, and the desire for an urban quality of life. All of these elements combine to make a unique opportunity for Fort Mac - and for all of us in the community, too.

Now, there are challenges. We happen to be in a region with a poorly diversified economy, and a limited range of affordable housing. There is a perception of the lack of safety, and a lack of services. There is concern over a high carbon footprint, not enough office space, limited public transportation, a private-vehicle oriented downtown core, an under-utilized waterfront, and missed chances to celebrate our cultural pride and diversity. These seem not only challenging but almost insurmountable. However, the only way to conquer the insurmountable is to face it head on - and that's the plan of the City Centre Action Plan.

The goals of the plan are to attract investment, accommodate immediate growth demands, provide a quality urban life, pursue sustainable development, strengthen connectivity/mobility, preserve/enhance the natural environment, ensure safety/security, and secure a vibrant atmosphere that is present year-round. These seem like lofty goals when one considers the challenges I listed above - and yet I think it's achievable, people. In fact I think it's not only achievable, I think it's crucial. I think we have a chance to do something few cities ever do - change the face of our community.

There are several key elements to achieving the goals of the CCAP. One of the most significant is changing how the downtown core is accessed. By lessening the reliance on private vehicles and encouraging the use of public transportation the streets suddenly become not only quieter but more amenable to pedestrians. Then you add in new pedestrian routes - trails to the newly renovated riverfront, for instance, or a foot bridge to MacDonald Island. Suddenly downtown isn't a place of exhaust fumes and traffic jams - it's the community out walking, browsing in shops, and enjoying our natural beauty. It's  an urban core.

The plan is envisioned in terms of "zones" - the Franklin Avenue Re-Vitalization zone, which means transforming this area into an urban style pedestrian paradise, the Neighbourhood Stabilization Zone, which means the existing neighbourhoods in which the character will be preserved, and the Recreation Zone, which will include MacDonald Island and the waterfront area.

I think we all know change is not easy, people. It can, in fact, be downright painful. The CCAP is ambitious, and there is an immediate need in this community. The question becomes how do we achieve the goals that the CCAP has set? How do we achieve the future?

According to Ron Taylor we start with "catalyst projects". I find this an intriguing idea as small things can become catalysts for large changes. The change can start with several small projects that then coalesce into a cohesive whole, and that appears to be the plan with the CCAP. It will start with things like developing a Franklin Avenue Transit Way, making it into a model of public transit efficiency. It will start with developments like a public square on Franklin, a place where arts and culture can be showcased. It will begin with a waterfront park development on the Snye and Clearwater, and it will include things like a new Civic Centre on the Snye. There will be a pedestrian bridge to MacDonald Island, and a new sports arena. It will include new housing, multi-level parkades, new retail space, and new office space. There is no doubt this is ambitious. There is no doubt it will be challenging. And there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it is both necessary and achievable.

Since the Keyano Global Address I've thought about this topic a great deal. I've thought about the needs of our community, our goals, and our abilities. One of the things I've thought about most is our ability to dream big, and to aim high. I've met more people of passion, vision, and drive in this community than anywhere else I've ever lived, and I think we are quite unique in that way. We are a community of "why can't we?" instead of "we can't". We are a community who believes in the possibilities. We are a community who can do anything, I think, including taking this crucial turning point in our development and turning it into something amazing. What I know for certain is this - we cannot do nothing. We need to take action, and we need to do it now. And that's why I'm in love with the City Centre Action Plan. It's pro-active, it's exciting, and it has the word "action" right in the title. It's what we need to do, and we can do it. There will be some grief, and bumps along the way. There may be times it feels like we have taken the wrong path. There may be times we think we should just give up. But the future of this community is dependent on us - and that's why we need to pursue this. The time has come - to take action.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Midnight Mayhem in McMurray With the Intrepid Junior Ninjas

I suppose it began when I mentioned I was planning to head down to Wal-Mart to pick up some photo frames. I thought I would go late as the store is open 24 hours right now, allowing people to shop for the holidays at whatever time strikes their fancy. For me it was reminiscent of the years I lived in Toronto and their 24-hour grocery stores, years before kids and home ownership and "responsibility", and when we would often get our groceries at 3 am. What I didn't realize when I mentioned that I was planning some late night shopping was that the Intrepid Junior Bloggers would find the idea intriguing. They asked if they could come along - and since school is over and there is no pressing need for normal bedtimes I said yes. And that's when the true planning began.

First they suggested that we go to Superstore as well, not just Walmart, as Superstore is also currently open 24 hours. I agreed, as I wanted to make cabbage rolls today and needed to find some sour cabbage heads anyhow. Then they began to make other plans. Dressing in black plans. Ninja plans. Being the kind of person I am I suggested a few things, too. Things like shopping cart racing. Things like pressing all the buttons on those hideously annoying Christmas musical figurines (you know, the ones you can't imagine anyone buying but yet you still end up owning one or two - as I write I stare into the eyes of a musical dancing Santa and find beside me a Christmas-bedecked snoring Scooby-Do), and running away. The Intrepid Junior Bloggers looked at me in wonder. Not only was I okay with all this, I was suggesting it. I was promoting it. I was, in fact, endorsing the idea of a little midnight mayhem.

So, this is how I found myself in my car at 11:30 last night with two young women dressed as ninjas. They took this seriously and frankly the youngest Intrepid Junior Blogger was somewhere between cute and creepy. I plugged in my iPhone and we listened to "Down With Webster" at top volume all the way downtown, getting pumped for our adventure (DWW is making a return appearance in February in Fort Mac, incidentally, and will play at MacDonald Island - and they are well worth seeing!). There's nothing like a little "She's Dope" to get you in the mood for some ninja mayhem.

We arrived at Superstore and frankly I scored the sweetest parking spot I've ever gotten in my decade here, right in front of the main doors. In we went, and I released the girls with the admonition that they have fun. Oh, there were wrapping paper roll sword fights, and the purchase of sustenance in the form of Vitamin Water. There was some bemusement over the oddest "Santa bear", which announces "Hello, I am Santa bear" when activated (since when is Santa a bear?!?). There was even some sour cabbage, which made the trip totally worth it for that reason alone.

Then it was off to the second target for mayhem - Wal-Mart. The girls were ready, and so was I. I happen to like Wal-Mart most of the time, as you just never know what you will find. When we arrived we found a mostly empty parking lot, a lot of shelf stocking, and some serious mayhem.

We first hit up the fashion departments where we found some serious fashion faux-pas, and then it was on to the seasonal department. The youngest Intrepid Junior Blogger found fruit cake, a food item she wouldn't eat if she was starving and it was the last food on earth. They were both bemused by the giant chocolate bar - and I admit it, my resistance is weak at 1 am and I bought it for them.

In the seasonal department you find the best items for a little midnight mayhem, like wrapping paper rolls for sword fighting...

...and the wall of those musical figurines, just begging to have all their buttons pushed before you dash off, leaving behind you a wall of sound to annoy other late-night shoppers.

One of the next activities on the list was one I hadn't suggested, but the Junior Intrepid Bloggers/Ninjas had planned. The brought iPods, and they brought their dancing skills. And they used them, right in the aisles. In a LOT of the aisles.

Oh, there were minor disasters, like finding most of the aisles blocked by items waiting to be stocked, and like when my cart got stuck on a pair of high heel shoes. Fortunately this didn't happen during the shopping cart race in the furniture aisle, although the oldest Intrepid Junior Blogger still won that race easily.

All that racing and dancing made for thirstiness, so we stopped in at McDonald's. While the girls really wanted ice cream the machine was off, so we had to settle for cold drinks instead. Coke at 1 am? I think so!

We decided we were tired, and it was time to leave. There was one final thing to be accomplished, though. Everyone knows every a truly great show needs a great finale, and what better way than to dance out of the store while the iPhone plays "I'm Sexy and I Know It?"

Out into the cold, dark, late night, into the waiting car, laughing and talking, we went. We talked about the people we had seen smile, those who had stared, those who had shook their heads, and the employee that appeared to have been sent to check on us when we were in the seasonal department. We giggled about the stock boy who had seen them dancing around the store and simply looked deeply puzzled by it all. We drove home, had a snack, and crawled into bed. It was late. We were tired. And we'd made a little mayhem happen.

So, the next time someone says to me, or the Intrepid Junior Bloggers, that there is nothing to do in Fort Mac I suspect they will be quick to correct them. They will tell them about shopping cart racing, dancing in the aisles, and other harmless, silly madness that can be pursued late at night in department stores. They will tell them that sometimes you just have to make the mayhem - and the magic - happen. And you can do that even right here in good ol' Fort Mac.

My sincere thanks to Superstore and
Wal-Mart for not kicking us out, and
to Down With Webster for getting us
pumped up for the adventure and mayhem!