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

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Big Spirit Wins Big Games - 2015 Western Canada Summer Games

When I heard via Twitter that the selection committee for the 2015 Western Canada Summer Games was returning to our city yesterday I pretty much guessed that it would be to announce our successful bid for the games. When it was revealed that Tourism Minister Cindy Ady of our provincial government was accompanying them it seemed pretty clear it was a done deal, but I also knew I really wanted to be there for the announcement. Why? Because I'd attended the Jersey Day pep rally and this was a story I wanted to follow as the enthusiasm of that day had infected me, too.

So, I headed down to Macdonald Island Park. As I parked I saw the KISS stage construction going on, and there was this feeling in the air that is a bit hard to describe.  Ever hear the Jefferson Airplane song "Stop Children, What's That Sound"? The line "There's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear" kept running through my head - because, people, something is happening in this city. I'm feeling it every day, and it's not entirely clear what it is - but I think it might just be sheer excitement about the future.

 I walked into the atrium at Mac Island, and found a seat in the area they had set up for the announcement. It appeared hundreds of people had the same expectation I did, and had decided to spend their lunch hour at Mac Island, too. The energy was intense, with balloons, boom sticks, and banners. The media presence was strong, of course, as they suspected the same thing  - that the announcement would be made, and another bit of Fort Mac history would happen right before us.

When the bid selection committee arrived they were greeted with cheers and excitement. I was so delighted when my favourite mayor (and maybe favourite person in the entire city) Melissa Blake took the stage to thank the people of the city for supporting the bid, and for showing such excitement and enthusiasm. My respect for this woman grows daily, people, and she once again made me proud.

When Minister Ady took the stage she said there had been several strong bids for the games, and that the choice had not been an easy one. She pointed out that the bid selection committee had to look at several factors, and that the cities vying for the games had been in fierce competition. And then she said the words. The 2015 Western Canada Summer Games would be held in Wood Buffalo.

The cheers and clapping resonated through the entire building. Balloons, released from the second floor concourse, floated down to cover the floor below, and the whole crowd erupted into spontaneous handshakes, hugs, and smiles. It was a genuine display of enthusiasm, relief, and, quite frankly, joy. You could feel the sense of accomplishment of those who had organized the bid for Wood Buffalo, and you could see the pride on the face of every member of city council, municipality staff, and pretty much every Fort Mac resident in attendance (I admit - I was smiling just as large and clapping just as loud as everyone else).

People, my pride in this city is immense. More than that, though, my excitement about the future continues to build. Everything that gets marked on my calendar - every concert, every sports competition, every event  - makes me  feel that "Big Spirit" has stopped being an ad campaign and has instead become how we live our daily lives in Fort Mac. We have gone from being tentative about these ideas and dreams and have instead found some confidence. Can we host a concert with one of the most popular bands in the world and show them we rock? Yes. Can we host these summer games and show the country how amazing we are? Yes. Is there anything we can't do? I think once we would have said "yes" to that, too - but now I think we are more inclined to pause and say "You know, I don't think so. You give us the challenge, and we will rise to meet it".

When I wrote the first time about the games I said that I couldn't see any reason the bid selection committee would reject us, but that even if they did we still had the most important thing - Big Spirit. We still have that, people, and now we have the 2015 Western Canada Summer Games, too. Our Big Spirit just continues to grow, and slowly we will show the entire world just what that big spirit can do. See ya in 2015, people!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fort McMurray Top Chef? Oh Yeah, People.

Vision. Passion. These are words that come up a lot in this blog, don't they? That's because for some reason I keep finding people in this city who are the embodiment of those words. I'm starting to think that for some reason this city attracts them as there seems to be an endless source - and people, I met another one recently. He's a local chef (although he refers to himself as a "cook") who works at a successful local hotel restaurant. He has all the qualities I admire. He also happens to have just submitted an audition video for "Top Chef Canada" - and I think he has a genuine shot at this, because frankly I think he's someone to watch.

Ken Bowie grew up in North Bay, Ontario, and attended culinary school there as well. He had been working in the family goldsmith business for eight years when he realized that he didn't want to take over that business as was expected of him. He had a different dream. He wanted to cook. He decided to attend culinary school (Canadore College), and pursue this dream, despite being a bit older than his fellow students. His first kitchen job happened when he applied at a North Bay hotel. He knew the chef was likely to turn him away due to his lack of experience but Ken is a determined individual, and he knew the hotel restaurant needed help on Saturday nights. He told the chef he would work for free until he proved himself and was either hired or shown the door - and by the middle of his very first "free" shift he was hired and being paid. I think this says a great deal about Ken, really - he knows what he can do, and he knows how to get in the door. Those are admirable qualities in anyone, but particularly in a competitive field.

Ken has worked all over the country from the east coast to Sun Peaks BC. He has used every opportunity to learn and to hone his skills, and has managed to rocket through the ranks at every restaurant he has been employed. He has incredible ideas, like last summer when he planted a rooftop garden at the Sawridge Hotel and asked people reading his blog to send him seeds. He received seeds from all over the world, and while there were problems with the garden (too much sun, too much wind) was able to serve produce he had grown at the Chef's Table at the Sawridge. This year the garden plan is a little different, and even more intriguing. Ken will plant a garden at the Food Bank so that those who use the Food Bank will be able to access fresh produce right there as opposed to having to make a separate trip to the grocery store to do so. This shows another aspect to Ken, which is his very real interest and concern for the community. He and his wife (also a chef at the Sawridge) have embraced Fort Mac as their home.

What struck me about Ken is his passion for food. I have written in this blog that I am not a good cook but I am a "foodie". I love good food, and I also love creative people. Seeing this combined in a culinary professional is so delightful. Ken has the ability to visualize how a dish will appear and taste  before he's ever made it, and I suspect that's a key quality in an innovative chef. He also has a genuine curiousity about food. This is a man who in his free time prefers to be working on farms and ranches, growing food and herding beef cattle. This is a man who can spend three hours in a grocery store in another country just looking at food items and figuring out how they are used and how he would use them. This is what passionate people do. They take every opportunity to feed that passion, and Ken clearly does. That impresses the hell out of me, people.

I am also struck by Ken's vision. He expects those who work with him and under him to work to the best of their ability, and to achieve their full potential. He doesn't mind mistakes as long as the mistake was one that led to a lesson learned. He wants to see those around him and under him succeed just as his mentors have desired his success. He sees the kitchen as a place where learning is continual, and where every person from the head chef to the dishwasher can teach those lessons (after all, the dishwasher is the one who knows what food goes uneaten, which is key information).

Ken decided to audition for Top Chef for a few reasons, but mostly because he has been encouraged to do so by others (friends, coworkers, his wife). After meeting Ken I completely understand why as there is no doubt that he is a strong contender. Between his experience, passion, vision, and attitude it's very clear that this man is someone who could compete and could in fact walk away the winner. Regardless, though, he is giving it a shot to show others that they can accomplish anything if they try. He is "attempting to live the dream", and people that is an incredible thing to witness. If we only had the courage to all follow our dreams imagine our world! Ken Bowie has the courage. He has the skills. He has the attitude, the presence, the vision, and the passion. And people, you may not have met Ken but let me tell you this - he is someone who represents our community very, very well. Having him compete in Top Chef Canada would be good not only for Ken but for our entire city. I'm excited beyond words about this. I hope they are blown away by his audition video, and I know that once they speak to him they will be as excited about having him compete as I am. He's just that kind of guy.

So, Fort Mac, this is Ken Bowie. Watch out for him, and remember the name, because even if you don't see him on Top Chef I'm pretty damn sure this man will be very well known one day. Remember you heard it from me first, eh?

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Life of A Small Business

Well, people, this past Saturday I wandered into Campbell's Music on Franklin Avenue. I did this because Campbell's Music was celebrating their 35th year in business in Fort Mac, an event totally worthy of celebration because frankly it's astonishing. 35 years is a long time to be around for any small business, but for a small independent niche-market business in Fort McMurray? It's beyond amazing and almost into the territory reserved for miracles.

I spent most of my adult life working in and managing small, independently-owned, niche market businesses. I know what a challenge they are. There are staffing issues, as the dynamic of a small business is so sensitive and just one wrong hire can affect the entire business. There are times of prosperity and times so darkly lean that you fear for the survival of the business. There are times the business feels like a big happy family, and times it feels like the most dysfunctional of families. There are times when you come thisclose to throwing in the towel and walking away. People, the businesses I worked in were businesses in major Canadian cities where there are thousands of employees to choose from, and where the boom/bust cycle is not so pronounced as here. I can only imagine the trials and tribulations Campbell's Music has seen in 35 years in a town/city where every business challenge just seems a bit more difficult.

I am not a musician, but I discovered Campbell's Music shortly after moving to the city. I began buying piano books for my kid who was taking piano lessons. Then, when my kid needed to find an instrument for the school band we went in to try out the instruments. I thought we would need a flute or something similar but imagine my surprise when my kid came out of the store with a rental trumpet as the good people had determined that this kid belonged in the brass section (and they were quite completely right). We also left the store with a new trumpet teacher, a young Campbell's employee that is just a few years older than my kid and has become not only a treasured trumpet instructor but a mentor in many ways.

This past Father's Day my kid and I took my husband in to purchase his gift - a new electric guitar and amp. It has been years since he played, and we wanted him to be able to explore his musical talent again. Once again the good people at Campbell's took care of us, allowing him to try whatever guitar he wanted, and offering advice and suggestions. We left with a lovely guitar and amp, and I'm sure they will see more of him as he is now talking about needing a bass and a drum machine.

I'm actually pretty amazed by the employees at Campbell's. Most are young, and they are clearly enthusiastic about music, and about their jobs. I find that pretty remarkable in a city where at other businesses young employees often seem to disappear as soon as they sense you might have a question. Not at Campbell's. There you are greeted with a smile, asked if you need assistance - and then left to explore until you need help, at which point they are there, ready to offer their advice and thoughts. This is the way a small business - really, every business - should be. Obviously these people love their jobs and have loyalty to their employer, and as someone who managed small businesses you have no idea how important that is to me. It's your dream to have employees who love the business, who are enthusiastic, and who help to infect customers with that enthusiasm, too. When you have those employees you can't help but feel that you have done something right, and that you are building something together.

Businesses of any sort don't survive unless they are supported, people. Shopping local is a great idea, but  that can be hard to do if you feel the local business does not merit your hard-earned cash. Every local business needs to realize that being local isn't enough - they need to provide the customer service and atmosphere that create loyalty to the business. When that has been created people don't even consider shopping at a different, non-local business - why would they when the local business is not only as good as but better than businesses in Edmonton or Calgary? Campbell's Music has managed this beautifully, and I have no doubt this is the reason behind their 35 years in business. They have found a way to meet the needs of this city, spread enthusiasm both within their staff and their customer base, and survive in a city prone to turbulent times.

 The success of a small independent business like this is a success we can all celebrate, people. There are those who denigrate Fort Mac as an unstable economy, or a city where such long-term successes are impossible. Not so, we can say. Look at Campbell's Music, we can say, a place that has been around for 35 years, seen the city change in ways that most of us can't even imagine, and will very likely be around long after many of us have left the city. We can point to that success and be proud of it, people, because it shows that this city does indeed have a heart. That heart is in places like small, independent, niche-market businesses with young enthusiastic employees. It's just another part of this community we call home, and it's one of which I am so very proud. Congratulations on 35 years, Campbell's Music!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Back To School, Again

Well, people, as you likely all know there are two new schools opening for the 2011/2012 school year. I've written about one of them already in this blog (Ecole McTavish Junior High), but I hadn't written about the other as I didn't know much about it. That changed this week when Holy Trinity High School principal Lucy Moore graciously gave me a few moments of her time to sit down and discuss her vision and plans for the school. Once again I found someone in Fort Mac who has my two favourite qualities, vision and passion. Ms. Moore has some wonderful ideas and plans for the school, and I'd like to share some of her thoughts with you.

Ms. Moore envisions a community for Holy Trinity, and a community that consists of students, staff, and parents. As she points out Father Mercredi High School has a long history in this city of pursuing social justice with things like the Santas Anonymous program, but she sees the role of Holy Trinity a little differently. She sees Holy Trinity as becoming the "heart of the community" in Timberlea, and particularly for those immigrant families who choose to send their children to the Catholic system for education. I didn't realize this but 30% of students in the Catholic district are, in fact, not Catholic but rather come because the district offers faith-based education. Many of these families have come into Fort Mac from other countries, and have thus left their entire community behind. Ms. Moore's vision is of a community school that encompasses them as well as every other family with children in attendance at the school, a place that provides the community core we all need so desperately.

Holy Trinity will have a strong performing arts program, and one that not only incorporates the traditional sense of performing arts like dance and drama but also things like media arts and film production. While there will be the performing arts program the main focus and emphasis remains on strong academic performance in all areas, with the performing arts being a "value added" aspect to the school. There will be a strong science department, as well as the visual arts and physical education, too. The goal is to produce well-rounded students and citizens (that Ms. Moore and Mr. Barr from Ecole McTavish did some of their post-secondary education together comes as no surprise as their ideas and visions are strikingly similar, and so incredibly refreshing).

The thinking is that when Holy Trinity hosts events they will pull in students from all the different disciplines and areas in the school to pull it off. If they are doing a play then perhaps the media arts group will produce ads for the play, or the foods classes will prepare food to be provided at intermission. This seems like a brilliant way to achieve a cohesive feel in the school, and a way to ensure every student feels a part of every event.

I've heard concerns expressed about having Grades 7-12 in the same building, and was quite pleasantly surprised that Ms. Moore had a very well-reasoned counter to these concerns. As she pointed out when the kids from junior high in Holy Trinity move into high school they will have a very easy transition - they will simply go upstairs. There will not be a new school to navigate, or new administration. No new teachers or crowds of different kids. The familiarity will enable them to blend smoothly into their new roles as high school students. There is some evidence that every time a student transitions to a new school that academic performance drops, and there is firm evidence that dropout rates increase when students transition into a new school setting. The concept, then, is that Holy Trinity will provide stability for the students throughout their junior and senior years.

Part of this stability will also come from the administrative team. Ms. Moore has opted for a rather ingenious plan in which there are two vice-principals, each being responsible for a certain set of grades. The first VP will oversee Grades 7, 9, and 11, while the other oversees Grades 8, 10, and 12. As the grades move up the VPs will trade the groups they oversee on a yearly basis, meaning they will monitor the same students throughout their entire educational career. This will provide a consistency and allow the VPs to get to know the students well and follow them as they progress through the grades. I think that's actually very clever and will create a bond between the administrative team, the students, and the parents.

One of the final questions I put to Ms. Moore was about how religious education will be incorporated in the school. Ms. Moore shared her philosophy that religion should be something that isn't taught in an hour but lived in your life, and I think that's quite profound. The goal is to incorporate religious ideas and thoughts throughout various classes, and not just in classes devoted to religious studies. What I also found delightful is that Ms. Moore believes it's not about telling students what to believe but giving them the information and allowing them to draw their own conclusions. People, I spent twelve years in a Catholic school system and I truly wish this is how it worked when I attended school. Ms. Moore and the staff at Holy Trinity will not only allow students to question but encourage them to do so, and help them to find their own answers. I genuinely believe this is the best way to turn children into not only good students but also into good citizens who think for themselves and who are not afraid to look at the hard questions life throws at us.

I've asked Ms. Moore if I could speak to her again in the fall, and perhaps tour the new school. I have two reasons for this. One is that I am very interested to see how this new school community develops, and I'd love to watch it as it comes together. The second is that I truly enjoyed speaking to Ms. Moore as I believe she is yet another one of those people with vision and passion of whom I am so fond. I find that people like this inspire me, too, and make me evaluate my own ideas and thoughts. I feel quite certain that with Ms. Moore at the head of Holy Trinity the school will develop into a lovely and supportive little community within the larger framework of our Fort Mac community - and people, that's what it's all about to me.

Friday, June 24, 2011

2011 interPlay Film Festival

One of the things you notice when you are involved in a creative pursuit are all the others also pursuing their own creativity. I'm one of those people who has always been happiest surrounded by artists, musicians, writers, and the like as creativity seems contagious. I must admit that one thing I know very little about but have always been fascinated by is independent film-making - and people, I am completely delighted that during interPLAY 2011 we will have our own film festival in Fort Mac!

The 2011 interPLAY Film Festival (iFF, what a great acronym!) is the brainchild of the folks at ymmpodcast and Events Wood Buffalo, two of my very favourite Fort Mac entities. I know the guys at ymmpodcast have a definite interest in independent film-making and thus are the perfect guys to partner this with Events Wood Buffalo, who have a stellar track record at organizing events in this city.

There are two aspects to the iFF. The first are independent film submissions to be screened at the festival, and the top film as decided by the organizers will win $1000. The second part is one I find particularly intriguing as it's a 48-hour film-making challenge. Yes, that's right, participants have 48 hours to write, cast, shoot, and edit their submissions! Again the winner will take home $1000. I absolutely love this idea as I'm one of those people who also thinks improv is the finest form of comedy. Creativity under pressure often produces the most interesting results, and I'm quite anxious to see these films.

In case you're wondering what is so great about independent films all I can say is this: creative pursuits are a lot like having a baby. I know as a writer I enter into something with a vision, and sometimes I fight like hell to get it there. I suspect it's the same for film-making (and I know it's true for artists and musicians). There are times I feel like giving up (rather like when I was actually giving birth to my child and announced at hour 18 of labour that I had changed my mind about the whole thing and was going home now - thankfully my husband and the nice nurses talked me out of that). When you finally produce the finished product - an article, a novel, a painting, a film, or a baby, what you really want is people to see it. You want them to see the vision you started with, and you want to see if it resonates with them, too. And in case anyone argues the "baby" point all I can say is there's a reason new parents wander around with tiny infants in strollers, people. You are meant to admire our "product" because we worked damn hard to bring it into the world. So too with films and film-makers.

People, I love interPLAY. I don't think I've missed a single one since moving here, and my husband and child love it just as much as I do. It's our favourite event every year, and I've been known to visit it daily when it's on. I think the iFF just adds another wonderful dimension to interPLAY. The iFF will be an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of an independent film-maker. Maybe you'll like the films, and maybe you won't. Maybe they will make you think, or maybe they will make you laugh. You won't know until you see them, though, and that's the beauty of it all. Take a risk, catch some independent films, and, even better, if YOU are the creative visionary, enter your films or participate in the 48-hour challenge. I'd love to share your vision, people.  Definitely see ya there, Fort Mac!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Cautionary Tale

There are some posts that are difficult to write, and I've been struggling with this one for a few days. I wasn't even quite sure about writing it at all but in the end my desire to share this story overrode any qualms I had about doing so.

Like everyone else I like the occasional night out. Last weekend a friend and I went out for dinner and then to a local pub for a few drinks. It was fun times for the most part, but as the evening wore on things got a little stranger (as they often do in pubs when the booze has been flowing) and I decided it was time to leave. I hailed a cab for my friend and myself, and got us home at quite a reasonable hour. We had both had a few drinks, but nothing excessive. My friend seemed her normal self, just a bit inebriated. The trouble began the next day, though, when I called her and she revealed she could not remember the evening. She remembered dinner, and the first part at the pub - but after that, nothing. She also felt quite sick, not sick in a hungover-kind of way but different. And that's when it occurred to us. Could she have been drugged?

People, I have been trying ever since then to get a grasp on the issue of the use of "date rape" drugs like Rohypnol, GHB, and Ketamine. I've searched the net, and spoken to three different RCMP officers. What I've discovered troubles me, because what I've learned is that no one really knows the prevalence of these drugs in Alberta, let alone right here in Fort Mac. They have found GHB here in the city, that is certain, and in other parts of Alberta. The problem, though, is that after 6-12 hours these drugs are undetectable and thus proof is hard to find. The other issue is that most women don't report suspected incidents of being drugged (or, as the RCMP call it officially "the administration of a noxious substance"). They don't report it if they weren't assaulted when they think they were drugged - and sadly they often don't report it even if they were assaulted.

What this means is that a lot of the evidence is anecdotal. Since that evening with my friend I can't even count the number of local women who have told her or I that they think it's happened to them, too. I've heard stories of teens using GHB at parties instead of drinking. I've heard speculation that GHB could be very popular here as a recreational drug since it does metabolize so quickly and is virtually undetectable in a matter of hours (providing a way of beating those pesky employee drug tests). I'm one of the most skeptical people you will ever meet. If you can't show me the numbers I have a hard time believing anything - but in this instance I also tend to think that where there is smoke there may well be fire.

So, in the final analysis, what do we know? We know GHB is here (and likely Rohypnol and Ketamine, too, but apparently a derivative of GHB can be manufactured fairly easily which makes it the most likely one to be around). We know that these drugs cause all the symptoms of alcohol intoxication plus amnesia. We know there are a lot of anecdotes about women in the city being the victim of these drugs. We don't know many facts - but I think we know enough to exercise some caution regardless.

Here's what we need to do, people. We need to listen to our our instincts. There is safety in numbers, and therefore attend events with other women. Watch out for each other. Never leave your drink unattended. Don't accept a drink from a stranger. Stay with friends who appear intoxicated. And watch your back.

When I attended the Drug Awareness presentation this week Sgt. Lorne Adamitz provided one quote that I think is brilliant. He said "The farther the departure from reality you take yourself the greater you put yourself at risk". The most common date rape drug used is alcohol, and that's the one we administer to ourselves. We need to take a close look at our own habits, too, and protect ourselves not only from the actions of others (like those who would drug a drink) but also from our own decisions. We need to evaluate whether or not we are putting ourselves into dangerous situations - because it's a risky enough world without putting ourselves right into the middle of the firing line.

Look, I don't know if my friend was drugged, and I don't know if anyone else has been, either. I would suspect that it has happened, and that it does happen, but without hard and firm statistics I cannot state it with certainty. What I can say with certainty, though, is that we have a responsibility to look out for ourselves and for each other, and that's why I chose to write this post. This is my cautionary tale, people. Do with it what you will.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How Do We Combat Drugs? Build Community.

Last night I attended the Drug Awareness presentation hosted by "My Community My Voice". They had arranged to bring in a guest speaker, Sgt. Lorne Adamitz (RCMP "K" Division, Edmonton Drug and Organized Crime Awareness Services), and it was an enlightening evening on many levels.

Sgt. Adamitz is an engaging speaker, and I am willing to bet he does particularly well speaking in schools as he has an open and direct manner that kids would find very refreshing. He is obviously well versed in the subject matter and brings his years of police experience to the discussion. He emphasizes that he doesn't have all the answers and that much of this is about having the discussions, both within our families and within our society at large.

I must admit this writer got a bit nervous when he spoke about the most commonly used drug in society being caffeine (and I suspect he saw me trying to kick my empty Starbucks cup under my chair although I tried to be subtle about it). The presentation covered a wide range of topics from what constitutes a drug to what the effects of different types of drugs are, the signs of drug use, the effects of drug use, and even the manufacturing methods of some drugs. My favourite part of the night, though? How we combat drugs in our society. The answer, people, is that "c" word I love so much - "community".

As Sgt. Adamitz said it's the responsibility of the police to determine if someone is engaging in criminal activity. However, the police cannot be everywhere at once, and often only know that suspicious activity is occurring if it is reported. Who does the reporting? We do, people. And how do we know if something seems wrong? By knowing our community, and by having built a relationship within our community.

Community isn't that hard to build. It starts with saying hello to your neighbours. Maybe eventually you even get to know the names of their kids. Maybe you even do small favours for them (like the neighbour this year who saw me struggling to shovel several centimetres of snow off my driveway and rolled over with his snowblower). Small steps build community, and the benefits are huge. Not only does it make us feel good to live in a community it can protect us and our families, too.

Once you've begun to build community you can notice when things in the community seem off. You know, like the house down the street that always has the blinds drawn, and a suspicious amount of activity only late at night. Or the house where they have lots of visitors but the guests only stay a moment or two (just about the right amount of time to complete a drug deal, for instance). When you know your community well you can sense when something odd is going on, and that's when you can turn it over to the professionals - the police.

If you don't know your community, though, you may not be able to see the warning signs. I've lived in places with significant drug problems, and all I can say is that once they reach a certain point the cost to the community is incalculable. In my twenties I spent many mornings removing crack pipes and used syringes from the sidewalk in front of a business in a major Canadian city, and I know that working and/or living in that neighbourhood was a trying experience. So, if we don't build community we can't combat drugs moving into it - and once they have truly moved in removing them can be a enormous task. It's really about building a community before they have the chance to gain a foothold in it, people.

I thank "My Community My Voice" for sponsoring and hosting this presentation. While I have known the facts about drugs for a very long time it was great to have a refresher course. Even more importantly Sgt. Adamitz' presentation gave me more things to think about in terms of why community is so important. It's a word that seems to come up a lot in this blog, and it is frequently on my mind. When Sgt. Adamitz mentioned the "c" word I'm sure he saw the light bulb over my head go on because it's just the constant running theme for me recently, and after the presentation I spoke to him and told him that it was truly the "take home message" for me - and it is. Once you build a community you have something you want to protect - and people, this community of ours deserves protection. Let's build a community we are proud of, and then let's fight like hell to keep it that way.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Why I Wish I Was Still In Junior High

People, the title of this post shocks me as much as it does you. I never thought I'd want to go back to junior high as those weren't exactly stellar years for me in the social sense, but recently I've realized how much I'd like to go back to those days. Why? Because I could attend Ecole McTavish Junior High, that's why.

I don't know who else has been following the development of this school but I have been as I have a vested interest in the form of a kid who will be going there next year. I've attended all the public meetings they've had for parents, and last night I attended the first Parent Association/School Council meeting - and people, I'm beyond impressed and right into jealous of my kid.

The school itself is really impressive. It's looks like it's going to be an incredible building, and the options available to the students are equally amazing. There will be a robotics and engineering lab. There will be drama, and fashion, and sports teams, and a state-of-the-art media centre where they can produce their own televised news broadcasts. There will be the Edge dance and hockey programs. The options go on and on and on. More than all that, though, something else makes the school special - and that, in my mind, is the principal, Scott Barr.

I've written in the blog before about the respect I have for people of vision and passion, and Mr. Barr is a prime example. His vision, passion, and belief in this school is infectious. I know my kid was hooked the first time they heard him speak, and has just been growing increasingly excited about the school. The funny thing is I feel that way, too, because Mr. Barr has a way of making you see what he sees for this school - and people, it's inspiring.

Mr. Barr emphasizes two things : working to potential, and being a person of character. You don't need to be the smartest person as long as you are doing the best you can and working to be the best you can be - and that doesn't just mean academically. This aligns so completely with my own philosophy of education and personal development it astonishes me. His vision for this school is of a community, and a community that will largely be determined by the students. As he says he is the captain of the ship, but if all the students lean one way the ship does, too. He sees his job as guiding the ship but giving them the freedom and skills required to steer it successfully. It's just such a positive way to view kids at this developmental stage, and I'm so excited for all of them as they embark on this journey together.

Here's what I think, people. I think this is going to be an extraordinary learning institution for our kids. I think Scott Barr, and his staff, are going to be the kind of role models you dream of for your kids but fear you'll never find - and yet here they are. I think this school provides an exciting opportunity for all of us - children, parents, teachers, administration, and the community at large - to see a community coalesce and develop, just as the larger community of Fort Mac is doing. I think this school isn't just going to produce good students. It's going to produce a new generation of global citizens.

 It's going to be fascinating to observe, and frankly I'm so excited that last night I offered to serve in a position on the new school council. Why? Because no one will ever believe that I am in Grade Nine and thus I can't sneak in and be a part of Ecole McTavish that way. I can, however, be in on the ground floor of what is sure to be a marvelous adventure. People - I can't wait. See you August 29th, fellow Marauders!

Monday, June 20, 2011

McMurray Musings - Restaurant Review : "Gardenia Cafe"

Well, people, I've noticed that no one in the city really does official restaurant reviews, so it seems a niche I can fill. Why me? Well, I will never claim to be an incredible chef, as I'm not. I do, however, quite like to eat, and I know good food when I taste it. I've had the privilege of eating at some of the finest restaurants in Canada, and also some of the very best in London and Ireland. I won't say I know the intricacies of running a restaurant, or of preparing food, but I am a pretty decent judge of what is worth spending my restaurant budget on and what isn't. I eat out a great deal, and enjoy a wide variety of cuisines, so I am always keen to try new dining experiences. I stress that this review is based solely on my opinion and that of my dining companion.

Generally speaking I truly prefer to be positive when writing these blog posts. Oh, I can get cranky once in awhile and write about how pyjama pants in public irk me, but if I can find positive things to say about an event, a person, or a business I will. I really wish this would be one of those positive blog posts, but I'm sorry to say it won't be.

This past weekend I went to the Gardenia Cafe with a dear friend who also happens to be a kick-ass cook. As it was a Saturday evening I booked a reservation for 7 pm, and was startled when we arrived that only 3 tables were occupied. If anyone here ever dined at Gardenia's predecessor, Pesto's, you know it was often quite busy on weekends as it was a favourite "date night" spot. I was a little troubled by all the empty tables but thought perhaps it was just an unusually slow night. As the evening wore on, though, I began to wonder if there was another reason for all those vacancies.

I was pleased when I discovered that you can bring your own wine to Gardenia, so I brought along a bottle of a lovely Jacob Creek chardonnay (an amber coloured wine with delicious honey notes, highly recommended). For a $10 corking fee you can consume your own wine, and as far as I know Gardenia is the only spot in town this is available. This a lovely service, and as it turned out the best part of the night was the wine I provided.

The atmosphere inside Gardenia is pleasant enough - white cloth tablecloths, but the disposable paper napkins indicate that this is a bit more casual than one might expect. The decor is quite pleasant, and it is a small but cozy space. The wait staff are also pleasant and seem to know their jobs, which is always nice to find. After all those good bits, though, the wheels kind of fall off the wagon.

My friend and I decided to start with an order of bruschetta. The server informed us that the French Bruschetta ($7.99) was not available, and the Italian Bruschetta ($7.99) would be served on a bread other than the described toasted panini as they didn't have panini. We then opted to instead have the hummus and pita ($5.99) as the modified bruschetta didn't sound particularly appetizing. The hummus was served to us but we were not provided with individual bread plates and thus we shared our order in the more intimate way (avoiding double dipping, of course). The hummus, I am sorry to say, was a disappointment. Bland, boring, and with a mass-produced feeling it lacked the zing and flavour one typically expects in a quality hummus.

After the disappointing hummus we still had high hopes for our entrees. My friend had ordered the Chicken Paella with Greek Salad and I had ordered the Cajun Spiced Chicken with warm potato salad and European coleslaw. When our entrees arrived I think we were both a bit dismayed.

The Chicken Paella ($18.99) appeared to be an unseasoned, diced, cooked chicken breast tossed with converted rice, peas, and some red pepper in a red sauce. The greek salad appeared to be fresh and was tasty, but the paella is best described as bland, boring, and uninspired.

The Cajun Spiced Chicken ($18.99) was even worse. A limp, white, pallid, unseasoned chicken breast had been doused after cooking in some cajun and cayenne spice. The warm potato salad was two lumps of vaguely warm mashed potatoes with what appeared to be carrot pieces. The vegetable side was actually quite interesting, a blend of broccoli and other vegetables that appeared to have been stir-fried or steamed in a mildly spicy seasoning. I doubt it was the coleslaw side listed in the menu but regardless the vegetable was the only interesting part of the entire plate.

My friend and I were both profoundly disappointed. Considering Gardenia advertises their variety of ethnic dishes we felt certain we were in for a real treat, and yet were served meals that even I, a rather poor cook, could have prepared. The food was also ready suspiciously quickly and only vaguely warm, leading me to wonder how much of it is freshly prepared and how much sees the inside of a microwave right before landing on your table.

At the end of the meal (which neither of us really finished, and my friend's half-eaten paella wasn't even worthy of taking home in her opinion) we were offered the dessert menu which we declined. The lack of attention to the quality of the food didn't exactly inspire our confidence in the desserts and we determined we had eaten enough to form our opinion of Gardenia. As we sat to finish the bottle of wine we were further disturbed by the increasing numbers of small black flies that began to haunt our table. The meal ended when one of the flies landed in my friend's wine glass and we decided we'd simply been there long enough.

As I said at the beginning I prefer to be a positive person, and while I cannot be positive about this dining experience I can offer some constructive criticism. The management at Gardenia need to take a very close look at the quality of the food being served. I do not expect local restaurants to be five-star experiences (although that would be lovely) but I do expect a certain degree of quality for the money I spend. When being served ethnic food I expect that it will be a sensory experience of new flavours and smells, and not bland rice, cajun spice, and tepid mashed potatoes. Gardenia, your patrons deserve better. When the best part of the meal is the wine your own patrons have provided you have a problem, and one you need to address. By serving food that is more inspired and by building on all the good things you have (like your staff, location, bring-your-own-wine policy, and decor) you could easily fill every table in your charming little restaurant. Until you do so, though, this restaurant-food-loving blogger will not return. And truly, that's a shame, because I think there is a niche for this kind of restaurant in the city - and Gardenia has a chance to fill it if they make some changes. I'd love to see that happen, people.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Firefighters Pancake Breakfast 2011

In years past when my kid was younger the firefighter's yearly open house and pancake breakfast was a much-anticipated event. I would say it was actually the event my kid most looked forward to every year. It's not a bad event for moms, either, what with the firefighters being there (as you may have noticed if you read this blog regularly I happen to be of the female gender, and like about 95% of women have a decided weakness for men in uniform). So, every year off we'd go to the pancake breakfast even though my kid has never really liked pancakes. The draw was the activities, the mascots, and the general atmosphere of the event. In recent years my kid's interest has waned, though, so it's been a couple of years since we attended. Yesterday, despite the rainy weather, I decided I wanted to go, and I'm pleased to report several hundred other people decided to show up, too.

Now, the pancake breakfast is always a good time. There are things for the kids to do, like seeing inside helicopters and fire trucks. The braver ones can even see what it's like to put out a fire, which is pretty thrilling when you get yelled at for even looking at matches. The food is pretty good, too, and plentiful as well. There is the dunk tank, and watching a kid toss a ball and dump an adult into a pool of water is always fun as their face just lights up (not the soggy adult so much, but the kid). There are the displays of post-accident auto extrications, which is pretty cool (and one of those things you hope you never need be done for you, but seeing it done so efficiently and calmly gives you great faith should it ever be required). There are the mascots wandering around, either delighting the kids or terrifying them a bit. There are displays like the one from Sustainable Resources Development, which give people like me a chance to thank them personally for all their hard work this year. There are local "people of note" there, like our city councillors and mayor (I love seeing them at these events with their families). Oh, and did I mention there are firefighters?!?

Proceeds from the breakfast go to local charities, which is great, but it's also just a chance to see some of the municipality's hard-working employees in action. In recent years I've had some experience with emergency response personnel and I've always been so pleased with their professionalism and, most of all, their kindness. Events like the pancake breakfast are an opportunity to see them at a time when the mood is light and their professional skills can be displayed. It's a chance to thank them for all they do. There are times when we take these services for granted, but I am so profoundly grateful to know that in an emergency I can pick up the phone and have these dedicated people respond. I have such trust and faith in them, and I think most of the people in Fort Mac do, too. So, while you can have pancakes, your face painted, and fun at the pancake breakfast you can also do something else. You can show the firefighters how much they mean to us all, and I think we did that today, folks. Thanks for braving the rain, firefighters and fellow pancake-breakfasters.

Honestly, people, I cannot think of a better way to kick-start the summer than Summer Solstice on Friday and the pancake breakfast on Saturday. Both events just set such a great tone for the rest of the summer, and if you are like me your summer dance card is starting to rapidly fill. The next time someone moans about there being nothing to do here I'm dragging out my daytimer to show them the events I plan to attend (and all the ones I regret I will miss due to my own holiday plans). I find myself having to choose between events as no one can possibly attend them all (for instance also happening this weekend was the Backyard Picnic at Mac Island with chef Michael Smith, and Treaty Days at Fort McKay). I've said it before and I'll say it again - this is going to be one helluva summer, Fort Mac. Get out there and enjoy it!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Summer Solstice 2011

Well, people, I did it again. I went to an event I'd never attended before, and once again was utterly blown away by it. I find myself often having to talk myself into getting into my car to drive to these things - there's the traffic, of course, and it's just easier to stay home. Once there, though, I am always so incredibly happy that I came because it just seems to lighten my spirit and renew my faith in this city's big spirit. The event this time? Summer Solstice 2011 at Keyano College, of course.

I have no reason to have never attended before, but I can guarantee this first time won't be my last. I arrived at the Keyano parking lot yesterday at about 4:45, and the event was already in full swing despite the rather iffy weather. What impressed me were all the families milling about - adults and children and babies and grandparents all out enjoying the event together. They had all come to welcome the beginning of summer, and people, this is going to be one helluva summer in Fort Mac so ushering it in seemed a fine idea.

The site map gives you an idea of the focus of this event. It's very family-friendly, and truly designed to appeal to a wide variety of city residents. There are bouncy castles...

And bridge building...

Free-for-all sidewalk chalk art...

And games...

Dancing on stage by the Keyano dancers...

And dancing in front of the stage by perhaps-future Keyano dancers...

Stilt walkers...

And there is so much more, like free hot dogs and hamburgers, drinks, and cookies, free music, goodie bags for the kids, and just being out on a beautiful spring-turning-to-summer afternoon and evening.

More than all this, though, is that pervasive community spirit I am sensing more and more often at these events. Residents come out, rain or shine, to enjoy the activities. They see old friends, and maybe meet new ones. Their children run around and play and dance. They bond to each other, and they bond to this city. Perhaps the Summer Solstice has always had this community feeling, and I can't say as I've never been before. I felt it so strongly, however, and it seems to be building into something stronger at every event I attend. I can't say if it's the city's community spirit growing or just my own but it seems that every day brings yet another reason to feel optimistic and positive about this place we call home. I feel this region beginning to coalesce into the true community that I think it is destined to be - a community of those who are proud to call it our city, and who embrace every chance to celebrate living here.

So, to those who organized, sponsored, volunteered at, performed at, and otherwise were involved in Summer Solstice 2011: Thank you. Thank you for providing an event to welcome a summer that is full of excitement and possibility for the RMWB. Thank you for contributing to the community and to that sense of our community coming together. Thank you for once again opening this blogger's eyes to all the wonderful events and people in this region. Thank you for giving those of us in Fort Mac a reason to celebrate once again, and to welcome a summer that is sure to be one to remember.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Here Comes the Rain Again

At the risk of dating myself I will share that I've always loved The Eurythmics, and have in particular always thought the song "Here Comes the Rain Again" lovely. I've been humming it all morning, people,  and I bet I'm not the only one - because it's finally raining in Fort Mac!

The past few weeks have been some of the driest I remember. My yard went from spring soggy to mildly damp to dry to desert crispy. It was not a pleasant transition. The trees and lawn were crying out for water, and even regular watering wasn't helping them much.

Even worse this dry weather has allowed wildfires that normally would have remained small and contained to grow into massive monsters of flame and smoke. It seemed the Richardson fire grew in size every day until the numbers and statistics were simply astonishing. Largest fire in Alberta in 50 years - and maybe ever. A fire larger than some countries.

I don't know if this rain is hitting the Richardson fire, but I can already see this city breathing a deep sigh of relief. I think we've been wishing for rain for so long, because even if it doesn't extinguish any fires perhaps it will help to contain growth of the fires and prevent new ones. It's such a pleasant change to wake up to the sound and smell of rain instead of the stench of forest fire smoke and ash on my car. I practically danced around the house this morning, not a rain dance but a celebrate-the-rain dance.

I know one typically doesn't wish for this kind of weather, but I hope it rains for days. I hope it rains hard and long and soaks every living thing in northern AB. I hope it touches the edges of the Richardson fire and allows those exhausted, brave firefighters to gain the upper hand. I hope it makes this city as green and lush as it usually is this time of year.

We often forget that we are quite utterly at the mercy of the elements. Despite our fancy cars, electronics, and other technology we cannot control the weather. We simply have to accept it as it comes, and have faith that eventually whatever weather we wish would arrive (a warm spell in winter, or some rain in a desperately dry spring) will do so. Today the collective wishes of Fort Mac were heard and the heavens opened. I'm not sure I've ever seen a more welcome sight. Here comes the rain, people. Enjoy it!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

McMurray Musings People of Note - Mayor Melissa Blake

When I first arrived in Fort Mac our mayor was sort of what you'd expect in a northern, oilsands industry-dominated  region. It was a man, of course, a bit older, and really the person you might imagine would be in charge of such a city. I had nothing against this individual, but it did seem to me that the region needed someone a bit younger, a bit more vibrant, and with a bit more vision - and that person quickly appeared in the form of Melissa Blake.

I'll be honest - I don't know Mayor Blake personally. I've had the pleasure to meet her on a couple of occasions, and always found her to be personable and gracious (particularly to my kid, which always pleases any parent). I've watched her career with great interest, though, and I've become a huge fan. It's not that she's never made mistakes, as we all do. It's just that I think she represents our area very well, and she turns some of the assumptions about Fort Mac on their head.

I bet sometimes when she is introduced to people as our mayor they are surprised. Why? Well, because she is young, beautiful, intelligent and female. I'm guessing most people outside Fort Mac assume we would have an older man as our mayor, and yet here we are with Melissa. I love that alone quite frankly, as it shows the world that we are quite a bit more complex than they may believe.

I think Melissa Blake is a person of vision. I think she brings an excitement about the region to the table, and I think she truly cares for the RMWB and her constituents. I believe she is absolutely the right leader for this phase of our region's life (as I believe we are in the midst of making the leap from a town mentality to that of an urban centre). She somehow manages to balance the needs and concerns of industry with those of citizens, and she has managed to guide the city through some turbulent times, too.

This a challenging time to be the mayor of any city in Canada, and perhaps here more than anywhere else. We face some unique challenges in Wood Buffalo, but we also have some unique opportunities. The leadership of this city has the chance to take this current boom and help the region to unfold in a way that benefits everyone and prepares us for the future. I think under Melissa's guidance this will be a very successful process as I believe she has all the skills and passion required to get the job done, and the  vision to see what is possible.

Melissa is a role model for every young person in this city, especially the young women. She is showing them that you can be both a beautiful woman and an intelligent leader. She is showing them that you can take assumptions and turn them upside down. Her enthusiastic belief in this city is visible at every public event at which she appears, and that is contagious to everyone, but especially our youth.

So, people, I'm a fan of Melissa for so many reasons. I'm absolutely proud to have her represent the RMWB, and I look forward to seeing what she does in the future. All I can say is that if it is anything like what she has accomplished in the past then we should expect some great things. I can't wait to see it, Fort Mac.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Canadian Oilverlords

Well, people, this video was all over Twitter last week, and perhaps you've seen it. If not, though, you really need take a moment and check it out, because it's terrific for so many reasons.

Canadian Oilverlords, The Daily Show

Alright, now that you've seen it I'll talk about why I think it's so great. I love that Wyatt Cenac came to Fort Mac to film parts of this segment. I love that he spoke to local people - and the comment about him not being a hockey fan because he's American? Freaking brilliant.

I love that Cenovus SVP Drew Zieglagansberger spoke to Cenac, and that he played along so beautifully. I think the management at Cenovus are handling their relationship with the media so cleverly. Their television ad campaign continues to impress me, and agreeing to appear on this segment of The Daily Show indicates that they are willing to take some risks to get out a positive (and damn funny) message. I admire their spirit, quite honestly, and I think they are a company to watch.

The bits filmed at MacDonald Island Park are amazing. The video of the little Noralta Skating Club skaters learning to skate and being presented as "Canuckofascists"? Hilarious - and adorable, too. Cenac on the Zamboni trying (and failing) to sing "Oh Canada"? I laughed so hard I cried a bit. Kudos to MacDonald Island Park for participating in filming this. They could have backed away and declined due to fear of where it might go, but again I think the management there is rather bold and willing to take some risks. I think it's paying off in a huge way, so I applaud them once again.

Okay, so you get that I think it's funny. There's more to it than that, though. So often in this city we find ourselves being skewered and thus we feel the need to respond defensively. When we do it then seems  we have no sense of humour. This piece showed that you can poke fun at us and we can take the joke quite well. There is nothing we need to defend in this piece. It's all in good fun, and it really shows that our region's public image just might be changing. I'm not saying it will change any minds about the oilsands industry, but perhaps pieces like this will help the world to begin to see that us "Canadian Oilverlords" are really just people who love hockey, Zambonis, Tim Horton's, and a good laugh, too.

Monday, June 13, 2011

2011 Fort McMurray Relay For Life

It was already growing dark on Friday evening when the whim to head to the track at Father Mercredi High School hit me. I knew that the 2011 Relay For Life was going on, and I decided this was the year I needed to check it out. Yes, that's right, people - it was my first time to visit the Relay For Life. I have no excuses, really - I've just never known anyone who was participating, and it's just never occurred to me to attend. All that changed on Friday.

The first sign of the magnitude of this event was the parking lot. I pulled into the lot at the Casman Centre and realized that it was jam-packed. I mean, Wal-Mart on a Saturday packed. Thickwood Safeway on a Sunday packed. I hunted around until I finally found a spot, next to someone who had cleverly angle-parked, and I decided to follow their lead. I grabbed my camera, and headed out into the dusk.

I had no idea how big this event is. The rows of tents are the first things you see, and the large stage beside the track. I noticed dozens of people in the centre of the track were dancing, and realized to my amazement that while relay participants were walking the track there was also a giant zumba party taking place on the grass inside. I wandered around a bit, and checked out the various tents and teams. I noticed the variety of participants - all ages, from babies in strollers to the elderly. All nations seemed to be represented, too, with many from our immigrant community participating. The atmosphere was both festive and party-like and yet sombre, too.

Shortly after I arrived they announced that the luminary ceremony would soon begin, and the announcer asked everyone to find their luminary. The luminaries, small paper bags with holes punched in them, lined the track, and when I looked closer I realized that every single bag had a name and a message on it. They were messages for those who had been lost to cancer, those who had survived, and those who are still fighting for their lives.

I walked the track and read the messages, and I watched those lighting the candles placed inside the luminaries. As they were lit I saw hugs, and smiles - and more than one tear, too. Some losses were clearly very fresh, and I had to turn away at points as tears formed in my own eyes. You see, I lost my father to lung cancer just about five years ago, and I know the pain that such a death leaves behind.

As I walked and read the messages I found myself on the edge of tears on several occasions. There were messages of hope and love. There were messages of loss and longing. There were messages of courage and strength. There were messages of all sorts, from mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles and children and friends.

There was one message in particular that brought me past the brink of tears and right into a public display of weeping. There, on one luminary, scrawled in a childish hand, was this:

At that point I realized that the reason for this event had touched every single person in attendance. From the smallest child to the most elderly adult they had all known and loved someone who had been affected by cancer. I would imagine you would be hard pressed to find any human being on this planet who has not known someone with cancer, and it is a disease that we have all come to know in it's various insidious forms. I looked around that track at the hundreds of people who were all there for a common cause - to raise funds to find a cure for cancer - and realized that we all had a very common bond.

People, if you, like me, have never attended the relay I urge you to go next year. Perhaps even form a team, or join one if you are invited to do so. I rarely sense the kind of goodwill and community I sensed on Friday evening, and it was all because we share this bond, this love of those who have endured a tragic disease, and our commitment to them. This was about a community far larger than Fort McMurray. This was about the community that encompasses all of us.

After a while I went back to the parking lot and found my car. I quietly got in and found the song on my iPod that I thought best suited the moment. It is a lovely song, and one that I think of when I think of those I have lost. It was played during the luminary lap at the Relay for Life, and I'd like to share it with you. I know I will always remember those I have lost, and I know that on Friday night hundreds of people gazed at those beautiful luminaries glowing in the Fort McMurray dusk and were lost in memories, too.