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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Getting On The Bus With Don Scott

Photo credit to Don Scott

One of the best things about writing this blog has been the opportunity to meet new people. I've met a lot of new people, and they have become friends, and mentors, and allies. They have become people I respect, admire, and value as members of our community. One of those people has been RMWB councillor and lawyer Don Scott.

I met Don when he offered me an extra ticket he had for a local concert. That might not sound like much or a big deal, but it was such a sincere and generous act. I declined the offer since I was actually working backstage at the concert in question - but that initial conversation led to a friendship.

I'm a writer, people, but mostly I'm an observer. I might seem like I talk a lot (and okay, I do) but I'm also the person who is quietly observing everything and forming opinions and thoughts. I file them away for the future and call on them when they are needed. I've been observing Don Scott (although he has no idea) and I've come to some conclusions. Don is a man of integrity, commitment, and vision. I've seen him in action at city council chambers, and speaking to Grade Nine students about legal and political life. I've seen him discuss matters large and small. And I've noticed a few other things, too.

When Don and I talk about an issue he almost never tells me what he thinks first. He asks what I think about it. He asks for my perspective, and my opinion. And then he shares his, quietly but firmly. I remember once when he asked about an upcoming project, and I told him I thought it was great. He agreed - and then said that sometimes he wished that people were just a bit bolder, just a bit more visionary. And that's when I saw the tiger within.

You see, yesterday Don Scott announced his intention to seek the PC Party nomination for the expected provincial election in 2012. He was introduced by former councillor (and Fort McMurray powerhouse) Sharon Clarkson. She commented that under Don's humble and quiet exterior lurks a tiger - and she's right. That quiet demeanour hides a man of vision, determination, and belief. Behind that humble exterior is a man who is a strong voice for our region - just as his campaign motto states.

I happen to support Don for a number of reasons. I think he's intelligent, I think he has vision, I think he's passionate about his riding of Fort McMurray-Conklin, and I think he is a strong leader. I also happen to think that we need a seat at the government table, not in opposition, but we need the right person in that seat. I happen to believe the right person is Don Scott. I believe that he will fight for this area, that he will represent us well, and I have never for a second doubted his commitment to this community. I've seen it first-hand, and frankly it's inspired me to follow his lead and invest more of my time and effort in it, too.

I've also had the opportunity to speak to a lot of other people about Don (ssh, don't tell him I said that, okay?). What I keep hearing is how they respect him, how they see his genuine and sincere commitment to everything he does, and how he cares about this community. So, I don't seem to be alone in my assessment of who Don is as a person. And as I've said before I base a lot of my political decisions on character, not just policy. And in my opinion Don's character is stellar.

I won't deny that I am Don's friend, and that I intend to work on his campaign. I am very open and honest about everything I do here in this community, and when I began this blog I committed to being open and honest with all of you. Maybe you won't agree with my decision to support Don, and maybe you'll find your answers elsewhere on the political spectrum in Fort Mac. But me? I'm claiming my seat on the Don Scott bus early, before everyone else hops on it - mainly because I hate having to stand on a crowded bus in my high heels. So, people, I hope to see you on the bus - because I think it's going to be a helluva ride, all the way to the Legislative Building.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My Life As A Santa Claus Parade Judge


Santa Claus arrived early in Fort McMurray this weekend, people, and he did it in style at the Lights of Christmas and Santa Claus parade, both events organized by our stellar events team at Events Wood Buffalo. If you've been reading this blog you know I was pleased (okay, downright thrilled) to be asked to serve as a parade judge this year. It was an experience I will never forget, people.

I've attended every Santa Claus parade in the decade we have lived here. I remember when it was in the day time, and I remember years when it was -25 and we huddled in our car until the last moment, leaping out only when the first float arrived, and then diving back in as soon as we spotted Santa. I remember the years my daughter rode on a float, and the year I organized and decorated one (that year I'd rather forget as the memory of the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that went into that float tends to diminish my holiday spirit). In one way or another I've been involved in the parade every year, as a spectator, proud parent, or contributor. So, this year, to serve as a judge? It was huge. It was amazing. It was pretty much the Christmas tree topper in a year that has seen a lot of special moments for me.

Photo credit to Dan Lines/Events Wood Buffalo

I arrived early at Doug MacRae park to catch the Lights of Christmas event. I was entertained by the carollers, and I managed to snag a hot chocolate. I watched as kids young and old snatched up lighted wands and flashed them around in the dark air. What was so incredibly lovely was the beautiful temperature, quite likely the best night I've ever seen for this parade. When the switch was finally flipped the park came to life with lights and music, the trees seeming to dance as the lights shimmered. I enjoyed the show, and then it was time to head over with my fellow judges to check out the parade.

I was delighted to see my fellow judges were some other local women, Amanda Purcell of Mix 103.7 and Kyla Getty of McMurray Girl. I happen to think I was in pretty amazing company as I respect both of these individuals immensely for what they have given to our community - and they have pretty darn good senses of humour, too, so I knew we were in for a fun time.

The parade started as it usually does, with fire trucks and police cars. I think my fellow judges can agree that we enjoyed those initial entries, not so much for the decor as for the uniformed men inside the vehicles (like I've said before 90% of women have a weakness for men in uniform, and the 10% who claim they don't are probably lying). Soon enough though it was time for the "real" floats, filled with decorations, inflatables of every sort, lights, music - and children.

Photo credit to Dan Lines/Events Wood Buffalo

The Santa Claus parade is really about children, of course. I recall when my Intrepid Junior Blogger was very little and her eyes would grow big as each float went by, each float one closer to the arrival of Santa. I remember the years when she was thrilled to be asked to ride on a float, to be one of those kids waving and yelling "Merry Christmas". I remember her riding on them, huddled up in blankets, cheeks red and rosy, and an excited smile on her face. I saw all that again on Saturday night, and it warmed my heart to be reminded of years not so long ago when it was my little girl.

It was tough to judge the floats, people. I know the kind of work that goes into them, but there were certain ones that simply stood out. I loved the "walking" floats, ones that instead of a flatbed were nothing but people in costume and walking the parade route. I loved the SPCA animals, as they always make you want to just reach out and cuddle one to you (and as they are up for adoption you can if one in particular catches your eye). I love the floats with myriads of lights, lights heaped upon lights heaped upon lights, probably visible from space (or at least from a sleigh with eight tiny reindeer). I love the floats with music, the floats where every person on it is singing and cheering. I love them all, people, and it really isn't until this parade that I feel like the season has truly begun.

Photo credit to Dan Lines/Events Wood Buffalo

While it was tough to judge my fellow panelists and I finally managed to come to our decisions, and they are as follows:

Best in Parade, Youth Group - Ecole Boreal
Best in Parade, Social/Service Group - The Community of Anzac
Best in Parade, Commercial/Business - Inland Concrete
Best in Parade, Honourable Mention - Mammoet

I'm pleased that the youth and social/service groups also happen to each receive $1000 for their entries, and it is richly deserved. Ecole Boreal won my heart with the French Christmas carols, wonderful decor, and happy children. The Community of Anzac impressed me with their community represented on a float, little buildings and stores all laid out for everyone to see. Inland Concrete fit more lights, blow up decorations, and general holiday "stuff" on a cement truck than I ever thought possible. It pretty much screamed "Christmas" and was impossible not to love. And Mammoet? The mammoth re-envisioned as Santa's reindeer caught both my heart and my imagination. I know how hard every one of these groups must have worked, and it showed. It was a pleasure to recognize them for that work.

I wish we could have given every participant an award, including the guys who tried to bribe the judges with a bag of lollipops (here's a hint, guys, next year try discreet, tiny bottles of Bailey's to add to our hot chocolate instead!). I wish I could have given every single walker, float, and driver an award for coming out on a Saturday night to bring joy to the hearts of hundreds of children - and, well, maybe the heart of a certain blogger, too.

The tree lighting was magical, and the parade, which ended as it does every year with the arrival of Santa Claus, was heart-warming. To see so many residents lining the streets, small children riding on shoulders, older children waving and hugging mascots, parents smiling and shouting "Merry Christmas" - well, it was about all that makes Fort Mac such a special place. It was all about the people who live here, the people who come together for tree lightings and parades and festivals and concerts and sporting events. It was all about everything good in Fort Mac - good will, good humour, good deeds (like the Food Bank's "Stuff the Bus"), and good people. It was, on an unusually warm late November evening, a reminder of why I love this community. It's because of all of you - and, well, Santa, too, of course.

Photo credit to Dan Lines/Events Wood Buffalo

My sincere and heartfelt thanks to Events Wood Buffalo
for the very kind invitation to serve as a judge, and to
my fellow judges Amanda Purcell and Kyla Getty. If we
really are the "Charlie's Angels" of the Fort McMurray
Santa Claus Parade I swear I will fight you both to be
Kate Jackson - although of course I suspect you are
both far too young to even remember her! In any case
you ladies rock, and I was honoured to serve as a judge
with wonderful Fort Mac ladies like you. And to the city
of Fort McMurray - thanks for coming out to kick off
the holiday season with lights, a parade - and Santa!

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Scottish Play - Or "Things Are Never As Simple As They Seem"


One of the best things about this city has to be some of the opportunities that come your way. A couple of weeks ago my friend contacted me and asked if I would be interested in a backstage tour of the play Keyano was presenting this past weekend - "Macbeth". I said yes, even though I didn't actually have tickets for the play. I suppose I said yes because I just love doing anything unusual, and getting a backstage tour is a bit unusual. As it turns out, of course, I did go to see Aquila Theatre's production of "Macbeth" and I loved it - so the backstage tour I got on Sunday took on an entirely new meaning for me. I was delighted to accompany my friend, one other person, and Keyano's production manager Nick Beach on a brief backstage tour - a tour that gave me some new understanding and perspective on "the Scottish play" as presented by Aquila Theatre.

When I wrote my review of Aquila's production one of the main things I commented on was the clean simplicity of the play. No elaborate sets or costumes, just the actors, some sound effects, some fog, and lighting. As we all know, though, sometimes the more simple something is the harder it is to pull off successfully. For all it's simplicity this play was not "simple" to stage, as in order to achieve that clean and pure ambience they needed precision and darkness.

Photo credit to Aquila Theatre

Why darkness? Because in the most fundamental way "Macbeth" is about the darkness of the human soul. The best way to reflect this in the production is to have the stage in almost total darkness, with only strategic lighting used as the action unfolds. Total darkness presents some challenges, people. The theatre company typically travels with a large black dropcloth that they use on the set, but as they flew in they could not bring it. So, Keyano repainted the stage floor with a very matte black paint, designed to absorb any light and not create any "bounce" from the lighting. And the lighting was unique, too, as the action occurs in a fairly small space that uses 16 "squares", lit or unlit, to showcase the actors. The most unusual aspect of the lighting was the use of "sidekicks", a form of lighting from the side typically used in dance shows as opposed to theatrical productions - but as anyone who saw the play can tell you the lighting was incredibly effective.

So, the lighting was phenomenally important, as it is integral to the ambience of the play. So too is the fog, that mist that hung not only over the stage but the audience, too, enveloping you in the sense that you are on the moors of Scotland and not inside a theatre. So delicate was this balance that the machine creating the fog was moved several times in order to achieve the best possible effect.

Photo credit to Aquila Theatre

Macbeth is about violence, of course, and I was delighted when I was given the opportunity to hold one of the daggers. Keyano's production manager explained that the daggers and swords were not of the theatrical variety, which are prone to breakage. No, these swords and daggers were made in an actual armoury in Britain, and they have the heft and feel of true weaponry, too.

We were able to see some of the costumes, the black cloth worn by the witches, and the flak jacket-style vests worn in the play. Simple costumes, yes, but again with an attention to detail and an eye to making the play modern and accessible and yet somehow still true to Shakespeare, too. It's a delicate balancing act, this, and yet they achieved it so marvelously.

Photo credit to Aquila Theatre

We spoke about the judicious use of colour in the play. The colours worn on stage were black, grey, white, and, in only one scene, red. This careful use of colour again reflects the understated nature of the staging of the production and yet it again shows the meticulous attention to detail. To use a colour too often, like red, would make it meaningless. To use white inappropriately would mar the visual image as well as the unspoken metaphor for what was being said about the scene. To use these colours carefully, delicately balancing them with black and grey and the darkness that is the heart of "Macbeth"? Brilliant. And to use black tempera paint as the "blood" that covers the hands of the murderers? So very, very clever, as the blood then appears as dark as the souls of those soaked in it.

The tour included a bit on the sound technology used (which is something I know so little about as to be laughable) and about the sound effects, which again were used to maximum effect. What kept coming to my mind, though, was that the clean simplicity that I had noted was actually an illusion. What seemed so simple when you sat in the audience was actually a finely choreographed dance of lighting, special effects, sound, and actors. As an audience member you could simply revel in what appeared to be an effortless and pure production, but it's clear months of thought and planning had gone into it.

Photo credit to Aquila Theatre

I so enjoyed the presentation of "Macbeth" that I have made plans. I have plans to visit New York in the near future, and I have decided that when I do I will go and see whatever production Aquila Theatre happens to be presenting at that time. You see, this stop in Fort McMurray was their only Canadian destination on this tour. It was also their last stop on a 3-month tour that saw them staging and rehearsing not just one but two productions ("Macbeth" and "The Importance of Being Earnest"). I suppose I feel that if they are kind enough to visit us then I can surely return the favour, and when I am in their home I will drop in and catch some more terrific theatre. I must tell you, people, I'm already looking forward to it.

My sincere thanks to Keyano Theatre,
Production Manager Nick Beach,
and my friend Tracy for making the backstage 
tour a possibility!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Something Wicked This Way Comes - "Macbeth" in Fort McMurray


Sometimes, people, there is nothing like the beauty of simplicity. It can be as simple as fresh snow on the grass. It can be as simple as a few notes tapped out on a piano. It can be a play that has been stripped bare of grandiose stage sets and elaborate costumes - like the production of "Macbeth" playing at Keyano Theatre this weekend.

Last night I had the honour and privilege of attending the opening night of Aquila Theatre's presentation of "Macbeth". Aquila is a theatre company originally founded in London, but now based in New York. You never know what you will get when you go to see Shakespeare, people. I've seen Shakespeare done "punk", and with WW II undertones. I've seen his plays done with costumes and sets that likely cost tens of thousands of dollars. And last night I saw "Macbeth", in my opinion one of the bard's finest works, stripped down to no set, virtually no props, simple costumes, and only lighting and fog used to create atmosphere. And you know what? It was completely stunning.

Photo credit to Aquila Theatre

I was mesmerized from the opening moments, and my attention did not wander. The acting is evocative, the delivery crisp and unapologetic. It is a finely tuned cast of actors, and they become the characters, never once allowing you to doubt their ambition, their pride, and their guilt.

"Macbeth" is a play designed to make you think. It is meant to make you look at the interaction between greed and guilt, ambition and agony. It is meant to reflect the shadows of the human character, and to show what happens when we allow those shadows to overtake us. "Macbeth" done badly is a travesty - "Macbeth" done well is a genuine joy. Aquila does "Macbeth" better than well - they do it magnificently.

Photo credit to Aquila Theatre

I sat in the audience last night, rapt as the story of Macbeth and his lady unfolded before me. I found myself eagerly anticipating certain scenes and certain lines, wanting to see how the cast created those moments. Not once was I disappointed. Not once did I wish a line had been delivered differently. I believed the characters. I believed the story. I believed in the downfall of a man gripped by ambition, and of a wife who served as the catalyst for it all.

The lighting was incredible, used to full advantage to showcase the actors. What was so lovely about it all, though, was the fundamental simplicity. With strategic lighting, a few well-chosen props, some understated costumes, and some profound acting, you were able to focus on the dialogue and the story. You were not distracted by artifice. It was you, some lights, some actors, and a story as old as humanity. It was Shakespeare at his finest, his words delivered by actors who could take nothing and make it into everything. It was simple and elegant and classical and talented and brilliant.

Photo credit to Aquila Theatre

At the end of the show the cast received a standing ovation, and it was well deserved. So too I think Keyano Theatre deserves a standing ovation,for bringing such a marvelous production to our community. Quite often Fort Mac is denigrated as a place where arts and culture are not appreciated, or, even worse, completely absent. Last night was a direct rebuttal to this sentiment. Last night an audience of local residents enjoyed one of the most highly-regarded classical plays to grace a stage, and embraced it. As I said last night on Facebook the next time someone says there is no arts and culture here I think I will forego my usual reply and just smack them upside the head as clearly they have no idea of the reality - or maybe they just didn't see "Macbeth".

After the show there was an opening night reception with food from the Sawridge (once again wonderful food, beautifully presented and prepared), and champagne. There was also the opportunity to meet the actors, of which I took advantage. I thanked them for a magnificent production, and for coming to Fort McMurray. I suspect they may come to cities like this, in northern Canada, and wonder about the reaction their production will get, and about how their efforts will be appreciated. I think last night we showed them that we appreciate the arts, and we especially appreciate the arts done very, very well - as they do.

Photo credit to Aquila Theatre

My only quibble, a very minor one directed at Keyano Theatre (and likely one only a writer would make), is to implore the employment of proof-readers. During intermission last night my companion and I were perusing the program. I was reading the synopsis of the play and was bemused when under Act 3, Scene 1, it indicated that "Banquo suspected Macbeth of fowl play". Now, again, maybe only a writer would notice this, but it led to much merriment with my companion and I as we debated how exactly we had missed the chickens in that scene. So, again a very minor issue, but here's the deal: if you really need a proof-reader, Keyano Theatre, fire it my way, and I will guarantee there will not be any fowl play ;)

People, all fowl play aside, this production of "Macbeth" is a must see. If you've ever wanted to see Shakespeare done in a way that is true and pure and simple then this is your chance. If you've ever wanted to see mesmerizing acting, this is your opportunity. If you've ever wanted to simply revel in Shakespeare's beautiful words, to hear the dialogue in a way that sings to your soul - then this is it. And if you've ever wanted to do it right here, in Fort Mac? Well, then, you better head to Keyano Theatre's ticketing website and get your tickets. There is a matinee today at 2 pm, another presentation this evening at 8 pm, and tomorrow at 7 pm - and then it's gone. Don't miss it, people. Don't make me come smack you upside the head. Go see "Macbeth" by Aquila Theatre, and enjoy. You can thank me later!

My sincere thanks to Keyano Theatre
for the invitation to attend "Macbeth",
and to Aquila Theatre for bringing
Shakespeare to the Fort McMurray stage!

Photo credit to Aquila Theatre

Friday, November 25, 2011

"Homeless Connect" - On Connecting, and On Being "Home"

Photo credit to EUP News

Yesterday I had an opportunity to spend some time with a segment of the population that is often ignored, and which I think to some extent is often forgotten. I'd been thinking about the issue for some time, but my recent evening at the KD Gala made me realize how close the topic is to my heart. When I was told about "Homeless Connect", an event designed to assist our local homeless population connect with the services they need, I knew I had to attend. Why? To see what our community is doing for those  who are struggling - and, even more so, to listen to those who are now or have been homeless in Fort McMurray. I wanted to hear their stories. I wanted to see their side of life in this city. And what I heard, people? It blew me away.

Homeless Connect was held at the Nistoyowou Friendship Centre, an unassuming little building downtown. When I arrived yesterday morning and went inside the room was packed with volunteers, tables from local services and organizations - and the homeless. What struck me was the diversity of those in the room who claimed that status. All ages, all races, both genders - homelessness here is clearly not "stereotypical". It cuts across a wide cross-section of humanity, and that was immediately apparent.

I began by working my way around the room, stopping in to check in at tables on mental health services, housing services, and even library services. I was perhaps most touched by things like the Christmas card table, where people had donated unused cards, and the people attending could sign one and have it sent to their loved ones free of charge. The "connection" going on here was about far more than connecting to services - it was about seeking and fostering that human connection.

There were bags of toiletries available, and the distribution of donated boots and coats. There was healthy food being served, like a soup that smelled glorious. In the back room there were health services set up, offering flu shots, wound care, and a variety of other medical offerings. I must especially commend the Keyano nursing students who were there, and who I saw dispense care, advice, and dignity. I think we have some fantastic nurses being trained in this community, and after seeing them in action I am so very hopeful some will stay here and provide that very compassion locally.

And it was that compassion that shone through in every person I spoke to. I noted that every single person there treated the homeless with dignity, respect, and compassion. Perhaps you've never seen it, but I've seen our local homeless population treated very poorly on occasion, and to see them treated in the manner every human being deserves was uplifting. My respect for those organizations and services that attended Homeless Connect is tremendous, as they seemed to not only understand the situation but express genuine care and concern. That, to me, is a treasure.

Photo credit to Weingart

While I was wandering around I spoke briefly to a lovely homeless lady, a First Nations woman who told me a bit about her life. She explained that she had been in a car accident which had affected how her eyes work (meaning they tend to wander) and that because of it everyone assumed she was drunk all the time. She told me that she felt there was a lack of services for women in the homeless population (a comment I heard again and again). She was friendly, and kind, and very sweet, answering my questions honestly and openly. She told me she was having a bad day, and I expressed my sympathy, telling her I hoped it would improve. When she moved on so did I, and I decided it was time to do what I had come to do - listen.

I must admit I had to screw up my courage to approach the first table and ask if I could sit with them and talk. I had no idea how I would be received. I had some expectation that they would tell me to get lost (or worse). Here I was, some nosy woman writer, asking questions about their lives, questions that were bound to be stupid and misguided. Someone who had never experienced homelessness, someone who had no idea what it was like - why would they even speak to me at all? People - I was genuinely humbled. They were, almost every single one I spoke to, kind and open and honest. They treated me with respect and dignity. They told me their stories, they answered my questions, and they welcomed me. I can't even begin to describe how that felt, to have people who have no reason to trust anyone, trust me enough to speak to me in this manner.

I spoke to men who were in their 40's and 50's. They told me of coming here for work, and of subsequent problems that led to being on the streets. One told me of addiction issues, but also assured me he was working on them, that he wanted to work and that he had just recently been placed in housing. More than one told me about injuries that led to job loss, and then to homelessness. This troubled me deeply, people, especially the story of the man who was hit in a crosswalk by one of our own transit busses and badly hurt. He told me about how difficult it is to recover from such injuries on the streets, about how hard it is to sleep on a mat with a fractured hip on one side and fractured ribs on the other. All I could think about was how impossible it would be to to heal when one is living on the streets - and about how a job-ending injury could result in similar dire straights for so many in our city.

I talked to some women, one who has been in Fort McMurray for over nine years, most of them homeless. She told me of winters spent in tents, of surviving in -35 weather. I asked if she was ever afraid on the streets as a woman, and she said no - she told me that she is the city's "toughest bitch", and I told her that I imagined she had to be. She nodded at that - because I think being tough isn't optional when you live on the streets. She told me about how she is treated when she goes into stores, how she is viewed with suspicion and disdain - and she might be tough but I could see the hurt in those eyes, the fundamental anger that she would be treated as any less than anyone else. When she told me I was hurt and angry, too. I spoke to another young woman, newly arrived here and very young, also on the streets - and for her I felt fear and great concern. You see, she is only a few years older than my own child, and I admit my protective instincts rose up - but she too was exuding that aura of toughness, that aura necessary to survive this life, and I knew my protectiveness would not be welcomed.

I spoke to a young man who intrigued me - eloquent, bright, handsome, open - and he told me of 3 years spent in jail and his life on the streets now. He told me about how you make friends on the street quickly - and enemies just as quickly. He asked me questions, too, and they were intelligent and reasonable ones. I spoke to his friend as well, a young man who was a bit guarded but who spoke to me regardless. He'd only been here a few months, but said he planned to never leave. I asked why he would stay here, and he said because he had family here. I thought at first he meant blood family, and then I realized he meant those people he had met here. I said to him "so you are making a family here?", and he replied "no, my family makes me". Simple. Profound. And true for every one of us, I think. Incidentally I'd told him and his friend to tell me if my questions were stupid, and he told me all my questions were stupid - and he's quite right, they probably were, and I'm sorry for that - and yet he still answered them, tolerated dumb questions from someone he had no reason to even speak to. He told me that I couldn't understand life on the streets unless I lived it - and he's right, of course.

I met a man who had been in the same job for 20 years, and lost it due to injury. He had ended up on the streets, and it took him some time to fight his way back, but he had housing lined up, and a job. What intrigued me most about him, though, was that he told me he is a writer. He told me about children's books he has written, and about poetry. He told me his idea for a novel, a book about Buddhist reincarnation with a twist - and it's a damn fine idea, too. I'd read his book, and I told him to never give up on writing. He and I talked about how writing is good for the soul, about how it can help you determine your identity when you have lost it (as he says he did after his job loss). People, he was no different than any other writer I've ever met, including myself, and I so hope he writes his novel. I hope he can write and share and pursue it the way I am doing, because his soul was no different than mine.

Photo credit to The Cord

As I wandered around I kept encountering the First Nations woman I had run into at the beginning. I would ask if her day was getting better, and she would say a little - and that she took things one day at a time. I replied that we all do, some days requiring one hour at a time, and she said sometimes one minute at a time - and we would share a smile and a laugh, moving on to our next conversation.

Around this time I looked up and realized that the McMurray Oil Barons were in the building. Young men dressed in hockey jerseys, they had volunteered their time at this event. Many of the people attending were delighted to see the hockey players, and I could see there were fans in the crowd. Two of the players took over the Christmas card table, and a young homeless man got a card and asked all of the players to autograph it. I joked with him and the players that some day it would be worth something, and he and they laughed, the players saying indeed it would be if all went as planned. I've written before that I am not a hockey fan, and that's true - but yesterday I became a fan of the young men in the MOB, people. Those boys treated the homeless population kindly, with dignity and respect and compassion. They were friendly, and they were community heroes in my eyes. I spoke with one of the players who told me that events like this make him realize how lucky he is to play hockey, to be doing what he is doing, and we talked about how homelessness can occur to anyone - like him, or me. Then I learned that he was arranging free tickets to one of the games for the young homeless man who had asked for their autographs - and I must admit I got a wee bit choked up. I know these players are often far away from their families, staying with others as they pursue their hockey dreams - but I want to go on the record as saying that I think I was as proud of them as all their parents would have been yesterday. I thanked the players before I left, telling them I was proud to have them in our community - and today I say I am quite frankly just proud of them.

One of the things I asked everyone I spoke to was why they stayed in Fort Mac. Every person I spoke to who had come here from somewhere else - BC, or Saskatchewan, further south or further north. Why would they stay here, where surviving the streets in winter is a challenge, where things must seem bleak on those frosty January nights? The answer? Some had left, but they kept coming back - because they see this as home. That cut to the very core, people. They see Fort McMurray as HOME. Some of them had been here longer than I have been, homeless for most of it, and they see this city as their home. I've spoken to people who live in $700,000 houses who don't see this city as home, who see it as nothing more than a stopover - and these people who have nothing see this as home? And what ran through my head every time was this thought : if they see this community as home, then don't they deserve to have a home in it? A place that is safe and warm? If they see Fort McMurray as home then shouldn't they have one? If this is their home even when they live on the streets then shouldn't we make sure they have a real home?

I must admit after a couple of hours I was overwhelmed. I'd heard so many stories, and asked so many (stupid) questions. I'd been treated kindly, shown honesty, and felt I'd made some connections of the sort I rarely have here. I think they were perhaps more honest in some ways than many people I have met, freely admitting their problems and issues, and telling me how they planned to deal with them. They were genuine and kind and friendly, and I truly hope they felt the same way about me. I decided it was time to go, and headed to the door.

At the door was the First Nations woman I had spoken to repeatedly over the day. She asked why I was leaving, and I told her my children would be home from school soon, and that if I didn't get home they'd eat nothing but chips and pop. She laughed and said she had been there, and then she looked me in the eye and said "I love you, my friend". People, I'd been very proud of myself to that point. I hadn't cried once, but those simple words, that show of faith and trust and friendship, brought tears to my eyes. What could I do? I wrapped my arms around her, and hugged her as I would my own daughter. As tears stung the corners of my eyes I said "I love you too, my new friend" - and it's true.

I walked out the door, feeling so many things I couldn't even begin to name. The thing I kept thinking, though, was that every person in that room was someone's son or daughter, brother or sister, aunt or uncle, wife or husband, mother or father - or friend. They were, at least in one case, my friend. I don't pretend to understand all the issues, or to know the solutions. I don't pretend to think I can contribute a great deal to them, or to help them in any significant way. I can do one thing, though. I can be their friend. I can treat them with respect, dignity, compassion, and friendship. I can practice random acts of kindness, bringing them trays of MacDonald's coffee when I see them huddled downtown on cold days. I can talk to them - and I can listen to their stories. Because in the end we all have a story, people. I heard some of them yesterday - and frankly I want to hear dozens and dozens more. I want them all to know that their stories matter, and that there are people who care enough to listen. Fort Mac, I am one of those people - and I hope you are, too.

I would like to extend my sincere
thanks to the organizers of 
"Homeless Connect", the volunteers and 
staff from all the organizations who attended -
and most of all to all those who spoke to me,
treated me kindly, and shared their stories.
You have no idea what it meant to me, and I
will never forget the experience.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Knight Lights, Theatre Arts Showcase - and Renewal of Spirit

Well, people, yesterday was a long day for me. I began it with this post, and things rapidly just got crazier from there. It became a day filled with emails, messages, tweets, and Facebook discussions. It was good, for the most part, people talking about how they were responding to the most recent Edmonton Sun article depicting us as a city of "drugs and hookers".

Late yesterday afternoon, though, I saw a comment on Facebook that made me pause. The person who posted it asked why we should care about what anyone thinks of us - after all, we live and work here, we know what it's about, right? Why bother "playing to the haters"? I must admit I sighed.

I suppose I sighed because on the one hand of course we shouldn't care about what others think of us, at least in a personal sense, but in a community sense we need to. We are a community that desperately needs to attract professionals, like doctors - how many are going to come running to a city that is depicted so negatively in the national media? How many people are going to say "I'm going to move to Fort Mac and raise my kids there!" if all they hear in the press is negative? That issue alone is reason enough to care about what the world thinks of us - because like it or not, we need the world, and we need some of the people out there to consider making us their new home. A negative perception of our city works against that goal, and in a powerful way.

The second issue I have with ignoring this type of coverage is that I have children. I don't want the Intrepid Junior Bloggers to ever feel ashamed of this city when they go elsewhere in this world. I posted that comment in response to the idea that we just ignore negative media coverage, and the person replied that "it shouldn't take the opinions of others to make your children proud". Well, of course, but we don't live in a bubble. The opinions of others do have an impact, again whether we like it or not. You can have pride, but having to constantly defend that pride, having to explain your pride, is wearying. Trust me, I know, because I do it often when I travel and the subject of my home comes up.

Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to meet with an American journalist who has spent three months in Fort Mac, working on a freelance magazine article about the community. I was wary of this meeting, a fundamental distrust of outside media in the back of my mind, but was delighted to find an intelligent, thoughtful, and honest young man who asked reasonable questions. We discussed Fort Mac and the community, industry and the municipality. Towards the end of the conversation he mentioned knowing a bit about what it was like to grow up somewhere with a "reputation". He, people, grew up in Laramie, Wyoming, a place that if you've heard of it might well have been because you've heard of Matthew Shepard. The young journalist told me that he was weary of telling people where he grew up - and then having to add the caveat that there was much, much more to Laramie than the horrible story most people have heard. At that instant I knew that this is not what I want for my children - to have to defend, explain, or apologize for the place they grew up. We fight to change the world so our children won't have to - and for me that fight just seems to include trying to change the way Fort Mac is seen.

Last night I was scheduled to attend two events at local schools. First I dropped off the youngest Intrepid Junior Blogger at Ecole McTavish to get ready for the Theatre Arts Showcase, a drama production the school has been working on almost since it opened the front doors in August. After dropping her off I popped over to Holy Trinity to check out "Knight Lights", the fair trade market the students there had organized.


I walked in the front door of Holy Trinity and realized it was packed. The atrium of the school was softly lit, and tables had been scattered around to display various goods. The young ladies who sold me my ticket told me about the free coffee and dessert that came with my entry fee, and then I went on into the atrium.





I stopped at several of the tables, took photos, and let the students tell me about what they were doing. They told me about a village in Sierra Leone, and about how money raised would go to build a school there. They told me about the goods from Ten Thousand Villages, and about how those who produced these goods received fair pay for them instead of having to work in sweatshops in deplorable conditions for little pay. And, in the end, they sold me a lovely soft blue pashmina, which I will wear with pride, and which reminds me of the soft glow of twilight on fresh snow.







By the time I left Holy Trinity I could feel my spirits, a bit dampened from a long day, lifting. I could sense the commitment and passion of the students, their belief and their idealism, and it invigorated me. Off I went to my next stop, and the Ecole McTavish Theatre Arts Showcase.


From the opening musical number involving the entire cast, to "It's a Hard Knock Life" from "Annie", "Hakuna Matata" from "Lion King", and more songs and scenes from Aladdin, Peter Pan, Ann of Green Gables, Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, Little Women, and Sound of Music, talent shone. I saw a group of students who had worked hours on this production, and given freely of their after-school time and weekends  (I know this due to the participation my Intrepid Junior Blogger). I saw an amazingly talented group of students who knew their lines, hit the right notes, made people laugh, evoked emotion - and had fun. I won't deny that I am enormously proud of my Intrepid Junior Blogger (an individual who, unlike her mother, embraces the spotlight - I'm a writer because live audiences make me nervous!), but I was proud of every single child on that stage, those who worked behind the scenes - and the staff at Ecole McTavish who worked so hard, too. I saw imagination and hope and joy and passion and commitment and inspiration.


By the time I left Ecole McTavish, with a tired, sweaty, hot, and blissfully happy Intrepid Junior Blogger in tow, I found my spirit completely renewed. I had seen the future of Fort McMurray at Holy Trinity and Ecole McTavish. I had seen young adults who embody all that is good about this community - passion, vision, belief, hard work, talent, commitment - and I saw hope. I saw dozens of community ambassadors in the making, and I saw children who deserve to go out into the world and proudly claim Fort McMurray as their home. I saw children who I think would never back down from a fight for what is right, and who if necessary will defend and explain where they grew up - but if I have my way they won't have to. If I, and you, people, take every opportunity to spread the good word about our community, to combat negative perceptions and to change those into something positive, our children won't have to explain or defend this community.

In the final analysis, people, I know what we have in this community is special, and so do many other people. Maybe others are content to allow negative perceptions of us persist, but I'm not. I'm proud of this community, the citizens, and the things we have done and will continue to do. I will trumpet those achievements, and I will fight negative publicity - and fight it not with negativity, but with stories of our triumphs, philanthropy, innovation, and vision. To the students at Holy Trinity who organized Knight Lights and gave of their personal time to make it a success : Thank you. Thank you for showing me the spirit of charity, commitment, belief, kindness, heart, and passion. Your belief in what you are doing is inspiring! To the students at Ecole McTavish who worked so hard on this production : Thank you. Thank you for showing me the spirit of talent, effort, dedication, devotion, and excitement. Your commitment to the arts is invigorating! And to the people of this community, my home - thank you. Thank you for reading, for sending me kind words of support and encouragement, and for caring about this community.

They ended the show at McTavish with this number, and I can't resist adding it to this post. You see, people, there's one thing about Fort Mac - the outside world can say what they like about us. We will address it and then we will keep on going. You see, people, the greatest thing about us is that you can't stop the beat.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Challenging Perceptions, Telling Our Stories - and Ending the Trash Talk

Well, people, I think most readers of this blog know I have a pretty low tolerance for Fort McMurray bashing. I acknowledge and recognize the issues in this city, and I know we have things we need to deal with. What I don't accept, though, is the depiction and perception of our city that seems to persist in some parts of this world - and even in our own country. Yesterday I was hanging out on Twitter, and saw a photo that had been posted by another Twitter user. The photo was of the kind of thing that makes me see red, and go off on a bit of rant. The photo? This:


Yes, it's an article from the Edmonton Sun, and yes, it's about Fort Mac. Now, it does point to some issues we have experienced in this community - organized crime, drugs, and prostitution. But there are a couple of things wrong with it, and a couple of things that angered me enough to start sending emails and tweets.

First up is the headline. Clearly the headline is simply sensationalist. It's an irresponsible way of grabbing attention, and it's really not the focus of the article - and yet it becomes the headline. Why? Because Fort Mac has a giant bulls-eye painted on it's back as far as the national media is concerned. Why write a title about there being an increase of financial crime in northern AB when you can instead spin it into an indictment of the evils of our community? Why go for responsible journalism when you can instead go for the sensational, seedy stuff? And we all know how well that sort of journalism has been working out in places like Great Britain recently (and in case you don't know it's not going so well for tabloids across the pond).

The second issue I have is the comments attributed to Matthew McGuire, director of the Canadian Institute of Financial Crime Analysis and director of Risk and Financial Intelligence with Williams McGuire - AML Compliance. I have no doubt Mr. McGuire knows his financial stuff, and that he has experience in investigating money laundering and other forms of financial fraud. What I think he doesn't know, however, is Fort McMurray.

To assess our community as a "capital of drugs and prostitution" is one thing, and we can argue about the statistics and whether or not they constitute making us a "capital" of such activities. My real problem, though, is the quote that "at the end of the day you've got a lot of people working up there with a ton of disposable income and very little else to do". That's not an objective statement by any measure, and not one you can back up with any sort of statistics, either. That's purely a subjective value judgement - it's an opinion, not a fact, and I find that tremendously disappointing.

You see, painting us as a community of people with a "ton of disposable income" and "little else to do" simply perpetuates a stereotype that anyone who has lived in this community or even visited it knows isn't true. Yes, many people here make an astonishingly good living - and they subsequently spend it on housing, food, their families, local sports activities, hobbies, and charities (we are, incidentally, the most philanthropic community in the country). The majority of citizens aren't spending their hard-earned dollars on "hookers and blow".  A segment of our population does, but doesn't that occur in any city? Especially in any city where a significant boom in size and economy is occurring? And that "little else to do" comment is like taking a sharp stick and poking it in my eye. Little else to do? Only someone who has never spent time in Fort Mac can think this. People, I can't even keep up with all there is to do in this place, and I defy any other person to, either. Those who think there is little to do aren't looking very hard - and those who think that about us have never spent a weekend in my house as we rush off frantically from event to event. It's just an old, jaded misconception of what this city is. We aren't a community of high-earning drug users. We aren't all taking our paycheques and visiting prostitutes. In fact I'd say that it's a definite minority involved in those activities, not "a lot" as is postulated in the article. The rest of us? Well, we are having kids (as evidenced by our astronomical birth rate), raising those kids (as evidenced by our filled-to-capacity schools and kid's sports activities), and leading normal family lives - much like everyone does everywhere else in Canada.

I was advised today that by the time this piece made it into the Sun archives the headline had been changed to something far less inflammatory. The problem remains, though. The inflammatory headline was read by hundreds, if not thousands, of people. The comments in the article remain the same, and I do not believe we can allow such comments to go unchallenged. To that end I have contacted Mr. McGuire and am in private communication with him regarding this matter. I have also contacted Jessica Murphy, the journalist who wrote the article, to issue my standard invitation to journalists who write such pieces about my community. What is that invitation? Come to Fort McMurray, and let me be your tour guide. Let me show you the Fort Mac I've grown to know and love over my decade here. Come and see our recreational facilities, our schools, our college, our businesses, and meet our citizens. I will also extend that same invitation to Mr. McGuire. You see, I think it's very easy to make such comments when you have never really spent time in a community or gotten to know the people in it. The only way to deal with this kind of media coverage is to confront is, challenge it - and then invite those involved to see the real Fort Mac. If we want to change the way our community is viewed then we need to show the world who we really are. This blog is my humble attempt to do so, and I hope every single one of you use every opportunity to act as ambassadors for this city. So, I'm not angry today, just a little disappointed - and, too, maybe just a little bit hopeful. Just maybe this is another opportunity to educate people about Fort McMurray, our community - and who we are. Just maybe this is a chance to tell our story yet again, to change perceptions and to show that there are people in this community who care about it, and about each other. This is a chance to show that there are people like you who want to share the story of your Fort McMurray - and I strongly encourage you to do so.

Want to express your thoughts on the Edmonton Sun article?
Contact the editor here.
Want to express your thoughts to the journalist who wrote it?
Contact Jessica Murphy here.
Want to express your thoughts to Matthew McGuire?
Contact him here.

And please remember  - if you choose to contact 
any of the above named you are an 
ambassador of our community. I encourage you
 to share with them the amazing positives 
in our community and leave out any animousity. 
This is an opportunity to educate and spread the word.
Let's use it wisely, people.

Wood Buffalo Primary Care Network is on the Move in 2012 - to the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre!



Well, people, I love a good press conference. I love press conferences that announce major concerts (these are exciting events, but generally with short-lived true community impact), and I love press conferences that announce new sports teams or sports events (usually longer-term community impact, but since I'm about as athletic as a sloth little personal impact). My favourite kind of press conference, though? The kind announcing something with tremendous community impact of the long-term variety, and one that means something to me personally as well. Yesterday I attended the press conference announcing the impending 2012 move of the Wood Buffalo Primary Care Network into the Keyano College Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre, and was delighted that this announcement is of my very favourite kind.

The Wood Buffalo Primary Care Network is a huge part of health care in our community. I began to use them shortly after they opened, mainly for their women's annual health check and screening program. Yes, I have a family doctor (in fact, in my decade here I've had three of them, as they have a tendency to establish a wonderful practice and then leave for other opportunities). I decided to use the WBPCN since I have always been more comfortable discussing women's health issues with a woman. I also determined after my second doctor moved away that the WBPCN could provide a consistency of annual care and still provide whatever physician I had with the necessary lab reports or information. My first visit to the WBPCN is what sealed the deal, though. I had a physical exam that was incredibly thorough, and the nurse spent more time with me than a physician ever has, for any issue. You see, physicians are so busy "putting out fires" - dealing with serious medical problems and crises - that health maintenance seems to play a secondary role. They just don't have time to sit and chat with you about not only your physical health but your emotional health, too. But that is what they do at the WBPCN, and they do it well. They provide so many other services, too, to people with chronic illnesses, recovering from medical crises (like strokes and heart attacks), geriatric care...the list goes on and on. In my mind they are a treasure in this community, and they are an integral part of our health care system.

For the last few years the WBPCN has operated out of the Morrison Centre downtown. This is a nice central location, but doesn't really have much else going for it in terms of being an appropriate place for this kind of organization. The Morrison Centre is really designed for small businesses and medical offices, and the WBPCN is likely to see their clientele grow as our city does. The WBPCN needed more space, and they needed a better fit for their needs. That fit appeared in the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre.

There is a natural "synergy" to this. The WBPCN is all about health maintenance and preventative health care - and of course that's one of the goals of a recreation facility, too. To be housed in a facility where clients can also access physical fitness facilities is a tremendous asset. To be connected to Keyano College is yet another asset, and I can see many collaborations between the college and the WBPCN in terms of research and perhaps even work placement experiences for students in certain disciplines. The fit of the WBPCN, Keyano College, and the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre is natural, sustainable, and potentially very, very exciting for all parties.

I suppose what catches me most is the natural connection in even the names of the two organizations - Wood Buffalo Primary Care Centre, and Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre. Those key words, "care", and "wellness", are so inter-connected and naturally linked. Now they will be physically linked as well, and to the benefit of clients, staff, and our community.

Oh, and one other benefit for those clients of the WBPCN? After their appointment they could stop at the gym for a work-out, or head to the running track - or visit Mitchell's Sunshine Cafe for the freshest, healthiest, tastiest food in the city. I promised that I wouldn't tweet about that part of the press conference - and I didn't! - but I gotta admit that the final part of a great press conference is great food, and the food from Mitchell's is the best.

 So, thanks to the Wood Buffalo Primary Care Network, Keyano College, and the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre for announcing a terrific new development in our community. I look forward to visiting WBPCN in their new facility - and, yes, grabbing a sandwich from Mitchell's when I'm done! See ya there, Fort Mac!

Jill Sporidis, Executive Director,
Wood Buffalo Primary Care Network, 
and Dr. Kevin Nagel, President and CEO,
 Keyano College, signing the
 "memorandum of understanding".
Photo credit to Keyano Communications

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

McMurray Musings' Fort McMurray Blogger Round-Up


One of the best things I've found about blogging is that you don't need to be a perfect writer to do it. In fact, there are no perfect writers, and often I go back to an old blog post and find a grammatical error that makes me groan (and wonder how many people think I'm an illiterate buffoon). All you need to blog is something to say, and the time to say it. Blog posts can be short or long, very topic-specific, or rambling. I follow some blogs that are nothing but photos, some that are nothing but cupcakes, some that are nothing but shoes, and some that are nothing but inspirational quotes (and some days I need those when I've arrived home after a serious traffic delay on the 63). My favourite blogs, though, are the local ones. I'm always interested in what other residents of our community are thinking, whether it's about local restaurants, events, or what it's like to be single here. So, I want to share some of these local blogs with my readers in the hope that you too will find something you like.

First up is The Nomadic Learner. Now, I'm honoured that the author of this blog also happens to be a friend of mine, but that's not why I love her blog. I love it because we attend a lot of the same events, so I get to see another perspective on the community, and see it through her eyes. She also has her own unique experience in our city, and so her blog tells me about some things I don't know about. Combined with a comfortable writing style it means her blog is always a good read, and I recommend it for another view on life in Fort Mac.

Next up is someone I think is seriously, seriously funny. Now, I can be funny - in person. Writing in a way that is funny is a gift, though, and one I don't have. The author of the blog Seriously, I'm Just Sayin'.... has this gift. She writes about local things but also about her life, her dog, and her toes. It's always an interesting read, often funny as hell, and I think she's a terrific writer, too. She even has a Facebook page for the blog - so go like it and keep up to date with her latest posts!

And next is someone else I find intriguing. Ever wonder what it's like to be single in Fort Mac? Yeah, me too, and just due to some personal experiences I figured it's an interesting adventure. Single Lady in Fort McMurray blogs about what it is like to date in this city, and to navigate the oh-so-treacherous-waters of single life here.  But it's not just about dating here, either, and speaks to the larger experience of finding yourself single when you didn't expect or plan to be, and about continuing the journey of your life. Often funny, occasionally poignant, and definitely worth a read.

Next up is a new blogger on the block, but one that is providing a necessary service in Fort Mac - restaurant reviews. I'd considered doing such reviews but got sidetracked with dinners, galas, events, and municipal affairs, so when this blogger began to tweet food reviews I suggested a food blog. Since others suggested the same thing I was delighted when he decided to pursue it, and while it's a new venture I think it's terrific. Food is a very subjective thing, and this blog is still in it's infancy, but we all started somewhere, right? So, head on over to YMM Food Critic and check it out! (incidentally "YMM" is our airport code and the tag used to identify Fort Mac on Twitter)

And then there is Sunlit Serenity, a lovely gentle blog filled with photos, soft words, and, quite frankly, a sense of love. The blog is just as the name implies, filled with sunlight and serenity, and it's a nice quiet read for when you feel the need to slow down a bit. The posts are often short and perfect for a quick read, which can be a nice change from long, involved, wordy blog posts (of which I am guilty, oh, so very guilty, people!).

Finally, someone will likely argue that this isn't a local blog, but it's a blog by someone who grew up in Fort Mac and is now pursuing life adventures overseas. Her ties to this community remain strong, though, and  while her blog talks about her current life you can see it's deep roots in our city, especially in her non-traditional career choice. Again this is someone I am proud to call a friend, and High Voltage Housewife may have left Fort Mac in body, but I know that part of her heart remains here.

So, there you have my latest Fort McMurray blogger round up. What I'm truly hoping is that we will experience a blogger explosion in this city. There is so much to be written about, and so much to be said, that there is room for dozens of blogs. Like I said at the beginning you don't need to be a perfect writer - in fact, you can just post photographs and not write at all. I can guarantee one thing, though, and that is that blogging is good for the soul - and it's good for our community, too. The tagline for my blog has always been "telling our own story" - don't you think just maybe it's time to tell yours? Fort Mac - I hope to "read" ya soon!

Monday, November 21, 2011

2011 Festival of Trees Gala - Northern Lights Health Foundation


Well, people, I have had the great privilege this season to attend many spectacular events. I've been to balls, galas, and political dinners. I've attended events from the very high-end Keyano Gala to the lower-end but still incredibly special KD Gala. I must admit, though, that there has been one gala that I have been anxiously awaiting for months. There was one event that I've always wanted to attend, never have, and this year finally did - and I am so very, very glad I did.

The event? The Northern Lights Health Foundation Festival of Trees Gala. I've been intrigued by this gala since I first heard about it years ago. In my early years here we didn't go simply because I was so tied up raising my Intrepid Junior Blogger that the only times I went out was to Wal-Mart, the grocery store, and occasionally the dentist. Then, the past couple of years, the event was invitation only and sadly I didn't receive an invitation. This year, though, when the NLHF began to advertise the gala I immediately tweeted them and asked if it was open to the public. They replied right away, asking if I wanted to attend and if so how many tickets I required. I was delighted - I was like Cinderella finally going to the long-awaited and long-dreamed of ball. I purchased two tickets (for my husband and myself), and on Saturday evening we headed down to MacDonald Island Park and the Festival of Trees Gala.

That I have tremendous fondness for MacDonald Island Park is no secret in this community. It's where I choose to spend most of my free time (although they could use a coffee shop with free wi-fi suitable for a blogger-in-residence - just sayin'). I also tend to think it's the perfect place for events, from concerts to galas. So it seemed the perfect fit for Festival of Trees, and I think the evening proved that assumption true.

I was a bit dismayed by the line-up at the coat check, but the people there were working as quickly and efficiently as they could (I think the delay was simply due to a very small table being used at the coat check, and that everyone was dressed in several layers due to the nasty temperature). Once I had shed my coat, though, I was thrilled that despite wearing a cocktail dress I was warm and quite comfortable (that bit is something that always amazes me, how they manage to keep such large spaces warm enough for cocktail-attired guests). And then it was onto the gala itself, and I was so excited. I had anticipated this for years, and I suppose I feared being disappointed. But people - I wasn't disappointed. In fact, it exceeded my expectations.

When I entered I was first struck by the lovely trees of course, all decorated and ready for the live auction. In fact I was so enchanted by the trees that when I turned around and saw the table of welcome cocktails I assumed the figure in the middle of the table was a statue. I almost passed out when the "statue" came to life and handed me a cocktail. I thought this was incredibly creative and lovely, and set a beautiful tone for the evening.



The venue had been swathed in white cloth, with white cocktail tables, chairs, and sofas. On the main stage there was a woman in a beautiful gold dress, strumming an enormous gold harp. And on two opposite ends of the field house were two performers doing the "aerial silks", an acrobatic act I became familiar with when the youngest Intrepid Junior Blogger participated in a circus camp two years ago. The effect of all these things combined was ethereal, classy, and sophisticated. It felt like a winter wonderland, but one with a very cocktail-party atmosphere. The little touches, like the lamps on the tables, and the crystal chandeliers, completed the ambience.











Once again I must commend MacDonald Island for their part in this event. The food was terrific, and while I had never considered mashed potatoes a cocktail food I was impressed to discover how warm and comforting they were, and how well they actually complemented the winter wonderland theme. The bar service was impeccable, and the most stunning thing was perhaps the ice bars - bars in fact made of ice, with snow and red sand serving as lettering. Later in the evening I went to the bar for another drink and noticed the ice bar quietly dripping, the ice melting away as the evening was winding down (which somehow seemed appropriate, too). The wait staff was attentive and polite, and I think MacDonald Island should be proud of their staff for their performance at events such as this one. Frankly as someone who feels quite fond of MacDonald Island even I was proud of them.




My husband and I sampled the food, and indulged in a couple of drinks from the bar. When our table was approached by two young RCMP officers in dress uniform we discovered they were selling small numbered plastic diamonds, and that at the end of the evening there would be a draw for a diamond bracelet. We bought two of the little diamonds, both because we knew the money raised goes to a great cause and because I rather like sparklies (and, well, like 90 % of women I have a weakness for young men in uniforms, too).

The main event of the evening was, of course, the live auction of trees. We had come prepared to bid on and perhaps purchase a tree, and so we looked closely at all the trees to determine which we might consider bringing home. We found several candidates, and when the auction began we settled in to see how things transpired.




Ashley Crewe, one of my favourite Fort McMurray women (beautiful, intelligent, eloquent, and kind - what more could one want?), acted as the "Vanna White" of the evening, walking from tree to tree in her gorgeous red gown and helping to entice bidders. The auctioneer was also a personable sort, but I must admit I've become very fond of local auctioneer Ross Jacobs, and I missed his style at this event (and Ross brings a knowledge of local people to the auctions, meaning he's quite successful at playing bidders off each other as he knows the old rivalries well).




The auction went rapidly and well, with trees flying off the proverbial shelves. The most hotly contested and highest-earning tree was the Suncor "We Love Winter" tree, which came with a stay at Chateau Lake Louise. This tree went for the astonishing sum of $25,000, again a testament to the generousity of this community, and of our giving spirit. Other trees went for lesser amounts but some were quite popular as well, including the blue and silver Tiffany tree that came with jewelry, perfect for Christmas gifts. My husband and I bid on several, but decided each time to be content with the high price others were willing to pay. I can say I think we drove up the bidding on several trees, and thus did our own little part to increase the coffers at the NLHF.



When the auction ended it was time for the raffles, and again we did not win an item, but once again were simply happy to have contributed to the great cause of supporting our local hospital. You see, we've been here for a decade, and we've used the hospital in that time. We have been fortunate to have not had to use it for any serious emergencies, but I will always remember when my then 4-year old Intrepid Junior Blogger broke her arm, and how kind and professional they were. The hospital staff treated a frightened little girl and her equally (perhaps even more so) anxious mother with care and kindness, and thus I have soft spot in my heart for them, too.







I finished out my evening at the gala with what I am going to call the best thing I've eaten at any gala in this community - sticky toffee pudding. I rarely allow myself this treat, but when my husband brought a plate of it for me I gobbled it down like I'd never seen food before. It was warm and comforting and sweet and sticky, and the perfect end for the evening.


I admit we did not stay for any further entertainment, and we did not stay until the very end, when they typically turn up the lights and gently encourage the stragglers to leave. We gathered our coats and ventured out again into the cold night, but while my body was cold my heart was warm. I had finally attended the gala I had always wanted to attend, and it was what I hoped - and more. It was yet another example of our community coming together to support a local cause, and it was another chance to speak to some of the people in our city that I have come to respect, admire, and consider my friends. It was a chance to start my Christmas season in a giving way, and to celebrate the beginning of the season at MacDonald Island Park, a place I have come to consider almost a second home. It was time spent with my husband, and it was a time to simply stop and enjoy and revel in the ambience of a snowy white winter wonderland.



In the end while we didn't get a tree or a diamond bracelet we did win two silent auction items - lovely lamps that now adorn my living room. They cast a soft, amber glow, and now when I sit in my favourite chair I will forever be reminded of an event that has become synonymous with Christmas in my mind. To the organizers, staff, volunteers, MI team, and all others involved in the 2011 Festival of Trees Gala - thank you. Thank you for being the first to put Christmas spirit in my heart in a year when I have been struggling a bit to find it. You ignited a spark that is now a full Christmas flame, and while this may have been my first year to attend it will not be my last. The Festival of Trees Gala is all about giving, generousity, kindness, and hope. It's all about Christmas, people, and I genuinely hope that next year I will see you there, Fort Mac. The Festival of Trees Gala is, quite truly, the perfect way to kick off the Christmas season, and I am so glad that this year mine began there.