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

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

And In The Beginning There Was Ian Hill...

Well, people, last week was an incredible week in our community. I attended a social prosperity change lab and summit, and I attended a conference that was incredible for me, both personally and professionally. The conference? "Leading the North", hosted by the Northern Alberta Development Council. When I registered I wasn't sure what I would find for myself there - a blogger, an everyday resident, not someone in industry or government. What I found has quite likely changed me professionally - and personally, too. The conference was, in my opinion, a smash success, and I have enough stories for days - but I'll start at the beginning, which was the conference reception held at MacDonald Island Park.

I arrived at MacDonald Island and found it buzzing with delegates, both from our community and many, many other communities, which I found very exciting. There was beer and wine and food (including that deadly sticky toffee pudding that is both the joy and bane of my existence, impossible to deny but requiring me to spend more time at the gym upstairs at Mac Island, too). And there were old friends and new people, and there were speeches from local dignitaries, and from representatives of the RMWB (one of these in particular caught my attention with some astonishing statistics, ones I hope to share with you in a future post). And then, there was Ian Hill.

I admit it. I didn't really know who Ian Hill was when it all began. A venture capitalist, a philanthropist, a "business guy". Okay, I thought, let's see what he's got. I expected some sort of bland motivational speech that you find mildly interesting but hardly inspiring. What I discovered instead was someone who has a passion, vision, and drive that could change the world. And he believes that we can, too.

The premise of Ian's speech was that we in Fort McMurray could create the "Athens of the north". Yes, you read that right, people. His premise is that we have everything we need - prosperity, potential, opportunity - to create an incredible community that the rest of the world looks at with awe. And you know what? I think Ian Hill is right.

Ian talks a lot about how he isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, and about how he graduated at the bottom of his class. I very rarely swear in this blog but this occasion requires me to say a polite "bullshit". Ian Hill may have struggled academically but he is absolutely brilliant in the way he thinks and the way he expresses himself, and by the end of the evening he had me envisioning this city in the way he depicted - as a beacon of hope for the world.

One of the key things Ian said was that history will judge what happens here in Fort McMurray - and he is right. We are in the midst of a giant experiment in community and industry and environment, and the world is watching - and history WILL judge us. The question becomes how we want history to see us.

You see, money is great, and we all know there is a lot of it floating around this city. But history will not judge us for what kind of car we drove, or how expensive our house was. We won't be judged on how much money our economy generated, or how much money we spent to do it. No, history will judge us by how this community develops, by whether it becomes a crown jewel or a lump of coal. And the incredible thing is we each have a role to play in what happens here, people. We can be the ones who polish that jewel, or create that lump of coal.

Ian outlined the four things that can prevent us from creating Athens here, from creating a jewel of which we can all be proud. They are as follows:

1. The peril of futility - If we believe we cannot effect change then we are doomed. We must believe that tomorrow will be better than yesterday. And we must believe that one person - YOU! - can make a difference.

2. The peril of timidity - If we are too afraid to try the new we cannot succeed. We must be willing to make connections, and use our collective intelligence. This is no time for idealogues, for those who refuse to embrace the new because they are so tied to the old.

3. The peril of expediency - If we are all about "time" we will fail. We need to recognize that it takes time to build relationships and create alignment. We need to take the time it takes to do so.

4. The peril of comfort - If we refuse to leave our "comfort zone" then we will never change. Great civilizations fall because they are comfortable - because they fail to innovate and change and explore new ideas.

Ian also asked some questions, questions I have been asking myself since the night I met him. The questions are these (and I suggest you might want to think about them, too):

Why will the world be a better place because you have lived?
What have YOU contributed to your family, your organization, or your community?

And he provided some answers too, things like using every single day to try to make one meaningful connection with another human being. He talked about those four perils, and about how if we overcome them we can find innovative and creative ways to make Fort McMurray the Athens of the north. And then he provided a quote that resonated with me that night, and that continues to resonate with me every day, because I think it speaks to the very heart of this community:

"If Athens shall appear great to you, consider then that her glories were purchased by valiant men, who understood their responsibility and acted on their duty" - Pericles of Athens

And that is the heart of it all right there. With great prosperity comes great responsibility, and great duty. The glories that we can achieve in this community - a socially prosperous community, not just an economically prosperous one - are within our reach, but we are the valiant ones who need to understand our duties and responsibilities to achieve it. The future of our community - the way history will judge us - rests on each of us, you and I, and not on industry or government. We each have a responsibility and duty. And Ian Hill reminded me of that last week.

By the time Ian finished speaking I admit it - I was in tears. Not just because of his belief in what we can accomplish here, but because his "call to arms" spoke directly to me, and to every person in this community. He made me believe we can create Athens, too, and he made me see that this city - Fort McMurray! - can become a shining beacon of hope in this world, in a world that desperately needs hope. And that fate rests in our hands, people. So, what are you going to do about it, Fort Mac? How do YOU want history to judge us? It is up to you, and to me. This is the time to decide how we want history to see us. We have an incredible opportunity in this community - and this is the time to act.

Ian Hill and me, Leading the North

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Your Vote Is Your Voice

Well, last week was a crazy one in Fort McMurray. I attended a change lab, a summit, a meeting between local seniors and provincial cabinet ministers, and three days of a conference, all of which will be detailed in further posts this week. My week ended on a particularly high note, though, and one which I think bodes very well for the future of Fort McMurray - so I am going to start there.

Yesterday the PC party held their nomination vote for the riding of Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo. As you may know the provincial government has divided our region into two ridings, and so we have the new opportunity to send two MLAs to Edmonton to represent us.  The riding of Fort McMurray-Conklin did not require a nomination vote as city councillor, local lawyer, and my friend Don Scott was acclaimed the PC candidate on January 16th when he was unopposed in his decision to seek the nod in that riding. The other riding, though, became hotly contested when four individuals decided to seek the nomination, and so yesterday was voting day for PC party members.

The four candidates are all impressive individuals, and over the last few weeks I've had the opportunity to get to know all of them a bit better. Mike Allen, small business owner and city councillor, is someone I have admired for some time. Jeff Thompson, chair of the public school board of trustees, has this huge personality and great ideas. Nick Sanders, member of the MacDonald Island board and Chamber of Commerce board, is a fabulous example of someone who immigrated to Canada and embraced his new home country (and he's a terrific guy to boot, too). And Andrew Highfield works in perhaps the most challenging, rewarding, and important field - education (he's a teacher at Holy Trinity). Every single one of these individuals could represent our region well, I think, and I've come to respect every single one - but I admit that I was delighted when it was announced that my friend Mike Allen had won the nomination and will be the candidate in my home riding of Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo.

Over the past few months I've had the chance to spend a lot of time with both Don Scott and Mike Allen. I've come to know them as people of integrity, character, and true commitment to our community. I've come to believe in them as individuals - and as leaders. And I've come to firmly believe that they represent the best chance for our region to be heard in the provincial legislature, and that they will represent us well given the opportunity.

I have faced some questions recently about my public display of support for specific individuals. I can only say that I have never claimed to be impartial, to write as a journalist, or to be a woman without opinions. When I write this blog I am as honest as I can be, and part of that honesty is telling you what I think is best for our community - and I think Don and Mike are it, people. You might disagree, and I respect that as I welcome discourse and I firmly believe in democracy, too. I suppose what matters most to me, though, is seeing members of our community being actively engaged in politics. I would love nothing more than to see the next provincial election see our highest voter turnout ever - regardless of the name those voters happen to put their "X" beside. I want to see our entire community get passionate about politics, discuss the issues, campaign for those they believe in, and head to the polls on election day.

I am looking forward to the next few weeks with great anticipation as I am proud to call both Don and Mike my friend, and because I am thrilled with the chance to send these two to Edmonton to represent us. I also want to congratulate Jeff, Nick, and Andrew for seeking the nomination - it takes a leap of faith to put yourself out there that way, and I am proud to have them in my community (and I know that each of them will continue to contribute to Fort Mac and make it a better place, too). I congratulate both Don and Mike as they embark on this new journey, and I am delighted to share a small part of this journey with them.

As for you, Fort Mac - this is your chance. Get involved. Get educated. Get passionate, and get political. We have an opportunity with this next provincial election to have our voices heard. Make sure your voice is one of them, people. The future rests on all of us, and we have a responsibility to it, and to our community. I'm pretty sure by now you all know where my vote will be. Now, how about yours?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In Your City, and In Your Life - Fort McMurray Professional Baseball

A couple of weeks ago I received an invitation that both delighted and perplexed me. It was from the Fort McMurray Professional Baseball group, and they were inviting me to an introductory information session. I was delighted because I always love invitations, but a little perplexed because I've made it pretty clear that my understanding of sports is minimal - except in relation to what those sports mean to the community. It wasn't until I attended the session this past Thursday that I understood why they invited me - because the vision they have isn't all about pro baseball, people. It's about how pro baseball fits into community, too.

The information session was presented by "The Sport of Business", consultants that Fort McMurray Professional Baseball (FMPB) engaged to help them flesh out this idea of pro baseball in Fort Mac. The session wasn't so much about baseball but rather about what having a pro ball team can do for the community, and how the community can benefit from it. Of course, in exchange they hope the community will support pro baseball, too, by attending games and filling up the stands in the new stadium planned for MacDonald Island Park. And people - I like what I heard. I might not know baseball but I know a tiny bit about our community, and I think having a pro ball team here is going to be very, very good for all of us - whether we are sports fans or not.

At the introductory information session FMPB discussed their mission and vision for the team, and while the word "baseball" came up a lot so did words like "community", "engagement", and "sustainability". And those words are a lot closer to my heart than baseball is, but there is a clear connection, I think.

In order for the team to be sustainable it needs to engage the community. It needs to develop a connection with the residents of this city, both in terms of creating fans and showing that it wants to provide benefit to the community. The baseball team is not a charity - it's a for-profit organization - but I can see in their vision a determination to help our community, like helping those non-profits I consider so vital. The team doesn't want to exist simply as an entertainment option but rather as part of the fabric of the community.

The phrase that came up a lot during the session was "In your city and in your life", which is an intriguing statement. FMPB wants to be considered a "first-call" - eg, when a non-profit is looking for ways to do fundraising they'd like FMPB to be one of the first calls they make to see if they would like to be involved. They want to engage our local youth, and they want to show the community that they are committed to being here long-term.

The mission of FMPB is simple - "contributing to quality of life through professional sport". They want to establish a first-class organization that is customer-focused, has a meaningful connection to the community, and that has long-term sustainability. Their vision is equally clear - "quality family fun entertainment in a clean, safe, comfortable environment" - and I can think of no place better to achieve this than at MacDonald Island Park, which is on the cusp of a major expansion that takes my breath away with excitement.

There are a lot of details still to be ironed out - ticket prices, and opening date (this depends on the construction schedule of the stadium at Mac Island, of course). There are lots of ideas floating around still - theme days, how to set up sections for families and groups and for those who enjoy a cold beer on a hot summer afternoon (and ballpark hot dogs, I hope!). And there is one very important question that remains undecided, and one where community engagement is not only being hoped for but actively sought - team name, colours, and logo.

You see, FMPB knows this is a team for this community, and they don't want to just pick a name and colours and a logo and say "well, here it is, this is what you get". Nope, they want to hear YOUR ideas, people. What you like, and what you don't (I suggested keeping "oil" out of the name altogether, focusing instead on some of the other things that make this community so great). They want to hear what name you think best reflects our community - and remember, this team will play 48 home games, but an almost equal number of away games, and they will take with them that name and logo. They will be representing all of us on the road, so the question becomes : who do you want the world to see when they see OUR baseball team? What do you want their name and logo to say about us? What do you want everyone to think of when they see our team out there playing baseball?

I was delighted to attend the introductory session for Fort McMurray Professional Baseball, and in the end I was no longer perplexed as to why I had been invited. My connection to sport may be a bit fuzzy but my connection to community is clear, and if they want to improve the community, to contribute to it, then they've got my support - and enough of it that one day I suspect you will find me in the stands cheering on our team, even though someone might have to explain some of the rules of baseball to me on occasion.

I'm also looking forward to another thing - when the name "Fort McMurray Professional Baseball" ceases to exist and is replaced instead with a team name, a name that perhaps we have contributed to, chosen, or helped to develop. I hope it will be a name which we can proud to sport on T-shirts and ball caps as we make our way around the world, too, and a name of which we can say "yes, that's our baseball team!" when asked. I gotta admit - I'm personally pretty excited to be in on the very beginning of this new stage of life in our community, but I don't think I need to be alone in my excitement. You can all be involved, people. Start thinking about names, and colours, and logos. And then start sending those ideas to Fort McMurray Professional Baseball. I may not know much about baseball, but I do know one thing - the folks at FMPB are listening to the community. This is our time to tell them what we want, and what our mission and vision is. This is our time to engage them, and to start to develop the kind of relationship with them so that on opening day they are not only in our city, but in our lives, too.

My sincere thanks to
Fort McMurray Professional Baseball
The Sport of Business
for inviting me
to learn more about
sport and community!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Social Prosperity Change Lab - and What It Means to You

Sometimes you encounter phrases that are tough to really comprehend, or that seem so specific or "academic" that it's tough to see how they apply to your life. "Social prosperity" is one of those phrases. When I told someone I was attending the "Social Prosperity Change Lab", hosted by Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo, they had one question : "What exactly IS social prosperity, and what does it mean to me?" And frankly, it's a damn good question. After a morning spent at the change lab I even have some answers about what it is, why it's important to me - and why it should matter to you, too.

I've run into people here who say "oh, I don't use those charity groups" and I stop them and say "ever take your kids to The Hub?". Ever taken your family to some of the free programming around the city or used the YMCA? Then you've used some of those non-profit and not-for-profit groups that exist in our community. They are deeply fundamental to our quality of life, and they are not only beneficial but, in my opinion, essential.

Social prosperity is all about improving the quality of life in our community - it's about ensuring that we don't just have the opportunity to achieve financial "prosperity" or wealth, but social wealth, too. It's about ensuring our community members feel they have strong connections, intrinsic value, and worth. It's about making our lives better every day - and that's where the Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo project comes in, because their goal is to help improve those non-profit organizations, and help them to serve our community better.

Fellow blogger Russell Thomas wrote a great summary of what SPWB does in his blog here, and I don't believe in reinventing the wheel, so I would suggest reading it for more detailed information about the nuts and bolts of the whole thing. I'm just going to tell you what we did yesterday, and why I think it's important.

Yesterday morning I found myself sitting at a table at the Sawridge with several other people. It was a diverse group, ranging in age and profession and experience, but all with one common interest - our community. We were asked to start by looking over the SPWB framework, expressing what we liked about it, and thinking about what questions it inspired. And then we were given Post-It notes and markers, and off we went, talking, writing, and thinking. At the end of each exercise we were asked to "group" our comments, and it was interesting to see how we shared many of the same questions and comments. It was also interesting because we each brought our own perspective, which added to the discussion and allowed new ideas to be explored. All the ideas were centred about how to help non-profit organizations deliver better services to the community - how to ensure they have sustainable funding, and the resources they need to provide the resources we need.

The discussion was wide-ranging and energetic, and while we didn't reach any grand conclusions the idea was to provide more ideas for SPWB - as well as inspiring us to keep thinking about those ideas, to keep looking at those goals. You see, SPWB is all about engaging local people to discover what works best in our community, to achieve the goals that we see as important. It's about making changes that will enable our local non-profit groups to thrive and grow, and serve all of us better.

And that is exactly the point of Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo, people. It might have the goal to help our local non-and-not-for-profit organizations but the actual goal is to help ALL of us when we use those services. The health of those services - their well-being, and their ability to do their jobs well - benefits every resident of this community. So in the end the concept of social prosperity, and the work being done by the SPWB, has a direct impact on all of us, people.

In the final analysis that is what social prosperity is, and that is why it matters to me - and to you, too. It is about improving our quality of life in this community, and trying to do so through the heart of it - our non-profit organizations that work so very hard to meet our needs. Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo is about helping those organizations meet their needs so they can meet ours - and in the end that's a pretty simple concept, just with a pretty fancy name.

My sincere thanks to
Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo
for the invitation to attend the
Social Prosperity Change Lab -
and for allowing me to
help in the process of
 achieving social prosperity
in the RMWB :)

Achievement, Citizenship, and Potential - RMWB Civic Awards

Thursday night was difficult for me, because I had received invitations to not one, not two, but three different events. This isn't all that unusual, actually, as there are often several things happening on the same evening, but it leads to some difficult choices. This one was a tough choice but in the end I went with the one closest to my heart - and I'm glad I did.

One of the three events was the Global Address at Keyano College by noted activist and media figure Ezra Levant. Levant always has some very interesting things to say about the oil sands, so I was tempted by the offer to attend this. The second event was the start-up of The McMurray Girl Success Network, another venture from the fabulous Kyla Getty, publisher of McMurray Girl magazine. I was sorely tempted by this one, too, being a woman and truly enjoying meeting other women in this community. The final one, though, the one that won in the end, was the Regional Municipality Civic Awards. As soon as the invitation hit my email inbox I knew it was the one I had to attend - because it's all about the community, and citizenship, and people.

So, Thursday night found me at the Sawridge (where I spend a lot of my time these days as it seems the destination of choice for many of these banquets, and I can't complain - the food is amazing and the bread pudding adds an extra 30 minutes to my gym time every time I eat it!) in the company of some amazing local people. Oh, there were the usual suspects, civic employees and city councillors - but it was the citizens who truly amaze me, people. These are residents no different than you and I, except that they have made a mark in the community with their commitment to athletics, culture, or volunteerism.

There were 8 awards handed out that night, and I am attaching the full list at the end of this post. I'd like to focus on just 3, however, because they are the ones closest to my heart - one because she is a personal friend, and two because they are our future.

The winner of the Fort McMurray award for Cultural Achievement is a woman who became a friend during the course of writing this blog. She sent me a message one day months ago, asking if I would like to meet for coffee - and Kiran Malik-Khan and I have been friends ever since. She is, like me, a writer, but she does it professionally as well as for pleasure. She is involved in publishing Northword magazine, and if you have read a paper in this city or picked up a copy of SNAP Wood Buffalo then you've likely seen some of her work. She also works at Keyano in communications, raises her young sons, and is incredibly involved in our community. Added to all that she is the most faithful and loyal friend you could ever want. If you're getting the impression that I adore Kiran you would be right - when we met she declared us "kindred spirits" and she is right - she values all the things I do, like family and community and the arts and culture and inclusion. I am not only proud that she is my friend I am incredibly proud of her achievements in this community, so to be on hand to see her receive her award was very gratifying.

And this brings me to two other people who received awards that evening, people who made me proud not only because of their achievements but because of their age. Young swimmer Joshua Dow won the Athletic Achievement award, and it is clearly well deserved. Joshua has an impressive pedigree as a swimmer, but even more important to me was in his thank you speech he made it clear that his success is not his alone but due to the support of others. That kind of humble nature makes me not only proud but hopeful for our future as a community, as when young men like Joshua recognize that their success is not only their own but all of ours it shows their commitment to the community and not just their sport. The second young person to take home an award that evening was Juliane Bell, who won an award for both Volunteer Achievement and Distinguished Youth Citizenship. Juliane is a Keyano student, but has been actively involved as a volunteer in this community from a very young age. Her list of volunteer activities is endless, and just hearing it made me wonder when she has time to sleep. She has been particularly committed to environmental causes as well as the local creatures at the SPCA, and those are both close to my heart as well.

After the awards were handed out (by councillors Russell Thomas, Mike Allen, Phil Meagher, and Don Scott, who all did a terrific job as stand-ins for Mayor Blake, who is on a hard-earned vacation) I stopped to hug my friend Kiran, and I went to speak to Juliane. I told Juliane of the Intrepid Junior Bloggers, and how she might not realize it but that young women like her are the kind of role models I want for my girls. In a world of celebrity brats who are in and out of courtrooms finding local role models like Juliane is a relief and gives me great optimism. Juliane is the future of our community, just as Joshua Dow is. With young people like them leading the charge I think we have a real chance to become even better than we currently are. And with role models for them already in place, like my friend Kiran (and all the other winners that night, from the Keyano College Huskies athletes to Bob Campbell to Saprae residents Solange Maher, Pam Garbin, and Michelle Archibald), the future is looking very bright indeed. It was an evening of current role models, young people on the path to becoming the next generation of role models, achievement, citizenship - and the potential of our community. You see, I don't see the potential in Fort Mac as the oil sands or industry - the potential I see is in all those faces from Thursday night - and the ones I see every day in this city. While the RMWB recognized a few of those faces on Thursday night we all have the potential to achieve great things, people, whether we are athletes or volunteers or simply citizens. We just need to seize the opportunity here and see what can happen - because it is nothing short of spectacular.

Civic Awards presented to outstanding citizens in the region

(Fort McMurray, AB – January 20, 2012) – Outstanding citizens and groups have been honoured through the 2011 Civic Awards, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo
announced today.
The following awards were presented in various celebrations throughout the region:
Anzac – December 3, 2011
  • Athletic Achievement:                                    Kenneth Whitford
  • Volunteer Achievement Award:                     Dawn McEvoy
·      Distinguished Youth Citizenship:                  Emily Czibere
Conklin – December 20, 2011
·      Distinguished Youth Citizenship Award:      Tiarra Tremblay
Fort Chipewyan – December 15, 2011
  • Cultural Achievement:                                    Northern Wolves Drum Group
·      Distinguished Citizenship:                             Claris Voyageur
Fort McMurray – January 19, 2012
·      Athletic Achievement:                                    Joshua Dow
·      Cultural Achievement:                                    Kiran Malik-Khan
Volunteer Achievement:                                 Juliane Bell
Group Volunteer Achievement:                      Keyano Huskies Athletics
·      Distinguished Citizenship:                             Bob Campbell
·      Distinguished Youth Citizenship:                  Juliane Bell
Janvier – December 11, 2011
·      Athletic Achievement:                                    Dwayne Jean Jr.
Saprae Creek – January 19, 2012
·      Cultural Achievement:                                    Solange Maher
·      Volunteer Achievement:                                 Michelle Archibald & Pam Garbin
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo congratulates all the award recipients and thanks all residents for their outstanding contributions to increasing the quality of life in Wood Buffalo over the last year.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Summits and Change Labs and Conferences, Oh My...

Yes, that title is a play on the phrase "lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" - but I don't deal with lions and tigers in Fort Mac (and bears only on occasion, really). This week my schedule is full instead with a different sort of beast - the kind that involves buffet meals and lectures and thoughts and ideas and new people and, quite likely, complete exhaustion at the end of it all - and I cannot wait, people.

Today I will attend the Social Prosperity Change Lab, which I had heard about through others and was subsequently delighted to receive an invitation to attend. The change lab is directed mostly at non-profit organizations, but it's about community building in Fort McMurray, and is a part of the Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo initiative. I find the whole concept of "social prosperity" intriguing, from the name right to the people involved to the ideas it generates. So, I'm pretty excited to see what will happen at the change lab (which I find another interesting name, as it implies an "experiment in change").

On Wednesday I will attend another event hosted by Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo, but this time the full-day Social Prosperity Summit. Now, this one should also be fascinating, as it's about sustainable funding in non-profit organizations. One may wonder what exactly this has to do with me, a blogger with no role in non-profits, but it is an area of great personal interest. I think non-profits are vital to the social health and well-being of a community, and as such I follow developments in them with great interest. And besides, I always manage to learn something, meet some new people, and find some new ideas along the way, which makes attending events like this very valuable, regardless of my role in the community.

And then, Wednesday night, the much-anticipated "Leading the North" conference begins! I've been looking forward to this one for weeks (hello, Peter Mansbridge?!?). There is a reception Wednesday evening to kick it off, a full day of sessions Thursday, a dinner with the premier Thursday night, and another full day of sessions on Friday. I'm actually quite excited about this conference as it will attract not only local folk but those from other places, giving me yet another opportunity to share my story of life in this community.

My week is shaping up to be a busy one, people. It's going to be a week of non-profits and funding models and community ideas and speeches and lectures and PowerPoint presentations and "bear pit sessions" and receptions and dinners and lots and lots of coffee. And frankly, I can't wait. Other people can have their lions and tigers and bears - I've got summits and change labs and conferences, oh my!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Loss, Hope, and Reaching Out - Justin Slade Youth Foundation

As many of my readers know by now I have a strong interest in a few things - community, and people, and vision, and passion, and youth. I had heard of the Justin Slade Youth Foundation years ago, but it wasn't until last year that I learned a bit more about the foundation. It all began when I met Cassandra Slade, Justin's aunt, at a local event. Cassandra is not only beautiful but a true Fort McMurray powerhouse, and when she told me a bit about the history and mission of JSYF I knew I had to learn more about it and write about it, too - because it touches everything I think is important in this world.

Justin Slade was a young man who sounds, from all reports, like a wonderful person. Sadly no one will ever know what Justin could have been or done, as in 2004 a tragic car accident took his life - and he was only 21. As a parent I can only imagine the kind of pain and grief his parents, family, and friends endured. I imagine they felt some degree of hopelessness, too, which almost can't be avoided when experiencing such a terrible, unexpected, untimely loss. But, as so many find, out of loss can come hope. Out of loss can come change, and it can lead to reaching out. And, in the case of those who loved Justin it led to the formation of the Justin Slade Youth Foundation, a group that reaches out to our community's youth every single day.

JSYF has a clearly stated mission, and it is this : Our mission is to empower young people to make better life choices and to express themselves in positive ways through music, drama, art and sports. And that mission statement resonates with me on many levels, because it touches some of the key things I happen to believe, too.

Between my time spent with my own Intrepid Junior Bloggers, their friends, and students in local schools I see phenomenal potential in our youth. They have this way of seeing the world that is so different from most adults. They see open doors where we see locks, open avenues where we see roadblocks, and possibility where we see nothing. They come to this world with an enthusiasm that is as yet untouched by cynicism and skepticism, and they can be the most incredible joy to spend time with - if you take the time to truly listen. And even more they have such potential, the potential to change the world - but potential sometimes needs to be encouraged. It needs to be nurtured, and it needs to be valued.

JSYF is directed to young adults aged 12-18, probably considered one of the "toughest" age groups to work with - but also the most rewarding, I think. This is the age when anything is possible, when dreams can be formed and steps taken to achieve them. For some youth, though, these dreams can be tough to even visualize, and they need a place where they can start to explore them - and JSYF provides it.

JSYF is designed for all youth, but often finds the youth-at-risk demographic drawn to them. And this is the group for which I feel there is both the most worry and the most potential, people. I have met very young people who are living on our streets, and I look at them and think about the loss of their potential. They are often bright and funny and kind and warm, and it hurts me to see the harshness of their young lives. I wish someone had been there to reach out to them, to offer them the kind of hope and encouragement they needed, and maybe help them to find their true potential. And that is what JSYF does for all youth.

JSYF runs a lot of different programming, from their very successful Youth Empowerment Day to drop-in centre programming at the Haxton Centre (and in a very positive development it looks like that centre is on the verge of becoming the permanent home of JSYF, providing stability and consistency to the youth it serves). They do a lot of outreach programming, too, all free of charge and open to all youth. And they work very, very hard to remain relevant to the young people they serve, and to engage them in determining that programming.

Haxton Centre, Borealis Park

JSYF also gets involved in volunteerism, working on things like graffiti and community clean-ups. Lesley Pearcey, the Executive Director of JSYF, told me that those clean-ups often have the best attendance, and that the kids love them - and I love that. I think those sorts of things instil a sense of community ownership, and when you have spent hours cleaning graffiti or cleaning up a park you feel a much closer connection to it. You become protective of it - and, by extension, of your community and the people in it. And that's the true beauty in all of this.

When groups like JSYF reach out to local youth they show them that they are valued and that they have meaning in our community. They show our youth that there are people in this city who care, and who want them to feel a part of it. And in return the young adults begin to care, too, about the people who run the program, and about the place it is held, and, eventually, about the community, too.

The work of JSYF is far from done - it will never be done, in fact, as long as there are young people in this community. They have dreams and plans, too, things like neighbourhood based youth centres, and things like youth-friendly designations for local businesses. They are constantly coming up with new ideas to better engage our younger demographic (Extreme iPoding on YouTube, anyone?!?), and they are always working to improve their services. And there are challenges, too, like ensuring people understand that despite a tragic event last summer Borealis Park (where the Haxton Centre is located) is safe. There is the challenge of ensuring that they are making true change, serving the youth well, and adjusting programming as necessary by staying current with what is popular with youth (and as a parent of said youths that can change daily, trust me).

So, the Justin Slade Youth Foundation was founded because of a tragedy that stole the life of a vibrant young man. I know nothing will ever take that loss away, and nothing will ever replace him - but the work of the JSYF is changing the world of dozens of young people. From a terrible event has come reaching out - and hope. From one family's horrendous loss has come the gain of dozens of families, and of our community as young people can find a place to grow and dream and hope and achieve their potential. I wish I'd met Justin Slade, people. I wish he could know how his life inspired those around him, and how his name lives on in this foundation, and in the achievements of those who have had their lives changed by the JSYF. This young man, despite a very brief life, has had a tremendous impact not only on his family, but on many other young people who never met him, either, and on our entire community. So while we may never know what Justin could have been or done I know this - he has changed the world, with the help of those who loved him and started this foundation to honour him. And that, people, is something wonderful to witness. That is a profound legacy for anyone to leave behind.

My sincere thanks to
Cassandra Slade for
telling me about JSYF,
and to Lesley Pearcey,
JSYF Executive Director,
for meeting with me! :)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

One Green Paperclip, Hockey Memorabilia, and KAOS 91.1

The adventure of One Green Paperclip in Fort McMurray continues! Every day I open my email inbox and wonder what will be waiting for me - and a couple of days ago it was a new trade offer, and an intriguing one at that.

It was an email with an offer from a local radio station (and I'm very pleased the local stations seem to have embraced this adventure with the Intrepid Junior Bloggers and I). It was an offer with a great twist, too. It was two tickets to the upcoming KAOS 91.1 Banquet and Silent Auction, the fifth annual such dinner KAOS has hosted. KAOS is a local non-profit radio station that is very involved in the community, hosting many free community events. They also give local non-profit organizations radio time to discuss their services, which I think is pretty amazing considering most non-profits have small budgets for promotion and advertising, but often are the most in need of getting their message out into the world.

But KAOS wasn't just offering two tickets. Even better was their plan for the hockey memorabilia - the silent auction at the banquet (check out this video to see more about the banquet!). When I got the email I quickly rounded up the Intrepid Junior Bloggers before they could head out the door to school and asked for their opinion. They quickly approved the deal, and said they couldn't imagine a more win-win situation for everyone. We got tickets to trade, KAOS got a silent auction item, and someone was leaving that banquet with some terrific hockey history - and one green paperclip, which we will attach to the memorabilia so those who win it know how they came to own it.

The Junior Bloggers and I were beyond thrilled about a new trade - and not just because of what was offered but because of the excitement this experiment seems to be generating. I went out to an event one night this week and was asked about the project by several different people. I also sent an email to the youngest Intrepid Junior Blogger's teacher to tell her how she had inspired our adventure, and sent her links to this blog. Apparently those links went all over the school as both girls report having been approached by teachers to talk about the experiment - and they are delighted. You see, I wanted to share it with the teacher because I think teachers can change a student's life - and that student can go on to change the lives of others. I had one teacher in my life that was hugely influential - I would say she taught me how to write honestly. So it was important, I thought, to include the teacher who inspired this all by assigning the kind of homework that makes a student think. That was the start of this experiment - but it clearly was not the end.

So, people, I will soon have in my hand two tickets to the KAOS 91.1 banquet. These tickets are worth $75 each, but if you take a peek I think they are worth vastly more as you also get live entertainment from Juno-award winning Greg Sczebel, and get to hear a speech from Mayor Melissa Blake (who gets my vote as one of the best speakers in this entire community). You get to spend some time with some wonderful people from our community, support a great radio station, eat some fabulous MacDonald Island food - and continue the adventure of One Green Paperclip. So, the question becomes, of course, what have you got to trade, Fort Mac? The email inbox is empty, and it's waiting for your offer. You can be part of the adventure, because one of the things that seems to cause the most excitement is being a part of an experiment in community, media, social media, making connections - and seeing how far one little green paperclip can go in this little city of ours. Join the Intrepid Junior Bloggers and I on this journey, people - make us an offer and let's see where that little paperclip can go!

My thanks to
KAOS 91.1
for their trade AND
for embracing the 
New offers can be sent to us

One Green Paperclip In Fort McMurray Timeline

One green paperclip
Jerry Neville of Country 93.3
one radio interview

One radio interview shout-out
Ellen of Pamper Me Beauty
one mini-makeover gift certificate

One mini-makeover gift certificate
Lisa Boutilier
hockey memorabilia

Hockey memorabilia
KAOS 91.1
two banquet tickets

Two banquet tickets

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

We Are Not Alone - Part Two

Photo credit to Wise County, Virginia

Last week I wrote about a collaborative project I was embarking on with the guys at YMMPodcast - and a woman from Wise County, Virginia, who had reached out to them. I was incredibly excited about it, as it meant podcasting via Skype with Alyssa, our neighbour to the (far) south, and it meant sharing some of our challenges with someone who had experienced some of their own in relation to where they live. On Sunday Toddske, Tito, and I sat down at the YMMPodcast studios (otherwise known as "Toddske's house") and we talked with Alyssa - and it was enlightening.

Alyssa grew up in Wise County, Virginia, a place in the Appalachian mountains (and I learned we all pronounce the name of that mountain range wrong, who knew? It is pronounced Appal-atch-ah, not App-lay-shia). It is a place of coal mining and rural life, and a place that has seen the boom and bust of a resource based economy. It is the kind of place where they receive a lot of negative media attention because of their industry, but also because of some of their societal issues. Sound familiar? That's because it is, people. Wise County might be a nation and several thousand kilometres away but it is our neighbour in spirit, without a doubt.

The podcast we recorded was wide-ranging, and at points I was just so excited to speak to Alyssa, to hear her thoughts (in that gorgeous Southern accent - the way she says "y'all" is just delicious!), that I forgot we were recording at all. It was like speaking to someone with a shared experience, but with just enough difference to make it fascinating.

We spoke about coal mining, and about technology, and about reclamation. We spoke about problems, like drug use, and about activists who paint a bulls-eye on our communities. We discussed negative media attention, and we explored the concept of reclamation not of the industrial sort, but of the community sort - reclaiming the image and presentation of your community. And we talked about what happens to a community when a resource-based industry begins to die, as all resources eventually run out and leave behind communities in peril. This was perhaps, to me, the most significant part of our discussion - because Alyssa in Wise County is seeing what is happening as their coal industry diminishes, and what that loss leaves in it's wake. It's a topic we don't like to discuss in the oil sands, but the reality is that this resource cannot last forever - and while it may seem a long time down the road it's funny how quickly time passes. Alyssa had some very, very wise words to say about this aspect of a resource based community, and it's worth listening to the podcast to find out what they are (in fact I think the entire podcast is worth that alone).

I was not only excited to be part of this, but honoured, too. I was thrilled that Toddske and Tito wanted to include me, and I think the four of us on that podcast - three at a dining room table, and one on Skype from Virginia - forged a bond on Sunday. At the end of the podcast we discussed the concept of visiting each other - us heading down to Wise County, and Alyssa heading up here (I suggested we could go there in the winter, and she could come here in the summer - purely for weather reasons!). I have a strong feeling I could sit and talk with Alyssa for hours, and I'd welcome the chance to do so - and I'd love to go see Wise County, too. I'd love to share some of our story, and hear more of theirs. I'd love to show Wise County that they are not alone - that their neighbours to the far north understand and empathize. And frankly I'd love to see her come here and show her Fort McMurray, and maybe podcast live with her, too.

This is one of those adventures I never expected to come from this little blog, people. I never expected to ever record a podcast (and now have done 3!), let alone meet someone from Virginia and discuss a little cross-border travel related to our common experiences and goals. And perhaps that is the true joy of finding someone else who experiences these things like we do. You learn that you are not alone - and you make a new friend along the way, too.

available on iTunes
and Stitcher or at

Sunday, January 15, 2012

One Green Paperclip, One Gift Certificate, and Hockey Memorabilia

Well, people, the One Green Paperclip in Fort McMurray adventure continues! Just as this is an ongoing project so the project itself changes and develops, and the Intrepid Junior Bloggers and I have been having some discussions.

As I've noted previously we have not put a time limit or goal on this experiment, but we have come to some other conclusions. We began to talk about what we would do should this end up with having something "big" in our hands - something of real financial value, and not just the value of the experience. Since we went into this with no expectations or desire for financial gain we have come to the decision that whatever we "end up with" - whenever we decide to end this experiment - we will donate whatever final trade item we have secured to a local charity. We have not decided which charity - it might well depend on what that final item is - but we determined that if we actually do manage to take one green paperclip and turn it into something "big" then we want to pass that along to someone else who can use it for fundraising or for their organization. Secondly, we decided that when this is all done we are going to throw a party - a party for everyone who was involved in the adventure, everyone who traded with us along the way. It will be our way of saying thank you to all those who participated, and our way of celebrating the end of the adventure. The planning for the "One Green Paperclip in Fort McMurray Party" is already underway, although we don't know the date yet - because this experiment has only just begun!

So, here's a quick recap and an update. On Friday morning I appeared on Country 93.3, and gave Jerry Neville that humble green paperclip in exchange for a radio interview. I gave my fabulous hair stylist Ellen (of Pamper Me Beauty in Abasand) a shout-out during that interview, and in exchange for that she provided me with a gift certificate for a cut, colour, style, and make-up application.

The beautiful, and feisty, Ellen - my hair stylist!

This meant that the Intrepid Junior Bloggers and I had in our hands this wonderful gift certificate, but no third trade lined up. I took to Twitter again, and tweeted what was up for trade - and it wasn't long before I had an offer, and this one from another absolutely beautiful Fort Mac woman.

The gorgeous, and feisty, Lisa Boutilier!
(what is it with all these feisty Fort Mac women, anyhow?)

I had met someone on Twitter a few months ago, and been immediately struck by her beauty - both inside and out. That stunning red hair, that lovely smile, and that inner glow - it could only belong to Lisa Boutilier, someone I might have met on Twitter but who has become a personal friend, too. Lisa tweeted to ask if the gift certificate was still up for trade, and I said it was indeed - and then she made her memorabilia.

I was pretty excited. I called the Intrepid Junior Bloggers and showed them the photos Lisa sent to me:

That, people, is a photo signed by Doug Gilmour of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's from a game in 1993, and I might not know hockey but I know two things : having lived in Toronto for a few years I am a Leafs fan (and it was my dad's team, so I think it might be genetic), and two, it's pretty damn cool. But Lisa didn't stop there. Nope, she threw in something else:

That is a ticket from an Oilers game in 2008, and that is a puck used in that game. Lisa caught that puck when it landed in the player's bench (she was seated right behind the bench, her knees pressed right up against it, she told me), and she asked the team manager if she could have it. He tossed it over the glass, and she has had it ever since. And for one gift certificate she was going to trade it all to us.

The Junior Bloggers were past delighted and into ecstatic. Not only are the items cool, they are pretty popular, being hockey memorabilia, and they quickly agreed to the trade. So, last night at the local "tweetup", we made the trade:

Lisa arrived with the hockey memorabilia, and left with a gift certificate from my hair stylist Ellen (a certificate she says she intends to give to her daughter, and I know her daughter will love Ellen as much as I do). And I left with hockey memorabilia.

So, that brings the Intrepid Junior Bloggers and I to the next step, and the next question - what ya got, Fort Mac, for some fabulous hockey memorabilia? We are ready to trade up, and ready for the next step in the journey of One Green Paperclip. We are betting that someone out there has something cool to trade for some hockey history - and we are anxious to make it happen! Be a part of the adventure Fort Mac. Don't forget, at the end of all this we are going to give it all to charity - and have one helluva party! 

You can contact me about
making a trade at,
or find me on Twitter

One Green Paperclip Timeline

One green paperclip
Jerry Neville of Country 93.3
one radio interview

One radio interview shout-out
Ellen of Pamper Me Beauty
one gift certificate

One gift certificate
Lisa Boutilier
hockey memorabilia

Hockey memorabilia

On Tweetups and Getting TorQ'd

One of the things that has happened to me in recent months while writing this blog has been finding myself getting involved in the online community in Fort McMurray. When I first joined Twitter, that 140-character way of reaching out to the world, I was hesitant about it. I saw it simply as a tool to spread the word about this blog, but not much more than that. What I never realized was that it had the potential to do so much more, including helping me to find new friends in the community.

Twitter is an interesting medium, you "tweet" your message and off it goes into the twitterverse. I began tweeting specifically about the blog but as time went on I found myself interacting in personal discussions with people on Twitter. And then I attended my first "tweetup", and learned that I had made some of those twitterverse friends into real-life friends, too. A "tweetup", for those curious, is nothing more than a gathering of people who met initially on Twitter. It's not a group of people who sit around a table and tweet to each other on their cell phones, and it's not weird. It's actually pretty awesome, and you never know who will show up. Someone (anyone, really) decides on a place, date, and time, starts to tweet that information, and then you just show up and see who else does, too. Last night we met at McRay's in Thickwood, and for some it was just one of many tweetups, while for others it was their very first (but I bet not their last, either).

I showed up right at the tweetup start time (this time tends to be flexible, especially if the tweetup is happening in a bar, which is where the tweetup moved after supper last night). I was in fact the first to arrive, but I only had an hour as after the tweetup I had to head to Keyano Theatre to see a percussion group from Toronto that is touring the prairie provinces. When asked about my plans post-tweetup I informed my fellow "tweeps" (a combination of tweets and peeps) that I was heading out to get "TorQ'd", which provoked a few laughs and entertaining comments. It was quite accurate, though, as the name of the percussion group is, in fact, "TorQ". When my hour was over I was sad to leave - many  of my favourite Fort McMurray folks were at the tweetup, people I've become very fond of, and leaving was hard - but I was excited about TorQ, and I was not disappointed.

Photo credit to TorQ

I arrived at Keyano and met my friend, a wonderful woman who kindly invited me to attend the concert. She has been a most gracious host to me on several occasions, and this was yet another. I was quite grateful as I must admit I'm not always completely on the ball with getting tickets to things like this, so having someone in my life who says "I have two tickets, you coming?" is truly special. She and I headed into the theatre, took our seats, and awaited the show (while laughing, and discussing shoes and politics).

Photo credit to TorQ

TorQ is a bit tough to describe, as an all-percussion ensemble must be heard, I think, to be truly understood. One of the first things I noticed when they took the stage, four young men, is that they all wore something red. There were red shoes, and red ties, and red shoelaces, and red glasses, and a red shirt. The other colours they wore were fairly sombre, browns and greys, but each one had something red on them, and it matched the red lighting that lit up the curtains behind them. I found this immediately intriguing. Red is one of those colours you instantly associate with certain words and feelings - things like hot, and fiery, and spicy. I knew at that moment that this was going to be very, very interesting. I also knew that I in particular would find this experience meaningful, as I am not particularly good at rhythms. When an audience is clapping along I am the one who is slightly off, and sometimes off enough to make people stare. So, to see an ensemble based entirely on percussion was not only novel for me, but intriguing, too.

TorQ utilizes a variety of percussion instruments from the very large to the very small. They began the show with a number in which they each used a small instrument, and throughout the show it would build from small to large, and back to small again. I found several pieces that were my favourite, including "Sleep", a lovely, shimmery, ethereal piece that somehow reminded me of Enya, that Irish musician who records music that sort of flows over your soul. They played a few pieces they themselves had composed, explaining that it can be difficult to find pieces that have been written with percussion-only ensembles in mind, and how if they do not write them then they are forced to adapt other pieces or search out those rare pieces designed for them. The pieces all differ in intensity and I suppose all I can say is that they are mesmerizing - walls of sound that wash over you, and down into you as only a percussion instrument can.

One particularly fun piece involved two members of the audience, and is titled "Natural Resources (what to do until the power comes on)". It is about "found sounds", involving a table, two mallets, two musicians, and a variety of percussion instruments that are chosen at random, placed on the table, and an experiment in sound begins. It is, of course, fascinating as each time it would be different dependent on which instruments are placed on the table. It's percussion improv, and I was delighted with it.

The gentlemen from TorQ spoke a bit about how acoustic sounds slowly became electronic ones, and how now electronic music influences acoustic music. I found this fascinating, too, as I have long been a fan of electronica, and the way electronically-produced music can have layers and layers of sound, rather like a many-layered trifle, with each layer holding a new delight. And this is what I found with what TorQ does, too, the intricate layering of sound blending into a transfixing piece. I noticed the rest of the audience, a fairly decent sized crowd, also seemed mesmerized. It's hard not to be when you see four young men doing something amazing, appearing to love every second, and creating something spectacular along the way.

Another piece that amazed was one written by John Cage, the admittedly quirky musician and composer. Called "Third Construction", it was the sort of thing where you didn't know what to watch as all four musicians had their hands full with various instruments, and those were hands flying. While watching this piece I realized that you probably don't see a lot of overweight percussionists, as these men were constantly in motion, and at the end of the pieces looked like they'd had a rather good workout. I suspect percussion is not only good for the soul but perhaps for cardio workouts, too.

The show, which had begun with each musician and a simple handheld (or in one case, sat-on box) instrument, ended with garbage cans and mallets. With several garbage cans, some mallets, and a show of energy that defied any notion that they might be tired from the preceding numbers, TorQ finished strong. Their skill, synchronization, and sense of fun was astonishing to witness - and for someone like me, who would describe herself as "rhythm challenged", nothing short of miraculous.

After the show I reflected a bit on those red ties and shoelaces and glasses, and came to this conclusion - TorQ is hot. Those young men are hot in every sense of the word, from the intellectual looking one with the collared shirt and sweater to the one with the GQ-worthy vest to the one with the slightly nerdy red glasses to the one with the shaved head and slightly "bad boy" look. The little bit of red they each wore betrayed that they are fiery, and spicy, and hot, and incredibly musically talented. They are a complete joy to watch and to hear, and I intend to purchase some of their pieces on iTunes today.

After I said goodbye to my friend and left Keyano I actually headed back to the tweetup for a few minutes to check on my other friends, and found them comfortably ensconced at the Black Horse Pub, enjoying a few drinks and each other's company. I sat with them for a few minutes, and quickly found myself getting involved in a discussion on local politics, my opinions, and the desire to see what is best for the community. I looked around the tables of Fort Mac people, and while some of us might have met on Twitter I saw only friends.

So, in the end, it was a night of tweetups, round one and two, and of getting TorQ'd in the best possible way. And that, people, was my Saturday in Fort Mac. Friends and politics and music and drinks. It was, quite frankly, my favourite kind of night out in this community, blending together all the things I love - people, and events, and places, and ideas, and thoughts. It was just another Fort Mac Saturday night of tweetups and TorQ.