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

Monday, April 30, 2012

Defining Moments Of Life

I think there are defining moments in our lives, people. I've had a few of those over the years, perhaps most particularly when my daughter, the youngest Intrepid Junior Blogger, was born 12 years ago. They are moments when everything becomes crystal-clear. They are the moments in your life you never forget. I had a moment like that this past weekend - although it wasn't a moment. It was over 48 hours of moments,  moments I will never forget and moments that I think may be profoundly defining in my life - and, most sadly, definitely defining in the lives of others who are far closer to what happened than I. It all began Friday afternoon, of course, with the horrific crash on Highway 63.

If you are reading this blog now then you probably read the open letter I posted to Premier Alison Redford on Friday night. I wrote that letter when the pain of the accident was still very raw, when I had tears in my eyes and when I wrote straight from the heart, mother to mother. I thought over the weekend the pain I felt would diminish. In one of those defining moments, though, I learned it has done anything but diminish. Instead I suppose I feel even more pain now, because since posting that entry I have heard a lot of pain, and each new story simply added to the initial blow.

Since Friday night over 20,000 people from across the country read that open letter. Over 250 left comments, and even more emailed me at my blog email address. Many expressed anger, many thanked me, and many agreed that we need to do something - anything - to stop the deaths on Highway 63. Some people, though, some very, very brave souls, did more. They shared with me stories of loved ones they lost on that highway. A father told me of his 19-year old daughter, killed on the 63 in 2007. Another parent told me of a son killed after he stopped to help at an accident scene. A cousin of one of the individuals in the accident Friday left a comment. And dozens more told me of accidents witnessed, close calls, and pain. Pain, pain, pain, the kind of emotional pain that leaves you breathless, the kind that makes you feel like a hand has reached inside your chest and is trying to wrench out your heart. I have been on the verge of tears all weekend, and some moments - defining moments - were worse than others. The outpouring I have experienced this weekend has been overwhelming. Stunning. Staggering. Far beyond what I ever anticipated.

I have done interviews all weekend as a result of media attention generated by the open letter. My usual stage fright has seemed to disappear, each interview coming hard on the heels of the last and me finding myself saying the same things each time. Twin the highway. Patrol the highway. Report aggressive drivers. Watch your own driving and the driving of those you are with. The same messages, again and again. And in the backdrop, in the back of my mind, the same mental image haunting me.

You see, people, I wrote that open letter when I learned that the 7th victim of Friday's accident had succumbed to her injuries. It was a young woman, described as a teen girl. And that is when fear truly gripped me. I have in my house my 12 year old daughter and my 14 year old niece, my beloved Intrepid Junior Bloggers. I have travelled Highway 63 with them. And the image of them dying on that highway was simply too much for me to bear. And that's when I wrote to Alison Redford, because she has a daughter, too.

Last night I did a live podcast with YMMPodcast, and with some of my favourite people in this city. Last night I sat in Toddske's dining room, with him, and Ashley, and Steve, and Tito, and Matt. We talked about Highway 63. We talked about the victims. I watched as we all got tears in our eyes at various points. And when I talked about my daughter I began to cry. I don't like to cry in front of people, and I don't like to cry on a live podcast when everyone can likely hear me snuffling. But I cried for seven people lost in a tragic accident, and two survivors who are alive but have, in every fundamental way, lost their life - their families. You see, if my daughter died at the side of Highway 63 I would not want to survive that accident. I would not want to live in a world without her in it. I would never recover, I suspect. My life, whether I was still breathing or not, would be over. And the enormity of what the family and friends of those who have died on Highway 63 will endure hit me like a speeding semi-truck.

I left the podcast last night, saying goodbye to my friends, thinking I was okay. I managed to drive two blocks when I had to pull over, too blinded by tears to see the road. I parked my car, my stereo blaring, draped myself over my steering wheel, and I wept, the image of my daughter dead in my arms so fresh and raw and painful that I could scarcely breathe. And I thought about all the family and friends of all those lost on the 63, and all their tears and their pain and their grief. And it was a defining moment in my life, people.

I remember every stage of my daughter's life. Her birth. Her birthdays. Every single moment. She is the person I would die for. I would kill for. I would do anything to protect. And that includes making sure that I do everything I can to ensure her safety. And that, people, includes dealing with Highway 63.

One person said to me this weekend that I shouldn't take this "personally". That I should try to remove myself emotionally. And all I could do was wonder what alien planet they came here from. This is personal, people. This is about dozens of lives lost, and by extension thousands of lives affected. I can't imagine how anyone can not take this personally if you live here. If you love someone here. If someone you love works here. How can it not be personal? This is personal, people, so very, very personal.

And that is why this matters. Someone left a comment on my blog saying we needed to evaluate if it "cost effective" to twin the highway to save lives. Cost effective? Again, I think we are talking from different planets. We could talk about all the taxes those seven people lost on Friday would have paid, the benefits to the economy there would be if they were still alive, we could mull over the numbers and figure them out to the decimal point. And you know what? I. Don't. Care. We aren't talking about economics and data and statistics - we are talking about lives lost, and lives destroyed. So, call me emotional. Call me irrational. Hell, call me crazy. I'm okay with that. If my emotional, irrational, crazy behaviour saves one life I'm pretty okay with that. Actually I am very, very okay with that.

Look, people, I'm not a politician. I'm not an engineer, I'm not a safety expert, I'm not even a trained journalist. I'm a stay at home who started a blog, and who does some freelance writing work. And that's it. It seems this has put me front and centre on this issue and I accept that, and the responsibility that comes with it. But don't tell me to not take it personally. Don't tell me to not get emotional. Because I just don't know how to do that, people.

So, next steps. I have some suggestions, as follows:

1) Email Premier Alison Redford

If every person who reads my blog sends an email to Alison Redford then my one voice becomes hundreds. Thousands. And I don't want you to email her and tell her you are angry. I want you to tell her your stories of travel on Highway 63, and your close calls. Tell her about accidents you've seen, or been in. And if you are someone who has lost someone you love (and I am so, so sorry, there are tears as I write this) tell her what that loss has meant to you. I am but one voice. All voices deserve to be heard and collectively I believe those voices can make a difference.

2) Sign a petition

One voice becomes thousands. One petition becomes thousands of voices. Collaboration, community, collective action. This is how we effect change in a positive, community building manner.

3) Attend the protest

I don't have many details on this yet but I am hoping that everyone will consider attending this event. To memorialize those lost over the years. To share our stories. And to express some of the pain and grief this community is feeling.

4) Listen to the YMMPodcast

The discussion is raw. It is painful. It is honest. And it is important.

4) Take a look at Twin 63

This website is straight from the heart - candles of remembrance and stories from those left behind.

5) Drive safe

This one seems so simple, and so obvious. We can't wait for the twinning to be complete. We need to take responsibility for own behaviours and driving habits. And we need to watch the behaviour of others - and report it. Report speeding, aggressive driving, and any other behaviour that makes the highway unsafe. Record plate numbers and call the RCMP. Call the companies if it is a company owned vehicle. We all have a responsibility - so let's accept it.

People, I apologize to you in advance. There is a good chance I am going to make mistakes as this goes forward. I am going to say stupid things or write stupid things and you will be appalled. And so will I. But this is terra incognita for me -  I have no map for this unknown land. As I write this post today I wonder if it is too raw, too emotional, and too personal to publish. I wonder if I should hit delete and simply walk away, come back when I have had more than two hours sleep and some time to think this all through. But I know that this is true and honest and authentic. This is me. I am writing as I have always done and will always continue to do, because I don't truly know any other way.

This morning my daughter - my beautiful, intelligent, funny, daughter, with all her quirks and charms - asked if she could ride her bike to school. And I said no. I said no because she would be alone, and because she hasn't done it before. I said no because given my current mood I'd like to tape her into bubble wrap and put her in a corner where I could keep an eye on her. I said no and she asked why and I began to cry, and she wrapped her arms around me and told me it was okay, that she didn't need to take her bike today, and she held me while I cried yet again.

Tomorrow I will let my daughter ride her bike to school, because she can't live her life wrapped in bubble wrap. Tomorrow I will try to make more sense of all this, the tragic loss of seven people, the survivors left behind who face unimaginable pain, and my own experience of a little blog that I once wrote thinking I would be anonymous and have about 12 readers. I fully admit I was unprepared for all this, and I am still unprepared. But sometimes life hands you something for which you were unprepared - a defining moment, or defining moments - that change the trajectory of what you were doing and where you thought you were going. That happened to me Friday night when I posted an open letter. That happened to two survivors of a horrendous accident that changed their lives in a heartbeat. That happened to the family and friends of nine people who were in a horrific crash on Friday. That happened to so many people who have lost loved ones on Highway 63. And I think that happened this weekend when our entire community experienced a defining moment when we decided we had lost enough lives, felt enough pain, and dealt with enough grief. The moments that define us are the moments that make us. This defining moment is one we all share in Fort McMurray, and, as I learned this weekend, far beyond our city borders. I hope, in the end, it is the defining moment that ends the deaths on Highway 63, and the defining moment that brings not only sorrow - but change.

Friday, April 27, 2012

An Open Letter to Premier Alison Redford - Fort McMurray and Highway 63

Dear Premier Redford,

You might remember me. We have met a few times in Fort McMurray, most recently when you visited our community shortly after you announced a provincial election. At that time you kindly agreed to sit down with me for a brief interview, and we chatted a bit about your passion and vision for this province, and about why you chose to do the job you do. I listened to you and was impressed with your sincerity and authenticity, and today I would like to speak to you about my passion and vision. You see, Premier, my passion is this community and all the people in this region - and my vision is making this community the best place it can possibly be. We are wonderful in so very many ways, as I think you have seen, but there is one issue that is hurting us, Premier. It is an issue that has been much discussed and too often, at least in our minds, ignored. It is an issue that isn't going away. And it is an issue that demands attention and action. The issue is Highway 63.

Today, Friday, April 27th, another horrific accident occurred on the 63, and I am quite certain you heard about it. Six dead at the scene, and three transported to hospital by air ambulance. One died shortly after. As I write this two others continue to fight for their lives. Perhaps you saw the same photo I did on Twitter, Premier, of a vehicle in flames. I had been on the verge of tears since hearing about the accident but the photo caused me to weep. And I wept even more upon learning that when that photo was taken one of the victims was still inside the inferno that had once been a vehicle.

It appears that this head-on collision was caused when someone crossed the double solids and attempted to overtake other vehicles and instead struck an oncoming vehicle. I know that twinning Highway 63 won't prevent every single accident - but it would have prevented this one. Seven lives saved, Premier. Maybe "statistically" that doesn't seem significant. I think it's significant to those seven, and their families. And it is significant to every single person who lives in this community.

Premier, all of us who live here have travelled on Highway 63. We travel it with our families, our beloved spouses and children. We travel it for work and for play. We travel it because it is our main transportation link with the rest of the province and by extension the rest of the world. It is our connection to everything, and it is, in some ways, our lifeline. And in other ways it is killing us, picking us off one by one in senseless accidents. And the time has come for this to end.

As I acknowledge above twinning will not prevent all accidents. Attitudes need to change, Premier, and I am aware of this. There is aggressive driving on Highway 63, and there are issues with the sheer volume of traffic, industrial loads sharing the road with much smaller vehicles. I think the time has come for action, though. The time has come to complete the twinning of Highway 63 because while I know some accidents are caused by idiocy twinning could at least prevent that idiocy from taking lives. But we need to do more, Premier. We need to patrol Highway 63 more aggressively, and we need to ensure that those who abuse their privilege of driving (and it is a privilege, not a right) are held accountable.

So, Premier, your government has just been granted a new mandate. We have, in fact, elected two individuals in Fort McMurray who are members of your party and who will sit beside you in the Legislative Assembly. During their campaigns Don Scott and Mike Allen committed to making the safety of Highway 63 a top priority, and I firmly believe they will do so. I also know they cannot achieve this without help, and without the support of your entire government. When you visited the region I was impressed with your understanding of it, and with your acknowledgement of the economic impact our community has on the province, and, to be truthful, our entire country. I was pleased to hear your comments about how this community contributes so much to the fabric of Alberta. And now the time has come, Premier. This is, quite literally, when the rubber hits the road in Fort McMurray. This is when action needs to start, and it needs to start now. There is no more room for excuses in this community, no pointing at weak representation sitting outside the government doors crying for change. We have two community members who sit in your party, and in your government. We are the economic driver for this province, and we have been very, very patient. But our patience has worn thin, and on this day, when 7 people lost their lives, I think our patience has disappeared. You cannot afford to ignore this a moment longer. Premier, if you do not make action on Highway 63 a top priority I can guarantee you will lose the faith and trust of an entire region. And you will lose my faith and trust, two things I do not grant lightly or without thought.

Premier, when we met I spoke to you as a writer. Today I speak to you as a resident of Fort McMurray, and as a mother. You see, I have in my house two young women, one 12 and one 14, not much older than your daughter. In fact you met them when you visited, my beautiful, intelligent girls. Today among those seven victims was a young woman as well, one who has now had her brief life snuffed out in a horrific accident. It could have been my daughter, Premier, or my niece. It could have been your daughter, the one who inspires you to do what you do every day. I am not willing to see my children die beside Highway 63 because it has not been twinned. I will not see see them die because it has not been adequately patrolled. And I will not see them die because I did not raise my voice to say "enough". This is my call to action, Premier Redford. I am saying "enough".

The people of Fort McMurray demand to see a plan to twin Highway 63. Yes, we've heard about the caribou migration and the other issues - what we have not heard is a concrete plan with completion dates and a timeline. We demand that this highway be better patrolled - and frankly I don't give a damn what it costs to do so. As has been stated again and again we are driving the provincial economy with our oil sands industry - and we are paying for it with our lives on a highway that is inadequate for the traffic it sees. And we are done with that, Premier. We have paid too high a price. Today seven people paid the ultimate price, and the ripple effects of their deaths on their families, their friends, and their community is staggering.

Premier, when we chatted last time I was struck by your passion, vision, and drive. I never doubted your sincerity or authenticity, and I saw the fire in your eyes when you spoke about why you do what you, and about the future of this province. I realize you cannot see my eyes, Premier, but I genuinely hope you can feel the passion and drive in my words. I hope you can sense the fire in my heart about my community, and about the people who call this home. I hope you don't doubt my sincerity and authenticity. And I hope you can sense that this issue is so close to me that I am making it a personal cause. I hope you can see my vision of a safer, patrolled, twinned Highway 63. I know it won't happen overnight. I know it will take time to complete. And I know there will still be accidents, and lives lost. But I also know that it will save some lives, and in a cost-benefit analysis the benefit of those lives saved outweighs any cost our province will incur to improve this highway.

So, Premier Redford, I am watching. I am waiting. And with me stands an entire region, watching and waiting to see what your government will do to end the carnage on Highway 63. We don't want promises, we want plans. We don't want ideas, we want action. And we don't want to wait. Because every single passing day endangers more lives, and the cost to our community grows. I am no longer patient, Premier. I am no longer content to not know exactly what is going on, or exactly when the highway twinning will be completed. Our region looks to you and your government now, Premier. We look to you to put into action those things you put into words during your campaign, and we look to seeing our literal connection to the world made safer and stronger. We will not wait any longer. The time has come, and it is now. Our province, and our region, granted your party a mandate to lead our province into prosperity and a brighter future. For many years Fort McMurray has provided the prosperity. Today the future of seven people disappeared. They have no bright future. They have no future at all. We have ensured the prosperity, Premier. Now you need to ensure we have a future. The rubber has hit the road. And now it's your move.

Theresa Wells
Blogger/writer, mother, wife - and passionate advocate for Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Citadel - and an Edmonton Escapade Audi

I have been blogging over the past few days about my recent trip to Edmonton, a trip courtesy of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation. In my last post I left off with my own attempt to contribute to the economic development of that city in the form of buying shoes (which is typically how I support most economies, and has led friends to suggest I may be the only reason several shoe retailers have avoided bankruptcy). After I had purchased my fabulous new shoes I realized I had a couple of hours to spare before heading to the Citadel Theatre to catch their presentation of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", and I also thought I should probably eat something. Not hungry enough for an actual meal I decided to return again to Transcend Coffee, fortunately just across the street from the shoe store I was standing in, and the perfect spot to grab a coffee and a snack.

I trotted down to Transcend, and ordered a latte and a marvellous carrot cake muffin that was pretty much beyond perfection. As I sat there and drank my coffee and devoured my muffin I also began to realize I was pretty tired. Very tired. In fact, almost falling-asleep-at-my-table-tired, and I feared that if I didn't get some down time I'd be discovered snoring in the theatre, always embarrassing when a stranger elbows you so you shut up and they can hear the actors. I collected my things and headed down Jasper to the Union Bank Inn, entered my room, and along with the daily cheese, cracker, and grapes tray and glass of white wine they provide guests I found this:

Yes, that's a note thanking me for the tweets I'd been tweeting that included mentions of the Inn. It was an absolutely lovely surprise, and I decided I would open the wine after the theatre, even though I'd be drinking it alone and quite unlikely to finish the entire bottle. I sat down in one of the comfy chairs in the room and drank my white wine and snacked on the cheese and responded to a couple of emails, and by the time I looked up it was time to head to the theatre.

I'm ashamed to admit I've never been to the Citadel. And now that I have been there I am even more ashamed I have never attended a performance there. I have been to the Jubilee several times for presentations of The Nutcracker ballet, but I had no idea what a little jewel the Citadel is, or the calibre of the theatre they present. I was very pleased to find it was a short walk from the Inn, since I am one of those who typically "dress" for the theatre and thus I trotted off wearing my usual dress and heels.

I was astonished to enter the Citadel and find this:

Yes, the Citadel is also home to a lovely little arboretum, an oasis of calm in the midst of downtown Edmonton. I spent a few moments among the greenery, delighted to find a little bit of what felt like spring despite the outdoors weather that was not quite yet springlike and more like the tail end of winter instead. I collected my ticket from the box office (pleased to find I was second row centre - I like being close to the action, people, always) and entered the theatre.

I wish I could share photos of the set for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" but the set is apparently copyrighted and photos are not allowed (I asked before I took any, always being cognizant of getting kicked out of places for being a blogger who knows no limits). To describe the set all I can say is that it is magical and vibrant, looking both like the city setting necessary for the play and the forest necessary for the fairies that play a huge role in it.

If you haven't seen the play it's bit tough to explain because Shakespeare threw a lot into it, from a storyline about young lovers to the fairies and their little battles to a group of craftsmen/actors who are a bit less than successful in mounting a dramatic performance. Poorly done I think it could be absolutely bewildering as you must watch carefully to see the threads tie the stories together, and while they do the story could seem less than cohesive. Well done, however, the play flows beautifully, and the Citadel did it better than well done. They did it magnificently.

No modern costuming for them, and no taking the language Shakespeare wrote in and "modernizing" it. Presented in the original English and with costumes true to the times of Shakespeare the play rang with authenticity. The acting was astonishingly good, with some performers standing out in a huge way in particular. The young actresses who portrayed Helena and Hermia were standouts, bringing depth to the characters and engaging the audience. The young man who played Puck was not only athletic and energetic but captured the mischievous nature of that character. The actor who portrayed Nick Bottom presented that character to perfection, the ridiculous nature of that individual clearly on stage. And perhaps my favourite was the actor who portrayed Oberon, the king of the fairies. He managed to take that character and bring it to life, and it didn't hurt a bit that he is a very handsome man (as the Intrepid Junior Bloggers would say "nom nom nom"). I would say there wasn't a single weak performer - and not a single weak moment of the performance, either.

Perhaps my very favourite moments of the performance were when the craftsmen/actors were on stage, and particularly when they mounted their production for the pleasure of Theseus, Hippolyta, and the rest. I admit it - I laughed so hard I cried. I snorted several times. And I sincerely apologize to those around me who had to endure me braying like a donkey, but the pure joy in that scene was impossible to ignore. The laughter in the theatre was clearly not just my own, however, as the entire audience was pretty much in tears by the end.

It was all in all a stunning performance from a talented cast, and brought to life on a beautiful set. I was transfixed the entire time, delighted by the Shakespearean play unfolding before me. And, at the end, I was further pleased when members of the cast stayed to do a "talk back" session with the audience, a session that I would say at least one third of the audience stayed to experience. The audience was able to ask the actors questions - how the actor portraying Puck was able to do his acrobatics, and where the actors found the inspiration for their characters. It was a lovely end to a lovely evening, and after the talk back ended I gathered my things and headed out into the dark.

Like so many cities once night has fallen the downtown core becomes quite quiet. The hustle and bustle of the day has died down, and most of the people who work in those tall towers have gone home. I was enjoying the quiet and crossing the street at a crosswalk to head back to the Inn - and that's when the Audi almost hit me.

I guess he didn't see me in my black coat, although I'm pretty certain he saw the red light. He screeched his tires to a stop in time, and I found his car half in the crosswalk and right in my path. I looked around and realized it was just the driver and I, no witnesses to the fact that he might well have mowed me down and never even stopped. I suppose the fact that no one was around might explain what I did next. I suppose I could pretend it was out of character, although those who know me well know I am prone to occasional acts of silliness, particularly when in a buoyant mood (like after leaving a theatre where I had enjoyed some wonderful Shakespeare). 

You see, what I did next surprised even me a bit. I stepped forward and hopped lightly onto the hood of the Audi, and slid across it a bit. I'd like to say it was gracefully executed but I doubt that, and rather suspect it was clumsy and awkward. I do know, however, from the gape-mouthed expression of the driver, that it was quite definitely unexpected, and while I sped off into the darkness as fast as my high heels could carry me he seemed to sit at the now green light for some time. So, to the driver of the Audi - I am most definitely NOT the woman wearing the leather jacket and heels who slid across the hood of your car, despite what this blog says. Nope. I'd never do such a thing.

I discovered I was famished, and was pleased to spy that the Subway across from the hotel was open. I grabbed a small sub, headed up to my room, opened the bottle of wine, and sat down to eat and drink. I was still quite buoyed by the play I had seen and now I was both bemused and amused by my own behaviour with the Audi in the crosswalk. I tweeted a bit about that incident, and was told that the "Starsky and Hutch" manoeuvre is considered perfectly acceptable practice, which made me feel quite vindicated. Finally, after finishing eating and realizing there was no possible way to drink more than two glasses of wine and catch my flight in the morning I gave up, packed my things, and crawled into bed. As I lay there I thought a lot about the play, and about the day spent shopping. I thought about the EEDC luncheon and all the people there who expressed interest in Fort Mac. I thought about my supper with Peter Silverstone the night before, and I chuckled as I recalled the expression of the driver of the Audi who was no doubt stunned to see a woman of a "certain age" in heels and leather sliding across the hood of his car. And I finally fell asleep.

The next morning I got up, grabbed a taxi, and headed to the airport for the flight home. I had a wonderful time in Edmonton, and I discovered so many new things and met so many new people. I had found things I will return to, like the Union Bank Inn and the 4th Street Promenade and the Citadel Theatre. I had bought shoes, and I had talked about one of my favourite topics, this community. And I had enjoyed my hotel and the restaurants and coffee shops. It had been a great trip, and yet when my plane began the final approach into Fort McMurray I found myself leaning forward and smiling as I caught glimpses of the neighbourhoods I know so well - Beacon Hill and Abasand, Gregoire and Saprae Creek. And when the wheels touched down I knew that while my Edmonton Escapade had been a total success I also knew something else - I was home. And I was happy to be there, just as usual.

And now my thanks!

To the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation
and the lovely Crystal -
my thanks for the invitation and making the 
Edmonton Escapade possible.

To the Union Bank Inn -
thanks for the lovely stay, the fabulous service,
 the tweets of support, and the wine.

To Wener Shoes -
thanks for being there to support
my junkie shoe habit.

To Transcend Coffee -
thanks for providing the caffeine to keep me functional.

To Tres Carnales -
thanks for amazing Mexican food.

To Peter Silverstone -
thanks for the dinner and the conversation.

To Kendall Barber - 
thanks for taking the time for our shopping 
jaunt and blogger talk.

To the Citadel Theatre -
thanks for the wonderful play
and a beautiful facility.

To the people of Edmonton -
thanks for being such gracious hosts
to a neighbour from the north.

And finally to the Audi driver -
thanks for not calling the cops :)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Edmonton Escapade - Shopping, Blogging, and Exchanging

Well, people, if you've read my last three blog posts you know that I spent a couple of days in Edmonton last week as the guest of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation. They had invited me to come down to attend their annual luncheon, but also to experience some of Edmonton. When Crystal, the lovely EEDC employee who arranged my itinerary, contacted me she noted that she had seen from my Twitter feed that I'm rather fond of shoes - and asked if I would like to go on a shopping tour with one of Edmonton's top fashion and lifestyle bloggers, Kendall Barber.

And it's true, people. I have a terrible, terrible weakness for shoes. I also like clothing, dresses in particular. I suppose I am a bit of a fashion junkie, something that occasionally takes people by surprise if they have not met me before. Then again some readers have been shocked to discover that I'm a woman so I guess that they don't always know much about me should be rather obvious, I suppose. So when Crystal suggested this shopping junket I said "yes" very politely while screaming "woohoo" inside, and she sent me Kendall's email address.

Kendall writes a very popular and successful blog called "City and Dale: Edmonton Style and Happenings". It's a fabulous blog that focuses on Edmonton, and particularly on independent businesses in the city. It's a bit like this blog, just with a more specific focus (okay, I might have some form of blogger ADHD as I tend to try to cover everything from politics to small business to non profits to...well, whatever you've got there is a good chance if it relates to Fort Mac I'll write about it). 

I raced back to the Union Bank Inn after the EEDC luncheon to change. Kendall had suggested wearing comfortable shoes for walking so I put on sensible shoes (well, sensible for me, which means the stilettos stayed in my suitcase) and I headed down to the lobby to meet her. I found a young woman with a delightful smile and lovely fashion sense - and a wonderful personality to boot. As she and I walked we chatted about what she does in Edmonton, and about the things she plans to do. Over the course of the next couple of hours we talked a lot, actually, and I learned a great deal about Kendall, and about how all bloggers are perhaps a bit similar. I also learned a lot about shopping in Edmonton, and I'd like to share some of that with you because I found some great spots I know I will be return to.

Our first stop was Blu's, a little store in the Manulife Centre on Jasper. Blu's carries designer fashion, but also shoes, and I was delighted to see shoes from my very favourite Canadian shoe company Fluevog. Fluevog began in Vancouver 40 years ago, owned by shoe designer John Fluevog. Now, Fluevogs are admittedly unusual, and they are not for the faint of heart. They are, however, unique, comfortable, and incredibly good quality shoes, and I admit to owning many pairs. I checked out the selection, and then it was on to our next stop in the Centre, Pravda Shoes.

Pravda carries unusual shoe lines too, and I was intrigued by some of them. Again it appealed to my eclectic nature, shoes that are wearable and unusual but not bizarre. It's a small store but it appears to be heavily trafficked by downtown businesswomen so I suspect it's safe to say they have shod many of Edmonton's downtown fashionistas.

After we left the Manulife Centre we headed off on a short walk to a street I didn't even know existed. Kendall took me to a place now being called the "4th Street Promenade", a stretch of 104th Street. This is apparently the street where the farmer's market is held during the summer months, and this is a street that has been undergoing some changes in recent years. You see, the city has determined that this street should become a sort of pedestrian shopping, eating, and living mecca, and so this street is quietly transforming into exactly that. 

The buildings on the promenade are heritage buildings of the sort that intrigue you. Many of the upper floors are being converted into condos while the main floors are being occupied by independent and unique retailers of everything from clothing to food to furniture. Kendall took me into a few of the shops and I was absolutely delighted by the spaces, from the original hardwood or tile flooring to soaring ceilings and beautiful vintage hardware. I spent most of my twenties in Toronto and it reminded me of certain areas in that city, places where the past has been carefully preserved while the modern has moved in to join it.

And the modern is there on the 4th Street Promenade, with stores like 29 Armstrong, a retailer of furniture and household goods. This table, of BC timber, particularly caught my eye, but so much of what is sold at the store is beautiful and unusual.

Then downstairs from 29 Armstrong is Dauphine Bakery, and what a wonderful story exists behind this bakery. You see, it began as a stall at the farmer's market on the street outside, but was so successful that the owner decided to take the leap and open an actual storefront bakery. So beautiful, so crisp and white and airy, the space is lovely and so are the baked goods. Still stuffed from the EEDC luncheon I couldn't try one bite, but I know I will return one day to sample those baked items, especially the tarts, as baked goods are a terrible weakness for me.

We walked down the street a bit further and found a spot called Coup, a clothing retailer. I was pleased to find a beautiful space yet again, and filled with even more beautiful clothing. It takes a bold retailer to break away from the standard offerings but Coup has taken the leap and retails clothing that is a bit more unusual and unique. Lovely fabrics, stunning colours, and clearly with a good eye for fashion Coup carries some wonderful things, and I chatted with the owner briefly. She commented that she and her partner have talked about bringing a pop-up store to Fort Mac, and I offered my card and my assistance should they wish to do (I'm shameless, people, I take every opportunity to encourage people to come here, and frankly we could do with some of these retail options every now and then, I think).

I was deeply impressed by the Promenade, to be honest. The eventual plan is to perhaps close the street to vehicle traffic altogether, creating a pedestrian mall of the sort you find in most major cities, and I think it's a terrific plan. The way to revitalize and re-energize downtown cores is to do exactly this, turn them into places where you can buy a condo and eat tarts and buy unusual clothing. You turn the downtown core into not just a place to work but to live and eat and shop, too.

After we left the Promenade we hopped into Kendall's car and drove to a store called Who Cares, another spot for clothing and shoes, and I was pleased to once again discover an independent retailer with a keen eye for fashion. When Kendall introduced me, though, I discovered something else - the owner is originally from Fort Mac. She was, in fact, born and raised here, and we laughed a little at the coincidence as we chatted. I perused the clothes and shoes and we chatted about Fort Mac and about how she had been happy to grow up here - and I was, of course, delighted. When we left we hopped into Kendall's car again and headed to yet some more stores.

Kendall took me next to a neighbourhood close to Glenora, 124th Street and area. We headed first to a store called TK Clothing, one I actually follow on Twitter, and I checked out the styles while Kendall chatted with the owner. We then headed next door as I had spotted hats and shoes, and we found a lovely little shop called Headcase Hats. With an amazing selection of hats and eclectic shoes it's a great spot for those with a taste for the unusual or unique. When we had finished there we headed across the street and towards another store called Miss Boss. Now, Miss Boss doesn't carry shoes, but they do carry handbags and jewelry, which is almost as good. I was especially taken with a green Matt and Nat bag but resisted as I was treating this as an exploration rather than a personal indulgence trip, and so off we went a couple of door down to Shades of Grey where we found...someone else who had been born and raised in Fort Mac.

Shades of Grey is another independent fashion retailer, this one owned by three sisters - all of whom grew up in Fort Mac. It was once again a wonderful little coincidence, and while I chatted with one of the owners I took in yet another store with terrific fashion offerings (and I'm starting to think we just might have some very good fashion sense coming out of this city, people, and it's running stores in Edmonton).

Finally Kendall and I headed to the last three stores we would visit together. Red Ribbon is an eclectic little mix of men's and women's clothing, with some very unusual pieces. Pear Tree caught my eye as their display was festooned in Union Jacks, and I have a particular fondness for that flag (and for the country it represents). Right across from them we headed into Vespucci Consignment, and there I found perhaps my favourite store from our entire trip. Once people get past the "consignment" part of the name (meaning "used") they can find some incredible things at such stores. Vespucci just might be the best consignment store I have ever seen, huge, well-organized, and with someone at the helm who clearly understands what constitutes good clothing. I saw labels from virtually every designer, and shoes, too, including Prada. When one considers that new designer shoes can retail for more than $1000 and can be bought at Vespucci for a fraction of that suddenly consignment sounds like a very, very appealing idea. I will be going back to Vespucci, but when I have time to spend perusing aisles and racks and hunting for hidden fashion treasures.

In fact I will be heading back to most of the retailers we visited, and next time I take my family to Edmonton we will head to the Fourth Street Promenade. We will eat tarts and look at furniture and enjoy a lovely little street of the kind I enjoy the most. I can't wait to show them what I discovered there.

I wanted to share a couple more things with you, people. I wanted, with Kendall's permission, to share a bit of her story about her blog. You see, Kendall moved to Edmonton from Vancouver, and she was unhappy. She missed Vancouver, and she hated Edmonton. She couldn't find her niche, she couldn't find a place to fit in, and she just was miserable. One day, though, after her mother told her she was coming over to help her pack so she could move (and her mom could stop listening to her complaining) she decided she was in control of her destiny in Edmonton. She began to write a little email newsletter about Edmonton, and sent it to a few people. She began going to events where she didn't know anyone, and she began meeting people. She eventually started her blog, and along the way something happened. She stopped hating Edmonton. In fact, she began loving it. She began to feel protective of it. She began to see all the good things while recognizing the problems. She embraced her city, and it embraced her right back, making her blog successful. And now Kendall has a community. In every store we walked into they knew Kendall. They are her friends and her peers. They are her community. And as I watched Kendall interact with the shop owners I knew exactly how that felt because my blog experience is so similar to hers, people. I have met people, and I have found a community that is far stronger, far more powerful, far more interesting, and far, far more precious than I could have ever imagined.

Oh, and the last thing to share? After Kendall and I parted ways when she dropped me at my hotel I trotted down the street and back to Wener Shoes. I had spotted a pair of boots when I had been there the day before, and I had to try them on. I flew inside the store, tried them on - and fell in love, of course, with a little pair of grey and blue boots from Fly London. This is them, and they came home with me:

So, at the end of the day people I had a new pair of shoes, several new stores I wanted to visit again, a new friend in a fellow blogger, a fuller understanding of Edmonton - and a renewed appreciation for the people of my own city, including those who grew up here but now live in another city, and, who when told I am from Fort Mac opened their hearts and stories of life here to me. It was just another amazing day of Fort McMurray-Edmonton story exchanging - and, well, a day of bloggers, shopping, and shoes, too. Pretty much damn perfect, people, perfect.

My sincere gratitude to Edmonton blogger
Kendall Barber
for her time, 
the shopping tour, 
and sharing her story with me!

Tomorrow the final instalment
of the Edmonton Escapade -
"A Midsummer Night's Dream"
at Citadel Theatre,
and what happens when
an Audi almost hits a 
certain blogger in a crosswalk.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Believing in the Possibilities

I had a blog post planned for today, and it was all about my recent Edmonton Escapade. But something else has been going on in my life lately, and last night it culminated in an event that I think will forever change our community, and the future of our region. I decided I needed to take this blog on a little detour today to talk about that event, and to share some thoughts with you. What was the event? Well, the election of Don Scott and Mike Allen as our new MLAs for the ridings of Fort McMurray-Conklin and Fort-McMurray-Wood Buffalo.

A few weeks ago I was asked to serve as communications manager for Don's campaign. I had met Don last summer at interPLAY. It was only when he sent me a message on Twitter during SummersEnd that Don and I really became friends, though. He sent a message saying he had an extra ticket, and asked if I wanted it. I replied that I was volunteering backstage, but when I went out into the audience during the show I found Don and we chatted. His first words to me were "I can't do much for you, but I can introduce you to people" - and he did. Don has introduced me to hundreds of people, providing me contacts for this blog that I would have otherwise struggled to make. He invited me to events, and he made sure I knew what was going on in the community. And he did it only because he wanted to help me, and his help has made this blog what it has become. So, when asked if I would work on his campaign I was not only happy to do so I was excited and honoured to be given the opportunity.

And people, what a time it has been! I will be very honest and tell you that there are people who worked far harder on Don's campaign than I did. The guys out putting up signs, the people out knocking on doors, his campaign manager - they all worked their butts off while I was often curled up with my laptop knocking out press releases and content for brochures. My contribution to the campaign seems quite small compared to that of others, but I am proud to have been able to do it. And not just because I consider Don a friend. It's because I believe that Don, and Mike, are what we need in this community.

This region is at a critical phase in my opinion. We are on the cusp of something amazing, the leap from rural to urban, the leap from reactive to proactive thinking. The only way to achieve what I think is possible, though, is to have the kind of bold, visionary, effective leadership that can make it happen - and people, we just elected it last night.

We now have two strong voices in government. And we have a premier that I firmly believe has a passion and vision for this province, and I saw it first hand when I had the chance to interview her recently. And in Don and Mike and Alison I think we have three leaders who truly understand who Fort McMurray is, what this region needs, and who will fight to make sure we get it. I think we have just determined the future, and we have done so by electing people who will take us into that future. They will provide the leadership we need, and they will do what needs to be done.

Yesterday was a nerve wracking day for me. Last night I was locked in one of the polling stations as a scrutineer so I had no idea of the results, being unable to use my cell phone. When I turned it back on and received a call from my husband congratulating me it was the first news I had of what had happened in this province. And I admit it. I danced, I jumped up and down, and I shouted.

And then last night I went to MacDonald Island for a little party. It was a little party that turned into a victory celebration, and it was a little party where I not only celebrated, but I cried. I took the Intrepid Junior Bloggers into a corner and I wept as I released some of the stress from the past month, and I cried tears of happiness, too. Happiness for my friend Don, happiness for my friend Mike, and happiness for all of us in a region with such a bright, bright future. Until that moment I don't think even I knew how heavily invested I was personally in all this, but as I cried, the arms of my girls wrapped around me, I finally realized that, too.

It has been an incredible journey, people. I have had the pleasure of taking it with so many people, all those from Don's campaign team, and Mike's team, too. I have had the honour of being part of the ride, and as I said all along I would be proud to have done so regardless of outcome - and I would have been. The fact that the outcome is just as I hoped it would be, and just as I think the future of this region needs, simply makes me that much happier.

I woke this morning and saw the dreary snow. I saw that winter hadn't left us yet, and any other morning I probably would have growled. But not this morning. This morning all I saw was perhaps the most beautiful morning in Fort McMurray I've ever seen. Last night Sharon Clarkson, former Fort Mac city councillor, made a speech in which she shared she has recently been in Disney, but that Disney isn't the most magical place in the world - it's right here in Fort McMurray. Fort McMurray is where dreams can come true, and last night I saw the realization of many dreams, for individuals, and, I think, for our community. And for this little blogger, well, she saw the result of the hard work of many people, and the shape of our future. She saw once again what can happen in this place we call home. She saw democracy in action, and she saw this:

And she smiled. And she is still smiling today, people, although she seems to be on the verge of tears on occasion, too. Because I think we all have a great deal to smile about, this entire community. Because I think despite the dreary weather today the sun is shining down on us, and it will shine on us for years to come as we move into the future with new leaders, a new vision, and a renewed belief in ourselves - and the possibilities. It's a day for smiles, and happy tears, and believing in the possibilities.

I want to thank EVERYONE on 
Team Don Scott
Team Mike Allen
for simply being amazing!

I want to thank all those
who put their names on those ballots,
regardless of party affiliation.
I know now how brave a step that is,
and the hard work it involves.

I want to thank all those
who voted, who took the time
to learn about the issues, and who
care about the future of this community -
regardless of where you placed your X you
showed you care enough to have a voice!

Finally, I want to thank
the Intrepid Junior Bloggers
my husband
who took this journey with me every day,
supported me, and made it possible for me
to do this at all.
And yes, eventually I will do the laundry
 that hasn't been done in weeks
 and clean the disaster we call our house. 
Just not today ;)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Edmonton Escapade, EEDC Luncheon, and Embarrassment

I've been posting about my little trip to Edmonton over the last two days, and I've mentioned the reason I went down was to attend the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation annual luncheon. Every year the EEDC hosts this luncheon to celebrate achievement in local businesses, and to serve as a networking opportunity for Edmonton folks. I was delighted when the EEDC contacted me to invite me not only to the luncheon but to enjoy some of Edmonton at their expense. I was quite honoured to be invited, in fact, as I have this tendency to think that what I do is really of little significant impact. After all, if the internet disappeared tomorrow this entire blog would go with it, and what would it mean to anyone then? (can you tell what bloggers have nightmares about?)

After my exciting arrival in Edmonton and dinner with Peter Silverstone I woke up bright and early on Tuesday morning. I am typically an early riser and this day was no different, seeing me climb out of my very comfortable bed at the Union Bank Inn shortly after 5 am. The fuzzy purple bathrobe provided by the inn, a cup of coffee from the Keurig coffee maker (I think I might want one of those now), and the fireplace in my room helped to lessen my dismay at my inability to sleep in, and I set to work on some writing for the political campaign I have been working for as a volunteer.

I opened the blinds in my room and sat by the window, writing away as I watched the city come to life in the early morning. I wrote and noted as people began to arrive at their offices, and as the sleepy street began to awaken. I spent most of my twenties living and working in downtown Toronto and I admit missing certain moments of the day from that urban experience - the quiet times just before the day really gets going again, and the quiet moments at night when almost everyone has headed home and streets previously packed with people in suits are now home only to a few pigeons and me. So, to sit in my hotel room in downtown Edmonton with this view of the downtown was truly lovely, reminding me of a time in my life when I was part of that very urban world.

Madison's Grill, Union Bank Inn

My window view at Madison's Grill

Slowly I finished my work, showered, dressed, and then headed downstairs to Madison's Grill, where a complimentary a la carte breakfast awaited me. I was met by a lovely lady who directed me to a window table (to my delight, of course) and I was handed a menu. She brought me a carafe of coffee (I probably had that "look" in my eyes, despite two cups already consumed in my room), and I quickly settled on Eggs Benedict, dove into my coffee, and the local newspaper (incidentally, thank you, Edmonton Journal, for continuing to be what I consider one of the finest newspapers in the country, and one I always look forward to reading).

My morning paper, the Edmonton Journal

When the Eggs Benedict arrived it was quite perfect, the English Muffin crisp and toasty, the eggs slightly soft and runny (microbes be damned, I like my eggs runny, thank you).

Nom nom nom.

I finished up my breakfast and then headed upstairs to check my emails, gather my things, and head over to the Shaw Conference Centre where the luncheon was being held. I was pleased to discover it was a short walk, too, and when I arrived I marvelled as always at what a nice spot the conference centre has, nestled right on the riverbank and overlooking the valley. I stopped to grab a few pictures with my iPhone, and then headed into the centre. I headed down to Hall D and tried to look like I fit in.

View from Shaw Conference Centre, outdoors

Shaw Conference Centre, indoors fountain

I must admit I felt a bit awkward as I didn't know anyone, really. It felt a bit like when I first began writing this blog and knew a very limited number of people in this city, despite having lived here for several years. You see when you are a stay-at-home mom your social circle tends to be a bit small, the parents of your child's friends or those you meet at their school. When I began to write this blog my social circle exploded in an incredible way, so rapidly that I began having trouble remembering names and re-introducing myself to people I had already met, something that has never happened to me before (it's either early-onset senility or meeting too many people too quickly, and I refuse to accept the first option as a possibility, people). So, I found a seat in Hall D and watched people begin to pour in, and I got on Twitter.

I had found the event hashtag (how events are identified on Twitter so a search for that hashtag will pull up everything related to it) and so I began tweeting away merrily, a little bored and a little out of place. I tweeted about spotting and recognizing a certain provincial minister in the crowd, and about feeling a little out of my depth. Finally as the room began to get very full it was time to go find my luncheon table and I entered the dining area.

EEDC luncheon, podium

View from dining room in Hall D, Shaw Conference Centre

The first thing I noticed were about half a dozen giant screens scattered around the room. They all seemed to be showing a Twitter feed. They all seemed to be showing the hashtag feed for the event, #eedc2012. And then I looked closer at the screens and realized to my horror that every single tweet on the screen had one name in front of it - "McMurray Musings". People who know me know that I like to talk - and text, and tweet, and Facebook, and just generally share my thoughts with the entire world. I am very free with my thoughts usually, and my Facebook timeline is really a stream-of-consciousness feed directly into my head - but at least only my friends have to suffer through that little personal war zone. However, in Edmonton my entire tweetfest was now up all around the room for every mover and shaker in the city to read. I believe I not only turned bright red but died a little inside as my Twitter addiction was now right there front and centre in the very public view of an entire city of no one I knew but hoped to meet.  I put on my game face as people began to arrive at my table and started to breathe again when I noticed new tweets going up but not under my name (I went a bit covert on Twitter at that point, ensuring only every fifth tweet or so contained the event hashtag to prevent further self-embarrassment).

The company at my table was stellar, people from government and business, and the lovely lady from the EEDC who had arranged my entire itinerary (her name is Crystal, and she deserves a personal shout-out in my opinion as she did a terrific job in arranging an itinerary suited to me). I was also seated with an individual who is perhaps Edmonton's top blogger, MasterMaq, although I didn't get a chance to speak to him as he was across from me (and frankly I was mildly intimidated by a blogger with a far larger audience and reach than my own - what could he possibly find of interest in a little northern blogger like me?). The best part though was the people at my table who, upon learning I am from Fort Mac, began to ask me questions. They asked about the city and the community and oil sands development and as I talked I realized how much I had learned over this last year. I could talk for hours about the City Centre Action Plan and the airport expansion and the plans for MacDonald Island and non-profit groups and municipal politics and on and on. I suspect eventually they rather wished I would shut up, this woman who couldn't stop talking about her city, but they kept asking questions and I kept answering them. And people, I was so very, very happy to do so, to share our story with them.

Then it was time for some speeches, and I was pleased that oil sands development, our city, and groups like the Oil Sands Developers Group received mentions in them. You see I think it's fairly apparent that we are integral to the economy of this province - and of Edmonton. Every time they mentioned us I felt like I had gotten a personal shout-out and had to stop myself from a little fist-pumping and shouts of "whoot" (which I figured wouldn't lessen my embarrassment should I indulge myself in them). I sat there very dignified, beaming like mad, and tweeting every time Fort Mac got mentioned.

The awards themselves were of the standard nature - awards given for innovation (Quantium Technologies), recognition (Donovan Creative Communications), and, my personal favourite, community leadership, which was awarded to a group called Homeward Trust, an organization  that works with the homeless in Edmonton. I actually got tears in my eyes watching the video on Homeward Trust, as it reminded me of my own beloved Centre of Hope in Fort Mac, a place that has become so close to my heart and mind over the last year. The entire award ceremony was wonderful to witness as I love seeing communities celebrating their own achievements, recognizing those who are innovating or achieving or effecting change. I have attended several of these events in Fort Mac, and it was an absolute pleasure to do so in a city with which we share so many ties, including economic and social.

The food was terrific, as it usually is at the Shaw Conference Centre, an interesting menu with an Oriental flair (the ginger cherry blossom creme brulee was particularly enchanting, I thought, and I eat at a lot of these types of events so I am becoming a bit jaded in the desserts department), and the company at my table a pleasure to speak with. However, when the luncheon ended I realized I had to duck out quickly as I had an appointment with an Edmonton fashion and lifestyle blogger for a shopping tour - but I had noticed at the table next to mine someone I knew from Fort Mac. I dashed over and found our own RMWB Manager of Economic Development, and we chatted for a few minutes about the luncheon. I was thrilled to find someone else from Fort Mac in attendance, although since he didn't mention it I'm rather hoping he didn't witness my little Twitter embarrassment.

I thanked my gracious host Crystal from the EEDC, grabbed my coat from the coat check, and headed out the door, trotting back to the Union Bank Inn. And as I walked I thought yet again about how similar Edmonton and Fort Mac are, and about how we have such common goals - improving our situation, and our image. How we both want to make our cities the best possible place to live - and how we take opportunities like this luncheon to celebrate achievement by local individuals. I thought about how the people I had met at the luncheon were no different than the ones I meet in Fort Mac, and about how I think I would quickly meet new people should Edmonton be my home instead of Fort Mac. I thought again about all the things that make us similar and different, and all the conversations I had at lunch about exactly those things. And then I started thinking about something else - shoes. I began thinking about going shopping with Edmonton powerhouse Kendall Barber, and I dashed up to my room to change yet again and embark on the next phase of my Edmonton Escapade.

Coming up tomorrow -
I go on a shopping tour with
Kendall Barber,
Edmonton fashion and lifestyle blogger :)

Friday, April 20, 2012

Edmonton Escapade, Part Two!

Yesterday I left off my post on my recent escapade to Edmonton in Transcend Coffee, a lovely little coffee shop on Jasper Avenue. As I noted I was visiting the city as a guest of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, and the EEDC had devised an exciting little itinerary for me jam-packed with interesting things to do. When I finished my latte I collected my things and trotted off down Jasper back to my hotel, the charming Union Bank Inn, so I could freshen up before my dinner meeting with Peter Silverstone, incoming EEDC board chair.

I arrived back at the hotel, walked into my room, dropped my coat and bag, and found this waiting to greet me:

One could get used to this sort of thing....

I was way past pleased and into delighted. I believe the word that left my lips was "Woohoo". I like food, and I like wine. And frankly it was just the little pick-me-up I needed before leaving to meet Peter at Tres Carnales, a Mexican restaurant just down the street from the hotel.

After enjoying the wine and cheese and strawberries I headed out towards Tres Carnales. Walking in I found a small and crowded restaurant, obviously very popular gauging from the line up of people waiting to be seated or order food. It's an interesting little spot, small tables scattered around and a few seats lined up bar-style against the windows so you can watch the world go by. I spotted Peter quite quickly and we fell into conversation just as quickly.

You see, I had met Peter when he came to Fort Mac to deliver a presentation at the Leading the North conference I attended in January. Peter is a very interesting man because he's done a little of just about everything. He is a physician, and he has done research. He's been a professor, and he's been a businessman. And recently he wrote a little book called "Greenest Oil", a fascinating read for anyone involved in the oil sands. I wrote about Peter's presentation at the conference because I was mesmerized by it - and not just by what he said but rather how it was received, because he said some things you don't often hear in Fort McMurray. He engaged in some "courageous conversations" of the kind people would much rather avoid, and I was intrigued. I was intrigued even more, though, because Peter is just obviously a very intelligent man, and I like intelligent people. I always hope that I might gain some of their "smart" by osmosis, as I'm not nearly as clever as I'd like to be, and so I welcome any chance to spend time in the company of those who are bright. I had been looking forward to dinner with Peter ever since the EEDC had mentioned it, and I wasn't disappointed.

The discussion Peter and I had was wide-ranging, everything from oil sands to communities. We talked about image problems - Fort McMurray's and Edmonton's, and how these challenges affected our communities. We talked about the relationship between our cities, too, and how it could be strengthened. Peter said Edmonton has such a vibrant arts and culture community (and they do!) and said he wished more people from Fort McMurray would consider Edmonton a cultural hub where they could see live theatre and hear music and visit galleries. I told him that I suspected many in Fort McMurray see Edmonton as an enormous shopping mall, a place to get those things we cannot get our hands on in our own community (and I am guilty of this, people - I believe in shopping local but if I can't get it locally typically my next stop is either Edmonton or the internet). We talked about industry and writing and how Edmonton plans to grow their community. And I, of course, talked about Fort McMurray, about how this community is changing, and how it is an ever-exciting place to be. We sat and we chatted and we shared, and in the end we exchanged email addresses and promised to keep in touch - and I know we will, because I think we found some common ground as well as some points where we disagree, just as it should be. We talked about finding people you can "spark" from, people who have different ideas and thoughts, and how those ideas can inspire and spark your own - and certainly Peter is one of those people for me.

And while we chatted we enjoyed the food from Tres Carnales which is, in a word, fabulous. We had guacamole and chips, the guacamole fresh and tasty. We shared the dishes we had ordered, my Rajas Con Cremas quesadilla (grilled poblano chilies, sweet corn, and onions) and his Al Pastor Torta (roasted marinated pork on a small tortilla), and the food was terrific. Fresh, filling, and very, very tasty, it was very clear why Tres Carnales is such a popular spot. Add to that some great service from the wait staff and Na-na, the guy in charge, and it was a pretty great place for Peter and I to sit and chat. Then add to that the El Jimador Palomas Y Margarita I had (really the only important word in that name is, of course, "margarita") and it was pretty much perfect. We had taken one of those window seats so we could watch Edmonton parade past the window but I admit I was so absorbed in the food and our conversation that I didn't notice a damn thing going on outside.

When we finished dinner Peter walked me back to my hotel, barely half a block away. We parted knowing that we would see each other again at the EEDC luncheon the next day, and I headed up to my room. I arrived in my lovely little room, window blinds still open and the night time lights of Edmonton's downtown clearly visible through the glass. I sat down with my laptop, flicked on the little fireplace, and reflected a bit on the conversation Peter and I had shared.

I thought about the differences between Edmonton and Fort McMurray - but more about the similarities. For all our differences we are far more the same than we are different. It is so easy to point out the differences that separate us, whether we do so with people or with communities, but the reality is that it is our similarities that tie us together. Those similarities are what makes us neighbours. Those similarities are what draw us together, and they are, in the end, what truly matter. Peter and I are very different people who have done very different things in our lives - and yet at the end of the day we discovered the similarities between us, while noting the differences. In the same way our respective communities have this dialogue about our similarities and our differences. We explore what makes us the same while recognizing those things that make us different. But that is what makes the dialogue interesting, people. Because if we were exactly the same or completely different the dialogue would falter and we would have nothing to talk about. But just as Peter and I have a great deal to discuss I think Edmonton and Fort McMurray have a lot to talk about, too - and it is a conversation between neighbours, just as it should be.

I tumbled into bed that night exhausted from day one of the Edmonton Escapade. I had had an absolutely brilliant time, but I knew the day ahead of me was going to be another day packed with excitement - the annual EEDC awards luncheon, a shopping tour with Edmonton fashion and lifestyle blogger Kendall Barber, and seeing "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Citadel. The Escapade was turning into quite the little adventure, and I was learning something along the way, too. I was learning about Edmonton, certainly, but even more I was learning about what Fort McMurray could bring to Edmonton - and it's all of us, people. We can bring all of us to Edmonton for a little neighbourly conversation - and it's a talk worth having, I think.

My night time window view of Edmonton downtown

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Embarking on My Edmonton Escapade

I know, people. You are wondering where I disappeared to and why this blog has been silent for a few days. As I wrote last week, though, I was invited on a little adventure in our neighbour to the south, and frankly I was so busy enjoying it (and tweeting about it) that I didn't stop to write about it. You see, the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation invited me to come down to their annual luncheon where they honour Edmonton businesses with achievement awards. But that isn't all. They set me up with a full itinerary, and frankly I packed more into two days in Edmonton than I normally do in a week. I fell into my bed exhausted every night, and I had the time of my life exploring a city that I thought I knew but didn't know nearly as well as I thought I did. And now I am going to share some of that with you in a series of posts all about my little "Edmonton Escapade", as I dubbed it.

Coffee at Fort McMurray airport
(aka "hand me the latte and nobody gets hurt")

I arrived at the Fort McMurray airport mid-morning, parked my car, and stopped to take care of the first order of business - coffee. Coffee in hand I sat down to check out the itinerary, and I was pretty delighted as most of the things on it were things I had never done, and places I had never gone. That surprised me a bit as I've lived here in Fort Mac for a decade and we go to Edmonton a lot - but it's always the same places. I guess we have become a bit stale in the "trying new things" department so I was quite excited about the chance to explore Edmonton differently, and on my own as well (I love my family dearly but sometimes it's lovely to be totally self-indulgent and not have to take a vote on what everyone wants to do next but rather just go and do what I want to do - anyone with kids knows exactly what I mean here).

And so off on Air Canada I flew, loving my seat where I could watch the landing gear disappear inside the wheel wells (I'm serious here, I love to fly, and I love the technology of aircraft even though the physics of it goes completely above my head). I arrived at the Edmonton airport, collected my bag, and went and found a taxi.

Edmonton International Airport arrivals level

And from the moment I stepped into the taxi I knew it was going to be a very good trip. My taxi driver, originally from Pakistan, asked what I do. When I told him I am a writer he got very excited, showing me the book he is currently reading and talking about the importance of reading. We talked about politics (he expressed his bafflement at North American politics and really I couldn't argue with him), how social media has changed the political world, and how words, written in books and on computer screens, can change destinies. By the time he dropped me at my hotel I think we had discovered some very common ground, and it was an auspicious start to my two days in Edmonton.

The hotel the EEDC had selected for me was one I had never stayed at but that I checked out online prior to my arrival. The Union Bank Inn is a lovely little hotel in a heritage building in downtown Edmonton, tucked away but very central. I stay regularly at the Fairmont MacDonald but I admit I had no idea The Union Bank Inn was so close - or so incredible. The service when I arrived was impeccable - friendly, warm, and welcoming, they checked me into my room, and I headed upstairs to settle in. I was given a room in the heritage section of the hotel, and when I walked in the door I was astonished:

It's truly lovely. My windows overlooked the little plaza outside the hotel, and frankly the room was pretty much perfection for a woman travelling on her own. From a little Keurig coffee maker to fuzzy purple bathrobes to a gas fireplace it was an incredible little spot to use as my launch point to explore the city - and explore I did, moments after dropping my bag on the floor.

First up I needed coffee so I tweeted exactly that and moments later The Union Bank Inn tweeted back suggesting Transcend Coffee just down the street on Jasper Avenue (in fact the person who runs the Twitter account at the inn tweeted me regularly with suggestions and ideas, and I absolutely loved it, I felt like I had a virtual Twitter tour guide!). So, I headed down Jasper towards Transcend but got a bit sidetracked at a little shop called Wener Shoes.

Yes, people, it has become fairly common knowledge I have a shoe problem. Some would call it an addiction, some an obsession, I like to call it a hobby. What I like most, though, is unusual shoes, shoes that are different in some regard or not so easy to find. And Wener Shoes is pretty much ideal for this as they carry unusual lines - like these ones from a line called "Fugitive", from France. I admit it. They came home with me!

After my shoe stop I headed to Transcend Coffee and was delighted to find a charming little coffee shop. I decided to have my coffee to stay and was pleased with this bit of latte artistry:

Lovely latte at Transcend Coffee, Jasper Avenue

Transcend is a lovely little spot for coffee, quiet and quaint, and I managed to find a window seat where I could watch the world (well, at least Edmonton) go by. I chatted on Twitter with some Edmonton people who it seemed were following my little adventure in their city, and I was delighted with their kind comments and suggestions as to places to go (and their kind words of welcome - I was truly starting to feel like an honoured guest!). New shoes at my side, latte in one hand, and iPhone in the other, I looked forward to the next event on my itinerary - dinner at a Mexican restaurant called Tres Carnales and a chat with Peter Silverstone, incoming EEDC board chair, author, physician, researcher, and general "really smart guy". For the moment, though, I sat and drank my latte and hung out on Twitter and just watched the world move on by my window, knowing that my Edmonton Escapade was off to a very, very good start.

Coming Tomorrow:
Dinner at Tres Carnales,
my chat with Peter Silverstone - and
talking Fort McMurray and Edmonton :)