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

Sunday, May 6, 2012

There's Something Happening Here - Fort McMurray and Highway 63

I don't normally post a lot of music videos in this blog, people. But yesterday this was the song that kept running through my mind, because it's a song about social activism. It comes from a very different era, of course, and it speaks to a different issue - but yesterday as I attended the Twin Highway 63 protest rally, as I shed tears, as I spoke to a crowd of 1500 people - well, this is the song I heard playing in my head.

Photo credit to @fortmattmurray

 Photo credit to Norm Sutton

Photo credit to Norm Sutton

Yesterday at 10 am I arrived at MacDonald Island Park. Many of my regular readers know of my close connection to Mac Island, the place I choose to spend much of my free time. I'm not going to talk about how the organizers of the Twin 63 protest rally had to find a new venue at the last minute, losing the two previous venues they had arranged. I am going to talk about how they contacted Mac Island, and about how Mac Island not only welcomed them but pulled it together in an extremely short period of time, helping them with a stage and even hosting a BBQ with proceeds going to families of the victims of the recent horrific accident on Highway 63. I'm going to say this very clearly, people - there is a reason MacDonald Island Park is referred to as the heart of this community. Not only are they the heart they have a heart, too, a heart in their administration and staff that recognized the deep need this community had to come together during a time of grief and anger. They allowed this community a place to mourn and cry and vent and rage and gather - and for that Tim Reid, Mac Island COO, Naved Noorani, Hospitality Director, and the entire Mac Island admin and staff have my gratitude - and my heart, too.

When I arrived yesterday the crowd was already beginning to form, many carrying signs they had brought from home. I was touched by the signs, as they showed the depth of the feelings behind them. Signs take effort, and thought. They take someone caring enough to take the time to make them. And that was my first inkling that something was really happening here.

Photo credit to @fortmattmurray

Photo credit to @fortmattmurray

Photo credit to Norm Sutton

 Photo credit to Norm Sutton

 Photo credit to Norm Sutton

Photo credit to Norm Sutton

You see, I am a social activist from way back, my high school days in fact. I was involved in the Canadian anti-nuclear movement at a time when Canada was proposing allowing the United States to test cruise missiles on Canadian military bases. You can disagree with my politics if you like, but even now I have deep reservations about allowing another country - any country - to test weapons on our soil, damaging our reputation as peace keepers, as we are not warmongers and promoters. Regardless of whether or not you agree with my thoughts on that, though, the reality is I was sign-making, protest-rallying, anti-nuclear-chanting machine of a young woman. I've been to many protest rallies. I've carried the signs, and I've chanted the slogans. When it comes to activism I have a background - and what I saw yesterday was the birth of social activism in a community where it has never happened before, where there is no precedent for it - and it's all because of Highway 63. Approximately 1500 citizens gathered on the grass at Mac Island yesterday, a number nothing short of astonishing given that it has never, ever happened before in this city.

McMurray Musings
Photo credit to @fortmattmurray

A band played yesterday, and another local musician wrote a song a penned about the 63. The organizers explained why we had gathered, and then I had a chance to speak. Apparently I spoke too quietly, too far away from the microphone, but public speaking isn't really my thing, and besides far more compelling and interesting speeches followed mine. A woman who spoke as if carrying a message from each of the victims of the most recent tragedy. The man who pulled the children out of burning vehicles (his name is Dion Lefebvre, and he denies being a hero, but I know in my heart he is the most heroic of men). Another woman who wrote a touching and angry open letter after the accident. And, most heart wrenchingly, the mother of a young man killed just this past New Year's Eve, a woman with more courage than I have ever before seen displayed.

The face of pain and grief and a child lost...
Photo credit to @fortmattmurray

 The face of heroism...
 Photo credit to @fortmattmurray

The face of anger and sorrow...
Photo credit to @fortmattmurray

I wept openly, I admit it, clutching my daughter to me, her arms wrapped around me. I suspect my sunglasses didn't do much to hide the tears that streamed down my face, but then again I was not alone in my tears. Tears were shed very openly yesterday, by almost everyone in that crowd, a crowd that included everyone from our two new MLA-elects and our mayor to babies in strollers. It was a wide range of people that attended, every age represented, every demographic of our city there.

Photo credit to @fortmattmurray

Photo credit to Steve Reeve

Photo credit to Steve Reeve

After a short break the organizers requested we participate in a demonstration. As they called out age categories group by group we laid on the ground, symbolizing those lost on the 63. I laid on the ground as my daughter and niece remained standing when my age group was called, and when they too laid down another tear escaped my eyes. The entire field, laying on the ground. It was powerful. It was impacting. It was horrendous to think that a single one of them could be the next person to die on the 63.

Photo credit to Steve Reeve

Photo credit to Steve Reeve

Newly elected MLA Don Scott read an email he had received from Mark Penney, the sole adult survivor of the accident on April 27th. It was a difficult email to listen to, one from a man who had his entire life changed in an instant, one that made you realize what a long road he has ahead of him.

And then, after some closing words, the protest rally was over. Except, of course, that it wasn't over. Because we saw something very profound happen yesterday, Fort Mac. We saw not the end of something, but rather the beginning. We saw the start of a true grassroots community movement to accomplish something - ending the deaths on our lifeline to the world, Highway 63.

During the break I went to speak to Dion Lefebvre, and I thanked him. I told him that I was proud to live in a world with people like him in it, and I am. I went to the mother of the young man who died so recently, the woman who displayed incredible courage by taking that stage, and I thanked her for her bravery. I told her she is quite likely the bravest woman I have ever seen, and it's true. I had a few people thank me for my open letter to the Premier, and I thanked them in return because many said it inspired them to write their own letters, to sign the petition, to do something. And I think that's exactly it, people. I think this past week we saw a community recognize that we CAN do something. That we have power in numbers, strength in our collective voice, and the ability to make change. We can stand together and demand action and progress on twinning the highway, and we can as individuals report those we see driving aggressively. I think we recognized both as a community and as individuals that we have the ability to effect change - and that is what social activism is, people. And yesterday, on a field at MacDonald Island, through a veil of tears and my sunglasses, that is what I saw happening.

I am including the text of the speech I gave yesterday. It is not a protest speech - and I know because I have heard many of those years ago. It's a speech about remembrance, and about change. It is a speech about remaining resolute in our ability to effect change, because I believe it is in our power. Yesterday 1500 voices were heard at a protest rally. Thousands and thousands more have been heard on a petition. I suspect thousands have been heard by our MLA's and our Premier as their email inboxes have filled up. We each have an individual voice, but collectively we have a voice that cannot be stopped, and it cannot be ignored. We each have the ability to create change, and together we can accomplish things that seemed impossible to us as individuals. We have seen the beginning of social activism, and it all centres around perhaps the most important cause I have ever seen, far outstripping fighting the testing of cruise missiles - ending the deaths of our beloved families and community members on the highway of heartache.

My sincere thanks and deepest respect go to:

Nicole Auser and Ashley St. Croix,
organizers of the protest rally -
and community heroines.

To all the musicians who played
and all who spoke yesterday.
You are agents of change 
in this world, and
in this community.

MacDonald Island Park -
for being the true heart of our community.

And to all who attended yesterday -
those who took the time 
to make signs, 
to bring their children,
to be a part of change -
you are community heroes, too.
I am so very proud to call you my community!

Highway of Heartache

One of my favourite quotes about writing is that writing is easy – you just sit down at a keyboard and open up a vein. On the evening of Friday, April 27th I sat down with my laptop and wrote an open letter to Premier Alison Redford. I did so after learning that the seventh victim of the horrific accident on Highway 63 had died, a young woman I now know was named Faith. Learning that Faith had died had a tremendous impact on me, and so I sat down at my keyboard, and opened up a vein.

Some of you have probably read that letter. Since I wrote it 23,000 people from across the country have read the letter, and I have been overwhelmed by the response. I have received almost 300 comments, and emails. The comments and emails have come from all corners of this country, and when they began to pour in I realized that this issue, the safety of our lifeline to the world, goes far beyond our city limits.

People from across the country expressed concern for the safety of their loved ones who live or work here and travel this highway. People who live here shared stories of close calls and accidents witnessed. And hardest of all were the stories from family members of those who died on Highway 63. They told me of their loss, and of their pain. I can’t even imagine the courage required to share that story with someone else, let alone a stranger, and yet they did.

What I have seen since Friday afternoon has been nothing short of amazing. From a horrific accident has arisen a movement to make Highway 63 safer. From the loss of seven people  and an unborn child has come a community effort unlike anything I have ever seen before. This movement has not come from the government or industryThis movement came from individuals who have banded together in a common cause – to end the loss of life on Highway 63. This movement arose in the community, and it developed because not a single person in this city wishes to see another person die on that highway when it can be prevented.

The loss of seven people and one unborn child on Friday was horrific and impacted many of us deeply. For me it was the loss of little Faith that hit me hardest, perhaps because my own daughter is only one year older. I think that when little Faith died she put her faith in all of us to make sure that what happened to her doesn’t happen to anyone else – not my daughter, or your son, or anyone else you love. I know this community will not let Faith and the other people who have died on Highway 63 over the years down. I know that we will fight until we see Highway 63 completely twinned, and I know that we will begin to address the aggressive driving behaviours we see on it. We will look at our own driving habits and those of others, and we will change them. We will report those who drive aggressively, and we will take responsibility as a community to make this highway safe. We have been entrusted with a precious gift from little Faith and the others we have lost. We have been entrusted to ensure that their deaths mean something, and that they will not be forgotten. We will ensure that change happens on Highway 63, and we will do it in their names – and in faith. We will no longer travel the highway of heartache.

McMurray Musings


  1. Beautifully put, as usual! Thank you for a capturing the highlights and the essence of what we experienced at the Twin 63 rally yesterday.

    1. Thanks for all your input ... we are protesting for the same reasons ... from the heart and what ever it takes.