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

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Our Field of Dreams - Fort McMurray Reads

I've gotten invitations to some pretty great events while writing this blog. I've been invited to dinners and galas and parties and wine auctions. I've gotten to do some pretty cool stuff, like judge the Santa Claus parade, and throw out an opening pitch at a minor baseball season opener. Opening my email every day is like an adventure because I just never know what it will hold. That happened again a couple of weeks ago when I received an email from the Fort McMurray Public Library asking me if I would consider being a panelist at the inaugural "Fort McMurray Reads", a book "competition" based on the wildly popular CBC "Canada Reads". I believe it took me all of three seconds to shout "yes" (after first shouting "woohoo"). Why? Because it incorporates three things I dearly love - the written word, opinions, and arguing.

My feelings on the written word are probably pretty obvious. I love to write, and I love to read (although my reading time is often limited these days). My feelings on opinions are pretty blatant - I usually have an opinion on virtually everything, and I'm happy to share it (where do you think these blog ideas come from, anyhow?). And finally,  the arguing. I come from a family of argumentative types. We could be professional arguers (actually, there is a lawyer among us so I guess one of us is). We don't fight, not in a personal way - but we will argue the absolute hell out of a topic, cover it six ways from Sunday, dissect it until we are all exhausted. New friends were always stunned by meal times at my house because it was never a) quiet or b) boring. It was loud, it was topical, and you had to keep up because we covered a lot of territory (first time meal guests would often sit there open-mouthed, looking like gasping guppies, as they watched in stunned silence as we moved from European politics to North American economy to farming to poverty to...well, you get the idea). So, I come by opinions and arguing pretty honestly, so the idea of Fort McMurray Reads appealed to me on all kinds of levels.

The concept is that each panelist chooses a book, the one they think the entire community should read in 2012. Then, at a public event on August 25, they get to "champion" their book. They get to explain why they chose it, and why everyone else should read it, too. They get to share their passion for their selection, and then, at the end, the audience in attendance votes, and the winner becomes the Fort McMurray Reads 2012 official selection.

And that was my only hesitation, really, selecting a book. I knew I would champion a Canadian book, but which one? Authors and books flew through my thoughts. I would think of one and think "that's it!" but then reject it when I realized it just didn't feel quite right. And then, one very late night, it came to me. The perfect book. The book by a Canadian author that captured my heart long ago. The author I once had the great pleasure to meet. The book that I thought was perfect for this time and place, the book that sang to me long ago and sings to me still. The book? "Shoeless Joe" by WP Kinsella.

Maybe you have read it. Or maybe you have seen the Kevin Costner movie "Field of Dreams", which was based on the book. Or maybe you have just heard the line "If you build it they will come", a line that has now become a bit of a cliche from overuse. And yet that simple line sings to me of everything I hold dear, including this blog and this community.

"Shoeless Joe" is a book that might appear to be about baseball - and there is plenty of baseball in it, and what little I know of the sport was gleaned from that book. It is so very much more, though. It is about dreams and faith and belief. It is about seizing opportunities. It is about listening to the inner voice that tells you the path to follow, and having the faith to follow it even if it seems crazy to everyone else. And it is about the journey along the way, about the adventure of conceiving a dream and then one day seeing it realized.

To say I am passionate about this book is a bit of an understatement. I have been in love with this book for years, and even more so after having met WP Kinsella over two decades ago. He is the Canadian Mark Twain, a storyteller of the best kind. He is funny and sardonic and witty. I recall him telling a story, a funny story about family that made you wish his family was yours even if they sounded a wee bit crazy, and when it ended a man in the audience asked where it had occurred. Kinsella fixed a wry eye on him and said "I tell these stories - but I never tell if they are true", and he won my heart right then because the line between fact and fiction had blurred so much in that room at that moment that it ceased to exist.

So, I will argue this book that means so much to me, and that I truly believe everyone in Fort Mac should read this year. You could read it for the baseball, or the writing (which is bloody brilliant). You could read it to see how it compares to the movie. Or you could read it and see how it relates to the journey of a northern community that is making the bold leap onto the world stage as it changes in deep and profound ways, building a place to which we have the faith they will come. Or, like me, you could read it for that but also for personal reasons, like how an ordinary woman can start a little blog just because her inner voice told her to, and how it changed her life. You can read it and see the dream unfold, just as we are seeing dreams unfold right here in our own field of dreams in a little community in northern Alberta.

Details on 
"Fort McMurray Reads"
can be found here.
I hope you will consider
joining me and the other panelists on
August 25th to hear some lively "discussion"
on our selections for the book that is the
"Fort McMurray Must Read 2012" :)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Park, A Tree, and Two Murders, One Year Later

It was Monday morning when I heard the first stirrings about it on Twitter. I hadn't been on Twitter all that long but had quickly realized it was a method by which news, both good and bad, travels quickly. And this was bad news, very, very bad news. It was the kind of news that makes your heart contract and hope that it is rumour. But it wasn't rumour. It was fact. Murders, downtown in our community, in Borealis Park. Two young men. Twin brothers. Dead.

I recall that morning very well. There have been certain events in this community that have stuck with me and pop into my head at regular intervals. The murder of James and William Beck is one of those events. It is one I cannot seem to shake, and nor do I wish to - because I think it is a reminder that this community, as wonderful as it can be, is like any other, and we have some issues. We see amazing generosity and acts of kindness, and we see crimes - like the murder of twin brothers in a lovely downtown park.

I remember how a few days after the murder I drove down to Borealis, and discovered the tree that had become an impromptu memorial to the boys. I remember pausing in front of that tree as it sank in that the lives of two very young men - still children, really - had been reduced to items hanging from a tree in a public park. The boys, whatever good or bad they would have done in the world, were gone forever. The boys, no matter how and why they died, had simply vanished off the face of the earth, and in their place were only memories and a tree. And the enormity of it all hit me, the unfairness of lives cut so brutally short.

There have been many rumours about what happened, and why. There have been "persons of interest" sought, and not found. There has been no resolution, and no arrests. In my heart, though, I know that "solving the crime" might achieve justice but it doesn't achieve healing. Nothing will bring back two young men who were their mother's only children. Nothing will bring back two young men who had families and friends and girlfriends and lives. Nothing will bring them back to life.

On occasion I wonder why this event struck me so deeply. I did not know the brothers, their mother, or any of their family or friends, and yet I took this event deeply personally. I suppose it is because these boys were part of my community, and this community has begun to rule a significant part of my heart. The senseless, tragic, horrific murder of two members of MY community angered me, sickened me, and grieved me. I didn't care why they died - all I cared about was that they died in a way no one should, and that it happened right here in a quiet lovely little park on our riverfront. And it broke my heart.

Over the past year I have returned often to that memorial tree in Borealis Park. I have sat there in the fall as leaves dropped from the trees. I went in winter, and felt the snow crunch under my boots as I studied the snow-covered tree. I have gone in spring, as the buds on the tree were just beginning to appear. And I went today, early this morning.

It looks much the same, that tree, except that the items on and around it are faded by the sun and snow. The concrete barriers around it once held messages to the boys, but rain and snow over the last year have washed those away and they can no longer be seen. Some of the items that were once there are now missing, probably blown away by the wind. But one thing cannot be blown away by the wind, or faded by the sun, or washed away by the rain. The reality that two young men, twin brothers, members of our community, died here at the hands of others will always remain. And so this spot will always hold a place in my heart, even when it is just a tree once again and everything else has disappeared over the course of time. I know that even when the things on the tree disappear those boys, their memory, and the manner of their death will never fade in my heart.

Sometimes I go to this tree to just sit and think. Sometimes I just sit there and think about this community, about the good and the bad, about the opportunities and the challenges. Today as I stood there I heard a faint noise, off in the distance. Sirens, quiet at first but then louder as they grew closer. And I thought about how one year ago today there were probably sirens, too, and I could feel that sore spot in my heart again, a spot reserved for those things I feel are the greatest sorrows. I listened as the sirens faded into the distance again, touched my hand to the tree, and got into my car and drove away, back into the community that brings me such joy and such pain.

In Memory of James and William Beck,
boys I never knew -
 and will never forget.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Guess What I Just Did?

Well, people, guess what I did today? I did something that always excites me, something that always makes me smile. And it wasn't buying new shoes, either. I voted.

I know. There are people who don't get excited about voting. There are those who don't even bother to vote, although that thought both pains and angers me. It seems some take our democracy so for granted that they don't even bother to exercise it. They don't think it matters. And that baffles me.

I had someone tell me that this election wasn't important because it is "just" a by-election for municipal council. Maybe they wanted to see me turn a fiery shade of red and start frothing at the mouth. I'm hoping they were joking. In the end all elections matter, people. It's all about who you want as your leader. It's all about the future. It's all about making a choice. It's all about having the privilege to make that choice, a privilege that millions in this world have fought, and continue to fight, for.

I voted today for two council positions and one public school board trustee. I won't tell you who I voted for because I don't want to influence your vote in any way, but I marked my x beside the 3 names I want to see in those positions. I placed my x beside the names of those who have earned my faith and trust, and who I feel are the best possible representatives at this time in our development (and ok, it wasn't really marking an x, it was filling in a little oval like you used to do on school exams, but you get the point, right?). I voted because it matters - and because I can.

I didn't vote in the advanced polls because I love election day. I love the walk to my local polling station, thinking about who I am voting for and why. I love that sometimes I make up my mind on that walk, especially if there are candidates who have been very close in winning my vote. By the time I arrive at the station I know my choice. I take the pen in my hand, and I mark my vote.

After the election I will likely reveal to those I voted for that I voted for them, whether they win or lose. I want to tell them why I voted for them, and why they won my vote. I want them to know how they won me over, and what I hope to see them accomplish if they have been elected. And if they don't happen to win I want them to know that they had my vote, my faith, and my belief, and that they will continue to have it in the future regardless of the outcome of the election.

It's been a helluva few months, people. A provincial election, with what I think was a stellar outcome. A municipal by-election, the results of which we will know tonight. And a growing sense that something is happening in this region, something big and exciting and powerful. You can still be a part of it, people. Go to your local polling station and mark your x (ok, fill in the oval!). Have your say in our future. Vote. The future matters - and so does your vote.

RMWB Ward 1 polling stations
are open until 8 pm.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

"I Never Saw Another Butterfly" - And Thoughts on the Importance of Remembering

I knew I was in trouble the moment I walked into the Suncor Energy Centre for the Performing Arts at Holy Trinity High School last night. I had been kindly invited to attend the opening night of their final production of the year, and I was thrilled to say yes as I love this new theatre and the people involved in it so very much.  "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" is their year-end production, and Lucy Moore, the school principal I so admire, had told me I would be impressed with both the set and the production. I knew very little about it except some vague knowledge that it was about the Holocaust, which should have been enough to tell me that I would find this experience a bit difficult. It wasn't until I saw the set though that I realized just how difficult this might be.

I walked into the theatre to discover yet another astonishing transformation, this time a stage with seating on three sides (the ability to configure this room in different ways for different events amazes me, and I have a sneaking suspicion they can transform it into a space shuttle, too). The stage itself was scaffolding, a few smaller props, and a sign. It was the sign that immediately caught my eye and just seeing it brought the first faint sting of tears to my eyes. The sign, a simple wooden one but dominating the scaffolding, was much like this one:

The instant I saw the sign a small knot formed in my stomach. I know very little German, but I know some. I know that these words, "arbeit macht frei", mean "work will make you free". And I know this is the sign that was above the gate at Auschwitz, a name synonymous with death, suffering, cruelty, and inhumanity. The little German I know? Well, it is because I have German ancestry. I was born in Canada, and proudly call myself Canadian to the core, but my heritage is distinctly German, on both sides, as far back as it can be traced. My heritage lies in a nation that has both proud achievements and a horrific stain on it, a nation that has accomplished many great things but has also been guilty of some of the greatest cruelties and inhumanities known to mankind. It is a heritage I have struggled with over the years, people. I have family that fought on both sides of the war, according to my now-deceased father. I have family who lived in Germany during WWII, and family who were in Canada at that time, too. I have this heritage that troubles me in some fundamental way, because I identify with my Germanic heritage, which means I claim not only their triumphs but their guilt, too.

The play began in a slow and profound way with a clap of thunder and a sudden plunge into complete darkness, and it played out upon the stage in front of me. It was the tale of a young woman who lived in Prague, and about the arrival of the Nazis. It told the story of the Jewish ghetto, of train transports to concentration camps, and of families separated forever by the cruelty of others. It unfolded in a profound way, acted with a simplistic beauty that told the tale with honesty and authenticity and truth and sincerity. And at every turn my eyes stung with unshed tears because I know these were events experienced by millions during that time. I could not hide behind the belief that this was some fictional tale of inhumanity and cruelty and death. This was reality.

The acting was incredible, every role played brilliantly. I cannot and will not single out any single person as each one deserves great credit for playing such difficult roles so well. You see, this is not an easy story to tell. This is not a comedic romp or some happy-ending fairy tale. Even those who survived Auschwitz and the torment of the Nazis did so with scars, physical and mental, and many with the sense that their only identity was the number tattooed on their arm.

I watched the story unfold with a mixture of mesmerized attention and horror. Horror not at the production, which was beautiful, but horror that this story can be told at all and recognized as something that actually occurred, and in the memories of those still alive to remember it. There are still victims of the Holocaust alive, although soon those last precious souls will die, and we will no longer have anyone who can tell those stories of direct experience. Perhaps that is why plays like this are so important, though. I firmly believe that those who do not remember are doomed to repeat, and so we need to be reminded that these things are not figments of our imagination or some fiction. They happened. They are real. They are true stories, and ones we would do well to recall.

I will not reveal how the play ends, people, because I want you to go see it. I will say there is a sudden ending, a sharp noise that echoes through that theatre space, and that resonated right into my heart. It was that reverberating noise that finally provoked my tears to come, and I left the theatre trying to hide them. I sat outside and collected myself, and I thought about my German heritage. I thought about my family on both sides of that war, and I thought about collective responsibility. I have never even been to Germany and yet I feel the weight of that on me, the thought that the country to which my ancestry is traced was responsible for this atrocity - and how atrocity isn't nearly a strong enough word for all this.

I stayed for the post-play reception, but must admit that my thoughts were too scattered to stay for long. I found myself staring at the set, and taking photos of it. I found my thoughts centred on the theme of the play, and on the final scene. I thought about those German words and how just seeing them had made my heart tighten. I thought about how the past needs to be remembered, and I thought about how a "little school production", so well done and so well presented, can be the reminder this world needs. I left the theatre still thinking about the gates to Auschwitz, butterflies, and my heritage. I left having experienced something that I don't think I will ever forget, and all thanks to a small play lovingly mounted by a few actors on some scaffolding.

My profound and sincere thanks to
Lucy Moore,
Holy Trinity school principal,
for the invitation to the opening night,
and to all the actors in
"I Never Saw Another Butterfly" -
you told a very difficult tale, and
did so in a beautiful and moving way.

There are two more presentations of this production,
June 23rd at 7 pm and June 24th at 2 pm.
Three words for you, Fort Mac.
And remember.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Race Is On - Round Two, RMWB Council

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about three candidates in the upcoming municipal by-election. At that time I invited any candidates who wished to speak to me to do so in order for me to share with my readers what I learned about them, and their platform. Last week Catholic school board trustee Keith McGrath contacted me and we arranged to meet for coffee to talk - and where better to meet than Tim Horton's?

Keith and I sat down at Tim's and talked about a lot of things, including his current tenure as trustee, and his previous runs at council. As Keith says this is not his first time to try to get on council - in fact he has run more than once before - but this is the time he has expended the most effort (which is quite obvious from the massive amount of signs bearing Keith's name and that pink background - and regardless of whether you like them or not those signs stick in your memory).

Keith has been here in Fort Mac for 28 years, so he has seen a lot of change in that period. He has seen growth, and he has seen the good times and the bad, the booms and the busts. Through it all he has been pursuing his career and raising his family here. He has served as a volunteer in many organizations, and his position as trustee has enabled him to get to know the community and get a feel for the concerns that are predominant in the minds of many.

Keith feels our biggest issue in the RMWB is inadequate infrastructure funding. One of the ways he would like to see this addressed is to have a tax levied on camp rooms. His sense is that camp workers, our "shadow population", use many of our services but pay little back into the community, and he would like to see that inequity addressed through the use of a tax levy.

When asked about the City Centre Revitalization Plan Keith commented that while he supports it he thinks there are other concerns we should be addressing first, like ensuring smooth traffic flow throughout the city.

Keith believes his background in construction and budgeting would be beneficial to city council as he would bring a practical aspect to the group, one familiar with construction techniques, issues, and obstacles. He points to practical issues such as the demolition of Willow Square, a collection of town homes that have been left empty and boarded up for some time now. He feels these could have been demolished and that space left empty for development as opposed to now being a very central and visible eyesore (and I'll give him that one, people, because I wince every time I drive by - those boarded up buildings make that very prominent downtown corner look a bit third-world conflict-zone city-ish).

As I did with previous candidates I asked Keith about the future of this region, about what happens at "the end of oil" (this is a topic I think about a lot, people - anyone familiar with Uranium City? Yeah, that!). He feels the future for this community probably lies in tourism, in taking advantage of our beautiful northern existence and attracting people from around the world to share it.

Keith knows he would just be one voice on council. He feels this by-election is about electing someone who is a team player, who knows the issues, and who isn't interested in "re-inventing the wheel". He sees this election as a chance to take the knowledge he has gained in his years here and his experience as a trustee and use it to further benefit the community, which is commendable as I think that sentiment has been shared by every candidate I have spoken to.

When we parted Keith quipped that election runs are expensive - and that this time around it was either run for council or buy a new Harley. With the support of his family and friends he decided to take another shot at council, and so the Harley will wait while Keith finds out if his future includes a seat on city council.

Alright, people. The election is this Monday, June 25th. Advance polls have been open for some time, and are open again this Saturday at MacDonald Island from 9 am to 8 pm. I have never once told you who to vote for in this blog, and I won't start now. But I am going to tell you this: go out and vote! I believe we are at a crucial juncture in the development of this region, and we need people on council who can take us boldly into the future and make the decisions that need to be made. I am very proud of our current mayor, council, and two new MLAs, and I want to see those two vacant seats at our regional council filled with good people who represent us well. So get off your asses and go vote, would you? Your vote matters, it counts, it makes a difference, and if you don't bother to vote then don't bother to whine about decisions made by council that you don't like. In my opinion if you don't vote then you also forfeit the right to complain as you've opted out of the democratic process. Don't make me listen to you complain, find out you didn't vote, and then have to explain to you why your complaint lacks any validity (trust me, neither of us will enjoy the experience). I hope to see you at the polls - because it is time to do this:

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Housing First - Ending Homelessness in Fort McMurray

There are many things in this community that touch my heart. There are so many amazing non-profit groups and organizations, so many people doing such good work in our community. I have met so many incredible individuals, and I have been honoured to attend so many events that are meaningful to me. One issue that keeps drawing me back, that seems to find it's way into my heart every single time, is homelessness.

Perhaps in comparison to other cities we don't seem to have a huge issue with homelessness. But we do, because perhaps it is even more striking to find those here who are homeless when we are in the midst of such profound affluence. We live in a place with tremendous opportunity and potential and astronomical wages and yet we also have those who spend their nights sleeping rough on our streets, and in tents on the Snye. And perhaps it is the dichotomy that breaks my heart, the sharp difference between those who live in huge houses and those who reside tents. Regardless of why the issue touches me, though, it is meeting those who are homeless - or close to it, or who have experienced it - that truly makes me understand why it matters.

I have spent time at events like Homeless Connect, where homeless individuals in our community had an opportunity to access services valuable to them in one place. I have spent time at the Centre of Hope, the daytime drop in centre for our local homeless and at-risk-of-homelessness. I have spent time speaking to those who run programs for our homeless community. I have slept outdoors on a park bench overnight in an attempt to understand what homelessness might feel like. And most important of all I have spoken to those in our community who experience true homelessness. I have listened to their stories. And I have been humbled by them, honoured that they share them with me.

This week I attended an event at Marshall House. It was a BBQ, but a special celebration. It was a celebration of the Housing First program in the RMWB, part of the initiative to end homelessness in our community. Housing First is about securing housing first for the homeless - and then addressing all the other issues that often accompany it, from mental illness to addiction, and just the fundamental basics like proper health care. It's about getting the homeless into homes. It's about solving that very basic problem first and then dealing with all the rest.

I had the chance to speak to someone at the BBQ. She is someone who lived on the streets of our city for 8 years, and who has been part of the Housing First program for 3 years. She now has a place to call home. She is, as most of those I have had the honour to meet during this journey into the world of the homeless, very honest about her problems, and very open about discussing it. And she is, perhaps, one of the most optimistic and kindest people I've ever met in this city. She told me her story, and her experience of homelessness. She told me about being housed, and about the challenges in fighting off her personal demons. And when someone told her about my night on a park bench, about pretending to be homeless, she called me tough - and I almost burst into tears right then and there. This woman who lived on the streets for 8 years, who has endured things I can't even imagine, called me tough. I'm not tough, people. I'm a damn princess with fancy shoes and a laptop and a cell phone and an aversion to being cold and tired and hungry. I'm so far from tough I can't even see the road sign. My one night on a park bench didn't prove I was tough. It proved to me the very opposite, in fact, how fragile I am, and how truly tough those who do it every night - for years, decades, sometimes - must be. I looked at this woman and saw a soul with a huge heart, a person with optimism and faith, and I was completely humbled by both her strength and her warmth. She is the tough one, not me. And perhaps she is the far more wise, too.

After we spoke for a bit she went and spoke to someone else, someone who is still currently homeless and battling his own demons. I listened as she listened to him, and then as she spoke to him. She shared her optimism with him, her faith that things could and would get better, and her belief in him. And once again I was humbled by this woman as I realized how her life experiences would probably have left me bitter and angry, not optimistic and hopeful. And yet there it was - her shining optimism and faith, clear for all to see, like a tiny beacon of light in a world that can get very, very dark.

When she left the BBQ I left too, to go sit in my car and make some notes like I often do after these experiences. I couldn't seem to focus on my notes, though, thinking instead about our community, and all those in it. I couldn't help but think about this lovely woman, and all the other homeless people I have met who have touched my heart. I couldn't help but think about the people who run the programs like Housing First and organizations like the Centre of Hope. I reflected back on my experience of one night of homelessness, and how it impacted me. I thought about how this community has such dichotomy in it, light and dark, good and bad, such different ends of the spectrum in every corner. And I thought about how this woman could have been me instead, and how she could have been the writer and I the one who had lived on the streets for 8 years. I wondered if I would have ended up as optimistic and hopeful as she has, if I would have survived and been able to share my story with a spoiled nosy blogger who is  quite frankly severely lacking in toughness of any sort. I drove away finally, thinking that while sometimes the divide between us - the haves and the have-nots, the homeless and the housed - seems so wide it is truly very, very small. In the end, you see, our differences are insignificant compared to our similarities. In the end we are no different at all. In the end we are all here in this community together, following our own paths. And sometimes those paths cross, and we discover that while we may seem so very different we are, in fact, exactly the same.

My thanks to the staff at
Housing First
for the invitation to the BBQ -
and to my new friend for sharing her story -
and her optimism - with me :)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Junesday Destruction and Roller Derby Madness in McMurray

It wasn't that long ago that I wrote about Fort McMurray's very first roller derby bout hosted by our very own Tar Sand Betties. That first bout amazed me in many ways, but most of all because for a first time event it attracted an astonishing number of people in a city where it can be challenging to launch a new event. So, when I heard about Junesday Destruction, Fort Mac's second-ever roller derby bout, I knew I had to be there.

Photo credit to Dan Lines/Tar Sand Betties

This time I was wiser, however, and I arrived on time to the Casman Centre to make sure I could secure parking. I had in tow the older Intrepid Junior Blogger, who finds roller derby intriguing (and I think it appeals to her admittedly quirky personality, much like my own, really). The younger Junior Blogger had opted to stay home, having found the first roller derby experience a bit baffling, and my British best friend, who had attended the last bout, still couldn't quite wrap his head around the experience. So, it was just the two of us, and we quickly found seats on the floor, right behind the "crash seating" (crash seating means you could end up with a roller derby girl on your lap, which seemed to seriously appeal to the men who also sat there with hopeful expressions and outstretched arms every time the girls whizzed by).

Photo credit to Dan Lines/Tar Sand Betties

This time the Betties were hosting a team from St. Albert, the Heavenly Rollers. It seems this roller derby thing is picking up some steam in this province, as there appears to be several teams on the go.  And it truly isn't hard to see why, either, because roller derby is fun. It is fast paced, and it can be quite aggressive, as we saw at Junesday Destruction. The first roller derby bout a few weeks ago seemed a bit tame, but not this one. Right from the first whistle the game was very much on, and penalties mounted as did the points as some aggression got worked out on the track.

Photo credit to Dan Lines/Tar Sand Betties

I was pleased this time that they showed a short video explaining the rules of roller derby, as this seems to cause great confusion for many. It really isn't that complicated, but for those who have never seen it it could seem quite difficult to comprehend. Whether you get the rules or not, though, it's easy to buy into the infectious nature of the sport. These women play hard ball. They don't yield, they don't give up, and frankly they have the best nicknames I've ever heard.

Photo credit to Dan Lines/Tar Sand Betties

With names like "Belle Camino", "Hot-Per-Sue-T", and "Pepper Longstocking" they whiz around that track, racking up points, penalties, and mayhem. They block, they push, they shove, they sneak through the pack, and they generally speaking just have a helluva good time doing it. It's incredible to watch and probably even more fun to do, although I think I might be too old to actually do it. I began thinking about roller derby names for myself - things like "McMurray Mayhem" or "Mad Musings" sprang to mind - but I fear I am too old to break things like legs and arms (and heads) so I am content to sit and watch in wonder.

Photo credit to Dan Lines/Tar Sand Betties

The bout was fast and furious, and in the end the Betties were triumphant, soundly trouncing the Heavenly Rollers with a score of 154-62. In fact the bout ended early, the team captains calling the game off (for reasons of which I am not entirely sure, although I suspect it had something to do with the fact that it was pretty much over simply based on that score alone). And when it was all done once again I was so proud of the Betties - and of all the people who do things like this in our community.

Photo credit to Dan Lines/Tar Sand Betties

You see to be a part of a community you need to find your niche in it. Some people find it in their jobs, and some find it in volunteering. Some find it in artistic pursuits, and some, like me, find it in writing. And some find it in starting little groups like the Tar Sand Betties, taking a dream and making it into a reality, and forging something truly new that did not exist here before. They don't just find a niche, they make one, and others are drawn to that niche, too. This is how community is built, people, not by industry or government. It's built by people wearing booty shorts and roller skates, whizzing around a track, and trying to avoid landing in the eagerly awaiting laps in crash seating.

My sincere and profound thanks to
The Tar Sand Betties
for the invitation to attend the bout -
and for being community leaders in booty shorts and skates!

Photo credit to Dan Lines/Tar Sand Betties

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Making Money Is Easy - Making Change Is Hard

Typically in this blog I write about community events or people. I go to an event, I learn about it, and then I come back here and give my perspective to you. Last week I attended the Heart of Wood Buffalo Awards, and I am not going to write about the event. My friend and fellow blogger Russell Thomas did a pretty comprehensive post about the awards themselves on his blog, and I suggest you read that for coverage of the event. Instead of writing about the event I am going to write about why the awards exist - and the nature of volunteerism in our community.

The title of this post is a quip I made to my friend Wally at the Leading the North conference in January. Wally and I were discussing what it means to contribute, and I tossed out the one liner in the title. Wally loved it (and said he was going to steal it, too, and knowing Wally he probably did!). You see, we were discussing the fact that pretty much anyone in this region can choose to make money - but not everyone chooses to make change. And while money is great I think change is even better.

We are widely known as a philanthropic community, and I am very proud of that fact. We are the per capita topper for United Way donations, for instance. We raise ridiculous amounts of money for charities at galas. And we open up our wallets regularly for good causes, from our Keyano College Foundation to local kids doing Jump Rope for Heart at their school. While that philanthropic spirit is amazing and is often celebrated what isn't celebrated as often is our volunteer spirit - and it should be. Philanthropy isn't all about money, people. A good friend reminded me of that recently, and he is right. I too am guilty of  the "write the cheque because I am too busy" tactic. I know something important, though. I know what really runs this community. And it isn't money.

You see, this community is run by volunteers. I don't say that lightly, people. Community is not based on the size of the buildings, or the size of the industry. Community is not based on commerce. Community is not based on the type of cars on our streets or the square footage of our houses. Community is based on people. Community is the concept that what you put into it is what you'll get out of it. Put nothing in and there is no community. Give it something - anything - and you build something powerful. You build a community. You build what we have going on here, which is nothing short of astonishing.

The Heart of Wood Buffalo Awards celebrate volunteers and non-profits, and it's a wonderful thing to witness. I am always humbled by those who choose to work in our non-profit organizations - and it is a choice. Many of those who work there could easily take their skills and abilities and talents and go work for industry - and make a helluva lot more money doing so. So, why do they stay in non-profits? Because it is in their heart. Because they are making a difference. Because they are making change - and they know that while making money is easy, making change is hard, and yet they do it anyhow. So, my respect for those who run places like the Food Bank and the SPCA and the Centre of Hope and all our other non-profits? Total, mad respect.

Now, those non-profits often rely on another thing to function - volunteers. They can't afford to pay people to work at every event they host. They need people, but they need them for free - and that is where the volunteers come in. And come in they do, often swooping in at the last minute when word goes out that an event is under-staffed or in dire need of more volunteers. They don't ride in on white horses, and they don't act like heroes - although they are. If I could get them all a super-hero cape I would, because that is exactly what they are - community super heroes.

The crazy thing is that often volunteers don't even see what they do as special. I know this first hand, people. I don't think what I do with this blog is any big thing, really. On the weekend I spent over 12 hours at Relay for Life, and then spent 4 hours writing about it. Over 16 hours spent, and with zero pay - but to me it wasn't a big deal, it was just the right thing to do. I didn't raise a dime for cancer research, but maybe I raised some awareness of the event, and maybe I provided some entertainment to those who did the money raising and walked that track. To me, though, those unpaid 16 plus hours was no big deal - and that is what I find with every volunteer, no matter if they serve on boards or are simply spending a couple of hours at a festival. It's just no big deal. It's just what they do. It's just this volunteer thing, nothing special. And that, perhaps, is exactly what makes it special. And that, quite likely, is why I am so madly passionate about the volunteers in this community. Because they all contribute. They all know making money is easy - but making change is hard, and they do it anyhow because it's just the right thing to do. Perhaps it's because in the end it pays in ways you can't take to the bank but that you take with you every day in your heart instead.

So, to every person in this community who is or has been a volunteer - thank you. If you serve on a board, a school council, volunteer at festivals, or paint faces for free - thank you. If you participate in community clean-ups - hell, even if you are just out at a park and notice some garbage on the ground and toss it in the dumpster unpaid, unasked, and unthanked - thank you. If you do ANYTHING to make this community a better place - thank you. I can't give all of you an award, people. I probably don't even know 95% of you that serve as volunteers. But I can give you this: my sincere gratitude for making change. I can give you my promise that I too will continue to make change in this community, and that together we will make it into the most amazing place this country - perhaps this world - has ever seen.

Making money is easy, people. Making change is hard. And yet every single days thousands in this community are making change - and it's a beautiful thing to witness, Fort McMurray. It's a beautiful, beautiful thing. And it gives me hope every single day - hope for us, and for the future - and for our community.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Coffee With NorthWord - And Why Northern Words Matter

There is a perception that Fort McMurray is some sort of vast cultural wasteland, a place where arts and culture don't exist. Of course that perception comes from mostly outside the community, but to some degree even inside this place we call home there are those who are unaware of the rich arts and culture offerings available to us. As a writer I have been heartened to discover that there is a community of writers here, those who dabble in everything from romance to zombies, fiction to non-fiction, blogs to ebooks.

And there is even a place for those writers to submit their works, a place that welcomes their poetry and stories - and even welcomes a blog post from a certain writer's personal blog, a blog post that is close to her heart. It is a blog post that I am both pleased and humbled to say will be published in a lovely little publication right here in Fort McMurray.

The publication? NorthWord, A Literary Journal of Canada's North. Northword is a publication started by local individuals - and it continues to be edited, published, and loved by local individuals. It is for those who love to read, and love to write. It is for those who love the written word, and for those who love to tell their stories in whatever form.

NorthWord is on the cusp of some change, people. Just as this community is changing so is our literary magazine (in fact if you look around the change in this region is reflected everywhere, from our schools to our retail stores to everything else). And as they change they will need people from the community who also love the written word, people who want to be involved as Northword changes, expands, and leaps into the same new territory our community is embarking towards.

In order to explore this new territory NorthWord is asking people from the community to join them for coffee this Friday, June 15th, from 5-8 pm, in Room S212 at Keyano College. The good people from the journal would like to share with everyone the success of Northword, the excitement - and their love of the written word. They would like people who also share that love to consider becoming involved with NorthWord as board members or volunteers.

I have discovered something while writing this blog. The written word matters. When I began this blog I wasn't sure of that, really. I wrote the blog entirely for myself, and never thought anyone else would care about it. What I have learned, though, is that words touch people. Words, used carefully, can heal, and words, used carelessly, can wound. Words have power. Words have impact. And words from our little northern community can spread around the world as we tell our story in blogs and ebooks and newspapers...and little publications like NorthWord, a literary journal of our northern hearts.

Please join me at
Coffee with NorthWord
Friday June 15th
5-8 pm
Room S212, Keyano College :)
Let's let those northern words shine
for all the world to see!

Monday, June 11, 2012

2012 Relay for Life - Or "Coffee, My Dad, and Tears"

There are certain things closer to my heart than others. There are certain things so close and so personal that they are actually quite difficult to write about, but letting them flow onto paper somehow also helps to heal them a bit. And sometimes those personal things tie into an event I attend in a way that wraps itself around my heart. That happened this past weekend when I spent all night at the 2012 Fort McMurray Relay for Life - an event that is a fundraiser for cancer research, a celebration of cancer survivors - and a memorial to those who lost their battle to a dreaded disease.

As I have mentioned in this blog before I lost my father to lung cancer just over six years ago. It was a horrendously painful experience, heart wrenching in every way, and one that while you begin to forget the small details you never forget the impact. So, when Krystal Ralph, one of the lovely organizers of this year's relay, contacted me to ask if I would consider attending the event it was an easy question to answer. I would attend, of course. I would stay all night, live-tweeting as I went, documenting the experience from my perspective. And I would do so in memory of my father, one of two people (the other being my mother) who had the most profound impact on the person I have become.

I was invited to attend the Survivor's Reception, and when I arrived I was handed a T-shirt and found a place at a table with local radio guys Nolan Haukeness and Jerry Neville. I always find these two entertaining, although I discovered Nolan gets even funnier with lack of sleep, and by 5 AM I decided he was the most amusing man alive (remember, no sleep and way too much coffee, my opinion may be suspect in this case). The Survivor's Reception is a bit daunting, because it is a sea of yellow t-shirts - and every yellow t-shirt is worn by a cancer survivor. Each one of those people have received a dreaded diagnosis that changed their life. Each and every one is a hero, in my opinion.

After the Reception we all headed over to the track at Father Mercredi for the Opening Ceremonies. There was a stunning cheerleading display from Norfort Gymnastics, and the Aurora Choir sang "Oh Canada" - and then it was time for the survivor's lap. It was again a sea of yellow t-shirts, this time walking around the track to smiles and a soundtrack of handclapping. They had fought, and they had won. They had survived a disease that too many do not.

When the teams took the track it was stunning - because there were 96 teams in total, an astonishing number considering every team has at least 4 members, and many have significantly more. They filled the track, in costumes and clever t-shirts, and they walked united against the disease that took my father. It was just the start of many moments that brought tears to my eyes, and just the very beginning of a night of memorable moments.

As the teams walked the track the entertainment began - the zumba class that I lost the Intrepid Junior Blogger to, and a band that played some pretty great cover tunes. I busied myself taking photos of the teams and the tents, the costumes and the faces, and then I screwed up my courage and headed over to the tent where luminaries were being sold. I had a luminary to make, and I knew it would not be easy to do.

I bought my luminary, took it to the table, grabbed a marker, and thought about what to write. How do you encapsulate an 81-year life in a few short words? How do you express the impact someone has had on your life? What words are adequate to explain it? In the end my words were not adequate, as not even a book would be enough to express it all. But I wrote it and signed it and then I took my luminary and placed it on the track in a spot where I would be sure to find it at 11 pm when the luminaries were lit.

Once again I went back to taking photos, and I drove the Intrepid Junior Blogger home (after discovering my car had been entirely blocked in at the parking lot at Father Merc - and I had to drive on the sidewalk in front of the school to escape!). I stopped for a coffee on the way back, and when I arrived dusk was beginning to fall. The track was lined with unlit luminaries, and soon, very soon, the bagpipes began to play and it was time for the luminary ceremony.

I was grateful that Phil Meagher was there to light the luminary in front of me as my hands were quite shaky. When it was lit I sat there for a few moments, taking photos and, admittedly, weeping. I was not alone, though, as there were tears around the track as family and friends remembered those lost. After a few moments I wandered the track and took photos of the other luminaries that struck me, each one with a message to someone lost, still fighting - or surviving. Seeing all those little bags filled with a glowing candle was almost overwhelming as I tried to comprehend what they meant in terms of numbers of lives touched by this disease. I stared around the track, watching the glow. I looked at the faces, many tear-stained. I touched my own cheeks and felt the tears. And I felt so damn proud of every person on that track who was doing what they could - raising some money and giving of their time, an entire 12 hours of it! - to fight this disease that has cost us so many tears and lives.

I continued to take photos and wander around, heading over to the Casman Centre for coffee refills and food (that midnight snack? Wow! I've never seen so many desserts in my entire life, people). Around 1 am another friend appeared, one newly arrived in the city and working at a local radio station. Graham and I did a lap around the track, he in memory of his grandmother and me for my dad, of course. We chatted quietly and I was happy for the company, delighted to speak to such a kind and warm soul at such a late hour. When we finished the lap I headed to my car for a couple of hours of sleep as weariness was affecting my tweeting. And while I did not sleep I did rest, and when I returned to the track at 4 am I found this:

Still moving. Quieter, slower. But the teams were still in motion, still walking that track as I had tried to sleep, still committed to their purpose. I had brought a cup of coffee with me. It wasn't for me, though. I took it to the still lit luminary I had purchased, and put the coffee cup beside it. And so in the early dawn light, as birds began to sing and members of my community walked the track, I had coffee with my dad one more time.

I walked the track again, taking photos of the giant squirrel that seemed a bit surreal at 4 am, and at about 5 I headed back over the the Casman and had breakfast with Nolan (and seriously, he is one helluva funny guy, especially when you have had no sleep and will laugh like a hyena at anything).

The food was amazing, and the company was terrific. This was crunch time, though, and many had begun to hit the wall:

Shortly after 6 am I headed back out for the closing ceremonies. I found a giant beaver (the "last beaver standing", as the woman with him quipped). I found a giant stuffed eagle.

I found a lot of weary people - and I found a tremendous sense of pride in every single one of these people who were curled up in sleeping bags and on camp chairs, each taking their turn on the track. Exhausted, so tired from a long and dark night - but surviving. Fighting. Just as those who battle cancer fight, often exhausted, often during long and dark nights. I thought of all the long nights my father fought, and the battle he eventually lost. I thought of all the times he was so exhausted, and when we fought for him when he was too weak to fight. I thought of all these people in this city - in MY community - who fight the disease themselves, or who support those who do. I thought of all those who walked that track all night. I thought of how this little community of ours has become so close to my heart, and about my love for it. And my love for my father and for this community and for all those in it tangled up together in my heart and I turned away to hide the tears that hit me once again.

At the closing ceremonies the fundraising total was announced - an amazing $450,000, not including matching donations. There were winners of various prizes announced, and then it was time for the final lap. Some walked that lap, and some even ran it. Some were carried across it piggyback style, and a couple fell when they crossed it, in heaps of exhaustion and laughter. And I stood there and watched it all, the morning sun warming my face as I smiled. And then it was over, and I climbed into my car and headed home.

I turned up my stereo and played the song they played during that final lap. I opened my windows and my sunroof and I blared it into the early Saturday morning. It was 7 am, and this song was never more meaningful than at this moment. The song? The video is at the end of this post. And it is true, every word. And while my father did not survive his battle with cancer he left behind a tremendous legacy - five daughters, and eight grandchildren. He left behind ambassadors who carry his heart - and his memory. He left behind me, a woman who feels the greatest compliment ever received is the one that said "you are just like your dad". Yes. Yes I am. I am his daughter, and that night he was with me every single moment as I saw darkness fall, and as I saw morning rise. He was with me when I walked the track, and he was with me when I lit a luminary in his memory. And he was with me when I drove away from that experience, forever enriched by a night in this community with a group of people who captured my heart. For this, people, was the 2012 Relay for Life - and it was a night I will never, ever forget.