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

Friday, September 28, 2012

Harvesting Hope In Fort McMurray - And Almost Losing My Shoes Along The Way

There are events that I attend solely as a guest, and I am always amazed at the work and love and attention that has gone into them, events like the SMS Wine Auction and Festival of Trees Gala and Keyano Gala. And then there is the occasional event where I have been involved in the preparation and planning, and I don't just marvel at the work and love and attention but rather know very intimately how much of all those things have gone into making it happen. And so it was this past Saturday night when Harvest of Hope once again brightened our community for an evening, and this time instead of just being a guest I participated as a member of the organizing committee.

I attended the Harvest of Hope last year for the first time, and it was a profoundly moving experience for me. The event itself is uproarious fun, with celebrity waiters competing to make the most cash for The Canadian Cancer Society, and ridiculous antics galore. For me, though, it had a very personal edge as I lost my father to lung cancer just over 6 years ago, and my life forever changed the day he was diagnosed. It was a long journey for all who loved him, and it opened my heart to the journey of all those who endure cancer (and those who love them). So when I was asked to be a part of the promotions team for this year's event I quickly agreed, especially given that it involved using social media (and we all know Twitter pretty much owns my soul). I became a part of the team that brought the community Harvest of Hope this year, and it has been perhaps one of my proudest achievements in this community.

This year the Harvest of Hope welcomed 370 guests to the Sawridge Hotel. They were welcomed with champagne and the chance to purchase "funny money", the money used to pay the waiters during the night as they were enticed/forced/encouraged to do crazy things for cash. Prior to the dinner I had the chance to visit with our celebrity waiters in their private dining room, and was pleased to find many veterans but also many first-time waiters, too, those who had no idea what was in store for them (and I apologize for my evil little laugh when they told me they didn't know what to expect, but I couldn't help it - I knew what mayhem lay ahead!). Some were wondering how to raise cash so I offered the suggestion that they steal the cutlery from the table they would serve and charge each guest $20 to get it back - and as soon as I made that suggestion there was a mad dash of waiters running to steal the cutlery that the Sawridge staff had laid out so carefully.

Once the guests were seated the waiters were introduced and there was a brief session of Zumba - and then things started to quickly slide sideways as the true fun began.

Almost immediately there was dancing, although not the traditional kind but rather the kind that saw one celebrity waiter, local MLA Don Scott, dance with one of the evening MCs (and city councillor) Phil Meagher. Don's "Rainbow Brite on speed" wig truly helped complete the picture, as did the cash the dance raised (and the moment only got better when dinner guest and mayor Melissa Blake cut in and poor Phil was left partnerless as she danced away with Don). Then the cream pies began to fly, and it was a night that saw local radio guys Jerry Neville (another MC) and Ben McCully (celeb waiter and committee member) wearing a lot of whipped cream, as did MacDonald Island Communications Director and celeb waiter Adam Hardiman, and MLA Don Scott. The pie-ing was so popular that Ben, who provided the pies, was having trouble keeping up with the demand and I began to be wary about being pied unexpectedly in the head myself.

The evening rolled on, and dinner was served by waiters wearing wigs and tutus and baby outfits. Some of the zaniness is simply beyond words to express, and I was dumbstruck on more than one occasion by waiters who took everything to the next level of craziness. Items were auctioned off, things like liquor and other things the waiters had brought, and at one point during the evening I was at the back of the room when I heard my name mentioned on stage. I was immediately wary when Jerry Neville said my name as Jerry and I are friends and I figured any mention of my name simply couldn't be good, and I was right as he explained his intent to auction the shoes right off my feet by the end of that night (as they were quite stunning shoes the prospect of going home shoeless loomed large). The evening took a definite turn, though, when a young woman named Danielle was shown to the stage, and what Danielle proposed to do was explained.

Danielle, you see, is a 24 year old woman recently arrived here from Sault St. Marie. She works at Prime Social Kitchen in the Radisson Hotel in Gregoire, and she is a lovely young woman in every respect. But what Danielle suggested went beyond lovely and into heroism. Danielle, a young woman with gorgeous long raven-coloured hair, asked the gathered guests to raise $10,000 - and if they did it she would shave her head right then and there.

I think I gasped, people. You see I am a woman, and I understand a wee bit about hair. I understand the attachment you develop to it, and I understood that what Danielle was offering was enormous. Donations came in quickly and quietly, and Danielle went back to her table to await her fate while the event rolled on, and into the live auction.

Several items were up for bid, and the bidding went fast and furious as VIA Rail Trips and WestJet flight tickets flew into the hands of the winning bidders. And then when the auction was all over it was time to announce how much had been raised for Danielle and the possible head shaving. The amount, people? A staggering $11,275. More than she had asked for, and more than one would think possible in such a short period.

I watched as a chair was dragged onto the floor, and a hairdresser and clippers appeared. I watched as a white tablecloth was wrapped around Danielle to protect her dress, and I kneeled in front of her with my iPhone as the hairdresser first gathered her hair in a ponytail and cut it off, those locks to be donated to a group that makes wigs for those who have lost their own hair to disease. And then the clippers began to buzz and I kneeled there and watched this beautiful, brave young woman smile through the entire process, a smile that lit up the room and made me want to cry a little, as proud of her as I would be of my own Intrepid Junior Blogger who is only a decade younger than Danielle. The clippers flew and hair dropped to the floor, and Danielle continued to smile. When all the hair was gone she asked if she could see a photo of herself and her new hair, and someone showed her their phone. I saw a very brief look of surprise on that lovely young face, a look quickly replaced with a proud smile. And then it was over, there was hair all over the floor, and the bravest and most beautiful woman in the entire city stood before us like a freshly-shorn lamb, smiling amid the cheers. And I won't deny it for a second - there were tears in my eyes that threatened to spill down my face, and I turned away before she could see them.

The rest of the evening is a blur, people. In the end the Harvest of Hope raised about $170,000, an amazing amount that will stay right here in this community. In the end there was dancing and some drinking and a silent auction and a live auction and cream pies and costumes and the Joker (my friend Blake who frankly scared the hell out of me whenever he would suddenly appear) and all kinds of craziness. In the end I left exhausted and Twittered out, having spent the evening tweeting thoughts and photos and retweeting the tweets of others attending. In the end, in the very end, there was something else. There was, for me, pride.

I was proud of my own involvement in the Harvest of Hope, but even more proud of the other committee members who did so much more than I. I was proud of our guests who dug deep in their wallets to raise money for such a worthy cause. I was proud of all our sponsors and donors, who gave us such tremendous community support. I was proud of the Sawridge and their staff who provided a wonderful meal and careful attention. I was proud of our celebrity waiters and our MCs who embraced the evening with the kind of joy that made it a success. I was proud of our local branch of the Canadian Cancer Society, and the work they do every day in our community, and our country. And I was so very proud of a young woman named Danielle who shaved her head in front of 400 people, a community of people she barely knows. I was proud of a young woman who would do this because she has a little cousin with leukemia, and because she knows that when cancer touches your life it changes you forever. And I suppose in the end I was proud of my father.

I know my father wasn't there that night, and yet he was. My father was there with me. his spirit living on in me, his stubborn and opinionated nature alive and well in this woman - and his hope. Because you see he never, ever gave up hope, not about anything, and nor do I, because sometimes hope is all you have to hang onto. I was proud of my dad that night simply because he gave his belief in hope to me, and that allowed me to share an evening of fun and food and hope with over 400 people from my community. You see, on Saturday night we harvested a lot of hope - and I am so very grateful that I was able to be a part of harvesting that most precious crop of all.

There are so many to thank!
Thanks to the 
Harvest of Hope committee
for inviting me to join them,
to the Sawridge and their staff
for their wonderful food and service,
to our sponsors and donors,
to all our celebrity waiters and MCs
who made the evening fun,
to our wonderful guests who came 
and opened their wallets and purses and gave,
to the Canadian Cancer Society
for all the work they do every day,
to Jerry Neville for granting me a reprieve
and not auctioning off my shoes,
and to a very brave young woman
named Danielle
who restored my hope that night.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Break the Silence, End the Violence - and Take Back the Night

I love this community, and if you read this blog at all you know there is no doubt of that. There are things we are missing here, though, gaps in our community experience that trouble me. Some are minor, like not enough retail to satisfy my desire to support our fashion economy, and not enough (in fact, not any) Starbucks drive-thrus. But some are more serious, like our lack of social activism. Coming from the background I have come from  (growing up in a fairly large city, and being involved in various social activist causes) this has worried me, because a healthy community is one that is socially conscious and aware. Apathy is an insidious thing, and it is indicative of community ill-health - but I have been delighted to see a rise in social activism here, from the Twin 63 Now Rally in spring to the launch of groups such as Save Our Snye (agree or disagree with the ideals of those groups as you will, but recognize that at least they care enough to do something). And last week I was even more pleased when I attended the local "Take Back the Night" event and discovered that social activism is definitely on the rise here - and with the most important group, our youth.

Take Back the Night is an international movement meant to raise awareness of violence, in particular sexual violence, but it has grown to encompass all the forms of violence that threaten us both as individuals and as a community. This year the organizers at the Family Crisis Society decided to make the event more festive and give it a Mardi Gras or carnival feel - and they definitely succeeded.

I arrived at the parking lot behind Peter Pond Mall to find the event already in full swing, and elder Elsie Yannick delivering a prayer and blessing (I have never met Elsie but I find the woman completely inspirational every time she speaks - her wisdom rings through every word she says). I wandered through the crowd, delighted to see signs and costumes and most vitally young people of both genders. This was what I really hoped to see and was so happy to find, because frankly the future doesn't lie with people of my age but rather with those decades younger.

We marched as a group around the perimeter of the mall, and traffic stopped as I suspect many residents were puzzled as such marches are not common here. In other cities seeing social activism is hardly noteworthy but here it still gives rise to questions, such as the one asked to me by an older man who wondered what exactly we were taking back and why. When I explained it to him he nodded and smiled - because, I think, one must smile when you see such passion, no matter the cause, especially if the passion is in the form of our youth.

As I marched I took some photos and I thought about the people in my life who have been victims of violence. I thought about the friend who was the victim of a random violent attack this summer, and a friend who endured domestic abuse. I thought about all those in our city who suffer from violence in their lives, and as my thoughts often do they turned to other violence our community has seen, like the tragic murder of the young twin brothers just over a year ago. I thought about how violence rips at the fabric of our community and threatens to tear it wide open, but how we can mend those tears, and how we can strengthen the fabric against future attacks. I thought about how events like Take Back the Night indicate our unwillingness to stand idly by while violence is perpetrated in our community, and about how we each as individuals and as a community can act to end it. The march and event may be symbolic, but what it symbolizes is the important thing. It symbolizes our determination to end violence by saying that we will not tolerate, accept, or condone it any longer. It symbolizes our resolute belief that we CAN end violence, and we believe in that so much that we choose to spend our Friday evening marching and dancing.

Oh yes, did I mention the dancing? After the march ended in the parking lot music played and the gathered youth began to dance, and it could not have been more fitting, or more wonderful. It was wonderful because there is joy in taking a stand. There is joy in standing together as a community, and there is joy in the belief that you can make a difference. There is joy even in the face of violence, and sometimes you just have to dance.

My sincere thanks to the
Family Crisis Society
for organizing
Take Back the Night -
and to all those who participated.
You CAN end the violence.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

NorthWord Magazine, Harmony, and Pride

I love to write this blog, as many of you know. There is nothing quite like sharing my thoughts and words with my readers - but as much as I love this blog there is something I love even more, and that is seeing my work in print.

I admit it. I might be an online blogger but I am also an old school kind of girl, one who loves books and newspapers and magazines. I love to write and so to see my works published is an amazing thing for me, and a proud moment. One of my very proudest moments recently was when one of my works was selected to be published in NorthWord Magazine, our own literary journal based right here in Fort Mac.

NorthWord is a labour of love, people. It is not a huge profit-generating machine, and nor is it full of glossy ads. It is a magazine for and by people who love the written word, which means if you are reading this blog it's quite likely for you. It's full of stories and poems from northern writers, and, in the most recent issue, it has a small story from me.

The story I tell in NorthWord's 7th issue, titled "Harmony", is a personal one. It is close to my heart and I admit I struggled a bit with submitting it because it is so very personal. When I saw the magazine, though, saw my headline and my name underneath, I wept a bit because I was so proud and because I was so pleased to be able to share my story with the world this way. And NorthWord gave me that opportunity.

This Friday night will mark the launch of "Harmony", Issue 7 of NorthWord magazine. It will be an evening of poetry and fun, and it's meant for the entire family. It's meant to introduce you to the magazine if you are not familiar with it, and it's meant to show you some of the literary talent we have right here in our community.

I was delighted when I was asked if I would read my piece at the launch of the latest issue on Friday night. I will try to do so without crying, although given the subject matter it may be difficult because it is an emotional story for me. To have the opportunity to tell my story through a lovely little publication like NorthWord has been an honour, though, and to share it with an audience is an even greater one.

NorthWord is the magazine meant for everyone - and so you too can submit a story or poem to NorthWord should you wish to share your story with the world. And I can tell you this - when you open up the magazine, and see your words, when you see your name underneath your title - well, there is no other feeling like it in this world. I know, because it happened to me.

Join us for the launch of
NorthWord Issue #7
Friday Sept 28th
Holy Trinity High School
5 pm - 8 pm :)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Take Back the Right 2012

This evening in Fort McMurray local residents will gather in the Zellers parking lot at the Peter Pond Mall. It appears the evening will have a carnival atmosphere, with face painting and food and live music. The reason for the festivities, though, is anything but frivolous. Tonight the community gathers for the annual Take Back the Night.

Take Back the Night is an event with a long history, and occurs in many communities across the world. The idea is that people gather to rally and march to stop violence, particularly sexual violence, but it has also grown to encompass all violence. This year Take Back the Night has special meaning for me - because this year a friend was the victim of an assault.

I was in Vancouver this summer when I received a phone call from my friend. In a voice shaky with shock and fear she told me that she had been attacked in a public washroom. I cried when she told me, saddened by the fear and hurt in her voice. But I was something else, too. I was overwhelmingly angry.

You see my friend is not a reckless person. In fact I would say she is far more cautious than I. I am the one more likely to walk down a dark street at night (and did so for many years while living and working in downtown Toronto). And yet she was attacked, in broad daylight, in a public washroom that I myself have used. This attack made me realize how easily it could have been anyone - how easily it could have been me. And suddenly it became deeply personal, not just because it happened to my friend but because it was clear it could happen to anyone.

My friend is still dealing with the aftermath of the assault. I have seen how it has impacted every aspect of her life. I have realized how such an assault creeps into every facet of your life, and how an assault that lasts for minutes can have an impact that lasts forever. I continue to be hurt and sad for her, and I continue to be angry, too.

And that's why the title of this post is not "Take Back the Night". While we may gather and march to take back the night what we are really doing is taking back the right - the right to walk our streets in safety, the right to be free from violence, and the right to live our lives without fear. We are not just taking back our nights - we are taking back our rights.

Tonight I will attend the Take Back the Night rally, but with a slightly different attitude than last year. This year violence touched the life of someone I consider a dear friend, and I cannot take that lightly. I will be there because of her and my daughter and my sisters and my friends and myself. You see I am the incautious one, the one who can tend to be a bit reckless, and I know that in order to do that I need to take back the night. I need to take back the right to live my life as I feel I need to do, and be able to do so without fear.

I admit I have changed some of my incautious ways after my friend was attacked. I began to give a great deal more thought to my own habits and decisions, and I began to consider ways to ensure my own safety. I have been even more cognizant of this as my public profile has grown and I realized that being in the public eye comes with some risk. But I also refuse to live my life in fear. I refuse to back down. I refuse to be cowed and beaten down because of violence. I will take back the night. And I will take back the right to live a life without fear.

"Take Back the Night" 2012
will take place tonight,
Friday September 21,
at 4 pm in the Zellers parking lot,
Peter Pond Mall.
I hope you will consider
joining us as we
Take Back the Right.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Let's Get 'Er Down - Willow Square

One of the problems with seeing something every day is that you often take it for granted - or even worse you overlook the problem with it, and you fail to see what is right in front of you. This happened to me recently when I was having a conversation with a member of our local homeless population. He and I were chatting, as he is fairly recently arrived and I was interested to see what drew him here (work opportunities, of course, one of our transient and employable homeless who end up on the street when they come here and the costs of housing are too much for their finances to bear). We had a nice chat and then he said that since I seemed to know a lot about what was going on in the community he had a question for me. He asked what was going on with those townhouses downtown, the ones across from the hospital. The boarded up ones. The ones that were an eyesore, and a slap in the face to someone who is currently sleeping rough on our streets. And I realized, of course, that he meant Willow Square.

Willow Square has been vacant for some time now, the residents moved to other housing in the community, the land slated for redevelopment. The townhouses were boarded up in anticipation of speedy demolition, and there they have sat, continuing to dilapidate and fall down as the tussle over the land continues. I know some of the facts, that the land is held by the federal CMHC and the province is awaiting transfer of the property. The delay is unfortunate but unavoidable, I've been told, and generally speaking I'm pretty patient about such issues. But frankly when a homeless person tells me something is an eyesore and that it offends them then I am going to take another look, and that's what the Intrepid Junior Blogger and I did a couple of Saturdays ago.

It was a beautiful and sunny afternoon when we arrived at Willow Square and parked our car. There we were in the middle of downtown Fort McMurray, but the streets of Willow Square were deserted. I've been to a few "ghost towns" on the prairies, and the feeling was much the same, evocative of broken dreams and days long gone. But Willow Square is worse than a ghost town in my opinion - it has begun to look like a ghost ghetto.

The Intrepid Junior Blogger and I walked around, and as I did I asked her to list for me the issues with having a vacant and decaying development like this in our city centre. She was able to quickly cite the list I'd already come up with, and in fact added a few more. An eyesore. A fire hazard. An embarrassment. A target for vandals and arsonists. An enticement to school children from the nearby schools (children who may dare each other to enter abandoned buildings). A potential for vagrancy (and a slap in the face to the homeless who sleep in a tent while they see homes boarded up just blocks away).

It's sad to see, really, the detritus of a former community clearly present. An abandoned and overgrown playground. Garbage and mattresses, car seats and other debris left behind when residents packed up and left. And, even worse, broken windows and siding falling off the buildings, and graffiti covering the exterior walls. And while I am a patient person I must admit this bothered me deeply. It bothered me because I am proud of this community, and Willow Square is currently nothing of which to be proud. It is, frankly, simply very sad.

I realize it may take time for the land transfer to occur, and that it will likely take even longer to break ground on the new development at Willow Square. What I would really like to see, though, is the buildings demolished and an empty field ready for that development. I have heard signage is being erected that will indicate this will be the site of a new long term care facility, and that's terrific - but no signage will erase the buildings behind it. Signs are great - but an empty field is even better.

Prior to my chat with my new homeless friend I drove by Willow Square with blinders on, avoiding looking at what it has become. Now, though, I look at it every time and see that it quietly becomes even more dilapidated and decayed. Every day it becomes even more of an eyesore and an embarrassment. And every day it depresses me just a bit more, because it does not reflect who we are, and who we are becoming. I am a very patient person, but I have sort of run out of my supply on this one, people. Those buildings need to come down, and we need to have a fresh clean field there instead, waiting for the bright new developments on our horizon. In this city of "can do" I have one thought: let's get 'er done, and pull those damn buildings down already.