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

Friday, November 30, 2012

Northern Insights Speaker Series - Fort McMurray Public Library

It shouldn't surprise anyone that I am a fan of libraries. I think anyone who writes, who loves the written word, is also someone who feels at home in stacks of books, and who can often be found in a library in whatever place they happen to be. I always gravitate to libraries, even on my recent visit to the Alberta Legislature, where I found myself standing in awe in the magnificent library there, and envious of those who get to visit it often. Libraries, however, are not just books. Perhaps in times long gone libraries were simply places that housed books for borrowing, but the modern library is so much more. The modern library is the home of ideas, and innovation. The modern library is the place of possibilities. The modern library has joined the digital world, but it has done even more - it has become a fundamental part of community development by providing programming essential to the community. And I am proud to say that yesterday I attended a press conference where the Fort McMurray Public Library, already a stellar fixture in our community, cemented their place in the development of this community. How? They announced a speaker series that I think might just revolutionize this region.

The Northern Insights Speaker Series is designed to bring exciting (and renowned) speakers and writers to this region. It is designed to present local residents with the chance to hear new ideas or thoughts. It is designed to excite, and engage. It is, quite frankly, one of the most exciting recent developments in this community, and one I support whole heartedly, because in this region of idea and innovation and change and excitement it is simply a natural fit.

The first two speakers announced are, in a word, astonishing. On January 30th Canadian author and writer (and in my mind, genius) Malcolm Gladwell will bring his thoughts to us. To say I am enthusiastic about this is a complete understatement as I am a huge fan of Gladwell's work. I suggested to a few at the press conference yesterday that if he goes missing while here in Fort McMurray that they not worry, as I've just stolen him for about 24 hours in order to pick his brain, but that I will bring him back. I'm kidding, of course (well, mostly, I DO want to pick his brain and ask about three zillion questions), but the point is that Gladwell is an incredible speaker to bring here because his thoughts and writing are very relevant to this community at this point in time. I have read every book he has published, some more than once, and the thoughts and ideas contained in them have always gotten my mind into gear. To hear him speak, right here in this community, is a gift I can scarcely believe.

Malcolm Gladwell

And then, in May, another speaker comes to visit us. Even the Intrepid Junior Blogger was excited about this one, as while she didn't recognize Gladwell's name she knew this one: Bill Cosby.

Bill Cosby

Yes, Bill Cosby, of television fame. Bill Cosby, who is, as the Junior Blogger says, "really, really famous", is coming here to speak. Known for acting, writing, and humour, I cannot even quite fathom the chance to see him live right here in Fort McMurray. A very different sort of speaker from Gladwell to be certain, but that's exactly the point. This series is meant to introduce new ideas and thoughts, not ones that are all the same. That's part of the beauty of it. But the other part, the truly beautiful part, is that it is happening right here.

My enthusiasm for this is two-fold. One, this is an unprecedented opportunity for people in this community to access speakers and writers of international renown. It is one thing to read their books and/or see them on TV, but to hear them live is entirely different. To see passion and vision in person is always more engaging, and more likely to provoke thought, and for this I cannot wait. But there is another reason, too. I cannot wait for Gladwell and Cosby to see us, to learn about Fort McMurray, because every person who comes here becomes an ambassador for us - and these are two ambassadors with international clout, too. I hope (and in my heart know) that they will come here and find us different than they expected, and far more interesting. I suspect they will go away talking about how incredible we are, and about their time here, learning about us. This isn't just us learning from them, people - this is a chance for them to learn from us, too, and I think this little exchange can only benefit both parties, and perhaps far beyond.

I am excited this series will be held at MacDonald Island Park, as I believe it should happen in the heart of our community, where Gladwell and Cosby can see who we really are, from hockey moms and dads to figure skaters to swimmers to art gallery attendees to library patrons. I believe Mac Island represents our community well, and I think it is the perfect place for this, and not just because it also houses the Public Library. Tickets to see Gladwell go on sale on December 5th, and are priced at a very reasonable $49. The library is also giving the public the chance to win free tickets to see Gladwell, simply by visiting the library or their website between November 30th and December 10th. I know I will be buying my tickets as soon as they are available, and I will be anxiously awaiting the chance to see him speak (and I will try to not steal him, but if he goes missing while here all I can say is that I clearly had nothing to do with it and that I am sure whomever "borrowed" him will return him).

I was so pleased to be at this press conference yesterday, people. I am so proud of the Fort McMurray Public Library, because this is a bold initiative on their part, and yet it is so reflective of who we are in this community. We do bold and innovative things, we say "we can" instead of "we can't", and we reach for the stars - stars like Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Cosby, stars that many from outside this community would happily tell us are out of reach, and yet here they will be in 2013. Nothing is beyond our reach, no stars or ideas or innovations. We can do anything in this place of big spirit, big ideas, and big belief. And yesterday, at a little press conference announcing a speaker series called Northern Insights, I saw this once again, as this little community took another leap onto the world stage.

My sincere thanks and congratulations to
The Fort McMurray Public Library for
bringing the world to Fort McMurray
through books, programming, ideas, and
now the Northern Insights Speaker Series.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

I'm A Quitter! (Or How I Admitted Defeat and Acknowledged a Peanut Butter Addiction)

This is the post where I throw my hands up in defeat. This is where I throw in the towel. This is where I admit that I am weak and cannot do it. Oh, I'm not quitting blogging (sorry, you don't get off that easy, people!). I'm quitting the Food Bank Hamper Challenge.

It's been three weeks now. I was asked to live off the contents of a food hamper that would be given to a single person. And I started this with every good intention to stick to it and see it through - but we all know what the road to hell is paved with, and my good intention is part of that black road to darkness.

I suppose my breaking point was realizing that I have another week to go, and no energy to face it. I've learned my entire life revolves around food, and I was starting to get a bit obsessive about it - when I could eat, what I would eat. And then, when I ran out of peanut butter, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. That jar of peanut butter has been my savior, and with it gone I lost all hope. Suddenly I was staring at a can of corned beef and tins of soup as far as the eye could see.

I feel like a failure, certainly, and a wimp. I also feel bloody fortunate that I have the option to quit, an option those who depend on the food bank do not have. But I also know my own limits, and so do those around me. When the Intrepid Junior Blogger came to me and said "Mom, you should quit - you aren't good at this, and it's not good for you", I saw wisdom in those 13-year old eyes. She is right. I'm not good at it, given my cheating, and it hasn't been good for me, given my loss in weight, energy, and attitude.

But oh the things I have learned! I've learned I need to learn to cook, for instance, because I'm hopeless. I've learned how lucky I am. I've learned that a single mandarin orange can be a luxurious treat if you have been denied them. I've learned I crave salads and fruits and vegetables. And I've learned that what the food bank does should not be underestimated, and that those who rely on it are far tougher than I.

This weekend the Wood Buffalo Food Bank will join with Syncrude for their annual food bank drive. You'll find trucks waiting outside every grocery store, ready to receive your food donations and cash. They are still seeking volunteers, too, and I'll put the link at the bottom of this post. On this day, the day I admit defeat, I encourage you to donate your time, cash, or food to the food bank. I have now witnessed what they do - I have sorted food, stocked shelves, filled food hampers, and lived off a hamper for almost one month - and my respect for them, and the people they serve, has increased immensely. My own self-image has taken a bit of a pummelling and I think for some time I will ponder my own lack of fortitude. For now, though, I am putting that off while I go to the grocery store, buy a fresh jar of peanut butter and a box of mandarin oranges, and settle in for a wee feast. I've never put peanut butter on an orange, but frankly there is a first for everything, and today might just be that day.

I encourage you to volunteer at and/or donate to

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Dog Sled Team, An Old Fashioned Christmas, and a Parade - A Typical Day in Fort McMurray

On Friday night of last week the Intrepid Junior Blogger looked at me and asked what I was doing the next day. I replied it would be a pretty normal day for me, a few events to take in, some writing to do, some phone calls to make. I asked her if she would like to accompany me for the full day, to experience a day in my life, and she said yes (this was just a nefarious plan to spend precious time with my daughter, you see, who is growing up so quickly). And so Saturday morning found us in the car, bundled up for a day outdoors, and headed to our first stop - the MDRA race track on Highway 63.

The reason for our trip to the track was not motocross racing, but to visit a racer of a different sort - it was a "meet and greet" event for Christina Traverse, the young dog sledder I have written about before. The Intrepid Junior Blogger (or IJB) and Christina have a few things in common, like a deep love for animals, a tenacious personality, and a can-do attitude towards life. In an interesting twist we have known Christina for some time, and the IJB's beloved first pet ferret was once owned by Christina. The IJB was intrigued by the dog sledding thing, and especially by the opportunity to visit the dogs, and so we headed out to the race track on that cold morning to find a bonfire, some marshmellows, some local folks, and Christina and the dogs.

The IJB was in her glory, frankly, surrounded by dogs. She petted every single one, giving each of them the attention they deserved, and then we headed to the bonfire to roast marshmellows and visit. We warmed our fingers and toes, we chatted with the others present, and then in our usual fashion we burnt some marshmellows to a blackened crisp, her shouting for me to "blow it out" every time her marshmellow exploded into flames. We stuffed ourselves with marshmellows and returned to the dogs another couple of times, for more cuddles and more photos, too.

We climbed into the car, frosty fingers and toes, and she asked "where next"? I said "Heritage Park", and off we went to the next stop in our day, Old Fashioned Christmas at Heritage Park.

She and I both love Heritage Park at any time of the year, but at Christmas, under a blanket of snow, with Christmas trees and lights, and with horses and sleigh rides, the park is better than ever. We perused the gift shop and then headed into the park, braving the chilly temperature and brisk wind. She refused to have her photo taken with Santa (and frostily suggested that if I was so keen on the idea then I should do it, not her) and neither of us felt up to the sleigh ride given the cold (although so many other people, far braver than us, did). We watched people make "sugar in the snow", and we wandered through some of the Heritage Park displays, finding one that reminded us of our previous stop: a photo of woman and a dog sled team, but from an era long ago.

We went back into the gift shop and purchased a few things, a book on local history for me, a ribbon streamer for her (and her ferrets, who she thought would enjoy it, and she was quite right, it produced great weasel mayhem when introduced to them), and one of these mystery bags, printed with a label from Hill Drugs:

We were both quite frozen, and so we stopped at the local Starbucks and grabbed a  snack and a drink to warm up, and then headed home to pile on more clothing and pick up some blankets for our final event of the day - the Santa Claus Parade.

The parade has been a fixture in our lives for the decade we have lived here. On more than one occasion she has been in the parade, and one year we created a float for a local sports group. Last year I had the honour of serving as a parade judge. This year, though, we attended the Lights of Christmas, and watched Mayor Blake wave a magic wand to light all the trees. We sipped free hot chocolate, and then we found a place on Franklin to sit and watch the magic of the parade. We huddled in blankets, me sitting on a snowrow while she sat on my feet in attempt to warm my frozen toes (despite my wearing very sensible hiking boots), and we watched the parade, although not quite until the end. After a day outside we were simply too cold to wait to see Santa, and so we dashed away a few floats before he arrived, beating the post-parade traffic, and headed to a local restaurant.

We sat there, her and I, talking about dog sleds in 2012 and dog sleds in 1924, and young women named Christina Traverse and Cassie Owens, who might be separated in time by decades but linked by an interest in dog sledding, and by this community. We talked about old fashioned Christmases, and what it must have been like for the Hill family to celebrate Christmas in a very different Fort McMurray from the one we inhabit. I told her about the Hill's older son David, who was killed in World War II, and about my great respect for the legacy this family has left in this community. We talked about parades and which float we liked the best, and about how our toes were still cold. We laughed often, and then, finally, she asked me: "So, is this a typical day for you"? I thought about it, and I said "No, not really", and was delighted with her look of surprise when I explained this was a quieter day than normal, and about how many of my days are filled from beginning to end with even far more. She looked at me and said "I don't know how you do it. I'm exhausted", and so we finished dessert, and headed home.

I suppose the answer I gave her was a bit inaccurate, as in some ways it was a typical day in Fort McMurray. It was filled with activity and events, and with people and conversations. It was seeing old friends, and some new ones, too. It was a blend of history and present, past and future. It was seeing people following their passions, sharing their knowledge, and participating in a parade, all despite a frosty day in northern Alberta. And it was far better than a typical day, because it was a day I had the best of all companions, a young woman who makes me laugh and smile. And in the end that is what life in this community is all about. It's about spending time with those people who make us laugh and smile, all while enjoying the things that surround us in this place we call home. It was a typical day in the life of this blogger, and yet it was far more. It was day in my life, with my daughter, in my Fort McMurray. And it just doesn't get any better than that, really.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fort McMurray, Aging in Place, Community, and Dignity

Recently I had the opportunity to view a little presentation on the proposed Aging in Place facility to be built at Willow Square in downtown Fort McMurray. As some may know Willow Square is currently a  bit of an eyesore, boarded up and vacant townhouses, but the vision is to put something there to serve the seniors of this community. And I think this vision is very important. It may surprise some to learn I am passionate about the lives of the elderly, but I am. It's not because I am elderly or even particularly close to being a senior. It's because of my mother.

I am on occasion hesitant to share deeply personal stories, but I will share this one as it puts into context why I am passionate about the concept of an aging in place facility, and about seniors in general. It really all has to do with my parents, and their experience at the end of their lives.

About seven years ago, after a long battle with lung cancer, my father succumbed to the disease. My mother and father had been married for over fifty years, through good times and bad, raising five children, and seeing many grandchildren come into the world, too. They had relied on each other for many years, but in the final years of my father's life it had been difficult for them both. They remained in the large house they had owned for almost thirty years, and when my father died my mother returned to that house. I think that it made it even harder for her, though, because in addition to the loss of my father and trying to maintain a large house (where she lived alone) I think she was quite lonely. That first year after my father died and she stayed in that house was a tough one for her, and so, after that year she decided to sell the house - and move into an aging in place facility.

I imagine it was hard for her. She went from a large house with an enormous garden (which she tended with care every year) and flower beds to a one-bedroom condo-style apartment in a high rise. She lived independently there, making her own breakfast and lunch, but in the evening she had supper in the main dining room with the other residents. And while initially she may have missed that garden and her big house it didn't take long. You see, my mother was a social butterfly just waiting to come out of her cocoon, and soon she was so happy, and perhaps happier than she had been in years.

The years when my father was ill were very isolating, because he couldn't go out often, and she preferred to stay home to care for him. The year after his death she spent mostly alone, going out on occasion but still often alone, trapped by bad weather and snow, or just the difficulty of getting places as she did not drive. But when she moved into this new facility, with recreational activities and group shopping trips and parties and the rest, her social life blossomed.

When my mother had been in her house she was always home when I called, quick to pick up after the first ring or so. But in the new facility I would call and it would ring for ages, often going unanswered. She would call me later to tell of an evening at bingo, or an outing with friends. She was active in the Catholic Women's League in the facility, and even assisted the priest with visits to those seniors less mobile than her. I think, although she did not say, that she even had a boyfriend, or at least a close male friend, as she would mention one widower and always grin when she spoke of him (and he was someone who had grown up with my father and known him, too, so it connected so many things in her life together). She became part of a community within the larger community of her city. She had a place, and a purpose, and a life. And she was happy.

My mother's happiness was cut short when she suffered an aneurysm after having been in her new place for just over a year. Thanks to the staff there she was discovered quickly in her apartment, and taken for medical care, but it simply wasn't a survivable event. The thing I have held onto all these years since her death, though, was the happiness she found at the end of her life. She still had independence and her freedom, but she had support and a community, too. She spent the last few months of her life surrounded by friends and caring staff and a community who cared for her.

This is why I smile every time I hear about our local Aging in Place facility. I want every person to be able to experience what my mother did at the end of her life. I know that her independence, her dignity, and her community meant so much to her. I know that she was grateful to have found a place where she belonged, and where she was embraced. And this is why a facility like the one being proposed in Fort McMurray, where seniors can live out their golden years with independence but support, with dignity but also assistance, and with a community, is so important. It is important because in the end every person there is a bit like my mom in some regard.

I will never forget an incident just after my mom died. We were, in fact, just coming back from the hospital after saying our final goodbyes to her, and she had drawn her last breath on this planet. We were in the elevator headed up to her apartment when an elderly woman entered it and asked how mom was doing. One of us explained that she had just died, and the woman began to cry, clutched her heart, and sobbed, "Oh no, not our Elizabeth, not our Elizabeth," and I knew at that moment that my mother had been loved in this community too, and not just in her family. My mother had found a place where she belonged. She had a home in a place where she had dignity and support and assistance and respect - and love. So now you know why I am passionate about developing a strong and healthy aging in place community right here in Fort McMurray. It's all about my mom.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Nothing Gold Can Stay - "The Outsiders" at Holy Trinity

School drama productions can be tricky things. Way back, when I was in high school (way, way back, people) I was involved in high school drama, and I know that these productions take a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to produce. Bringing a story to the stage is always a difficult thing, but when you are working with busy teenagers and teachers I think it amplifies the problems. And then, when you add a story that is a difficult one to tell well you are even further challenged. On occasion, though, the right chemistry of actors and instructors and story are found, and what develops is a blend that is mesmerizing to witness, and a joy to create. And so it was when I went to see "The Outsiders" at the Suncor Energy Centre for the Performing Arts, and saw students from Holy Trinity High School present a story that is not new, but yet still so compelling.

"The Outsiders" is based on a book that is decades old, but even now that book is remarkable. It was written by a very young woman, in her teen years herself, and depicts the story of a clash between other teens, the "haves" and the "have nots", or, in this case, "the greasers" and "the soc's". It is a story as old as time, really, the conflict between groups of us who divide ourselves along some arbitrary line of class distinction or race or religion. It is a touching story, and I have seen various tellings of it through the years, in movies and plays. I was not sure if a high school drama production would have the same impact on me as other productions have had, but I will tell you this - it did. I will admit, in fact, that I cried during the play at Holy Trinity, because the story touched me just as it always has, and because the creation of it on that stage was an incredible thing to witness.

Sometimes it is a challenge to find enough young men interested in drama to mount a production such as this, with an almost entirely male cast, and yet Holy Trinity did exactly that, finding not only enough young men but talented young men, too. Each and every actor was amazing to watch, although each for different reasons and in different ways.

Jd Graveline as Ponyboy brought a touching poignancy to the role, bringing a difficult character, one full of conflict, to life. Richard Faucett as his brother Darry and Jakob Ebskamp as his other brother Sodapop provide just the right blend to depict a family that has faced crisis, and sees a situation grow from bad to worse. Nathan Deagle is perfect as Johnny Cade, a soft and troubled young man, and Tristan Manning shines as the tough exterior Dallas Winston (and one suspects the tough exterior hides a bruised soul). I admit that perhaps my favourite though was Willy Lang as Two-Bit Matthews, who brought both humour and soul to his character (I found myself intrigued whenever he was on stage). Emily Coutu and Zakaria H. Mohamed completed the "greaser" cast, and they too brought life to their respective characters, brief as their stage time might be. On the "Socs" side Amber Nicholle as Cherry Valance and Carmen McGrath as Marcia were just the right touch as young women who are caught in a difficult spot, while Mitchell Mulhall and Logan Aucoin rounded out the cast on that side of the story, once again acting out difficult roles to portray well (and yet they did it, too). The supporting cast - Chantal Murphy, Patricia Gutierrez, Marion Boddy, Erielle Alecs Ganoria, Kevin Hansen, and Guillermo Moronta - filled in all the empty spaces with talent and skill, helping the story to unfold just as it should.

And unfold it did, in front of a very full house. The story is probably familiar to most, one of conflict and drama and heroism and pain, and, in the end, death. It is the story of falling to the lowest point, and recovery. It is the story of how events can occur around us and to us, and about how we react to those events - and, in the end, about how we can try to recover from them, and continue on. It is not an easy story to tell, and even more difficult to tell well - but the cast and crew of this play did a stellar job in telling it, and in sharing it.

In the end the play made me cry, as this story always has. I think of young lives cut short due to conflict, and I think of situations, real ones, in our own community where this has happened. I think about young men and young women feeling trapped by circumstance, and about what happens to the human psyche when you feel you cannot control your destiny but that it is pre-determined by "the way things are". I think about how these young actors brought this story to the stage, and about how it might "just" be a high school drama production, but how it is also so deeply reflective of all of us. And I think about something else, too. I think about my excitement over the future of the arts in this community, because if a high school drama department can mount a play like this then that future is very bright indeed.

It was an honour to see this play, and a pleasure to review it for this blog. I am now very excited for the remainder of the arts season at Holy Trinity, and in a week or so I will be taking in a drama production at another school - this time the one at Ecole McTavish, and a production the Intrepid Junior Blogger has been intimately involved in. She has been working her heart out to learn lines and songs, rehearsing almost every day, and pouring her entire being into a little production of "Annie". So, I know what it is like to perform in one of these productions, as every day I have an actress in my own house who is dedicated to the arts, too.

To the cast, crew, teachers, and all those involved in "The Outsiders" at Holy Trinity I say thank you - and bravo. Bravo for having the courage to tackle a difficult story, and for telling it so well. Bravo for honing your skills and talents and working so hard to create a story that then unfolds for the pleasure of others. Bravo for bringing the arts to the forefront of this community, and bravo for stunning performances that shone. And finally, thank you. Thank you for telling a story that made me think, and even made me cry. Yes, I cried when Johnny died, and I cried again when they told Ponyboy of Dallas' death. You see, even though Robert Frost said nothing gold can stay I think it can - and it can shine like the performances of young actors on a high school stage, telling a story with a modern twist, but that is fundamentally as old as time.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A New Magazine, and A New Opportunity to Share the Story - YMM Magazine

When my friend Krista approached me a few months ago it was still summer, there were still leaves on the trees, and -20 was a distant memory. She came to me with a question, and to share an exciting new project she was embarking on. The project? A new magazine, based in Fort McMurray and about this region we call home. The question? Would I write for the magazine, and would I consider an article on Highway 63 as my first piece? I said yes, of course, because it seems that this little ribbon of road and I are fated to travel a path together.

YMM Magazine was just launched this past weekend. It is a lovely magazine, glossy and full of fascinating, funny, and thoughtful content. It contains articles from many of the local writers, and it is chock full of a variety of thoughts on a variety of topics, from what this community will look like in the future to just about everything else.

My contributions to the magazine are two-fold, in that I provided a feature article on Highway 63, as well as an opinion editorial on the notorious "five year plan", a plan that many arrive in this region touting as their exit strategy. I enjoyed writing both pieces immensely, and am already hard at work on my next pieces for the next issue.

I am delighted to be part of this magazine for several reasons, you see. The first is that I am honoured to call Krista a friend, and to be included in her endeavour pleases me immensely. The second is that this magazine is yet another opportunity for us to tell the Fort McMurray story, an opportunity that I not only welcome but embrace. And finally it is another example of what people in this community can do, of taking vision and passion, combining it with drive, and ending up with a tangible result that both impresses and impacts those who see it.

So, people, I present to you YMM Magazine. I am providing links to the entire magazine, as well as to my two pieces in it. I would encourage you to read it cover to cover, and when you see it hit news stands around town maybe pick up a hard copy, too. Mail it or email the links to those who you think might appreciate the chance to read the story of this region as told by those who live here. Spread the word about this region and let our light shine as we welcome the world in to see who we are, and why we are proud of this place. This is our chance to share our story, and you can be a part of it, too.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Dave Gunning Captures Hearts and Hands at Live Bar and Grill

If you read this blog on a regular basis you may recall a post about a house concert, and a musician named Dave Gunning. Before that house concert I hadn't even known who Dave was, and had never heard his music. After that concert, though, and the experience I had (both personal and musical) Dave has become one of my very favourite Canadian musicians. Musically gifted, kind, funny, warm, and generous, Dave epitomizes what is good about Canadians, and about people - and so, when I heard he was coming back to town for another show I hopped on board quickly.

It was a bit different this time as the venue was not the house of a friend but rather the newly renovated Live Bar and Grill, located downstairs in the Nomad Inn. You may recall this bar from an earlier incarnation, when it was called "Delaney's". Now, I always rather liked this bar, as it is quiet and a bit hidden away and small, so not prone to excessively large crowds. In the new incarnation, though, it is even better, and it is headed in a direction I think we need in this community, a bar that will fill a niche that is unfilled. You see, the management of Live Bar and Grill intend to use the bar to not only hold corporate functions and routine bar events but also live music events like Dave Gunning, bringing in artists who may otherwise struggle to find a venue here suitable to their style and financially viable, too. In my opinion Live Bar and Grill is the ideal place for this, as it is cozy and hidden, just like all the tiny little bars I used to frequent on the Toronto music scene, bars where I saw bands like Blue Rodeo and Big Sugar begin to rise at the very start of their careers.

This concert was a bit different, too, as it was by advance ticket sales, and I was not surprised to hear it sold out. Dave is popular for many reasons and with a very wide demographic, his East Coast roots appealing to those here who hail from those places, and his musical talent appealing to everyone with any sense. Dave is not just a musician, however, but a story teller of the best variety, using his lyrics to tell tales of everything from hangings (traditional folk music fare, really) to love. An evening with Dave is a bit of a joy ride through the peaks and valleys of human experience and emotion, as he recounts stories of CD covers gone wrong (inadvertently raising the ire of the Canadian Mint by using images of the penny) to stories of how he writes his songs. An evening with Dave is the kind that leaves you a bit breathless from singing along to well known songs like "Fare Thee Well to Nova Scotia", and from clapping along to those songs where you don't know the words.

I always find it tough to pick a favourite song from Dave's repertoire. I had thought "These Hands" was my favourite, but then again "Saltwater Hearts" is one that touched me deeply, too. And then there is "Made on a Monday", a song about the suspect quality of those items manufactured on Mondays (after the weekend when some are still recovering), and leaving me wondering if perhaps I was "made on a Monday", too.

What amazed me that night is when I was there I was receiving texts and messages from friends from all over who wished they could be there to see Dave. Some were working, and some had simply missed out on the chance to get tickets. They would text me song requests or ask what he was playing, and I would tell them so they could live a little bit vicariously. For a musician who is, I think, a wee bit unknown, Dave has a very loyal and devoted following. I suppose that's because at some point those fans were touched by Dave, too, by one of his songs or one of the stories he told.

In the last post about Dave I wrote that his song "These Hands" made me think a great deal about my own hands and their purpose in life. Over time that purpose has become clearer and clearer to me, and writing has become not only a hobby, but something I do for money - and for joy. And so too it is with Dave Gunning, I think. Those hands of his create music that brings him money, but far more importantly I think it brings him joy and happiness. I know for certain it brings joy and happiness to those who appreciate him as I do, and as it did to the ones who filled the Live Bar and Grill, giving Dave a standing ovation at the end of a stellar show, showing him that the purpose of those clapping hands was to praise him for bringing that joy to us. Dave Gunning will likely come to town again, and all I can say is this: Get your tickets very early, because they won't last long. Dave Gunning is a superstar, and this woman continues to marvel at her good fortune in being able to call herself his fan - and friend.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

McMurray Musings in Heritage Park

You know, I debated some time about posting this. I suppose it's because of a fear of being considered narcissistic, as I will be up front about this: what follows in this post is a lot of photos of me, and that might seem a bit self-preening. However, there is a story behind it, and since I want to share the story I will share some of the photos, too.

A few months ago I got an idea in my head. You see, I've never really been comfortable with photographs of myself, and have for many years avoided cameras. I decided, though, that I wanted to do something to commemorate my time as "McMurray Musings". This blog, and all that followed it, has changed my life in every way, and I wanted to remember this time not just through the written word but in photographs. So, I decided I needed to find a photographer, and see about making it happen.

I'd been on Twitter some time, and had been tweeting on occasion with someone named Jamey. Now Jamey is a photographer from Edmonton, but he has history with Fort McMurray, having lived here some years ago. He still has family here, and over time I discovered that I really liked Jamey. I was, in fact, very comfortable with him, and I had the chance to see some of his work, too. I liked what I saw, and so, when he said he was coming up north to visit, I suggested a photo shoot with me. I was delighted when he said yes.

As our discussions went on we began to talk about where to do the photo shoot. I knew I wanted a place that was significant in Fort McMurray, that sang to me of my life here and of this community. And it truly didn't take me long to settle on Heritage Park.

Heritage Park, you see, is the little place that preserves some history in this region. It is there you will find the buildings that echo the past of this place, the reminders of times long gone, and it is there you can follow the path of where we came from and how we came to be where we are now. And so it was in this place that Jamey and I met on a bright August morning, him with a camera and me with some trepidation about being photographed.

Jamey is so wonderful that I very quickly found my comfort zone, and I almost forgot about the camera. We bantered back and forth, chatting about photography and writing and creativity and our lives, and about this community, too. And while we talked we did the photographs in Heritage Park, in buildings that have come to have so much meaning for me.

I was photographed in the Hill family's old house, and I stood in the kitchen where Gladys Hill, family matriarch, would have prepared meals so long ago. I sat in the living room where they would gather around the radio to listen to news and radio shows. I walked up the stairs they would have ascended very night, and I looked out the windows they would have looked out, gazing upon a very different Fort McMurray from the one I now know. I have written about the Hill family, Walter and Gladys' son Ken in particular, and so this house has meaning for me, every wall imbued with memory.

I was photographed in the Hill family's old drug store, a place that was a fixture in this community for many years. I was photographed in the one-room school, and in the little white church, both places that have such significance for this community, places that have seen such history, and such change. And in every place, with every photograph, I was thinking about this community, my home, and my place in it. I was thinking about the past, the present, and the future.

And, in the end, as narcissistic as it may seem, that is why I did this little photo shoot. One day my time here will exist only in my memory, and I wanted some way to memorialize it. The words I have written in this blog will do that, of course, but these photos, rich with their own memory and history, will serve as a visual reminder of my time in this community, and my time touching the history of this place. And so, with some caution and the possibility of seeming self-indulgent, I share them with you. This is me, at Heritage Park in Fort McMurray, in August of 2012. This is me, touching our history, and making some of my own, too.

My thanks to Jamey M,
and to Heritage Park!

McMurray Musings
Heritage Park
August, 2012

 And finally, of course, this seemed absolutely necessary -
a photo of my shoes :)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Wood Buffalo Food Bank, The Food Hamper Challenge, and Defeat

When Arianna Johnson, the Executive Director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, suggested the idea to me I thought it sounded pretty good. The concept was simple - take a few people in the media and public eye and challenge them to living off the contents of a food bank hamper for one month. The goal was to experience what it is like to be dependent on that food hamper, unable to eat in restaurants or grab a coffee to go, limited to only what is provided to you. I *thought* it was a good idea, and I *thought* it would be hard, but people, I had no damn idea. This hasn't been hard. It's been a challenge that I am failing, miserably.

When I got the food hamper list the Intrepid Junior Blogger and I hit the local grocery store and quickly filled a cart. As the cart filled I noticed a growing number of boxes and cans, and very little in the way of fresh produce and meat. As we wheeled down the aisles the concern simply grew as it rapidly became clear this diet is based heavily on processed foods, the very things we are expected to avoid to achieve good health. I gazed at the cart as we approached the checkout, and realized with fear that this was going to be very, very difficult for me.

Even then I still had no idea but now, almost two weeks in, I have a very clear sense of how hard this is. The major challenge for me, my major enemy, is time. I am the sort who is constantly on the go, headed into and out of the door on a moment's notice, and that makes taking the time to cook very difficult. Add to that the fact that I am an abysmal cook (to which the Intrepid Junior Blogger can attest) and I am really the sort who relies on fresh food I can grab quickly and go - an apple here, a salad there, and, when all else fails, food picked up at local stores and restaurants to get me through my day. The challenge of needing to be home for a significant number of meal times worried me, and that is where I failed the challenge for the first time. Caught downtown, unable to get home between appointments, and hours from heading home, I was starving. There I was in the mall, food court ahead and money in hand, and so I grabbed a taco from Taco Time and wolfed it down, despite my guilt.

That was the first time I cheated on this challenge, but not the last. I am scheduled to do this until early December, which takes me right into Christmas party and cookie season, one of my favourite seasons and yet this year a tad bittersweet as I will battle between my conscience and my desire. I miss my fresh fruits and vegetables, and some days I would kill for a salad. Last night in the grocery store I found myself staring longingly at a fresh veggie tray, headed home to a can of soup instead (and people, after these two weeks I am so very, very weary of soup). And I have learned some things about myself, my willpower, my own spoiled nature, and what it must be like to be forced to do this, not out of choice or some blogging whim but rather necessity. And, in two words, it sucks.

So, what have I learned in two weeks? It is as follows:

1) If you donate to the food bank think beyond the soup can. Think about things like baking supplies and other "luxuries" we take for granted but that could liven up what is, quite frankly, a very boring diet.

2) If you have a choice between donating food and money, pick money. With money the food bank can purchase fresh goods and produce daily for distribution, while donated fresh goods need to be stored, which can be a challenge.

3) Think about what it would be like to not eat out for one month - no fast food, no coffee, no restaurants. Think about maybe doing it for a month, to show solidarity with those who don't have that option, and then take the money you would have spent and donate it to the food bank. It will go to good use, trust me, and you will have had just a taste of what it's like to be reliant on them.

4) When donating food to the food bank question if this is food YOU would like to eat. Would you really eat the contents of that box or can in your hand? If the answer is no then put it back on the shelf and find something else. 

5) Support the annual food drive coming up later this month - but don't forget the food bank at other times of the year. I've been there a lot recently due to this challenge and last week was troubled at how bare their shelves are at this time of year. I think there is a tendency to donate once a year and forget it, but please remember that the food bank is providing food for those in need - including children - 365 days a year. Help them make sure they have nutritious, healthy, and quality food to give to them.

Here is the deal, people. I have about another two weeks to go. I have lost some weight on this diet, and I've definitely lost some of my usual energy as I think it's been sapped by a constant diet of peanut butter sandwiches (a supply that is rapidly dwindling and I fear I am getting closer and closer to being forced to eat that can of corned beef, which terrifies me). I've gained something else, though. I have gained some perspective on what it's like to not have the options I do, I have gained some understanding of what it is like to subsist on this diet, and I have gained a better understanding of myself, too. I plan to see this through to the end, although I will likely cheat again along the way (hey, people, one of the things I also do is recognize my own myriad faults). And at the end of all this I plan to spend a couple of days stocking shelves at the food bank and compiling a list of what they need and what could make the lives of their clients better and healthier, and then sharing that list with everyone I know.

It was a good idea at the time, as I said. It is still a good idea even now, despite my struggles and my whining (which is, in fact, pathetic and laughable). It has been a challenge, and a learning experience. And frankly, it is one I doubt I will ever forget.

You can find further entries regarding my experience
with the Food Hamper Challenge

Friday, November 16, 2012

Why How Long You Have Lived In Fort McMurray is Irrelevant

I know the title of this post is a bit bold, and perhaps even a bit inflammatory. I know even saying it risks me receiving more hate mail, something I had the unfortunate occasion to receive for the first time recently (more on that later). I also know, though, that this sentiment has been in my heart and head for some time, and the time has come to put it onto paper (internet?) and commit to it. In Fort McMurray, people, how long you have lived here simply doesn't matter when it comes to discussions of our future - and here is why.

A few weeks ago my buddy Nolan Haukeness wrote an op-ed column stating almost this exact thing, except he talked about the "born heres" versus the "moved heres". It's a terrific piece, and I suggest you read it - but after reading it I felt I had more to say. Why? Because I believe that length of residency, whether you were born here or arrived here a few months ago, is totally irrelevant in the current discussions - at least in the sense that either gives you special status or input when it comes to discussions on the future of this community.

There are certainly people who have been here for decades, and those who have been born here. And those people have seen tremendous changes, cycles of boom and bust, times of prosperity and times of trouble. And so their opinion on this place is informed by experience and time, and so it should be given proper credence for that reason. However, there is another side to this. If you have been born here or lived here for decades there is every chance you are now living in a bit of a bubble. That's pretty natural, actually, and nothing to be ashamed about. And that is where new residents come in.

New residents, whether they have been here for 6 months or 6 years, bring with them not experience of this community but experience of other communities - other cities and provinces and countries. They see this community with fresh eyes, and may note things that those who are long-time residents may fail to see because so often we don't really "see" the things that change so gradually. New residents bring with them another perspective, informed perhaps not by an experience of THIS community but of other places that are both similar and different. And that is the beauty of it - because the future should not be determined by those who are "new" or those who are "old" but rather by all of us as we open a dialogue informed by the experience of all.

Too often in this community you see length of residency used as a "trump card". The phrase "well, I've been here x years", said in an arch tone denoting authority, troubles me for many reasons. It is wonderful that you have been here for "x" years, but someone has likely been here for "x" years longer. And of course it also means if someone was born here they automatically trump anyone who has moved here (a situation that could delight many toddlers as given our birth rate it means they should pretty much be in charge of the whole schmozzle). And then I always wonder if we should base it on percentage of life lived here, as opposed to years, meaning someone who moved here young and spent 75% of their life here would trump someone who came here later in life and has only been here 50% of their life. And if we make it generational then we really run into a situation fraught with difficulties, as the natural conclusion there is the First Nations people pretty much trump us all. So, is length of residency as determinant in value of opinions really the game we want or need to play here? Why do we need the trump card at all? And then there is another statistic that will soon make the whole discussion even more irrelevant, as if this community meets current growth projections every person here will be outnumbered by those who are new.

This community is anticipated to add some 130,000 residents over the next 18 years. Some will be born here, true, but the majority will come here from other places. This place will be full of new residents - and so we all need to get over our thinking that how long we have been here matters, because it simply doesn't, and it won't. If we adhere to thinking that our length of residency has some sort of sway we will find ourselves outnumbered, outvoted, and outdistanced by those who have been here less time - and so, perhaps, this is the time we need to begin the dialogue that leaves out the words "I've been here for x years".

I understand why we do it - even I catch myself saying that I've been here for a decade, although more for context than control, and recently I have started to not say it at all, only giving that number if asked directly. I was a bit surprised recently to receive anonymous hate mail (and maybe in a later blog post we will have a discussion about the level of cowardice shown by choosing to attack someone personally in an anonymous way) and one of the things they pointed out was my audacity in having an opinion after having been here only "a few short years". I was taken aback, as those years represent almost 1/4 of my life, and almost the longest time I have lived anywhere - but of course it's all relative as they may have been here for 20 years as opposed to my ten. And then again their 20 years may seem scanty compared to someone else's 30, or 40, or lifetime. What troubled me was the theory that only a certain length of time conferred on anyone the right to an opinion, private or public, as I could not help but wonder who set this arbitrary length? Who determined it?

Like I said at the beginning this post may raise some hackles. I do think, though, this needs to be said. I do have the audacity to have an opinion, and I will never disrespect the opinion of another regardless of how long they have been here (and in fact I think mere visitors to our city merit listening to as well, although we may choose to dismiss their opinions). The point is that our opinions may differ, but our right to hold them is the same no matter if we have been here 2 months, 2 years, 2 decades, or cradle to grave. The decisions we make now should be informed by the experience and wisdom and voices of all, not just those who are "new" or "old" (even those terms make me cringe with their subjective nature).

My fundamental belief is this: If you care enough about this community to call it home then you deserve to have an opinion, share it, and be respected. Others may not agree with it, and they may argue it - but your length of residency does not minimize your opinion or lend it special credence.

We are now making decisions in this community that will affect not just current residents, but future residents - our children, their children, and everyone else who chooses to make this home. Let's use our collective experiences, from here and around the world, and our wide knowledge, gleaned both in this community and others, to make decisions that will stand the test of time, make us proud, and show that we can engage in a dialogue that is open, productive, and inclusive. Let's make this place a place that we can all call home, regardless of how long we have been here - and let's do it now, at this special point in time, a time we can all point back to in the future and say "I was here when they did that, and we did it together".

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fort McMurray Remembrance Day 2012 - and Mourning A Loss

It is always a solemn affair, the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies. It is always a day when I find myself close to tears, and struggling to maintain my composure as I hear bagpipes and trumpets, and see photos and videos that threaten to make the tears flow. Remembrance Day 2012 in Fort McMurray is one I am unlikely to ever forget, as it is one of those days that tied together some loose threads in my life, something that often happens in this place I call home.

I got to MacDonald Island Park early on November 11, and noticed the parking lot filling rapidly. The Remembrance Day ceremonies here, hosted by our local Legion, always seem to attract a good-sized crowd, and this year was no different. I went inside and was escorted to my seat by a young cadet, who looked like he was probably in Grade 9 or 10. Many young cadets were escorting attendees to their seats, finding them good spots for their specific needs (in my case an aisle seat where I could escape to take photos).

I sat in my seat and looked at the program, noting the parts where I was likely to struggle with tears. The reading of Flanders Fields. The Last Post. Reveille. The laying of the wreaths. The auditorium quickly filled, with the elderly and the young, couples and families, and every demographic of our community represented. Moments before the ceremony was to begin I made my way to the entrance to watch the entry of all the service people present, from the RCMP, stunning in their red serge, to our local fire department, cadets, and even scouts and guides. In they marched behind the flags, there to honour and remember.

The Remembrance Day ceremony is, as I wrote last year, not short. It stretches over 2 hours, and a lot of ground is covered. Prayers are said, greetings from different levels of government are brought, and poems are read. Songs are sung, and, finally towards the end, wreaths are laid. This year for me was a bit different, though, as when they called the roll of those local individuals lost in the war I was listening and I heard a name that stopped my heart. David Walter Hill.

I had my camera in hand when I heard that name, as I stood at the side of the stage. I was there at the service as both community and media, my dual roles making me extra attentive to the details. And when I heard that name my blood ran a bit cold because the Hill family has become rather close to me this past year, even if they don't quite know it.

You see, this past summer I had the pleasure of interviewing Ken Hill for an article I wrote for Big Spirit Magazine. And then, during the FMPSD Centennial celebrations I got to meet Ken and his wife in person, and found them so wonderfully delightful. Ken and his parents, Walter and Gladys Hill, are what I would consider founding members of this community. Their names are synonymous with the past of this region, and in fact the new public elementary school in Eagle Ridge will bear the name "Walter and Gladys Hill". So you see when the name "David Walter Hill" was read in the roll of those deceased in war I wondered immediately if this was someone related to Ken and his parents.

My association with the Hill family goes even a bit deeper, although they don't know it. You see this past summer I did a little photo shoot with a photographer from Edmonton. When he and I discussed where to take the photos I knew I would choose the one location that sang to me of Fort McMurray and our history - Heritage Park. And so there it was on a bright August morning that we met, and there I, wearing a bright red 1950's style dress, was photographed in the Hill's old home, in the kitchen where Gladys cooked and the living room where they would gather around the radio. I was photographed in the drug store they ran for many, many years. It was an amazing experience, actually, as every time I touched a wall I thought of the people who had lived in that house and operated that drugstore, of all the memories those walls held inside them. What never occurred to me was that some of those memories were of deep pain.

You see, after the Remembrance Day ceremony this year I went to the Legion in Waterways, a place I have driven by many times but never gone into. I wandered around, speaking to those gathered (and it was a busy place, men and women in uniform and dozens of others, too). And then, at the front entrance, I spotted this:

David Walter Hill, eldest son of Walter and Gladys Hill, killed in February of 1945. I had spoken to Ken Hill at length about how he started school here in 1938, Grade One in a little two-room school on Franklin, and now I discovered that a mere seven years later Ken lost his older, and only, brother to war. I can't quite explain what it did to me to realize that. Suddenly everything was thrown into a new perspective. A year ago I did not know Ken and did not know the history of his family. A year ago the name David Walter Hill would not have stopped my heart, and I would not have felt a stab of pain as I realized how the little family in that little house in Heritage Park must have suffered when their learned of their loss. But this year, after meeting Ken, and spending time in that house, and learning more about the woven fabric of this community, how each family ties it together, I was heartsick.

I kept thinking back to the young cadet who had shown me to my seat, and I realized that he was probably about the age Ken would have been when he lost his brother. I realized that young cadet was likely only a bit younger than David Hill, a young man who went to war from our community and never returned. I realized, with heart stopping certainty, that the pain of the loss of David Hill probably never went away, and that his family likely still carries that loss today. And I thought about that young cadet, and about how if war broke out tomorrow this young man could eventually be one of those lost. I thought about how his family, even decades down the road, would still carry that pain. And I thought about how his name, read at a Remembrance Day ceremony, could catch the attention of someone like me who suddenly tied the threads together.

I didn't know David Hill, but I have met his brother Ken. I have spent time in the house his parents owned, and in the drugstore they ran in this community for many years. I have been at the ground breaking of the school that will bear his parents' name. And I have, for some reason, become very interested in the history of his family as I think it is so deeply reflective of the history of this community. And so I suppose that is why some 67 years after it happened I took the news of his death so hard. I thought about Ken Hill, and his parents, and the grief and pain they must have felt when they learned that David would never come home again. I thought about all the soldiers of all the wars who never came home, and the families who grieved them, too. I thought about all the houses like the Hill's house, houses that held memories of joy and happiness - and sorrow. And suddenly Remembrance Day 2012 had new meaning for me. You see until now I have never known anyone killed in war, and for that I have been so fortunate. And even though I never knew David Hill I felt his loss, almost seven decades ago, so keenly that it made me weep.

You see, people, the fabric of the community is the people in it. I imagine the loss of young David Hill, and all the others this community lost in various wars, ripped at that fabric. Their deaths would have caused great sorrow, and great pain. They were gone, but not forgotten. And so it is that on November 11th, 2012, I came to remember a young man named David Hill, gone but not forgotten. It is to David Hill, and all those who never came home to Fort McMurray and every other city or town in this country, that I dedicate this photo, this blog post, and this promise: I will remember, and honour, them.