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

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Don't Park Here - Parking Wars in Fort McMurray

Generally speaking I am a pretty upbeat person. A benefit-of-the-doubt, understanding sort who tries very hard to see the bright side, to be positive, and to cheer on all that is good about this place I call home. There is one dark area I have avoided a bit because nothing nice can be said about it. It's a secret shame we carry here, although it is hardly a hidden one since the examples are right in front of us, and often photographed for posterity. This shame, this blot on all of us? Parking jobs from hell, people.

Look, I grew up in a city. I spent most of my twenties in one of the largest cities in Canada. And this is the only place where I have ever seen parking as atrocious as this, aside from Ireland (where we once came upon a parked car left in the middle of a busy street, and our Irish friend drily commented that many Irish seem to think of all roads as a sort of impromptu parking lot should they need to leave their car). Here in Fort Mac though we take parking to new heights - or lows, perhaps.

Last week I put out the call on Twitter - share your horrible parking photos with me, and I would publish them. I don't do this to embarrass anyone but rather to point out that we need some work on this little thing we call parking. Now maybe it doesn't seem like a big deal and rather a minor annoyance, but it isn't usually the big deals that lead to stress and anger and confusion and aggression. No, it's typically the small deals that do that, small deals like parking gone terribly, terribly wrong. Here's some examples....

This came to me aptly titled as
"take that parking sign"
from Elana

This gem came from Larissa

This is from Erin. I mean really?!?

Also from Erin. Seriously, people?

Now maybe when the parking lots are covered in snow there is some reason for not knowing where the lines are, but in the above photos everybody can clearly see the lines, including the drivers. And while there are those who park across several lines so "nobody can damage their car" I have this advice - leave your "precious" at home Golum if you can't risk it being damaged. Nobody wants their car damaged, just like I didn't want the bumper ripped off my car in the Peter Pond mall parking lot two years ago (a truck had pulled in a bit too close in the spot beside me, and when leaving their running board had snagged my bumper - some commented how nice it was of the driver to "stick around" and my reply has always been that they didn't have much choice as they would have been dragging my entire bumper down Franklin). If your car is too precious to be damaged then you probably shouldn't take the risk of driving it, and if you do then you should realize that the rest of us shouldn't be inconvenienced by your decision to chance it. One parking spot per person, people, is it REALLY that hard?

Jason spotted this sidewalk disregard.

This one is from Kelly.
Um, buddy, you can see the sidewalk, right?

Matt captured this, and I am glad he did.
I saw this on Boxing Day as well.
This car wasn't "parked" so much as "abandoned".
And it backed up traffic leaving the mall and
Superstore, too. Argh.

 The trio above are courtesy of YMM Podcast.
The problems are obvious.

I must admit though that this blog post was inspired by a scene I stumbled upon at the Peter Pond Mall a few weeks ago. I was walking out of the mall and this stopped me. Dumbfounded I stared at the total lunacy. And while I try to avoid profanity in the blog I must share what I was thinking:

What the eff is wrong with you people?

And you know it's not just the guy who abandoned his car in the middle of the lane. It's the other ones who boxed him in that are a problem, and if you look carefully almost every vehicle in the photo is parked haphazardly. Frankly when my nephew was 4 he did a better job with his Matchbox cars and trucks than this. And I wish I could say that seeing cars parked three deep at the mall is unusual but it's not. I always wonder what the hell the third one that pulled in was thinking - did they not even try to think it through logically?

And I guess that's my point. There is a serious lack of logical thinking and common sense going on. This sort of thing inspires anger. This is the sort of thing that simply makes living here seem like an overcrowded lab rat experiment in social rage. I do recognize that we have a parking shortage, but that means we need to engage our brains and park smarter, not simply abandon all the rules (and our cars) wherever we feel like doing so.

I've been laughing and crying over these photos for two days. And I know there are hundreds more, so if you have a photo of atrocious parking? Send it to me at McMurray Musings, and I will post them in an upcoming blog. I think it's time to take back our streets - and our parking lots. And if necessary I will do it one bad parking photo at a time.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Fort McMurray Is Idle - and Apathetic - No More

To be honest I only went to the Peter Pond Mall yesterday to indulge in some boxing day shopping. I went alone, as the Intrepid Junior Blogger was into day three of pyjamas, Twitter, and X-box, and she didn't want to break a successful streak. I decided to brave the crowds (and worse, the parking lot) in search of some bargains as I am admittedly a bit passionate about more than this community and writing, and often find myself falling in love with a new pair of shoes or dress. I went to the mall with no purpose other than to support our retail economy, but I came away with far more than some new clothing and a new handbag. I came away with some optimism about the future and nature of this place, and our world.

You've probably heard about Idle No More, the movement that has sprung up across this country. It has been painted as being in reaction to the federal government's passage of Bill C-45, an omnibus bill with some worrying content, but I think it has developed in reaction to so much more. And while some have seen it as a "native rights" issue I think it is far more than that, too. I will admit I did not know much about it before yesterday - I had seen footage of some other events associated with it, I had followed the news of Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike (she has a lovely first name, don't you think?), and I knew there had been a blockade on the highway north of Fort McMurray. But other than that I knew very little, and I'm ashamed to admit that. I know shockingly little of the issues facing the First Nations and Métis people, and it really is a bit sad to admit that because they are pretty fundamental to the fabric of this country, and this region. I know a bit from growing up in Saskatoon, and from working in Northwestern Ontario for a regional airline, one that flew into the reserves there, and so I had a glimpse of that life on occasion. But I know far less than I should, and I acknowledge it. I have no excuse except I've just never known where to begin, although in recent months I have taken steps to remedy that.

Last year the Intrepid Junior Blogger was studying the aboriginal people of Canada in school. She was preparing for a test, and commented that the multiple choice tests in this subject were easy. When I asked why she responded (uncoached and unprompted, which should tell you something) that if asked a question about the treatment of aboriginal people and given four choices the correct answer was always the worst possible outcome. As she said "if there was a crappy end of the stick that is always the one they were handed". Sobering truth from an eleven year old, and wise beyond her years, I think, too.

So what does all this have to do with the Peter Pond Mall on Boxing Day? Not much, I thought - until I arrived at the mall and found it packed. Now, I expected it to be busy, but it was jam-packed. As I looked around I noticed something else, too. Many of the faces were ones I recognized from our First Nations communities around this region. The faces were old and young, male and female. I walked past them and it wasn't until I had gone up the escalator to the second level and looked down and saw the drummers that I realized. I had stumbled onto the local Idle No More round dance.

The drumming began almost immediately and I flew back down the escalator, as fast as my impractical black heeled boots could carry me. I grabbed my phone as I had not known to bring a camera, and began snapping photos as people around me linked arms and began to dance. The drumming was beautiful, resounding through the mall, and the aisles were a moving mass of people drawn to the rhythm of the drums.

I stood transfixed in the middle of it all, and I think the word "wonderful" escaped my lips more than once. I felt honoured to be there, to have simply discovered it, and I was humbled by it, too. You see it made me realize how little I knew, and how much I needed to learn.

This is a place often accused of apathy. Our voter turnout is worse than abysmal, and sometimes it seems we care little about the issues that affect this world. And in turn I have heard the same charges levelled against First Nations communities, that of apathy and lack of concern - but what I saw yesterday was the complete opposite of that. What I saw was energy and passion and commitment. I saw deep, deep caring about this world, and about what affects not just their community, but ours. You see Bill C-45 has some components, things about removing the environmental protections from dozens of waterways, that will impact us all. This isn't an aboriginal issue - this is a Canadian issue. And the drive to address it, to fight it, is being led by the aboriginal people of this country, the ones too often accused of apathy. They are the ones who have chosen to take this on, and they have my deep respect for doing so.

You see, to me it doesn't even really matter if you agree with the tenets of the Idle No More movement. To me action is always better than apathy, and passion is always better than lethargy. To me involvement of any sort is better than standing idly by. And so I have decided to learn far more about Idle No More, which explains my bleary-eyed glare today as late into the night I was online reading, and researching, and learning.

I think we should be clear on a few things. The aboriginal people of this country form a significant portion of our population, and they have the potential to be a powerful political demographic. They can, and do, influence the outcome of elections, and affect the political process - so the Idle No More movement is one you ignore at your own peril. I think we should also be clear that I do not believe our current federal representative in this region is truly reflecting the needs and desires of at least some of his constituents, as Brian Jean supported Bill C-45 despite the concerns of it's impact on local First Nations peoples - and on all of us. And I should be clear on something else, too - this is far from a simple issue, and I freely acknowledge that, which is why I hope to learn much, much more, because I think there is something very important happening here.

And in the end that is truly what matters to me. While Idle No More is a national movement it is also happening right here, in Fort McMurray. I care about this region, and the people in it, and if this movement has struck a chord with them, and one so deep that they round dance in the local shopping mall on Boxing Day, then you damn well know I am going to pay attention to it. I believe in political activism, and even more than that I believe in passion and drive to effect change in our world. What I saw yesterday might have been some drummers and a round dance, but it was, I think, the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential to change things dramatically in this region, and this country. I saw political activism, and I saw passion, and vision, and drive - and those four things combined hold a power than can topple governments, and change the destiny of a nation.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Do They Know It's Christmas? - Santas Anonymous and Fort McMurray

There are days when I feel a special post is necessary. These are days that have special significance, perhaps only to me, or perhaps to a far greater number of people. As I sat in my living room last night, surrounded by the soft glow of Christmas lights, I knew I wanted my final post before Christmas to reflect the true nature of generosity, the real spirit of Christmas, and the genuine quality of this community. And so I knew I had to write about an initiative in this community organized and run by high school students. I knew I had to write about Santas Anonymous.

Santas Anonymous, as many of you know, is operated by students and staff at Father Mercredi High School. The program has been in place for many years now, and for many years it has provided Christmas to those who otherwise may not experience it. Last year was my first taste of the event, as while I had donated before it was the first time I had attended packing day. This year I attended packing day again - but this year I also volunteered to do deliveries on Friday, December 21st. After my experience last year with the energy and intensity of packing day I knew I wanted to do more, and so this year I did.

I needed a partner, as deliveries must be done by two people, so I put the call out on Twitter, and was delighted when my friend Matt answered. Not only did he volunteer he also volunteered the huge cube truck he uses for his business, which would allow us to have quite an enormous sleigh for Santas deliveries. I was excited about doing the deliveries, and having Matt's company as we get along tremendously well, and I knew it would be a good day.

I arrived at Father Mercredi early on Friday, and found the parking lot almost full - despite school having ended for Christmas break the day before. You see, all these students and staff give freely of their personal time, putting in late nights and early mornings. And, on this final day, they gave up their first day of vacation to ensure that others would experience Christmas, too.

I wandered through the hallways of the school, empty and quiet, and then into the gym, which was bustling with students and parcels and mandarin orange cartons and large frozen turkeys. I narrowly escaped being mowed down by a blue cart loaded with gifts and a young student in an elf hat, which made me realize I was in the middle of a very busy day.

This year the students packed over 500 hampers. Hampers were flown to Fort Chipewayan, as the winter road is not yet open, and trucked to Conklin and Janvier and Fort McKay and Anzac. From that little gym hampers flew in all directions, stuffed with gifts and food and love. It was an amazing thing to witness once again, and I watched as they bustled about, intent on their work.

Last year I wrote that these students likely have no idea of the true significance of what they are doing, and I continue to believe that. I suspect they have an inkling, but they are so young I also suspect they cannot know what it is like to be unable to provide gifts for your children, or food for your table. I suspect they know they are doing a good thing, but I think they do not realize that what they are doing embodies all that is good about us. I suspect they do not know that I think they are heroes - and angels. These students are the future of this world, and in these capable, giving, generous hands we are safe. In these hearts that look to the good of others and choose to make a difference we will find hope. In these young people I see all that is best about our community, and our world. To me, these students are what I love about Fort McMurray - and they are what inspire me to spread the word about this place to the world, to show everyone that cares to read or listen why we are special.

Matt met me at about noon, some helpful elves loaded up our truck, and we hit the road, Matt driving and me navigating. I won't tell you much about where we delivered to, or who. Suffice to say I saw gratitude in some eyes, and surprise in others. I saw something else, too. I saw people in this community who struggle, and I saw their eyes light up when they realized that they are not forgotten - that someone has noticed them, and someone cares. I saw the impact the students' work makes in the lives of others, and while I only had a momentary glimpse I know it goes far deeper, and right into the hearts and souls of those touched.

We finished our deliveries quickly, as Matt is an incredibly efficient sort, and decided to stop for lunch, where we discussed musicians and the local political scene and the last year in the community and friends we share in common. We hopped back into the truck and headed back to Father Mercredi and found it almost empty, all the hampers delivered, and people beginning to tidy up. I said good-bye to Matt and headed to my car, but before I could turn the key he texted and said he had one last delivery - would I come? Of course I ran back to his truck, and found it being loaded up with box after box after box, all toys destined for a local children's organization. And so Matt and I did one final delivery, bringing more toys - and accompanying joy - to one of my favourite local non-profits.

I don't know exactly what to say about delivering for Santas Anonymous. It was one of those moments in my life that is a bit beyond words, because there is the surface meaning, the task of the deliveries, and then there is the underlying true meaning of it all. After all, Matt and I were just the delivery people, and while we got to see a tiny bit of the impact I knew the work that had gone into packing each hamper, and getting all the donations, and sorting all the food, and everything else. Behind every single hamper and box and gift was a tremendous amount of work - and love. With every delivery there was something else. There was hope.

Matt dropped me off back at my car, and I turned the key. I sat there for a bit, quietly absorbing it all yet again as I so often do when I finish these things, while I try to sort it all out in my head. Earlier that day I had been approached by two young women in the gym at Father Merc. They were student leaders, one who has now gone on to university (and yet still chose to spend one of her precious days off at Santas Anonymous). They had asked me if I was McMurray Musings, and then they thanked me for the blog post from last year. The one who has graduated told me that she has gone on to journalism school, and that she is writing a piece about Highway 63 - and that her Google searches always bring up my name, which reminded me of how this past year my life has become intrinsically linked to that little northern ribbon of road. I gave her my card and told her that if she needs any help to call me (and I hope she does, actually). And then I told them something else. I told them that, at the risk of making myself sound old, I wanted them to know what a difference this program makes in the lives of others. I told them that I didn't think they even understood it yet, but that they are changing lives. I think they thought I meant the lives of those who receive the hampers for Christmas, but I don't mean just them. They changed my life, too, because in those passionate and driven young students I see inspiration. I see a reason to continue doing what I do. They, and all the people like them in this community, are the ones who inspire my passion, who give me the vision and drive to write. They have changed my life, too, and while I am grateful for all they have done for those in this community who struggle I am equally grateful for what they have done for the heart of one writer who loves this community with an intense ferocity.

And so to the students and staff at Father Mercredi I say thank you - thank you for allowing me to be involved in Santas Anonymous. Thank you for your generousity - and your inspiration. And to the entire community of this region I say thank you - for supporting organizations like Santas Anonymous, and for being a place that is so very, very easy to write about. Every single day you give me a reason to write, a reason to trumpet about this wonderful place - and a reason for my heart to sing. Every day you, the people of this community, remind me of why I love this place - and why I am so very, very proud to call it home. Merry Christmas, Fort McMurray - and thank you.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

It's The End of the World As We Know It

Tap tap - is this thing on? We're still here, right? No apocalypse, zombie or otherwise, occurred on Friday December 21st? Okay, okay, I'm being a wee bit facetious. The world, as we know it or otherwise, did not end on Friday, despite our dubious interpretation of Mayan calendars and our tendency to take ourselves entirely too seriously. All day Friday I had a certain song running through my head, and it was thanks to the Intrepid Junior Blogger. She posted a link to it on her Twitter (yeah, my kid is social media savvy, that's a stunner, eh?) and ever since it has been bouncing around my head. Why? Because while the world didn't end of Friday (and c'mon, who is going to admit NOW that they thought it might? Show of hands?), the world as we know it is ending - or at least changing, and we are right in the centre of it.

There are a lot of changes coming this way, folks. From the changes planned for within the region, like an expanded MacDonald Island Park, and a revitalized city centre, to the changes we may begin to feel from the outside - like concerns about our economic security in this province.

If you've been watching carefully recently there may be a bit of a chill wind blowing in our provincial economy. I've heard dark mutterings about the price of oil, and about the impact this would have on industry. And, of course, those murmurings will have a direct impact on this region and all those who work, live, and play here. I'd be fibbing if I said I wasn't concerned, but I have a strong belief in something about this place I call home. I believe in a certain quality we exhibit (and I don't mean our ability to engage in atrocious parking). I believe in our resilience.

This is a place that has faced adversity in the past. We are a resource-based economy - and community. Much about us rises and falls with the price of that resource. One thing stands alone, though, and is independent of the price of oil and the state of industry - our ability to overcome and to deal with hard times.

I find myself in the past few days reflecting about how a more challenging economy could affect this place, and all the plans. We are expanding in every way, neighbourhoods and airports and recreation centres and population. Should the economy falter these things may slow as well, and someone even asked me recently if I thought Fort Mac could become a ghost town in the future, once the "end of oil" had arrived, or if the economy tanked. It was a sobering question, and one I find myself mulling over, in the end always rejecting it as impossible. And the reason it is impossible is because of the people who live here.

We are a tough bunch, us northerners who deal with -35 temperatures and blustery winds and driving snow. We are a solid group, and most of us have seen tough times of one sort or another. There are those who believe the wolf is at the door again, and if it is we will deal with the wolf once more, beating it back until it retreats into the boreal forest. I am not sure if the wolf is there, or if we will face tough times in this region. I do know that if we do we will face them together, as we have done in the past, and we will simply keep on keeping on.

In the end, whatever happens - the economy soars, or the economy tanks, the boom is on, or the bust begins, the wolf never arrives, or the wolf is creeping into our door - we have no choice but to simply deal with it. What is the alternative, really?

I realize this isn't exactly a cheery "Merry Christmas" post, and I promise one of those tomorrow. For this one you could blame my kid for posting a song that got me thinking about this stuff, or blame REM for the song. Or blame the Mayans, since frankly they seem to be on the receiving end of a lot of blame recently - and given our apparent survival on Friday rather undeservedly so. For me, though, I don't blame anyone. The world didn't end Friday, and it won't end if the this place goes crazy with rapid population growth and a booming economy, and it won't end if the economy gets weak and things slow down. The world will keep right on going, and we will keep right on going, too. In the end, that's just what we do 'round here. There is always an outside chance it could be the end of the world as we know it - in which case we will just adjust to a brave new world instead. And you know what? I feel fine.