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

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On the Nature of Numbness

I have been attempting to write this post since Friday night. I was with a friend when the news came, a friend who asked if I had checked Twitter recently. I said no, that I had not, and they suggested perhaps I should not look at it for a bit. I suppose that is when the alarm bells went off in my head, because I knew there had been another accident on Highway 63. I could tell from the look on my friend's face that it was not good news, and they were hoping to shield me from it a bit, at least for a moment. I could not stop myself, of course, and so I discovered the news of two more fatalities on Highway 63.

I sat there, numb. I didn't really feel anything, I was surprised to find. The usual anger, grief, sorrow - not present, no matter how much I poked around my head to find it. I felt resigned. I felt defeated. I felt like this just keeps happening, no matter how many police officers we put on the highway and how many educational campaigns we mount and how fast we twin it. I felt, simply, a bit dead inside to it all because it was an all too familiar experience. And that was when the other alarm bells began ringing in my head because that numbness is a bad sign. It means that this is happening so often that I am becoming accustomed to it. Used to it. Accepting of it. Accepting of people dying on a little ribbon of road that links us to the world.

All weekend it haunted me, in the back of my head. Details seeped out, the news that one of those killed was only 14 years old, a local student. The age, so close to that of my own Intrepid Junior Blogger, made my head hurt. And still there was this numbness, no tears. Just hollow inside.

And then came the message from someone who knew this young man. The person asked if they could tell me about him, and I said of course, because I know that when we experience loss sometimes all we need is someone to sit and listen while we tell them about the person we have lost. All we need is someone to hear about them, to understand what was now gone from our world. And so I listened, and that is when the icy numbness around my heart finally cracked, and when I began to cry. Because as I listened to the story of a young man gone far too soon the dam inside my head finally broke, and the tears began to flow.

The loss of any person in such a terrible way is a tragedy. For me, though, the loss of someone so young is especially cruel, you see. For me we have not only lost a life in that case, but potential. We have lost all hope of seeing what that young person might have become, what they might have achieved and accomplished and done with their lives. The loss is so much more keen to me when it involves someone so young, and so very, very painful. And I suppose that is why on Friday night I went a bit numb, because feeling it right away was just a bit too much for me. I couldn't cope with it immediately, but of course I had the luxury of distance, something his family and friends did not have.

This past week the IJB was visiting her father in the city where he now lives. I have missed her desperately, her smiling face and witty comments and hugs and laughs and even her snarky teenage moments. But I have the luxury of knowing that she is coming home, even now on a plane back to me where I will hug her just a bit longer and tighter than usual. To think about her not coming home one day, to think about the pain another family in this community is experiencing - well, I cannot even imagine it. That is too dark for me to venture inside. There is too much pain in that dim corner of my mind.

Once again I debated writing about this at all, and what to write. Do I write once again about safety, about how we are all responsible for each other and about how we need to be so careful to preserve our own lives and the lives of others? Do I write about the tragic numbers we have already seen killed on the highways this year? In the end I decided to simply write about the loss of a young man who sounds like he was a remarkable person already at the age of 14. In the end all I can do is mourn the loss of his life, and his potential in this world. In the end all I can do is extend my sympathy to all who loved him, his family and friends and community. In the end all I can do is admit that initial numbness but acknowledge that all it was was a way to forestall the inevitable pain. Because once that numbness disappeared there it was again - the pain, and the sorrow. No matter how it happened, no matter what I wrote, no matter what was said in the end was all about the pain of loss, a pain that we in this community have felt far too often in recent months. You see in the end I am not accepting of this at all, and not numb. In the end I am simply broken-hearted, and while the numbness protected me for a few hours it could not protect me forever. And so I sit here this morning, and I feel the sorrow once again, an all too familiar kind that I dearly wish to never, ever feel again.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Real Nature of Heroism - and Why Yoda Was Wrong

Yoda was wrong. That might seem an odd way to start this blog post, but that phrase has been haunting me ever since I heard spoken word poet Shane Koyczan use it in one of his poems. I know that legions of Star Wars fans may now be deeply offended, but it's true, you see. Yoda was wrong. When Yoda said "Do or do not, there is no try" he was terribly, terribly wrong, because life is not about the doing or doing not. Life is all about the try.

There are those who think of life in terms of success and failure, I guess. Those who see it as a "do or not" world, the kind where trying is not enough. And yet what they do not seem to realize is that if you are so focused on success or failure then you may simply decide to not try at all, because it is risky. Because you might not succeed. Because there are those who think there is no value in the try, and only find value in success. But life isn't like that. We all have successes, and we all, on occasion, fail to reach our goal. But true value isn't in the success - it's in the fact that we chose to try.

Recently in this community we have seen some stellar examples of people I would call heroes. There is young Christina Traverse, who at the tender age of 23 tackled the Yukon Quest, the most arduous dog sled race one can attempt. Christina, as many know, did not make it to the finish line, and due to illness and exhaustion had to be rescued from her quest (and she is still recovering even now). Her compatriot from Fort McMurray in the same race had to pull out too, in his case due to the health of his dogs. Randy Mackenzie had to give up his quest, too, and so both our local mushers were forced to give up on the race, and their dream - at least for this year. The funny thing is that I don't see them as any less heroic or inspiring because of it. I see rather the opposite, as they chose to do something so challenging and so difficult that few will ever accomplish it. Was the only value of what they did in their success? I don't think so. A community followed them on every step of the way, cheering them on, hoping for their success but more importantly hoping for their well-being.The community, those of us behind them, did not see it as a do or do not - we saw it as a try, and one worthy of our admiration.

Yesterday local resident and politician Phil Meagher attempted a ski trip from Fort Chipewyan to Fort McMurray to raise money for the Centre of Hope. It was a bold and audacious plan, to ski non-stop all night, over 200 km, most of it alone. And Phil came very close to making it, too, but when he developed difficulty breathing he had to stop, and he had to call for help. I suspect he may feel he failed somehow, or let others down, and yet I think nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that people were astonished that he would attempt this at all, and the true value was not in his success but rather in his willingness to even try.

You see I think those who try, whether or not they succeed, inspire the rest of us. They show us that the value is in the try, not in the success of such a choice. They show us that on occasion you will not succeed - just as we all discover in this life. And if you build your life's evaluation on whether you succeed or fail then you may find yourself feeling rather dismayed because we all have experiences where "success" eludes us - but that is only if you assume success means reaching some arbitrary end goal. What if true success is something else? What if success is actually about the decision to try at all?

Aside from the statement about Yoda I heard another statement recently that I found deeply profound. I was interviewing someone about what he does, and he said "Do not chase success - chase excellence, and you will find success". I was startled by the simple beauty and truth of that comment. We spend so much time seeking success, wanting to "do" instead of "do not", worrying that the "try" is not enough - and maybe it is in the "try" that we find excellence. Maybe our personal excellence will not find us at the finish line, and maybe it will not carry us through to gold medals or championships. But maybe, just maybe, we should focus less on the success or the perceived "failure" and focus more on the try, and what that trying means to others who may be on the fence about trying at all simply because they fear a world of "do or do not".

So, there it is. Yoda was, quite simply, wrong. There is a try, and perhaps the real success and beauty of life is found in the try. Perhaps that is where we find real courage, and real heroism. In a world of black and white, "do or do not", I prefer a world where there is plenty of room for the try, and for the outcome of that try, whatever it happens to be. In this little community under the vast northern sky we have seen some heroes recently, and their heroism came not not from "do or do not" but rather from their courage in being willing to try. They are individuals who encourage the rest of us to put aside our notions of what constitutes success and failure and instead just do what really matters - and get out there, and try.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Collective+Collaborative = Community Convergence

The recent Convergence YMM summit got me thinking a great deal. And while the summit was focused on the non-profit sector (or as I now prefer the "social profit sector") the lessons I came away with were ones that relate to almost every aspect of life, but particularly life in this community as we find ourselves at a crossroads. This community is on the verge of a leap into the future, fuelled by industry and growth and demand. This community is going to change once again, and at this juncture we have a couple of options. We can sit back and let it happen to us, or we can take control and make it happen for us. I'm not a big fan of the first option as letting things happen to us is how we ended up with inadequate infrastructure for our current needs, and so I suggest we need to make things happen for us - and I suggest we can do so by acting in a collective and collaborative way.

Convergence is defined as the coming together from many different points, and how true that is of this place. We have people here from almost every cultural experience around our nation, and around the world. We have a widely varied range of ages, although our demographic is mostly young (and yet we have senior citizens, too, ones who have lived here for decades and should not be overlooked). We have every profession and job represented, and we have a widely varying level of education as individuals. And we have something else, too - we have this giant social experiment we find ourselves in, this "boomtown" turned hometown, and suddenly all our differences can seem quite stark - but that's where convergence comes in, because through collective work and collaborative efforts we can find convergence, too. I think one more thing can lead to convergence, though - and that is finding common ground.

I think the thing we can do that has the most value is to find what makes us the same, not what makes us different. Once we focus on our similarities the differences fall away, and what is left are our common goals and dreams. Through finding common ground we can work our way to a collective voice, and collaboration - and, eventually, convergence as a community.

Now, we won't always agree. There will always be disagreements on what the Snye should look like in the future, and where the new civic arena should be. There will likely be some arguments and perhaps even heated moments - but if we continue to look at our similarities those moments become part of the process of achieving convergence, not distracting from it. As long as we are able to keep an open mind (although not so open your brains fall out, as my father used to say) then we can find convergence and agreement because we will recognize that sometimes we are right and sometimes we are wrong.

We are at a crossroads here. This is a time when as a community we could come together or fall apart as we face increased pressures of growth and change. The social profit sector recognized this, which is why they held Convergence YMM, to find a way to come together to strengthen themselves and not only deal with but embrace that growth and change. And so too as a community we face these challenges and pressures, and we too can stand united or fall apart in disarray.

I have a great deal of faith in this place, and the people in it. I do not believe we will allow ourselves, or this place, to fall apart, but in the end the decision is up to each of us. I think it is not too much to ask ourselves what we as individuals are doing to contribute to the community, and to achieve convergence. Are we just taking from the community, or giving to it? Are we trying to improve it, not only for ourselves but for others? Are we willing to keep an open mind and recognize that our opinions on what it should be may be deeply held but not necessarily in the best interests of all? Are we willing to change just as we ask others to do?

For a very long time I have referred to this place as a giant social experiment, and I continue to do so. This place is unique and yet not so different, and yet it is completely different because it is, for me, home. That makes it different, and that makes it matter. That is why I do what I do every day, whether it is writing this blog or attending summits regarding the social profit sector or simply raising the Intrepid Junior Blogger to say "what can I do to make today better for someone else?". Every single one of us can make a difference, and every single one of us can contribute to creating this community. And perhaps that is the true beauty of all this, people - the destiny lies in our hands. The only question that remains is what those hands will do.

My thanks to the organizers of
Convergence YMM
for a summit that provided much food for thought.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ski For Hope - And Dare to Dream in Fort McMurray

I suppose I first met Phil, at least really met him, last year when I participated in the "Hope In The Dark" fundraiser for the Centre of Hope. The Centre of Hope, you see, is a humble little building on Franklin Avenue that does far from humble things. As the daytime drop-in centre for our local homeless population they take care of individuals too often forgotten, neglected, or, even worse, rejected by this world. They have my heart, the staff and patrons of this place, so when they planned an overnight awareness event to raise funds and help people experience the nature of homelessness I said yes - and so did Phil Meagher, and his son.

Phil is many things - a RMWB councillor, a father, a husband, an employee - but he is also someone who is touched by the plight of others, and I have seen this first hand. He too is touched by the homeless in our community. He is often found at events that support the Centre of Hope, and so when this year he launched a little adventure to help them raise money I was not surprised, although the nature of it surprised me a little bit.

You see a few years ago my friend Blake Crossley dreamed a little dream, and his dream was to run from Fort Chipewyan to Fort McMurray on the ice road, towing a dog sled. He formed a team, and one of those members was Phil. Due to a convergence of so many circumstances beyond their control - weather, health, the realities of life that gets in the way of our dreams - the run never happened. It was devastating for the team, I suspect, because the dream was a good one. The team, known as the Dare2Dream, had hoped to inspire local youth to follow their own dreams, and raise money for athletic supplies for the youth in Fort Chipwyan. Each member of the team went on to dream their own dreams, to follow their own paths, never forgetting that they had dared to dream of running from Fort Chip to Fort McMurray. And this year, in an attempt to follow his dream of that adventure, Phil Meagher decided to complete his part of the journey, and ski the distance instead.

It hasn't been easy for Phil. He had a hip replacement some time ago, and there is a recovery associated with that. I suspected something was up when he began to talk about his ski training, because there was an intensity to it that heralded a plan behind it. He would post photos of his face, covered in snow and ice, because he was training in frigid temperatures. He would talk about the distances he had skied, and I began to realize something more was going on here than a simple love of skiing. And so it was - it was a love of the Centre of Hope.

I was at the press conference when Phil announced that he would be skiing, alone, from Fort Chip to Fort McMurray on February 23. It would take him hours to accomplish this, hours in the dark, cold and alone. And as he spoke at the press conference I remembered a night spent in a park in downtown Fort McMurray where I played at being homeless, and where even surrounded by friends I felt alone. I remembered how cold I was that night, even though it was late spring, and how I felt a bit frightened. I remembered how I had access to a warm building that night where I huddled, iPhone plugged in, texting a friend my worries. And as Phil spoke about his ski journey I realized he would be alone, and cold, and with no refuge of warm building or friends. As he spoke he compared it to the experience of homelessness, and he was, of course, right. And as he spoke I, of course, as is my usual habit, found myself crying.

I think there is courage in this world, you see. There is the kind of courage that dares to dream, as Blake and Phil and the rest of the team did when they planned their run. There is the kind of courage that each have shown since as they faced their own personal challenges, ones that seemed to wrench that dream away from them. And there is the kind of courage that Phil has shown by deciding to change the dream a bit, but to follow it, and the kind of courage Blake is showing as he will join Phil for part of the journey, snow shoeing beside him as Phil skis. And so, in this way, the impossible2possible Fort Chipwyan dream will finally be realized.

Phil announced that he is doing this to raise funds for the Centre of Hope, and so he is. The team also took the original funds raised and have purchased skis for the youth of Fort Chipwyan so they can experience the love of that sport, too. It is one of those dreams that encompasses so many things, good works for others and good works for the ones who dare dream it, because it is those dreams that keep us alive, I think. Without dreams we are not really human, because perhaps what truly sets us apart as a species is our ability to dream this way.

I hope to be at the finish line when Phil and Blake arrive in Fort McMurray, to see their dream realized. You see I am so very proud of them, and the rest of the original team, because these people are what is best about this community. These are the ones who dare to dream and who despite adversity and challenge and setbacks continue to dream it and pursue it and try to find ways to make it happen. They do not give up, and in this way they remind me of my friends at the Centre of Hope, the homeless ones who refuse to give up even when the odds of life, both those thrust upon them and those of their own making, seem stacked against them. In their resiliency I find courage, and so too I find it in people like Phil Meagher. I find in them the courage to follow my own dreams, to refuse to give in to the challenges of life, and to find ways to make my dreams happen even when they seem out of my grasp. I am proud to know people like this, you see, because they are the reason I believe in courage at all.

You can donate to support
 Centre of Hope
- and those who dare to dream -

Monday, February 18, 2013

This Is My Voice. There Are Many Like It, But This One Is Mine - Shane Koyczan at winterPLAY 2013

If you watched the opening ceremonies for the Vancouver Olympics then you probably saw him. He has a presence, but it is a gentle one, not overwhelming or over the top. He looks pretty average, really, quite normal - right until his mouth opens and he pours out his soul and heart and words of beauty that make you weep, just as I did last night in a darkened theatre here in Fort McMurray. I am talking about Shane Koyczan, who is referred to as a spoken word poet but who is, in essence, so very much more.

Koyczan is, quite frankly, a genius. Perhaps his poem about being Canadian, the one that he recited at the opening ceremonies, made you stand and cheer, as it did to me. However the complexity of his poetry runs far deeper than all that, and his words have the power to not only make you cheer but think, and cry.

I like to believe I am an evocative writer. I have been told I have the ability to make people laugh, and smile, and cry on occasion, too (although crying is never my goal, but if I cry when I write it usually means someone will cry when they read it). One of my favourite quotes on writing is this one:

Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.

There is a lot of truth in that quote as if you write in a personal style, as I so often do, then you find yourself bleeding emotion all over the pages. At times I wonder if I should pull back, reveal less, insulate more - and yet I never do because I don't really know how to do it. My writing is me, and it is emotional. But while I like to think I am an evocative writer I am a pure amateur compared to Koyczan.

Koyczan spins words like plates, deftly tossing them into the air, dropping them at will to great effect, to hear them smash on the ground and see their impact. His timing is impeccable when delivering those words, and his voice is authentic, sincere, genuine - real. He has a band that backs him, The Short Story Long, and of course their music provides the emotional backdrop each recitation requires to evoke those feelings - but even without the music the words would provoke emotion.

Words have power. In the last two years I have come to recognize this in a way I simply didn't acknowledge before. Words can provoke sadness, anger, laughter, and even love. Words connect us in such deep and profound ways, and words can disconnect us, too, when used as weapons.

Last night just before I saw Koyczan I attended the launch of the latest issue of NorthWord magazine, our own journal of literary talent in this community. The organizers asked me to read one of my works at the launch, and so I read the poem I had submitted for that issue (and been so startled to see it selected for publication, because it is the first poem I have written in decades, and I am sincerely dubious about my skill as a poet). It is not a skilled poem, it does not rhyme and it is not funny. It is, however, me. It is my voice, and it is real, and authentic, and genuine. It pales in comparison to the works of Koyczan, certainly, and I suspect some in the audience thought it a bit vapid (while reading I saw looks exchanged between two audience members and all I could wonder is if they have ever bled onto a page and then held it up for all to see, their soul on display for the world - because that is what I do in this blog almost every single day, and I have come to realize it takes some courage, too). But whatever others thought of it the reality is that this poem is me. Just as this blog is me, my voice. There are many like it, but this one is mine, and I will continue to use it until one day my voice fails me and I can no longer write due to death or disability.

While I listened to Koyczan, often laughing and occasionally with tears in my eyes, I kept thinking about how we ALL have voice. Some of us choose to use it, and some do not. Some choose to never let their voice be known, and I think that is a shame, because the more voices heard the more harmony we can find. One of the running themes in Koyczan's works is the encouragement to live, to take chances, to realize that our time on this planet is but "visiting hours" and that we need to make every one of those hours count. You see Koyczan isn't just a poet - he's an inspiration to truly live, and that has been a running theme in my life, too, ever since my mother died four years ago and I realized how many of us just exist but don't live. Ever since her death I have embraced truly living, taking chances and realizing that while on occasion I will lose some days I will win, too. And that is what life is about, really - not winning or losing all the time but taking the chances you are given to see which one it will be.

This is my voice, Fort McMurray. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Thank you for coming here on occasion to read it, to hear what I have to say, and to watch as I open a vein and bleed words onto this page. Whether you love it or hate it I appreciate you giving me the chance to use my voice, and taking your time to listen to it. I would suggest that you take the time to listen to Shane Koyczan's voice, too, because I am humbled and amazed by his talent - and inspired. Perhaps he will have the same effect on you, make you want to share your voice, too - or maybe he will just inspire you to truly live. Either way I think it is worth taking the chance to find out, don't you?

My sincere thanks to
Events Wood Buffalo
for bringing Shane Koyczan to Fort McMurray
for winterPLAY 2013
and to NorthWord Magazine
for being the literary heart of our community.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Take A Good Look Around - This Is Your Hometown

Many years ago I was a Coronation Street junkie. For those not familiar with it Coronation Street is  long-running television drama out of England, a staple of British viewers for decades. At the time I watched it I had never been to England, and nor did I have any really strong ties there (no British husband or parents, for instance). People would ask me, quizzically, why I chose a British soap opera over American ones, and I always replied "because it is real".

 I didn't mean "real" in the sense that it was "reality television", because it is carefully scripted and filmed - I meant "real" because it was not all beautiful people living glamourous lives, with executive jobs in multi-million dollar companies and a BMW in their garage. No, with Coronation Street the people were ones I suspected you could find in any city or town in England, average folk who struggled to pay the mortgage and got fired and sometimes lost their car due to repossession and worked as janitors. It was real - and last night I got to see something real, too. Last night I went to see Hometown the Musical at Keyano Theatre, and like Coronation Street it was raw and real - but in this case not about a place across an ocean, but rather right outside my door.

To say Hometown is brilliant is a bit like saying I like shoes, or am passionate about life. Brilliant is the wrong word, far too diminishing of what it is, and how it made me feel. You see yesterday was a hard day in my world. It was an emotional roller coaster of a day, a day in which it appears the Intrepid Junior Blogger went on a date (reminding me that my baby isn't one anymore), a day in which I encountered two mothers of young men lost from this world far too soon (and their grief and pain lodged in my heart as I too am a mother), and a day in which I felt buffeted my the winds of life. By the time I arrived at Keyano Theatre I was, quite frankly, a bit of a mess, and I hoped to be entertained. But I wasn't. I was, instead, uplifted, given hope, and reminded once again of not only the sorrow we find in life but the joy, too.

Writers, creators, and directors Claude Giroux and Michael Beamish deserve great acknowledgement for this accomplishment. Hometown is far from "just" a musical - it is the story of us, the story of Fort McMurray and this region. But it's not a dry historical take, although you will learn some history. This is a story of the present, and the future, set to music and dance. This is the story of Kate, a young woman born and raised here, and the story of her parents, who came here before she was born. This is the story of Patience the Filipino nanny, and her daughter, too. This is the story of a young couple from Newfoundland, one who decides to call this home, and one who decides to leave this place because for them it never will be home. This is the story of Grandpa George and his family, Grandpa serving as the source of history in a region so very rich with it. This is the story of the "bar boys", Bear and Billy and The Coach and The Poet, the ones you find in every community who both open and close the bar every day, and who are quite likely often the ones with the greatest wisdom to impart. This is the story of a day in the life of the Fort McMurray airport, the coming and going, so profound a setting in this community where the very nature is that transience. But this isn't about transient workers who come and go, who arrive and leave - this is the story of  my home.

Last night the Intrepid Junior Blogger and I sat in a darkened theatre, and she and I watched the story of our home play out across a stage.You see this is the only home the IJB has ever known, coming here when she was 3 years old. She is a tough audience, that one, thirteen going on thirty-three, but she loved Hometown - because it made sense to her. She recognized the characters not as caricatures but rather as strong depictions of people in this community, and even in her life. On occasion, like when one woman named Sonia told her story, I would turn to her and say "This is true - this is her real story of life here" the IJB would nod because she knew that all these stories, the good and the bad, the hopeful and the end of hope, happened right here. She was in awe of Julien Naud, the dancing janitor who owned the stage again and again, and Kim Hurley, the security guard who was at odds with the janitor over musical preference. She was delighted to see Nolan Haukeness from Rock 97.9 playing himself, and Jerry Neville from Country 93.3 in his role as radio announcer, too (and when Jerry, knowing I was in the audience, mentioned my name during the second act the IJB beamed at me, proud, I think, which made me smile, too). She loved the passenger service attendant who had very few lines but who gesticulated wildly, providing an emotional backdrop to every scene.

As for me? Well, I loved all the characters. Russell Thomas as Grandpa George was brilliant, of course, a role that seemed designed for Russell despite the age disparity between him and his character. In Kate I saw me over twenty years ago, a young woman intent on leaving home to seek her future in another city, just as I did when I moved across the country from Saskatoon to Toronto, having no idea what I would do when I got there (and the rest, as they say, is history). I saw glimpses of myself and my life in almost every character, and the musical and dance scenes were undoubtedly some of the best I have ever witnessed on any stage. The scene with our mayor Melissa Blake made me smile, particularly when she was dancing on the bar and I tried to mentally run through other mayors and determine which of those would agree to dance on a bar in a community musical (for the record I could come up with almost exactly zero). From the very young performers, like an infant, to the much older ones it was a complete tour de force, a joy ride from start to finish, an explosion of talent and music and community...and home.

And that is what it was. It was home. There were moments during the musical when I cried. I am not going to tell you when, because your moments of tears when you see it (and I am assuming you will because you are fool if you do not) may differ from mine, and this is the rare instance when the reasons behind my tears are simply too personal to share here. You see I have been here for over a decade, and in that time my life has changed dramatically. When I arrived here this was not home. In fact I could have decided it would not be home, and could have resisted the allure and charm and whimsical nature of this crazy place, but at some point I could no longer resist, and I gave in. At some point I began to call this place home, and once I did there was no going back, because this is home. This is the place I have felt most at home in my entire life, and I am on the verge of it being the place I have lived longest in that life, too. This is the place where I feel the strongest connection, the strongest emotional ties, the most pride and ownership. I love Saskatoon, where I grew up, and Toronto, where I became an adult. I love Red Lake, where the IJB was born, too. But this place, this Fort McMurray? It is beyond love for me. It is something far deeper, and far more profound. This is the only place that has ever brought me to tears again and again, because there is something here that I cannot explain but that I feel in my heart every day. I never thought I would be able to express it, and yet somehow last night those feelings danced across a stage at Keyano Theatre right in front of my eyes.

Last night the audience gave the cast and crew of Hometown a standing ovation, and Russell Thomas referred to it as the longest standing ovation he has ever seen. I would like to differ, though. I don't think that was a standing ovation at all. I think by the end of the musical the line dividing the audience from the stage had completely dissolved, you see. I think the audience felt like part of the show, part of the dance chorus, and so when the final moments came as a collective group we joined in for the final number, turning it into the largest dance number the Keyano Theatre has likely ever seen. For a few moments, during those songs and cast acknowledgements, every person in that audience was part of Hometown the Musical, part of the cast - because each and every one of us is part of the cast of life in this community, too. The actors and singers and dancers in Hometown may have played out our home on the stage but those in the audience were part of the show, too, each and every one of us playing out our roles here every day. I think, by the end of those three hours, we all felt like we were part of the cast of our hometown.

To those who do not have tickets I say this: get them now. Do not hesitate. Do not miss seeing this show. I have tears in my eyes even as I write this morning, early as it is. I find myself remembering moments, relating them to my own experience here, recalling the stories, and humming "Fix You" from Coldplay. For me, though, there is one song that will always stick out in my mind. Look around you now, because this is your hometown, Fort McMurray. There is a chance for you to see the story of your hometown played out on stage - and every single day there is a chance for you to live the story, to add your story to the tens of thousands of stories that make up this community. This is my hometown, not because I was born here but because I chose it to be. This is my hometown in my heart. And last night I saw my heart up on stage, dancing and singing and telling the story of this place surrounded by boreal forest and under the shimmering northern lights. Last night I saw real people and real stories, just like when I watched Coronation Street so many years ago. But this was better, you see. This was about my hometown.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Of Grief and Gummy Bears

I knew the memorial service was taking place at MacDonald Island Park, but I had decided to not attend. The decision was based on a couple of factors, really - my uncertainty as to whether I could handle the emotional impact of the event, and the life of the Intrepid Junior Blogger.

The memorial, you see, was for the little boy who I wrote about recently, gone far too soon from this world. His loss touched thousands in this community, and so they came together to memorialize him in a field house at MacDonald Island, the only place large enough to hold all those who had been touched by his life. He touched my life too, this boy I had never met, this one who was his mother's shooting star, flashing across the sky. His life, all too brief, reminded me of the precious and fragile nature of our existence, and how we must treasure every single moment of it. I was considering attending the memorial, and then the IJB asked if I could take her somewhere on Saturday.

The IJB is thirteen, and recently she mentioned a boy in her school. He had apparently asked her to the school dance but she had to decline, and instead asked if he could go rock climbing at MacDonald Island today. He said yes, and she informed me we needed to pick him up around 1 pm - the same time as the memorial. I hesitated, because I felt compelled to attend the memorial service too, but then I looked into those big brown eyes and I said yes, of course, we could pick him up then. I would do anything for those brown eyes, you see.

And so we did pick him up, arriving at Mac Island to find the parking lot packed with cars - because so many were there to attend a memorial for little Will, the shooting star who has touched us all. I paid for their rock climbing, and we walked past the field house, where a photo of Will was displayed on a screen. I could feel tears welling in my eyes, but I steadfastly walked past and to the rock climbing wall where the IJB and her boy-friend (yes, note the hyphen - he is a boy, and he is her friend, and that's as far as I'm willing to discuss this aspect right now!) got their climbing shoes and tackled the wall. They climbed and as they did I wrote, working on some pieces, but my mind was distracted, never far from that memorial service and the impact it would have on all who attended, and even those who did not.

When they finished climbing they found me. They were smiling and laughing, and smiled even wider when I suggested a stop at Yogen Früz. We wandered into the hall and towards the frozen yogurt, which is when I spotted the mom of the little boy we lost so tragically. I have not met her, but I knew I needed to say a few words to her, so I sent the kids into the yogurt line-up, and stopped in front of her.

I won't share what we said, but hugs were exchanged. I will acknowledge that I cried freely, as I could not even begin to control that. When we parted I went back to the kids, and got my own frozen yogurt. We paid and then we sat together, talking. The IJB had gotten gummy bears on hers, and I was astonished to learn that neither of them, the IJB or her new boy-friend, had ever heard of biting the heads off gummy bears and sticking them to things, so I demonstrated the technique. We were laughing and chatting, and I decided to go make a phone call and leave them alone for a bit, too.

When I was returning to the table to suggest we head home I ran into someone I know well, someone I have interviewed, and someone who lost her adult son in an accident on Highway 63 just over a year ago. When I saw her I felt the tears again, and I held her for a long time, because she had attended the memorial service. I saw the grief of loss so fresh in her eyes again, and her pain was so very real I could almost touch it. I held her and we talked, and she showed me a fresh tattoo, the words "Live life to the fullest" inked on her arm - in her son's handwriting. When we parted I walked back to the table in tears. The IJB informed me that her new boy-friend was buying some yogurt - and a whole lot of gummy bears. I put down my bag and whispered into her ear "I am going to hug you right now, because I need to", and so I did, right in that main concourse, with tears in my eyes.

When the new boy-friend returned (a very nice young man, incidentally, and one who has my full approval in the life of the IJB) he had a cup with a tiny bit of frozen yogurt - and a lot of gummy bears. I saw the twinkle in his eyes, and the fire in the eyes of the IJB. I knew what they were thinking, and I knew this was the time I should probably be "the responsible adult" and forbid them from doing what they were about to do. And then I thought "live life to the fullest".

And so we left Mac Island, with me leading the way and being very studiously oblivious to the children who were quietly gummy-bear bombing vending machines and signs. There are those who will think this was the wrong thing to do, to allow them to behave in such a fashion and to them I can only say this: life is too short to never break the rules. If a few gummy bears stuck here and there harm no one, and provide hours of laughter to two young adults, then I am quite okay with it. On a day when I felt so close to tears since dawn I needed to see that joy and laughter - and life. I needed to see that energy and enthusiasm and tiny little bit of naughtiness. On a day so filled with sorrow and pain, with grief and loss, I knew that what was needed was some laughter and fun and zaniness and mayhem - and so I accept responsibility for those stuck-on gummy bears. Somehow, in some crazy way, those gummy bears lessened my grief, and reminded me once again of the precious nature of this life. Somehow those  gummy bears, and the faces of the IJB and her new boy-friend, helped to wash away the pain of the day, and dry the tears in my eyes. Because you see the thing about grief is that it reminds us to celebrate life, too. Today this community celebrated life by remembering a little boy named Will who will never be forgotten. And tonight all over Mac Island there are little gummy bear reminders of life, and laughter, and joy. Celebrate life, people. Live, love, laugh, and, if necessary, stick gummy bears to random things. Just get out there, and live - because life is far too precious and fragile and uncertain to do anything other than live it to the fullest.

Proposals, Options, and Understanding the Reasons - Fort McMurray Public School District

I am many things in my world, as we all are. I am a blogger, a writer, an employee, a dog owner - but first and foremost, the job I take most seriously, is being a parent to the Intrepid Junior Blogger. That is a role I do not take lightly, and therefore anything that touches her life also touches mine, and anything that has the potential to impact her catches my attention - as the recent changes proposed with the Fort McMurray Public School District have certainly done.

The IJB has attended schools in the FMPSD since kindergarten. This is the only school experience I have had as a parent, and it differs from my own in that I spent twelve years in the Catholic education system in Saskatoon. I realize that my experience may not be vast, but it is deep because I have been involved in her schools since she started attending them, volunteering and serving on parent council. I have been, and continue to be, intensely proud of our facilities and our educators, and I have even had the pleasure of writing about the history of the FMPSD. Currently, though, I find myself gravely concerned about the proposed changes to deal with an unexpected budget deficit.

There have been two changes proposed, both controversial but for different reasons. The first involves reconfiguring schools such as École McTavish to have them accommodate more grades, eg, have McTavish become a 7-12 instead of the current 7-9. The second proposal has been to compress the school week, with each week becoming a Monday-Thursday affair with Friday off (except in the case of holiday Mondays in which case Friday would be a full educational day). Both of these proposals have been met with heated debate and concern, but before we even debate the merits of these ideas I think we need to do something else. I think we need to understand how we got here.

I'm not a big fan of deciding solutions before we even know how we got into a problem. I think in order to divine a path forward we need to understand how the path led us to where we are today. I do not feel this has happened in this instance. I do not understand how an anticipated 2-million dollar deficit became a 4.4 million dollar one. I know blame has been placed on several things, particularly on low enrolment (a bit of a shocker given the overfilled state of many of our schools), but I don't think we even understand how that has happened. Why are 40% of the students in the Catholic system not Catholic? Why have they chosen to attend those schools instead of the public? Without understanding the causes as parents how can we choose the way forward?

Blame for that low enrolment has been placed on location proximity, the concept that students will attend schools that are close. In elementary school this may be true, although in my own case I drove the IJB to school for 6 years so she could attend the school we felt best suited her needs, so that is not true in all cases. Once students hit junior high and high school, though, I believe the decision is not made due to proximity, but programming. I, and I suspect most parents of students that age, will send our kids across the city if the school offers the programming they want. Could it be that our low enrolment numbers have nothing to do with proximity and everything to do with programming?

And once we have some understanding of root causes then let's look at the proposed options. If it isn't proximity but programming that affects choice of school could a compressed week exacerbate the problem by leading parents and students to choose schools that have a longer week? (The Catholic system now operates on a 5 day/4 day schedule) Could we in fact be looking at lowering enrolment numbers further by choosing this option? And what about the other impacts of a compressed week, the ones I have heard from parents who worry about the impact on their own work schedules, or older children left to their own devices for too long? What about the impacts mentioned by the educators who contacted me (anonymously, in case anyone asks), concerns about this proposal leading to the loss of educational assistants who will see their wages and benefits diminish? What about those who teach children with learning disabilities who already find consistency and continuity a challenge with a 2-day weekend? What about the concerns about lengthening the school day to ensure we have the required number of educational hours when studies show attention span is finite? (and some of our schools already have an 8 am start, so lengthening the day even by 10 minutes has a significant impact on younger children)

I think we need to ask some very pertinent questions, like:

What will be the true impact of this proposal in the financial sense? What exactly is the cost saving? If it only saves a minimal amount but has maximum negative impact is that a reasonable option to pursue?

What will be the true impact on students in the educational sense? Will this impact their grades, their ability to function, and their educational experience? 

What will be the true impact on future enrolment? Are we making a decision that could in fact cause more harm by decreasing enrolment? I know that for myself if I feel this has a negative impact on my child I may consider changing school systems - or, once she reaches high school, leave the community entirely to seek a school that offers the programming she wants. Will others face this decision, too? And what about parents moving here - will they see this as a reason to not enrol their children in the FMPSD?

What is the true impact of this in the long term? Is the intent to have school eventually return to a five-day week or will this become the new norm for our community?

Then let's talk about reconfiguring schools, another issue of grave concern for me. McTavish, for instance, is clearly not designed to hold another three grades of students. This option will mean bringing in portables and filling an already busting-at-the-seams school even further. The strain on resources will be profound, I think, and it worries me deeply. I think we need to ask some serious questions about this proposal too, like:

What will the true impact be of introducing another three grades in terms of changing the school demographics and feel?

What will the true impact be of having students of vastly different developmental levels in such close proximity? Are we creating a culture within the school where issues will be magnified and intensified? And will the school be able to handle those given the increased numbers and demand on resources?

What will the true impact be on education if the school starts to see an increase in concerns over behavioural issues and discipline concerns created by overcrowding and disparity in developmental levels?

I attended one of the town hall meetings hosted by the FMPSD and heard from many parents who attended others. While it was great to be able to express our concerns I did not feel my questions were answered, and I did not feel that I had any fundamental understanding of how we arrived where we are today - a 4.4 million dollar budget deficit. I did not feel that I fully understood the impacts of either of the proposals, and I found, and continue to find, this unsettling. While we got to have our say and provide our feedback I did not feel that I received enough information to even intelligently speak to the issues, which is why I reached out to other parents and educators for their thoughts. I do not think decisions like this should be made in haste, despite the sense that this is a crisis situation (and again one needs to ask how we ended up in a crisis that did not exist in this magnitude one year ago).

There are many who have been using this issue for their own political advancement, and I reject that soundly as I do not appreciate using an issue that directly affects thousands of students, current and future, to gain or lose votes. This is NOT a political issue, and not some game. This is an issue with a direct impact on thousands of children and adults in this community, and an even wider reaching impact in that these proposed changes could change how those thinking of moving to this community view our educational system. If these changes are perceived to negatively impact education through the FMPSD then will that deter some from choosing to move here and bringing their families? I am afraid the answer might be yes. This is of deep concern to me as an advocate for community, because I want families to move here secure in the knowledge that the experience they will have here is the same, or hopefully even better, than the one they would have anywhere else. This community can already be a "tough sell" due to our issue with image problems in national media - will this issue, now that it has hit that media too, hurt us even further when we are trying to recruit doctors and other professionals? Will it deter other families from making the choice to reside here?

So, in the end I suppose I have many more questions than answers. I am very concerned for the future of the FMPSD, and for the students - in particular my own Intrepid Junior Blogger. She has expressed her own concerns about her school becoming larger, about the social impacts of bringing in older students of a very different developmental stage. And when my daughter speaks, I listen, because in the end this is her education, and her school experience. My primary concern is her future, and when I have more questions than answers I am uneasy in my ability to help her determine what that future will be. I suppose in the end all I can do is continue to ask those questions and hope that we will not become proof of the adage "act in haste, repent at leisure" by reacting to a crisis without even fully understanding how it became one. I think as parents we deserve to know how this happened, and not just be allowed to have our say but be allowed a fundamental understanding of the true impact this will  have on our most precious resource in this community. In the end the most precious resource we have here in Fort McMurray isn't bitumen - it is our children.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Day In the Life of Fort McMurray - With Special Visitor Premier Alison Redford

There are special days in the life of any community, and Tuesday was one of those days in this one. Tuesday was a special day because it was the first day of Convergence YMM 2013, a conference designed to build collaboration and a collective voice in our social profit sector. It was a special day because two very different, but equally impressive, individuals received Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medals - and they got them from someone quite special, too. It was a special day because two organizations in our social profit sector got to show off what they do for a very special guest. It was a special day because the Famous Five Speaker Series managed to secure an unexpected, and very unique, speaker. What was the common ribbon in all these things, the one common denominator that ran through that one day in our community? Well, it was Premier Alison Redford, who spent the day in Fort McMurray on Tuesday. And what made the day truly special, at least in my mind, was that it was all about the heart and soul of our community - social profits, and special people.

I have had the opportunity to meet our Premier several times, and say whatever you want about her politics - she is a unique individual. I find her intelligent, engaging, clever, funny, and truly inspiring. She reminds me, as I said on Twitter that day, of Margaret Thatcher, just in her strength and determination, so reminiscent of the Iron Lady of England. And I don't think I'm the only one who senses this, either.

I knew when the Premier had entered the room at the Convergence YMM Conference because the noise level suddenly dropped. A room full of conference attendees that had been merrily chatting away suddenly hushed, and it wasn't just because she is the Premier, at least not in my mind. She has a presence, which was further evidenced when she took the stage and began to speak about the value and importance of the non-profit sector. She spoke for some time, and the audience was completely transfixed - you could, quite literally, hear a pin drop. You see she has a way of connecting with an audience, and a way of making you want to hear what she says. It was an excellent speech, about how non-profits are important partners in the development of community, and the responsibility government has to ensure they have what they need to function. And while it was a good speech it was what happened at the end of it that truly made me smile.

In the audience that day were two remarkable people in our community. Diane Shannon, Executive Director of the United Way, is someone who has done some incredible things with that organization, and it serves as the backbone of many of our social profits. And then there was young Nathaniel Crossley, humanitarian, fundraiser, and eleven year old student. These two individuals, different in age and gender, have some very fundamental similarities, too. They are both humanitarians, they both believe in making the world a better place for others, and they both received medals recognizing their good works in this community.

First up was Diane, and it was truly lovely to see her receive her medal in front of her colleagues and peers, those who know well how hard she works and what she has accomplished. And then it was Nathaniel's turn, and I will admit that I had tears in my eyes when I kneeled down in front of the stage to capture that moment. You see I have gotten to know Nathaniel and his family very well over the last couple of years, so much so that I consider them family, too. He was so excited to meet the Premier, and to see him receive his medal from her was an amazing moment for me. I am told he received a standing ovation from the crowd, those who work in our social profits and who understand the sort of passion and commitment Nathaniel feels about what he does, but I did not see them stand and clap for him. No, you see I was so focused on his beaming face, on that precious smile, that I did not see anything but him for a moment. It was quite truly his moment to shine, and he did.

When the Premier left the conference she didn't go to meet industry executives or local politicians. No, she went instead to two of my favourite places in this community - the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, and the Centre of Hope. Accompanied by MLAs Don Scott and Mike Allen she packed a food hamper at the food bank, something I too have done. And then she went down to what used to be the little blue building on Franklin Avenue, the place where I often find my heart when it has gone missing. She went to the Centre of Hope, and she met with the staff there - but also with some of our homeless population, our citizens that are too often forgotten and overlooked.

I am told the Centre of Hope patrons were excited to meet her, and I can only imagine. I can imagine their smiles, because you see these are people who are often treated without regard to dignity and respect. They are often viewed with suspicion and disdain, so to have this special visitor chat with them, to give them the dignity and respect they deserve, and to accept their precious gifts (that they made her gifts makes me cry a little, honestly) must have been a very special moment for many of them. You see they don't care about her politics, really - all they care about is that someone cares enough about them to hear their stories, treat them kindly and gently, and attempt to understand their lives. Political ideology falls away in those moments, and I know that well because I spend time at the Centre of Hope, too.

In a jam packed day the Premier then granted some local media some interviews - and one of those local media types included me. I always find it an honour to interview those I respect, and when I ran into another local media type later they asked if I had spoken to the Premier about the usual things - the highway, infrastructure, taxes? I laughed and said no, and when they asked what I did talk to her about I explained we discussed local social profit organizations, and an eleven year old philanthropist that impresses everyone he meets.

And you see that is what the Premier and I did discuss. She commented on all the strong people, particularly the strong women, who run our social profit organizations in this community. She spoke about how the provincial government needs to be an equally strong partner in these relationships, providing the support these organizations need to do what they do every day. Her understanding of the importance of the role of social profits was very evident, and frankly it is a relief to me because we need individuals in power who understand that role, and the value. And yes, we spoke about Nathaniel Crossley, who she referred to as "a cute kid", and we talked about engaging youth like him in community, and giving them the opportunities to explore the world of humanitarian good works and leadership. I told her that Nathaniel is a fundraiser, humanitarian, philanthropist, AND video game junkie, and we both laughed, moms who both have children ourselves and know that no matter what else they do they are, in the end, kids.

It was a lovely interview, brief but compelling for me, and then it was on to my, and her, final event of the night in Fort McMurray - the Enbridge Famous Five Speaker Series.

The "Famous Five" are well known in this province, and this series aims to bring inspiring women to our community to speak about the challenges and opportunities this world presents. That night, in a packed room at MacDonald Island Park, the Premier spoke about women, and about the Famous Five. She recounted anecdotes about her mother, and her grandmother, and she shared her belief that we need to provide leadership opportunities for young women so that they too can follow in the paths of the Famous Five. She spoke about how we have made great strides as women, but how there are still challenges, too. She spoke most, though, about the opportunities and potential that exists, and in my mind those are more prevalent in this region than anywhere else in the country, and perhaps the world. We have so many women here in leadership roles, strong individuals who inspire others like me. We have women in non-traditional professions, but who do it quietly, never making a big deal that what they are doing would be considered absolutely remarkable in some parts of the world even now.

I was thrilled when the Premier entered the room and waved a hello at me. You see, I will freely admit I have deep respect and admiration for her, and for many reasons. I am a fan of strong women, women of courage and passion and vision and drive. And she and I have some similarities. We are both parents of one daughter, and I suspect like me her daughter is the centre of her world (they have a way of doing that to you, it seems). She lost her mother unexpectedly a couple of years ago, and that has happened to me as well, and I know all too well the pain of losing someone that way, especially the mother who has inspired and nurtured you. She is a woman of passion and vision and drive, and that is what I aspire to be - and she is a feisty and opinionated redhead, something which has, on occasion, been said about me, too.

That night when she had left to head back home, her jam-packed day not yet over, I also headed home, but my day was done. I went home and recounted the events of the day to the Intrepid Junior Blogger, and she and I talked about how fortunate we are to not only have a strong woman as Premier, but a strong woman as leader of the official opposition (and while I have not met Danielle Smith I would love to, as I think she is yet another one of those women of passion, vision, and drive), AND a strong woman as our mayor in Melissa Blake. We talked about how this province once had the reputation of some "old boys club" where girls need not apply, and where leadership was considered the exclusive domain of men, but how this has been turned on its head, and how three of the most powerful leaders in this province are women. And then I showed the IJB the tweet that the Premier sent to me that day, and my reply to her, and we both smiled. You see at the end of the day I don't do what I do for gratitude or recognition, but because I am so passionate about this place. And the tweet I sent to the Premier summed it up very nicely - because what I do is so easy because of all of you.

Happy Valentine's Day, Fort McMurray. 
Consider this post my love letter to you, 
because you are the place that has my heart.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Why Non-Profits Aren't Really Non-Profits - Convergence YMM

This week I had some amazing opportunities once again, and one of them was a chance to attend a conference called "Convergence YMM". Now, I had had some advance notice on what was going to happen at this particular event after a meeting with some of the powerhouse women of our local non-profit organizations, so I knew a bit about what I would take away with me. What I didn't know, though, was that I would go away with a slightly different spin on something pretty fundamental - the name "non-profits".

Recently I was looking at applying for jobs. I was having a discussion with a friend, and during it I began listing the things I don't have or cannot do. He looked at me quizzically and asked if that was always how I sold myself for employment - by reciting all the cannnots and do nots and other negatives. And of course he was right - when the time comes to sell myself, to tell the world why they need me (or at least an employer) I tell them about the positives  - the things I CAN do, and the things I DO. And during an address from Diane Shannon, Executive Director of the United Way, at Convergence a similar point was made - why do we refer to charitable organizations as "non-profits"? Why don't we call them "social profits" or "community benefits" instead?

To say this got my wheels spinning is an understatement. It was one of those questions I find myself diving into, trying to figure out the potential impact of changing something so fundamental, like a name. And the more I thought about it the more the name change grew on me, and the more sense it made. Why, when talking about the importance of these organizations, do we open the dialogue by saying what they are not instead of what they are?

We all know that the role of non-profits is to better the community, and to improve lives. We also know that they are not meant to be businesses, or profitable organizations. But when we call them non-profits I think we unintentionally demean what they do. It somehow implies that they are less than for-profits, when of course I think the exact opposite is true and in some instances they are more important. That "non" term has always bothered me, but I didn't even know there was an alternative - but now I do, and I, at least, plan to adopt it.

One of the things I noticed most at Convergence is the amazing diversity and strength in our charitable organizations. From breastfeeding support groups to homeless shelters, from arts organizations to food banks, they run the entire gamut of the human experience (and that's why I loved the conference, too, a chance to see so many of the people for whom I have such deep and profound respect). What they do - creating community benefit, and building social profit - is so valuable and intrinsic to our function as a community. And I suppose that is why I plan to embrace the term "social profit", because I want to trumpet what they do, not what they are not. I don't say anyone else has to do it, as I realize such changes of nomenclature can be difficult, but for me the term better identifies what I think of the role of these organizations. For me it captures the essence and heart of our social profit sector, and it speaks to the good they do every single day.

I have some more ideas to share that came out of Convergence, but those will wait for another day, and another blog post, as there is simply too much to fit into one post (and such is the success of Convergence YMM 2013 - there was so much food for thought on one day that I cannot encapsulate it all in one post). For me, though, a huge moment was when Diane made the statement about the name "non-profits" vs. a name that better reflects what they do. For me that moment was one of those that is a bit life-changing, because a change in name is often a change in dialogue, and the dialogue about the future of the local social profit sector - and this community as a whole - is really just beginning. To me this seems an ideal time for a change in name, because as we embark on this brave new future I think we need to make sure our names reflect our goals, our visions, and our aspirations. To me social profit captures the heart and soul of that sector so beautifully, and that is why it captured my heart and mind, too.

My sincere thanks to
the organizers of Convergence YMM 2013
for inviting me to attend, 
and to Diane Shannon
for suggesting a way to change the dialogue from the very start.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Fort McMurray, Let's Talk - About Mental Health

Today I am sharing something a bit more personal than usual, but with good reason. Thanks to "Bell Let's Talk"  people across Canada are discussing mental health today. I have long believed that the only way to address any problem is to remove the stigma attached to it, and in this particular case too often the stigma of mental illness prevents people from getting the help they need to cope. Mental health issues have been present in my family for generations. I was an adult when I learned my maternal grandfather committed suicide. My mother suffered from depression, anxiety, and paranoia her entire life. We have seen eating disorders, hypochondria, anxiety, depression, and postpartum depression in my family. Mental health isn't something that affects "other people" - it affects us all. This is the story of how it affected me, and how a very real physical pain had very real roots in my own mental health. This happened to me in this community, and so it has been part of  my life in Fort McMurray, too, which is why I share it here. If it somehow makes you think less of me because I have felt the effects of depression in my own life then I am in some sense sorry for you, because I truly thought it would never touch me, too - until the day it did, and I realized no one is immune.

If you are in Fort McMurray and suffering in silence then know this: there is help. Please reach out and seek assistance in dealing with whatever mental health issue you, or a loved one, are facing. There is no shame, no stigma, and nothing to lose. Please don't think you are alone - because you aren't. I know that all too well.

The Black Dog That Was Really A Fog
(reposted from my personal blog)

After I experienced it I did some reading about it. The phrase that kept coming up to describe it was "the black dog". Apparently that is what Winston Churchill called it when he experienced it, and it's a nickname that might have even older origins than that. What is "the black dog"? It is depression, dear friends.

The metaphor of a black dog that haunts you is an apt one for depression, and yet my own depression was not a black dog. No, my depression was a sort of misty fog that rolled in slowly after the unexpected death of my mother. It stole in quietly, until it blanketed my world and obscured all beauty from my view. I suppose that's why I didn't recognize it. Unlike a black dog that suddenly appeared where before there had been none this fog was sly and insidious, infiltrating my life so subtly that it simply seemed part of the landscape. Perhaps this is why it took me so long to acknowledge it, long after those around me had noted it.

My mother's death was tragic and quick, with but a few brief days in the alien world that is intensive care. I was there when she died, and I thought I handled her death, and the subsequent funeral, well. I did not really cry, or break down. I thought that signified coping when really it was nothing but denial and forestalled pain. I went through the funeral and the family visits afterward, and returned home to normal life - except that nothing was normal, especially me.

I began to experience severe stomach pains, pains that would wake me every night at almost exactly 3 am. I began to think this was a sign of a serious illness, and I sought medical attention. As the days went on the pain intensified, and I was slowly becoming incapable of eating or sleeping. The fog was growing daily, and yet I could not see it. I could not see the spring leaves on the trees, the flowers beginning to poke through the ground, or any other signs of the greening of spring. No, I was focused on this intense pain inside me, a pain I became convinced was connected to some horrible disease.

I went through two CT scans, an endoscopy, several rounds of lab work, x-rays, weekly visits to my doctor, and several ER trips. Each one found exactly nothing to explain the pain I was experiencing. The pain was real, it was intense, and it grew daily, just as the fog surrounding me seemed to increase. Finally, my husband insisted I needed help. I needed to see a therapist, and I needed it now. He arranged it, and I went. It likely saved my family, my sanity, my happiness, and my life, dear friends.

You see, the pain I was experiencing was real, but it was simply grief turned inwards. As I poured my heart out to my therapist, as I cried rivers of tears and told her of my pain, it began to diminish. The more emotional pain I expressed over my loss the less physical pain I felt. The more I cried the more the fog cleared. I began to see the logic behind my fears over the physical pain. I was afraid - no, terrified - at the prospect of leaving my daughter due to an unexpected illness - just as my mother had left me. The thing I came to realize, though, was that it was the fog that was stealing me from my daughter, not some mysterious illness. She was already experiencing losing me, losing me to a fog that she did not understand and could not see.

I had a few sessions with the therapist, and the fog began to clear, gradually but with increasing pace. One day I woke up and there were simply a few wisps of fog left, and I could finally see all the beauty again. This time, though, it was beauty intensified. It was as if seeing it for the first time, because the fog might have obscured my vision but it also left me with a newfound passion for that beauty. The fog left me with a hunger that needed to be fed, a hunger for music and words and excitement - and beauty.

I was fortunate. My depression was of the situational kind, brought on by an unexpected death and not a function of my body chemistry. It was not something that has dogged me throughout my life, although I know it could return some day. I am wary now, though, and I watch for those tendrils of fog licking at the window frames of my mind. I hope if the fog ever rolls in again that I will recognize it quickly and be able to address it just as promptly. I have seen the fog, though, and thus I have great empathy for anyone who suffers, whether theirs be a fog or a persistent black dog. I escaped the fog, and I hope they one day find the fog lifting or the black dog retreating into the distance. I am grateful every day for a family that loved me enough to help me clear the fog. I stop every day to appreciate something of beauty, whether it is a song or a flower or the face of my daughter. My black dog that was really a fog is gone now, and it left behind a renewed desire to live. I embrace that daily, and that embrace is just another way to keep the fog at bay.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Enbridge Famous Five - Premier Alison Redford

I find myself challenged on occasion to try to attend all the things I want to attend. I often have two or three or even four things vying for my attention on any given night, and tough choices have to be made. For some reason one of the things I have always wanted to attend but failed to do because of other obligations or commitments has been the Enbridge Famous Five Speaker Series in Fort McMurray. They've brought in some incredible speakers, all designed to celebrate leadership in women, and every single time I am disappointed to discover it has fallen on a day when I have parent-teacher interviews or a different story I have agreed to cover or some other commitment. But not this week. When I heard about the next Famous Five speaker I cleared my schedule because she is someone I have not only heard speak before but have had the opportunity to interview. She is, of course, Premier Alison Redford.

Yes, Premier Redford is in Fort McMurray for the day tomorrow, and in a major coup the organizers of Famous Five have secured her as a speaker. And whatever your views on politics I can tell you one very profound truth - our Premier is a powerful speaker. She reminds me of our own mayor Melissa Blake, someone who I do not believe has ever delivered a bad speech, and someone who always manages to both capture the audience and perfectly encapsulate the message she is trying to deliver. I could listen to either of these women deliver a speech on any topic, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to hear our Premier speak about our province, and our future. Our future, both locally and provincially, is one of my favourite topics, too.

We are incredibly fortunate in this place, people. Just since January we have had the opportunity to hear from Seamus O'Regan and Alan Doyle at the Keyano Global Address, Malcolm Gladwell at Northern Insights, and now the Premier at Famous Five. I don't know if anyone realizes how rare and precious that is, although I had a reminder when I told someone from another city about those events. When I told them I had not only heard those individuals speak but had the opportunity to meet them and chat with them I was met with pure green envy over the chances we have here. They stopped me and said "Hold on, in less than two months you met O'Regan, Doyle, and Gladwell? What are you planning next exactly?".  I thought it would be cruel to tell them about Bill Cosby coming to visit too so I just stopped there.

And now, tomorrow, we have the Premier visiting. This is a pretty wonderful opportunity to hear her speak, and for a reasonable price, too. The evening includes a buffet dinner from the MacDonald Island kitchen, and a speech from one of the most powerful women in this country, and given her role as the head of a province of great resource wealth perhaps one of the most powerful women in the world. As for me? Well, I will be there, because this is one I wouldn't miss. There are opportunities just too good to pass up - and this happens to be one of them. We get some amazing opportunities in this little community under the vast northern sky - and I hope you, like me, grab every single one of them.