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

Monday, April 29, 2013

Building Confidence as a Parent - At the First Annual Fort McMurray Parent Conference

Yesterday I wrote about being a mother, and about how having a child is a complete leap of faith. And that's true, of course, because we have faith in our children and in the world to be a safe place for them. The one place where on occasion we fail to have faith is in our own abilities as parents.

Before my daughter was born I read a lot of books on pregnancy and infants. It was a virtual tsunami of books in my house, and you found them in every single room. I had so many questions about such basic things, and most of them were the very practical things, like health care and nutrition. As the time of my daughter's birth grew closer, though, I realized I had questions that I really had no idea how to answer. They were things like how to make my daughter love to read, and how to make sure her mind was actively engaged in the world. The questions morphed from the very basic ones into ones that were far more intricate - and I felt in over my head a bit, too.

That's why I was intrigued when the Fort McMurray Early Years Coalition sent me some information about a Parent Conference coming up on May 4th in our community. They have partnered with Childhood Studies at Keyano College and are presenting a day-long conference for parents to answer some of the very questions I had about parenting. And the line up of topics looks fascinating, from dealing with picky eaters to understanding stress in children. The conference is meant to help equip parents with the tools they need to raise their children, and to allow them to explore some new ideas about parenting.

The cost of the conference is kept low (it only costs $20 to attend) and the information provided is broad. I think what is truly of value, though, is bringing together parents from different experiences and demographics and not only having them listen to speakers but creating an atmosphere where they can share their parenting ideas with each other. In the end in my own life it was an online "mommy network" that helped me to work out many of the parenting dilemmas I faced, but it would have been far nicer to have been able to attend an event that not only provided me with the information but facilitated such discussions with people in my own community.

I've included information about the conference straight from the organizers below. If you are interested in attending you can register through Event Brite right here. And in my opinion if you are a parent with questions (and aren't we all once we become parents?) then this is quite likely a place you want to be this weekend. I think parenting is uncertain territory where we often have more questions than answers - and where we often doubt ourselves. While no conference can tell us everything we need to know about being parents (trust me, as the parent of a teenager I am learning very quickly how little I know about, well, everything) but it can help us to build our knowledge base - and our confidence.

Parent Conference

Fort McMurray Early Years Coalition in partnership with Keyano Childhood Studies department is presenting a Parent Conference on May 4, 2013 from 8:30 am till 4:00 pm.  The fee is $20 per person for the conference and a separate fee of $15 per person for Heather Plante, a certified Maternity and Child Sleep Consultant from Soothing Angles,  sleep presentation.

The Parent Conference is a first in Fort McMurray and we are hoping to make this an annual event for parent in our community. During the conference a trade show will also be available for parents with many services for children in Fort McMurray

From 8:30 – 9 am there will be check in and coffee, then at 9 am our Keynote Speaker Melanie Olorenshaw M. Sc (Applied Psychology) will be speaking. Melanie is the founder of Brilliant Beginnings Educational Centre in Calgary. She is a parent educator in both the health and education for the last 14 years. Melanie passionate about early childhood and how early parents sets the stage for all future development. She is frequently interviewed by Today’ Parent and Canadian Family Magazines and has been on both local and national television regarding parenting and child development. Melanie continues to study, write and lecture on discipline, early childhood development, parenting culture and the relationships between environment and brain development. 

Melanie keynote will be on the subject of “Growing Young Minds: From Science to Practice”
Current parenting practices have transformed how we look at children and their development Society has become media obsessed where “screen Time” is 24/7 and free play time isn’t considered educational. Parents gather information on how to optimize learning and enrol their children in multiple programs in hopes to achieve this. Unfortunately this is resulting in children being socialized in a very different way than their brains are designed for. In her keynote Melanie will discuss the impact of our current parenting culture and how parents and professionals can objectively look at the information they are receiving. By the end of the morning you will be able to blend your understanding of neurology and early childhood research with practical parenting tips.

Parents can look forward to the choice of 3 sessions with an array of topics to choice from. The session topic will be:

“Parenting is not an Olympic Sport” – Presenter Line Perron – There are so many pressures on parents today that were not there decades ago. This session will explore the many stressors parents face and some simple strategies to move back to basics and focusing o the relationship piece of parenting. We will look at some basic parenting practices and the four key things children need for a healthy rounded development.

"There’s a DAD for that” – Presenter – Patrick Dillion – What is the role of Dad/ What are some of the insights into child development? How can I communicate with my son/daughter? Answer to these questions will be addressed. Some of the topics covered including: Emotional Health, Discipline, Physical Health, Nutrition, and family /life/work balance.

It’s not a box, it’s a Pirate Ship! – Presenter – Sherry Duncan – This session will provide you with an opportunity to explore indoor play. We will begin with a brief overview of the importance of play for children of all ages. This will be followed by engaging and interactive activities that will inspire you to take play “inside”! Participants will leave with practical ideas and resources to use at home.

Picky Eaters – Presenter Melissa Kolmel RD – Come and participate in a fun interactive discussion on nutrition! We will not only be discussing how to provide healthy food to children but also how to support a healthy feeding relationship between the caregiver and child.  Let’s take the stress out of meal times and add the fun back in!

Kids Have Stress Too! – Presenter Line Perron –This session will look at stressors young children might experience and the signs and symptoms of too much stress. We will explore what happens to children’s development when that stress is not managed and look at some simple strategies to help children and parents manage stress. Participants will get activity sheets and additional hand out to supplement the session.

Every Child Ready to Read - This session is presented by staff of The Fort McMurray Public Library -Did you know that learning to read starts at birth? Join us to learn simple, easy, and fun activities you can do with your children from newborns to preschoolers. Find out how you can help your children get ready to read with simple tips and everyday activities you can start doing at home right away. This session will give you the tools to set your child on a path to enjoying reading and school success.

Heather Plante, a certified Maternity and Child Sleep Consultant from Soothing Angles will be presenting a separate workshop during the day. There is an extra charge of $15 for this presentation. This presentation is dedicated to parents of babies and toddlers 4 months old to 6 years old.  We will talk about "6 Reasons Why Babies Wake @ Night", Nightmares vs. Night Terrors, 4 methods of sleep training, the importance of Consistency and Routine, and so much more!

Parents can register at Event Bright for Fort McMurray’s First Parenting Conference. Registration opens on April 5, 2013.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Mother's Faith

I am a mother. I am many other things, of course, just as we all are. But if pressed to describe myself in one word I would not choose woman, or writer, or friend, or employee, or volunteer. I would describe myself first and foremost as a mother, and I see the world most often through that lens.

When my beloved daughter, the Intrepid Junior Blogger, was born my life changed. I knew it would, of course, but I did not know how profound it would be. When I was several months pregnant I ran into an elderly lady at a grocery store. She looked at my round belly and then into my eyes and said "Your life is about to change forever". I nodded and smiled, brushing it off a bit with a breezy laugh as others had often said this to me about my child's impending arrival in the world. But this lady persisted. She said, with a knowing look, "You see you think you have loved before. But this will be different. This is the kind of love you will never have known before now, and never will know again, because the love a mother has for a child is unique". Those words have stuck with me, because I am not sure anyone has ever told me anything that is more true than those words from a stranger. When my daughter finally arrived it changed my life, and it changed me. And being a mother is now my identity, and it has been for thirteen years. It colours everything I do and experience.

Last night I attended the memorial vigil for the souls lost over the decades on Highways 63 and 881. It was designed to honour their memories, and express continuing support for their families. It was meant to recognize the rescuers, first responders, and victim services workers who are impacted by these losses. It did all these things, and it was a lovely moment for our community. I was there for every moment, listening to every word - but the words that resonated the most in my own heart were those from the mothers who had lost their children.

In the last year I have had the honour and privilege to come to know two local women who lost their sons. One was lost just over a year ago in a tragic collision on Highway 63. One was lost more recently on the local ski hill, taken apparently by an undetected medical condition. To say these women have had an impact on my life would be to diminish what they have truly done. Speaking to them, hearing their stories, and having the chance to hug them has altered me in some undefinable way. Over the last year it is unlikely I have thought of anyone in this community more than these two women, because their losses touched my heart is such a deep and meaningful way that it is beyond words. Just seeing them makes my eyes fill with tears because I hurt so much for them. I do not know their pain, but I can imagine it, the depth of it, and it shakes me because I too am a mother.

Last night I also heard a letter written by another mother. It was the mother of a little girl named Faith, a girl lost on the highway one year (plus one day) ago. In her letter she spoke of losing Faith - and of losing faith. She spoke of what Faith/faith meant to her. And her words went to my very core, because it was Faith's death and my own loss of faith that started my personal journey this last year.

One thing I know as a mother, though, is that as mothers we have a tremendous amount of faith. We have faith in our children, and we have faith that the world is a good place for them. You see having a child is a complete leap of faith, because none of us can predict how it will turn out. It is taking your hopes and dreams and tossing them out into the world, and just holding onto faith. I lost faith for a bit, and I lost it when we lost a little girl with such a profound name. Over the last year, though, I found my faith again. I found faith in beauty, and in compassion, and in hope, and in life. I found faith in those who carry on despite their losses, however they happened. I found faith in two mothers who lost their sons, and who I now feel connected to in a way that defies explanation. A loss is a loss, and losing a child, no matter how it happens, is the kind of loss that no one can explain and that will never make sense. It is so easy to lose faith, I think - except that even in the darkest days I think we can find our faith in each other.

Very late last night, just as the clock was turning midnight and the anniversary of a sad day was coming to an end I drove to a place I often go in this city. It is a place where another mother's heart was broken, and where it is very likely her faith in the world was shaken when her twin sons were murdered. It is a place I go when I feel heartbroken, or when I want to think. It is a place I go when my faith has been lost, and I find it there again, because you see it is a place where the boys are memorialized by their friends and family. It is a place where faith can be seen in those who leave mementoes and messages. Last night at the memorial vigil I released a balloon with a message, and then, late at night in the driving snow, I left a small candle underneath a tree in Borealis Park. I drove away and left it lit, seeing the soft glow through a blanket of fresh snow. I left it there with my love and my compassion for all the mothers who have lost children, regardless of how they were lost. I see the world through the lens of a mother - and with a mother's faith.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

One Year Ago Today on Highway 63

One year ago today two trucks were travelling on Highway 63. One was headed north, and one was headed south. On that day those two trucks collided and changed the destiny of thousands of people.

It is a bit hard for me to sit here and write this today, because I am cognizant of the fact that one year ago seven people who are now gone were still with us. Seven people, people with family and friends and co-workers and a community. Seven people who got up that morning and headed out on the highway, never knowing what awaited them. But one year later I know, and you know. One year later we all know how this day ended.

I am not going to retell that story, and for many reasons. We all know it, and there is no need to retell it. And frankly retelling that story makes my head feel heavy, and my heart feel wooden. It makes me feel dull inside, a dullness that comes from thinking and writing and talking about that story time and time again. And yet even if I do not retell that story I know I will not forget it - because it changed my life.

One year ago, after a day filled with tears and anger and pain I sat down at this very keyboard and wrote an open letter to the premier. I did not ask her to twin Highway 63. I demanded it, with the vehemence and passion that anger and pain inspired. I closed my laptop and went to bed, exhausted and grieving for people I did not even know - and never would, because they were no longer with us. I awoke the next morning to find my post had spread all over the country, and that it was not just my voice demanding change. It was thousands of voices, all of us touched by loss and pain and grief.

Since that day one year ago I have heard dozens of stories. I have talked to mothers who lost sons, and fathers who lost daughters. I have heard so much loss, and grief, and pain. I have talked to those for whom the loss was still new and fresh, and those who had lost someone decades ago but who still felt that pain every day - and I know all too well that the pain of loss never goes away. Perhaps time dulls it, but time does not, in the end, heal all wounds. Some wounds we just live with, leaving us scarred forever.

I have never lost a loved one on Highway 63 - and yet I feel I have lost so much to those tragic collisions. Every single story I have heard, every parent or child or aunt or uncle or friend who spoke to me and told me of their loss - well, in some sense their loss became mine, too. I could see their pain so clearly, the look in their eyes, their grief and agony. I could feel it, because it was so real it stretched beyond them and into me. It stretched right out into our community, a pain and grief so deep and profound that it touched us all.

I carry all those stories with me now. They are in my head, and in my heart. Some I have written about, in this blog and other places, and some I will never write because those who told them to me entrusted me with a pain and grief they had never shared with anyone other than their own families. I am beyond honoured to have been the stranger they trusted to reach out to and tell their story. I am humbled by it, in fact, and their stories now have a place with me, too. Their loved ones will not be forgotten, because their story has been shared.

Today is not a day for politics. Today is not a day to talk about how long, too late, inaction, or inadequacy. Today is not a day to talk about safe driving or our own behaviours. There are 364 days of the year we can do those things, but not today. Today is the day to remember. It is the day to think about those we lost one year ago, and those we have lost over the decades. Today is the day to think about them, and their families. Today is the day to think about those of us who have been first on scene at those collisions, and the memories we carry as a result. Today is the day to think about the first responders who live every day with their memories of collisions, and of tragedies.

And today is something else. Today is the day to hold close those we love, and to tell them we love them. Today is the day to tell people how we feel about them, and to share our love. Today is a day to remember those we have lost and embrace those who are still here. Today is a day of mourning and remembrance, but it is also a day to ensure that we appreciate every single day. Today is a day like any other, which is exactly what makes it so special.

Tonight, just before bed, I will light a candle. I will light it in honour of those lost one year ago, and in honour of all those lost before and since. I will light it in honour of the families they have left behind, and to recognize their grief. And then I will go and hug my daughter, the Intrepid Junior Blogger, because all else in this world pales in importance compared to her.

I suspect others will light a candle tonight. I suspect this community if seen from above would be glowing with soft candlelight as we remember, and we honour. We are the light in the darkness of a day that cost so very much for all of us. We are the light of hope on a dark day in our history. We stand united as a community to remember and honour. Hundreds and maybe thousands of candles will spread our glow out into the northern darkness. That glow reflects our love, our compassion, and our memories.

Today is a day of a maelstrom of emotions for me. I will light a candle and for a moment allow them to wash over me. When I blow the candle out I will release those emotions and their grasp on me, but I will retain one thing. I will honour the memories and the stories of those who are gone, because they are now a part of me. The candlelight may fade, but those stories, and the impact they have had on me? That will linger forever, because they changed my life. A tiny ribbon of road that has woven into and out of my life for the last eleven years has now become one of the strings that ties my life together, and tied into it are the stories and the memories. For me Highway 63 long ago ceased to be a road. It became a journey, a trail of stories all woven together with loss and pain and grief. One year ago today on Highway 63 thousands of lives were changed forever. And one of them, as insignificant as it may seem, was mine. One year ago today. I remember.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Aecon Goes Pink

When this arrived in my email I was pretty much delighted. I'm a big fan of anything that turns the expected around. And we live in a community of the unexpected, but this one is a very big unexpected. In fact it's 777 Cat truck size unexpected - and it's pink.
But it's not just a pink truck going on here, although the pink truck is pretty darn intriguing. Aecon is raising awareness and funds for fighting breast cancer. I suspect most of us have been touched by this disease in some way, and so the opportunity to donate to fight the disease is sure to attract attention - much like a ginormous truck painted pink will.
I hope we will see photos of this truck at work on the oil sands sites, as I'd love to see it juxtaposed against a backdrop of oil sands. I think this truck will certainly stand out and both draw attention to the reality of breast cancer and elicit smiles at the unexpected sight of an enormous 777 truck - painted pink.
If you want to see a giant truck painted pink work in the oil sands - and raise funds for breast cancer - then you can donate here.  Personally I can't think of a better cause - or a better reason to paint a truck pink.

Monday, April 22, 2013

That Gun is Loaded But It's Not in My Hands

When I read the story in the link below I was quite disturbed. Not disturbed because there was a bear in a residential area - having lived here for eleven years and five years in northwestern Ontario just prior to moving here I am quite accustomed to bears - but disturbed because of what happened after someone discovered a bear in a tree in their yard. You see what happened is the resident, seeing the bear and apparently fearing the worst, took out a firearm - and shot into the tree, killing the bear.

In my estimation there are two separate issues going on here, so let's tackle them as such. 

First, we have the discharge of a firearm within city limits in a residential neighbourhood. As most residents know (or should know) this is quite definitely illegal. Guns and residential neighbourhoods don't mix well. There are buildings, and cars you could hit accidentally - and, well, residents. I realize that some people are excellent shots and can aim very accurately. What worries me about this recent incident is that it could set a precedent. See a bear in your yard, shoot the bear, then call Fish and Wildlife...but what if the shooter has poor aim and instead shoots something else? Like a house or car or, god forbid, a person? What if the bullet is deflected and goes off trajectory? Can you imagine the legal and moral ramifications in that situation? You, as the one holding the gun, are subject to charges, possibly even manslaughter charges. You could spend time in jail, and you could very easily be sued in civil court. It seems to me this is an unwise risk to take unless the bear in question is posing a very real, imminent, and immediate danger to human life. And in this case, a bear in a tree, does not appear to be posing such a danger. Given that the bear found a way into the yard one can assume it would likely be able to exit the yard the same way - or find another way out. I have seen bears climb fences, so it is not like they are incapable of doing so (or a large enough bear can just knock it down). 

The reality is that we have hired Fish and Wildlife officers to deal with these situations. They are not only trained professionals but they also then take on the responsibility should such a situation like this go wrong and anyone is injured. Residents do not have the moral or legal authority to shoot wildlife they find within city limits, and certainly not wildlife that is currently sitting in a tree and could choose to amble away in the same way it came. I do not accept the reasons given as valid, especially since a quick call to Fish and Wildlife could have had officers on the scene and if necessary they could tranquilize the bear and remove it. How do I know? Because I have called them about bears, that's how, and I will relate that story below. First, however, let's look at the second issue this incident raises.

We live in northern Alberta. This is an area that is threaded through with wildlife corridors. We have been building on their habitat for decades, but now some of our neighbourhoods are cutting even deeper into them. As such we are going to have close encounters with local wildlife, and that is simply reality. The question is how exactly are we going to develop this relationship? Are we going to recognize that we have encroached on their habitats and that we must exercise our responsibility as stewards to try to ensure they can continue to live their lives just as we live ours? Are we going to have them moved if they become too familiar, and, as a very last resort, euthanize them if they exhibit behaviour that is dangerous to human life? Or are we simply going to shoot them? I rather hope that we, the ones with the guns and the big brains, will use the big brains wisely and put our guns away until there is a very clear and immediate danger. We are increasingly growing into a very urban environment, and while we enjoy that urban lifestyle we also have the challenges of dealing with wildlife because of our location in the north. As such we need to figure out that relationship with our local wildlife, and we need to do it quickly.

Now, about that bear story. The photos above are mine, taken a few years ago when I too lived in Abasand. One day my then nine-year old daughter went out on to our verandah where she quickly spotted the bear above, right in our front yard - and about twenty feet away from her. She came tearing into the house screaming as she came, so guess what I did? Well, I didn't pull out a gun and shoot the bear, who was pretty much right outside my front door. I made sure everyone including the family dog was inside and then I set off my car alarm to try to scare the bear away and warn my neighbours that something was going on outside so they didn't just walk out into the street and be as surprised as my kid. Then I snapped a couple of photos while the bear decided the noise was too much and wandered back into the forest (we were, incidentally, also right on the greenbelt and right on a well travelled wildlife corridor). And then I called Fish and Wildlife who came out to say that they would set up a bear trap, but that the bear was very likely to move on if everyone removed their bird feeders and kept their garbage inside. And you know what? It worked. The bear was never trapped, but he did move on after all the neighbours decided to work together to make sure there were no goodies left outside to entice him back - no bird seed, no peanuts, no dog food, no garbage. The bear went on to live his life, and the neighbourhood went on to live ours, and no one got shot.

The reason I selected the title for this post is very simple. The gun we have, the one where we make the decisions that impact wildlife like bears and can end their lives, is always loaded. But it is not, in an urban setting, in our hands, and nor should it be. I think it is a dangerous precedent to set if we allow or encourage residents to shoot wildlife unless said wildlife is presenting a very clear and real threat to human life. While this incident on the weekend ended okay (except for the bear, of course, for whom things just ended) some day there will be someone who is a poor shot or a bullet will be deflected and then where will we be? We cannot set a precedent that allows or encourages this sort of behaviour because the risk to human life from an inadvertent stray bullet is probably a far stronger risk than ever being attacked by a bear (in fact if you compare accidental shooting stats to black bear attack stats I suspect you'd find we stack up very poorly). The loaded gun, and the decision to shoot a bear or to tranquilize it or to simply wait it out, rightly belongs with the people we pay to deal with the situation, which is Fish and Wildlife. Just remember that when you put that loaded gun in your hands then you get all the responsibility that follows - and in that case I am very glad that gun is not in my hands.

Friday, April 19, 2013

An Evening of Shining Stars - Dancing With the Stars Wood Buffalo 2013

It is no secret that I go to a lot of events. Banquets, galas, fundraisers - you name it, I've been to them. Every once in awhile though there is an event that marries an almost perfect balance of sparkle and shine with fundraising and social profit. Every once in awhile there is an event that is special, you see, one that will stand out in my memory. And this year, in 2013, that event was the second annual Dancing With the Stars Wood Buffalo.

If you've been on social media for the last few weeks you've probably seen the Facebook posts and Youtube videos and tweets about this event. Designed to be a fundraiser for the Fort McMurray SPCA it is an evening that sees celebrity dancers perform with their professional dance partners to impress the judges and the crowd. This year I had the opportunity to do a lesson with two of the dancers, and that experience impressed me, too, because I realized how much work goes into this, and the commitment of time and energy these volunteers make to the local SPCA. I also realized the joy in all this, the joy of learning to dance in a way that perhaps you thought was impossible for you. I watch the video of that lesson and what I notice most is my laugh, and my smile. I smiled a lot at DWTSWB on Saturday night too. In fact I think I started smiling as soon as I walked in and saw the decor, and that smile lasted until the very last moments when I snuck away into the night and left the party still going on the dance floor. I even wore a special pair of shoes, ones chosen as an homage to the stars theme:

The decor and planning for this event was done by a local company called Events With Vizability. Now, I have been to events these lovely folks have done before, like the SMS Wine Auction, and I have always been impressed with their staging and atmosphere. This time, though, they completely outdid themselves. When I walked into the ballroom at the Sawridge Hotel, a room I have been in dozens of times before for various reasons, I was blown away. In fact I completely forgot I was at the Sawridge at all, because it was virtually unrecognizable. The rich red that appeared everywhere in the room gave it a luxurious feel, warm and inviting. Paired with the black it made for a sophisticated and elegant setting, and it also happens to be one of my personal favourite colour combinations of all time (you can often find me wearing a combination of red and black, just like I am today). Every single detail from the lamps on the tables to the fringe covering the poles was perfect. In fact I would go so far as to say it was one of the singularly most beautiful events I have ever attended, and if I ever plan a special event personally I know who I will be speaking to in order to make it sparkle.

One of my favourite touches was that on every table at some of the place settings there was a dog leash, one donated by Diversified. Diversified is a tremendous community partner in Fort McMurray, and thanks to them my beloved canine is now sporting a new leash, and one that celebrates a company that recognizes the importance of the SPCA in our community.

Credit for all photos following to
with design and production by
Events With Vizability

One could have been so distracted by the atmosphere and beauty that you forget about the actual core of the event, which was the dancing - and oh, the dancing! I don't know the last time I smiled that much, or laughed so often. I cannot say enough about the dancers, both celebrity and professional, who gave so freely of their time and energy to make this happen. Before the event I had been dubious about the dancing skills of some of the celebrities, but today I will happily admit that I was completely wrong and that these individuals can really, really dance.

The photo above is of Amy and Jamie. I think the look of pure joy on Amy's face is pretty indicative of what kind of evening it was. They were the first dancers - and they set the tone for the rest of the evening, and the rest of the dancers. Their performance was full of energy and joy and life, and the celebratory feel simply set into motion a night where the fun just didn't stop.

What can I say about Sheldon Germain and his gorgeous partner Lela? Sheldon protested a lot before this event that he could not dance, but he was fibbing, people. He can not only dance but he can dance well, and the smile you see on his face in the photo above stayed on his face for their entire "Dirty Dancing" performance. As I said that night on Twitter "nobody puts Sheldon in the corner", and Lela certainly helped to make sure Sheldon will never be in the corner at a dancing event ever again as he will be undoubtedly be sought out as a dance partner.

Ah, Courtney and Andre. What to say about the hottest cop in town and the man who is likely the best dancer in the region? You see Courtney is a local RCMP officer (and it isn't only the red serge she wears well but red fringed dresses, too, as you can see above), and Andre has been dancing his entire life. I had a dance lesson with Andre and within minutes he had me dancing in ways I did not think possible - and again look at the joy on Courtney's face. I think these faces tell it all, in fact. For the dancers this event was a complete labour of love.

Oh, Vanessa and Ben! I admit it. I kinda developed a large girl-crush on Vanessa when I had a dance lesson with her. She is a whole bunch of dynamite in a petite little frame, feisty and funny and so passionate about dance, and life. And of course who doesn't know her partner Ben McCully of K-Rock radio fame? His antics are pretty well known, but who knew he could dance, too? Well, now we know. Ben and Vanessa made it look easy - and fun.

This is Kelli and Scott. I think it is no exaggeration to say I adore Kelli. I met her the first time in a Safeway store when she was clutching a small black kitten that she had just rescued from an uncertain fate. Kelli had helped the kitten be fished out of a dumpster, and she made sure that Oscar, the little garbage can kitten, was safe in the hands of the SPCA. When I learned that Kelli is an instructor at the MI Dance Academy at MacDonald Island Park where I am so honoured to work I almost burst with pride. I had a chance to interview her and I pretty much fell in love with her enthusiasm and passion and just her attitude in life. So, the chance to see her dance with her partner Scott, and see them completely burn up the dance floor with a sassy and funny performance was, for me, pure joy.

The beautiful Helen Arong and her partner John brought sexy to the dance floor. Helen is perhaps one of the most gorgeous women in this community, and despite her nervousness about her dancing ability she was so incredibly lovely to watch. Incidentally I get a lot of my clothing and shoes from her clothing store, Helen Arong Fine Fashion, and her sense of style and glamour was clearly evident while she danced with John. Their performance was, in a word, beautiful. Oh, and really, really hot.

This is Mike and Kira - and yes, he is holding Kira upside down on the dance floor, which shows the level of trust she must have in him. Their performance was the finale of the evening, and it was indeed a showstopper, full of dramatic moves and pure and simple joy. They brought to a close an evening of dance that I think blew away most of the gathered crowd, an evening that celebrated this community and dance and fundraising - and the SPCA.

You see throughout the evening the SPCA was a part of the event. The dancers had all spoken before the event about their pets, and about how they came to have them. Each of the dancers had a reason for devoting their time and energy to this event, and it was all because of the work the SPCA does in this community. Dancing With the Stars was about the dancers and the judges and the music and the decor but in the end the heart of it all was the SPCA, and the work they do every day in this community. The story of the SPCA was interwoven into the fabric of the event, from the extravagant dog house donated, designed and built by Titan General Contracting (and auctioned off during the evening) to the program that explained what the SPCA does, and why.

I suspect it was a tough night for the judges, Kim and Tara and Lynn and Mark and Marty (and just an aside - I have never met Marty Giles but after that evening I now completely understand the radio ads as he is, hands down, the funniest man in the entire city, and had me laughing so hard I cried). But in the end, based on their scores and the audience votes (as there was a tie) the winners were announced - and I was delighted to learn that the person I think of as "my girl" would take home the big trophy:

Yes, Kelli and Scott walked away the winners for the dancing part of the competition, and in fact they were highly ranked in the voting that had gone on both before and during the event, voting that selected the People's Choice Winners. In the end, though, the dancers the people selected as their choice were:

Indeed, Mike and Kira walked away the winners of People's Choice, raising over $20,000 in votes (votes that cost a donation of $20 each). They, and the other dancers, raised over $65,000 in total in the voting process, which brings us to the real winners:

At the end of the night the SPCA had raised $81,000, an amount that will help them to continue to do what they do, work that is both deeply satisfying and heartbreaking (and I know as I worked with animals for a decade and I have seen both the highs and the lows). You see, though, although the SPCA got the funds they needed there are the true winners in all this - and that is this community.

How did we win? We won in every sense. We won by helping one of our social profits continue to do what they do. We won because once again we came together as a community to celebrate and support. We won because we saw dancers and judges who gave freely of their time because of a love of animals - and a love of this place we call home. We won in every possible way, and while there were dancers who proudly walked away with trophies I think the real winners are all of us.

I want to personally thank the SPCA for what they do, work that is on occasion misunderstood or under-valued. I want to thank Events With Vizability for a beautiful event, and for allowing me to participate in it with the dance lessons I experienced, and for the invitation to attend. I want to thank all the dancers who were so committed to this, and I recognize all their hard work. I want to thank the community who supported this, those who came to the event and those who voted from home and those who watched online (over 7000!). I am profoundly grateful to live in a place where these sorts of endeavours  are not only supported but supported in a way that guarantees success for everyone.

I am going to provide some links below, to the SPCA and to Events With Vizability and to the Dancing With the Stars Wood Buffalo website (where you can watch video of the event). All I know is this: even now, days later, I continue to find myself smiling at memories of certain moments, like seeing Sheldon's smile as he danced, or Kelli's face when she won. I think this event will live in my memory for a very long time, bathed in a glow of red and black and a warm feeling that comes when you feel the sort of pride that only being part of community like this can bring. This feeling seems to be lasting a very long time, and running through it all is a musical rhythm - and a deep and compelling desire to dance in celebration this place I proudly call home.



Thursday, April 18, 2013

Walk to Stop Animal Abuse - Fort McMurray SPCA

This Sunday some local folks will be going for a little walk. It should be a lovely day, as spring is in the air and it appears that summer, glorious summer, is right around the corner. And this walk should be a lovely one, but the reason behind it is a bit serious, and one we need to have a dialogue about in this community. You see this walk is the annual Fort McMurray SPCA Walk to Stop Animal Abuse. And why do we need to talk about this, and a walk to both raise funds to address it and raise awareness? Because animal abuse is happening right here, and right now, in our community.

I was there when a small kitten named Oscar was fished out of a dumpster downtown by passersby, and I even wrote about it. And you have probably read other stories recently, about abused dogs, and newborn puppies thrown away like trash, and sled dogs being kept in poor conditions. And these are only the incidents we know about. I shudder to think about the kittens that are not found, and the incidents of abuse that we never see.

There is a very direct and proven link between those who abuse animals and their inclination to inflict similar abuse on people. I believe that those who can abuse an animal are lacking in compassion and empathy, and after all if one considers human beings a big animal then we are just as vulnerable to that lack of compassion and empathy. This dark link is one of the reasons we need to discuss animal abuse, because this abuse of animals can indicate that there is far more going on, a deeper current of abuse and violence that may touch human lives. But that is only one of the reasons we need to discuss it. We need to discuss it because of another firm belief I hold.

That is what I believe, and I believe that animals fall into the category of helpless. They depend on us for everything, and so we are responsible for them. I believe that we are judged by how we treat those who are vulnerable, and if we abuse them then we will be judged harshly - and rightly so. If we fail those who need us most then we deserve to be condemned, because then we have failed not only them but ourselves. This isn't about fluffy kittens and puppies, although one cannot look into those little trusting eyes without melting. This is really about all of the creatures who share this planet, and about the responsibility we as humans have to those who inhabit it with us.

I encourage you to sign up to walk this Sunday. I encourage you to raise pledges, or just outright donate to the Fort McMurray SPCA so they can continue to do the work they desperately need to do. They are one of the things that stands between us and a failing grade as a society. We may not be able to stop all incidents of animal abuse - but we can support an organization that fights that dark side of our world, and that tends to those that are helpless. It is organizations like the Fort McMurray SPCA that may well determine how history judges us - and I hope that through our support of them history will judge us kindly. It is one day, one walk - and time to change the way history will see us.

And as they like to say at the SPCA
"Paws Up" to you for supporting!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Want to Win Big and Make a Community Event Even Better? Take the winterPLAY 2013 Survey!

What do you remember from winterPLAY? I know, it feels like spring out there, and you are likely thinking "uh, that was awhile ago" - but it seems our memories fade as quickly as the snow melts, and the reality is that it is just a few weeks ago that we were out on the frozen Snye celebrating winter in our region.

One of the ways organizations in our community continue to bring us the events we want and need is by finding out what we have enjoyed about the events we have already experienced. And that is the reason Events Wood Buffalo have launched an online survey - because they want to make winterPLAY even better(although I think it was pretty stellar this year).

For me I will always recall watching the fireworks with the Intrepid Junior Blogger from inside our car as we decided it was too cold to wait outdoors, but we couldn't stand the thought of missing them because we knew they would be spectacular. It was the performance by Shayne Koyczan, an evening that brought tears to my eyes - and inspired me to submit a piece of very personal poetry to NorthWord Magazine to see if they would like to publish it (and they are, in the next issue). It was Phil Meagher's epic ski quest from Fort Chipewyan to Fort McMurray, one that I now understand far better having flown up to Fort Chip and seen the terrain he had to cover. It was, for me, the press conference announcing the events at winterPLAY, and the excitement it generated. It was so many different moments - and it is quite likely that your memorable moments, and the things you enjoyed most, differ from mine. And that's where this survey comes in.

It won't take you long to complete it, and the questions are pretty easy to answer. By doing this survey you are helping an amazing group of people (and I know this first hand as I have worked very closely with the staff at Events Wood Buffalo) make an already incredible celebration of winter even better. You are holding up a mirror for them so they can reflect on what worked and what didn't, what could be improved and what should stay the same, and how they can make winterPLAY the kind of event that you talk about even in July when the snow is long gone and our most prominent thoughts have turned to barbecues and swims in the local lake.

So, did you attend winterPLAY this year? Then take the survey. Heck, you can do it even if you didn't go to winterPLAY. You can tell the good folks at Events Wood Buffalo why you didn't attend, and what would encourage you to attend next year. And I've saved the very best part for last! If you do the survey you can enter to win the draw prize, which is two VIP tickets to all Events Wood Buffalo events in 2013 (and I suspect they have some incredible things planned, so this is quite the lure to complete that survey). The prize is worth $1000, which seems a pretty fair exchange for a few moments of your time. And even if you don't win the prize you have actually contributed to something of more value - which is creating a winterPLAY that is bigger, better, and more community-focused and community-driven than ever. That, I think, is the real prize. Oh, and a couple of the questions *might* ask about a certain blog, so make sure you tell them I sent you, eh? ;D Just kidding, people - provide your honest answers and remember - events like winterPLAY are, in the end, all about you. This is your chance to contribute to it - so don't miss this opportunity to make sure winterPLAY is the event you want it to be.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Don't Look For the Helpers

I remember a day in September, 2001, that shifted my world. I watched it unfold in front of me, two planes crashing into two towers, and all the pain and grief and disbelief that followed. I remember watching the Intrepid Junior Blogger, just two days before her second birthday, and thinking that even though she was far too young to realize it her world had forever been altered. I recall thinking about how she would never know a world free of the images of that terrorist act, and I knew (as I worked in the airline industry) that it would forever change air travel for me, and for her. The world had changed in both profound and subtle ways, and this change was not lost on me. Now, at the age of thirteen, that dark day in history is indeed history for her, a day she does not recall from memory but has rather read about in textbooks.
Yesterday was another one of those days, but this time the IJB was old enough to watch it happen. She was in school, and the students shared the images and the stories as they occurred in real time. This will not be an event she learns about from textbooks. This is history that she has lived.
I decided to not share the graphic images and videos here because I think we have all seen them. I don't think we need to see them anymore, and if you wish to view them they are easy to find because they are all over the internet today. I think we need to talk about something else, about making sense of the nonsensical, and about helpers.
I think there is a tendency to want to make sense of these events, but there are some things in life that will never make sense. There may be an explanation, and a discovery of the perpetrators, but to find sense in a nonsensical violent act? I do not believe that exists. I think looking for sense is futile, because it will not be found. And yesterday I saw this floating around a lot, and while it gave me some comfort I think we can do more, too. What I saw was this quote from the ubiquitous Mr. Rogers of television fame:
I was never really a Mr. Rogers girl, as the Canadian Mr. Dressup had my heart instead. But Mr. Rogers was right, and if you carefully study the photos from yesterday you can spot the helpers everywhere.
I did that last night. I looked through all the graphic images and spotted the helpers, the ones in uniform and the ones who were not. There was one, a man comforting an injured woman. There was another, a woman helping someone to escape the scene of devastation. In almost every single image there was a helper, or more often several of them. And as I scrolled through the images, dozens of them, I realized these helpers were no different than you and I. And that is where Mr. Rogers was ever so slightly wrong. I don't think we should look for the helpers, you see. I think we should be them.
This morning the IJB and I discussed how it is unlikely (but not impossible) that we will ever directly witness something like the terrorist attack in Boston. What we decided, though, is that even if we never do we can be the helpers. We can be the ones who help those in our own community, those perhaps suffering not from bomb blasts but from hunger or cold or fear or the other daily tragedies that occur in this world. We will not look for the helpers. We will be them. Every single person has the opportunity to be a helper, but not just at times of great tragedy like a sunny spring day in Boston. We have that opportunity right here in our own community. Yesterday we looked for the helpers - and today I hope we decide to be them.
My thoughts are with those in Boston, and all those impacted by this event and events like it around the world. I think trying to make sense of this tragedy is not only futile, but pointless. And I think that perhaps these events bring out the best, and the worst, in us. Be the best, people. Be the helpers. And show the world that there is more light than dark, more good than bad, and more helpers than terrorists.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Day In April That Changed Us Forever - April 27, 2012

It isn't really that long ago, and yet it feels like it has been forever. So much has happened since that day, for both this community and for me personally. It is a date forever etched in my mind, and a day that changed not hundreds but thousands of lives. That date is April 27, 2012 - the day that a horrific collision on Highway 63 changed Fort McMurray forever.

There have been collisions before, tragic ones that took lives, and fatal collisions that have happened since. There have been many lives lost, and lives changed forever as a result of those losses. I have often thought about why that incident almost one year ago was different, because in many ways it was not. It was no less and no more tragic than any other collision on the highways that claimed lives, and yet that collision, one that claimed seven lives (plus an unborn child) and left only two survivors shook this community to the core. I suspect it is because the true impact of these losses finally struck us.

To say it changed this community forever is not hyperbole. That collision resulted in a protest rally designed to draw national media attention and force the commitment to twin Highway 63. It gave new fire to a petition that had already been circulating after a local mother lost her son in another tragic collision on the highway. And I think it changed the heart of this community, because it cut right into it.

I think perhaps what happened is that in that collision each and every one of us could find someone we identified with. Whether we had a son or a daughter, a wife or a husband, a brother or a sister, a mother or a father, we could see how very easily it could have been them on that fateful day. For me it was the loss of a young girl named Faith, just one year younger than my own daughter. For me it was the day I lost faith.

Over the course of the last twelve months a great deal has happened. There have been more losses on that highway, and on Highway 881. There has been a commitment from the provincial government to finalize twinning of Highway 63 by the fall of 2016. And for most of us life has gone on, the daily routine little changed. Except for some of us. Except for the ones who have lost loved ones over the years on Highway 63, and the first responders and rescuers who respond to these collisions. For them one day, whether it was April 27, 2012 or another date, was a day when their lives were forever altered.

And that is why on April 27, 2013, this community will gather once again. This time, though, the community will come together to remember. This time the community will come together to support those who continue to live every day with the losses they have suffered. The community will come together to remember days when lives ended, and others were changed forever. We will come together to honour the first responders and rescuers who carry with them the memories of those tragic days. We will come together to memorialize those who are now gone, lost on little ribbons of road in the vast boreal forest.

There are times when it is hard for me to write about this topic. I have written about it so often that on occasion I feel like the names of those lost are tattooed on my heart. I have spoken to mothers, and fathers, and husbands, and wives, and daughters, and sons. They have all told me stories of loss, and every single story added to the ones told before. I recall them all, too, every email and phone call. I recall every person who has stopped me to tell me their story, because their loss is one they live with every single day. I have over the last year cried an ocean of tears over a ribbon of road, and for me Highway 63 will always be a ribbon running through my life - because it changed me, too.

On April 27th I will gather with other members of this community for a candlight vigil and memorial ceremony. I will release a balloon with a personal message. I suspect my message will be meant for a young woman named Faith. I will tell her that she is not, and never will be, forgotten. On that stormy spring April day I thought I had lost my faith, but I found it again, and my heart, in a community that will not forget those we have lost, those who have survived, those who have been left behind, those who rescue, those who respond, and those who live with the memories every day.

Come together to remember and support - details at:
Survivors, Rescuers, and First Responders

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Conversation About Childbirth in Fort McMurray - A Mother is Born

Just over thirteen years ago my daughter was born. I was one of those women who had a blissful pregnancy - not a moment of morning sickness, and truly the most uneventful nine months ever. I may have in fact felt better than ever thanks to a super-pumped immune system. I was feeling pretty damn proud of myself in fact, and of course as the saying says "pride goeth before a fall" - and my fall came during labour and delivery.

The blissfulness of my pregnancy did not prepare me for a labour that was, quite frankly, brutal. It began innocently enough, with subtle labour pains. It quickly progressed to vomiting, and then to eighteen hours of excruciating back labour. Now, back labour is like someone smashing a concrete block into your back repeatedly, every few minutes or so. I expected pain in labour but this was a level of pain which stunned me. It was, very simply, agony, and it was exhausting.

I was delivering in a small hospital in Red Lake, ON, with excellent nursing staff and a wonderful woman who was not only my doctor but my friend. We had no anaesthesiologist in our town and so no access to epidurals. If my labour went badly I would be medevac'd out to Thunder Bay, or Winnipeg. And while I had the support of my husband and the professionals I was woefully ill equipped for the intensity of the pain I experienced. It was so bad that the only thing that seemed to relieve it was counter pressure on my back, and so I would beg my husband and the nurses to press into my back when the pain became particularly bad. The next day a new nurse was helping me to get ready for a shower, and when my gown slipped off she gasped and asked if I was the victim of spousal assault. Seeing my confusion she took me to a mirror and showed me my back, which was covered with fist-sized black and blue bruises running the length of my spine. The experience stuck with me a very long time, and it is no coincidence the Intrepid Junior Blogger is an only child. And one thing that I kept coming back to was the question as to whether it could have been different - and I believe it could have been. I think my experience would have been different if I had had a birthing team consisting not only of nurses and doctors and my husband but a midwife and doula, too.

You see after the experience I did some research and realized that with a larger birthing team I think my experience could have been far different. I think those other professionals, midwives and doulas, can bring some other skills sets and experiences to the table, and I suspect that while they could not have taken the pain away they may have had ideas to mitigate it. And what does this have to do with Fort McMurray, you wonder? Why share this story? Because we have a skyrocketing birth rate in this community, and I think many here could benefit from the experience and skills of midwives and doulas.

This coming week the Fort McMurray Doula Association is hosting a screening of the movie "A Mother is Born". I've watched the trailer for this movie, and gone to the website associated with it. You see it's all about how the experience of childbirth can be enriched by the presence of midwives and doulas working in conjunction with the medical professionals. It's about birthing options, and about how women-centred care can make a difference in the birth experience. And I will be there, because I am a bit passionate about this cause, you see. My personal experience has stayed with me even now, thirteen years later, and made me want others to have a better experience than I did.

I think this is a conversation we need to have in this community. There are more conversations to be held, too, like our need for a birthing centre, and better supports for breastfeeding, and more support in general for those expecting a child. I don't have fond memories of childbirth, and I wish I did. I am saddened that my blissful pregnancy ended in a traumatic childbirth (which incidentally took me weeks to recover from as I had some physical repercussions from a long and difficult labour as well). I wish my memories were more pleasant, and I will always wonder if it would have been different had I had a midwife and/or a doula at my side. I encourage everyone, whether pregnant or not, to consider attending the free screening this week. You see childbirth matters to all of us, because it is one of those experiences we all have in common. Every single one of us came into the world this way, and I suppose that is why to me it matters so deeply for everyone - because it truly does, in the end, impact us all.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Not My Daughter

The photo above is undoubtedly familiar to you. You have probably seen it on your Facebook page, or Twitter, or on the news. And no, she is not local, and she is not my daughter. But in a way you see she belongs to all of us, because she could very well be any of our child. Her name is Rehtaeh, and at the age of 17 she took her own life.

It's a complicated story, and I won't rehash all the details except to say that young Rehtaeh was abused not once, not twice, but three times in those short 17 years on this planet. Once was when she was allegedly sexually assaulted by four young men who found her unconscious. Twice when they decided to take photos and distribute them online, something this brave new world of social media and cell phones has made so easy. Third and finally she was abused when a justice system failed her, and decided that what happened to her was not a criminal act, and declined to press charges. She was failed three times, and in the end the culmination of those failures was her death. At the age of 15, when she was assaulted, she was but 2 years older than my own daughter, and her death saddens and angers me beyond words.

And who failed her? The justice system? The RCMP? Those young men? Yes, I think they did. And so did we. We failed her, and thousands of young people like her. We have failed those who have been assaulted and who have not seen justice. We have failed those who are the victims of bullying, both online and in the real world. And I think in some sense we have failed our youth today, because I deeply fear that as adults we are so consumed in our own worlds that we have failed to remember how fragile and precious and young fifteen really is. For some strange reason we see that age as "almost an adult" and forget how the world seems such a precarious place at fifteen.

I could go on and on about this tragedy, and about what this has done to me. I look at my own daughter and think about how I would kill - and die - for her. I think about my vow to protect her from all in the world that is evil and cruel and wrong - and yet I know I cannot, and that failure brings me to my knees.

Her name was Rehtaeh Parsons. She was not my daughter, and most likely not yours. And yet somehow tonight when I sit here and gaze at her photo I feel the responsibility for her life - and her death - weighing heavily on me. She was not my daughter - and yet in sense she was, because just as it takes a village to raise a child it takes a village to fail them. And we, all of us in this global village, failed our daughter this week. That is a heavy weight to bear.