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

Friday, May 31, 2013

What Our Long Summer - and Our Community - is Missing

I think it first occurred to me when I was on the patio at the Fox Den Lounge, soaking in the late May sunshine with friends. I thought about our summer days, how it seems the sun never sets. I thought about how we crave this weather during the fall and winter months, and how as soon as the weather begins to turn a shade warmer we begin shedding clothing as quickly as possible. I thought about all the things we have here to do during the summer, and then I realized there is one thing we lack, one thing that when I was growing up in Saskatoon was pretty central to those hot summer days. That thing? An outdoor swimming pool.
There is something about an outdoor pool in the summer. I recall how n Saskatoon the outdoor pools were the social scene focus for young adults. I recall all the families that spent time there, often taking advantage of the parks by the pools for Frisbee games and picnics. There was a feeling to those pools, a feel of long and relaxed summer days that you would never forget. There was a sense of community, a feeling of lounging in the summer sun, a memory that carried you through the dark days of winter. There was the anticipation before the pool opened, a day that everyone talked about and wished for. And, at the end of the summer, there was the day the pool closed, a final party before the fall, and a sense of the season turning to fall. It was a part of the prairie life, part of the cycle of life in the community I grew up in. But it isn’t here, because there is no outdoor pool in Fort McMurray.
You know when I first thought about it I thought about the challenges – our short summer season, our cold winters, the expense. And then I rejected those challenges one by one. Our summer season is not so much shorter than that in other northern communities, ones who have outdoor pools. And those communities endure long and cold winters too, and yet they find a way to build their pools to withstand the elements. And the expense? Well yes, there is that, but I think this is a case where the benefits far outweigh the costs – because an outdoor pool is where people gather. It is where community is built, and in this time where we are building community an outdoor pool becomes another opportunity to do that.
I have a vision, you see. It’s of an outdoor pool surrounded by a lush green park. The pool echoes with the sounds of laughter, and the splashes of water. There are families, toddler and babies within their parents’ arms. There are young adults just beginning their foray into the world of dating, testing the waters in both a literal and figurative way. There are teens, and young adults, and adults, and seniors, all enjoying the clear blue water under the summer sun. And as the sun goes down and the day fades into evening I hear the sounds of the gathered community drifting away, saying farewells and promising to meet again tomorrow. It sounds, to me, a bit like heaven.

It is easy to reject this idea, to think of the challenges, but this is not a place where the challenges deter us. Perhaps we decide to heat the pool, as some places have done, making it usable even when the temperatures begin to dip, and only close it during the coldest winter days. Perhaps we find an innovative company accustomed to building in far northern countries, and we use their methods and technology. I think what matters, though, is that at this time of growth and change we consider things that might create opportunities for the community to come together in an entirely new way. An outdoor pool is not a novel idea, and not even that brave – but I think it is an idea that should be given some serious thought, because as these beautiful summer days approach wouldn’t it be nice to be planning our days around a picnic, a Frisbee game, and a long sunny hazy day at the pool? I can picture it right now, can’t you?


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Fort McMurray is My Chosen Home

I know there will be those who dispute this, but I actually am not all that comfortable in front of a camera. I prefer to be behind a radio microphone, or better yet hidden behind a monitor and keyboard. Somehow though it seems I often end up in front of a camera, and while my hands are shaking I hope I represent myself well on those occasions.

This time, though, I hope it is not myself I represent well but the entire Wood Buffalo region. A few months ago I was approached about appearing in some recruitment videos for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, and I said yes. I often waver on these things, saying yes and then thinking I'm nuts, and then thinking yes again, and then just overthinking the entire thing to death until I finally get there, get it done, and think "well, that wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be" (someone once said they will put that epitaph on my headstone one day). This time, however, it wasn't bad at all as the film crew was terrific, and put me at ease quickly (even when we realized I would need to be duct taped into the microphone set as I had foolishly worn clothing without anything to attach it to). It was a great experience from start to finish - and I think the end product(s) are pretty great, too.

There are three videos in total, and I appear in two of them. In all three of them you are likely to see some familiar faces, and I think everyone did a stellar job. I think we all spoke from the heart about this community, and this region. As I say on the video this is indeed the most interesting place I have ever lived - never a dull moment, really - and quite truly this place simply "gets into you", just as it did to me.

This past weekend I was introducing myself and we were asked to say where we are from. I am "from" many different places, having grown up in Saskatoon and lived in Toronto and northwestern Ontario - but when I introduced myself I said "Fort McMurray is my chosen home", and that is the truth. One day I will write about why, and how, I came to choose to stay in Fort McMurray recently, when I could have easily chosen to move away, but for today I will leave you with these videos to enjoy. These are about my chosen home of Fort McMurray - and it seems I am not the only one who has chosen to come and stay in this place that just gets into you - and stays.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Need for Speed in Fort McMurray

A Facebook post from a local radio station caught my attention today. It was about a motorcyclist who was recently clocked driving at 202 km/hour – or 100 km over the limit. The incident seems absurd enough, that anyone would even think of driving at that speed – but it was the ensuing conversation that boggled me.
There were those who rose to the defense of the motorcyclist, with comments like “we all do it”, and others saying that the police should “just let him go” as it was probably a one-time thing. There were those who discussed running from the police should they be observed going at such speeds, and commenting on ways to evade charges.

Now let’s be clear: there were those who also saw the insanity in this driver’s actions, and in the comments of those who tried to defend him. But it was those who didn’t seem to see anything wrong with it – and who did defend him – that worry me – because those people are out there on the roads with the rest of us.
Look, people. Most of us have sped at one time or another, but there is a difference between occasionally catching oneself going 10 km over the limit and deliberately going 100 km over. There is a difference between those who see this as “normal” and “acceptable” behaviour, and those who don’t.

If you don’t like the speed limit then work to have it changed, don’t ignore it. You want to test your ride? Take it to a sanctioned race track, or create an organization to build such a race track here. Don’t turn our urban streets and rural highways into your personal testing ground, because here’s the deal: you aren’t just endangering yourself. You are putting me, my child, and everyone else in this community in danger. And frankly your rights to “test your ride” do not trump my right to keep all my limbs and live for another day.
There is a selfishness in all this. Since we all share the roads we need to be respectful of others, and we need to be aware that our actions impact them. A decision to drive while impaired or fatigued, or at excessive speeds or in an aggressive manner, can impact more than you. A selfish desire to “own the road” and indulge your need for speed can end in my death, and I reject that selfish attitude.

The local radio show host suggested that those who speed excessively should have their vehicle crushed in front of them. I am not sure if that is the solution, but I do think we need to get serious. As an analogy if you wield a baseball bat as a weapon you can be charged with attempted assault – maybe it’s time for those that ignore those speed laws in egregious ways to face similar charges. I can guarantee this: if a driver driving that kind of speed kills or injures someone in my family and survives it will be my personal mandate to see them do jail time, and tie them up in civil litigation for decades. I don’t believe in retribution, but I do believe in justice, and if their selfish act costs me then I will make sure that it costs them, too. Call me vengeful if you want, but there it is.
How many of us know someone who died because of actions like excessive speed or impaired driving? Show of hands? I suspect there are a lot of hands creeping up, because I think most of us do. In my life I have known several, including a dirt bike accident that killed two young friends immediately, put the third into a lingering coma, and forever altered the life of the fourth (who for years after had surgeries to remove the gravel that kept coming to the surface of their skin, so deeply was it embedded in their flesh after they skidded down the road on their face). And I will never forget when my sister’s new boyfriend was killed when he wrapped his new motorcycle around a tree. The police officers said his speed must have been incredibly high to break almost every limb in his body, and to embed parts of his bike so deeply into the tree that they are still there, even 35 years later. I was only ten at the time, but I will never forget my sister’s face when she heard the news.

Here’s the reality, folks. I know there will always be those who drive at excessive speeds and who think it’s acceptable to drive in ways that endanger others. If they only endangered themselves, if they were the only ones at risk, then it’s perfectly acceptable to me. If you want to go cliff diving or parachuting or any other risky activity that only affects you then go right ahead and do it, because that is between you and your family. But once you make a decision to do this on a road you share with me then the dialogue has changed, because now it’s between you, me, and those I care about. Trust me – it’s not a dialogue where I will ever admit defeat, because lives depend on it. And the funny thing is the life I save might even be yours.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Heart of Wood Buffalo

Last week I had the pleasure of attending an annual event that always makes me smile. The “Heart of Wood Buffalo” Awards are designed to recognize excellence in the social profit sector, and to showcase those who do so many good works in our community. The awards are important because those who work in this sector, as employees, board members, and volunteers, often do jobs of tremendous importance but with woefully little recognition. The Heart of Wood Buffalo awards are an opportunity to acknowledge those people and show a bit of what they do, and why it matters. And the awards do something else, too, as they bring in a keynote speaker to address the audience. Last year it was my friend (and friend to all of the RMWB) Ian Hill, while this year it was a man named Dave Meslin.
I’ll be honest. I had no idea who Dave Meslin is. After hearing him speak, though, I certainly know who he is now, and his impact on me was powerful. It is always fascinating when you hear from someone who is an advocate, someone who embraces new (and possibly unorthodox) ideas, and who fights for his community – especially when that is what you aspire to be, too. And that is what Dave Meslin is, because Dave is a Torontonian who advocates for the community, and who is not afraid of new ideas. He’s also not afraid to tackle the giants of industry or government, and he fights for the common man.

His ideas are remarkable, and remarkable in their practicality. He spoke about some of the initiatives he has been involved in – movements to control electronic billboard advertising in his community, which often becomes garish and intolerable, and movements to beautify through “guerrilla gardening”. He spoke of a “defence” project – not of mounting a defence for an area under attack but rather removing fences, de-fencing communities that have encouraged neighbours to close themselves off from each other behind chain link fences. His initiatives and those he endorses are all about community building, including his thoughts on making the process of government approachable for the common man. I found this particularly intriguing.
Governments are experts at making things confusing. A simple question can end up being routed through several departments, and a simple request can involve a form that is long and complicated and makes you think you’ll need a legal degree to complete. And yet we natter on about citizen engagement and getting people involved in the democratic process and being part of the why do we make it so hard for them to get involved? Do we just want them to vote and then go away for another 3 or 4 years, or do we really want them engaged (and actually I wonder if perhaps some governments make such documents so difficult because they DON’T want citizen engagement). Meslin suggests that governments of all levels need to make their forms and documents more accessible, more open to communication, and easier for all to use. This makes tremendous sense to me, and I think this concept, and his other ideas, have great relevancy in our community.

Dave Meslin presents at TEDx Toronto

At a time of great change there is an even greater need for advocacy. And this community is undergoing great change as we grow once again. These changes are likely to intensify, and while I don’t suggest we do all the same things Meslin has done I suggest we do think about things we want to address in our own community – but I also suggest we do more than think about them. I would suggest we simply do them, each of us who has an idea trying to find a way to institute it and find others to join us. Ideas without action are really not useful – they sit like a knickknack gathering dust, nice to look at but without true purpose. An idea gains power with execution, and while anyone can have an idea it is the leaders who act on them.
And speaking of leaders, that’s what the Heart of Wood Buffalo Awards are all about. I was pleased to be there to see the nominees acknowledged, and the winners recognized. Dave Meslin spoke a lot about innovative ideas and creative approaches to community building during his keynote that night, and what kept running through my head is that this is the leadership we see every day in our social profit sector. We see people who use what little resources they have in creative and innovative ways, and who keep their organizations doing what they do – serving the needs of our community.

I would suggest that you check out this link for more information on the awards, as well as a link to a video of the event. It’s a very worthwhile watch, especially so for the keynote from Dave Meslin and, more importantly, the moments when those who work so hard to improve this community are recognized. In Dave Meslin’s address I saw inspiration for those who need a prompt to become involved in their community and change it for the better – and in the names of all the nominees and winners of the Heart of Wood Buffalo Awards I saw something else. I saw those who have already embraced the idea of working for change, and who now serve to inspire the rest of us.

My thanks to
Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo
for the invitation to attend the
Heart of Wood Buffalo Leadership Awards
and my congratulations to
all the nominees and winners!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Finding Hope in the Dark 2013 in Fort McMurray

It's cold, it's dark, and there is an incessant buzzing noise in my ear as a mosquito has somehow managed to find a way inside my two sleeping bags, including the one I have wrapped around my head. I am warm, but the bags feel damp and so the warmth is a moist kind, warm but uncomfortably so. My right hip hurts from pressing into the ground, but I have been reluctant to change position because of the risk brethren will join the lone buzzing mosquito if I move. It has been a couple of hours since I peeked out to see the northern lights, and now, at 3 am, the birds have already begun to sing. It has been a long night, although I did not see the inside of my bag until 1 am. I find myself thinking about my life over the last year, and I realize that moment has arrived again - that moment at 3 am when all else has faded away, the laughter with friends and the good feelings, and I find myself alone. It is my second annual Hope in the Dark night, and I am sleeping on the ground to understand, just a tiny bit, of what it feels like to be homeless in our community.

This year is different than last year, too. This year there is a box beside me, a box that has collapsed overnight due to the weight of the morning dew and the shifting of the person inside the box. Inside the box, you see, is my daughter, the Intrepid Junior Blogger. This year when I asked if she wanted to do this event with me she not only agreed but insisted, even when I had second thoughts as mothers sometimes do and tried to dissuade her. But she would not be dissuaded. She wanted this experience, to see what it was like, and to share it with me.

And so last night we found ourselves in the park behind the Clearwater Public Education Centre, on a lush grassy field. We were surrounded by friends, and thanks to the security patrols provided by the Centre of Hope, who hosted this event, we were safe. But just as last year it was a sobering experience for me, and this year I think the IJB saw with new eyes what I had seen last year. She saw what it means to be homeless.

The evening began with a BBQ, hosted by Atco Gas (and I must thank them for this generosity and kindness, and let them know that they and their staff have now earned a place in my heart). There were some speeches, from Councilor Al Vinni who delivered a message on behalf of the mayor, and I was honoured to be asked to read greetings from MLA Don Scott. The executive director from the Centre of Hope spoke briefly about their work, and about the nature of homelessness, and then a short video from my friend Ashley was seen, a video depicting some of the numbers around homelessness - the numbers of socks handed out, the numbers of patrons the daytime dropin program at the Centre of Hope sees. And then, in the form of tiny electric candles, another number was displayed.

This number is 43. Forty-three deaths of homeless individuals in our community since the Centre of Hope opened its doors seven years ago. Forty-three lives ended, cut short, and forty-three voices that will never be heard again. For me, though, what brought tears to my eyes is that there are now forty-three stories that I will never hear, and can never share. Forty-three stories silenced forever. Forty-three lives that ended on the street. Forty-three people for whom hope ended not in finding a home, but in death. Those tiny little flickering lights hurt my heart, because I wondered about the story behind each of them - and about those they left behind.

The evening passed quickly last night with good friends, and with strong connections. Some of us had done this last year, and so we were well prepared with extra socks and mittens. I finally took the advice of Phil Meagher and abandoned my bench as he said it was colder to sleep that way, and instead we laid down a tarp in front of it. On top we placed a mat that Phil had so kindly lent us, and then our bags, and the IJB's box.

When the IJB climbed inside her box it was dark. She had in her hands her iPhone and her Kobo, the trappings of a thirteen year old girl. At her side was a flash light, and she looked cozy, although the box kept collapsing, which frustrated her. When she finally went to sleep, full of hot chocolate kindly brought to us by those who visited through the night, I watched her for awhile, unable to sleep while my little girl laid there in a box. It was an uncomfortable feeling for me as a mother, because I have met young women on our streets just a couple of years older than she is. They told me of dark events in their lives, substance abuse, and the kinds of assaults that both angered and frightened me. I watched my daughter fall asleep, and I thought of those young women, and about the terribly thin line that divided them from her.

When I finally fell asleep I did so while watching the headlamps of the security patrols, who watched the perimeters of the park carefully. When I awoke at 3 am I could not hear any other sounds, except the singing of the early birds, and the beating of my own heart. And that is when I began to take stock of my life, and the past year when so much had changed for me.

Eventually I crawled out of my box, and sat on the park bench where I had slept last year. I sat on my pillow, looking at the collapsed box that contained the person most precious in the world to me. I watched the morning dew as it formed on my sleeping bag, and I watched a small robin as it hopped in the grass. The large trucks down at the Snye began their engines at about 4 am, and I watched them too. I watched a beautiful dawn unfold in front of me, and as I sat there and watched all this I felt both peace and disquiet. I felt peace because of how my life is unfolding, and because of my own contentment with the world. And the disquiet? Well, that came from the stark realization that those who do this every night, sleep rough, probably have a hard time appreciating the beauty around them. I suspect that when you are fighting to survive that your sense of appreciating beauty falls away, and your focus shifts to getting through the day - and not joining the forty-three who have not survived life on our streets in the past seven years.

I watch my daughter's box with a special sense of disquiet, because I do not know where her life will go. I think I know, I think I have an understanding of it and her potential, and I have hope and belief - but I know all too well that things can happen to change us and alter the trajectory of our lives. And this shakes me to the core, and brings tears to my eyes, because I want this to be the first, and last, time my little girl ever sleeps in a box in a park. I sit on the park bench and tears run down my face for a few moments, and then I see that coffee is being served in the parking lot up above and I walk - no, run - towards that which I hope will warm my hands and shake me from these troubling thoughts.

At 6 am I descend back into the park, and I shake the box where my child sleeps. I tell her it is time to wake up, and her face appears, groggy and disoriented. She looks like she has slept, and while we gather our things she tells me of her night.We pack up our car, and say our goodbyes, and then we head home.

I ask her how it went, and how she liked it. She answers that it went fine, and that she actually liked sleeping outdoors in her cozy box. And then I ask how she would feel if she had to to it every night, not by choice but by circumstance, and her face changes, clouding over. No, she says. No, she does not want to sleep in a box every night, and once we are home she climbs into her bed, surrounded by warm fuzzy blankets and the stuffed animals that remain from her childhood years.

I sit in my car for a moment when we get home, and I think about how I never want my daughter to experience true homelessness. I think about that moment at 3 am, and about how I don't want her to wake up in a box some day, afraid of becoming a statistic, like the number forty-three. I think about all the homeless in our community, and the fears and challenges they face every day, and about how I doubt any of them ever expected to one day find themselves sleeping in a box. I think about my daughter, and them, and it all tangles up in my head. I drag myself out of my car, and into my own warm bed, where I fall asleep thinking of collapsed boxes, and hope, and the number forty-three. I fall asleep at home, with my daughter in her own bed safe and warm, and my heart hurts as I think of those who have no home, and for whom hope may seem a thing so hard to find at 3 am, when the world is dark.

My sincere thanks to
the Centre of Hope
for organizing
Hope in the Dark 2013 -
but more importantly
for the work they do every day.
You have my heart - and are home to my hope.

My thanks to Marshall, Ashley, and Stacey
young citizens who joined with the COH staff
to organize this event.
People like you are the future of this community
and I am proud and honoured to call you friends.
Thanks especially to those who patrolled all night 
who kept me - and especially the IJB - safe.

Thanks to ATCO Gas for the BBQ -
and for being such great community partners.

Thanks to all the friends, old and new, who joined me this year -
Ken, Christina, Steve x 2, Cassandra, Terrance, Matt,
Shelley, Diana, Tammy, Al, Phil, and all the rest.
Together we braved a night in the cold
and found hope - and understanding - in the dark.

But my greatest thanks go to my daughter
the Intrepid Junior Blogger, aka Sam.
She is my hero, my inspiration, and my heart.
She is my hope in the dark.
She is the reason I want the world
to find compassion and understanding.
I want the world to know
that the homeless person they see
is someone's child - and I want them to treat them
just as we treat our own precious children.

This video was played at the event last night...
and reminds us that we have all had our days in the sun, and
had our moments when we shone.

Friday, May 24, 2013

What the Hell is Going on in Fort McMurray? (reposted from Huffington Post Alberta)

This was originally posted on my blog at Huffington Post Alberta. Wanted to share it here as well :)
The conversation went a little like this:
Me: I met Malcolm Gladwell last week.
Them: What? So cool, I didn't know you were in New York! Did you just run into him or something?
Me: No, I didn't meet him in New York.
Them: Oh, you were in Toronto then? When did you go? Was he speaking there or something?
Me: I didn't meet him in Toronto. I met him in Fort McMurray. And looks like in May I might get to meet Bill Cosby here too.
Long silence and then...
Them: You met them in Fort McMurray? What the hell is going on up there, anyhow?
What the hell indeed is going on in Fort McMurray, you might ask. How did I get to spend time talking to Malcolm Gladwell, and Bill Cosby? What is bringing these people so far north? Well, what is bringing them is the Northern Insights speaker series from the Fort McMurray Public Library - but I think what is really drawing them in is the narrative of this community.
When I spoke with Gladwell it was clear he is curious about Fort McMurray. And he had given it a lot of thought, too, and when we talked it was apparent to me that he had heard some of the other narratives about this place, the ones that paint it in a less than flattering light. But he was interested in the story from people who live here, and curious to see how our narrative differed from the one often told.
Fort McMurray is a place that is controversial, no doubt. There are those who cannot separate the industry from the community, and who condemn both. This is deeply frustrating for those who call this home, because we know that our community is in most respects no different than any other. We have our strengths and our weaknesses, our triumphs and our challenges. And we are beginning to tell our own stories, and we are inviting people to come here to tell theirs - but also to learn about us, from us. To learn from the people who live here, and not from journalists who come for three days, or television crews who drop in for a night. We want to hear their perspectives, but we also want to share ours with them - and to some degree that is what the hell is going on up here.
The other thing that is "going on up here" is a certain bold audacity. Given that Gladwell is only doing ten or so speaking engagements this year one would doubt if he would agree to give one of those presentations in a far northern community - and yet he did, because he was invited. The same holds true for Bill Cosby, who may do far more speaking gigs but who also agreed to come here (despite not being able to find it on a map when he looked). Why did they come here? Because the people at Northern Insights had the courage to pursue them, and convince them to come. It was part of that northern Alberta spirit that says the only way we can fail is if we don't think big enough.
The next speaker in this series is Arlene Dickinson, and I hear rumours of some astonishing speakers to come. And they are coming right here to Fort McMurray, a little place in the far north of Alberta. What the hell is going on here, you ask? Well, the answer is simple, really. Community is going on here, and has been for some time. And every day it just gets a little bit stronger, and a little bit bolder. But if you really want to see what is going on here keep an eye on the Northern Insights speaker series and if you see a speaker you must see then come on up and visit us - and we will show you what is going on, and share our narrative with you.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Feeling Alone in Wood Buffalo?

A short video appeared this morning on my Facebook feed. It's a video done by a friend of mine, an individual who runs a local company called Epic Productions. And this video struck me because tonight I will attend the annual "Heart of Wood Buffalo" awards.

The awards tonight are all about non-profit organizations, and those who make them function, from board members to executive directors to employees to volunteers. It is an opportunity to recognize those who make this community what it is. It is a chance to acknowledge our heart - our social profit sector and all those who work in it.

I watched this video with fascination, because while I know some of those in it I do not know them all, and that is perhaps the true beauty. The social profit sector is strong because of the people in it, and those people come from all parts of this community.

I found the title particularly apt. If you are reading this ask yourself: Do I feel alone in my community? If the answer is yes, then perhaps it is time to do something about it. Volunteer. Join an organization in improving this community. Connect with others in this community over something you are passionate about - and discover your place. No one in this community ever needs to feel alone. I know this first hand - because since I began this blog over two years ago I have never felt alone. I have known, almost from the very beginning, that no one in this community is truly alone. We have each other, and you only need to reach out, just the tiniest bit, to find someone reaching back for you. If you are feeling alone, then maybe, just maybe, the time has come to reach out, and find a community that is just waiting to welcome you.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Separation: Community and Industry

I had an interesting dialogue with a reader of my blog at Huffington Post Alberta this week. The reader was commenting on my recent article there, an article about the recent visits of Bill Cosby and Malcolm Gladwell through the Northern Insights speaker series. The title of the piece is "What the Hell is Going On in Fort McMurray", and this reader responded initially with two brief words: "nothing good".

As the discussion evolved what became clear to me is this is someone who has an issue with the industry in this region, but who has allowed that view of industry to taint their view of the community. They seemed to have trouble distinguishing between the two, an inability to see that industry and community are not the same, and are separate entities. I was both bemused and bothered by this, because I think at times we have the same problem right here within our community. I think we are not always so good at separating the two, and if we cannot do it then how can we expect others from outside to do it?

Look, industry is important. It is vital, of course, whether that industry is the oil sands in this region or gold mining in Red Lake Ontario or nickel mining or pulp and paper mills or automobile manufacturing or...well, the list goes on. However, none of those industries are the same thing as the community in which they are found. Communities, whatever their industry, exist separate and apart from the industry.

One of our local journalists commented recently on Twitter that when someone attacks industry they are not attacking community, and that we need to be able to tell the difference - and she is correct in my opinion. Industries, of any sort, will always be challenged and asked to defend themselves, and any resource industry is often challenged (look at gold mining or coal mining, for instance, or diamond mining overseas). That is the nature of business, and those challenges are not only expected by industry but often welcomed as it gives them the opportunity to share their stories and successes. The difference is that an attack on industry is not an attack on community, and we need to be able to separate the two.

Saying that the oil sands are a "dirty business" and are "ruining the earth" is not the same as saying "Fort McMurray is a dirty place full of crack and alcohol". One is an attack on industry, and one is an attack on community. And while the industry might need to defend itself and prove to others that they are developing the resource in a responsible way I am going to suggest something. I am going to suggest that we, as a community, have nothing to defend. We do not have to prove ourselves to anyone.

I suppose there was a time when that defence of community was needed, and  when every attack on community needed to be fought. I think, though, that time is waning. I think we are becoming increasingly successful at sharing our positive story with the world, and I sense a shift in the dialogue surrounding this place. I see far fewer of these attacks on our community, and far more who focus their concerns on the industry. I think the positive message about our community has been successful, and I think the outside world is learning that our community is not the same as our industry, and that the two are separate entities.

Industry will likely always need to defend itself, and not just the oil sands industry. Most industries are called upon at one time or another to defend their practices and to justify what they do, and truly that is the nature of the world. Community, though? Communities don't need to defend themselves, and when someone attacks us because they have confused our community with our industry they have shown their inability to separate the two. They have shown that they do not understand the difference between industry and community, and while we may want to correct them on that point I don't think we need to defend the community to them. This community has nothing to defend. This community stands on good solid ground as evidenced by the thousands of people who call this place home, and the magnitude of the good works we do, from being the Canadian per capita capital of philanthropy to our vibrant arts scene to our award winning students. While industry may occasionally be called on the carpet to defend themselves and their work I think we as a community have no need to do so. We are not an industry. It does not define who we are. It is our job, and not our soul. If we are going to tell the world that we are more than oil than we need to believe it and stop defending that which needs no defence.

We are Fort McMurray. We are more than oil. We are a community. And we need not defend that to anyone ever again. Period.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Intrepid Junior Blogger, In Her Own Verse

I don't normally do this, turn the blog over to someone else. But today the Intrepid Junior Blogger asked me to print something for her, and when I did I was astonished by it. It is for one of her classes, and it is one of the reasons I know one day she will be a far better writer than I could ever hope to be - and I think she is already on the verge of eclipsing me. This is her poem, her own words, and her turn on my blog. Frankly I think she is the one who should be published. I may hire her as my editor.

I am a…

I’m the glass floor in the CN Tower
I’m a restaurant on the port of Vancouver
I’m a lake shadowed by the mountains of Banff
I’m a ferry ride to Victoria Island

I’m the desk attendant at a small-town airport
I’m whipped cream licked off at a cafĂ©
I’m a vegetable garden with fresh-grown peas
I’m the sweetest dog in Red Lake

I’m a roller coaster at Galaxy land
I’m the Jumbotron in the Calgary Saddledome
I’m the sled hill behind Beacon Hill School
I’m long car trips to Edmonton through the prairies

I’m a lost emerald earring
I’m a weekend spent gaming
I’m the fresh powder on a ski hill
I’m a well-used piano

I’m a bubble bath at the Savoy
I’m a glass of coke atop the London Eye
I’m a bridge across the Thames
I’m the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum

I’m a stone tower looming over a field of sheep
I’m a dog named Rory at a homely hotel in Cashel
I’m a band playing at a pub in Dublin
I’m New Years Eve at Ashford Castle with Oscar the Grouch

I’m a truck filled with boxes of belongings
I’m a fluffy bed piled with blankets
I’m a smudged and well-loved IPhone
I’m a dance when nobody’s watching
I’m a long-practiced scene before a crowd

I am all of this,
And much, much, more,
I am the Intrepid Junior Blogger.

Monday, May 20, 2013

City Centre McMurray - Redeveloping the Downtown Core of Fort McMurray

It is no secret that I am a fan of the redevelopment of the city centre in Fort McMurray. Just this past week I did a fairly lengthy interview centred around that redevelopment, and why I feel it to be so vital to the future of this community. I shared with the interviewer my belief that this redevelopment is crucial to this community reaching our full potential, and I spoke to him about what excites me about it. And I spoke to him about the pain we will go through getting there, too, the changes that some will find hard, and the difficult times along the way, like land expropriations. In the end, though, I believe that we will achieve amazing things here - and change always comes with some pain, and it is never easy. I truly believe, though, that through working together, being empathetic to the pain of others, and being bold and courageous even when afraid of change, we can achieve great things. We can create a community that will amaze the world - and that will, perhaps, amaze even us.

I was not able to attend the recent engagement centres held by the RMWB, but when I visited the City Centre McMurray site recently I found a PowerPoint presentation that intrigued me, and I wanted to share it with you. It provides a lot of information that until now I did not know, and it contains some interesting little tidbits that will require further explanation (eg, the proposed illumination of Jubilee Plaza, as the slide with the "sphere" or "half sun" puzzled me a great deal as I tried to suss out exactly what was being suggested, and the suggestion about using crowd power to move a "timber island" made me wonder about potential liability issues). The thing is, though, that this slide show lays out some very concrete plans as well as a vision for the redevelopment. There is solid information about parking, and about the development of roads in the downtown core. It is most definitely worth a few moments of your time to look at, as this is the future of Fort McMurray. This is the vision for our home, and for what we will look like in the years to come. Despite my occasional questions about this vision I was excited to view this slide show - because I too want to share in this vision. This is my community, and my home. This is my future, Fort McMurray. This is, in fact, our future. View the slideshow, visit the website, submit your comments and questions, and get engaged with this vision for the centre of our city - and of our community. 

And the vision behind the plan...

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Joanne's Story of Losing - and Finding - A Home in Fort McMurray

I remember that night too, but for different reasons. I had a restless sleep that night, and I kept hearing these muffled "boom' noises off in the distance. I wasn't sure what they were - my imagination, perhaps? - but they were loud enough to keep awakening me. I was close enough to hear the booms, apparently, but not the sirens.

I woke up the next morning to news on Twitter of a devastating apartment building fire. It was right across from Ecole McTavish, the Intrepid Junior Blogger's school, and I watched as reports from those who witnessed it began to roll in. There were photos of some of the evacuees in the atrium at McTavish, a spot I know very well, and even dogs and cats milling about in the school. There were photos of the fire as well, horrible photos showing homes in flames. And there were tweets about what people could do - donate, provide support, how to help - because the one question that seemed at the front of every mind in this community was: "How can I help the people who have lost their homes in this fire?".

When the IJB went to school on Tuesday (the school, as I recall, closed on Monday after a long and harrowing Sunday night which saw the principal called in very late at night to open the school to evacuees and firefighters). When she came home she came with a list - a list of how to help. There were suggested items to donate, and suggestions to give to the food bank. And we sat and devised a plan, and how we could help those impacted by the fire. Ecole McTavish was still a very new school, opened just the September before the fire, and so this fire was the first truly impactful event to happen during the life of a new school. I think, in some ways, this fire and the subsequent outpouring of support from staff and students, and the way the school served as a temporary home for evacuees and firefighters, is what began to help the new school form a community. They were asked to pull together during a time of crisis, and pull together they did, to help others in their community, and to help those impacted by a fire that left damage they could see right from the school's front doors.

This week on Facebook a new page called "We Love Fort McMurray" appeared. It is a page dedicated to stories of why we love this place, and why we call it home. And one of the very first stories - and photos - immediately caught my eye, because it was from someone who lost virtually everything in the fire that the IJB and I remember so well. When I saw this story and photo I contacted the author and asked if I could share it here, and she graciously agreed. It is a deeply personal story, and she could have said no to me, but she said yes, and I am profoundly grateful.

I am grateful because while I have never experienced anything of this magnitude in my life in this community this story confirms what I know to be true about Fort McMurray. It speaks about how we care for each other, how we pull together in times of crisis, and how we form a community from people who come from different places and different backgrounds. It speaks to how we become a home.

This is the story of Joanne Leitch, and her family. This is her photo of the devastation the fire left behind. And this story, and so many others like it, is why I believe in this community and all the people who love it here and who will continue to build a community that is strong and giving and compassionate. Stories like this are why I do what I do, because I want the world to know who we truly are. I think on a cold night in February 2012 we showed who we truly are, and we have done it many times before and since. This is my Fort McMurray - and this is why I love it.

Joanne's Story

In November 2010, my husband and I came to Fort McMurray with our boys. Like everyone else, we tore ourselves away from our home, family and friends to find jobs. Literally gave it all up. Our first apartment was great and the landowners were/are amazing people/friends. Sadly the basement flooded and we had to move on. I was unhappy with our situation here and the sadness of being away from our loved ones was crippling. I kept asking myself, 'what are we doing here?'
 February 5th, 2012,  on Super Bowl Sunday and one year after we moved into the new apartment, there was an explosion in our building.  In the extreme February cold, someone's BBQ blew up, and we lost that apartment too, although this time a lot of our belongings went with it. Extreme stress set in. A few days after the fire, they allowed us to go back for some items, and as I looked at our van packed with what little we had salvaged that day, I thought, we say screw it and hit 63 and get the heck outta here or put our chin up and stay? I was very ready to call it quits but amazing things happened. First we got A LOT of very generous help from family back home, but what shocked me the most was how local Fort McMurray residents, who we have NEVER MET and who knew nothing about us, pitched in and donated so much to our family. Clothing, furniture, toys, kitchen housewares, gift cards from families of our school, bedding, air beds. The list goes on and on. 

What also struck me was the night that everyone was evacuated. Ecole McTavish opened its doors as an emergency shelter, and neighbours who heard the blast came to the school with anything they could grab to help, including children's books, Timmies, and I will never forget the two girls who brought pet food and toys and copies of the Downhomer!!! 

It really changed my perspective on this new town that we adopted, and reminded us that this isn't just a 'Boomtown' and it's not about every man for himself. Just look at what happens every time there is a tragedy or small disaster...this town comes together to help each other, or rally together to make a change little twinning the highway, or help other communities like Slave Lake.  Everyone can complain about the traffic, and cold, and construction; but when people say extremely negative things I tell them our story, and then invite them to REALLY look at this town. If you really want to see the back bone of our community, get out and will meet the real faces of Fort McMurray!!!
***A special thank you to the Fort McMurray fire department who got everyone (pets included) out safely all while totally covered in icicles (a sight my family will never forget) and who still took time during their breaks to talk to the victims. You guys and gals are heros!!! 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Come Fly With Me - the Fort McMurray Airport and What Needs to Happen

It’s been a long time overdue. If you have flown out of the Fort McMurray Airport in recent years you’ve seen the congestion. Particularly right around arrival and departure times the airport is a bit like being a sardine in a can. There are times when I walked into the boarding waiting area and realized that if I wanted a seat I’d have to sit on someone’s lap (and frankly I’m both a little too old and a little too shy for that nonsense). The parking situation has been horrendous, and there were times in the past I considered abandoning my car at the Nova Hotel lot and walking in to the airport, dragging my luggage behind me. And why was this happening? Because our little airport is handling a capacity far beyond its capability.

There have been months when our little airport has seen 96,000 passengers. In one month. And now with the addition of international destinations, like Denver, things are only going to get busier, and so the airport expansion is not only welcome but crucial. An expanded airport with increased capability will serve this community well as not only will it be easier for residents to travel but it will be easier for others to come here, and should relieve some of the traffic on the local highways, too.

I’ve been watching the progress on the expansion with interest, and I’ve followed the news of the new food vendors with delight. As a former airline employee I am excited by a viewing deck where flying junkies like me can watch planes land and depart, dreaming of their destinations while thinking about all the trips we have taken. And I, along with many others, will be there for the air show, because I love all things flying. I have one grave concern about all this, though. We are building an airport to handle the capacity we see now, and will see in the future. In 2012 our little airport saw 957,000 passengers come through its doors, and given the oil sands growth projections this number will increase, and rapidly. My concern? The provincial government decision to cut the funding to the improvement of Highway 69, the road that accesses the airport.

I hate to overuse the “economic engine” phrase but the reality is that it’s true. This region is the economic engine of this province, and anything that makes the functioning of the industry and this community smoother needs to be considered carefully. Here is my concern: we will build a state-of-the-art, world-class airport capable of handling our current capacity and beyond, but we will lack the surrounding infrastructure to make it truly operational. What is the point of an airport of this nature if you don’t have the proper highway to access it, and one that just creates headaches and frustrations for the travelers you are trying to attract?

I realize the provincial government is facing some funding issues, but in my opinion the cut in funding to Highway 69 is short-sighted and exemplifies the old-style thinking that landed this region into the mess we find ourselves in – a situation of inadequacies in almost every corner, making do with so little for so long. We have been behind in infrastructure for so long, and this decision follows a long history of such decisions that led us here. We are showing the bold, innovative, progressive thinking necessary by doing things like expanding our airport, but if we are hindered by the provincial and federal government (and I include them in this because it is also in the best interests of the country to keep this community functioning well) then we cannot achieve our true goals and potential. Added to the Highway 69 issue is the issue of an unfunded lengthening of the runway, an improvement that would further increase our capacity.

I want to make something clear. The improvements to the Fort McMurray airport are not just for the benefit of this region. It will benefit this entire province and country because we all know that the economic strength of this region is one of the things that has kept Albertans and Canadians employed. This is not just about “Fort McMurray” – this is about ensuring the continued economic prosperity of our province and country. This is about making sure we can function well and smoothly and continue to be that economic engine. It is only with the support of the provincial and federal governments that we can make this happen. It’s time to get ‘er done – and cough up the dough to do it.