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

Thursday, October 31, 2013

One Thing You Don't Know About Me - Of Prions and Science in Fort McMurray

Have you ever been at one of those conferences or sessions where they start with a "getting to know you" exercise? The usual trifecta is to give your name, occupation, and something people don't know about you. While the first two are ones I can usually answer readily (provided I have had my morning coffee), the third one often stumps me. I feel people know pretty much all there is to know, as in this blog and on various social media I have shared my obsession with shoes, my inability to keep my opinions to myself, and my tendency to cry at the drop of the hat, including at commercials (I am a marketer's dream audience). There is one thing few would know about me, though, or even suspect. I am a science junkie.

It's true, I love science. And while I have an interest in all facets of science some, like physics, leave me so confused that I feel like I've been through a blender after reading a book on them. But there are two fields of science that have always fascinated me, and that I read about, think about, and talk about - paleontology, and epidemiology.

Now, paleontology is the study of ancient life, and while many may think of it as "dinosaur science" my area of interest is the pre-dinosaur era, all the way back to the pre-Cambrian and the tiny creatures that were the beginning of life on this planet. I have a bookshelf full of books on this topic, and on evolutionary science, most by a now-deceased author named Stephen Jay Gould. My interest in this is so keen that a few years ago I climbed a mountain in BC just to touch trilobite fossils, and to sit in one of the places where life began to flourish on this planet millions of years ago. But the other science I love is a bit more relevant to day to day life: the study of disease.

I don't know why it has always fascinated me, but the study of disease, whether caused by viruses, bacteria, or other processes, has always been a passion of mine. I have read hundreds of books on the topic over the years of my life, and one particular type of disease has always intrigued me. My interest began in the 1980's. with a mysterious outbreak in England.

In that decade a veterinarian in England discovered a very sick cow on one farm. That one very sick cow went on to become hundreds of sick cows, and the outbreak of BSE, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, began. It was an interesting story even at that point, but it was with mounting horror I began to read news reports of young adults in England who began displaying signs of an until-then extremely rare disease known as CJD, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. I was a young adult then too, and what was worrisome was that this disease typically strikes rarely, one in a million, and even then in older adults. The sudden incidence in young adults, and the sheer numbers, were terrifying, as they did not know what was causing it, and if transmissible how it was being spread - until some research occurred showing that this disease, now known as vCJD, or a variant of CJD, was actually simply BSE - in humans. The new scary part was that it had come from eating beef.

Overnight the beef industry in the UK was devastated, and the consumption of meat fell to dramatic levels. Dozens of young adults fell ill and died of a disease that is invariably fatal, and that causes horrible suffering in its victims as their brains fall prey to form of neurological disease that creates rapid degeneration of their cognitive abilities. Humans showed symptoms similar to that of cows, and while hundreds of cows were killed and burned so their meat could not enter the food chain, thousands and thousands of humans realized they had been exposed to a deadly agent of disease known as a prion, a protein found in our brain that for some reason in these diseases "misfolds", causing these horrible symptoms, and a horrible demise.

The beef industry in every other country quaked in fear watching events unfold in England, and then, in 2003, a piece of bovine brain tissue was under the microscope of a scientist here in Alberta. It came from a cow that had been displaying worrisome signs, and the researcher turned on her microscope and saw something that would change the beef industry, the province, Canada, and hundreds of thousands of lives forever. She saw in her microscope a prion - and last night I met that scientist.

Last night I had the honour and privilege of attending a talk from Jay Ingram, perhaps most famous for his hosting role on Discovery Channel's science show Daily Planet as well as the author of over a dozen books, Dr. Stefanie Czub, a scientist with Canada Food Inspection Agency, Dr.Valerie Sim, a neurologist and researcher from the U of A, and Dr. Kevin Keough. the Executive Director of the Alberta Prion Research Institute. They were here at Keyano College to talk about prions, and prion research, and it was an evening I doubt either I or the Intrepid Junior Blogger will soon forget, as it was an evening which painted a picture of a tiny protein abnormality with enormous consequences.

When I asked the IJB if she wanted to attend the lecture on prions she quickly agreed, as she is currently studying genetics in school. Every night in our house has become a quiz-fest as she tries to tease out what I still remember of chromosomes and dominant traits. She too is a science junkie, although she normally avoids biology (having a bit of a squeamish side that I fortunately do not share) and prefers physics and chemistry - but she has been talking recently of how much she enjoys genetics, and how intriguing it all is. Last night she sat in the second row at the Doug Schmit Lecture Theatre in Keyano College, and she was completely transfixed as four people shared the story of prions, and their impact.

From a rare disease called Kuru found in New Guinea in the 1950's to Chronic Wasting Disease in elk and deer in Alberta, we went on a little journey around the world with an elusive science riddle that we now know as a prion. Jay Ingram, who is skilled at taking the realm of science and making it accessible, served to tell the tale, but what was perhaps most intriguing and most compelling was the way Dr. Sim and Dr Czub wove their pieces into the story. Dr. Sim spoke as a neurologist who treats these kinds of diseases (although treats is a bit of a misnomer when it comes to prion diseases, which have a fairly predictable progression and an always fatal end), and her ability to tell a tale simply shone as she shared the tragic stories of patients diagnosed with the spontaneous form of CJD (as CJD can arise on its own with no infectious cause, but extremely rarely). I was spellbound watching her, and I suspect she has either had some training in the dramatic arts or is perhaps also an actress, as she had an incredible ability to bring the stories to life. Dr. Czub shared the story of BSE in Canada, and when she revealed that she is the scientist who identified the first BSE case in Canada I think my jaw dropped, because I suspected that moment in front of her microscope was a life-changing one as she knew that the fate of an industry, a province, a country, and hundreds of thousands of people would be impacted by what she saw (I can't even quite imagine it, but it must be one of those incredibly rare moments as a professional when you realize that what you have done or discovered will change history forever). Dr. Keough was the opener and closer for all of this, sharing the incredible work being done at the Prion Research Institute, founded after the BSE crisis in Alberta began.

The IJB and I were transfixed, frankly. The intermeshing of the stories took the tale of prions to another level entirely, showing the impact on human and animal life, on industry, and on the economy and country. I recall so well when BSE was found in this province, and the "shoot, shovel, and shut up" comment from then-Premier Ralph Klein, who almost certainly wished the entire thing would just go away, knowing it would take a multi-billion dollar industry and make it worthless overnight. But Klein rose to the occasion, and his government decided to fund prion research, creating this institute and attracting scientists to do work on the causes and impact of these diseases. I am proud to say our current government continues to fund this research, despite other governments around the world beginning to eliminate similar research as the BSE crisis in their countries seems to be over (and I use the word "seems" very intently, as prion research has significant relevance to other diseases very similar to CJD and BSE, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, diseases which continue to devastate lives).

After the lecture was over the IJB and I took the time to chat with the panel of guests, and our conversations were of the kind that excite both my head and my heart, as the scientists are so passionate about what they do, and why they do it. We talked about how science needs to find ways to get these stories out into the world, and how this new world of the 30-second media clip and 2-minute attention span is not kind to stories that require just a bit more narration and history. The IJB was quiet during much of this, as she often is, but I could see the gleam in her eyes, especially when Dr. Czub invited her to visit the research lab to learn more about what they do. I looked over and the IJB's eyes had widened, and I knew she was utterly and completely hooked by these two women who are the kind of role models I want for my daughter.

We spoke to Dr. Keough about the work of the Prion Institute, and we spoke to Jay Ingram, sharing our appreciation of his work, and of the lecture that night. He told us that they had all been excited when I had tweeted that I was bringing my fourteen year old along to the lecture, as I don't think they get a lot of that demographic attending such lectures. He signed a book for her, and said that one day when she has her PhD in science she should look him up again to chat - and she said she would, and I suspect one day she will, as she is a creature of her word.

On the car ride home the IJB talked non-stop. She talked about BSE, CJD, and CWD, using the acronyms like a pro, and she theorized that maybe the advent of lab-grown meat was the solution to ever seeing the rise of a meat-ingestion related prion disease again. She talked about the invitation from Dr. Czub (and her eyes absolutely glowed as she did), and she talked about reading more about prions. And then, this morning, she came upstairs and said "I know what I am going to do my project-based learning on this year. I am going to do it on prions, and the impact of prion-related diseases". I knew at that moment that a lecture from 3 scientists and one adept science writer and communicator had likely impacted the trajectory of her life, as she had found a new area of science that intrigued her, excited her, and made her want to learn even more, sharing what she learned just as they shared with us last night.

Last night, you see, was science communication done right. Perhaps there are those who think researchers should spend all their time in the lab, but I believe the best people to share their passion and tell these stories is the scientists themselves, with the help of professional communicators like Jay Ingram. The story of prions, far from being some dry and dull tale, is a fascinating story of diseases that impact our world, our economy, and our very lives. The continuing tale of Chronic Wasting Disease in elk and deer unfolds daily, and it has potential significant impact if it does things like move into our caribou herds. This story is a lively one with tremendous relevance as we try to understand diseases like Alzheimer's, and it is so deserving to be told and shared - and last night it was, in a little lecture theatre in our local college.

I want to thank Jay Ingram, Dr. Keough, Dr. Sim, and Dr. Czub for coming north to share this story with us, and for being so very, very kind to my daughter and I. I don't know if they know it, but they have impacted her young life, and I am so very grateful to them. I want to thank Keyano College for presenting this lecture, and for allowing this community to attend events like this where we can learn and explore our world with individuals like those we met last night. I also want to thank our provincial government for continuing to fund this research so that scientists like these can continue to chase their passion, and pursue an understanding of a tiny protein abnormality that can create such devastation.

So there you go, folks. There is something you didn't know about me. My name is Theresa, I'm a writer - and science excites me. Damn. Now I am back to not knowing how to answer that third question again, I guess.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Why I'm Not a Community Leader

When I began this blog I had no idea where it would lead me, or the various adventures it would take me on. And I certainly never, ever anticipated any of the "public figure" aspect that has come with it, because that was never planned or anticipated. I suppose I have grown into some of that over time, and over time I have even come to accept it when others call me a community advocate, as I would refer to myself that way too, with my passion for this community quite clearly revealed in this blog and my life every day. One thing I have never really found comfortable, though, and that I have never referred to myself as, is the term "community leader".

I suppose I have always felt it is presumptuous to refer to yourself this way. Some individuals become leaders because they are elected to lead, or hired to lead. But for me, in my role, being referred to as a "community leader" just felt wrong. I had no intent to lead people, or to lead this community. If others chose to follow my example in word and deed I was delighted, of course, but I didn't do what I do in order to convince them to follow me. I have struggled with the term for a long time, and have even argued with people about it when they have tried to convince me that being a "community leader" then meant I needed to conform to some guidelines of conduct and behaviour (and, well, me being me, that didn't go well as a concept). It wasn't really until last week that the struggle ended and I found a term that I am comfortable with, and one I will call myself. I'm not a community leader, you see. I'm a community servant.

I do what I do because I love this community, and I want it to be the kind of place the Intrepid Junior Blogger will one day look back on fondly. I do what I do because I care about the people in this community, and I care about what happens to them. I advocate for things like twinning highways and aging in place facilities because they matter to the quality of life of the people who call this home. And I do what I can to change how the outside world views this place, because I know we are in the midst of something special here, and it deserves to be shared and understood, not maligned and viewed with suspicion. And I do all those things because I see it as a service to my community, a "giving back" to a place that has given me so very much, including the experience of writing this blog.

I doubt I will ever refer to myself as a "community leader", as while I have an ego like everyone else it simply feels too grandiose to call myself that, and it will never feel comfortable to me. I do consider myself a community advocate, and always will, and, in the future, if asked what I do in the community, I will call myself a "community servant", and explain why.

I am not a community leader. I am simply someone who is prepared to go places and do things that better life for myself, my daughter, and this community. If I am honoured enough to find there are those who wish to follow that example then I am truly humbled - but I would prefer to serve, not lead or follow. Perhaps this quote from Camus sums it up best:

I am not a community leader. I am a community servant, and I am so very honoured to be surrounded by friends who walk beside me and who choose to serve this place we call home - every single day.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Of Intrepid Junior Bloggers and Politicians

I am always bemused when I take the Intrepid Junior Blogger with me to events. She is deceptive, this one, often quiet around adults she doesn't know, leading them to think she is perhaps shy, but they just haven't cracked the exterior and discovered the talkative (and opinionated) creature within. Last night she and I had the honour of attending the swearing-in ceremony of our newly elected Mayor and council, as we were so kindly invited by our friend Phil Meagher, one of the councillors returning to his seat in the chambers. While my eyes on this sort of political thing may be mildly jaded the eyes of the IJB are fresh and new, and seeing things from her perspective is always very, very interesting.

I think on occasion people doubt me when I say the IJB is into politics. After all, she is a 14-year old girl, so surely she is into music stars and television shows, right? Well, all I can say is that while the IJB hates Justin Bieber she thinks Justin Trudeau is intensely "hot". She often complains about the Harper government (she is no fan of his), and she has even gotten into it a bit on Twitter with a certain local MP when she called him out for poor grammar usage. She follows politics with the same intensity other kids might follow music stars and movies, and while her interests are diverse, ranging from K-Pop (which is Korean pop music if you are wondering) to video games, the world of politics is one of her true passions. Just yesterday she proudly informed me that she has been appointed Prime Minister of student council, and so she will end out her final year in junior high in charge of council, just as she has planned all along (and like politicians she has strategies, as last week she was busily compiling a list of what she would do as prime minister, and what strengths she brings to the job, like the "ability to build strong relationships between the educational staff and student body" - what can I say, she is my kid through and through). Last night was perfect timing, then, for us to find ourselves in the audience for the swearing in, and to watch the political show begin.

The program started with a performance from the Holy Trinity choir, one that made my heart sing as they are such a blend of this community, covering all our cultural diversity and the power of our youth in one fell swoop. They delivered a lovely song, and then it was on to the ceremony itself, with MC Tyler King of Rock 97.9/Country 93.3 (who did a terrific job, too, although the IJB kept commenting that he reminded her of a Simpsons character, and planned to rush home to watch Youtube to figure out which one).

The ceremony itself was quite short, with each councillor and the mayor being sworn in by a judge, swearing to uphold the oath of office and to serve this region in an ethical manner, and with integrity. The IJB, who is so observant, caught so many details I missed, and afterwards I was dumbfounded when she listed who did and did not swear the oath while holding the Bible (a nuance I totally missed).

After all the newly elected officials were sworn in they each had the opportunity to address the audience briefly. This is where the IJB truly got engaged, leaning forward to catch every word. She was quietly typing notes to me the entire time, showing me her iPhone screen to share her thoughts. "he is sweet but I worry he will get eaten alive", she would type, or "this one is very clever", quietly logging her thoughts on each person as they spoke. She tried to determine who was the most "sassy", deeming Sheldon Germain to be quite saucy (in a good way), with Phil Meagher a close second. She smiled when Tyran Ault and Keith McGrath both teared up a bit as they spoke. She made small comments on every single speech, even on those newly elected councillors she has never met, and each one made me smile because her thoughts were fresh and genuine, and although I may be biased, quite astute.

After the ceremony I wanted to leave, ready to go home after a long day, but she is the one who insisted we stay, as she wanted some of the food (she is a big fan of the food at MacDonald Island Park, just as I am), and she wanted to congratulate the councillors. And so we did, she having a chat with a few them, including quite a lengthy exchange with Guy Boutilier, who she last met when her Grade Six class visited the Alberta Legislature and he was still an MLA. He told her that his start had been on student council, too, and I could see the tiny gleam in her eye because some day this young woman will no doubt be giving politicians like Guy a run for their money on election day,

Finally she agreed to leave (and when Al Vinni told her that she should tell her mother to quit dragging her to things like this she laughed and said to me "how funny is that, he thinks you drag me when I am the one who wanted to stay"). In the car on the way home we talked a lot about the new council, the dynamics, the future, and the value of councils where there is some degree of conflict, as through conflict we often find the correct path. We talked about our hopes that the new council, despite coming to the chamber with differing views, would find a way to work together, and find ways to resolve their conflicts with solutions that may not be exactly what they want as individuals but a compromise that benefits everyone. We talked about how we hoped they would not get so bogged down and entrenched in conflict  that progress in our community stalled, and we talked about how each and every one was likely about to find their lives changed, as while running for office is one thing serving in office is another thing entirely, with new challenges and new experiences. And we talked about two of the comments that struck us both last night, and that we thought were very interesting. One was when Sheldon Germain commented about his long service in elected office, and how when he was elected he did not know how much he did not know, and we both thought the truth and honesty and humble reality in that statement was striking. The other comment was when one of them (and to be honest I don't recall who, either Phil or Sheldon), looked at the newly seated councillors and said they were not the "dream team", a reference to the council elected in 2010 and that was  widely referred to in that way. The IJB and I discussed how perhaps that was a good thing, because dreams, while lovely and wonderful, are elusive things, far too often shattered and far too easily lost along the way, too much fantasy and too little reality. Perhaps, we concluded, we need a "truth team". one that may occasionally encounter conflict and have to struggle to find resolution and achieve the goals we have set out for our elected officials.

Last night the IJB crawled into bed with the program from the swearing-in. She told me she just wanted to look at it and review the names again, and think about each of them and how they would work together. And I suppose that is when I realized that it isn't just media and political junkies and voters who would be watching this mayor and council for the next four years. It will be young women (and men) like the IJB, who will be remembering last night and quietly making notes in their heads as we move into the future. The performances, and personalities, will be quietly observed by young people like my daughter, young adults who are both the future of this community, and of this world. The decisions made in the next four years, and the actions of our new mayor and council, will have both a direct impact on my daughter's life, and an indirect one as they will help to shape how she sees the world of politics. There is a heavy weight on the shoulders of the newly elected officials, and it is far more than perhaps they even realize. Each and every one of them is being watched, and notes are being quietly made, not just by adults but by the young adults who will one day be the ones leading this world. Their example of leadership, however they choose to exercise it, will influence the leaders of tomorrow. I have great hopes, though, and great faith as I believe every person sworn-in last night shares a love for this community, and a desire to make it a better place, and while they may have differing opinions on the route the destination is the same. I believe that if this is their guiding principle then they will be the kind of role models my daughter will be proud to emulate one day.

This morning when I went into the IJB's bedroom I found the program from last night on the floor beside her bed. I didn't ask her what her final conclusions or thoughts were, as those are hers and hers alone. What I do know, though, is that she will be watching the next four years with young, fresh eyes, and she is quietly observing what many of us won't even notice. She will be seeing the future - her future - take shape in front of her. I am almost envious, as I wish I could see it through her eyes. All I know is how privileged I am to be witness to it at all, and how much I hope that what she sees encourages her in her own path in life. I would suggest that the next four years may see a young woman in the back of council chambers on council meeting nights, one with hair that will likely be every colour of the rainbow during that time, and that she will be quietly making notes just as she did last night. And quite frankly I can't wait to read them.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Social Media McMurray

Recently someone asked me why social media is so strong in Fort McMurray. They had noted, correctly I think, that our Facebook and Twitter scene is hotly active, and far more so than in some cities. When they asked the question I replied very instinctively, and even I had to stop and think about whether or not that instinctive reaction was correct - but after consideration I think it is. You see, I told them we have such active social media because we don't have a dedicated local television station that broadcasts the news.

I suppose it is with a sense of surprise on occasion that I remember we don't have a local TV station. And I don't mean to diminish what Shaw TV does, as their community-focused segments are terrific and of tremendous value, and our radio stations do an excellent job, too - but I don't think there is anything quite like the 6 o'clock television news to inform and communicate, and that is something we simply don't have here. We rely heavily on radio and newspapers, and more and more on social media, to connect and communicate. We don't have morning shows or the noon news hour or the 6 pm news, things that were all a standard daily staple in my house when I was growing up. Those shows were how news, traffic issues, weather, and sports were communicated. There were investigative reports, and feel-good stories. They were part of daily life, and we don't have them here in the same way - but we do have that innate desire to connect, and so we turn to social media.

I will be very candid here - I love social media and all its facets, but it has some serious pitfalls. Social media and the information on it often answers to no one, and accuracy can be suspect. You can find rumours presented as fact, and facts dismissed as rumours. The concept of "citizen journalism" is a fascinating addition to our world, but it should not replace traditional journalism, with proper fact checking, sourcing, and accountability. And social media has repercussions, too.

In the last election I followed social media with interest, and not just from our own community and our regional election. I don't believe you can actually win an election through social media use, although I think a strong social media presence is of benefit. I do think, though, that you can lose an election through social media, as in some other cities I witnessed candidates arguing with the very voters they hoped to attract and pursuing similar strategies that seemed unwise at best. Social media has strength in elections, and it should not be diminished, but it also cannot replace human interaction, like traditional door knocking and engagement with voters. There is much social media can do - and yet there is much it cannot do, and maybe that it shouldn't do.

And then there is the age divide, too. The Intrepid Junior Blogger is active on Twitter, having several accounts burning with activity from local commentary on events to usage for online role playing games based on some of her beloved video games, like Skyrim (and even a Twitter account for her cat). She has a Facebook page, too, but she rarely uses it, and informed me the other day that Facebook is for "old people".

Yep, old people. She suggested that Facebook is becoming MySpace, a social media platform abandoned when young adults moved on to Facebook. She told me that old people ruin social media, turning it into some systematic, structured thing to share recipes and send game requests as opposed to the free-flow of information young adults prefer. She said that her entourage is more into instant messaging, like Kik and Snapchat, and that in her world even email is dying as kids text instead of email (and she seems to be right as she rarely emails, either). But maybe that is why adults in Fort McMurray flock to Facebook groups and Twitter accounts - maybe it's because we find ourselves lacking in the traditional ways we connected via daily television news and morning shows, and we have created a new paradigm instead and taken over the territory of our youth.

I enjoy social media immensely, but on occasion I worry about the power we ascribe to it, and the effort we invest in it. I worry that this investment is a poor one at times, better spent with live human interaction and face-to-face conversation. And as witnessed by the way some panicked when Facebook went down last week (causing the IJB to laugh at the reliance of "old people" on it) I think we saw some of the issue of giving too much power and attention to social media. I think it is worrisome that people think that a website going down will have disastrous effects on their networking abilities and their interactions, because Facebook is a relatively new invention, and such solid reliance on it is concerning (apparently serious terrorists just need to knock out social media to achieve chaos). I have heard social media described in so many ways - a tool, a toy, a weapon. And it is a wonderful thing, and one I have embraced - but on occasion my relationship with it is an uneasy one as I see both the good it can do, and the damage it has done.

Would I give up Facebook and Twitter if a local TV station came along and started broadcasting the news and carrying local advertising and covering local stories? No, of course not - but I do think that my own reliance on it would wane a bit as I would feel that desired connection from another glowing screen. I suspect the IJB would definitely dismiss TV news as being for "old people" - but I also know that she would be sitting on the sofa right beside me as we watched the news together, with dialogues sparked by what we saw on that screen as opposed to both of us on laptops immersed in our own little social media worlds. Andy maybe that's where the true connection is missing, and why I feel this nostalgia for the nightly news shared by those gathered around a TV set - because maybe it is the human interaction that social media is truly lacking.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

On Kraft Dinner, Hope, and Stories that Change Lives - the KD Gala and the Centre of Hope

Two years ago I went to an event that changed my heart forever. Two years ago I heard a story that set me on a different path, and that reminded me that every person has a story, and every story deserves to be heard. And two years ago on a cold and snowy November night in Fort McMurray I sat in my car and cried, because I heard a story that I have carried with me every single day since then, one that has haunted me and has become a soft rhythm in the background of my life, because it has led to so many other stories, and so very many questions. Last night I heard another story, and last night I attended an annual event that manages every single year to centre me and remind me of some very poignant realities. Last night I attended the KD Gala for the Centre of Hope.

I have written a great deal about the Centre of Hope, the daytime drop-in program for the homeless in our community. I have written about the people who work there, and the individuals who spend their days in the warmth and safety of that little building on Franklin, that building that is no longer blue but that will always be the little blue building in my heart. And even when I am not writing about the Centre of Hope and their patrons I am thinking about them, even when I am talking about our community with great minds of our time like Malcolm Gladwell, who posed a question to me about who this community wants to be  - Dubai, with their enormous resource wealth and Gucci stores and palaces and abject poverty and stark economic divisions, or Norway, with their tremendous resource wealth and strong social justice and determination that every person will have their basic needs met. The Centre of Hope is one of those places that has become a ribbon that ties together the pieces of my life, and it has over the last two years become a place that centres me when I find myself off-balance. It, and the patrons, have become my touchstone with reality.

Last night I dined again in the basement of the Fellowship Baptist Church, a place that during the week serves hundreds of our homeless and near-homeless and poverty-stricken through the Soup Kitchen. I took the Intrepid Junior Blogger with me as she too has heard my stories about the Centre of Hope and about those who share our community who struggle, and she too is developing a keen interest in social justice. We sat last  night and we ate dishes all based on Kraft Dinner, the staple diet item of the financially challenged everywhere, and we listened as Phil Meagher entertained the audience as he always does. It is a different kind of gala, this one, no flowing gowns and fancy suits but rather a complete focus on the organization with a side serving of humble foods, and even humbler hearts.

Last night I watched as the IJB took in a world that I have become so close to in the last two years. I watched as she viewed a video on the impact the Centre has on our local homeless population (a video wonderfully made by our friend Ashley), and I watched as she listened to the story from a young woman named Chrystal, who got up on that stage and shared her story of addiction, and how the Centre of Hope gave her her life back. I saw the light shining in the IJB's eyes, and I knew she too was seeing the harsh reality of this community, where the divide between the haves and the have-nots can be stark and cruel.

Chrystal was so brave to tell her story, as I know the courage it takes to stand on a stage and strip away all pretence and bare your soul. I know the courage it takes to tell a story that is raw and painful, but I also know that those stories can liberate you, and they can change the lives of others. I know this because I have told such a story once on a stage, and doing so freed me in a way I had not expected. And I know they can change you because the stories I have heard from those at the Centre of Hope have changed my life, from the story of a young man named Adam to the story of a young woman who ended her life in a dumpster.

Yes, that last story is the one I heard two years ago, told by her partner who left her one cold morning in the dumpster where they had spent the night to protect themselves from the harsh winds and cold. He had gone to get coffee, and when he came back the dumpster was empty, and gone with the contents of the dumpster was the woman he loved. It is believed her life ended in the landfill of this community, her heart stopping its rhythm as she met her end surrounded by the things we throw away. And that story, one that brings me to tears every single damn time I think of it, changed my life forever because none of us, from the wealthiest to the poorest, are trash. None of us should end our lives in a dumpster. None of us should be forced to spend our days and nights living in tents on the Snye when it is 40 below, or huddled in heaps on street corners. None of us, in this community of incredible wealth, with one of the highest average incomes in the country, should be forgotten. The question that rings in my head is: who do we want to be - Dubai, or Norway?

I sit here this morning as the fresh snow swirls behind me, just glimpsed through the glass of the windows of my safe and warm house. I think, though, of all those who are sleeping rough today, and who will do so again tonight. I think about how they struggle in this community, often stripped of dignity and respect and treated, if we are to be entirely honest, like trash. I think about how no human life should be thrown away, and about how we need to ensure that homelessness does not become hopelessness. I think about the nights I have spent at Hope in the Dark, the event where people like me and the IJB can sleep outdoors in a park for a night in a cardboard box, and learn a bit about the nature of being homeless. I think about young women like Chrystal, now sober for 4 and one half months, and how she must count every day of sobriety as a victory. I think about the words I shared with her, telling her I recognized her courage for telling her story, and thanking her for doing so, and seeing the tears in those beautiful, intelligent, and older-than-their-years young eyes. I thought about the times I have visited the Centre of Hope and listened to the stories, ones again shared with me so bravely and so freely, and I think simply because like all other people they just want someone to hear their story, and care enough to listen to it. I thought about the last two KD Galas I have attended, and how this event, stripped of all the glitz and glamour of the other local galas, has become my favourite every single year, the one where I find my heart and soul being centred, and where I rediscover the meaning of hope. And, in the end, I thought about a young woman who ended her life in a dumpster, and how that story is one that I will fight to never see repeated in this community because I don't think my heart could stand it, and because no one, no person regardless of who they are, is trash.

I could say the Centre of Hope does "good work" or that they are an "essential service" but to me that seems trite and frankly diminishes what they do. What the Centre of Hope does is offer those who are the most vulnerable, those who are the most likely to fall through the cracks, those who suffer from addictions or mental illness, those who have resorted to crime or prostitution to simply survive, hope and refuge from a world that is harsh and cold and far too often cruel to the vulnerable. The Centre of Hope gives them a place to wash their clothes, an address where they can receive their mail, clean socks, a place where they can see a nurse to attend to their medical needs, a place where they can take a shower and feel cleansed, and most of all a place where they are valued, respected, and shown hope. What the Centre of Hope does is heal souls, and hearts, and takes those who may have lost all hope or are at tremendous risk of giving up and shows them that homelessness doesn't have to be hopelessness, and that there is a path out of the dark and into the light. The staff there do so with compassion and with love, because without love one could not do the job they do every day, I think.

This morning I sit here with my coffee cup and this laptop, and as I watch the snowflakes swirl in the air my head swirls with thoughts that words can't quite express. What they all come down to though, is gratitude for places like the Centre of Hope, and an intense belief in what they do. What it all comes down to for me is ensuring that no life in our community ever ends in a dumpster again, and how last night I saw one young woman who was saved while two years ago I heard the story of one young woman who was lost, and the fine line that divides them, and me, and all of us. I find myself thinking about the future, one in which the Centre of Hope will need to grow because it has become too small, and how that both makes me happy in that they will have the capacity and support to grow, and how that troubles me because it makes me feel we are on the wrong path, the one Gladwell warned me about, the one leading us into a society of divisions of wealth and harsh realities like increased homelessness.

I sit here this morning and reflect, and feel so very many mixed emotions. The one I keep coming back to, though, is hope and how hope is something we create. Hope is something we can share, and something we can offer that has the tremendous power to change lives and minds and hearts. Hope is something far too often lacking, but that I have found time and time again in a little no-longer-blue building on Franklin Avenue. I think about all those homeless individuals I have met over the last two years - the aboriginal lady who called me her friend, and told me she loved me, and the young man who spent time in prison and told me he was turning his life around because people in this community gave him hope. I wondered where they are today as the snow falls, and I open my heart wide and send them hope and love, because that is something we all need, and not just on cold days when the snowflakes begin to appear. I am so grateful to have attended the annual KD Gala, but even more I am grateful for the United Way and all they do in this community, and for groups like the Centre of Hope, who take an intangible thing like hope and turn it into hot showers, warm socks, and a safe place to spend the day off the streets. I could say I thank them for all they do for this community, but thanks isn't enough. I love them for all they do, and for giving hope to those who cannot find it, for giving light to those who are in the dark, and for never giving up on those that others may treat like trash. The Centre of Hope isn't really just about hope, you see - it is really the Centre of Love, the Centre of Compassion, and the Centre of Humanity - and I am so profoundly grateful for their presence.

I will stop now, because my eyes are once again clouded in tears, and I can write no more as I think about a young woman in a dumpster, and how our community failed her. All I know is this - what happened to her can never happen again, because it will be our indictment, and the condemnation of our society as a failure to protect those who are most vulnerable. Her life was precious and rare and valuable and unique, just as every single life is. Places like the Centre of Hope and those who work and volunteer there understand this - and just as they have hope I too have hope that all the others in this community understand this too, and realize just how fragile and precarious our lives can be. We have a responsibility to each other, and to hope - because in the end the only hope we have is that which we create and offer to each other.

My tremendous thanks to
the Centre of Hope
for everything they do every single day,
to Chrystal
for braving sharing her story,
to the United Way
for their support of
the organizations in this community,
and to everyone in this community
who believes in -
and offers -

Friday, October 25, 2013

Taking Cover

One of the best parts of this journey I have been on in the past two years has been the opportunity to meet other people in our community who are involved in creative pursuits. Some of these individuals have become close friends along the way, too, sharing their projects with me and allowing a glimpse into their creative process, which is often quite different but sometimes similar to my own. Over time I have learned so much from them, because what they do offers so much even when my own creative pursuit in writing is a bit different from the creativity they explore in their work. And on occasion they share with me sneak peeks at new works, things not yet revealed, just as I recently had the opportunity to see the short film Cover, the latest release from Hyperphotonic Media.

I watched it in my office when Tito, the creative mind behind the project, sent me the link. And I am rather glad I was watching it in my brightly lit office with the sun shining in behind me, because Cover is a splendid little film, in a delightfully scary and creepy way.

I won't give too much away, because the film will make its premiere tomorrow evening at Film Fear, the annual Halloween film festival offering from YMM Podcast and the Fort McMurray Filmmakers Association. I will say the faces in the film are familiar ones, people you have seen on stage and around town in various artistic and creative pursuits. I will say the short is stunningly well done, and I expected no less as those involved in it are committed to not only creating film but creating quality film, work that can shown on any screen and have an impact. And I will say I am incredibly proud of the individuals involved, because while Cover is a frightening little film filled with dark moments and some gore, what shines through to me is the dedication of every person involved in it.

Look, there is a lot of talk about changing this community, and creating a vibrant arts and culture scene. There are conferences and meetings and planning sessions. And the more and more I go to meetings the more I think that meetings are where good ideas go to die, because far too often the ideas get left at the table after the meeting, never acted on and never pursued - unless you have people who take the ideas and make them reality. Tito and Toddske of YMM Podcast had an idea about a podcast - and so they did it, a podcast I have had the honour of appearing on several times, and one that has become synonymous with this community. Then they, and their friends Steve, Ashley, and Misty, thought about creating an association for local filmmakers, helping others to develop their talents and giving them opportunities to display them - and then they created this association, one that holds workshops and hosts film festivals. And all along the way they have been making films, like the amazing Arkham Rising last year, and this year they will introduce Cover. What they have done is not just had an idea but had an idea and brought it to life, working together to bring new projects to the screen, and to further the development of local filmmaking talents. And I suppose that is what ran through my head during the entire private screening I enjoyed of Cover. I not only admired the film and the acting and the music and the scripting and the cinematography but the determination of those who had touched it in any way. The reality is that these individuals are doing far more than making films or even hosting film festivals - they are building this community with every single film and podcast and festival and workshop.

Tomorrow evening I will be at Film Fear, heading there straight after the annual KD Gala, the event that showcases the Centre of Hope, a place that has become so close to my heart. I will hunker down in my seat at the Keyano Recital Theatre and watch the world premiere of Cover, and I will enjoy it from start to finish just as I did several times yesterday. And while I watch I will think about how it, and all the people who created it, have become such an important part of this community, and my life , and how I see each and every one of them as the community builders of the present - and the future. I will very likely be smiling with pride just as I am wincing at some of the more gory scenes - but most of all I will be celebrating the arts, creativity, determination, and the pursuit of passion in our community. I will be taking Cover, just as I suspect Cover will take this community and make fans of all who see it - but the catch is if you want to see the film you must attend Film Fear tomorrow night, as the film will not be online for some time and will instead head onto the short film festival circuit. I won't tell you should go, as I am not in the habit of telling others what to do - but I will tell you this: If you want to see a great film, support local arts, and be in on the beginning of an amazing adventure, you'll be there to see this film. You could go to a meeting, I suppose, and talk about what you can do to support the community or create change - or you can go sit in a dark theatre, get your pants scared off, watch others who are actively creating art and changing this place we call home - and then find your own inspiration to do the same, no meetings required.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

When Gold Turns to Dust - The Talking Stick

When a fellow blogger and former RMWB councillor wrote a blog during this election about a tool that he called "gold" I think he genuinely believed it was gold, and for a time I did, too. It is a tool devised to help constituents engage with candidates in the election, asking them questions regarding platform and policy that would help determine where their vote would one day be cast. But in this recent election that tool, called the "Talking Stick" started to slide sideways, and in the end I think it became a victim of an election that was mired in rumours and accusations. I am afraid what started out as gold became, in the end, fool's gold.

The Talking Stick has been around for some time, and in previous elections I too used it to interact with candidates. This year, however, the questions on the anonymous forum (as all one needs to do to ask a question is provide a name and an email address) went far beyond questions on policy and platform. It became a public airing of grievances, and, in some cases, slid far enough that I began to fear slander suits against those who host the webpage (and as many of us who host pages such as this know we are legally responsible for the content on them, whether we have written it or endorse it or not). It became so enmeshed in some of the nastiness of this campaign that it stopped being of much use to anyone, including the candidates I suspect, who found themselves answering over a hundred questions. And since candidates were evaluated based on how many questions they answered many probably felt tied to answering them all, spending hours and hours on a keyboard when their time was probably better spent knocking on doors and engaging people face to face. The idea behind the Talking Stick is a great one, and it has amazing potential - but in this last election I think the tool itself fell short of the goal. And how do I know this? Because even I stopped reading it.

Look, I read everything to do with this election, local and provincial coverage. I went to debates and spoke to most of the candidates personally through Facebook, Twitter, email, or in person. I was keenly interested in it as democracy and politics fascinates me - but about halfway through I gave up on the Talking Stick because it stopped being about platforms and policy. It became a lot of accusations and innuendo, and there came a point when I simply gave up - as did some of the candidates.

For the record I don't blame the candidates who stopped answering the questions, because it must have been arduous. More than one of them revealed to me that they had begun to refer to it as "The Beating Stick", because I am sure most were terrified to open it, both by the sheer volume of work that it involved and the fact that there might be content in it that had nothing to do with their platforms and everything to do with them as people - because at the end of the day politicians are people, and while we think they are made of steel with Teflon coating that simply isn't true.

If one looks at the results it seems that time spent on The Talking Stick certainly didn't guarantee election or re-election, as some who answered almost every question will not serve on council while some who answered few questions will. There seems to be little correlation, and I think in the end while there might have been many visitors to The Talking Stick this season many came simply to gawk, much like people do when they pass motor vehicle collisions. Was there true value in the responses and the interaction? Yes, there was some, I think, and I think the idea is a brilliant one, but in elections where things get nasty (and make no mistake, they did in this one) forums that allow such anonymity are subject to tremendous abuse and begin to lose some of the value they once held.

I want to make something clear, though - I have great respect for those who developed the idea of The Talking Stick and who host the platform, and who invest their time in maintaining it. This criticism is not meant to imply that they have done anything wrong, but rather to illustrate how an excellent tool can turn from gold into dust when situations change and things get contentious. It seems that in this election not only did some candidates fall victim to cheap shots and tawdry politics, but so did a valuable tool in our community - and frankly, I think that's a shame, because The Talking Stick is a tool with amazing potential. I think this last election simply proved that it is, like many other tools, a double-edged sword.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

How An Invitation Changed My Life - State of the Island 2013

Just over two years ago I received an invitation. It was unexpected, to be certain, and it was an invitation that actually made me begin to think more seriously about my role in this community, and the impact I could have. The invitation came from MacDonald Island Park, and it was to attend State of the Island 2011, their annual black-tie gala event.

You see MacDonald Island Park has been part of my life now for eleven years. It all began with a small ice arena and a three year old girl in a red snowsuit and tiny skates that were held onto her feet with Velcro flaps. Over time just as the facility grew so did the little girl, slowly graduating from the snowsuit into figure skating dresses, and Velcro skates into the tightly laced kind. It became visits to the Fort McMurray Public Library, and, after the expansion, time at the aquatic centre. It became driving her to "dates" at the rock climbing wall, and frozen yogurt when we needed a spot to reconnect as mother and daughter. It became a speech to RMWB city council, representing community stakeholders in the discussion about why the proposed expansion (now known as Shell Place) was important. And, in the last year, it became the place I drive to almost every single day, having accepted a job in February that introduced me to MacDonald Island Park in a far more intimate way.

This past Saturday evening I attended State of the Island once more, but this time I saw it with new eyes. It was a lovely event, as always, and perhaps even more lovely this year than any other as the field houses simply shone with pride. The guests arrived and were greeted by the silk panels from the recent Silk Caravanna art project, and by attentive staff armed with trays of champagne. And, once inside the Nexen Activity Field House they were able to watch as an artist painted a small fibreglass fox, the first to be painted in the new Miquwahkesis Project that will see many more similar fox painted, and students from across the region engaged in a project focused on the small, clever red creature that shares our home region. Guests visited and chatted and, I think, marvelled at the transformation of the field house, just as I have always done with events at MacDonald Island. Now, of course, I know the incredible effort that the employees put into these events, from the d├ęcor to the food to just cleaning a fieldhouse to transform it into a black-tie venue. These fresh eyes of mine have seen what goes on behind the scenes, and far from diminishing the experience it has simply added to it, making me realize how what I once perceived as so effortless is really a tremendous commitment of time and talent, the kind of time and talent I have seen poured into every event I have attended at Mac Island over the last few years.

There is so much to share about State of the Island, from the bright orange piano (painted by my fellow TEDx Fort McMurray alumni and gifted artist friend Lucie Bause) to all the incredible community members in attendance, all those who make life in this community better every day.

There are highlights every single year, and this year was no different, with Dave Kirschner, a man for whom I have such tremendous respect, and Ramona Morrison, a woman who has become synonymous with Fort McMurray, both being honoured as inductees to the "Walk of Honour". This induction recognizes their tremendous commitment to this community, and all the work they have done to improve life here for others, giving tirelessly of themselves to achieve it. Dave. of course, is a local businessman and regional councillor, but so much more, too, having served on more boards than I can name and having done so much for so many more than I can imagine, including being a kind man who has always encouraged me and treated me with respect - and in the last few years Dave has been the very embodiment of courage as he faces a progressive illness. Ramona too has given tirelessly of herself, always doing what she can to improve the lives of others, and impressing even those like Chef Michael Smith who sent a little video along to the event to share his thoughts on this remarkable woman. Added to all this she runs Smitty's restaurant, another place that has been part of my life here since I arrived, and having been our favourite breakfast destination for over a decade. Their recognition this year was a shining moment, to be sure, and I admit I had tears in my eyes when both names were announced as I would say these individuals are not just community builders but community founders, stewards who have seen this community through bad and good times, and who continue to give of themselves in as many ways as they can.

There was the orange jacket ceremony, of course, a moment to recognize new partners at MacDonald Island Park, the ones who commit to partnering with the facility to bring new opportunities to the community. There was the performance from the Alberta Ballet, and news of their commitment to bringing ballet north to Fort McMurray. There was the information about the Your Music Maker piano project, one that I have already written about and that involves some brightly painted pianos that are not only pieces of art but pieces of interactive music, free for all to play and enjoy. There was the announcement of additional seat reservations for Northern Kickoff, the furthest north football game in CFL history, and an event that has captured the imagination and attention of those from across the province, and even the country. There was the food, the glorious, glorious food that just keeps getting better, with a new executive chef having taken up residence in the kitchen and bringing new flavours and ideas with him. There were the announcements, about the interpretive trail and the stage at Shell Place, places that have already become close to my heart and inch ever closer to reality every day. And there was the musical performance by Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo fame, someone who brings to the stage not only talent but an impressive pedigree in the Canadian music scene. And there was the moment when everyone at my table gasped, when the soft orange lighting suddenly changed and the room began to shine and glitter in the soft fresh blue and white lights, signalling a transition from the beloved Mi Team to ONE Team, the group of employees who will take all that is best about MacDonald Island and bring it with them and new team members as the Regional Recreation Corporation takes shape and begins to operate throughout the region.

I was, in a word, speechless on Saturday evening, you see. Even while I am now a part of MacDonald Island Park what is done there continues to amaze me, just as it did two years ago when I attended my very first State of the Island - and this year it was my honour and privilege to attend this final one, as State of the Island will change just as this region and MacDonald Island has done.

Late Saturday evening found me saying good-bye to my tablemates and returning to my office. I sat there in my long purple gown, my glittery gold shoes kicked off under my desk, and I sent a few final tweets and updated the website to reflect some of the wonderful news of the night. I thought about how I once had attended events there and thought they seemed so effortless and beautiful, and then I thought about how I now know the intensity of effort and investment of time that go into them, and how now that knowledge makes me see them as even more beautiful than I did before. I picked up my shoes and headed to my car barefoot and holding my gown up off the pavement, my feet tired and sore. I locked up my office and looked across the parking lot, where I could still hear the sounds of music and an ongoing celebration, and I smiled. That night someone who knows me well and knows how highly I have always spoken of MacDonald Island Park had asked me if now that I work there if I had changed my mind, and if it was what I thought it would be. I was amused when their eyes widened as I replied that no, it was nothing like I thought it would be - and then their smile when I told them it was better, infinitely better than I could have ever imagined.

I climbed into my car, closed the door, and rolled down the window as I drove away, listening to the music spilling out of the back of the field house, and the sound of conversation and laughter - and I think I smiled the entire way home, because this was, for me, one of those magical nights in Fort McMurray, and one I will never forget. I was both a guest and a part of State of the Island 2013, and it was an honour - just as I find it an honour to be part of MacDonald Island Park, and this amazing community, every single day.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

How Falling Down the Stairs is a lot Like a Municipal Election

I feel ever so slightly like I've been hit by a train, and I don't think I'm the only one. It was an evening I won't soon forget, punctuated by a head-first tumble down a flight of concrete stairs at the local municipal building, and waking up this morning with a sore back and ankle, and a lot of questions about the future. It was the municipal election of 2013, or #ymmvotes2013 as it was dubbed on Twitter, - and I think it created a lot more questions than it answered.

I ran into a friend on Saturday evening who expressed surprise at my unusual quietness during this election season. I suppose I am not known for holding my tongue (or my keyboard) and so he was bemused at how little I had said - but the reality was that I have known for some time that, whether true or not, there are those who believe I hold some influence and sway in such matters, and so I refrained from commenting too much, or too often, even though at times it felt like I was in a political straightjacket. Today I feel a bit more free, the electorate having had their say, and yet I feel like I don't quite know what to say, as there is so much I know and yet so much that is yet unanswered.

I know this: I am glad Mayor Blake has been re-elected, as I believe we need her strong, experienced, and capable leadership, especially now. This is not a place that allows for long and slow learning curves, and I was deeply concerned about the ability of the other mayoral candidates to immediately step into such an incredibly challenging role. I was concerned, too, from the perspective as someone who works in both traditional and new media, and the ability of the potential candidates to not only represent us well locally but in the national and international eye that is so often focused on us. This is not a place where half-answers or "I don't know" plays well with the media, and it is a place where those who are unprepared will get eaten alive  by critics of our industry, and even our community. And too I was worried about allegations about the other mayoral candidates that surfaced during the campaign, which true or not would serve to set a certain tone in that media perception from the "outside world". For all these reasons, and others, I am deeply grateful to see our mayor return to her chair.

I know this: I am thankful to Gene Ouellette and Jim Rogers, because while they did not succeed they did provide voters with a choice, which is such a fundamental part of the democratic process. Acclamation, particularly for such an important role as mayor, doesn't really serve anyone well, and I respect them both for their courage and their willingness to invest themselves personally in a journey that often takes unexpected twists.

I know this: I believe we have lost some good people, as incumbents Colleen Tatum, Christine Burton, Russell Thomas, Sonny Flett, and David Blair have given of themselves to this region and our community (and Sonny and David to their communities as well). Regardless of what one thinks of their political positions I think it is clear that each of them displayed a passion for this region, and for the community and the people who reside in it. I will also miss the presence of Dave Kirschner, and while he did not stand for election in this race he added such value to the previous council, and of course to our community in all he has done over the years. I know though that all these individuals will continue to give to this community just as they did before they served in elected office, and our community will be richer for their contributions.

I know this: We have some great incumbents returning, including Sheldon Germain and Phil Meagher, individuals who I believe are not only passionate about this community but about doing the right thing and representing us to the best of their ability. Joined by Jane Stroud and Al Vinni they will be able to lend the new incoming councillors some expertise on the nuances of elected office - and the pitfalls.

I know this: We have some new blood, and perhaps some new balance. With newcomers Keith McGrath, Tyran Ault, and Lance Bussieres we have some different views and perspectives, and sets of fresh eyes and fresh minds ready to take on the task, and challenge, of governance. And of course returning is Guy Boutilier, an individual with a lengthy political pedigree and experience, and who will bring his own perspectives and thoughts to the council chamber. And from the north we have Julia Cardinal and John Chadi, councillors I do not know but who I hope will bring with them the valued perspectives and needs of their communities.

I know this: So many amazing wonderful individuals who stood for election didn't make it - this time - but their courage and willingness to be part of the democratic process has not gone unnoticed. To Abbas Abbas, Veronica Doleman, Steve Kelly, Andrew Manyevere, Carmen Royer-Ramstead, Jon Tupper, and those who ran in the other wards but did not succeed I say thank you - because you brought new ideas and new perspectives to the campaign trail, and helped to re-ignite the passion for democracy in this region. That is not a little accomplishment, but rather a bold and mighty one.

I know these things, but there is so much I don't know and that only time will tell.

I don't know: If this council will be able to work together and collaborate to achieve common goals, and be ready to change their minds about things they may hold dear. I hope they all come to the chamber with open minds and a willingness to work together, as we need that spirit of cooperation more than ever.

I don't know: If this council will be able to strengthen our ties with the provincial and federal governments and find ways to work together with those other layers, allowing us to develop those relationships in a sustainable and effective manner. These relationships are crucial, and vital to our success, and I hope they find a path forward to doing exactly this.

I don't know: What I don't know. I don't know what the next four years will hold, or what decisions they will face. I don't know how they will make their decisions, and I don't know how they will come to terms with their respective roles, each other, and their place in our community. But what I do know is that each elected individual has had a great deal of faith and trust put in them, and that faith and trust is a fragile thing, especially after an election that has been, in a word, divisive. Our elected officials, whether incumbents or newcomers, will need to keep in mind that those who voted for them did so with great faith, and they may one day feel that faith as a heavy weight upon them. Campaigning is difficult, I think, but it is a piece of cake compared to serving in office, particularly in a region which faces both tremendous challenges, and opportunities.

And lest anyone think I have forgotten, I want to mention all those who stood for election or acclamation for school boards, as their role too is vital and fundamental, even if overshadowed by the council elections. As a parent and long-time member of school parent councils I know their importance, and they have my deepest respect, whether they were eventually elected to serve or not. Those who offer to serve as trustees for our education systems deserve special kudos, because our future - our children - lies in their hands, too.

And so there it is. No doubt there will be things to be blogged and discussed as we move into the future, and no doubt there will be moments when I smile and moments when I shake my head as we watch this new council at work. What I will always recall, though, is that serving in elected office is not easy, and if it were far more of us would do it. Those who ran for election, and those who were elected, have given of themselves, and for those who have been elected the true giving has only just begun.

There is so much ahead that is uncertain, and so much that could go wrong, of course - but there is optimism and hope that things could go right, too. One of the things I do know is my belief that every person who stood for election did so because of a love and commitment to this community and region, and that this love and commitment will hopefully serve as the guide for their decisions in the future. While they may differ in point of view and opinion I believe the common goal - to make this community a better place for all - is the shared one, and I believe that this goal if adopted as the guiding star will lead them to the right place, and the right balance.

Today I sit here with a swollen ankle and a twisted back, casualties of a tumble down a flight of stairs as I was so caught up in election fever that I failed to exercise enough caution. The election is over now, though, and just as my back and ankle will heal so too will some of the rifts and wounds of the campaign begin to mend. And just like my tumble down the stairs so will some of our elected officials tumble on occasion, and we will have the option of catching them, or allowing them to continue to fall. I hope in fact that they will catch each other, and that we will catch them, because in the end we are all in this together - and the saying "united we will stand, divided we will fall" may be more true at this point in time more than any other. I hope we choose to stand together, because in the end all we have is each other, and this place we call home.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Hung Out to Dry in Fort McMurray

I forgive you if you read the title and thought this was a post about politics. After all, tomorrow is the municipal election, and it seems certain some political hopes and dreams (and politicians) may well be hung out to dry by voters - but this post is not about politics, or politicians, or even hopes and dreams. Nope, as mundane as it might seem, this post is about laundry.

One of the things I have is a fairly large wardrobe. I like fashion, which means I like shoes, and dresses, and blazers and...well, you get the idea. One of the things I don't like is dry cleaners, both due to the expense and inconvenience, and years ago I discovered that most items of clothing that say they need to be dry cleaned can be washed, if done carefully, and kept away from the evil dryer. Now, not all items can be washed and some still end up with the dry cleaner, but once I had figured out what can be washed (and that the true enemy to clothing isn't the washing machine but the dryer) I began to save big on dry cleaning bills as I would wash my clothes and then hang them to dry indoors in laundry rooms and bathrooms,  as I often lived in apartments without access to the outdoors.

This worked well for many years, including in my previous home, but I noticed when I moved to this new smaller place that hanging things to dry in the bathroom, as I had always done, wasn't going so well. This new house holds humidity like a trap, creating a sauna atmosphere when things are hung to dry, as I so like to do with my nice dresses and shirts. The humidity level in the house was skyrocketing, and high humidity means issues like mold, and mildew, and smells. One morning I was pondering this while hanging a load of dark items, and I happened to look outside and see my gazebo, stripped of the usual summer netting to ready it for the winter. And that is when it hit me, and I felt like such a fool. Why wasn't I just hanging my clothes outdoors?

I grew up with a mother who had a clothesline. Now, for her it was plain frugality, as she had grown up during the depression and for many years hadn't even owned a clothes dryer (in fact she spent many years raising 5 children without running water, and hand washing all their clothes and cloth diapers with well water - I can't even quite wrap my head around that, to be honest - she was a saint is all I can figure). She hung everything to dry, even in the stark cold of Saskatchewan winters. I remember some days she would bring in sheets that were frozen solid, one big chunk of fabric stiff from the freezing cold - and then she would toss them in the dryer for a few minutes and out they would come, soft and dry. The dry outdoors air, you see, would suck the humidity right out of the sheets even as it froze them solid. And there was something else about the way she dried clothing outdoors. It was the smell.

Do you know that smell you detect right before or after it rains? That impossible to describe but so distinctive odour? It's called "petrichor" and while that seems an unpleasant name when you know the history behind it the name takes on more significance. The word is Greek, coming from petros, meaning stone, and ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology. The Intrepid Junior Blogger introduced me to that name, and now whenever it rains I think of that word, and that smell that is so associated with rain and earth. I don't know if there is a name for the smell that you can detect on laundry that dries outdoors, but I know that odour exists, because I can smell it in my memory, from times when I would bury my nose in those sheets dried outdoors. For me it is the smell of the outdoors, and home, and my mother.

So, that day a week or so ago when I looked at the gazebo and looked at my load of heavy wet clothing I had an idea. I took those items and hung them on hangers, and then I hung them out on my gazebo for the day. My gazebo, well hidden from the neighbours, became a clothesline, and later that day I took them down, perfectly dry after a day outdoors, and buried my nose in them - and there was that smell, an odour that took me back to my childhood and simpler days.

I went on a search then, to learn more about clotheslines and bylaws and rules. Some cities ban clotheslines, considering them unsightly, but it appears there are no such bylaws here in Fort McMurray (although some apartment buildings and condo associations may have specific rules regarding them). I looked into clothesline designs and ideas, and I looked at the savings they generate, from lessening my reliance on energy-sucking dryers and saving on electricity bills. And I thought about how such a simple act is actually good for the environment, taking advantage of the outdoor breezes and dropping humidity levels. But I will be honest - it was the smell that really got to me, the smell of clothing dried outdoors and hanging in my closet, fresh, and clean, and dry. That's when I decided it, really.

 While my gazebo shell has made a lovely impromptu clothesline next year I will construct the real deal in my yard. And no fear, neighbours, I will continue to hang my lingerie indoors to dry, but some of those other items, my dresses and sweaters and shirts, will be in my backyard flapping gently in the breeze. Many things will be hung out to dry in Fort McMurray in the coming months, at least in my little yard, and I couldn't be happier about it. And as for the election tomorrow? There will be some hanging out to dry, almost certainly - but that is for another blog post, I think.

Friday, October 18, 2013

This Is Your Space, Wood Buffalo

As we draw ever closer to the municipal election I have been thinking a lot about the title of this post. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo launched a new campaign this election to try to increase voter awareness and participation, and, in the end, improve our voter turnout. I have been impressed by the "This is your space" campaign, from the floor signs and stair wraps at MacDonald Island Park to the booth at the local trade show designed to encourage voting. More than anything, though, I have been impressed by the sentiment behind the campaign - because Wood Buffalo, this is your space.

This is your community. This is your home. This is your past, your present, and your future. This is your space, and during this election you have the opportunity to claim it, protect it, and direct it. You have the chance to have your say in how and where we will go as a region, and how this community develops. You have the opportunity to exercise your democratic right (and privilege) to vote for those you believe in, and to contribute to democracy. I think it is important to note one thing, though. Your space doesn't end at midnight on Monday October 21, when all the votes have been counted. Your space will still be there Tuesday morning, needing you and your contributions - because this space needs all of us to achieve our potential and become what we can be.

It is crucially important that you vote, you see. You need to get to a polling station and draw that line between to complete the arrow to show who you wish to represent you (and yes, even the ballot has changed this year, and you will not mark an X but rather fill in a small red arrow). But voting isn't enough. Your space - this community, and this region - doesn't just need you on Monday. It needs you every day, year round, because your input matters.

You can volunteer or serve on a local board. You can start a new organization or begin your dream business. You can attend future council meetings or engagement sessions. You can do a million things to contribute to this place, to make it the place you want to live and where others will want to come. You can start on Monday (or maybe for you it is just a continuation of your contributions to this space), and you can fill in that red arrow - and then you can just keep on going, exploring your space, and finding your place in this community.

This is your space, Wood Buffalo. Fill it in, fill it up, and fill this place with all the things you think we need or wish to see. This is your space, and this is your time. Use it wisely, and well.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Lift Off to Africa

Early this morning, as the sun was rising and most of us were getting ready for our usual Wednesday, a young man in our community and his father set out on their day, too - but it isn't a usual school day for Nathaniel Crossley and his dad, Blake. No, today they set out on a new adventure, a journey few of us will ever take - or even dream about. Today Nathaniel and his dad left for Africa.

I first met Nathaniel a couple of years ago, close to when this blog began. He was only about nine then, and even when I first met him I saw something different in this young boy who looks so much like every other young boy his age. There is a determination in Nathaniel's eyes, a steely glint of someone who believes you can do the unbelievable, and who holds a firm grasp on the notion of changing the world. Today Nathaniel heads to a place that he has helped to change, and that will, through this experience, likely change him, too.

You see when I first met Nathaniel he was embarking on a different journey, that of raising money to help build wells in Africa, a place where many go without such basic needs as clean water. He had a modest goal to raise, but when I met him I told him that I believed he would not only meet his goal but exceed it, and so he did, going even far beyond what I thought was possible. I knew even then, though, that Nathaniel was not finished. I knew he would not be satisfied with that initial accomplishment, and so I have watched in wonder - and awe - as he has gone on to raise the money to go and visit the wells in Africa he helped to build, and to climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro, where this young man will touch the sky as the African sun rises.

Nathaniel tells his own story well in his blog and on his Facebook page, and while I wrote about him a great deal initially I have not done so recently, but not because I did not support him. No, I wanted to simply observe and see what he would do and accomplish if he had to work for it, and work he did, pouring every ounce of that little frame of his into achieving, and surpassing, his goal.

And there have been challenges. Along the way Nathaniel has had to deal with some very adult issues, like racism. He has had to deal with those who believed this was not his dream but rather the dream of the adults around him (and all I have to say on that is that those people who believe this have not gotten through his initially shy exterior and had a heart to heart talk with a young man who is far older and wiser than his years, and needs no outside influence to know his own heart). He has dealt with challenges like stolen recycling bottles destined for his fund raising, and he has not just met all those challenges - he has embraced them and overcome them, finding ways to go further and do more than even I thought possible.

There are many ways you can follow Nathaniel on his journey, as he will be tweeting from @thelegofly and then there is this wonderful site where you will be able to follow his adventures very directly. You can check out Lego 4 Africa to learn more about this journey he has already been on for a couple of years, a journey that has grown just as he has done. As for me I will be anxiously waiting for when he comes home, because I know something, something I have known since I first met him. I know that Nathaniel is special, special in the kind of way that he has the potential - and the drive, vision, and passion - to change the world, and in this instance I think the world will change him, too. I think he will come back a few days older, and a few years wiser when he sees first hand the place that has inspired him. And while Nathaniel has been on this journey for a couple of years and some may see this trip to Africa as some sort of ending or culmination of it all I know something else. I know this is just the beginning for a young man who can be so very shy, but who opens up to reveal an insightful mind, a thoughtful manner, and a heart that can embrace the entire world. I know this isn't an ending. This is just the beginning for a young man who has every chance of changing the world, and making it a better place. I am so very honoured to know him, you see. It has been, in the end, life changing for me too, because in watching Nathaniel follow his heart and passion I have found the courage to follow my own. And I will be forever grateful to him, because while he changes the world he is changing those around him, too, just as he has changed me.

I would wish him luck on his travels, but Nathaniel doesn't need it. All he needs is his dad, and his mind, and his heart, and off he goes to Africa today, with all those things with him and the love and support of his wonderful mom and little brother here at home, and the support of hundreds of others who cheer him on. With him goes the spirit of Fort McMurray - and I know that when he comes home he will come home to a hero's welcome, one well deserved by a young man who has already changed Fort McMurray, and who today is off to continue changing the world. Today is lift off to Africa - and off goes one of our youngest, best, and brightest. He takes all of us with him in spirit - and I for one cannot wait until his next adventure because this is just another chapter in Nathaniel's book of life. I am anxiously watching as he writes the rest, because this is one book worth reading every single word.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Top Ten Reasons to Vote For Fort McMurray

I rarely check the statistics on this blog. Those statistics detail things like the number of views, and where those viewers come from. And while those numbers are interesting I rarely check them, preferring to measure my impact through the interactions I have with others regarding this blog, whether comments or personal conversations or replies on Twitter. On occasion, though, I check those statistics, but not really to find out how many have visited. The thing that intrigues me is how they find it, as often they have entered some words in a search engine and landed here. Yesterday I looked at those searches, and what I found was both interesting and vaguely troubling. You see, one of the most common searches that led people to this blog was variations of "Should I move to Fort McMurray?".

The question was asked in different ways, and from different perspectives. Some were searching to see if they should move their families here, and some were searching to see what there is to do if they should move here. I recognized that this is both an opportunity and a challenge, because the disconnect between who we are and what is often reported about is so profound that I am often at a loss as to how to share what Fort McMurray really is to those who call it home, and love it here. And so today, with my official 601 blog post, I decided to detail a top ten list. I stole a page from fellow blogger Russell Thomas, who recently blogged the ten reasons you should vote for him as municipal councillor in our upcoming elections. Instead of giving you ten reasons to vote for an individual, though, I am going to give you ten reasons to vote for Fort McMurray - to mark your "x" here, and make this your home. I could probably provide far more than ten - but these ten are the first ones to pop into my head. I am sure every single person who lives here, and loves it, can add many more, but these are mine. So, for all those who searched for this blog wondering if they should move to Fort McMurray - this is for you. These are the top ten reasons to cast your vote for Fort McMurray - and to elect us as your future home.

The Top Ten Reasons to Vote for Fort McMurray
10) Cultural Diversity: I spent most of my twenties living in Toronto, one of the largest and most culturally diverse cities in our country - and Fort McMurray is rapidly becoming a hub of cultural diversity, too. We have citizens who hail from almost every corner of this world, bringing with them their traditions, food, and culture, and we are richer for it every single day. This place is becoming a microcosm of the macrocosm, a place of stunning vibrancy and diversity.
9) Natural Beauty: When someone refers to Fort McMurray as Mordor or a wasteland one can comfortably assume they have either never been here or have been blinded to the true beauty of northern Alberta. This is a place of some of the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises I have ever seen, and there is absolutely nothing like the northern lights dancing in the winter night. People from all over the world yearn for the kind of nature and wildlife we find right here - just steps from our front doors.
8) Education: I would stack our educational system against any in the province or country. We have students in our Catholic and public divisions who have done remarkable things, from winning national science fairs and going on to participate in things like the renowned Google science fair to drama teams that have been invited to participate in the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. Our schools teach everything from arts to sciences, sports to academics - and create not just learners but citizens. And it doesn't end there, as our children can go on to Keyano College to pursue their post-secondary dreams, too.
7) Arts and culture: What an incredible vibrancy we have in this regard, with local artists from every culture and discipline sharing their talents with the community as we seek to strengthen our arts and culture community. And if art isn't your thing then we have things like dance and even cultural cooking classes to explore.
6) Sport and recreation: From teams like the Oil Barons and Keyano Huskies to school athletics we have a breadth of sport opportunities for athletes of all ages. And if you prefer solo sports we have the beautiful Vista Ridge for skiing and snowboarding, trails for cross country skiing or hiking, walking, running, or biking. We have world class facilities like MacDonald Island Park and the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre, and we take advantage of every single season to get outdoors and enjoy life in the north.
5) Growth: Want to live somewhere exciting, and where things are constantly changing and happening? Then this is the place for you, because there is rarely a dull moment in Fort McMurray. This is a place constantly on the cusp of change, and the best part is that those who are here for the ride get to be a part of directing that change and growth.
4) Opportunity: This is often called a place of opportunity and potential, and I agree - but I don't just mean in a career. Every single person who lives here has an opportunity to change this place forever. I put that in italics because it is true. This place welcomes innovation and new ideas, and every single person has a chance to make a mark here by finding their niche or creating one. I have seen people start everything from flag football leagues to arts groups, exploring their passions and changing this place forever along the way. Fort McMurray, who we are and who we are becoming, is not set in stone - every person has a chance to pick up a chisel and carve out the face of who we will become, because we are continuing to develop every day.
3) Generousity: Whether it is philanthropy of the wallet or the heart this is the most giving community I have ever lived in. People open their bank accounts, their homes, and their hearts to those in need, giving freely in order that others may lead better lives. I have never witnessed anything like it, and I find myself still astonished at how generous and kind people are here. And why are they so kind? Well, because they are...
2) Family: Maybe you come to Fort McMurray not knowing a soul, but here is where tremendous opportunity truly lies. In my eleven years here I have found a family - not related to me by blood but rather by the bonds of friendship and community. I have found a family I have chosen and who has chosen me, people I would do anything for and stand beside in a hurricane or tornado. This is a place where you have the chance to forge those bonds, and find strength in those who share with you their experiences, their friendship, and their hearts.
And the number one reason to elect Fort McMurray as your home?
1) Challenge: Huh. You might think this would be a negative, but I have always believed our true strength is found when we face challenges. "Challenge" is really just another name for opportunity, because behind every challenge is a chance - a chance to effect change, to make a difference, to innovate, to create, to inspire, to grow, and to find your place in the universe. Fort McMurray is a place of challenges, but those who call it home find a way to not only meet those challenges but to embrace them and find the opportunity in them. This isn't what we are "forced" to do - it is simply what we do, and along the way we create a community. And while challenge is my number one what that challenge does in Fort McMurray is develop a community, and that is the real reason to elect Fort McMurray. Hidden behind our challenges is our community, a place of resilience that gives to those who give to it, and that offers tremendous rewards for meeting those challenges - and embracing them.
So, there you have it. If you searched for reasons to come to Fort McMurray and found this blog I have just given you ten, and I hope in other posts in this blog you will find dozens, if not hundreds, more. There is one catch, though. If you are going to elect Fort McMurray, mark your ballot and choose this as your home, I ask you to do one thing: come here with an open heart and mind, leaving behind your ideas of who and what we are. Come to us as a blank slate, and allow us to write on your heart. Let us show you in word and deed who we are, and share with us your experience, your thoughts, and your heart. And if you come with that open mind and heart I can guarantee one thing: you will not be disappointed. You will find not just a place but a home, and a community that will embrace you just as it embraces challenges. You will find a place that may well find a special place in your heart, just as it has in mine. You will have cast your ballot and chosen your future - and you will know you have chosen well.