Telling the story of my life in my home - Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Life With a Home Wrecker

I live with a home wrecker.

No, not THAT kind of home wrecker, but the kind that is small and furry and has four paws and sharp white teeth and meows for no reason at 3 am (probably just because he is lonely). He is a very bad cat, really.

This morning I was looking outside at the snow, thinking about shovelling (note the word thinking, which indicates consideration, not intent). I suddenly realized my lovely sheer curtains, left in pristine condition by the previous owners of my home, have small pinprick holes all over them. The culprit stared at me from the sofa, unrepentant about his multiple attempts (and occasional success) at climbing the curtains, and in the process destroying them.

I always knew cats to be curious creatures who get into trouble. The phrase "curiosity killed the cat" is an apt one, after all, and based on experience not speculation. But little Sirius Black has gone far beyond what I ever thought a few pounds of feline could do.


Sirius has ripped open bags of cat food, ferret food, dog food, cat treats, dog treats, and potato chips. He is lousy about hiding his miscreant acts (or just doesn't care) and will leave the bag splayed out on the floor, with kibble or treats spilling everywhere (and his belly suspiciously rounded).


So far the cat has destroyed several sets of curtains and blinds. One chair, which is thankfully fake leather and not real, feels like the skin of someone who has undergone allergy testing, covered with pokes from sharp claws. He is working on the edging on every carpet in the house, pulling out strands, and he sharpens his claws on the cupboards, the railings, and the furniture.

The middle of the night is the most frequent time for a sudden crashing noise, and then the patter of rapidly escaping paws. A common sight is a small black furry blur running past you as he escapes the scene of the crime, hoping to somehow put the blame on the baffled dog, no doubt.


Ah, and the poor dog. She is enchanted with the cat but the cat is, quite simply, a jerk who hangs off the edge of the table to take swipes at canine heads as they walk by. The dog is completely baffled by this small black creature who has moved in and taken over, and while I once thought the dog got into trouble Sir Black has taken the concept of "trouble" to an entirely new level.

He is an indoor cat who constantly tries to escape outdoors, and his plans usually involve making sure you have your arms full of bags or boxes in order to try to dart by and to freedom, glorious freedom. He made a break for it this week, but was thankfully distracted by the fresh snow allowing me enough time to pounce on him and drag him back into the jail of warm beds and full food bowls.


He doesn't much like being cuddled, either, and he will try to evade you if he sees you coming and looking like you might want to hold him. He will sit next to you, or in the same room, but only rarely will he sit on you, as he is an independent creature (and frankly he has things he is trying to accomplish, like chewing on a pair of shoes at the back door that somehow have earned his enmity - and in my world shoe-chewing is a serious crime, you see).


He isn't really keen on the ferrets, and we have learned that when the ferrets are out to play he must be abolished to another room, where a small black paw darts out from under the door. I don't think he would mean to hurt the little weasel gang, but he plays rough, and the ferrets total lack of decorum seem to unhinge him slightly (the first time a ferret pounced on him I thought he would have a feline heart attack).

He is destroying my house, he bullies and torments the dog, he is too rough with the ferrets, and he is constantly in trouble.

And yet somehow early in the morning when I get up and open my door to a small black cat waiting on the other side purring I forgive every transgression and every single destroyed curtain. When I pick him up on those early mornings and we cuddle - that rare time he will allow it - and bury my face in his plush black fur and he purrs loudly in my ear I completely forget all the middle-of-the-night crashes and all the shouts of "bad cat!" that echo through the house.

Sirius Black is a very, very bad cat. And I wouldn't want him to be any other way, really.




Friday, November 29, 2013

Driving the Prime Minister

I have chauffeured a few important people in my life in this community. I had the honour of being George Canyon's driver for the day, for instance, and there have been others. And just recently I have been driving the Prime Minister around to attend to official duties, not for security but mainly because she can't drive yet.

Yes, I said she, and that she can't drive yet, because the Prime Minister I am driving is the Intrepid Junior Blogger, as she takes care of her tasks for her role as student council prime minister. And I must say it is an honour to be her chauffeur, as I am learning so much from the experience.

One weekend morning a couple of weeks ago it was bitterly cold outside, and snowing like mad. I looked outside and sighed, because the IJB had told me the night before that she had to attend a football game for the school. My jaw dropped a bit when she told me, as she has never before expressed interest in going to a game, but when I questioned it I was given a steely look and an explanation of what it means to be a school representative and how it means attending school functions even if you don't understand the game played.

And so we went, wrapped in blankets and sipping hot drinks and covered in fresh snow and still leaving at half-time when we couldn't feel our feet. I sat there and thought about how these school football games haven't changed, even from when I was in high school, and it took me back to all those days when I sat on cold metal bleachers and watched a game I barely understood, simply because I was the yearbook editor.

Then last week she came home and told me she had a role in the annual Santa Claus parade. She explained that her school had been asked to provide students to "Stuff the Bus" for the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, and it was clear she must attend as prime minister - and because the food bank is a cause close to our hearts.

And so I drove her down to the food bank and dropped her off, headed to my own event and keeping a close eye on my phone as her texts began rolling in.

"We got the party bus!" one said, and "This is awesome". Then the texts stopped, right until a very kind friend went to pick her up and deliver her to me at the event I was at, because we had to arrange another chauffeur for the prime minster that night.

She got into my car as we left my event and began telling me about the night - how generous everyone was, and how she had proudly walked the entire parade route wearing her Doctor Who Tardis hat and collecting donations. She told me how they had stuffed the bus, and how she was amazed at how many people would hand over twenty dollar bills for the cause. And she told me how proud she was to have done it, not because it was her job as prime minister to be there, but because she believes in the food bank and what they do.

All the while her small hands were waving in the air, clad in bright white mittens - mittens that she had not left the house with. I asked her where they had come from and she quickly showed me that they were Food Bank mittens, and that they had been given to the volunteers that night.

She has worn those mittens every day since then. She lost her wallet on the bus yesterday, but she was relieved she didn't lose her phone...or her mittens. She takes a great deal of pride in them, and what they mean, and I take a great deal of pride in her, my little prime minister.

Last night I was saying I needed to get a pair of those mittens, and once again I was fixed with that steely expression.

"When was the last time YOU volunteered at the food bank, Mom?", she asked. And that is when I realized that the prime minister understands what it means to be a citizen, and a part of this community, and how we all have our role to play, including student council prime ministers.

So you see this holiday season I plan to go into the food bank to sort food, because I haven't been there for awhile and I think I need to reconnect with that part of my spirit. And, well, because lately I have been driving the prime minister, and I have learned a few things on our many travels together.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

I Am A Person First

A few months ago I was invited to participate in an initiative aimed at removing some of the stigma from homelessness in our community. As the months wore on my participation in the group lessened (this having a full-time job, a teenage kid, a house, five pets, and some attempt at a personal life tends to cut into my time somewhat), but the group continued on with their efforts to change the way we see the homeless in our community - and I think their efforts will make an impact.

I have written often in this blog about homelessness. It has become an issue close to me for many reasons, but primarily I think because I brushed up against it during a very formative time in my life, when I had just left my small prairie city and moved to the "Big Smoke" of Toronto and discovered a world I hadn't even known existed. I spent a number of years there working in a small business in Cabbagetown, a neighbourhood in the middle of a transition from poverty to wealth as individuals with money moved into the old homes and renovated them, revitalizing an area that had become very old and worn. Caught in the middle were the transient population, the local homeless, and I interacted with them on a daily basis. I had never really dealt with homelessness growing up and so I didn't truly understand it, but my experience in those years helped me to develop not only an understanding but a compassion for those who are homeless, and it taught me the fine line between those who have homes and those who do not. I learned how mental illness or addiction can quickly lead to homelessness, and how even physical injury meaning someone cannot work can lead one down that path. I suppose, in essence, I learned not to judge, because I learned any judgement I made was so far off the mark and so unfair that it was absurd to do so. I stopped seeing the homeless individuals in my world as homeless, really - I saw them as people.

This is what the "I Am A Person First" campaign seeks to do. Instead of seeing people by labels - homeless, mentally ill, addicted - it asks us to simply see them as people first. The labels we use on others (and occasionally ourselves) do far more to distance us than we sometimes realize, and so if we start by removing the labels we can begin from common ground - we are all, in fact, persons first. We are all the product of mothers and fathers, we all have ancestry and history, and we all have a story.

I have spent a lot of time over the past two years listening to the stories of our local homeless population. I have been deeply honoured that they would share them with me, with such faith and trust. I have such admiration for them, their resiliency and their courage in facing a world that few of us can comprehend, with intricacies we do not understand. There is a knowledge of the street and that world that I do not have, and the few glimpses I have had into it have shown me how little about this world I truly know. But I do know something from every story I have been told. They have told me of their challenges and their triumphs - and their parents and their children, their siblings and their pets. They have told me of their childhood dreams and plans (none of which included homelessness, incidentally), and they have told me of what they dream about now. They have told me they are persons.

Today I want to share with you a lovely video made by my friend Ashley. This video shares some of the stories of encounters local people have had with the homeless people in our community. One of the stories comes from a young man I met almost two years ago, named Adam. I first met him when he was living on our streets, and we have stayed in touch off and on over the years, including when he contacted me to share the story you will hear in this video. This is what I know: the people who treated Adam as a person showed him that there are people in this world who saw him as a person first. The elderly lady who left him food tied to a railing above his head and whispered in his ear showed him that not everyone saw him as a label. There were people who saw him as a person, and I think those people are what gave that young man - who is, by the way, incredibly bright and full of potential - hope.

When we strip away the labels we get down to the core. And the core is this: I am a person first - and so is every other person in this world, and if we can begin to treat each other with that fundamental belief in mind we can change lives - and change the world.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Like a Good Neighbour, Edmonton is There

Yesterday evening I had the opportunity to do one of my very favourite things - talk about Fort McMurray. It's a conversation I engage in often, and with a wide variety of people - but last night I had the pleasure of meeting Don Iveson, recently elected mayor of that city to our south, Edmonton.

I am incredibly pleased and impressed that Mayor Iveson chose Fort McMurray as his first official visit as Edmonton's primary ambassador. I think it speaks a great deal to the recognition that our communities are inextricably linked, and that what affects one will eventually affect the other. And I think it speaks to the understanding that the relationship we have with our neighbouring communities is one we need to continue to build and strengthen, with tremendous benefits to all. I think it is a strong beginning, and it holds a great deal of promise.

Last night when I was speaking with Mayor Iveson and some of the other attendees at our dinner meeting I realized how much I view things through the lens of a writer. I see this community as a resident, of course, and as a woman and a mother. For me, though, it is all about the stories of what happens here - our creativity, our innovation, our energy, our spirit, our dedication. I am always looking for ways to tell the story, and stories to share, because I believe it is through these stories that we create understanding and spark dialogue.

When I introduced myself last night I realized that I was one of the longest term residents at the table, here for twelve years and already having seen such tremendous growth and change. It is so fascinating to see all the different perspectives we bring, those who have come here from other places, whether it was a week ago, a month ago, a year ago, or much longer. We bring with us our experiences from other places and we come here to build a community together.

When I introduced myself I also explained what I say when I am asked where I am from when I am travelling. My standard reply to that question is: "Fort McMurray is my chosen home". It just occurred to me one day that it was important to make that clear, that people who live here have chosen to come here, chosen to stay, and chosen to build this community and develop relationships both within it and with those in other communities.

The conversation last night was broad and wide ranging, but most of it hinged on ways to build a stronger and better collaborative process between Edmonton and Fort McMurray. The benefits to this would be just as wide ranging as our discussion, with impacts in every sector from industry to small business to social profit to education. I was intrigued to see the genuine desire on all sides to forge a stronger and better relationship, and to develop an understanding of each other so that we can work together to achieve common goals and aims.

Yesterday morning when Mayor Iveson tweeted about coming to Fort McMurray I tweeted back and thanked him - and today I would like to publicly thank him and his staff, and Edmonton Councillor Ed Gibbons, who also made the trek north - for coming to Fort McMurray and for committing to build this stronger relationship between our communities.  I am one of those "all in or all out" types. and for this initiative I am solidly "all in", and ready to do whatever it takes to create a new era of understanding and collaboration between Edmonton and Fort McMurray. In fact I welcome the opportunity, because good neighbours build good communities, and between our good neighbour in Edmonton and ourselves I think we can build two amazing, strong, and mutually supportive communities. And I think right now is the perfect time to do it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Dirty Little Secret


It's a dirty little secret, and one not often discussed outside of certain circles. In fact I had not known it until recently, after some conversations that left me both speechless and disgusted. The secret is theft - but not the usual kind of theft where someone breaks into your car and steals your iPod or when someone steals from a store. No, this kind of theft is even more despicable. It is the theft of items from non-profit fundraising events - and it appears some sticky-fingered guests are the culprits.

I was shocked when the stories were told to me. And I'm not talking about low-end events, either, but high-end galas where tickets can cost a couple of hundred dollars and guests wear gowns and suits. What I have learned is the appalling fact that most of these events have experienced theft, and the sad part is these thefts have a direct financial impact on the non-profit organizations at the heart of these events.

What goes missing? Coat check jars, from those coat checks often manned by young people in our community raising money for their own organizations. Silent auction items, which quietly disappear out the door when backs are turned. Bottles of wine, table décor, and other items meant to create an atmosphere but that end up slipped under a jacket or into a purse to show up on a private table somewhere in this community. And people, I think we all know this: theft is wrong.

I don't know if some people think that a $200 gala ticket should come with a table centrepiece. I'm pretty certain no one thinks they are genuinely entitled to a coat check jar, or a silent auction item they haven't paid for. And I am also dead certain that these thefts impact the people who organize, host, and volunteer at these events.

On the financial level the costs for those items must be recovered, and so typically they come out of the revenues raised at the events - which means that theft is just like putting your hand into the bank account of one of our venerable social profit organizations and taking funds from them that they rely on to function. On the emotional side it is incredibly disheartening to organizers and volunteers to discover that things have gone missing. I suspect it takes a bit of the shine off the success of any event, and makes them wonder about the morals of those who would do such a thing.

Some have even told me that people have told them about taking vases and candleholders, centrepieces and décor items. I doubt anyone has bragged about stealing a coat check jar, and yet someone out there has done it and thinks it is okay. This is what I think: no matter what you take from one of these events you are a common thief, and you are stealing from social profit organizations who often struggle to stay afloat. I'm not sure how you sleep at night, but I hope every time you hear of the financial woes of our local social profit organizations you feel a stab of guilt knowing that people like you are part of the problem.

And for the rest of us, those who attend these events and don't participate in such thievery? Well, for myself I know I will watching for people tucking vases under their jackets, and if ever witnessing it sharing with them my thoughts on the morality of people who think such theft is acceptable. And if I ever see anyone steal a coat check jar all I can say is that hell hath no fury like a social profit advocate. Just try me and see.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Young Choreographer Ball - The Videos!

Yesterday I wrote about how delighted I was to be a judge at the annual Young Choreographer Ball. Today I am pleased to be able to share with you a link to the videos so you can see the third, second, and first place dance pieces.

I strongly encourage you to watch as this is the future of dance in our region. I would also suggest you might like to leave a few kind words for Kim Hurley, the amazing woman behind Generation Dance and the Young Choreographer Ball. There are few people I like instantly as much as I did upon chatting with Kim, and her passion for dance, her students, and life is clearly evident in all she does. I guess you could call me a fan!

Without further ado I redirect you to the Generation Dance Facebook page where you can view the videos - and see some of our incredible local talent in action!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Joy - and Challenge - of Judging the Young Choreographer Ball


I talk often about how my email inbox is an interesting place. There are days I open it up and find a viper inside, hate mail just waiting to attempt to smother my soul and voice, but on other days there are invitations of the kind that make me smile - and so it was when I received an email from Kim Hurley of Generation Dance asking me if I would serve as a judge at the annual Young Choreographer Ball.

The Ball is in its fourth year now, an initiative created to raise funds for the Talented Angels Dance Scholarship, which is designed to help young dancers further their career in dance by providing support as they seek advanced dance training. It is for a good cause, certainly, as we have so very many talented young dancers in this region - but the Young Choreographer Ball is so much more than that, as I found out last night. The Young Choreographer Ball is a showcase of the best and brightest in dance, those who take a chance to try choreography in hopes of winning an award (and in the case of first prize last night $500), and those dancers they choreograph, shining talents in their own right.

Held at the lovely Suncor Energy Centre for the Performing Arts, the dancers performed their choreography to a packed house last night. Many proud families were in the audience, and proud they should be as their hardworking dance students took the stage, and their young budding choreographers waited anxiously in the wings.

I will be honest - I was humbled to be asked to judge, and humbled further still when MC Russell Thomas introduced me in a way that made me blush so deeply I am sure it could be seen from the far reaches of the auditorium. I had provided Kim with a very brief biography for my intro, but Russells' kind words went far beyond what I anticipated, and so I felt doubly humbled. I was delighted to be co-judging with the lovely Steph Link, and so we settled into our judging table to watch the stage.

And again I will be honest - I did not expect to see what I saw. I knew I would be impressed, but I was beyond impressed with the skill, work, and efforts of the choreographers and dancers. I scribbled notes frantically, ones I kept and looked at today to remind me of the various pieces. "Captivating", I wrote on one, "stunning" on another. "Such energy, such fun, can't look away", on one, and "simply touching" on another. Every piece amazed me, and every single choreographer who participated has reason to be deeply proud, because their work had an impact on me.

I kept feeling what I thought was a cool breeze, the feeling of goosebumps raising on my arms and a chill at the back of my neck - but there was no cool breeze to be felt. It was instead pure joy and amazement as these dancers and choreographers scripted their bodies to pieces of music. It was the chill of watching something special unfold, and being part of an event that is, in a word, stunning. The talent on display, the enthusiasm, the skill, the joy, the hard work...these are all the things that are best about this community, the things I try to share whenever I speak or write about this place we call home. Last night I saw those things, but instead of seeing them in words I saw them danced out on a stage in front of me while I tried to wrap my head around the concept of judging them at all.

It was most definitely a challenge. I tried to judge based on several criteria - how had the choreographers tailored the pieces to the music, and to the dancers' skill? Did their piece successfully convey the vision I suspected they had in their head? (and I know this to be a challenge, as often I know what I want to say but the struggle comes in writing those things onto paper) Did they achieve a synergy and cohesion in the piece, did it make me unable to look away, did it show me their skill and talent as a choreographer?

And in the end, as there must be in such events, there was the winners, first place going to the beautiful piece from Nicole McMillan. Her piece, 'Reason' was one that resonated deeply with me, and that captured so wonderfully the essence of the music and the talent of her dancers. Second place went to Lewis Heinzlmeir for his rollicking and stunningly energetic piece "Down the Road", a piece which made me laugh and grin and unable to look away. Third place went to Victoria Naud for "Firework", a piece that was, in a word, lovely and soft. These three winners were richly deserving of the recognition, but so too was every single choreographer who took the opportunity to work with their dancers to create a piece that won applause and admiration.

Creativity is not easy. It does not matter the discipline - visual arts or writing, photography or dance. It is a lifelong pursuit of chasing excellence, wanting for every painting or article or photo or choreography to be better than the one before. Often we compete with no one more than ourselves, determined to show our personal best every single time, and so it was last night with a group of talented and devoted young choreographers who created amazing pieces, and who will, I believe, only get better over time.

When I left last night I stopped feeling the chills I had been feeling all evening in the judging chair, until today when I pulled out my notes and looked them over for this post. And then I felt those chills all over again, tiny pinpricks of excitement and pleasure and amazement at the talent we have in this community, young choreographers and dancers and those who support them in reaching their goals and aspirations. I was humbled to be asked to judge the Young Choreographer Ball, and I was humbled when I was introduced. Today I am simply humbled to have been there to witness it in any capacity, because it was a true honour to watch such energy, beauty, and passion laid out there on the floor in front of me. To me life is about exploring your passion, and yesterday evening I had the opportunity to watch as people in our community explored theirs while sharing it with me. And I sit here today, simply deeply humbled that they chose to do it at all.

My deep thanks to Kim Hurley
for the invitation to participate,
Russell Thomas 
for his all-too-kind words last night,
Steph Link,
for being a terrific co-judge 
(and generally amazing person),
all the incredible dancers who danced their hearts out,
and all the choreographers 
who shared their passion
with me last night.
I am, quite simply, grateful to have been there.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Bullied

It is a touchy subject for me, and one I don't talk about all that often. I am deeply glad it has never happened to the Intrepid Junior Blogger, and while I have discussed it with her until this morning I hadn't told her about my personal experience. The topic is bullying - and yes, I am one of the many who has been bullied.

In Grade 6 I moved to a new neighbourhood, and a new school. I was anxious about the move, and while my parents tried to reassure me it didn't take me long to realize my anxiety had been well placed. The new school was not only years newer than my old school it housed kids years cooler than the ones I had been attending school with since Grade Two. My old classmates were still occasionally playing with Barbies, but in this new school the kids in my grade were talking about dating. I was easily picked out as the new kid, and my home-made clothes that my mother lovingly sewed and my farmer kid style (as while we were urban my parents had long been farmers before moving to the city) made me stand out in the most miserable of ways. I was out of my depth completely and no one knew it more than me. But I wasn't the only one who noticed. So did my bullies.

There was more than one, a group of siblings both older and younger than me who latched onto me with a vengeance. Over time I have forgotten many of the things that were said, the kind of forgetting that is deliberate in nature, but I will always remember how it felt to be demeaned, threatened, and cornered on a daily basis. They made my life a living hell for 3 years, Grades 6, 7, and 8, and while they never harmed me physically there was most certainly emotional damage.

I escaped when I went on to high school, able to disappear in a much larger school and leaving some of my bullies behind in elementary school. The ones who attended high school with me moved on to other targets, and I was finally able to breathe.

I look back now and I am so deeply grateful there was no Facebook or Twitter or cell phones back then. The bullying in person was bad enough, and I cannot imagine how I would have survived the escalation technology would have likely created. I understand those who have been so badly bullied that they have ended their lives, more than anyone knows, because while I did not consider suicide in those years I think if it had continued in high school I might have, because it was so intense and the severity so deep.

I never told anyone back then. Not my parents or sisters, not the teacher or the school principal. There was no talk about bullying in my school, no educational seminars or presentations. I don't even know how or if they would have responded if I told them, and so I suffered alone and in silence.

There were peers who watched it happen, of course, but they didn't tell anyone either. They probably didn't know what to do or how to react, and they likely feared becoming victims themselves. And so for three long years I was bullied, mercilessly and daily, until it finally stopped one day in Grade Nine.

When I was in my late teens one of my former bullies was in a terrible car accident. He lived in the neighbourhood and his accident was the talk of the area, as while he survived he suffered a severe brain injury that left him having to learn to walk and talk and read all over again. What was most interesting, though, is that this formerly very angry and aggressive young man became one of the sweetest and gentlest souls after this traumatic injury. The damage to his brain actually changed his personality, and as he began to venture out into the world again as his recovery progressed I used to run into him on occasion at the local bus stop.

I was wary, of course. This was my bully, an individual I had grown to hate with a seething anger that threatened to boil over, but his gentle smile and soft hellos at the bus stop slowly made me realize that he was not the same as the young man who had bullied me. And so we began to talk, hesitantly at first, but then more openly, including the day when over coffee at a coffee shop downtown I confronted him about the bullying that had happened years before.

His memory, a bit damaged by the accident too, meant he didn't remember the specifics like I did, but he did remember doing it. He also remembered, however, the abuse he had suffered at the hands of the adults in his life, abuse that went back deep into his memories and that shaped him as a person. He and I sat in that coffee shop and he poured out all the atrocities he and his siblings had endured, while I stared at him in disbelief.

My bully was a victim, too.

He had been abused his entire life, as had his siblings. Their rage, the one they couldn't express at home, had come pouring onto me in those three years, as it had nowhere to go. They too had told no one of the abuse and so they simply perpetuated the cycle, taking the punches and slaps they received at home and turning it into words of hate they used on me, and others.

I hugged my bully that day. He and I remained friends until I left that city and moved into the rest of my life, and I lost touch with him. I don't think he ever went back to being the young man he was before his accident, and I hope he went on to have a good life, because I know his early years were not happy in any way. And I suppose it changed the way I saw bullying, too.

You see we often see bullies as villains, and yet I believe there is a reason they become these villains. In the bullying dilemma there are three parties who need to be addressed: the victim, the peers who witness it - and the bullies, who may well be victims of things we cannot see and do not know. When I was being bullied it never even occurred to me that my bullies could be victims, too. They were, in my mind, just bullies.

I am glad we talk about bullying now. Maybe if we had back then I would have been able to tell an adult and then my bullies would have been able to tell an adult of their victimization, and we could have broken the cycle. Perhaps that is the most important thing I learned about it all, the value of talking about it even when the memories are painful and we don't have all the answers and when we have tried to forget those years.

And that is why I told the Intrepid Junior Blogger my story today. And that is why I cried on my way into work, thinking of a young girl who had been so bullied and who went on to become me, and of a young man who suffered a horrific traumatic brain injury and taught me that sometimes even bullies are victims.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

An Act of Kindness


It was 8 am, and when I touched the handle it fell on top of me, narrowly missing the Intrepid Junior Blogger and instead connecting with my head with a solid thump. I struggled to support the weight, stunned at what had just happened. It was my yard gate, a beast weighing more than I can imagine, and it had fallen completely off one hinge, and was dangling by the other.

I almost began to cry, which probably seems absurd as things are broken and damaged all the time, but on occasion things seem overwhelming, which it did that morning. I was simply grateful the gate had fallen on me and not the IJB. I struggled to push it upright and left it propped against my fence, already late in getting my day going.

That broken gate ate at me all day. I realize it seems like a molehill but sometimes the "molehills" add together and become a mountain, and so it was that day. The broken gate served to magnify all the other things I haven't done and needed to do, all the things that were broken and needed fixing, all the chores at work and home that were crying out for attention...I was, for the very first time in my new house, dreading going home. I posted about it on Facebook and Twitter, lamenting a day that began with a gate falling on top of you.

I drove home in the dark, and as I pulled into my driveway my headlights shone upon the gate, which was closed. How odd, I thought, as I had most certainly not closed it and the way it had broken meant it couldn't be closed. The IJB had beaten me home and she certainly could not have closed it this way in the state it was in.

I turned off my car and walked up to the gate in disbelief. I ran my gloved hand across the hinges, now securely bolted to the fence post. I swung it open, and it opened lightly and easily, far easier than before as the gate had begun to scrape a bit and I had known it needed attention.

And I began to cry.

I flew into the house and asked the IJB if the gate was fixed when she got home. She said it was and commented on how quickly I had arranged it, and her eyes grew big when I told her it wasn't me. I have rarely seen her smile as she did that evening, but her smile was huge and her eyes delighted as we marveled at the now-perfect gate.

She put on her coat and shoes and we went outside again, to swing the gate open and examine the bolts. She asked who fixed it and I told her I didn't know, had no idea, and so we went inside where I began sending messages.

Did you fix the gate, I asked various friends. And the answer was always the same. Not them, they said, suggesting it was a Christmas miracle or good karma coming back to me or just someone who knew I needed some help and gave it. But no one, not one person, would admit it was them.

You see I have no idea who fixed the gate. There is a conspiracy of silence on this one, and no one will take credit. I get a lot of smiles when I bring it up but not one single soul will admit it was them. And perhaps that is the beauty of this all. It was an act of kindness done without expectation of thank you or reward, and I am so profoundly grateful - and humbled.

So this is my public thank you to whatever kind person knew that a broken gate can sometimes be far more than a broken gate. When I drove up to my house that night my faith, which was a bit bruised, was restored. All the other challenges I face melted away as I saw that in such a small act of kindness is proof of a community that looks out for each other, even if it means just fixing a broken gate. That simple act of kindness reminded me that we are not alone, and that all we need to do is take care of each other, just as some kind soul took care of the IJB and I that day.

I am waiting for the opportunity to pay this forward, and one day my chance will arise. And I will do so quietly and without fanfare, so someone has the feeling I had that night, driving home to find an act of kindness, just waiting to be discovered.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

We Are the Global Village - Knight Lights

It has become one of my favourite seasonal events, combining so many of the things I am passionate about: social justice, the holidays, and young adults. I have attended since it began, and every year it has gotten bigger, and better, and brighter, and I have watched as it introduced the community to the concepts of fair trade while at the same time it helped students to understand both the concepts of entrepreneurialism and using that business spirit to achieve the aims of equity and fair trade in our world. And I am excited to attend tomorrow evening, because it is has become one of the events I now associate with Christmas in Fort McMurray.

 
 
The concept behind fair trade - people being paid fair price for the goods they produce - is not a new one, but it is a bit unusual in Fort McMurray simply because we don't have a store like 10,000 Villages, which is often how people first learn of fair trade and what it means. We are so accustomed to stickers showing that our goods are from places like China and Taiwan, but we rarely stop to think about the true cost or impact of those goods on the lives of those who produce, package, and ship them to us. We have come to equate cheap with desirable, failing to recognize that just as we have an expectation to be paid fairly for our work so too should those in other countries - and on occasion we fail to understand the impact that fair price can have on those who reside so far away from us.
 
Social justice is a concept the Intrepid Junior Blogger and I discuss a great deal. I want her to grow up with an understanding that her world extends far past our house, her school, and even this community. I want her to grasp that we are a global community, a collective of individuals who may speak different languages and embrace different traditions but who share common goals and aspirations, and who deserve to enjoy a standard of living that recognizes their status as a person, a human, and a global citizen. I want her to understand that poverty is not okay. I want her to embrace her role as global citizen too, and take her place in that village alongside young adults from all over the world.
 
Perhaps that is why Knight Lights at Holy Trinity resonates so deeply with me. It is the creation of students in that school who are passionate about social justice, equality, and ensuring that everyone who shares this planet has a quality of life that reflects their fundamental belief that all life is precious, and worthy, and important.

I suppose one of the other reasons it resonates with me is because while it is about fair trade and social justice and youth it is also about holiday shopping - which is something else that excites me, because I have many on my list who would love to know that not only did I care enough for them to buy a gift but I cared enough to invest in fair trade and the initiatives of young people in our community (and frankly I can never own enough pashminas, and I always seem to come home with one or two from this market, too). So, where will you be tomorrow night? If you want to do some holiday shopping, explore fair trade, and support some local youth who are doing what they can to make a difference in this world you will be at Holy Trinity High School, just like me, the IJB, and hundreds of others in this community who have already discovered the magic and joy of being part of the global community through Knight Lights.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Meet Me Under the Mistletoe - Festival of Trees 2013


Photo credit to Events With Vizability
 
While the title of this post may seem provocative it isn't really an invitation, but rather a recap of an event - the Meet Me Under the Mistletoe gala at the annual Festival of Trees, in fact.

Last week I wrote about the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party, and what a brilliant party it was to kick off the 2013 Festival of Trees. The festival, which is the culmination of months of hard work and effort from the Northern Lights Health Foundation, is an annual event of beautiful trees, Christmas crafts with the kids, a silent auction, a visit to Santa, and a lovely gala that I have now attended for the last three years.




When you go to a lot of events it can be easy to become a bit jaded, but one of the things likely little known about me is that I am an die-hard Christmas enthusiast, and my house typically "explodes Christmas" every year when garland and lights covers everything that doesn't move (and some that do, which explains the photos of the family dog festooned in bright blinking lights and wearing a puzzled expression). And so it is for this reason that every year I eagerly await the Festival of Trees and in particular the gala, as it is the kickoff for my season, getting me into the spirit of holiday shopping and decorating and baking.

This year was a beautiful one at the gala, and the done-to-perfection touches from the local Events With Vizability gang were in full view in the whimsical Seuss-inspired décor. The colours were those of a traditional Christmas, reds and greens, and truly evocative of the season. The oversized gifts, the clever signs, and the general atmosphere made for a lovely backdrop for an evening with the local glitterati who came to mix and mingle and bid on trees, raising funds for an amazing organization in our community.



I spent much of my time with a dear friend, occasionally heading out into the crowd to do my own mingling and chatting, the kind of small talk one partakes in at these events. Masters of Ceremonies Krista Balsom and Rolando Inzunza kept the program rolling along, and with their usual charm and grace managed a program that included sponsors and NLHF staff, as well as the main event - the tree auction.


This year marks the last that Ross Jacobs will serve as auctioneer, and I will miss him and his beguiling ways as he convinces, cajoles, and downright corners people into bidding on trees, laughter ringing out as the prices are driven higher and higher. The trees, ranging from the very traditional ones done in Victorian styles to those in bright shades of pinks and blacks and whites, were lovely to behold, and even lovelier to watch as they were sold one by one to create the money needed for the NLHF to do the work they do in our community.

I watched most of the bidding from my perch on one of the festively decorated soft couches, hovering in front of the stage to not miss a moment of the action, and to watch as the auctioneer engaged with bidders, playing that age old game of "who wants it most?"




I was there to see Jimmy Whiffen perform (a musician I have had the pleasure of seeing before, but never on a stage so large), and I was there to see a short video of the MCs enjoying all the different aspects of the Festival of Trees.


And while I was there I kept thinking about this event, and how it has been part of my life for a very long time. I recall when it was still at one of the local high schools, before moving on to the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre, and for the last few years now at MacDonald Island Park. When the Intrepid Junior Blogger was smaller I would take her every year, to sit on Santa's lap and to make a stocking with glue and glitter (that would subsequently shed glitter all over her, the inside of the car, and my floor, holding true to the adage that glitter is the "herpes of the craft world"). We would emerge from Santa's workshop with hands sticky with glue and faces sticky from gingerbread man icing (mostly her, really, but sometimes me, too), and every year it was the event that helped us welcome in the holidays.

My world is different now. On Saturday evening I sat amongst a crowd of beautifully dressed people and enjoyed a festive atmosphere, and welcomed the season just as I have done for the past few years.

I must admit that on Sunday morning I headed back to the Festival of Trees with the intention of sitting on Santa's lap, although that was thwarted by a line-up of children waiting in their holiday best for their time with the jolly old elf and his wife. I smiled as I remembered those days when the IJB was little, and felt a bit wistful as now she is simply too old for such "nonsense" and will not humour me in my requests to stay little for just awhile longer. I looked around at all the children and parents enjoying Santa's workshop, and I took one final swing through the trees. And then I left to drive to my storage unit, where I pulled out all my Christmas decorations. One box, the lid a little loose, spilled open and out fell a few items, including a red felt stocking covered with glitter and, true to the nature of glitter, still shedding a few tiny glistening bits.

I smiled. And then I cried, for days gone by and for the pure and simple joy of having the chance to welcome another Christmas with the Festival of Trees, and with a young woman who is, in my mind, growing up and away from me far, far too quickly.

My thanks and congratulations to
the Northern Lights Health Foundation,
Events With Vizability,
all the sponsors, volunteers,
and MacDonald Island Park staff,
for helping me welcome
the holiday season
with another spectacular
Festival of Trees,
including the very lovely
Meet Me Under the Mistletoe
 gala event.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Intrepid Junior Blogger Goes to Work

"Hey," I say when I get the email. "Hey, it's Take Your Kid to Work day, you could come to work with me!" I say excitedly to the Intrepid Junior Blogger while she stares at her laptop screen. She raises her head - just enough so I can see her eyes over the back of her computer, and I can see she is struggling to say something honest but finding a strategy to soften the blow. "Um, Mom," she says, "Mom, your job isn't all that exciting." And while I love what I do I had to admit that to a 14-year old a whirlwind of meetings and press releases and writing documents might not seem all that attractive. So I asked her if she wanted me to put out a call to my friends on Facebook and see who might be willing to let her join them at their jobs for a day - and so I did, which is how she ended up spending her work day (well, morning really) at Country 93.3 and the Wood Buffalo Food Bank.

When Jerry Neville from Country 93.3 offered to let her hang out at the station he cautioned that the day begins early - really early, as in 4 am. I thought that might be a deal breaker for her but she was quite keen on the idea, and so one very early morning this month Jerry and Nolan Haukeness from Rock 97.9 swung by my house at 4 am to pick up their coworker-for-a-day.

She had actually been a bit nervous about the whole thing, especially going on the air (as while she loves to perform on stage microphones make her edgy). I had explained to her though that the host's job was just part of what happens at a radio station, and that lots went on behind the scenes and off the air, just as happens at most jobs where you only see (or hear) the very surface of all the activity. And so off she went, to spend the early morning with Jerry and the Country 93.3 gang - and she had a blast.

I picked her up at 9 am to take her on to the Food Bank, her next stop, and found her in the newsroom chatting with news reporter Ferne Wynnyk. We talked a bit and then hopped into the car to stop for some quick fast food breakfast, and she gave me a very quick rundown of the morning at the station.

"So, did you know that Country 93.3 and Rock 97.9 have very different demographics so they need to tailor their content and advertising to that market?" she asked before launching into a long and to me baffling explanation of radio demographics, marketing, and listening audiences. She finished up rather breathlessly saying "And oh yeah, I went on the air with Jerry to talk about Take Your Kid to Work day and Rob Ford."

Yep, my kid, talking politics on the air at 7 am. I should have known. This apple fell pretty close to the tree, it seems. What really seemed to strike her about her time at the radio station though is how engaged they all are - she said they discussed politics and life and YouTube videos and recent events and just seemed to know what was going on. She told me she loved her time with Jerry and with Ferne (and I think she bonded very quickly with Ferne, a young woman not that much older than the IJB and who the IJB thinks is pretty awesome). In her short 5 hours at the station she learned a great deal about what they do, and on the ride to the Food Bank she said "you know, I'd like to spend more time there I think", a sure sign with a teenager that it was a total smash success.

Our next stop was the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, a place where she has been before as a volunteer, but this time she would spend time with Arianna Johnson, the Executive Director, to learn how a food bank runs.

When I arrived at noon I found her hanging out with Arianna in her office. They were both grinning at me and I asked how the morning had been. The IJB told me they had done a Kraft Dinner taste test (seeing if those assembled could taste the difference between real Kraft Dinner and the generic kind, and the IJB proudly informed me she got it right - my kid has a pretty refined palate when it comes to KD as it has always been a popular occasional treat in her world), and she told me she packed a hamper by herself, and went to the bank with Arianna.

"The bank?" I asked. "Yep, the bank," she said, explaining she had sat through a bank appointment and discussed financial investments (a topic even I can't handle as my eyes glaze over and show tunes begin to play in my head). She explained the need for non-profits to find ways to make the money they have grow, and how these are crucial parts of managing a non-profit organization. And then she said: "They have no jam at the food bank. There was no jam to put in the hampers. I don't get that, it bugs me that they don't have these things," summing up the reality of the food bank's mission and the struggles they encounter every day. "I like the food bank, and the people," she said. "I believe in what they do," she said, echoing exactly what I feel and think about this incredible social profit organization in our community.

On the ride home we talked about her day, the food bank and the radio station, what she had learned and what she had discovered. I asked if she was tired, having gotten up at 3 am to go to work, and she said she was fine and was headed home to spend the rest of the day relaxing.

That evening while I was still at work, at about 6:30 pm, my phone buzzed with a text message from the IJB:

After you dropped me off I fell asleep on the sofa.
I just woke up and was all confused.
I guess I had a hard day at work.

I stared at my cellphone with a smile. I would head home soon and cuddle her up and we would talk about her time with Jerry and Ferne and Arianna, and all she had learned. We would discuss how she believed she had the best "Take Your Kid to Work" day of any kid in the entire city, and how she had found new friends with the people who share this community with us. We would talk about radio stations and social profit organizations, and how they connect and how they differ, and how they partner to benefit this community, and we would talk about buying a lot of jam for the food bank. We would discuss market demographics and financial investments, and we would share our thoughts on how lucky she was to have people in her life who not only opened their jobs but their hearts and minds to her, sharing their passion for what they do with a Grade Nine kid. And we would be grateful for all that, but all that would come later that night. For now, as I looked at my text message, all I could do was smile and think that she had had a hard day at work indeed, and perhaps that was the best thing that could have happened on Take Your Kid to Work day, as she had a new understanding of radio stations and food banks, and working hard to make a difference in your community every single day. The Intrepid Junior Blogger had gone to work for a day, and found an entire world she didn't know about is out there, just waiting for her to one day join it and begin to make her difference, too.

The IJB and I
would like to thank
Jerry Neville and Ferne Wynnyk
and the entire gang at Rock 97.9 and Country 93.3
and 
Arianna Johnson
and everyone at the Wood Buffalo Food Bank
for sharing their jobs with her for a day!


Friday, November 15, 2013

Ugly Christmas Sweaters? Yes, Please.


When I managed to score the tickets at the silent auction at the KD Gala I knew I had a mission, but instead of doing it myself I set the Intrepid Junior Blogger up with her laptop, a website address, and carte blanche to accomplish the goal. She dove into the project with zeal, and by the end of it we were both collapsed in laughter, with my Paypal account a bit deeper in debt and a parcel from Vermont on the way to our house. The mission? To find a godawful ugly Christmas sweater for the first - and I sincerely hope annual - Ugly Christmas Sweater Party at the Festival of Trees.

The Festival of Trees is a lovely local event, organized by the Northern Lights Health Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides support and financial assistance to the goals of health care in this region. This is, of course, a topic that affects all of us since all residents will at one time or another require medical care, and so the NLHF has touched all our lives at some point. I have been very fortunate in the sense of medical issues, but even I have dealt with times when the IJB has broken her arm, or otherwise required care, and so we too have used the medical services in our twelve years in this community.

I have always loved the Festival of Trees, and it has always been a wonderful event. This year, however, I think they rather outdid themselves with the kickoff event, an Ugly Christmas Sweater party that turned the Nexen Field House at MacDonald Island Park into a sea of tacky, gaudy sweaters. It was an amazing evening, and one of the best I have had in a very long time, too.

You see I am a big fan of galas, those glitzy and glamourous events, but they are somewhat prohibitive in the sense that not all can afford to attend them. They are not inexpensive affairs, with tickets ranging from $200-$350, and that is before drinks and taxis and party attire and babysitters. And while we do have a very high average disposable income in this community (the highest in the nation, in fact) there are many people here who do not earn the kind of money where a gala evening becomes feasible. They simply can't justify that kind of expense, but they would still love to support these events and non-profit organizations. They want to give back to the community too, and enjoy special events, but on occasion the cost is a bit exclusionary - which is why we need more events like the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party.

At $30 a ticket, and the cost of a gaudy sweater, the event become affordable and attracts a different crowd, often younger than the gala set but no less interested in supporting a good cause, enjoying a good time, and spending their cash in a way that gives back to our community. Last night they came out in droves, wearing hideous Christmas sweaters and dancing the night away to the sounds of stellar band Signal Hill (who are, by the way, absolutely fantastic and have made me a fan with their tremendously well-performed cover tunes - there are "bands who play covers", and then there are bands who play covers and make them sound fresh and exciting and brilliant, and Signal Hill is clearly the latter type). It was one of the most festive events I have been to in months, with a true party atmosphere and a simple joy that could not be denied, which is why last night on Twitter I deemed it the "Christmas party of the year", and I am quite certain it will remain to be.

I stood beside the dance floor last night snapping pictures with my iPhone, watching sweater-clad happy people dancing to songs like "Come On Eileen", "Ring of Fire", and "500 Miles", interacting with each other and enjoying a performance from a terrific and engaging group of musicians. I watched as they filed into the photo booth to memorialize their sweaters. I smiled (beamed, actually) when a young man approached me to introduce himself as one of my Twitter followers, excited by meeting me (and as usual I felt humbled by that, too, as I am just me and not particularly special, but I couldn't stop grinning) and I walked around the room talking to friends and co-workers, and, on occasion, total strangers. It was a true party, and while it may have been hundreds of people it was somehow intimate and cozy too, with crazy ugly sweaters everywhere and smiling faces at every corner.

Here is my summary: It was pure and unadulterated joy, and it is something we need more of in this community. We need more of these events that cater to this demographic, that draws them into our community and engages them with our non-profits and shows them that these events are not only for those who have large bank accounts but for everyone. It wasn't the usual gala crowd last night, but rather the people who are the everyday folks who run our communities - the nurses and teachers, bank tellers and store clerks we see every day but rarely see at galas. And don't get me wrong, as I love a good gala event - but last night was special for so many reasons, and a total home run for the Northern Lights Health Foundation who took a bit of a risk and will now reap the rewards of being bold and brave and innovative.

I sincerely hope this becomes an annual event, and I hope to see a lot more of this demographic at events (and I'd like to see a lot more of Signal Hill, too). I had the best time last night, and this morning I deem the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party one of the very best new events I have ever been to in Fort McMurray. And just for the record since I truly believe this will be an annual event I have given the IJB another task. Today she is on the internet and on the hunt for another prize - next year's ugly Christmas sweater for her mother, and one which is even bigger, bolder, and brighter to match an event that is all of those things, too, and bound to be just that much better next year.

My thanks - and congratulations -
to Northern Lights Health Foundation,
event sponsors, volunteers,
and ugly Christmas sweater fans
for an incredible party!
 
My ugly sweater - with some rather stellar shoes:
 
 
All following photos credit to Jerry Neville of Country 93.3
 







 


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

An Alarming Situation

Consider this: You are in a large department store, about 8:00 in the morning before you head into work. While meandering in the back of the store seeking a small Christmas tree for your office (don't ask) the fire alarm in the store begins to ring. Employees look at each other in mild alarm and some confusion, and while they don't talk to you they begin talking to each other: "Should we leave?" they say, and "I don't know" they say, while another says "false alarm" and laughs, even though the alarm is still ringing. What do you do?

Well, if you are me, like this morning in a department store downtown, you walk to the exit closest to you and leave, while the employees are still milling about and other shoppers are still ambling their carts down the aisles in hot pursuit of jars of pickles or dog treats or whatever other little treasure they have their hearts set on. And here's what I don't get: when did we begin assuming all fire alarms are false, and how long until that gamble proves to be a poor one?

Look folks, we need to have a serious safety moment here. This morning I sort of ranted on Twitter about "sheeple" who don't seem to think for themselves, but this isn't funny in the slightest. When a fire alarm goes off YOU LEAVE THE BUILDING. I don't care if it is probably a false alarm, I don't care if you have to leave a full cart of groceries, and I don't care if it's inconvenient. It's significantly more inconvenient to get trapped in a burning building with dozens of other panicking people who didn't want to leave their carts either, so do the smart thing - and walk out.

This morning I walked out the front door while people were still walking in, despite the alarms ringing. The confusion of the employees and the customers didn't bother me or deter me slightly. I determined that in my own instinct for self-preservation I would leave and return later once the alarm had been conclusively determined to be false (which is exactly what I did). I don't know how others arrived at their decision to remain in the building, or even enter it while the alarm was ringing, but I do know that I am never going to be one of those people who ignored the fire alarm on the day it was a real fire.

One night just over a year ago the Intrepid Junior Blogger and I were watching a documentary on 9/11. We talked about that dark day, and how so many died. She was only two when it happened, so she doesn't remember when the towers fell, and when the stories of survival - and death - began to emerge. And so I told her how some people who wanted to leave the buildings after the planes had crashed into them had been convinced to stay inside instead of heading down the flights of stairs that took them to safety. We had a very frank talk about making your own decisions in that situation, because the responsibility for preserving your life falls to you and you alone on days like that. We all know what happened to the people who remained in those buildings even when their instinct told them to leave.

This morning when the fire alarm went off I looked around me in amazement as employees and customers milled about, waiting for the fire alarm to be quieted, but not exiting the building. I walked right past them, into the cold morning air, and into my car as the alarm continued to ring. False alarm? Perhaps, although maybe more of a wake-up alarm about our own complacency and inability to believe that fires can destroy department stores and buildings can fall down after planes hit them. We have become so immune to alarms that we ignore them, and assume they are false. We have become so comfortable that we put our own lives at risk (and in some cases in that store today our children at risk, as some who remained inside had children with them), and we just assume nothing bad will happen.

It's a faulty assumption, folks. I'd rather be alive and have fallen prey to a false alarm than be dead or in the middle of a fire situation. This morning was just the alarm I needed to be reminded of it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dear Students: Welcome to Fort McMurray

My email inbox is an interesting place some days. Recently I got an email from a student at one of the many universities in our country, and he was asking for some guidance for students who may be considering coming to Fort McMurray for work positions, often of  the co-op or summer employment type. The question was if I could advise them on some blog posts or resources to learn more about life here, and it honestly sparked some ideas as I thought about the "best" way to learn about our region and community. The email I would send in reply is below - and instead of sending it I will just send a link to this post to the one who inquired, and I genuinely hope the information I provide is of use, and gives them, and their fellow students, some thoughts on the "real" Fort McMurray:

Dear students:

First things first. Please put down that national newspaper or magazine, and stop reading their story about Fort McMurray immediately. I can virtually guarantee the author of the article you are reading has spent little time in our community, and while they are providing you with one perspective of life here (often choosing to focus on the salacious side) there is far more going on in our community than they can or ever will capture. Now that you've put that down let's talk about the real Fort McMurray, shall we?

Welcome to Fort McMurray! This is a place of incredible opportunity and potential, and we are genuinely excited that you are considering employment in our community! You have probably never been here before, and it seems quite likely your knowledge of us is based on the aforementioned newspapers and magazines, so I am going to ask you to do something: start fresh. Forget everything you think you know, and be ready to learn about us with an open mind, because we are quite likely to be very different than you imagine.

I know that some of you might think reading this blog is the best place to learn about this community, but this blog is just one of the many showcasing the work of those who live here. I would suggest you visit Russell Thomas' blog for his perspective on life here as an arts advocate and dedicated family man, as well as former councillor, and Verna Murphy's blog for thoughts on being a mom, wife, foster mom, and woman in this place. Then meander over to Kevin Thornton's blog for some of his articles from the various publications he writes for, and take a quick stop at Silver's blog for some thoughts from a student in the region (and while she doesn't write about Fort McMurray all that often I think it might be nice for you to see that there are students pursuing their studies here, too).

Speaking of publications I would suggest reading the Fort McMurray Today for stories on politics, environment, and the oil sands, while if you want to understand the community you need to read the weekly Connect. And if you want to see what we look like at the many events we organize and attend I would suggest you check out Snapd Wood Buffalo.

And if newspapers aren't your style then check out Your McMurray Magazine for longer stories about this region, as well as information about the many places, people, and things that make this community tick. Or perhaps you are more into radio, in which case you should check out MyMcMurray for news, or maybe wander over to Mix 103.7 for their coverage. If you are of a more visual sort then check out Shaw TV, which provides great synopses of local events and happenings.

Now that we have covered some basic resources let's talk about Fort McMurray.

We aren't what you think we are.

That's right. Whatever you have heard or read we are both more and different than what you think. A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for the Edmonton-based Kikki Planet website, and the information contained in it remains true for the most part even now. We are younger, more culturally diverse, and more interesting than you likely believe. We also have some significant challenges, but we are working on them as we go, and you can be part of the process if you choose to be - or you can become one of the challenges.

If you come here and fall prey to the drug scene please don't blame it on Fort McMurray or boredom or the "nature of the town". Your drug use (or alcohol abuse, or criminal involvement) is your own choice, just as it is for every person in every community, and it is unfair to blame it on a community that works very hard.

And yes, we work very hard here. In fact we work exceptionally hard, but that hard work pays off tremendously for our careers and our families, and if you decide to come here please understand that while this may be some of the hardest work you will ever do it also quite likely has the most potential for incredible benefits.

And while we work hard we also know how to have fun, and we have dozens of organizations dedicated to sport and recreation and volunteerism. There is never really a reason to be bored here, because you can do everything from walking dogs at the SPCA to sorting food donations at the food bank to playing softball in the summer to curling in the winter to everything else you can do everywhere else.

Wait, can that be right? Is this place really that similar to where you are now? Well, yes, and no. We might have a little less retail and fewer restaurants, but we have an incredibly robust community that is intent on providing its residents with quality-of-life options that rival those found in other centres. And what we have is a collection of people who work, play, and live here, and who are committed to making this place not only their home but the kind of place that attracts bright young people with potential, just like you.

So, there you go. That's Fort McMurray in a micro-nutshell. There is far more to us, but the only way you will ever know it is to come and experience it for yourself. All I suggest is leaving behind all the stories you have heard and all the things you have read, and arrive here with an open heart and mind. Get involved in your career with your co-op or internship, and then get involved with our community, because I can guarantee you will find something you didn't expect, and that will surprise you. Who knows? You might even find the place you decide you will call your future home - and we will welcome you then, just as we will welcome you now.

Best wishes in your studies and future,
Theresa

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Call that Never Came

I am standing in the checkout line at the grocery store when I feel the tears coming. I am trying to fight them off, determined to not cry in the middle of Safeway, but I can't stop them. I pay for my groceries through a veil of tears, the cashier looking at me with alarm, and blindly push my cart to my car, unloading it and climbing inside to cry alone for a moment.

I am a habitual and compulsive email checker, and so it is in the grocery checkout line where I find the email from my sister saying she is sorry to hear about the crash of a Bearskin Airlines flight close to my former home of Red Lake, Ontario. That email stops my heart and sends me racing to the internet for details, where I learn a flight has gone down, killing five including the pilots, and leaving two survivors. For most it is probably just news of another crash of a plane from a remote airline flying in the wilderness of this country, but not for me. For me it is devastating, because I was a Bearskin Airlines employee for years, and Red Lake was my home base.

Bearskin Airlines was the first, and only, airline I have ever worked for. We were quite the gang even back then, a maverick and upstart little airline that flew into cities like Winnipeg and fly-in only reservations like Pikangikum. We were co-workers, and friends, but we were family too, a collective of people who lived in the north and loved it, and who loved everything to do with airplanes and flying and that part of our vast country. I felt like part of a brotherhood back then, a collective of pilots and staff who shared a common lingo and a common turf, and who worked together, flew together, and grew to care for each other in profound ways.

The pilots were an ever-changing cast of characters who had come up from flying bush planes and floats, who flew with us for awhile and then went on to fly "the big planes" with larger airlines. I trusted them implicitly and with my own life, flying with them dozens of times and always knowing my faith was well placed. They were bold and brave and certain, and I never doubted them, not for a second.

I remember too, though, the dark days of winter when the snow would begin to fall heavily and I would wait alone in a remote airport near to my home in Cochenour. I was not only passenger service agent but radio dispatch too, and so I would wait to hear from the flights as they neared the airport to report of their impending arrival. And I remember late nights when they hadn't radioed in yet, waiting. It would be dark, and the snow was falling down as if the heavens had opened and every snowflake in existence was falling right there. Dispatch from Sioux Lookout would call and ask "Have they called in yet?". No, I would say, no, not yet, wondering where they were and worrying.

And then the radio would crackle, and it would spit out "JVFlight 311 to YRL".

"YRL to JV 311, there you are. There you are! What took you so long?" I would joke, and they would tell me not to worry, that they had been momentarily delayed by dealing with another matter and hadn't hit the radio yet. And then they would land and call me "Mother Theresa", telling me I worried too much and that they were "flyboy and flygirls" who didn't need "mommying", but they would laugh and smile as they said it, and I knew they appreciated my worry even though they didn't want to admit it.

I recall one pilot who left us to fly overseas, and one day a fellow pilot told me of the news of his death during a takeoff in Africa. I was so overcome I had to sit down, because I had adored this young pilot. He was one of the best and brightest, and he had captured my heart with his smile and his sweet manners. He died doing what he loved but his death hit me hard, and as my time with the airline wound down I knew I couldn't work for an airline again, because of those nights spent sitting beside the radio, waiting for that call, and always fearing it would be the night the call never came.

My heart hurts today, for those lost last night, the two survivors, the families involved, and all the employees of Bearskin Airlines, past and present, who must be in shock just as I am. I am lost in memories today of all those late nights at a remote airport in northern Ontario, staring at the radio and willing it to crackle to life with the sounds of an incoming flight, signalling that all was well and they would soon be safe on the ground. I am profoundly grateful that in my days at Bearskin that call always came, and we never lost a soul during that time. But I always knew there was a chance that one day that call would not come, and my heart would be broken. Last night I wasn't the one waiting beside the radio at that remote northern airport - and yet today my heart is still shattered by the call that never came.


Why My Poppy is Red


Last night I was talking to a friend about my post from yesterday. Somehow it developed into a discussion on guns, and I shared that I have never, in over 40 years, touched a gun. Never held one in my hands, never fired one, and certainly never pointed one at a human being with the intent to hurt or kill. I have seen them certainly, having grown up on the prairies, but my urban life has never included guns. This same friend and I also discussed the white poppy controversy, and how it has become a point of contention as those who don the white poppy say they are avoiding the red poppy as it "celebrates war". I didn't see the connection between my never touching a gun and the red poppy until early this morning when I woke out of a sound sleep and suddenly realized why I wear the red poppy - and it's not because it celebrates war. It isn't even solely to remember those who fought and died for this country. It is because those who lie under crosses and headstones far from home under a sea of waving red poppies have given me the freedom to never touch a gun. You see, they fought for me so I didn't have to.

I would consider myself a pacifist. I believe in peaceful resolution of conflict, and I believe in peace as a concept. I also know, however, that on occasion there are things that are worth fighting for. I know that on very rare occasion there are even things worth dying for, because those concepts - freedom, democracy, and human rights - are ones we cannot take for granted as there are those who would abuse them.

I think it is so easy for us to revise history. We think about wars of the past and they cease to even be real in our heads, and we can't even imagine what those days must have been like. Last night my friend and I talked about it, trying to imagine being in a trench for days, waiting to kill or be killed, and the fear that must have been so real you could taste it. We talked about how it must have felt to go to war, to ship out to a foreign country and not know if you would ever return. And we talked about white poppies and red poppies, because we have the freedom to discuss such things and to explore these ideas...because someone, somewhere, died for us to be able to talk freely, engage in open dialogue, and even think about white poppies versus red.

A long time ago people in the country where I claim ancestry wore a different badge on their lapel. They wore a gold star. This was not a choice for them, and there was no option of gold star versus black or any other colour. They were forced to do so because an evil regime had taken power, and they were being singled out to bear the blame for all that the regime thought was wrong. They wore that gold star until they traded it in for tattoos that identified them, and then, for millions of them, mass graves where they would never be identified.

I recall once in Toronto when I was at dinner with an older Jewish gentleman. His sleeve slipped up, and for the first time in my life I saw one of those tattoos, a sequence of numbers inked on his arm. I raised my head and looked into his eyes and all he said was "I was just a child, I don't really remember it much", and yet I could tell from the look in his eyes that he remembered every damn thing that happened to him in that horror. This was not some distant past to him, but a memory as fresh and clear as mine from yesterday.

You see the red poppy doesn't celebrate war. I don't believe anyone celebrates war, actually. I think we acknowledge it may be necessary, and I think at times we understand why it has to happen, like when we glimpse a series of numbers tattooed on a dinner companion and suddenly realize that what is simply a history lesson for us was real life for them. We wear red poppies to remember those who willingly and freely gave their lives so no one was ever forced to wear a gold star ever again, so no one was ever tattooed like cattle ever again, and so no one would end their precious life in a gas chamber. We wear red poppies to remember all those who never came home, and all those who came home forever changed by the experience of touching a gun, and firing it at another human being. We wear the red poppy because we have a choice to do so, because we can even discuss wearing a different colour, because others fought and died for our right to make such choices. We wear the red poppy because in Flanders field the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row - crosses marking the lives of those who fought and died so we could make the choices we make every single day, including whether or not we wear a red poppy, or white.

I have never touched a gun, I have no numbers inked on my arm, and I have never been to war. And that is why my poppy is red - and it always will be.