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

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Ground Zero at My Hiroshima

Sometimes things go places we do not expect. It happens often in this age of social media, where a photo or a tweet can go from zero to sixty in a matter of seconds, propelling an image or thought around the world at light speed. And  so this happened to me this week, when a Twitter hashtag that originated in this blog began to resonate with local residents who also began using it - and then suddenly it went national.

It all began as I was driving to downtown Fort McMurray. My route takes me down the bridges over the river, and once again I was thinking about the beauty of the riverbank, especially the banks by the Abasand area, and how this unexpectedly warm weather has me looking forward to spring and when they green up again. And then I began thinking about Neil Young, and his recent comments about Hiroshima, and Fort McMurray.

I suspect Young meant to compare the oil sands industrial sites to Hiroshima, but unfortunately his wording was woefully lacking in making this distinction clear. This is what he said:

He failed, in his wording, to delineate between Fort McMurray, the community, and the oil sands sites (which are in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, but not actually in Fort McMurray, the community). And in that failure to differentiate he made the same error many have, because industry and community are not the same.

I will never argue that the oil sands sites are beautiful. This should have never been about images or hyperbolic language or emotional phrases like Hiroshima - but Young  brought that emotionally loaded, provocative language into play, language that as a writer I know well. The dialogue about oil sands development is a vital one, and one that we engage in in this region on a daily basis - those who think otherwise don't actually seem to understand that those who this industry affects most are the people who live right here, and none of us are sociopaths bent on destruction of the earth. What bothered me the most, though, was that Young's choice of language, and his failure to differentiate between community and industry, did nothing to foster dialogue, at least not with those in this community. It just widened the divide, forced people further into their trenches, and made local people discount the relevancy of anything else he said, because he had just called us - our community, not the oil sands - a wasteland.

When I sat down to write the blog post that inspired the "myhiroshoma" hashtag it was not meant to stir up political debate or rhetoric. It was not even meant as a direct "in your face" to Neil Young as some media have portrayed it. It was a response from someone frustrated because she knew that this community is surrounded by some of the most incredible natural beauty, but it wasn't an image that was being seen or shown. I had seen plenty of images in the media of oil sands sites and tailings ponds, but where were the photos of the trails steps from our houses? The wildlife? The northern lights, the boreal forest, the rivers? And while the oil sands sites are part of our reality here in this region so too are those sights, but the images are not shared - and so I decided to start sharing mine.

I am humbled that others in this community chose to join me. They began posting images, dozens of them, stunning ones of places I had never seen in my twelve years here. I learned about places I have never been (and learned we have wild horses in Janvier, a community to the south of Fort McMurray, and a sight I now desperately want to see). It was a collective, grassroots sharing of our community through images, and pictures, as we all know, say a thousand words.

When media began to pick up on the hashtag I knew there would be backlash, and so there has been. 

Some accused government, industry, or oil sand lobbies for starting this "campaign", but those who have been reading this blog for over two years know a few things. They know I am a vocal community resident and advocate, and they know I write this blog out of love and respect for my community and have never received money for anything I have written in it. They know that I write the things I do because I believe in them, and they know that no government, industry, or lobby controls or suggests what I write (because I am, frankly, stubborn as hell, daughter of a farmer who was legendary in his unwillingness to bend to the will or desires of others).

Some argued about whether the photos had any relevancy, and whether they mattered in the general picture of the oil sands. And of course they do, because just as photos of tailings ponds matter so do photos of boreal forest. They are both part of the overall picture, and that those who objected to them being shared as being "distracting from the real issue" missed the point that they are part of the reality. To discount them as irrelevant is much like saying this community, or the people in it, are irrelevant to the issue and the dialogue, and I would very much argue that we are front and centre, not "irrelevant".

Some accused me of being a "rich white tarsands apologist" - and they are right on one of those accusations, as I am so white by virtue of my heritage that at this time of year I could successfully camouflage in a snowbank. But I am far from rich, and I am no apologist for industry or anything else - I am an advocate for my community, which is what this hashtag was about, and not about the industry. Some assumed I am some right-wing lackey, so my history as an activist with the anti-nuclear movement in Canada would likely come as a surprise to them, as well as my well-known left leaning political views. But this wasn't about being left or right, or being an apologist - it was about my community.

And some took issue with the hashtag itself, calling it offensive or ill-considered. One of the things people know about me, though, is my tendency to take the names I have been called (and trust me, this isn't the first time) and turn them around. Call me stupid for something I have written and I am quite likely to write a blog post titled "I Am So Stupid I Am Going To Write About This Topic Again". I believe words have power, and so I believe in using those words to provoke, evoke, challenge, and inspire, and I hope that I have done so over the years I have written about my community in this blog.
When I chose to use Hiroshima I did so very deliberately, and I coupled it with "my" for two reasons: 1) the current Hiroshima is a beautiful city, one which has risen from a dark past, and of which the residents can be proud, and 2) I believe in using the language others use against us, turning it around, and making it positive in some way. If Young was going to use Hiroshima in reference to us, then by god I was going to use it share positive images of the community that I happen to love and call home. I could have chosen "nothiroshoma", but I think that is perhaps actually more offensive to the current city of Hiroshima as it stands today, and it is inherently negative - and this community and the people in it are some of the most positive and optimistic I have ever found in a life lived all over the country, and so I chose to not engage in the negative.

To say it has been an interesting few days is an understatement. I have watched as the hashtag I created took on a life of its own, far out of my control, and used in ways I did not intend. But what makes me proudest is that the residents of my community - my home - took the opportunity it presented and shared some incredible photographs of the place where we live. And some of those photos resonated with people who viewed them, commenting on the natural beauty of the Albertan north. It opened a dialogue between this community and those outside it based on something other than industry, and to me that is incredibly relevant because Fort McMurray is more than oil - we are a community. 

I think that the dialogue about oil sands development is a crucial one. I think we need to talk about responsibility, sustainability, environment, and much more. Part of opening the door to that dialogue, however, is creating some common ground. I believe in the last few days Fort McMurray has shown that we are not just industry, and that we are a community, just as is every other community in this country that has both an industrial side and a community side. We have established some common ground. We are not some "other" to be feared, or some moonscape place of desolate wasteland. We are a community, and we are proud, and we love our home. Now that the common ground has been established, perhaps we can talk - and about more than just oil, too.


  1. One again a wonderful, honest column. What amazes me is this; its always Ok, for outsiders from Chateline to Neil Young, now Jim Cuddy, so say anything they choice to say, right or wrong, about our community, often half truths, about the oil and industry, look at only one side of a very complicated city, BUT! as soon as we have anything to say we are labeled "stupid " arrogant, left wing, right wing, anything else, they choose! and we are not "allowed" to address any of the incorrect, misleading statements said about our region. I have respond on many occassions, with facts, links to reputable sites, and positive statements only to be slandered, called an idiot, etc etc etc. I didn't follow the Twitter but I can well imagine what was said. So, why are we never allowed to tell the truth about our beloved community, I guess because, people with their own agenda, just are not interested in the truth!

  2. Another excellent post, Theresa. And it's wonderful, indeed inspiring, to see your idea taking off.

  3. Wonderful blog, with an intelligent thoughtful response to what has become a media directed hysteria.
    I have enjoyed many wonderful areas of McMurray when I visit, and yes, the conversation should be met at the level of community.

  4. maybe it's just me, but i think you have taken this whole thing out of perspective. of course you can take pictures of your backyard or morning hike and it will look beautiful, as it is beautiful. but it won't stay that way if we continue to abuse mother earth. i'm confused by your message... let's take a picture of pretty things to distract from the ugly truth. neil young was not attacking fort macmurray, that makes no sense. anybody whose opinion would be relevant knows the oil sands don't operate in an actual city... so yes a bit confused by your hiroshima rant.

    1. This is my perspective, so I am not sure how it can be taken "out of perspective", anonymous. I think I was quite clear in my post as to why I both created and used this hashtag, but I will try to clear up your confusion.

      Fort McMurray is not and should not be a synonym for industry. Fort McMurray is a community of tens of thousands of residents, while the oilsands sites are located many kilometres away. To use the name of the community and the industry as synonyms shows a basic lack of understanding of the difference between the two. I have in fact met many who came here expecting to find tailings ponds in the middle of downtown Fort McMurray, which is of course absolutely untrue, but using the terms interchangeably fosters that kind of misconception.

      There is no attempt at distraction here. Why is it acceptable to take photos of tailings ponds and share them, but not of boreal forest located minutes from our front door? Aren't they both part of the reality? Do we want a dialogue founded on beliefs that Fort McMurray is some giant oilsands site or do we want it founded on the recognition that this is a community as well, and has a place in the dialogue as a community separate from the industry's place in that dialogue?

      Hope I cleared up the confusion - and if you think this mild-mannered post was a rant clearly you missed my recent posts on Canada Post ;)