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

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Most Dangerous Crosswalk in Fort McMurray, Take Two

Yesterday I wrote a post about the most dangerous crosswalk in Fort McMurray, and the best part was that it inspired a lot of discussion.

I watched as people on various Facebook pages argued about whether other crosswalks were really the most dangerous, and if I had chosen the wrong one. I watched as people shared stories of their close calls at intersections and crosswalks all over the community. I watched as people tried to suss out who is really to blame for these incidents, and decide who in the trifecta of responsibility (driver, pedestrian, government) was truly the most responsible.

In the end what I noted most, though, was that this issue has some relevance. It's "got legs", as we say, as it didn't take much to get people talking about it - which means this is an issue that matters in our community, and it has been noticed. It means, I think, that we have a problem.

In reality we all have responsibility, from drivers to pedestrians to governments. It's one of those issues where we must be careful about pointing fingers, because there are fingers pointing right back at each of us on this one.

Part of being a community means looking out for each other. Instead of trying to assign blame we need to work on accepting responsibility, considering our own actions and contributions and how we can improve the situation.

I will leave you with this photo from a recent incident on Thickwood Boulevard. Now, forget the jokes about being in a real hurry for his Tim Horton's, and the comments about the wisdom of the driver in question giving a radio interview after the incident (a statement I am sure the RCMP will find interesting, given that the driver acknowledges he was speeding despite his protestations of other factors). This picture just isn't funny, because had there been someone in this car or in the parking lot the ending could have been much different - and a tragedy. It's a reminder of why we need to talk about vehicle safety, both in crosswalks and out of them. This might seem funny now, but had there been a person in that car, or in the way? Just not funny. Not funny at all, and nor is the issue of how we protect each other - because that is part of what being a community is about.

While there might be other crosswalks that could be deemed the "most dangerous" it seems that the "most dangerous" location is a moving target, as this week the most dangerous location was a parking lot that suddenly became the spot of a potential tragedy. Which area is the "most dangerous" matters far less than making sure every location is the least dangerous we can make it - and we all have a role to play in that.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Most Dangerous Crosswalk in Fort McMurray

It's a bit worrisome to me that when I indicated on Facebook that I was writing about this topic several friends chimed in to guess the crosswalk in question, and not one guessed the one I write about today. This worries me as it means we have a problem with a few crosswalks in town, and this is a problem that is likely going to get worse as we grow, and especially as we try to transition into a more pedestrian-friendly urban centre. Currently we are not pedestrian-friendly in our downtown core, and I say this quite assuredly as I am someone who enjoys a good walk to get to my destination. During the winter months, though, many of our downtown sidewalks are virtually impassable due to snow and ice, and in the summer months the tremendous wear and tear the seasons take on the concrete is visible in the cracks, ruts and holes that appear on the sidewalks. Maintenance of sidewalks is definitely an issue, and one area in which we need to improve, but today I am going to write about the most dangerous crosswalk in Fort McMurray, because yesterday I saw another close call that could have ended in tragedy.

And where is the most dangerous crosswalk, you ask, given that there are a few contenders? I would argue that it is the crosswalk at Franklin and Richard, the last intersection before the new overpass/underpass and route to MacDonald Island. This end of Franklin, which was once very quiet and with light local traffic, has become a bustling spot as vehicles take advantage of the new overpasses and underpasses to get across the river more quickly. The side effect, though, has been increased traffic, often travelling at higher than posted speeds, right through a poorly controlled crosswalk that is located in a heavily residential area, and right outside a local pub.

I drive past this crosswalk almost daily, and since the overpass opened I have seen at least a dozen close calls with pedestrians, particularly in the evening or at night when the lighting in the area is poor. There are several residences on one side of Franklin, and on the other is the enticements of that local pub, restaurants, and all the amenities people might wish to walk to. Added to the mix later in the evening are the occasional intoxicated patrons leaving the local pubs, and with a poorly lit, poorly marked and poorly thought out crosswalk right in the path of traffic zooming downtown or uptown you have a recipe for disaster.

And it has already happened, although fortunately the individual struck by the vehicle in January of this year was not badly injured. At some point we will not be so lucky, and someone will be fatally injured in this area. I believe it is only a matter of time, because the combination of factors that make this our most dangerous crosswalk have the potential of making it our most deadly, too.

I would suggest that as opposed to the current solution, which is a couple of crosswalk signs and reflective posts, a controlled crosswalk of the kind seen outside the Centre of Hope on Franklin be installed. This system allows pedestrians to control the lights, hitting the button to cross and stopping oncoming traffic until they can safely reach the other side. There may be equally reasonable solutions, and I leave that to the traffic safety experts to determine - but I know there needs to be a solution, and fast. Why do I know this?

Because yesterday when I saw someone in the crosswalk and watched a car breeze by them, inches from hitting them, I saw the terror in their face. They and I and the driver of that car all knew that we had been mere inches and seconds from a potential tragedy. It was a heart-stopping moment, and I have had all too many of them at the crosswalk at Franklin and Richard in the last few months since the overpass opened - and I would suggest we address the issue before someone is killed, and not after.

I am sure you are thinking about other crosswalks in town with similar issues - the one behind the Peter Pond Mall and headed towards Superstore, for instance. There are in fact several downtown, and the safety issues regarding crosswalks are one of the impediments preventing us from achieving the pedestrian friendly atmosphere we wish to promote and enjoy in our downtown core.

And this is why today I am asking that we as a community begin to think about that pedestrian friendly atmosphere, and up our game in the protection of those who choose to walk. We as drivers and pedestrians must take some responsibility and contribute to creating that safe atmosphere, but our government must also take those steps in order to ensure that close calls don't become tragedies instead. I look forward to seeing crosswalk safety being emphasized as our downtown becomes a walkable, vibrant, and energetic urban core - and I believe we don't have a second to waste to make it happen.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Delivery Denied

I am trying very hard to not take it personally that my postal code happens to be one of the first ones in the country to lose home mail delivery this year. You see, some local blogger might have gotten a bit incensed when Canada Post decided to institute an arbitrary and capricious $5 surcharge on parcels coming into this community, and they might have kicked up a bit of a fuss over the whole idea. They might have written a couple of blog posts about it, and done some interviews, and helped to create a little pitchfork-and-torch movement designed to make Canada Post back down from this approach to revenue generation - and then this local blogger might have learned that her home mail delivery was going to disappear as her postal code happened to fall into the ones that CP has decided will be the first to lose this service. And while I am assuming this is sheer coincidence some may be surprised to learn that I am not going to kick up a fuss over this decision at all - because I believe it is what CP must do to survive.

I was actually surprised when I moved into my new house in the summer and learned that the rusty, dented mailbox on the side of my house wasn't merely decorative. This is the first place I have lived in Fort McMurray with home delivery,  and while I appreciate the convenience of stepping outside my door to collect my mail I also recognize that the costs of home mail delivery are just not sustainable given the current status of business at Canada Post.

There is no doubt that the advent of the internet has hurt mail services. I don't receive magazines by mail any more, and most of my bills come to me electronically. And while I still love to get mail I know that CP is facing some real financial challenges to continue delivering mail at all, let alone providing mail delivery to every house - and so the move to community mailboxes doesn't trouble me. I think, rather, that it is a sound business decision.

Now, don't get me wrong, as I have tremendous empathy for those who will lose their jobs in this transition. Regrettably though things change, and as they do businesses have to make difficult decisions in order to sustain themselves, and this is one of those decisions - and CP is, and should be, a business.

I objected to the CP $5 parcel surcharge because it was not being evenly applied, affecting only our community and no others. However, the discontinuation of home mail delivery will be evenly applied, phasing it out over time until all Canadians collect their mail at community mailboxes (which do have some advantages, including generally being more secure than home mailboxes which are not locked and thus prime pickings for identity thieves).

I recognize that there is concern about how this will impact those with mobility issues, and I share those as I have had some experience with elderly parents with mobility issues. In that experience, though, I learned that most with mobility issues who live in their own homes do so with some degree of assistance (eg. having people to shovel snow, mow lawns, etc) and collecting the mail may just become another chore to which these caretakers, friends or family attend. I am also hopeful that in some cases Canada Post may be able to make some sort of arrangements, including perhaps directed weekly delivery specifically to those individuals who are able to show that collecting their mail at a community mailbox would involve unnecessary hardship or difficulty.

My main point is this: if phasing out home mail delivery means that they will be able to provide better service, with emphasis on quality of service, speed of delivery, and customer satisfaction then I am all for it. I do have some concerns, as Canada Post service in our community has been woefully lacking in the last few months, but I also believe that is because they are being stretched beyond their capacity at this point. Perhaps the phasing out of home delivery will help to them to maintain a sustainable business model, improve their service and give them some ability to be competitive in a market that has significantly changed since the old days when home delivery was a standard. The world has changed, and now is the time when our institutions, like Canada Post, must change as well. Change is often difficult, and it can be painful, but at times it is necessary. I believe this is one of those times.

And besides, it's time for me to take that rusty old mailbox down anyhow.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Why the Government of Canada Needs to Show Fort McMurray the Money

A federal by-election looms large in Fort McMurray, an election that reportedly is causing some consternation within our federal government as they realize that their hold on this constituency may not be quite as secure as they had assumed. Years of lacklustre representation and an MP who seemed more devoted to creating crossword puzzles about the colour of his hair seemed to indicate a lack of interest in our region on the part of the federal government, ironic given that they tout us as the "economic engine" of the nation. While the lip service given to this region has been vast the actual investment in the region has been woefully lacking (and if you challenge this I would ask when was the last time you heard the federal government was making a significant investment in this region - I rest my case). Nowhere has this been more troubling, perhaps, than with Willow Square.

The Willow Square issue and the aging in place facility planned for that location has long been a contentious issue, with each level of government carrying some level of blame and responsibility. In the final analysis, though, absolutely nothing can be done on Willow Square until the land is turned over for development, and the delay for the development of the aging in place facility must rest with those who control the land - the federal government, through the CMHC.

The federal government has apparently offered three options. One, presented by our departed MP (who thoughtfully left us high and dry and without federal representation) indicated the government would lease the land to the province - at commercial market rates, with a 50-year lease, paid in full up front. Now, this was presented as a "generous deal" by our MP, although how this could be imagined to be a generous deal is beyond even my simple mathematical abilities. The second option is that the federal government will sell it for full market value, and given the market value on land in the RMWB this is also not exactly a generous offer (and likely to impact the development on the property if a significant amount of funds need to be spent on simply acquiring the land). The third option is that they will sell it to the province for a discounted rate provided the province accept some conditions, not only on this property but on several others in the province, making it part of a "package deal". And they seem unwilling to sever this property off to negotiate on it separately, in whatever wisdom they hold on the matter. And to all this I say "enough" - because if the Conservative party in Canada wishes to see another Conservative MP in this region I would suggest they start making some concessions, displaying some leadership, and showing us the money before we decide to head in another direction entirely in this by-election.

I still firmly believe that we need to develop two facilities in our community, one in Parsons Creek and the one at Willow Square, just as I have always contended we should do. I also firmly believe that both can and should be accomplished, but I have also come to the end of my rope with a federal government that talks a good game about the importance of the oil sands and our region but that doesn't follow the talk with any action. Once we have the Willow Square property in our control we can sort out the details about it and the Parsons Creek facility and all the rest - but the point is moot until the property is available to develop.

I am sorely tired of our region and community being the economic backbone of this nation but being treated like a distant appendage. I am tired of the talk about our importance and our value and then being treated as if our needs and concerns do not matter. I am tired of a federal government that fails to not only meet our needs but even acknowledge them, as this matter has been going on not for weeks or months but for YEARS and they felt they needed to do nothing because their electoral hold on the region was solid - but not anymore. I truly believe that this region, after years of federal neglect, is up for grabs and that a powerful and dynamic candidate from another party could pose a serious threat to the Conservative hold. If the Conservatives want us to believe in their commitment to this region and see another Conservative MP elected I would suggest it would behoove them to act on this issue now and find some way to transfer the Willow Square property to our community in a manner that is fair, equitable, and acknowledging of the significant impact our industry has on this nation. I think this would be a very opportune time, in fact, for them to bend a little and make some concessions to give the people what they want, and not promise it as a carrot in the by-election. I would suggest they do it now, before the by-election is held, in a show of good faith that is sorely needed in a place that has felt the sting of federal neglect in recent years.

Today I call on the Canadian government to act on this issue, and to ensure that Willow Square is an issue that is resolved not in ten years, or five years, or even one year. They have it in their power to resolve it before the by-election is called - and this voter and observer is watching carefully to see what they chose to do, and to see what their true level of commitment to this region is.

Enough with the talk about how important this region is. It's time to show us the money - and hand over Willow Square.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Celebrating 100 with YMMPodcast

I am a person with a strong sense of occasion. I have been known to celebrate St. Patrick's Day by flying an enormous Irish flag over my house, and getting up at 3 am to watch royal weddings while drinking tea and eating scones. I believe special occasions deserve a celebration, which is why last night I was at the Keyano Recital Theatre to watch some friends celebrate a special event.

I will never forget the first time I reached out to Toddske and Tito from YMM Podcast. I had just started this blog, and was still of the mind that I would write it anonymously. I had listened to their first podcast, and had been intrigued so I emailed them, not knowing what the reply would be. I was, to be honest, a total novice, with no idea what I was doing or where I was going with this blog. I was uncertain and a bit shy and wary, and had they told me to get lost I probably would have - but they didn't. Toddske emailed back, encouraging me to shed the anonymity, to consider coming on the podcast, to work with them in some way to spread the positive message about our community that we were all trying to get out...and that is how a friendship began. And, over the last three years, I have come to see Toddske, Tito, Ashley and Steve of YMM Podcast as more than friends. They are part of my McMurray Family.

Last night YMM Podcast hosted WinterREELS, a 100-hour film competition showcasing local filmmakers who are given three elements and 100 hours to write, cast, film, and edit a short film. The films then go to a panel of judges (for this competition our esteemed and hip city councillor Tyran Ault, the lovely and irrepressibly clever Erin Schwab, and comedian Jon Mick - more about him later). The judges vote on things like Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, and, last night, Best Film was decided by a combination of judging and audience votes.

The seven entries screened were, in a word, astonishing. Funny for the most part, and some downright hilarious, they ran the breadth of talent in this community, showcasing filmmakers and performers, many whom I know and some I don't. I was delighted when my Dancing With the Stars partner, the young and uber-talented Dustin Young, walked away with Best Actor and Best Film nods, as the clever little film he and his partners concocted was terrific in every regard. I loved seeing my friend Nick Bernard working with Nolan Haukeness to create a little film that was not just funny but a bit poignant, too. The Barrett Brothers had me roaring with laughter, their home-made Winter Olympics and characters perhaps worthy of their own sitcom. Kelton Stepanowich, a talented young director, took Japanese film and made it funny and topical, earning the Best Director nod, and Eric Janvier once again managed some movie magic by lessening his need for actors by playing all three roles in his film (and creating some fascinating interactions along the way). Clinton Boucher created this great little film about that missing Olympic ring from the opening ceremonies (and his film earned his female lead the Best Actress Award), and Sister So and her band of wonderful friends made a film that had moments that were close to provoking tears, and yet funny at the same time.

In the end all seven films displayed a strength and talent in this burgeoning local filmmaking scene, a talent that has been there all along but that struggled to find venues to showcase the work, and support for their endeavours - that is, until YMM Podcast came along.

You see what started as a podcast became the Fort McMurray Filmmakers Association, a group dedicated to the promotion and encouragement of local filmmaking. Through festivals and competitions they didn't just breathe life into the local film scene - they resurrected it from near death, because those who were involved in it were a scattered group of individuals who were all pursuing their creative goals but without the support of an organization to help them. Those novices interested in filmmaking had nowhere to start, but the YMMFMA has become that place, offering free workshops and film festivals and competitions, but even more offering opportunities for networking and collaboration. YMMPodcast changed our community, you see.

I said no to being on the podcast for a very long time, right until the day I said yes and now I cannot even recall how many times I have recorded with them. Some of my favourite moments have occurred at the Dining Room Table Studios. I have laughed in their company (and listening to the podcasts have regretted this donkey bray laugh of mine every single time), and, at least once, I cried in their company, too, shortly after the deadly collision on Highway 63 that took seven lives. I was still pretty emotionally fragile after that incident when I recorded with them, and so the tears flowed pretty easily - but never once did I feel unsafe. I was with friends, you see. I was, in fact, with family.

Last night I watched seven amazing little films made by local filmmakers, and then I watched Jon Mick, a hometown boy who now lives in Edmonton, burn up the stage with his comedic talent (and he has a gift, as on occasion he had me close to tears as I was laughing so very hard). And then I watched as four people who each hold a special place in my heart gathered around a table and recorded their 100th YMMPodcast episode.

They covered a wide range of topics, particularly a top ten list pulled from an anti-oilsands website about why everyone hates Fort McMurray, debunking some and acknowledging some, as they and I share the same sentiment about being honest about our flaws and our strengths, too. I was touched when Ashley mentioned me as being proof that the number one reason on that list, that "nobody cares" about Fort McMurray, was wrong, because she said I am proof that someone cares about this community (and it's true, I do, because the people I care about are what makes this community what it is). I think, however, the theatre last night was filled with people who care about this community and the people in it, and perhaps none more so than the four who sat on the stage recording what began as a little podcast and became so much more.

As I watched them I don't think they could tell my eyes were glistening slightly. You see since I see them all as family I think it is acceptable to share that I am so very proud of all of them and their accomplishments that it always makes me a bit teary-eyed. Nothing makes me happier than to see those I care about succeed, and YMM Podcast has succeeded in every possible way, including changing the lives of those they have touched, like me.

Last night they made me laugh, particularly Tito and his comment about how we cannot drop the "Fort" from the name "Fort McMurray" as has occasionally been proposed because it makes us vulnerable and open to attack if we have no "Fort" to protect us. They made me blush, like Ashley's comments about what I do and about my rather well-known obsession with shoes (and she wore some lovely shoes in my honour, too). They made me smile, like hearing Steve talk about coming back to Fort McMurray, the town he was born and raised in, when he vowed he would never come back, and how deciding to return was the best decision he ever made. And they made me tear up, like when Toddske talked about the podcast changing his life, because I know that sentiment all too well. Three years ago this spring I started writing a little blog without any idea where it would lead, and yet here I am today, far from anonymous and living a life that I could have never imagined.

Fort McMurray is the land of opportunity. I don't just mean in the economic sense, although that is true too. It is the land where people with passion, vision and drive can take things that seem like a dream and make them real. It is the place where you can start a podcast or a blog and find it takes you places you never even contemplated. It is the place where you can find friends and have them become family.

So, to Toddske, Tito, Ashley and Steve I say thank you. Thank you for all the things you have done and will do to make this community a better place. Thank you for pursuing your dreams and passions, because doing so inspires others to pursue their own. Thank you for the film festivals, the podcasts, the laughs, the tears and the memories - but thank you most of all for allowing me to come along for a bit of the journey, because I am so profoundly grateful and proud to have been even a small part of it.

Congratulations on your 100th YMMPodcast episode - and here is to hundreds more.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Magic of the Olympics in Fort McMurray

I have admitted in this blog - often - that I am not really an athletic type. I'm not all that knowledgeable about the world of sports, as my expertise lies more in the areas of classic authors and shoe manufacturers. One of the things I have come to understand over my life, though, is the intrinsic link between sport and community, and nowhere is this link more profound and visible than the one that ties us to the Olympics.

The Olympics have this way of turning even non-athletic types into both viewers and fans. There is simply something about those athletes striving for the podium that is inspiring. There is something about learning about their battles with illness and injury to achieve excellence in their sport, and something about their pure and sincere drive to excel. It isn't just about beating their competition but about beating themselves, about putting in their best performance and shining on an international stage. The Olympics are, in a word, inspiring.

And in a country where we experience so many months of snow and darkness the Winter Olympics take on deep significance. Most of us - even me - grew up playing or enjoying some sort of winter sport. From hockey to skating to sledding (which, adding some skinsuits and removing some safety gear, becomes bobsledding, luge, and skeleton) we embrace winter sports and recreation, and while we grumble about the short days and long nights and cold temperatures the phrase "we are winter" sums it up rather eloquently.

The Winter Olympics pulls together the best athletes in the world, participating in sports we as Canadians know well (and often consider our own, like curling and hockey, sports we clutch tight to as part of our heritage and birthright), and it does something else with deep impact. The Winter Olympics brings us together as a community.

This past week I have witnessed it in the main concourse of the Suncor Community Leisure Centre. Walking through on my way to meetings I see crowds gathered in front of the screen set up in the main lobby showing Winter Olympics events. Sometimes there are just a few people there watching, and sometimes there are dozens. Sometimes it is families, and sometimes it is a collection of strangers, gathered together watching as athletes from our country - and around the world - take years of training and experience and pain and hard work and belief and commitment and compete against each other to stand on that podium.

The resounding cheers when the Canadian Women's Hockey took the gold rang through the entire building. It was the sound of dozens of people cheering together for people they don't know, will likely never meet, and yet have such incredible pride in. It was the sound of joy. It was, in fact, the sound of community.

We have a desire as humans, I think, to celebrate together. We are not solitary creatures, and we seek out the company of others to share our moments of both joy and sorrow, because we know then that we are not alone. Every emotion we feel is somehow amplified - better - when we share it with others, and so we gather together to collectively hold our breath, shout our encouragements, and cheer.

On Sunday of this weekend the Suncor Community Leisure Centre will open its doors two hours early at 5 AM so people can gather to watch the Canadian Men's Hockey Team go for gold. It's very early, and it will probably still be dark outside. Many will choose to watch from their homes but some individuals will choose to watch together, side by side with family, friends and strangers to cheer on the athletes in whom we have such pride, and such hope. It will be early but it will also undoubtedly be magic, and even I, who am not an athletic type, am planning to be there, because those magic moments aren't just about sports. They are about togetherness, and shared experience, and community. And so perhaps at the end of the day - or in this case very early on a Sunday morning - I am a little bit of an athletic type after all.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Cost of Compassion

Recently some media attention has been given to the case of a young man in our community who was paralyzed from the neck down after an encounter with the RCMP in 2012. The young man in question had apparently stolen a car, and when the police blocked him with their vehicles in an attempt to apprehend him he decided to play a little real-life Grand Theft Auto and began to ram their cars. The police, reasonably fearing for their safety and the safety of others, fired on the car he was driving, and one of the bullets struck the young man's spine, damaging his spinal cord and causing paralysis. The young  man, 16 at the time of the incident, is now paralyzed for life, and is suing the RCMP for damages.

Now, I want to make a few things clear right at the outset. I don't condone his actions, and I believe the officers acted reasonably given the situation (and an investigation has cleared them of any wrongdoing). The location where the incident occurred is very close to schools and playgrounds, and at 3 pm in the afternoon on a Saturday, when the incident occurred, it was reasonable for the officers to fear for the safety of civilians should this young man decided to continue his game of GTA and perhaps drive away at high speeds. I also don't believe the lawsuit he and his family have filed should result in financial compensation of any sort, as due to his injury he will now use a disproportionate amount of our health care resources, and to me that seems fair compensation given that his own actions led to his injury. However, as became clear when I was discussing this incident recently with others, it does not mean I do not have compassion for him, and particularly his family.

Young adults simply do not think like adults. I could cite a lot of studies showing that brain development in young adults indicates they do not understand cause and effect the way more mature individuals do, and that their ability to calculate consequences is impaired by that lack of development. This is not meant in any way to excuse his actions, but I think it is of value to understand that in those young minds the concept of death or injury may become some sort of romanticized concept, full of drama and pathos and significantly lacking in the blood and gore such things actually entail. This lack of brain development means that young adults will embark on ridiculously reckless exploits, as most of us who have spent any time with teenagers can attest. They tend to over-emphasize the potential for positive outcomes while minimizing the potential for negative outcomes, and this does affect their decision making ability. Does this lessen the culpability of this young man in his crime? Not at all - but the sad reality is he is now in a jail of his own devising, a jail consisting of his own body and one from which he can never escape. He has, in essence, been given a life sentence.

Compassion, as compared to a lawsuit, costs us nothing. The ability to have compassion for someone, even when they have done wrong or wronged you, is a remarkable quality, and it is, I believe, one of the ones that define us as human. Animals do not seem to display this ability to engage in forgiveness and compassion, but we as humans can - and I think when we do it speaks well of us, because it says far more about our character than about those to whom we extend that compassion.

I am deeply troubled that a 16-year old youth in our community stole a car, and decided to play a little real-life GTA with our law enforcement officers, for whom I have deep respect and admiration. I am deeply troubled that his family has now endured not only his criminal actions but his injuries, and as a mother I know how painful that would be, regardless of how your child happened to end up in that hospital bed. I am deeply troubled that some in our community have openly expressed the sentiment that this individual - fundamentally a child - should have simply been killed, as if his life, or the life of any other human, is without value. Perhaps it is that very sentiment, that devaluing of human life, that leads young men to commit the kinds of acts this one did. Perhaps if we started from a place of valuing all human lives equally and were more successful in instilling this in our children we would see fewer stealing cars and ending up with bullet wounds on the side of a road.

The reality is we can condemn his actions but continue to feel compassion for him and his family. I sincerely hope that one day, after a hopefully unsuccessful lawsuit given that he was injured during the commission of a crime and the police used reasonable force under the law, he will decide to use his experience to teach other local youth about the real-life impacts of the acts he committed. Perhaps he will use his sad experience to help them to understand that life is not a game of Grand Theft Auto, and that real life actions have real life consequences, some of them far worse than spending life in prison, like being in the prison of a body over which you now have no control. To me that would be the best possible outcome in a terribly sad scenario which saw a young man only two years older than my own Intrepid Junior Blogger paralyzed through his own foolish and reckless actions.

The cost of compassion? Nothing. And while I hope he does not receive a penny in compensation for the shooting that left him paralyzed, given that his own choices have led him to where he is today, I have endless compassion for him and those who love him, because it costs me nothing to do so, and because maybe, just maybe, that compassion will one day mean he will use his life to encourage others to choose a different path, and not one that ends in a pool of blood on a local street.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Weekly Wednesday What's Coming YMM

It's time to try something new. Over the last few months the number of requests I have gotten to share events and activities through this blog or my social media outlets has gone up exponentially, and frankly I can no longer keep up. Now, keep in mind I juggle the tending of this blog with a more-than-full-time job, a very busy Intrepid Junior Blogger who needs a lot of chauffeuring, a dog, a cat, and three ferrets who require feeding, attention and belly scritches, a house that requires maintenance (let alone things like laundry and dishes), and sometimes I even like to sleep (but not often).

 But I'm not going to quit. No, far from it. I am rather going to use one blog post a week to share posters from those events, sort of a "snapshot" of the events I am likely to attend and that I would suggest others may want to check out. Some might be right around the corner, and some might be weeks away, but these are the events to have on your radar. If you have an event that you would like me to feature in the blog please email me a poster (if possible) at: McMurray Musings

Coming up this Friday at my favourite local pub Wood Buffalo Brewing Co. is Slowcoaster - and it's a fundraiser for Big Brothers Big Sisters so it's a must attend!

Never been to Fort Chipewyan? This might just be the weekend to check out the ice road - and to see this incredibly beautiful community, the oldest settlement in Alberta! They are hosting their Winter Carnival and it looks to be a full weekend of great events!

This one is a little further away, but tickets are on sale now for the Shamrock Shindig, an annual fundraiser for Educare. This preschool program has a profound impact on our little people as I learned when I wrote about them last year when I had so many parents contact me to tell me how Educare changed their child's life. Besides being a really good time the Shindig is a fundraiser for a great organization doing great work in our community!

What are you doing Friday evening? Check out this lecture from local Erin Schwab, a woman with massive talent and a keen intellect to boot. We are tremendously fortunate to have people like Erin living, working and creating in this region, and this free lecture is a fine opportunity to hear her speak and understand why I feel that way.
I don't even try to hide it. I love these guys like family and I always will. YMM Podcast and I started our adventures around the same time in this community, and I am so proud of what they have accomplished and achieved in that time, and what they have brought to the community. This weekend they celebrate their 100th Podcast, and I will be there cheering them on (and if you hear snuffling noises from my direction then yes, there is a chance I will cry because I am just so bloody proud of all of them). This is a teaser from their upcoming WinterREELS competition this Saturday evening, when they will also record that 100th Podcast and comedian Jon Mick will perform.
Whoot for winterPLAY! In a place where the winter season can seem very long, thank god for a winter festival that not only warms the heart but celebrates the season that I think defines us as Canadians. winterPLAY kicks off with fireworks on February 20 and just keeps going with great events for the entire family!
If you haven't seen it yet this is the last week and weekend to catch this phenomenal production at Keyano Theatre. Once it is gone, it is gone, and you will miss the magic forever - so get your tickets NOW!
Wait, how did this sneak in here?!?

Oh yeah. Sad cat wants to know why you haven't voted for my partner Dustin and I yet as we begin our trek towards the "Dancing With the Stars" finale on April 26th. Look, if I am going to get on a dance floor and bust a move (and possibly several bones) the least you can do is vote and throw $20 towards the SPCA as they work to save the lives of critters like sad cat. And for the record I will have the IJB continue to generate sad cat and sad puppy memes until you break down and vote for me, so I suggest getting a move on it. Please? Oh, and buy tickets, because while I can't claim I can dance I and my fellow competitors intend to put on one helluva show!
 That's it. my weekly Wednesday round-up of cominge events and pleading for votes. I probably missed something (I probably missed A LOT of things) which is why if you think there is an event I should include next week you need to send me an email, a tweet or a Facebook message and tell me what it is. I will do my best to keep up - but as you can see this is becoming a busy little town these days, and



Monday, February 17, 2014

Vive la Différence (or Why FIFO is a Four-Letter Word)

This post contains profanity,
which I usually avoid -
but they started it.

When I pulled up behind the truck at the stop light I couldn't help but see the words emblazoned in the back window. And while I pondered about the level of class it takes to drive around with the world identifying you through the profanity you have chosen to display on your vehicle it wasn't the words that really troubled me. It was the message behind the words.

"Fit In or Fuck Off" it said.

As soon as I read it I started to think about what the driver of the truck was trying to say. Who did they think needs to "fit in" exactly? And into what definition of fitting in, exactly? It felt like I was back in high school, with the local bully/thug trying to tell the nerdy kid that they didn't fit in and that therefore they deserved the beating they were about to get - but this is even far uglier than the school bully, because I suspect the "fit in or fuck off" sentiment might be directed at those in our multiculturally diverse community. And I say it because this is not the first time I have heard it.

There are those who believe that everyone in this country should be the same, leaving behind them all cultural differences when they arrive and putting aside whatever history and culture they hold dear. Now, never mind that Canada is an amalgam of the places we all immigrated from (just look at our cuisine, our perogies and sushi and stir fry and pasta and butter chicken for a small example). We have created our culture from those that contributed to it when they arrived here from other countries, and we continue to do so as we welcome new immigrants who bring their culture and beliefs with them. But at some point along the way some of us forgot that we are, for the most part, immigrant stock as well (with the exception of our First Nations peoples), and that we were newcomers here once too.

The entire concept of "fit in or fuck off" (FIFO) is so fundamentally flawed in every respect. Those who tout it must not realize that if we all were the same how boring life, and our country, would be. They must truly not understand that we built this country from a multitude of other cultures and traditions, and that one of our finest attributes has been our ability to enable those who call this home to celebrate their culture and traditions and share them with others. And they probably didn't attend the recent local multicultural event, one which was attended by over 2,000 people in just one day. A lot of the people at that event probably don't fit into the "fit in or fuck off" world - and thank god for that.

You see I think "fitting in" is absolute and utter bullshit. I can almost guarantee I wouldn't "fit in" to the world of the driver of that truck, and I doubt they "fit in" to mine - but in my world there is room for them, and I would never direct them to "fuck off" because their ideas don't match mine. However it seems they have no trouble with making that demand, telling the world that if they don't "fit in" to their world then they should "fuck off". For the record, that's not a world I have even the vaguest interest in "fitting in" to.

This is a country that celebrates cultural diversity. This is a country that celebrates differences, whether they are of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. This is a country that not only accepts those that are the not the same but celebrates and appreciates the differences because the differences are what makes this country unique and special and valuable. We are not a country where an ad of our national anthem being sung in different languages could evoke bigotry and hatred. We are not a country of bland "everyone should be the same" automatons. We are not a country of "fit in or fuck off", because just like I realized in high school after an encounter with a bully most people don't  really "fit in", they add their differences to the world - and the world is a better place for it.

As for the concept of "fit in or fuck off"? I suppose I could tell those who peddle it to fuck off - but instead I would ask where their ancestors came from, and suggest that maybe they think about how they would have felt had their new country greeted those ancestors with that sentiment. Because their ancestors didn't "fit in", they brought their differences and helped to build this astonishingly diverse and vibrant nation, a nation where we can all be so proud to live. Thank god they didn't fit in - or fuck off, because we are what we are today because of them.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Do You Hear the People Sing?

There are very few areas in which I would claim to hold special skill or ability, but there is one which I feel is a bit unusual. It is the fact that I learned to read very young, showing signs of reading at two according to my mother. By the time I was eight I was a prolific reader, following in the footsteps of my father who always had a book in his hands, albeit normally a western or war novel, and not really my genre then or now. I was such a prolific reader, in fact, that the school and public libraries didn't quite know what to do with me by the time I was nine. I had burned through every series for kids my age at that point, including all The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries. It was a quandary, since children's literature was not quite the genre it is now, and my reading abilities were quickly outstripping the available material.

One day I found a book from one of my older sister's university literature courses. I picked up the small paperback and didn't put it down until it was finished, and when I went to school and told the principal that I had just finished reading Orwell's Animal Farm I think he recognized there was something going on. While I didn't have the maturity or experience to understand the political nuances or undertones of the novel I was able to provide a synopsis, and while I didn't fully understand those nuances I sensed that there was far more to the novel than what was on the surface. I told the principal that and he decided it was time to test my reading ability.

The standardized test showed that I was reading at an upper-university level, an outcome that caused some discussions and consternation in the school staffroom I learned later, as they weren't quite sure what to do with me. But what they eventually decided would form the rest of my life.

My principal handed me a list of classic novels, and told me the school librarian would get me a copy of every book on the list. So the adventure began, and somehow the very first book I read from that list was Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.

The cast of Les Misérables
Keyano Theatre
All photos credit Keyano Theatre

I'm not sure why it was the first book, as that is lost in the mists of time and memory. Maybe it was the first one on the list, or maybe just the one the librarian had. I just remember beginning to read it and suddenly realizing how different the world was than my nine-year-old self had imagined it.

You see in Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books people were good or bad, light or dark, good or evil. There were no shades of grey, none of these complex nuances of character and personality. Police were good, thieves were bad. Adults, for the most part, had good intentions, and children, for the most part, were slightly imbecilic beings who needed adult guidance. But as I began to read Les Misérables my world began to open up, and the black and white world I existed in became detailed in every shade of grey imaginable. And Jean Valjean was the first character in a novel I fell in love with.

Last night I sat in the darkened Keyano Theatre to see their latest production, Les Misérables. The rest of the sold out audience and I witnessed a stunning performance, a tour de force  of stunning intensity. There were moments when I had goosebumps, particularly when Tim Heggie sang in the role of Valjean, bringing life to a tortured soul. Misty Oakes performing as Éponine moved me to tears, because I had always identified with Éponine, never understanding why foolish Marius chose Cosette over Éponine (I always felt that it was women like Éponine who changed the world, and when she died in the book I was devastated - it was the first time, but not the last,  I was angry at an author). Jenny Price made such a glorious Fantine, portraying her downfall with such authenticity and sincerity. Kyle Beeson as Marius was a joy to see, his performances filled with heart-shaking moments of beauty. Sheldon Dahl played Javert in the imperious way the man must be played, but with just enough personality to ensure that when he meets his demise you cannot help but feel his internal struggle. Kimerica Parr has that incredible voice I have heard before, bringing Cosette to life with such beauty that perhaps for the first time I could see why Marius fell for her (but I have never forgiven Hugo for his treatment of Éponine, either). Terri Mort as Madame Thénardier brought the cynicism and quick wit needed for that role, and seeing Russell Thomas playing what is essentially his opposite in Thénardier the innkeeper was a treat, as while it may be his polar opposite he played the role completely convincingly.

Greg Lupul as Enjolras had me ready to join the revolution, just as Hugo's novel did decades ago (and at times I think my years as an activist might date back to that book and that exposure to the idea of revolution). And the children! Those who played the young Cosette and Gavroche were exceptional in both voice and talent, and I remembered how when I read the novel so many years ago I began to think of "little people" in a very, very different way. The entire ensemble sang and danced and brought to life a story I had forgotten.

I sat in the audience last night as the story unfolded in front of me,  and realized that it was a story I have known for decades but that I had forgotten over time, as we often do. I watched as so many people I consider friends performed, and performed so incredibly beautifully, their voices lifted in song. I knew the hours of work they had put in, the time they had spent, the personal commitment it had taken to mount this production. I was so incredibly appreciative of it all, and felt so very fortunate to be there to witness it on this stage in our community. But in the end it all came down to one thing.

I fell in love with Jean Valjean all over again.

I remembered being nine years old and holding a tattered paperback copy of Les Misérables in my hand. I remember reading it in wonder, realizing how the world was so much more complex than I understood or realized. I remember feeling both so powerful and so very small at that moment, and finally understanding that the world was unfolding in my hands, and that I had so very much to learn.  When I finished Les Misérables I read the other novels we consider classics, finishing the entire list I had been given by the time I was in my early teens. Along the way I learned about revolution, and history, and love, and life. Those novels changed my life, and shaped who I am.  And it began with a book about a troubled man who was both good and bad, and so beautifully complex in every way.

Go see Les Misérables, even if you've never read the book. Sit there and let the story wash over you, the moments when you feel tears pricking the corners of your eyes, and the moments when goosebumps rise on your flesh. Let those moments when the people sing make you want to rise up in revolution against injustice. Or just fall sit there and fall in love with community theatre, and a man named Jean Valjean.

My thank you and congratulations
to the cast, crew and band
Les Misérables,
and to 
Keyano Theatre
for taking on an epic task
and bringing
a classic to life with 
such brilliance and beauty.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Inferiority Complex

Every once in awhile I like to check the "other" folder in my Facebook messages. Now, the regular messages are the ones from friends and family, but sometimes the really interesting ones lurk in that "other" folder.

I've had offers to date men that I am pretty sure don't live in Canada, let alone Alberta. I had at least one African prince looking for a little financial assistance from some nice (and hopefully gullible) Canadian lady. I have had people track me down there when they have seen me on television or in their newspapers talking about some issue affecting my community, wanting to discuss oil or the environment or my "misguided" beliefs. And just yesterday I got a very interesting message from someone who said they were tired of all the yap about the oil sands and Fort McMurray being the "economic engine" of the country, and that they felt I was one of the purveyors of this talk. They told me that we need to "get over ourselves". They then informed me that "Fort McMurray is not the centre of the universe".

The centre of the universe?

Huh. When I read that I laughed first, because we all know Toronto is the centre of the universe (insert tongue in cheek here). And then I smiled, because if someone thought we had a bit of an ego, and thought we needed a reality check about our place in the universe I could only be happy and proud, because it's about damn time we had some ego in this region.

When I moved here twelve years ago this community was not what it is now. It was still a community, to be certain, but it was a bit "dispirited". The civic pride was muted at best. We were struggling with our growth, our direction as a community, and our place in the world. And it showed.

When journalists would write articles about our community that we found offensive twelve years ago we responded a bit like this:

Hey, I don't like you saying that about us.

Now, just a few years later, the response is more like this:

Hey, you missed the entire point of our community. What about our philanthropy? What about our amazing people? What about our recreation centres, our college, our elementary and high schools? What about x and y and z? How come you came to visit, went to two bars and one strip club, and then wrote a story about our community? We think you got some 'splaining to do, journalist.

Things have indeed changed, because somewhere along the way we found some pride, some community cohesiveness, and a voice.

Maybe it has been our leadership, as I believe this pride in who we are is often a top-down effect, and when Mayor Melissa Blake was elected I believe it sent the signal that this community was not what people might have thought it to be. Our mayor is a dynamic woman who represents us well and who shines with pride over what our region is and has accomplished, and I think she brought new life to an office that had become woefully lacking in that pride.

Maybe it has been the overwhelming strength of our industry, one that is the giant of the Canadian economy according to a recent report. Three percent of all jobs in the country - 478,000 direct, indirect, and induced - rely on the oil sands. And this is expected to grow, with that number rising to five percent, or 753,000 jobs, by 2025. There is no denying that we are the economic engine of this nation, and I think in those numbers we have found the evidence to back that claim.

Maybe, though, much of this pride has come from the grassroots, from people who have decided that if we are the economic engine (check) and if we have strong leadership (check) and if we have this amazing community (check) that it is time to "get over" the inferiority complex and start being proud of who we are and what we do. Maybe it is about time we developed a little bit of an ego, because having an ego (in moderation) isn't a bad thing. Having an ego just means you recognize your own self-worth, and makes you less inclined to be pushed around by others (including African princes looking for a little cash).

I admit I responded to the message in my "other" folder, and I don't always (some African prince is still sadly waiting for my reply). I simply said:

"Thanks for your comment. We know we aren't the centre of the universe. We are, however, the centre of OUR universe, because this is our home and we love it and are proud of it, and I will never apologize for that."

And then I asked them to consider coming to visit, as I always do, even with our harshest critics, and I offered to be their tour guide, as I always do.

You see we don't need to "get over ourselves" at all. I think rather the opposite. I think we need to share our story with as many people as we can, because every amazing story deserves to be shared and heard - and the story of our community is an amazing one indeed. We might not be "the centre of the universe", but I think we are something better. We are the centre of our hearts and our pride, and that is what matters.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Dear Valentine

I am not, by nature, a fan of Valentine's Day, having always viewed it suspiciously as a creation of card, flower and chocolate manufacturers and retailers to flog their wares during a slow time of year for sales. Today, though, I decided to write a love letter to something I truly do love, and not just on one day of the year. Today I am sending a little Valentine to my community.

Dear Fort McMurray,

It wasn't love at first sight, you know. When I arrived at the airport in August twelve years ago I was entranced by your beauty, and by your Burger King on Highway 63, as I had just come from a very small town in northwestern Ontario where fast food outlets didn't exist. Your shopping mall caught my eye, because in my former home the only clothing store was an old and tired SAAN outlet. But I didn't love you right away - it was more like lust for the things you had that my previous home didn't, a place that was beautiful too but terribly isolated and far smaller than Saskatoon and Toronto, the cities that had always owned my heart.

My feelings for you came on slowly, and over time. The Intrepid Junior Blogger was just two when we arrived, and I didn't know how long we would stay but I knew this would be the first home she would likely ever remember, and so I decided to make sure it would be a good memory.

We started out for a year in Thickwood, living almost right behind the Dairy Queen and within walking distance to Tim Horton's. We moved on after a time to the new neighbourhood in Abasand, living right on the greenbelt. And the more time I spent with you the more I began to develop feeling for you past that initial lust for your stores and services. I began to develop a relationship with the other people who were part of you, and I began to see something I hadn't really ever been a part of before, not in any meaningful way. I began to love your community.

I had never really understood the concept of community, although I had been part of several over my life. I had never understood, though, the ebbs and flows of communities, and how the people in them determine what they are. I began to realize something had happened.

I had fallen in love with you.

I was in love with the northern skies, full of stars and northern lights, sun dogs and rainbows and clouds. I was in love with the boreal forest and all the creatures it contained, the fox and deer and bear. I was in love with the stores and services still, but that love was being replaced by a love for the people who worked IN those stores and services, finding people from all over the country - all over the world! - who had come here to make their lives. I was in love with those who ran the social profit organizations, those who ran the city, those who volunteered their time, those who taught the children, those who worked in the hospital, those who visited our homeless drop-in program, those who lived in million-dollar homes and those who lived in tents on the Snye...

I had fallen for you, and fallen hard.

And it has never faltered, you see. I have found something so special with you, so unique, that while I try to capture it in words I always feel that I have failed terribly and done you a disservice because my words cannot express what you are, and what you mean to me. I suppose the word that says it best is "home".

You are my home, and you are the hometown my daughter will always remember. And I admit that now that twelve years have passed and she is fourteen she is talking about leaving you and moving on to another city, because she feels she has outgrown you. But that's okay, Fort McMurray, because no matter where she goes and what she does you will be the home she will always remember, just as where I grew up will always be in my heart, too. She may travel far and wide, and fall in love with other cities just as I did - but you will always be her very first love, and her first home.

So, Happy Valentine's Day, Fort McMurray. I didn't buy you flowers or chocolates or a card (I refuse to fall prey to those marketing schemes!), but I give you this. I give you my heart, today and always. Thank you for being so very, very easy to love.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

They Shoot Dogs, Don't They?

It's an uncomfortable topic, and when I heard the news I knew it would cause some degree of controversy. But I also know from experience that it's not an easy situation.

Some of the reserves to the north of Fort McMurray are having issues with feral and wild dogs. This is a common issue in remote communities, and not just on reserves. I have encountered it before when I lived in northwestern Ontario, and it is a difficult topic, because some of the communities with this issue turn to a very controversial solution: dog culls.

I first learned about it when I was living in Red Lake and was scheduled to visit one of the northern communities serviced by the small airline I worked for at the time. I had selected a date but when I called our service agent in that community they urged me to choose a different day. I didn't understand why and pressed for an answer as to why they didn't want me to come that day - and they replied that it was "dog shooting day", and they didn't want me to be there for it.

I spent a good part of my adult life working in veterinary clinics, and I love animals of all kinds, but I am very much a realist, too. I didn't understand the reasons behind "dog shooting day", and so I asked my contact to elaborate. They explained that there had been several incidents in the community of people being approached by packs of feral dogs, and that at least one child had been bitten. While most of the dogs were timid some were becoming increasingly aggressive as winter drew closer and food sources were drying up. The incidents were becoming common enough that there was fear a pack of dogs could attack and fatally injure a resident, and so the leadership had decided it was time to deal with the issue, and shoot the dogs.

My contact had pet dogs, and felt terrible about the entire thing. They were sure I wouldn't understand, but I understood far more than they realized as I knew they were facing a serious issue with little recourse, because there are few resources available to help in these situations.

Pets in remote communities are often not spayed or neutered, particularly in fly-in communities because veterinarians don't often visit and the costs to transport the animal to the vet is prohibitive. And so the animals reproduce as animals do, and some of the offspring begin to run wild. My contact explained that the feral dogs, the ones who had had contact with owners, were usually ok but that it was the next generations, the ones born feral, that were worrisome - and the problem was growing.

Now it would be nice to think that you could round up all the feral dogs, fly them out, and rehome them through animal rescue agencies, but again cost is a factor, and many agencies simply aren't equipped for an influx of dozens of animals, on occasion sick or injured.

And my contact explained too that waves of disease had spread through the feral dog packs, distemper and parvo and all the diseases unvaccinated animals can contract. People would find dead and dying dogs and puppies, and there was a high fear that rabies could surface too, as it did occur in the wildlife in the region and it was just a matter of time. The dogs were not living a good life, they were starving and sick and injured and suffering - and so the dog cull was being carried out.

They had contacted agencies for help, and no one could provide the financial or logistical assistance they needed, but they knew that would likely be the case as this wasn't the first dog cull they had done. And so I didn't go that day, but not because I condemned their decision, but rather because they asked me to stay away.

I want to be very clear - I am a dog lover, and I love my pets dearly. But I also know that animals running wild and feral can present a very clear risk to human safety and health, and it is very difficult to find a solution when your community is remote and the assistance available is scant. I am so very glad that the Fort McMurray SPCA has offered to assist in finding a long-term and sustainable solution to the issue, but I also know they have financial constraints and limitations on capacity.

This is not a simple issue, and not all that unusual as I learned in my time in northwestern Ontario. Perhaps if we invested more in organizations like the SPCA and other rescue organizations there would be no need for these culls as there would be the finances and capacity to deal with the issue, but sadly at present there is not. And so, desperate times call for desperate measures, and some communities are forced into dealing with a very difficult and sensitive issue. If you, like me, feel terrible about this then I suggest donating to the Fort McMurray SPCA so they have the resources to create educational programs and long-term solutions such as spay and neuter clinics in our remote communities.

Like I said, it's an uncomfortable topic - but sometimes I believe those are the ones we need most to discuss.

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Musical Destiny

It has been sitting under her bed for some time. For some reason it didn't get sold or given away when we moved house this summer, despite the fact that she has not touched it in over a year. I think I knew somehow that I needed to hang onto it, and that there was some reason this black case with the cargo inside needed to hang around a bit longer until its destiny became known. "It" is a lovely little trumpet, and this week it goes to a new home.

It all began with the Grade Five band at Beacon Hill School. The Intrepid Junior Blogger wanted to give it a try, and so we went into Campbell's Music to check out the instruments. I thought she would end up with a flute or something, never anticipating she might be a horn player, but there it was. We rented it at first, and even found her a private tutor. Then she changed schools in Grade Six and while she decided not to participate in band she continued the private lessons. And then in Grade Seven when she made the move to Junior High she decided to give up band completely, deeming it as taking too many of her precious options and not her primary interest (and since she already plays piano I agreed to let band go in favour of robotics and other similar pursuits). Thus it has laid there for years now, resting in the case, that little trumpet that we started out renting and then eventually purchased. It was pretty forlorn, really, a trumpet that no one played.

When I found it while we were moving I wondered what to do with it. Sell it? I wouldn't know what to ask. Give it away to a school band program? Seemed like a good idea, but never got around to it - and so it moved with us, ending up under her bed until I heard about a new program designed to provide youth in our region who have an interest in music with the instruments they may not be able to afford. Suddenly I knew why that trumpet had not left my house yet.

The Legacy Children's Foundation, headed by local program coordinator Dave Martin, a friend and fellow TEDx Fort McMurray 2013 presenter, aims to provide local youth with musical instruments and lessons. It is a tremendous program in my opinion, as it has been shown that musical education improves academic performance in other areas, and music can engage those youth who may not fall into the "mathletes" or "athletes" categories in school.

Yesterday I reached under the IJB's bed until my hand rested on a hard black case. I pulled it out and opened it up, seeing a shiny brass trumpet inside, nestled there where she left it last. Today I am delivering it to Dave, and I hope it will end up in the hands of a young person like the IJB, someone with an interest in music. It feels pretty good to send it on to a new home, and I once again learned not to question the synchronicity of my life. That trumpet has had a predetermined destiny for some time, I think. I just didn't know it yet. But today, I do.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Blog It

It is one of those emails I get on occasion, asking for some help. They aren't asking about helping to promote an event or a cause, though. They are asking about how to write a blog - or more specifically how to write a successful blog.

This question always stumps me a bit, because I am not certain you can aim for success in this blogging world. One of the most profound things I have ever had an interviewee say to me during an interview was that one shouldn't chase success but chase excellence, as excellence usually results in success. I thought that was a very inspiring thought when I heard it and I still do now, because I think chasing success is a waste of energy. I think we need to pursue excellence, and then see how it all unfolds.

Now, this question has come up often, the "how do I write a blog" query. And I always respond in the same way:

1) Just start writing
2) Write when you have something to share
3) Stop worrying about how many "hits" you are getting

To break it down further:

1) Just start writing

This is the most basic and fundamental. The first blog post can be an awkward thing (and if you don't believe me go back and read the first five posts in this blog). But every journey needs to begin somewhere, so you need to just start. Decide what your focus is in the blog (is it a community blog? Lifestyle blog? Fashion blog? Complaints blog?) and go with it. Over time you may deviate from the original focus, but that's okay as this is just a place to begin. You also need to decide if you want to be known as the author or be anonymous, which can be a tougher decision than you anticipate. I originally intended this blog to be anonymous, but the decision to attach my name and identity to it was one of the best decisions I have ever made, as I think it led to increased credibility of my words (and accountability, too, which should never be taken lightly).

2) Write when you have something to share

People often ask "how often" I blog, and if I have some set number I try to achieve. The answer is no. I believe numbers are restrictive and can result in a writer just trying to fill space instead of sharing content of value and meaning. I blog when I have something to share that I feel needs to be shared, either because it is of value to someone else or value to me. If you are just filling space there is a risk people will just stop reading, because we all know our time is precious. I can't say that every post I have written over three years has value to every person who reads it, but I hope every single post had value to someone. And remember, too, that you are responsible for all the content you create, anonymous or not. This means you are legally responsible, and so you should use good judgement when sharing information or thoughts. This doesn't mean you are restricted in what you say, but rather that you need to carefully consider how you should say it (which in the end helps with that whole pursuit of excellence aspect, too).

3) Stop worrying about how many "hits" you are getting

Don't look at your blog statistics in the beginning - and I mean that. It can be a bit depressing to see that something you have written is getting little traction, especially when you have invested your time and effort. But if you are blogging because you are sharing things of value and because you enjoy the experience then the number of "hits" or "views" becomes immaterial. If you find low numbers initially discouraging it may keep you from continuing to write, but then you are chasing success, and not excellence. Chase excellence, produce good content that matters to you and might resonate with someone else, and those hits will go up. As an aside I check my blog stats about every two weeks, mainly because I often forget to check.

And finally I would add this:

Enjoy the experience.

If you find blogging a slog or a chore, or if you feel pressured to write it, you won't enjoy the experience. I admit that I am addicted to blogging, and find that I am often so anxious to share a story or a post that I can think of little else until I hit the "publish" button. But if you find that blogging just makes you feel anxious, and not in a good way, it might not be your medium.

And so there is my answer to the question "how do I blog?", shared here so that in the future when replying to these occasional emails I can simply say "hey there, here's a link to a post where I share my thoughts on this!" - and then I can go write another blog post instead of a long email explaining how, and why, to chase excellence on a blog.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Day in the Life

Yesterday morning I woke up feeling a bit anxious. It was Friday, of course, always a good day in my books but it was also a very busy day, with significant events in my personal and professional life both happening on the same day.

I don't write a lot about my professional life in this blog, which seems absurd as it is such a huge part of my life. Very soon I will have been employed in my position in Communications at MacDonald Island (now the Regional Recreation Corporation) for a full year. Over that year I have learned so much, and to say that I now spend my entire day writing is not a stretch as that is exactly what I do. I have truly grown into the role of a professional writer, and so my days are filled with creating content for articles, press releases, and every aspect of communications for a large organization. Coupled with my freelance work it seems I write for hours every day, and I suppose it only seems that way as I do - and I love every single moment, too.

Yesterday was an exciting day due to a professional event and a personal event that both occurred on the same day, as these things often do. My morning began when I arrived in my office and shortly after sitting at my desk the names of those dancing in Dancing With the Stars Wood Buffalo 2014 were announced - and my name was on that roster. It's a commitment I take very seriously, as it involves time and effort and eventually dancing on a stage in front of hundreds of people with a camera live-streaming to hundreds more (and with a partner I just met yesterday). I was nervous about it all, especially since I did not know the names of the other "celebrity" dancers, but I was pleased to see that I know most if not all of them, and that this will be a friendly, but serious, competition.

That announcement, though, set off a flurry of activity in my life, with Twitter and Facebook lighting up with the news that I would be participating when I am quite well known for making it clear that I am not a dancer. And then of course there was the requisite promoting and trash talking, as competitions like this are only fun if you can wind everyone up a bit (and every wind up might lead to more money raised for the SPCA, which at the end of the day is what this event is all about).

When that excitement was beginning to die down, though, it was off to my professional excitement of the day, and the re-dedication of the Terry Conroy Mini Ice at the Suncor Community Leisure Centre. The mini ice was originally dedicated in Terry's name in 1996, but over the years and with the expansion of the facility the history of this designation was lost, and I will admit that I personally had little idea who Terry Conroy was or his role in our community until the last few months when we began to plan this celebration of his name and legacy. Terry Conroy, you see, was a giant of this community.

When he died, far too early in his life, he left a tremendous hole in this community because he was one of those quiet souls who just gets involved and does the things that need to be done. He was a coach, a mentor, and an advisor to young athletes from a variety of sports. He encouraged them to pursue their dreams, whether it was sport or education. He was involved in a variety of other initiatives, like creating the now much-loved Oil Barons franchise. He was a husband and a dad and an employee, and he was one of those citizens who leaves a legacy long after they are gone because of all the things they have done, quietly and without fanfare or accolades. What captured my imagination the most, though, was his annual backyard hockey rink, which he created every year for the kids of his community.

I suppose it's because it triggered memories of my own father doing the same thing. My dad didn't create a rink every year, but I have clear memories of him working to maintain the rink in the very small town where I was born. We left that town when I was six, and so my memories of that rink are fuzzy, but I recall the sound of water splashing across the ice, and a shovel being pushed across the surface. I remember being placed on the ice gently with his strong arms above me, and feeling it under the surface of my skates for the first time. I must have been four or five, I'd guess, and it's one of my first memories of my father, who has now been gone for several years. I clutch that memory tightly to me, so tightly I think I almost forgot it, until  I began to work on learning more about Terry Conroy.

The more I learned about Terry Conroy the more memories of my dad flooded back, and almost in a reverie I would think about the sights and sounds of those backyard rinks that have dotted our nation for decades. I thought about the commitment and dedication of those who build them, not for any personal gain but simply so their kids, and the kids of others, can enjoy them. I thought about how that simple act, not so simple when you think about the work that went into them, can change the lives of those who experience them, cementing them forever in their memories. I suspect a lot of children remember Terry's backyard rink, and now they carry memories of it, and the legacy he left, forever.

So yesterday we gathered once more at the mini ice surface where I work, and with the Conroy family present we again celebrated his memory, and his legacy. I have done many things in my professional life in the past year, but this is perhaps the one of which I am most proud, because we celebrated the impact left by an "ordinary" man who was not ordinary at all. We celebrated someone who helped to build this community that I love, and we honoured his memory - and I was so very privileged to take part in it. Now I know the story of Terry Conroy, and it is one I will tell again and again, because it is the story of the impact one person can have on their community if they choose to do so. Yesterday's event was the culmination of months of work, but the legacy now lives on because it has found a new home in the memories and hearts of people like me.

I will admit the activities of the day left me exhausted, but I had one more commitment. Some friends had invited me to a house concert, and while I have often been too tired or too busy to attend these evening events in the last year I had decided to go to this one. I texted my friend and warned him that I might fall asleep, and that I was completely exhausted, but he told me to come. Maybe sit in the back, he said. Sleep here if you need to, he said. What he didn't say, and didn't need to say, was that he knew I needed to be there, and that the home he and his wife have always opened to me is a safe place where I can simply be, even if it means falling asleep during a house concert.

I didn't fall asleep, though. Instead I sat in awe as I heard two musicians, part of the band The Navigators, play some incredible music. They might be from Newfoundland but they took me right back to my time in Ireland three years ago, where evenings were spent in small corner pubs listening to local musicians and learning the lyrics of traditional Irish songs. Once again I could feel my memories being triggered, thinking back to a night in Dublin in a tiny pub at a table in the back where we sat on long benches right next to those who played, and exchanged stories and laughs. What many don't know is that Ireland is where all of this truly began for me, because my time there is what started me writing again. I came back with stories spilling out of me, things I needed to share, and so I began to share them on a personal blog, which eventually led me to starting this blog you are now reading. I sat in awe on a bench in my friend's living room, and realized I had come full circle, right back to the start of a journey that took me from being a stay-at-home mom who watched daytime TV and didn't feel she was doing much with her life to someone who works full tilt as a professional writer, rarely has time for TV, and often sits in wonder at what her life has become.

Yesterday was just another day in my life, of course. But it was one of those days when the past and present collide, and in the best possible ways. I thought about the history of this community, and the legacy of a man who changed it for the better through all the things he did. I thought about how I can contribute to my home, by learning to dance to raise money for an organization I love. And I thought about how life can change if you want it to, and how changing your life can have ripple effects far beyond what you expect. This morning I sit here with a coffee and write this post and think about today, and another day in my life. I think about all the possibilities that lie ahead, and all the memories of the past. I think most, though, about how you can come full circle as the ribbons that tie your life come together, and make you realize how incredible a journey life truly is.