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

Friday, June 27, 2014

Living the Slogan - Hope and Hard Work

I am not often surprised by politicians. They tend to be rather predictable creatures, but on occasion one surprises me. Sometimes it is in a negative way, but sometimes - on rare occasion - it is in a very, very good way.

When I heard that Justin Trudeau was visiting Fort McMurray this week I was surprised. This was his third visit during this by-election campaign, and this time he did something I have never heard of a federal leader doing in my thirteen years of life in this community.

He went door knocking.

The leader of a federal party went door knocking in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Let me be clear - door knocking is a chore. It is tiring and requires a lot of energy, going from door to door and never knowing what your reception will be. It is challenging and time consuming, but I am pleased to say that Kyle Harrietha and his Liberal campaign team have been knocking on doors ceaselessly during this campaign as evidenced by their photos on social media. And this time Justin Trudeau went with them.

Maybe that doesn't mean much to you, the leader of a federal party strolling down our streets, stopping to chat on front lawns and doorsteps. Maybe it doesn't mean much to you that he spent his time here that way but I will be very frank - it means a helluva lot to me.

You see, it means a great deal to me for two reasons.

One, the Liberal slogan is 'Hope and Hard Work". If anything sums up that slogan it is doorknocking, an exercise that can seem endless and exhausting, but is founded on hard work and the fervent hope that you are making an impact and connecting with the people you seek to represent. It is, perhaps, the very definition of hope and hard work.

The second reason it matters is because there is a lot of talk among politicians about this region. They talk about the oil sands and our importance to the national economy, our value and all we contribute...and those words ring hollow and empty as they are not followed by actions. I am immensely disappointed that the leaders of the main rivals of the Liberals, the leaders of the NDP and Conservative parties, declined to visit this riding before the election. It shows a distinct disconnect between words and actions, and putting your money where your mouth is (and maybe we shouldn't even talk about the money being drained out of this region daily and never really recompensed in any way with infrastructure or support from the current federal government).

I have stated in this blog that I support the Liberals in this election, but even if I did not I would be hard pressed to not be impressed by Justin Trudeau and the amount of time he has spent here. He could have easily written this constituency off as being solid blue forever, but thanks to Kyle, hope and hard work, the blue has begun to bleed a great deal of red, a colour now flooding across Facebook feeds and Twitter pages in a show of Liberal support I have never before seen here. And it is all because of hope, and hard work.

I won't predict the outcome of the election on Monday. I know how I will vote and I hope everyone votes as well (no matter who they vote for) because it does matter and it is important. I know I will be the first to congratulate our new MP, whoever they might be. But I also know one other thing.

I believe in hope and hard work. And whatever else you might think of him, so does Justin Trudeau. He has proven it to me, by hitting the pavement in a little community in Northern Alberta far too long neglected and far too long the home of plenty of hard work but faltering hope for the future as our true value was ignored and we struggled to "make do".

Hope and hard work. It isn't a slogan. It's Fort McMurray.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Three Years Ago Today in Borealis Park

The reminder in my email inbox wasn't even needed to make me recall what happened on this day three years ago.

I have written about it every year since, as it happened just shortly after I began this blog and it was perhaps a pivotal moment for me in this community as it made me realize and understand why I needed to work, in a personal way, to make this community a better place.

Three years ago two boys, twin brothers, were murdered in a downtown park in Fort McMurray. There has been a great deal of speculation as to the cause of their murder, but in the end all that mattered was that two boys - just 17 years old - were gone forever. This morning the RCMP sent out a release indicating the investigation into their deaths remains open. Something else remains open, too.

The pain of those left behind.

I did not know the Beck brothers, their family or their friends. What I know, though, is that this kind of tragic loss, regardless of reason, rips at the fabric of our community and touches us all in some sense as it takes away those who are young and with potential and who haven't even really had a chance to live.

This morning I made my annual brief stop at Borealis Park to visit the tree that has become an informal memorial to James and William. Many of the mementoes left there are now faded and tattered, and increasingly high up on the tree as the tree grows taller as the years roll on.

There are new things there, though, articles of clothing with handwritten notes on them. It is a serene spot, green and quiet and you can hear the birds singing in the bright sunlight. And this morning, just a few steps away from the tree, two young men, probably about the same age as James and William, were enjoying a leisurely morning at the skateboard park, and their voices and laughter filled the morning air.

When I saw them I stopped my car briefly to watch them, wondering if they even knew the story of the two young men who had died in this park three years before. I saw two young men, full of life and potential and promise. One of them held up his skateboard, shaded his eyes, and then smiled at me. I smiled back, because while I cannot make this community a better place for James and William I can work to do exactly that for the young men and women who are still with us and who deserve the very best.

And I may not be able to do it for James and William, because they are so sadly not here with us - but I can do it because of them, and because their lives, however brief, mattered to those who loved them, to our community - and to me.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

When Drastic Ideas Make Sense - Referendum

On occasion there are issues so deeply divisive in a community that the noise surrounding them becomes a cacophony. It becomes increasingly difficult to determine what opinion prevails and increasingly impossible to determine direction as the varying voices drown each other out. In these rare situations you can find your community not only at a standstill but deeply divided along battle lines, with a defined battleground but no clear way to determine who will - or should - win. There are times when it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve compromise, let alone consensus, and where it seems there is no good way to determine future direction.

I believe we have reached this watershed in Fort McMurray, and watershed is a bit of a play on words as it all revolves around development of our waterfront property in the downtown core.

When I look back at the entries in this blog some of the earliest involve waterfront development - from three years ago. This was a contentious issue then and continues to be today, with little resolution becoming apparent and little common ground being developed. It has reached a point where I have little opinion as to what the proper course of development should be on the waterfront but an increasingly deep feeling that we must resolve this issue and rapidly so we can start moving into the future.

I was at my local coffee shop recently and I admit I was eavesdropping on a conversation between a group of local women, most of whom had babies and young children with them. I was troubled to hear them as they discussed leaving our community, not because they or their spouses had secured employment in other communities, but to join the ranks of "fly in, fly out" employees and families who have chosen to live in other places while the primary wage earner continues to work here.

Their reasons were troubling to me. Most centred on quality of life, concerns about housing costs, health care, daycare availability and retail services. Some focused on the lack of amenities and services, and one comment mentioned the appearance of our downtown core, with the ever-present graffiti. But there was one word used by one individual that deeply troubled me and indicated to me why we should act, and act now.


The soft female voice said the word only once, but referred to the fact that the community did not seem to be progressing in a firm and solid direction. It said so many things seemed to be stalled, from developments downtown to aging in place facilities to all the many other things we say are "in the works" but that we all acknowledge have not yet been achieved.

That stagnation includes our waterfront, a project that has stalled out in many ways as we seem to struggle to find direction, and last night when a group representing user groups of the Snye presented to council I realized we need to find the answer to one very simple and basic question: what exactly do we want our waterfront to be?

I don't mean the height of the buildings or the types of residences and commercial spaces. Those are the fine details of the issue. It is a far broader issue and question: Do we want the waterfront to be pure parkland with usage preserved for the historical use of the water, including float planes and current users of motorized craft, or do we want to head toward a model of mixed parkland and commercial and residential developments and the resulting fine decisions to be made?

Leave aside words like vibrant, history, energy, and all the other buzz words that indicate a preference of one sort of development over another. Pare it down to the bare bones, develop in a more urban manner or develop in a way to preserve the current state and usage (while still improving the environment of the waterfront), and then do the one thing that may finally provide a definitive answer:

Hold a referendum.

Referendums are messy, expensive and can be difficult. The one thing they do accomplish, though, is a clear result, slicing through the noise and cacophony to where it becomes one person, one vote and one say in the direction of the future. The only ones who need fear a referendum are those who do not feel their case is strong enough to carry the majority, and I believe most welcome the opportunity to express their opinion in a way that is measurable and matters
Referendums are a drastic step, of that there is no doubt. It is something I have rarely thought was the correct course of action, but this situation has reached a point where it may well be the only option that allows us to go forward with confidence. The current situation is dividing our community, and frankly I believe the delay in development may well be encouraging people to move away from our community, losses of people and families from which we may never recover.

Today I sent a brief email to RMWB Mayor and Council, the text of which follows. I don't necessarily believe council will support this concept, but I felt I would be remiss if I did not at the very least present it as a viable option to resolve the current dilemma we seem to be facing.

I know the one thing we cannot risk boils down to one word:


We cannot allow the Snye, our waterfront or our community, to stagnate. I believe a referendum may represent our best option to move forward. At the very least, I believe it is something we must consider.

Our future may depend on it.

My Letter to RMWB Mayor and Council
Good morning,
It is with increasing alarm that I have been watching the ongoing debate regarding waterfront development in downtown Fort McMurray, particularly along the Snye. The divisions this debate has created not only continue to be apparent but appear to be increasing in depth and are subsequently contributing to the division of our community. The ongoing battle is proving to be damaging to the community as a whole as direction on the development falters and seems to fail to find traction.

I believe the time has come to pursue a new strategy, particularly given that a recent collection of groups presenting to council suggested that the appropriate course of action is to rezone the waterfront as entirely parkland. This is in conflict with current direction on waterfront development and to me signifies the depth of division on this issue as it seems we are struggling to reach compromise, let alone consensus, on even such a basic point that will determine the future of the waterfront and any development taking place on it.
Today I would like to suggest that this issue has reached a point where the wisest course of action may well be to put the very basics of waterfront development to referendum. The finer points of development can be decided by committee advice, such as building heights, nature of residential and commercial developments, etc, but this very basic point of the starting point of zoning the area is the key factor in determining how we move forward.

I understand an online survey has been initiated regarding waterfront development, which is a fantastic step in taking a pulse on the community mood and thoughts on development, but it is of course non-binding and in terms of statistical relevancy can be skewed by several factors. A referendum, however, allows each resident and citizen one vote and one opportunity to set the very basic direction of waterfront development.
Referendums are expensive, messy and not without controversy. It is not something I advocate lightly and not a step I would suggest without good reason. I have come to believe that a binding vote in which the majority of the people indicate their preference for waterfront development may well be the only way to move forward on the issue and while it may not achieve consensus will achieve a defined result.

The question posed could be an extremely simple one: do you want the waterfront area zoned as parkland and preserved for the historical usage of the area including float planes, or do you want a development that includes commercial and residential spaces along with defined parkland spaces and more controlled access and usage of the water?
This very basic question would serve well as a starting point in the development of the waterfront and a referendum would provide a strong and clear direction on how to proceed as opposed to the current cacophony of noise on either side of the debate with no definitive way to measure which position represents the majority.

I humbly request that you as our elected community representatives consider this option and how it may assist us in resolving the issue and continuing to improve our community for the benefit of all.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Places They Will Go - Ecole McTavish and Farewells

I find it a bit hard to believe as I sit in the parking lot, my mouth filled with chocolate cupcake, my hands covered in frosting and tears filling my eyes. I am trying very hard not to cry and failing miserably as while it is a very, very good day it is also a sign that time is marching on and that all good things come to an end.

It is the night of the Grade Nine Farewell celebration at Ecole McTavish Junior High, and I have just left the Intrepid Junior Blogger inside to enjoy the student dance while I sit in the parking lot, eat cupcakes and cry.

The IJB was part of the Grade Seven class that opened McTavish, a brand new school in the Fort McMurray Public School District. I had known ever since I met Scott Barr, the principal, months before it opened that it was the school where the IJB needed to spend three crucial years of her development - and what a three years it has been.

Our lives were different when she began school there. We lived in a different house, her parents were still married, we didn't own Sirius Black Cat and at least two of our ferrets and she was a much smaller and younger and less sophisticated creature. How things have changed over those years, and how she has grown.

During her time at McTavish she has served on student council, performed on stage several times and taken part in robotics competitions. She has excelled academically, had a boyfriend or two, made new friends, parted ways with old friends, and changed in ways even I could not have predicted or anticipated. She has changed and grown and come into her own, just the same way McTavish has gone from being a new school to a well-established part of the education community, and she - and I - have been part of it from the beginning.

The IJB is now part of the very first cohort of students to have done all three years in the new school. Her class is the one that entered the doors for the first time as Grade Seven kids and who now exit for the last time as Grade Nine graduates, headed on to high school and beyond. They are the kids who have been the ones to set the tone of the new school, to provide the standard to which future students will be held. They are the Grade Nine McTavish Class of 2014.
Sometimes as a parent it is hard to see your child grow up. It is exciting, of course, and it is the natural progression of things but on occasion you suddenly realize that your time with them is finite and slipping away faster than you ever imagined possible. On occasion you find yourself in a parking lot, your eyes clouded with tears, cupcake crumbs all over your hands and your thoughts fixed on the distant past when she was just a very little girl holding your hand.

I start the car engine, slip it into gear, and think about a little girl who was fascinated with Dr. Seuss and who has gone from crayons to eyeliner in the blink of an eye. I drive away, red eyes hidden behind sunglasses to return a few hours later to wait in the line of parked cars as we all pick up our kids, each of us undoubtedly reflecting on all the years before and all the changes yet to come. Congratulations to the Grade Nine Class of 2014 at Ecole McTavish, and thank you to Scott Barr and all their teachers and mentors along the way for the last three years. Thank you for taking such good care of the Intrepid Junior Blogger, for including her mom in the experience and for preparing her for the next step of her education, and her life. She is off to great places - and I can only imagine the places she, and the rest of her classmates, will go.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Do The Unexpected - Vote!

On Monday June 30 voters in the Fort McMurray-Athabasca federal constituency will have the opportunity to hit the voting booth and select a new MP for our communities. The sudden resignation of our former MP has left us without representation for some time (a problematic situation for many as they were left adrift without support from a federal representative) and now the chance to elect our new MP greets us. The by-election process has been an interesting one, but what will be truly interesting to me will be how many of us actually turn out to vote – because generally speaking our performance in this regard ranks somewhere below abysmal.

As someone who worked on a provincial election campaign I was part of something we referred to as “getting out the vote”. In plain terms this meant doing whatever it took to get voters out to vote on election day. Need a ride to the polls? We could arrange that. Need someone to babysit your kids, hold your dog’s leash or explain to your boss why you needed to leave early to go mark your X? We could probably do that, too. We would, in fact, do anything and everything in our power to get voters into that voting booth, and the entire process left me with exactly one question: What the hell is wrong with us?
I don’t need to tell you that people all over the world are fighting and dying to exercise the kind of democracy we take so for granted that we virtually ignore it. I know it and you know it too, and yet some of you are not voting, not even if someone will drive you there, babysit your kids, dogsit your dog, or basically hold your hand through the entire thing. Nope, some of us – far, far too many of us – just don’t bother to vote.

Perhaps it is apathy, perhaps it is complacency, or perhaps it is just that we are so damn spoiled by our rampant democracy that we have completely failed to grasp what an incredible opportunity it is. We are not just failing in our understanding of the value, though. We are failing our children.
Our kids look up to us as adults and role models. What does it say to them when we don’t vote? What does it say to them when we neglect to have our say in the future of our communities? We are creating yet another generation of non-voters, and we are telling them in essence that democracy is so pedestrian and commonplace that it doesn’t matter.

Democracy matters. Your vote matters. I am reaching the point where I am leaning towards making voting not an option but mandatory as it is in some nations. The sad part of course is that this seems diametrically opposed to the very freedom that democracy gives us, but perhaps we need to be forced to exercise our democratic right and privilege. I don’t know how else to address abysmal voter turnouts and, quite frankly, political parties that have begun to count on voter disinterest to accomplish their own agendas.
Advance polls are open today until 8 pm in the federal by-election, and on Monday June 30 a new MP for our region will be elected. Perhaps it seems cynical but I am not anticipating a strong voter turnout, based on prior experience and the fact that the election is being held in close proximity to a national holiday (one could be a bit suspicious about why the feds chose this date, but I digress). Once again I suspect I will wake up on July 1 with a new MP and one question ringing in my mind: What the hell is wrong with us?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Fort McMurray, Beautified

One of the things I have always believed is that community is something we create and build together. We do it through our sports organizations, our local social profit groups, supporting our local businesses, attending local events...but one of the most intriguing ways to build communities is through the simple act of making it a better place visually. Beautification should never be underestimated as a goal and strategy for community building, and the true joy of beautification is that it does not need to be some municipal or provincial initiative. It can be be grassroots and from the heart, each person doing what they can to beautify the place we call home.

Many people do this through gardening or tending their yard, which is always amazing for me to see as I know the hours of work that goes into such gardening, even though I am quite sorely lacking in a green thumb myself (my mother carried this gene and it seems sadly to have skipped me entirely). However, even without a green thumb we can contribute to the beautification of our community, just as I learned early this morning.

You see I was headed downtown to pick up some coffee and some groceries and I decided to take a little detour onto a quiet little street in our downtown core. I had meant to go before now, but with the recent struggle with a recurrence of my chronic eye disease I have been housebound for days, unable to handle the sunlight or too much time under lights of any kind. This morning, though, with my eye problem approaching resolution I popped on dark sunglasses and ventured into a little pathway behind some houses to find something.

I was searching for Elsie.

The grass was very damp, lush and green but making my shoes very wet. The sun was shining, though, after days of rain, and the birds were singing a cheerful song, making the short walk a very pleasant one - and then I found Elsie, the mural Russell Thomas created to cover a piece of graffiti tagging on a shed in his backyard.

It is a lovely little spot there, quiet and green, and I paused for a few moments to take some "selfies with Elsie" and to read the prayers Russell has carefully inscribed on the mural. The one that touched me most perhaps was the prayer asking for us to return to the centre of our hearts, a prayer that resonated with me today as I have been immersed in fear for the last few days as I battled once again with the eye disease that has almost robbed me of sight in my left eye in the past and which has returned for another kick at the can. It was nice to spend some time with Elsie Yanik, a calm and centred soul in our lives and think about returning to the centre of my heart. As I made my way back to my car I felt more at peace than I have in days.

You see what Russell has done is taken a small hidden spot and beautified it through his talent. I am quite appreciative of this as recently I have taken my own small step in this direction.

Last year at the SMS Wine Auction I bid on a silent auction item that I subsequently won when the highest bidder did not claim his prize. It is a giant metal tree, handcrafted and a one-of-a-kind piece of art made by the husband of a dear friend. It was delivered to me this winter and it sat in my yard for months, forlorn and dejected, until the snow melted and I had another accommodating friend drag it onto my deck (it is quite heavy, too, a substantial piece of art). And once it was on the deck I took it and instead of wine bottles I strung lights all over it, tiny white lights that shimmer in the night. I bought the LED kind so it takes very little energy and so I can keep it lit all night long - and it is on purpose that you can see the tree from one of the main thoroughfares of our community, clearly visible on my deck as you drive by.

One of my neighbours asked about it recently. They asked why I keep it lit all night and I explained that when I drive towards my house, no matter the time, the tree is like a shining white beacon promising that I am almost home. The neighbour, a kind soul, said the funny thing is that they have come to see my metal tree the same way, and that they find the sight of the lit tree every night reassuring. They said it glows in the dark night, mimicking the stars above, and that it is beautiful - and they thanked me for bringing it to the neighbourhood.

You see it doesn't take a huge amount of money or a municipal department to beautify. We can each do it, through a mural on a shed, a lighted metal tree, a well-tended yard or some other homegrown initiative adding interest and beauty to our community. I intend this summer to photograph some of the things I find where people have invested of themselves to beautify our community, tagging them on social media as #ymmbeautify so I can share some of the grassroots things we do to make the city beautiful. Just the other day the Intrepid Junior Blogger mentioned someone has built a small stone inukshuk on a trail by our house and I intend to go and seek it out as soon as I can tolerate the outdoors light once more - but I know there are so many others out there, too, and finding them will be an adventure.

Fort McMurray is an incredible community, full of amazing people and natural beauty. But it is full of something else, too. It is filled with those who are taking small, simple steps to beautify the community and share this beauty with others. And there is something truly magnificent about this kind of action - it is infectious. So, let yourself be infected by beauty - and then create and share your own as we build a strong, vibrant - and beautiful - Fort McMurray.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The One-Dollar Deal That Could Change History

The announcement that the federal government is finally engaged in genuine negotiations with the province to hand over a hotly-contested property in downtown Fort McMurray is wonderful news indeed - although I must admit I have some further thoughts about this entire process, how long it has taken and appropriate compensation for our community to make up for that delay.

Willow Square has been the property promised to the senior citizens of our region for a very long time. The twists and turns in the story are well known, with delays being seen at almost every corner and several recalcitrant levels of government showing that working together is not exactly one of their strengths and seeming instead to be working against each other.

This week it was revealed that the federal government is negotiating with the province to purchase the land, but not for some sort of deal that will make those long delays - most of them at the hands of the federal government who were unwilling to budge on certain aspects of the deal - more palatable. No, they still want to get lots of cash for the land, cash from the province that comes from all of us and that once again sees money simply being transferred between levels of government and right out of our community and into Ottawa.

Now never mind that this piece of property has been sitting idle for some time. By now we could have probably established squatter's rights, claiming ownership due to the pure neglect of the owners to do anything with it. Never mind that it sits squarely in the middle of downtown, right across from the hospital and while it might belong to the feds should clearly already belong to the people of this region. Never mind that the federal government has scarcely lifted a finger to help us acquire this land and move ahead with the proposed aging-in-place facility, instead throwing up roadblocks as if this was some sort of game to keep us from getting what we want. No, never mind all of that, now they want their pound of flesh from the province.

This week RMWB Councillor Guy Boutilier suggested that this land should be transferred from the federal government to the province for the sum of not more than $1. I completely agree with this assessment, as I have grown weary of watching money continuing to flow out of this region and very little flowing back into it. Perhaps if the federal government agreed to this generous exchange that would benefit our community the province could then take the funds allocated for the land purchase and instead build the very facility the senior citizens in our region have been requesting not for months or years but decades. Perhaps, for once, the governments that serve us could actually work for us in this region and not against us and make it easier for us to get what we want, need and deserve as opposed to making us fight for every last crumb.

The fact that we have no long-term care facility, no aging-in-place facility and no continuing care other than a ward at the hospital is a travesty in my opinion. As someone who cared for their aging parents I know how these facilities matter as our treasured seniors grow older, and I know how vital it is to have these services available for some of the most vulnerable in our society. These facilities are not a luxury or a "nice to have item" - they are a stone-cold need to protect and care for those we love.

Do I truly believe the federal government will heed the suggestion from Councillor Boutilier? Likely not, although I would very much like to see that case stated directly to Minister Kenney from members of our council like Mr. Boutilier as perhaps they could impress upon him the hardship and turmoil this issue has created in this region - and the level of distrust and lack of faith it has engendered in our federal government. I would suggest a one dollar purchase price for Willow Square would go a long way towards rebuilding some of that faith, as well as opening the doors to talks with the province about how they could send the money allocated for the land our way to build the facility instead. It would be nice to see some cash flowing into Wood Buffalo instead of the other way for once, but I suppose you could call me a dreamer since that seems more like dream than reality if the current pattern of money distribution holds true.

Hell, I am so much of a dreamer that I would be quite happy to give them the loonie to just get this deal done and have Willow Square's ownership right where it belongs - with the people of Wood Buffalo. And I am quite certain I am not the only one who would be standing there with a loonie in hand, ready to buy what rightfully should be ours already. For just one dollar the federal government could show their belief in the value and importance of this region, and their regret over the long delays that have been so very stressful and painful for so very many - but I suspect it is a simply a one-dollar deal they would never accept. And what a shame that is, because it is the one-dollar deal that could change history and the narrative of life in Fort McMurray.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Fort McMurray: A Vibrant Canadian Community (key word: community)

It has been wending its way around social media for some time now, but it is worth another view and another share because it is one of the loveliest messages about Fort McMurray I have heard and seen for some time.

One of our greatest challenges in this community is how we are viewed by the world outside our borders. They do not all have the opportunity to come here, and so they may believe the Neil Youngs of the world who decry us as Hiroshima and see us as nothing more than the oil sands development and an industry.

We are more than oil sands.

We are in fact a vibrant, young and growing community of tens of thousands of people who have chosen this as their place to live, work and play.

For tens of thousands of people we are nothing more, and nothing less, than home.

My sincere thanks to Senator Doug Black, who not only visited us but who took the time to see us, not just the industry or the oil sands, but to see the place, the people and the community.

This video accompanying a brief statement Senator Black gave recently in the Senate is just a small glimpse of Fort McMurray, Alberta. We are more than industry, we are more than oil, and we are more than many understand.

We are vibrant, Canadian...and a community.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

My Left Eye - A Dance With Chronic Disease

There was something in my eye.

It was a sharp feeling, like something more substantial than a hair, and it hurt quite badly. I remember asking my then-husband to look in my eye and pull out whatever foreign object had lodged there, desperate to get it removed. But when he looked in my left eye he saw nothing, even though the sensation of something being in that eye never wavered.

I remember it now, almost fifteen years later, astonishingly clearly. The Intrepid Junior Blogger was a newborn, 10 weeks old and I was immersed in that stage of parenthood that I think of as purgatory, neither heaven nor hell but a place where you are in touch with aspects of both as you fall deeply in love with your child at the same time you are so sleep deprived you are not sure how you are still breathing. My sore eye was the least of my worries, really, mixed up in a jumble of breastfeeding and parenting uncertainties and loads of laundy. But when the painful eye continued into day two, and then day three, I began to worry. When I realized I could no longer stand light shining into that eye I knew I needed to see a doctor.

I lived in a very small remote place then: Red Lake, Ontario. I wish I had understood back then that for a sore eye one didn't see a general physician, as while they try to help certain specialties are best left to those who have trained in them. When the general physician diagnosed me with conjunctivitis I wish I had questioned it, understanding that eye infections of that sort are very, very rarely unilateral in nature and did not present the way my eye did. I wish there had even been an ophthalmologist in our town, or even a full time optometrist who could have viewed my eye and identified the real issue lurking there, but there wasn't, just an optometrist who came to our community one week every month.

So I went home with my new baby and a bottle of eye drops which I used faithfully as my eye rapidly got worse.

After a few days I went back to the general physician, and I saw alarm in his eyes. He immediately picked up the phone and called the optometrist's office, being lucky enough to hit on a week when he was there, and I was referred over immediately. Within four hours I was on the road to Winnipeg, because "something in my eye" had turned into a medical emergency.

You see, the "something" in my eye was something called a "dendrite" - and it was not a foreign body at all. It was the result of a virus, the virus that in most people causes cold sores on the lips, taking a wrong turn in my nerve system and lodging in my cornea, creating a massive "cold sore" on the surface of my eye. No one knows why the virus - herpes simplex I - does this in some individuals, especially given that I had never even had a cold sore before or any signs of harbouring the virus, although virtually everyone does, with almost 90% of adults having it dormant in their bodies. My new ophthalmologist theorized that it might have been a nosocomial infection, meaning that I might have been one of the few adults never exposed and that I had contracted it in the hospital while delivering my daughter a few weeks before, but there was no way of ever knowing. What was known was that I was suffering from corneal herpesvirus in my left eye, a disease that is the leading cause of corneal blindness in both the developed and developing world.

By the time I was properly diagnosed it was too late in some regards. The virus had caused massive scarring of my left cornea, scarring that is irreversible and untreatable short of a corneal transplant (a surgery several of my doctors cautioned against unless a last resort, as it is fraught with its own perils and problems). The virus had done more damage, though, causing an inflammation of my iris that now was creating a problem with the internal pressure in my eye.

Just as you have blood pressure you have an internal pressure in your eye - called Intra Ocular Pressure (IOP). When you see the optometrist he or she often does that irritating little test where they blow a puff of air onto your eyes, which measures your IOP. An elevated IOP can be a sign of glaucoma, a condition where your pressure is high enough that it risks damaging your optic nerve and causing subsequent loss of peripheral vision.

My new ophthalmologist in Winnipeg not only quickly identified the viral infection, but the accompanying inflammation of my iris and a skyrocketing IOP that indicated I had developed glaucoma.

I was 33 years old, with a newborn. He told me I was one of his youngest patients, by decades. It wasn't much comfort, but it was something I heard again and again over a journey that has now lasted almost fifteen years.

It took me some time to understand that what had happened to me was not a "one off" medical incident. I wanted to believe it was something that would go away, be fixed or cured, but I didn't understand the nature of chronic disease back then. I had always been healthy and had never had to deal with something that would go away for weeks or months or even years and then return, but suddenly I had a chronic disease.

It has been a long journey. My "eye guy" in Winnipeg and I became pals, treating my disease with medications as best we could, keeping it at bay with a variety of eye drops. I was lulled into a false sense of security for a long time, even after I moved to Fort McMurray and found myself needing to travel once more to see an ophthalmologist in Edmonton as my new home once again did not have a specialist in this field (a travesty in my opinion and one that will cause people to lose their sight just as I did 15 years ago). The fight has always been to preserve what vision remains in that eye, and it is so frustrating as we know that without the corneal scarring I would be able to see quite well. The scarring is like looking through a film of vaseline, making the world a blurry place, and intense enough that I can make out shapes and not much more.

I found a new "eye guy" in Edmonton, and on my second visit he referred me to a glaucoma specialist at the Royal Alex Hospital as he was concerned about my IOP. The virus had been quiet for some time, as had the inflammation of the iris, but the IOP had been steadily creeping up and it was a worry.

I saw Doctor Casey in his little office at the Royal Alex for the very first time thinking it would be a routine visit. I was a little shocked when he said I would need eye surgery to deal with the glaucoma, because it had reached levels that were "a little high". I asked him when I needed to return for the surgery, thinking I had weeks to prepare, and was stunned when he gently told me that this was a true emergency, and that I would be in the surgical suite the next day. He said he was sorry when he told me, telling me that he hated doing so when we had just met and I hadn't had time to develop trust and faith in him, but that there was no choice.

I trusted him instantly. Within moments I was on an IV of a drug called Diamox to reduce the pressure in my eye, and the next day I was in surgery with Dr. Casey, wide awake but with a frozen face, and we joked and talked the entire time as he performed an emergency surgery in an attempt to save my optic nerve from certain blindness as my IOP, which in normal eyes is under 20, had soared to almost 60 and levels he admitted even he had rarely seen in someone my age.

We were on a journey again, my eye, my eye doc and myself, and Dr. Casey and I became not just physician and patient but friends as I travelled to see him regularly. On one of my first visits I arrived with a Starbucks in my hand and he looked at it wistfully, saying he rarely got out to pick up a coffee, and so when I left I went and got him one and took it back to his nurses to give to him. After that I showed up at every appointment with a coffee in each hand, one for him and one for me, and together he and I would look to tame the angry beast that is my left eye, finally calming it into submission for many years.

I was devastated when Dr. Casey died a few years ago, because he was not only the best physician I had ever known but one of the kindest people. Our appointments had been filled with jokes and laughter about Fort McMurray (he had family living here) and we would laugh about white pick-up trucks and "the Wild West". More than that, though, I trusted him implicitly when it came to my chronic eye disease because he knew me and he knew it and he and I both knew that his surgery had saved me from even more grief as it had been quite successful in controlling the glaucoma.

The thing about chronic disease is that on occasion you can even forget for awhile that you have it. Oh, I have reminders in an eye that droops a little as a result of the surgery, and that is often red due to the weakened blood vessels it holds. For months or years at a time, though, I can forget that it is even there, and that the virus is lurking inside me - right until it flares up, like it did this week.

I spent some time outdoors in the bright sun on the weekend, a known trigger for those who experience this virus. The sun has triggered an outbreak for me once before, just after I returned from Florida, and so I should have thought to be more cautious but my last viral experience was years ago and so I was reckless. By Tuesday my left eye, which had been quiet for many, many years, was angry and red and inflamed. The beast was back.

I was worried the glaucoma surgery may have failed, as Dr. Casey had warned me it could one day and might need to be repeated, although he said by then perhaps there would be better treatments available, too. I was actually relieved to find it was simply a recurrence of the virus, once again flashing across my cornea and causing redness and potentially even more scarring, although little pain as after 15 years of problems my eye is almost completely impervious to that sensation. And so here I am at home, once again using antiviral eye drops, avoiding bright lights and hoping that this regime as provided by my optometrist is enough and I can avoid a trip to Edmonton and another "eye guy".

Someone asked me recently why I have never written about my eye disease or my journey with chronic illness. I suppose I never thought of doing it, never thought it would be of interest to anyone and it is quite a personal journey, too, as it has often been fraught with tears and fears. It is a point of weakness and vulnerability for me, a part of my life that I cannot control and so I tend to keep it close and tucked away, although as it was pointed out to me perhaps that is why so many people suffer from chronic disease in silence, and that perhaps sharing it would allow others to know they are not alone.

There is a lot to be written about suffering from chronic illness in a remote location, too, as the need to travel to specialists adds significant stress to an already difficult ordeal. I find the lack of a full-time ophthalmologist in our community disturbing given our population size, and I intend to pursue that lack of services with Alberta Health Services as opthalmic issues are hardly rare and I suspect thousands of residents of our region are travelling to access these services when they could be securing them closer to home, but I will write more of that in the future as I try to learn more about medical specialities in remote areas.

And so that is the story of my left eye. It isn't quite as gripping as "My Left Foot", the story Daniel Day-Lewis made famous in the movie of that name, but it has gripped me for the last fifteen years, and left me with a new understanding of the nature of chronic illness and the frailty of the human body. I have so many friends who endure chronic disease far worse than mine - lupus, heart disease, diabetes, and more - and yet the one thing we all have in common is that we are involved in a delicate dance with our disease, some days the steps going well and the dance flowing and other days the disease tripping us up and reminding us that the disease has set the tempo, not us. It can be a frustrating dance indeed as most of us like to lead and not follow, and yet in this case we are at the mercy of our partner. It is a dance, though, where you learn new steps and begin to develop a fuller understanding of yourself and what it means to be human, as you explore a world you might not have chosen but that for whatever reason has chosen you. Living with chronic disease is no different than just living in many ways - it is just a slightly different dance, with unusual twists, dips and turns along the way. The funny thing is how well you can learn to dance when you need to.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

If You Go Into the Woods Today - Bears in Wood Buffalo

The video is all over social media, and without a doubt it is quite gripping, especially in light of the recent tragic death of a Suncor employee. Life in the north of Canada means encounters with wildlife, although the wildlife is normally on the timid side and reclusive, preferring to disappear into the forest when humans appear – but not always.

I have read a lot of commentary on this video as well, including criticism of how the individuals handled this close encounter of the ursine kind. I would suggest that in such an encounter any strategy that allows one to escape unscathed was obviously the right one, and that handling it differently could have meant a worse outcome, too. Hindsight is a lovely thing, and it is quite easy to speculate when you aren’t the one close enough to smell the fur of a black bear.
I have had several encounters with bears, both in Wood Buffalo and in northwestern Ontario. I have been within two feet of one, separated only by a flimsy railing, both of us in a state of shock (and me close enough to smell his musty fur, while he could no doubt smell my abject fear). I have also worked with domestic animals in a professional capacity for over a decade, and I am adamant on one fact: animals are animals and while we have a tendency to anthropomorphize them and their behaviour they behave as they do based on their innate instincts and behaviour patterns. As soon as we lose respect for them and for their very animal-ness we put ourselves in jeopardy, even when they are domesticated.

The bear in this video appears curious, not necessarily aggressive, but that there are aggressive animals out there should never be discounted. If you go out into the woods today, you could be in for a big surprise – just like these two joggers who encountered a rather unusual bear.
And this one is just for fun -
but remember if you go into the woods today
be prepared for bears!

Monday, June 16, 2014

AHS, Letters to the Editor and Supermassive Black Holes

It is with interest I read the recent letter from AHS Chief Zone Officer, North Shelly Pusch in the Letters to the Editor section of the Fort McMurray Today. It was fascinating to see this response to the letter submitted to the same newspaper from the Wood Buffalo Health Advisory Council purporting to address the issues raised in the letter from that advisory council. I say “fascinating” because it seemed to indicate the level of disconnect AHS has with Wood Buffalo, including the advisory council designed to represent our interests to AHS.

It is absolutely terrific that renovations have been underway at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre to bring it up to the standards it should have been at years ago. Anyone who has spent time in the emergency department knows that in recent years they have been desperately crunched for space, and on occasion I have feared I would be seeing the doctor on call in a broom closet. This is through no fault of the health centre as they work their butts off trying to serve this community, but they have had inadequate support from the province to match the growth of this region and the demands on their services. I suppose we should express some gratitude to AHS for this, so I will say thank you for finally improving something that was woefully neglected for years.

And while it is lovely that they plan to do some refurbishing of the fourth floor where many of our treasured seniors and those with serious chronic health issues languish, it seems a bit pale given that we currently have NO long term care facility for these citizens. While I support the development of a long-term care centre in Parsons Creek a letter that doesn’t even acknowledge the desire to have an aging in place facility at Willow Square or another section of the downtown core has rather missed the point and ignored what this community has been saying for some time.
In a region with a baby boom going on one can anticipate the demand for a surgical suite on the maternity floor will rise just as our birth rate does. Perhaps for once we could be proactive in our approach (you know, as opposed to doing renovations years after it was clear they are needed as in the ER) and develop such a suite now to meet that future need. Is there some desire to always be behind the eight-ball and playing catch up or does it maybe make some sense to look ahead?

Finally and most importantly, though, is the commentary in this letter from AHS as regards medevac services in Wood Buffalo. This phrase fills me with the kind of white-hot anger I rarely feel:
Concerns about the current medevac service are unfounded.

Unfounded? Seriously? I have never read a more patronizing statement from a government organization in my entire life. I don’t appreciate being patted on the head and told to go on my way like a good girl because everything is fine and all is well and my cute little concerns are “unfounded”.

Unfounded my ass. My concerns are well founded, as are those of thousands in this community. Night heli-flight medevac service is saving lives and that very service has been in jeopardy, in no small part due to the unwillingness of AHS to budge from their position of paying a fee-for-service while the municipality and industry cough up the real cash to keep Phoenix Heli-Flight functioning with a 24/7 service. Anyone who thinks the concerns are “unfounded” have not heard the stories of how prior to this service people in remote areas died because the helicopter only able to fly during daylight hours was unable to reach them before darkness fell, their precious life running out just as the daylight hours did. This letter seemingly ignores the raging worries about the cessation of this life-saving service, as if this was not even an issue at all.
Here’s the deal: If the Wood Buffalo Health Advisory Council has grave concerns about health services in this region then we should all be concerned. Frankly even if they did not I think we should all be concerned, because this letter from AHS indicates a level of disconnect that is deeply troubling in all aspects. It ignores the real issues, pretends others don’t exist, and points to new flooring as being a tremendous gain for our community. And while new flooring is lovely it is hardly something for which we should be boot-lickingly grateful, as keeping a facility up to standards should be a given, not a bonus.

Look, as someone who does communications by profession and by nature I recognize spin when I see it, and this letter from AHS is spinning as fast as a supermassive black hole (which is fast enough to push the laws of physics says my kid, who is my resident expert in such matters). I would suggest this entire letter from AHS was ill-considered and speaking of supermassive black holes it should have probably been tossed into one of those instead of lobbed into a local newspaper where it not only didn’t address the concerns the residents of this region have but patronized us and tried to tell us all is fine.
All is not fine. Talk to the nurses at the hospital. Talk to local seniors. Talk to physicians. Talk to medevac personnel. Talk to the folks at Phoenix Heli-Flight. Talk to anyone who has been touched in this community by a serious medical emergency. Talk to the people of the community and you will find that things are far, far from alright, and this letter from AHS? Well, it doesn’t change a thing about any of those concerns. Providing care to Wood Buffalo might be a “challenge” for those at AHS, but the real challenge is for those of us who live here and are reliant on these services and their ability to deliver them.

On this one AHS receives a solid F – a failing grade for communication, concern and ability to connect with the residents of the Wood Buffalo region. I would suggest they might want to try again, and this time talk about Willow Square, nightflight medevac services and all the other issues their letter conveniently glossed over or outright ignored – but I am not holding my breath, because those issues? Well, they are a lot harder to spin than new flooring and furniture, aren’t they?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Well, Bully For You

There are words in our language that start out as powerful and meaningful, but overuse and misuse  weakens them to the point where they are meaningless and without power. It has happened to many words, like "special" which has become so overused as to become a cliche, as when everything is "special" then nothing is truly "special" anymore. When every item in the grocery store is on "special" the word has become so diluted as to have little value.

The same can be said about other words, like "great", and "amazing", and "awesome", all wonderful words but so easily used that we have to reach even further into our vocabulary to describe experiences that are truly great, amazing or awesome. And there is another word that is being wildly overused in our world, one that should have great power and impact but that is becoming subject to such overuse that the true value and meaning is rapidly being lost.


I don't want anyone to think I am suggesting that bullying doesn't exist, as it does and I was subjected to it as a young adult in a way that I think was formative in my character. I think it is a common experience in childhood, and one which deserves our absolute attention and recognition. It is, however, the way this word is being used by adults about other adults that concerns me deeply.

Bully is a word that should be reserved for certain situations, ones in which someone is using their power or influence to exert force on another in a way with potential for real-life impacts. Bullying in this brave new world of social media, however, is a word that is being thrown about with abandon, and it is to our detriment as we witness the degradation of the very concept.

Just this week I saw claims that one level of government was "bullying" another. Once, before this word was so easily tossed about it our conversations, we would have simply said these politicians were playing the game as they are wont to do, pushing each other around in a forum they have chosen to participate in (and in fact many have worked very hard to be there). But now we claim they are "bullying" each other, as if someone is the victim and someone is the bully. I saw claims that someone facing a lawsuit for potentially defamatory comments made on social media was being "bullied" by the ones claiming to be defamed, a claim that every person being sued could now suggest, saying that they are the real victim and not the one they possibly defamed. I saw others accused of bullying for correcting misinformation and refusing to back down, as if their facts were negated by someone calling them a "bully". And in recent months I too have been called a bully, for correcting an error in capitalization on a marketing document for a politician and simply standing my ground.


This is a word that should have power, that should indicate the gravity of a situation and the vital nature of what is happening, but now I have seen situations where each side claims the other is a bully, with both sides claiming victimization at the hands of the other.

Everyone, it seems, is a bully. Except that they are not. You see, we are starting to lose our ability to see what is really occurring - conflict - and creating a victim and aggressor scenario instead whenever people are in conflict with each other.

Is this how we want our children to see the world? Do we want them to believe that every person out there is a potential bully and that they therefore are all potential victims? Or do we want to teach them that some situations are simply conflicts which you can work to resolve - or walk away from - as needed? Do we want them going into schools and workplaces believing that bullying is so very commonplace, or do we want them to recognize it for the atrocity it is and stop seeing every conflict as being bullied? I am not sure about you, but I want my daughter to understand that you can have conflict between two people in which neither is the victim nor the aggressor - it is just conflict.

The concept of bullying between adults on social media is particularly troublesome to me. In the world of young adults I know that the conflicts in which they engage on social media often carry into the real world and have very real impacts, meaning that bullying among young adults can and does occur on social media. What adults need to know, though, and what we must teach our children, is that often we can simply walk away. Social media allows us to block those we find ourselves in conflict with, ignoring their comments and their hurtful words. We can remove ourselves from their sphere of influence, as while we cannot change their behaviour we can change our own and refuse to be manipulated by them.

I have encountered some stone-cold assholes on social media. I have been threatened, called names and told it was hoped I die of cancer. Not once, though, did I feel or claim I was being bullied. That these people are jerks is beyond question, but bullies? No, because they hold no power over me on Facebook or Twitter. I choose to ignore them, block them, avoid them - because that is within my power.

In over four decades I feel I have been bullied exactly once as an adult, and that was in my real world and not on social media. It was done by those who held power over me in my employment, and it was a form of intimidation. And when it happened I went directly to those involved and I confronted the situation, because it is the sort of true bullying that must be addressed. But this world where suddenly every person is a bully and every person is a victim? People, we need to stop.

We are not doing ourselves or our children any favours by claiming we are being bullied every time someone disagrees with us, sues us, pushes our buttons or says something we do not like. We are not doing ourselves or our children any favours by refusing to acknowledge that conflict can exist without there being a victim involved, and that we don't address conflict by claiming the "olly-olly-oxen-free" of crying "bully" but by trying to resolve the issue, and, if it cannot be resolved, by walking away. We risk creating a world where everyone is painted in colours of bully and victim, and where the very word "bully" loses all power and meaning.

And as the adult who still has inside her the 13-year old girl who was mercilessly bullied this worries me. I fear the demeaning of bullying means that one day we will see it as so commonplace from overuse that we not only expect it, but accept it. And I think that is the exact opposite of what we want to see happen.

So, the next time you are in conflict with someone think about a few things. Ask yourself if this person has any true influence in your life, and any real impact in terms of your employment or quality of life. Is this a situation where you can walk away without injury or harm of any real and measurable sort? Did this person truly hurt you or did they just really, really piss you off? Did you play the game, too, and now want out? Then instead of crying "bully" just realize you have been in a conflict, and either resolve it or walk away. If you are able to do these things and help us to maintain the value and importance of the word bully I just have one thing to say: thank you for making sure the word "bully" doesn't become another grocery store "special".

Friday, June 13, 2014

Choosing a Federal Team in Fort McMurray-Athabasca

It is always interesting when I tell people that I am planning to write about politics and share my choice of candidate in an upcoming election. The reactions often run along this spectrum:

"Should you do that? You're a journalist! Aren't you supposed to be impartial?"

"You should really use your influence wisely. What if you affect the outcome of the vote?"

"Don't you think that's risky? I mean won't it get you into trouble?"

I find these responses fascinating as it says far more about how others view me as opposed to how I view myself. I am not a journalist and have never claimed to be - I am an opinionated blogger. I often espouse opinions about various issues, and I am unsure why politics should be much different. The comment about influence always makes me giggle as I believe any influence I have is negligible and just as likely to sway people the other way. If my comments affect the outcome of the vote in any way I hope they simply increase the voter participation above our current abysmal rates. And as for it being risky? Well, playing it safe in life isn't much fun, not really my style and frankly I am a resident, citizen and voter who has every right to hold - and express - her opinion.

By this preamble you have probably guessed I am going to reveal who I plan to vote for in the upcoming federal by-election. For most who know me this will come as no surprise as they know my political leanings and thoughts. Remember during the Twilight heyday when everyone was either "Team Jacob" or "Team Edward"? Well, I have begun thinking of this election in this way and some time ago I picked my team...and it is Team Kyle.

When the time comes to mark my ballot I will be marking my x beside the name of Kyle Harrietha, Liberal Party of Canada candidate. There are many reasons for this decision, from having worked closely with Kyle on a political campaign a couple of years ago and knowing his intelligence and understanding of the political scene to having a deep respect for his ability to navigate political waters.

Some of the reason is the belief that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, which is what we have been doing in this region for decades as we elect Conservative candidate after Conservative candidate and receive the same sort of dismal representation. Frankly our last representative seemed to spend his time devising vanity crossword puzzles and then mailing them out to thousands of households at our expense (check out this story if you want to be outraged, as while your home delivery service is being cut our political representatives in Ottawa can continue to send us tree-killing, self-aggrandizing mail at "no cost" except of course the cost is still being born by all of us who pay taxes to support Canada Post). I saw a photo on Twitter of David Yurdiga's team covering up old Brian Jean signs with his new ones and the heavy symbolism was not lost on me, as while Yurdiga might well be a different person, a good man and even a good candidate I cannot in good conscience vote for any indication that we will receive more of the same neglect we have seen under the current Conservative government. This is no indictment of Yurdiga as an individual but rather of a party that I believe has failed to meet the needs of this region, and in a most woeful way.

Some of the reason is which party leader has come to our region during this time. So far Justin Trudeau has been here twice, meeting with voters and hearing their concerns, travelling the region to support Kyle. I have had the opportunity to speak with him and been deeply impressed each time. Harper and Mulcair? Well, Mulcair was going to come but had a change of plans, and Harper seems to be a total no-show. Whether or not your party leader bothers to show up in a riding during a by-election does matter, regardless of how busy that leader happens to be, and especially when we are talking about a region that contributes to the national economy in the way we do. Now, we happen to have a party leader who lives right here in Tim Moen of the Libertarian Party, which is a reason for some pride.

Some of the reason is an evaluation of the individual candidates. I happen to like Tim Moen a great deal, and while I admire and respect his intelligence our political views are quite divergent and thus I cannot support him politically, although I certainly do in a personal sense. I have not met Lori McDaniels of the NDP, but I  have trepidations about the NDP stance on oil sands development and what that could mean for this region. I don't know David Yurdiga well but I am quite familiar with the Conservative track record in the region (or lack of one in my eyes) and I know I cannot continue to support that direction.

And so here I am at Team Kyle. I have been here for some time already, but what I want to make clear is that I am not asking you to join me or to vote the way I do. I am asking you to respect my choice and to simply do one thing: vote. Vote for your team, the one that best matches your beliefs and opinions. Support the candidate you believe to be the correct one for our region. But most importantly just VOTE and don't let others determine the outcome, even people like me who have a platform to share their opinion and preference. And don't be afraid to share your own, to say who you are voting for and why, because you have every right to shout it from the rooftops if you see fit. Just remember that you can do so in a way that is respectful of the rights - and choices - of others.

So choose a team, whether it is Team Kyle, Team David, Team Tim or Team Lori. Share with others why you have chosen them, and then get out the votes - yours, your family's, your friends. Use your voice and direct the future of this region, because your vote is your voice, and every single one matters. Soon it will be time to choose your federal team.

The only question that really remains is: which team are you on? This is mine:

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Green Light for the Sport and Entertainment Centre - and Progress

There are a few things I actually don’t hold strong opinions about (this may come as a shock to some). One of those things is the proposed location for a sport and entertainment centre in downtown Fort McMurray. I have heard the arguments for and against the proposed location, and both seem valid in terms of pros and cons – but the reality is I remain open to being convinced as to the best location for this amenity. There is one thing I do hold a very strong opinion about, however – and that is the necessity to do something with our downtown core.

The downtown core is currently in a state of complete disarray and disrepair. Populated by abandoned buildings like the Twin Pines Motel, a favourite spot for graffiti taggers, vandals and vagrants, the downtown core is becoming increasingly seedy looking and less and less attractive to investors and visitors.
I was delighted when this week RMWB council greenlighted the opportunity to pursue negotiations with the successful proponent of the arena in the proposed location. These negotiations will hopefully address some of the areas of concern and if these concerns cannot be resolved or adequately addressed then discussions can move on to another location – but I am simply relieved to see something being discussed about progress in the downtown.

There are examples where arenas have worked in downtown cores, and examples where they have not. There are case studies to be examined, and there are many angles to be addressed, but the primary point is that whether or not an arena is constructed downtown we need to ensure that the downtown core is not left to continue to fall into disarray, as once we go down that path too far it becomes increasingly difficult to recover. I have seen it happen far too often in cities, and as we grow the risk for us to head in that direction grows daily.
We have some bright and shining spots in our community. The new Fort McMurray Airport is a gem of which we are justifiably proud, and MacDonald Island Park continues to be the heart of the community. Shell Place is slowly coming to fruition, and will be a glittering showpiece for the region by any estimation. We are fortunate that our community is lush and vibrant with the boreal forest, and we have neighbourhoods springing to life with retail and office complexes that will change the experience of living in the community (for the record the Stonecreek Starbucks has already changed my life).  But we need to remember to continue to work on those spots that are not so bright and shining, ensuring that they are developed in a way that does us justice, serves our needs and addresses some of the issues we face in terms of growth.

Is the current proposed location in the downtown core the right spot for a sport and entertainment centre? I don’t know yet to be honest, but I look forward to seeing the proposed design, hearing the potential areas of concern and possible solutions and seeing us move into the future. Even if the sport and entertainment centre is eventually moved to another location at least this process will allow us to progress with other possibilities in the downtown core as we look to build this community, including our downtown.
This week we saw a greenlight given to progress, even if it may still be tentative and subject to change and revision. Progress is like that, bumpy and occasionally a rough ride just like an aircraft that hits a patch of turbulence on its journey. I have been on many turbulent flights, but I have been fortunate that each one, regardless of how rough the ride, landed safely at its final destination. I have no reason to believe this journey to the future of our downtown will be any different – and I welcome both a little bit of turbulence and the eventual joy in a successful arrival.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Irony of the Economic Engine of Alberta

On May 27 I sent an email to two people in our provincial government about the issue surrounding Phoenix Heli-Flight and their ability to continue to offer night medevac services in the Wood Buffalo region.

Tonight the issue of Phoenix will be discussed at RMWB Council, and my anticipation is that it is very likely industry and the municipality will step in to continue to fund Phoenix so dedicated 24/7 services can continue. One party is missing at this table, however, given that Alberta Health Services has now declined to immediately agree to fund the service other than continuing the current pay-for-service fees and agreeing to a six-month "review" of the services and possibility of a deal for Phoenix through AHS. Many things have been in movement, it seems, but what seems dead in the water are the emails and messages that have been sent from the Wood Buffalo community to Minister of Health Fred Horne and Premier Dave Hancock.

Since May 27 I have not received a reply from either of these government representatives. Not a form email, not a personal email, not a thing but silence and an apparent complete disregard for the citizens who pay their salary and keep them in office. I have patiently waited, checking my email inbox every day, until I realized that they likely have no intention of ever responding to an email that took me some time to write and that included my concerns about the future of their government in this region.

I want to make very clear that I have in the past supported our local MLAs, even working as the communications manager on one of the campaigns. I know they have advocated tirelessly for this region both before and since being elected, but I also know that without the political will of the government their advocacy has limited effectiveness. I continue to support our MLAs in their advocacy for our region, but I have deep and serious reservations about what kind of support and audience they are receiving from the current Alberta government.They are but two voices in a cacophony of others, and far too easily ignored if there is a lack of will to ensure this region has the support it needs to continue to succeed as the economic engine of Alberta.

And there is the rub! How many of these politicians have come to this region to visit and touted us as the economic engine, spoken of our importance and our value, and then gone away to never respond to our emails or answer our pleas for help? How can it be so very easy for them to pay lip service to our tremendous importance and then forget it as soon as their plane touches down again in Edmonton?

I am angry today. I am angry that two government officials cannot be bothered to reply to emails from the people of this province. It shows a level of disrespect that troubles me deeply because it indicates a fundamental lack of concern about the people of this community. It speaks to an issue far deeper than keeping a helicopter in the air for medevac services and instead to a willful disregard for those who have put them in office. That they did not answer tweets does not trouble me overly as anyone on social media knows that you can be bombarded by messages that take mere seconds to compose and send - but when you ignore an email, which is basically the modern day equivalent of the "letter to your government representative", you have ignored someone who has taken the time and effort to contact you directly and in a sincere and private way to address an issue. That time and effort deserves a response.

Here is my belief: If you cannot take the time to send a correspondent even a form email or have one of your staffers do so then you do not deserve the government office or title you currently hold. The lack of ANY response to a polite, respectful but concerned email of advocacy worries me deeply as it speaks to a total lack of interest in this region. I continue to be worried about the future of Phoenix Heli-Flight and their ability to serve this region in the capacity we need, but this issue has been a warning sign to me of individuals in our government who are simply not listening to Wood Buffalo.

The Progressive Conservative party is now undergoing a search for a new leader. This new leader will be our next Premier, and I would suggest they have significant strides to make in ensuring that the people of this region feel as if they matter and that their voices and concerns have value. I continue to hope that this will be the case as I have met all three of the candidates now standing for leadership and each have spoken to the importance of the oil sands and this community. It is tremendously easy to speak of this importance, however, and far easier to forget it when difficult decisions must be made - or even when emails are awaiting an answer. The new leader, and their cabinet, will need to expend some effort to convince me that they truly believe the "economic engine of this province" truly matters in some way more than spoken words.

The irony of our constantly being upheld as the economic engine and driver of this province and the lack of response to our community from members of our provincial government is not lost on me. How easy it is to talk about our value, and how difficult it is to actually match those words with action, like answering an email or, even more importantly, agreeing to find innovative ways to fund an essential service to keep that economic engine and our community humming.

This is about far more than helicopters. This is about the future of this region, and our place and role in this province. An unanswered email seems like no big deal - and yet to me it is a warning sign that we cannot ignore. And today I issue my own warning: pay attention to Wood Buffalo and treat the residents of this region with respect - because we have grown tired of being ignored, and if you continue to do so you do it at the peril of yourselves - and your future mandate to govern.