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

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Santas Anonymous and Knight Lights: Youth Changing the World

There are a few things I am passionate about, but perhaps nothing more so than the youth of our community and our world. As the caretaker of a young woman who astonishes me in every way and every single day I see the incredible potential of our youth, and how their initiative and drive can change the world. At this time of year, during the Christmas season, I see so many examples of this locally, and in two cases I am both amazed and humbled by the young people involved: Santas Anonymous and Holy Trinity Teens for Change, a group that hosts the Knight Lights Fair Trade Market on an annual basis.

Santas Anonymous operates out of Father Mercredi High School. I have had the honour of writing about this initiative for YMM Magazine, and I continue to be astonished at the good work they do in our region. This largely student organized and driven movement collects food, toys and other items for distribution in the community to allow individuals and families who may be struggling to celebrate the holidays. I have been there on packing day when the hampers are carefully packed for each family, gifts for each child lovingly selected and wrapped by young hands. I have been there on delivery day, and I have been one of the drivers who did deliveries, seeing the faces of the recipients and finding in them the true joy and meaning of the season.

Santas Anonymous is an incredible group, one that has touched the lives and hearts of thousands of residents of this region, and perhaps what has impacted me the most was the gentle sincerity of the youth involved. Most are too young to understand or know the low points of life, when a kind word or gesture can mean the difference between falling into deep sorrow and seeing a glimmer of hope. I think they know they are doing something special and something positive, but I suspect they don't fully understand exactly how amazing what they are doing is, and how they are quietly changing the lives of people in our community. I know, though, because I have spoken to recipients of the program who have told me in tears of times when things were so very bad that they were in despair, overcome with sadness at their inability to provide their families with a celebration - and their deep gratitude when a delivery from Santas Anonymous arrived, changing not only their holiday but their life.

Santas Anonymous will hold their annual Miracle Marathon on the weekend of December 12 and 13, and will be accepting donations of food, toys, and money at local Save-On Foods locations with the help of friends from Rock 97.9 FM and Country 93.3 FM (and those radio stations and Save-On Foods deserve a special mention and thank you for their kind support of this initiative and their community involvement, too). That weekend is an ideal opportunity to chat with some local youth and see their passion for helping others, an inspiring thing to witness at this time of year when the holiday spirit can be a bit trampled after hours spent trudging through the mall. And no matter how weary we may get, Santas Anonymous has now been going strong for thirty years, fuelled by the youthful energy and passion of those who have made Christmas happen for hundreds of people in our region every single year for three decades.

And speaking of local youth, passion and holiday spirit, on Monday, December 1 the Holy Trinity Teens for Change will host their annual Knight Lights Fair Trade Market, an event I have attended every single year and continue to regard with both delight and pleasure as it connects our local youth with those far, far away.

Teen for Change is a youth social justice group working with Free the Children and Me to We to promote and encourage social change throughout the world. This group, through the wildly successful fair trade market, has raised an amazing amount of funds for various initiatives around the world. The fair trade market boasts a variety of goods from artisans in other countries, all sold at fair price to ensure the makers of the goods have been fairly compensated for their wares. I have gone every year and every year have walked away with something new as either a gift or for myself, and a renewed belief in the ability of our youth to truly impact our world in positive ways. Teens for Change is again primarily student organized and driven, and the fair trade market has become a part of our holiday season in the region in just a few short years, showing exactly how popular the concept is.

The Knight Lights Fair Trade Market, this year themed "One Small Step for Man, One Huge Leap for Mankind" takes place on Monday, December 1 at Holy Trinity High School, with doors opening at 6 pm and admission costing only $10. If you have never been before I highly recommend attending this event - because I guarantee you will not only be impressed but that you will add it to your yearly calendar of must-attend events.

So folks, there you have it. Honestly I get tired just writing about it, but in our community there are these incredibly energetic, passionate and motivated youth like those at Father Mercredi and Holy Trinity who are spending their precious extracurricular time (and I know it is precious, as I recall those days well) to improve the lives of others both in our community and around the world. I commend the Fort McMurray Catholic School Board, the staff and teachers at both schools, and especially the students for their dedication and devotion to making the world a better place. Through their efforts everyone in this community is given the opportunity to help them make that difference, through our donations or volunteering for Santas Anonymous and our support of the Knight Lights Fair Trade Market. So, let's support our local youth as they change the world, one teddy bear, one Christmas dinner and one fair trade market at a time.

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Cop Chat on Twitter

It always catches my attention on Twitter when my name comes up during a discussion hashtagged as #copchat. You see that is a discussion between police officers and when my Twitter handle appears I pay attention, as I am not quite certain why I have become part of the conversation – although last week I was delighted to learn it was for a very good reason.

I think most of us have a bit of an odd relationship with the police. We are very happy to see them when our car is stolen but significantly less happy when they appear behind our car when we happened to fail to stop at a stop sign. We want their help when we need it but are considerably less pleased when they are writing us a ticket for our own misbehaviour. And to be honest to a large degree I think few of us really understand the nature of their job and have a tendency to see the uniform and not the individual doing a difficult job.
I wrote a blog post in 2011 about an initiative that I felt was helping to bridge the divide between the public and police. It was a bold project, because it was risky in some regards. It was all about police officers in Edmonton using Twitter and the impact I believed it was having on their relationship with the community.

It is very easy to dehumanize individuals like police officers, and that dehumanization is a key factor in the difficulties of developing community policing. The concept of using Twitter by officers was initially envisioned as a recruitment tool but I think it went much further than that. Cops on Twitter, at least the ones in Edmonton, developed a relationship with the Twitter community, sharing snippets of their jobs and daily routine. The officers ceased to be the uniforms and began to be a lot more just like you and I.
Some of the tweets they sent were sobering – tales of pulling over drivers too drunk to stand, let alone be behind the wheel. But there were funny tweets, too, 140 characters detailing seeing a guy in a bunny costume on Whyte Avenue long after Halloween had passed. The officers were sharing not just the tragic things they saw, not just reports of icy roads or drunk drivers, but some of the amusing things they encountered, too. They were open and interactive. They responded to the public, answered questions and became quite utterly human.

There is no doubt there was some risk. It is a fine line to dance, social media and professionalism, but the officers danced it well and they began to develop a solid presence on Twitter. I had always respected police officers, of course, always known they simply did a difficult job, but even I realized they were changing the way I interacted with them, feeling much more at ease the next time an officer pulled me over because of a damaged tail light. She was no longer a uniform – she was a person doing her job, and at the end of that traffic stop I thanked her for all she does for our community.
So last week when my name came up during “cop chat” I was delighted to learn that two of the Edmonton officers on Twitter – Constable Power and Constable Spiker – had recently been recognized for outstanding service based on engagement, and that my 2011 blog post had been submitted as part of their nomination package. That my blog post could have contributed to their recognition made me smile that entire evening, because it is far too rare that we recognize police officers and celebrate them.

It has been awhile since I wrote that blog post but I stand behind it and all I said, perhaps even more so now. I have seen how the Edmonton police officers have integrated in the social media world of Twitter and how that has truly impacted their interaction with members of their community. I have also seen other police forces try to embrace the medium but fail because they are too afraid of the potential harm to take the risk, preferring instead to tweet as an entity but not individuals (and failing to develop those crucial personal connections that foster the humanization of the officers). My respect for the individual officers on Twitter has grown immensely as I have seen them continue to take the risk, knowing they are developing those connections and forging a new path for their colleagues by taking community policing into the sometimes tricky world of social media.
Today I want to congratulate Constables Power and Spiker on their award, as well as thank them and all their colleagues who do a very difficult job every single day. I believe they and the other officers on Twitter are pioneers of a sort who are blazing a trail in community policing, and that is worthy of recognition. I am still smiling, too, as the thought that this humble little blog could contribute to their recognition pleases me beyond words, and so I sit here today quite content, knowing that sometimes something I have written does things and goes places I have never expected or anticipated., like into the world of cop chat.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Legacy of Penhorwood

They have stood there for years now, a stark and troubling reminder of a dark stain on our history. As time has gone on they have become more and more decrepit, no longer home to families but instead the playground of vandals and miscreants armed with cans of spray paint. They have become almost symbolic of development and boomtown ethics gone wrong – and now, thanks to three million dollars from the RMWB, the Penhorwood condominium complex is coming down.

This is a story that began at almost the same time this blog did. In fact one of the first stories I wrote about was the midnight evacuation of hundreds of residents given just minutes to abandon their homes. I still feel a shiver when I think of that as I cannot quite imagine their thoughts; disbelief, anger, fear.
Shortly after it happened I found myself sitting with a structural engineer friend looking at the inspection reports from the complex after I took the rather bold step (I realize in retrospect) of asking the RMWB Department of Planning and Development to show me those documents. I can only imagine what they thought of this request at the time, as I was a simple stay at home mom and nobody really knew me at all back then. I didn’t know what I was looking for or even the right questions to ask, but I hoped I would find some answers in those stacks of documents.

My friend and I sat in an RMWB office reading the documents, and he expressed concern over things he found troubling, but the story was far more complex and far deeper than what could be told from inspection reports. And besides, the real story lay in the people who invested in those buildings, left homeless and without recourse until the dust settled on the court battle, a battle that is nowhere near conclusion as of yet.
The one thing that is nearing conclusion, however, is the physical buildings, the scene of heartbreak and despair and disappointment. These buildings will now come down, taking with them the mold and the graffiti and the blight on our landscape, but what will remain is the memory of this sequence of events and the people it impacted.

I have heard some saying they are sorry the buildings are coming down as without the physical reminder they fear the residents of these buildings will be forgotten. I think, though, that while the buildings served as a physical reminder they were doing us tremendous harm as visitors and new residents looked at them and saw a dark history there. The buildings need to come down – but the history cannot be forgotten. As the adage goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and in a region of significant growth memories can far too often be short and we can forget such incidents – but we cannot allow that to happen, because we cannot allow Penhorwood to happen again.
I am grateful the buildings are coming down, and I am equally grateful our council has taken the step of bearing the responsibility for their destruction as it was long past time for them to go. My only hope is that we do not forget what happened late one night at Penhorwood when people no different from you and I were given mere moments to leave their lives behind, in many cases leaving them with emotional and financial scars that persist to this day and which will likely forever mark their lives. The demolition of Penhorwood will remove the physical stain of those buildings, but it will not remove the stain on our history and nor should it. Penhorwood is part of our history and legacy in this community – and we would do well to remember it, lest we repeat it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

When Hockey Came to My Hometown

I don’t have many memories from when I was very little, when we lived in a very small town in rural Saskatchewan. We left that town when I was six, headed to the “big city” of Saskatoon where I grew up. We left that little town far behind us in many ways, but for me perhaps especially in my memories as I was so young when we left. One of the few memories I have, though, involves an outdoor skating rink.

My memories are more about the sounds than the sights of that rink. I can hear, even now and decades later, the scraping noise of skate blades on ice, the sound of the laughter of my sisters, my father’s voice as he set me down on the ice in my new skates, as trembly and unsteady as a newborn colt. I remember holding his hands, covered in black leather gloves, and I remember after the skate was over him flooding the ice, the sound of water spraying over the ice to make it fresh for the next day or the next skater to come along.
It was the very essence of rural Canadiana; the kind of memory that stays with you for years and that seeps into you every time you see an outdoor rink or hear the sounds of laughter ringing off the rinkboards. It was the memory that came to me this weekend when hockey came to my hometown.

I am a long way away from those days now. My father has been gone for many years – almost a decade, I am often stunned to realize – and it has been far longer than that since he put me on the ice of an outdoor rink. I call another city home, one a bit further north and both a bit larger than the small town where I once lived and a bit smaller than the city where I grew up. But this weekend, when Hometown Hockey made a stop in Fort McMurray, I was taken back a very long way, into memories of an outdoor rink and Saturday nights spent with my dad in front of an enormous box of a television where we would watch hockey. He may have always driven green Deere tractors and blue Ford cars, but this farmer father of mine bled blue and white when it came to hockey, an ardent fan of the Maple Leafs for his entire life and a preference he passed on to his youngest daughter.
I would not call myself a huge hockey fan, although of any sport it is perhaps the one about which I know the most. For me though it is not about the sport itself but the passion of the people involved, like the little players no older than I was the first time my father put me on the ice on an outdoor rink in a tiny little town in rural Saskatchewan. It is why I found myself smiling last week when I discovered myself face to face with the Stanley Cup, the Holy Grail of hockey. How fitting it seemed to me that I encountered it in a tiny dressing room just off the Terry Conroy Mini-Ice at the Suncor Community Leisure Centre, as my journey of the last few years took me down a path where I learned a great deal about Terry and how he was one of the founders of ice sports in our community, including the backyard rink he created every year where local children could play out their own hockey dreams. As I stood and gazed at the silver cup, etched not only with names but with decades and decades of history, I could not help but think how it was truly part of Terry’s legacy to find this cup so close to the ice surface that now carries his name, and how he might have felt to know that a group of very young hockey players were about to see that cup just before stepping out onto the ice that honours his memory.

It is why when I wandered around the Hometown Hockey site – dotted with dozens of activities and events of every kind – I found myself grinning widely, listening as the sounds of children’s laughter echoed through the parking lot of the recreation centre where I am now so very fortunate to work. I went from tent to tent, observing quietly as the residents of my community – my hometown – celebrated hockey, our favourite national sport. I watched as Canadian icon Ron MacLean inspired young hockey players with his banter about the sport, and I grinned even wider when a friend texted to tell me that even though he and his son had been down the day before they were coming back as his son had so loved Hometown Hockey that he had asked to come back.
I didn’t meet Ron MacLean or Lanny McDonald. I didn’t take a selfie with the Stanley Cup, and I didn’t lace up my skates. I was too lost in reverie for those things, my mind racing with memories long forgotten and tucked away, of a cold winter night when I could see my breath on the air and my skates touched ice for the very first time while I held my father’s hands. I found myself back on an outdoor rink in a tiny town called Reward, the crisp sound of skates scraping on the ice ringing in my mind. Hometown Hockey came to my hometown, but it took me back to another hometown from a long time ago and very far away, a place and time I hadn’t thought of for a very, very long time. I may not be a hockey player, and perhaps not even a huge hockey fan – but I think like every other Canadian there is a ribbon that runs through my heart that is tied to a memory of ice and winter and skates, and, yes, hockey, a sport that I may have never played but that has clearly touched my life and reminds me of days – and people – long gone.

This morning I stopped to put gas in my car, the most mundane of tasks and one I do not relish in the early morning when the temperatures are cold. A truck drove in across from me, and from it emerged a man wearing a toque proudly emblazoned with the Hometown Hockey logo. I finished pumping my gas, stepped back into my car and held my frozen fingers in front of the heater to warm them – and I smiled, lost in memories once more of a time with my father long gone but as fresh in my mind as if it happened yesterday, and then I drove away, headed for another day in my hometown.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The IJB Finds Nerdvana

When your kid hits a certain age you begin to wonder what exactly it will take to drag them out of the basement. I remember a lot about being a teen, but I forgot about the inertia that sets in at about the age of 15, when many teens develop a strong attachment to the sofa in the basement and cannot be pried away from it other than for things like school and the occasional shower. I certainly didn't expect to become the caretaker of my own basement dweller, but it has happened as the Intrepid Junior Blogger has, over the last few months, developed a serious case of basement-dweller-itis.

Now, to give her some credit, part of it is because of her increased work load due to her Advanced Placement classes. But this, combined with cold weather and the onset of teenage inertia, have led to a situation where one needs a crowbar to pry her out of the basement - or at least a very large enticement. I have found one recently, though, as the IJB and I made a visit to a new local retail outlet and she was impressed enough to suggest weekly visits (meaning weekly trips out of the basement!) might be in order. The store in question? Nerdvana.

Now, I must admit that the IJB has some pretty obscure interests. As she says "she lives on the internet", and she is a self-described "nerd", loving nothing more than superheroes, episodes of Dr. Who (both recent and very old) and books that are the shape and size of door stops (she has read the entire Game of Thrones series - twice). Her room (and to be honest the family room in the basement which she has taken over) are filled with paraphernalia related to her interests, ranging from posters to figurines, and her wardrobe consists almost entirely of t-shirts which are mostly inexplicable to people like me - which is probably why Nerdvana, a store of comics, hobbies and collectibles, has caught her fancy so easily.

Nerdvana is a business adventure launched by some local young residents who have undoubtedly taken a risk to fill a niche market in our community. This little store is jam-packed with every kind of pop culture trinket and item, from comics to collectible figurines. There is something for everyone (even I am drawn to some of the items, including the superhero drinking mugs) and there is most certainly more than one thing for people like the IJB, who left the store on her first visit with her arms loaded down with a Dire Wolf stuffy, a Game of Thrones card deck, an Assassins Creed figurine and a string of Tardis lights. She actually chuckled as she left, practically rubbing her hands with glee at her haul of goods, things she would normally be buying online (leaving her mother to pay things like custom and duties, of course).

As I followed her around I began making mental notes of items I was going back to pick up for Christmas for her (and ok, even a couple of things for me). I noted the store was hopping, too, with several customers who had the same sort of expression on their face as the IJB. The store might be called "Nerdvana" but it is clearly a form of Nirvana for pop culture types like the IJB, who pronounced something astonishing on the way home.

"I think we should go back every week," she said.

"Uh, you will have to get off the sofa," I said. "And get dressed," looking at her with some degree of skepticism as these things often seem a bit beyond her these days.

She was grinning as she replied, staring out the window. "It's worth it to go to Nerdvana."

And so I found out how one gets a teen off the sofa and out of the basement. All it takes is a little store stocked by people who understand the niche market they are filling, who take the leap of faith to pay the rent, buy the stock and hire the staff, and who put out an "open" sign, welcoming in people like the IJB. It might have been her first visit to Nerdvana, but it almost certainly won't be our last, as evidenced by her final comment on the ride home.

A long sigh, followed by: "I should have gotten the other Dire Wolf. Next time, I guess." And so next time it will be.

You can find Nerdvana at
8318 Fraser Avenue,
follow them on Twitter
and on Facebook at

Friday, November 21, 2014

The IJB and the GSA - Leading the Way

She came home from school one day and announced she was joining a club. In fact, she would be one of the founding members, as it was a new club at her school. I was intrigued as she had said she didn’t have time for extra activities this year, having foregone auditioning for the school drama production to instead focus on her Advanced Placement studies. This club, though, had captured her interest and passion enough to make her decide to carve out the time for it. It was her school’s new GSA.

Gay-Straight Alliances have become a bit of a hot topic in our province recently. These groups are collectives of students who work together to foster better relationships between students of different sexual orientations. They have been shown to be extremely beneficial, particularly to gay and transgender students, helping them to navigate the teen years which can be difficult and tumultuous regardless of your sexual orientation. GSAs allow students to come together and build on their similarities as opposed to delineating their differences, support each other, come to new understandings of each other and work together to encourage welcoming and open school environments for students of all demographics.
I was incredibly proud of the Intrepid Junior Blogger when she shared the news of her new group with me. One of the most important values I have always wanted for my daughter was to see people as equals regardless of any differences between them. I wanted her to always understand that what makes us similar is far greater than what makes us different and to always work to ensure that all people felt included and valued. When I told her that GSAs are the subject of some controversy she had one reaction: “Why do you people have to make such a big freaking deal out of everything? It’s a student group like Model UN or Yearbook or the basketball team. Adults overthink EVERYTHING” – and I suppose she is quite right, too.
The reality I have come to understand is that the IJB views the world – and sexuality – quite differently than people of my generation do. When I told her that someone close to us was transgender her only response was “that’s cool”, with no explanation or discussion required. She casually describes people she knows as “mostly straight” or “mostly gay”, explaining to me that sexual orientation is not always an either/or but a sliding scale from gay to straight and all points in between. It is the ease with which she discusses it, though, that surprises me a bit as there is no hint of judgement, no undertone of what is normal and what is not, not even a whiff that she sees any sexual orientation as better or worse or even different – they just are what they are.
I am a huge supporter of the concept of Gay-Straight Alliances. I believe anything that makes our schools more inclusive for all students and that promotes stronger relationships between our children is a positive step. I remember my own teen years well and I know that small things, such as a GSA, can have a huge impact on your life and your sense of belonging and community. I also happen to support Laurie Blakeman, Liberal MLA who recently introduced Bill 202 in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. Bill 202, the Safe and Inclusive Schools Act, would compel school boards to allow students to form Gay-Straight Alliances of the exact kind the IJB has helped to found in her school. I am proud to say that Don Scott, the PC MLA for whom the IJB worked during his 2012 campaign, has voted in favour of GSAs when the topic was last debated in April of this year. The IJB was very pleased when I told her this, but decidedly less pleased when I noted other MLAs were not quite so supportive of the concept of allowing students to form GSAs if they chose to do so.
“Someday this won’t even be a question, Mom,” she said. “Someday it will just be normal and nobody will need to debate and vote on the right of students and citizens to form groups to support other students and citizens,” she says, boiling things right down to their essence as she is prone to do. And that is exactly it – who are we as adults to tell her what groups she can and cannot form? At fifteen she has her own view of the world and while it may be different from mine it is no less valid or worthy of recognition.
She told me a bit about what her GSA is up to these days. I told her what is going on with the new bill before our provincial leaders. You see, young people like the IJB are watching our leaders carefully these days, looking to see if they have yet grasped the concept that the world is not quite the way it was when they were in high school and that students like her will one day be the ones in the chairs in legislative assemblies and making the decisions. She is watching to see if they are ready to “come of age” in the way she has done, accepting and inclusive of all people regardless of their differences. She is watching to see if our leaders truly represent her – and I would contend that if Bill 202 fails she will see it as a failure to represent the youth of her generation, the ones who are founding Gay-Straight Alliances and the future voters – and leaders – of our province and country.
Sometimes when I talk to the IJB the phrase I hear in my head is this: “and a little child shall lead them”. There are so many times I realize that if we simply stopped talking and began listening to our young adults we would see that so many of the things we think are controversial or that we “overthink” are far simpler than we believe. If we let them lead us – let them form GSAs, empower them to do the things they feel passionate about – they will show us the way. The way we grow leaders is to allow them to lead, even when they are leading us in new directions.
One day the IJB and her peers will be our provincial and national leaders. Last night, though, as we talked I looked at her face, so sincere as she talked about her new GSA, and I realized that maybe, just maybe, they already are, and on this occasion we simply need to take a leap of faith, and follow them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

On the Home Route Once Again

As I sit there and the music washes over me in waves I realize how long it has been since I felt this way. It is astonishing in some ways how we can become so entangled in the net of our own lives that we lose the very anchors of who we are – and yet that has been true for me in the latter part of this year.

Since early this summer I have been battling a series of health issues all centred around my eye. It began in early June with a flare of the eye disease I have come to know well in the last 15 years, but this time around there were new twists and turns to navigate, including a bout of cellulitis this summer that required a stint on IV antibiotics and then, in September, a spontaneous corneal perforation that led to a week spent in Edmonton, an hour in an operating room to place medical-grade crazy glue in my eye to seal the hole, a loss of vision and a new relationship with a corneal specialist.
To say it has been a long journey would be an understatement.

I have dealt with pain that ranged from a dull ache to a stabbing sensation that stretched from my cornea to deep within my head. I have dealt with fear when I spent days unable to write as the pain from staring at a screen was simply too powerful – and writing is not only the source of my income but of much of my happiness and self-worth. I have dealt with anxiety over missing days from work, over worry about whether my vision in my left eye will ever return (still uncertain) and over a future that changed, quite literally, in the blink of an eye.
When you are dealing with a illness – physical or mental – your world can become very small and it does so out of necessity, not choice. My focus for these months has been my tenuous recovery, my daughter, my zoo and my job. I ran into someone who commented they had not seen me in months and of course it was true because my former lifestyle of “be everywhere, do everything” dwindled down to “lie on sofa, do nothing but the essential” – but as I began to recover and reclaim some of my former energy (if not quite yet my vision) I did not realize how small my world had become – until last night.

I have been incredibly fortunate to find some new friends along this blogging journey. Matt and Aileen happen to be two of them, hosts of a home concert series called “Home Routes” where musicians play right in their living room to a small and enthusiastic audience of attendees. I missed the first two concerts this season but last night I dragged myself off the sofa and was there to see and hear the magic of two musicians, Ken Hamm and Linda McRae.
Ken was up first, his bluesy style, powerful voice and storytelling ability the perfect beginning to an evening of personal renewal. As he shared the stories of his life journey, from playing in bars across the country to stints as a deck hand on a fishing boat, I thought about my own journey, both before and after this blog began. When Linda took the stage it became even more clear to me that being there last night was somehow a fated event for me, written in the stars, as she sang and spoke of a life journey that had taken her from Canada to Nashville and into a prison to work with inmates on creative writing and song creation. Her songs and stories spoke of a life lived not with expectations of a certain destination but a sense of wonder and discovery, never knowing where it may lead but being open to the possibilities. She sang of rough edges and ragged hearts and of being your own light, sentiments I know well after my own life journey of the last few years.

I don’t know where anyone else went in their minds as they listened last night but as the music washed over me I found myself back in Ireland in a tiny cemetery, centuries old and where the most recent leg of this life journey of mine truly began. I realized how much I need to go back there because I know my journey there is not over, and I know I have a great deal to write about that part of the path I have travelled.
But what I realized most was that over the past few months I had spent a great deal of time lamenting what I had lost: days spent in pain and fear, time I could not regain; special events I was unable to attend; and, most of all, the vision in my left eye. What I had failed to do, though, was to see the things I had gained from this experience: an even stronger relationship with my daughter as she had to occasionally take on a more adult role; knowing I had a support group of family. friends and colleagues who would see me through not only the best but the worst times of my life; a new understanding of the depths of my own stubbornness and a growing suspicion that the universe, and perhaps the creator if there is one, was working to teach me one virtue I sorely lack, being patience; and a realization that however imperfect I may be my one truly redeeming quality may be my resilience and refusal to give up no matter what the fight or the size of my foe. I had spent far too much time in the dark, as if I was blind in both eyes and not just one. It was time to once again be my own light, just as Linda sang in front of an enthralled audience, gathered together in the intimate setting of the home of dear friends.

I could continue to “wax poetic” about Ken and Linda, but suffice to say their music, their stories and their simple gentle presence was the balm this weary heart and soul needed this year. It may have been a simple house concert to some, but to me these house concerts always touch a part of me that is often hidden. Songwriters and musicians are quite simply writers with the additional gift of knowing how to set their words to music, observers who share their thoughts with their world through their songs as opposed to on paper and a screen as I do. Last night I felt connected, energized and, for the first time in a very long time, peaceful.
Today I see the world through refreshed eyes, although only one eye can truly “see” anything at all. In my mind’s eye, though, it is all much clearer now. The haze that covered my mind, if not my eye, has finally lifted and I can see the world, and all the possibilities, again. There had been some detours and twists in the road, but I was headed on the right route once again - going home.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Giving Up the Game of Whack-A-Mole

Not that long ago I wrote that the external media interest in our region seemed to have waned a bit, but it seems the interest has begun to spark again and stories about Fort McMurray are popping up all over the place, much like those pesky moles at carnival “Whack-A-Mole” games. Two recently caught my attention, as I was interviewed for one and the other referred to a hashtag that originated in this very blog.

Earlier this year I was contacted by an Italian journalist regarding the possibility of an interview about Fort McMurray. I went through the usual things I go through about such requests: whether it was worth my time; whether it would be a negative or positive piece; if I would be misquoted, misunderstood or misled; and in the end I agreed as I always do as any opportunity to tell my narrative of my life in Fort McMurray is one I will take.
I met with Samuele Bariani at MacDonald Island Park, and we spoke while the sounds of the annual community Easter brunch held there drifted up to where we sat on the concourse above. Samuele’s English was good (my Italian is non-existent) but on occasion we struggled with phrases and idioms with which he was unfamiliar. It was a good chat, though, and while I had the distinct impression that his story would not be a positive depiction of our industry or our community I knew I had successfully managed to share with him my story of life here, and that it was a perspective he had not yet heard. He seemed surprised by my love for my community and by the fact I called it home, but I was pleased when I read the article he penned as he managed to capture my sentiments fairly well. The article, which is written in Italian, is not a positive piece, but I appreciated his willingness and interest in hearing another side, even if he was a bit dismissive of my perspective on my home. You can find the article here, although you will need a language translator to have it make sense (and even then some of the translation is a bit puzzling as some things are, quite simply, lost in translation).

The second article appears in a magazine that is actually one of my favourite publications. Outside magazine is one I have read for some time, so it was with keen interest that I read this piece on oil sands development and in particular the impact on First Nations people. I was particularly interested that the author mentioned the hashtag #myhiroshima, which originated in this blog, and ascribed its use to “industry backers and mine employees”, neither of which I am. I managed to find the author on Twitter, not to challenge him or his piece, but to explain the genesis of the hashtag, why it was developed and who used it, meaning members of this community who may be “industry backers and mine employees” but who also happen to call this place home. The discussion that evolved led me to inviting him to further discuss our community to provide another perspective to him, an offer I am hopeful he will accept.
When I first began this blog I was a very different person in many ways. I found journalists intimidating and often felt inadequate when speaking to them – after all, what did I know compared to them, as many of them lived in exotic places, had travelled the world and written stories for publications I bought at the grocery store. What could I possibly bring to them? Instead of going to them directly I would confront them in oblique ways, with posts about their work and laments about what they had written.  And then one day it hit me – I might not live in Italy and I might not write for Outside magazine and I might just be a single mom in a small city in northern Canada, but I had one thing the journalists did not: I had my story of my life in a community that is often written about but little understood. I have a perspective that is true and authentic and valid, and I have a desire to share it with others to foster a better and fuller understanding of Fort McMurray as a community. I leave discussions of industry and the environment to others, but when it came to discussing this community I did have something to offer, because I was part of it and over time it has become a fundamental part of me.

I no longer find journalists or camera crews or celebrities intimidating. If they are interested in listening and if they want to hear the narrative I have to tell I will tell them, because it is an opportunity to share the story of a place that I believe has needed storytellers for some time and that this storyteller needed in return. They may not like my story; they may dismiss it as a narrative from someone too naive or too immersed to see the reality – but it is my story and I have become very comfortable sharing it. I suppose once upon a time I viewed those journalists much like the moles, wishing for a hammer to whack them down, but now instead I welcome them in for a cup of coffee and a dialogue about my home and community. It is, quite frankly, a much more satisfying game.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Getting Schooled by the IJB

It isn’t always easy living with a teen genius, you know.

I don’t call her that to brag, incidentally, but it has become increasingly clear to me that when it comes to the IQ factor in our house there is someone who comes out on top and it isn’t me or the pets. The Intrepid Junior Blogger is quickly outstripping us all in the smarts department, often leaving the rest of us staring after her with gaping mouths (well, at least me, the cats seem more nonplussed about it all).
This weekend the IJB and I were discussing the recent controversy surrounding the landing of a robot on a comet. Now, this doesn’t seem like much of a topic of debate, but while the some of the focus was on the remarkable achievement in space exploration a great deal of it also centred on a scientist who chose to speak to media about the accomplishment while wearing a decidedly tacky shirt featuring scantily clad women. The debate swirled around the “sexism” of that shirt and its potential impact on women in the sciences – a topic in which the IJB has keen interest, as she plans a future in engineering physics and hopes to one day do things like, you know, land robots on comets.

After she explained to me the details of the landing at length (while my eyes glazed over slightly as the depth of her explanation quickly left me in the dust – if you would like to learn more I can lend her to you for a couple of hours and I can guarantee you will be able to intelligently discuss comet landings like nobody’s business) I broached the shirt topic with her as some of those deeming it offensive were commenting that it might deter young women like the IJB from entering the sciences. So, having a teen genius and future scientist of the female gender in my kitchen I decided to take the radical step of asking her what she thought.
I admit she learned to snort from me, not a polite habit perhaps but a useful expression. Her snort was loud and long as she expressed what she thought of this offensive-shirt theory.

“Mom,” she said, “I see worse than that on the internet every day. That anyone thinks that would keep me from studying the sciences is the offensive part,” she pronounced. “I’m not some weak little thing who can’t handle the sight of almost- naked women on a shirt.”
“Besides, we landed a robot on a comet, does nobody get what that means for the future?” – and she meandered off into a glowing description about what this meant in terms of the future of space exploration. “Does anybody really think this shirt thing is that big a deal in comparison?” she said, shaking her head at the nonsensical nature of it all.

And then the kicker, right before she trotted downstairs to play online video games with hordes of young men probably wearing t-shirts with scantily clad women on them: “As for it stopping girls like me from entering the sciences – any chance your generation could stop dragging us into your over-dramatic neurotic shit and stop telling us what we think?”
And off she went to battle dragons and demons and boys who will likely one day be her peers and colleagues and who she sees as no different from herself in any regard. You see I have known for some time that the IJB is fundamentally blind – blind to colour, gender, religion, race and sexual orientation, seeing no real difference between individuals. She doesn’t view the world as female or male, straight or gay or bisexual, or Christian or Muslim or atheist – she sees every person as a person and no more or no less deserving of respect and dignity. And if she views the world this way perhaps it means she isn’t alone and that much of her generation sees it this way, too, with those distinctions many of us adults still see withering away as the lines have blurred and the divisions that have kept us apart become smaller and smaller in light of our global community. I don’t know the explanation, to be honest – all I know is the firmness of her sentiment and her insistence that she is far from the only young adult to think this way.

I admit she left me in the kitchen open-mouthed and a bit dumbfounded – but hopeful, too. She sees so many of the things we “adults” (likely meaning anyone over the age of 20) argue about to be so beside the point, so utterly absurd and time wasting that she cannot believe the effort we expend. Perhaps in the hands – and minds – of young adults like her we will one day truly be able to see a shirt as simply tacky and a bad fashion choice rather than sexist or any other sort of "ist" and not worry that it will influence anyone in any regard other than vowing to never wear one to preserve their fashion dignity.
It isn’t always easy living with a teen genius, you see. But most days I learn something I didn’t know the day before and somehow the roles of teacher and student have reversed as instead of me introducing her into my world she slowly reveals more of hers to me. I am a slow learner, to be certain, but this weekend she brought me up to speed. I got schooled by the IJB – and it was quite the educational experience, too.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sharing Paul's Story

Once in awhile I get a message from a reader that actually takes my breath away. When that message is accompanied by a request to share the story on this blog on occasion I pause, reluctant to share something so deeply personal with a wider audience. I find myself asking them, and myself, if they are sure they want to share their story – and in this case my correspondent was insistent. He asked if perhaps I could “write it better” as he did not finish high school (for reasons you will learn) and while I think his writing needed no editing I agreed to his request. Please note I did not edit out the profanity, so be advised there is some colourful language.

He also asked I keep his identity private, and I will most certainly do so, as what he has shared took courage and I am so grateful he chose to share it with me, and you. This is his story – let’s call him Paul.
McMurray Musings

Paul’s Story
I read the story you wrote about that little girl who killed herself because she was bullied and I cried. I’m a big guy, not much for showing my feelings, but when I read that I cried a lot because it took me back a long time ago to my own experience with bullying. It was a terrible time in my life, but it was a different for me – because I wasn’t the bullied. I was the bully.

My old man used to hit me a lot. In fact he hit all of us, my brothers and I, pretty much every day. I just thought that’s the way it was – his whole family was like that, my uncles hit their kids too. He used to tell stories about how his dad used to beat him and how he let us get off easy, although it sure didn’t feel easy at the time. He hit my mom, too, but that’s how you kept women in line, he said. And as my brothers and I got older he would encourage us to hit each other, especially me and my little brother who was a year younger than me but bigger than me, too. He would tell me to punch “that little bastard” to show him who was in charge. We never got in trouble for using our fists on each other. That was just how life in our house was.
The neighbours called the cops once because of all “the noise”. When the cop came my dad told him that a house full of boys was bound to be noisy, and the cop said he had his own boys and understood. After the cop left my dad went to the neighbour’s house – I don’t know what happened, but they never called the cops again and they avoided our family until they moved.

When my brothers and I went to school there wasn’t much talk about bullies, at least not in any real way. Even if there was I wouldn’t have gotten it, because I wasn’t a bully. I was just the kid who grew up punching and kept punching right through school. Oh, there was a couple of kids I “picked on” because they rubbed me the wrong way. I would take their stuff, I would knock them down and I pretty much made their lives hell because it was easy to do. Those kids were too scared to tell anyone, too, because I was a big kid and well, my brothers and I might fight each other but we stuck together, too.
Everybody pretty much turned a blind eye to what was going on in those days. Nobody noticed that my brothers and I were always covered in bruises and nobody stopped me from picking on those kids. It wasn’t until high school when I got suspended because I hit a teacher.

I figured that asshole deserved it. I don’t remember what he said but it made me mad and I popped him one. I got suspended for that and I just never went back. And then, a couple of years later, I met the wife.
By then I had pretty much cut ties with the old man – as he got older he just got meaner. I had moved out, was working as a mechanic and I couldn’t handle his moods anymore. My brothers had all left too, scattering all over the place, including one who ended up in jail for beating up a bouncer at a bar.

The wife and I got married pretty soon after we met. She met a couple of my brothers and she called them rough, but then again she thought I was pretty rough, too. But I was pretty gentle with her, although when I got angry I could use a lot of mean words. I never hit her like my dad hit my mom, because I always figured hitting women was something weak men did. Real men beat up other men, not women. That was until she was pregnant with our first kid, and I came home drunk one night after spending the evening with the boys at the bar. She was angry, we fought and I almost hit her.
The next day I woke up hungover and found my bags packed and on the front step. She sat at the kitchen table and told me I had two choices: get help or get gone. And she called me a bully.

A bully? What the hell was that? I was just a strong man who grew up fighting. I wasn’t a bully. But I wanted to hang onto the wife and my kid so I chose the one option that I hated but made the most sense.
I got help.

I have now been seeing a therapist for more years than I want to tell you. At first it was often, now I go every couple of months because the wife and I have a deal – if I ever stop going regularly I have to get gone. I don’t think with my fists anymore but it’s still there, that first reaction to hit someone when shit doesn’t go my way. But I haven’t hit anyone since she gave me that choice, and I have never hit her or my kids.
I don’t let my kids hit each other, either. My kids aren’t growing up like I did, because I don’t want my kids to be bullies, like I was. Because now I know I was a bully, too, all my life.

So I cried when I read about that little girl, because what if I did that? What if one of those kids I “picked on” – meaning bullied the hell out of – killed themselves because of me? What if I was the reason someone took their own life? I won’t defend what I did to those kids because it was dead wrong – but it took me years with a counselor to understand that, and to understand what my dad did to me and my brothers and my mom.
My mom is dead, and I haven’t seen my dad in years. One of my brothers is dead, too, and I only keep in touch with my younger brother now because he got help a few years ago too. The other ones, I don’t even know where they are now.

I don’t know why I am telling you this. Only the wife knows this stuff, and knows that I was a bully – and like a drunk I guess I will always be one, just a recovering bully instead of a practicing one. I just had to tell you because maybe you can share it with the people who read your blog and see inside the mind of at least one bully. Just don’t use my name, because I don’t want my kids to know their dad was a mean bastard for most of his life. But I know I was. I will always know that and I will take it to the grave with me, because nothing I do will ever change that.
I’m so sorry about that little girl. I’m sorry to the kids I hurt, too. Nothing I do will ever make it better, either. That part is what bugs me the most, because I can never undo the things I did. I hate the old man for what he did to me and my brothers but I try not to blame him too much because he just lived what he had learned. But like my therapist says you need to break the cycle, and I hope I am doing that with my kids. I hope they are never bullies like their old man. I hope they never hate me, either.

Thanks for writing about bullying. Thanks for listening to me. I don’t know if it will help you or anyone else, but it feels good as hell to finally tell someone this story. I know when I go see my counselor I will be talking about that little girl, because I need to work through my feelings on that. But at least now I know how to do that, because I learned to actually feel instead of coming out swinging. So thank you – and bless you, because a few years ago I found God again. He helped me to understand that even mean sons of bitches can change and deserve love. Between the wife, the therapist, the kids and God I think I finally believe that, too. Keep writing about bullying – but don’t forget about the bullies. Some of them, maybe not all, but some of them, are probably a lot like me. I pray for that little girl and her family – and I pray for the bullies, too, because once a long time ago I was one, and Lord knows I hope someone was praying for me.
God bless you,


Tuesday, November 11, 2014


In Flanders fields the poppies blow

I remember Remembrance Day ceremonies as a child, not  yet fully understanding a world where on occasion war was necessary and the sacrifices made were ones that had allowed the freedom I enjoyed.

Between the crosses, row on row,          
I remember learning my father had tried to volunteer for service during WW II, a young German-Canadian farm boy who was underage for the military and rejected due to his flat feet. I only learned of his attempt to join after his death as he never spoke of it when he was alive.
That mark our place: and in the sky
I remember the first time I heard her recite the famous poem about poppies when she was in elementary school and realizing that she too was at the age where she did not yet understand the true meaning of those poppies and that day.
The larks still bravely singing fly
I remember visiting London and seeing centuries old buildings pockmarked by bits of shrapnel from bombs, a stark reminder of a time when the world shivered in fear at the sound of airplanes.
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

I remember running my hands across those buildings and watching her small white hands do the same, watching as understanding dawned in that young mind as she began to see the physical remnants of war.
We are the dead: Short days ago,

Instead of the usual annual Remembrance Day ceremony I find myself instead on a bus looking out over a wide snowy white expanse dotted with farm houses and small towns, each and every one of them the beneficiary of acts of sacrifice few of us can imagine and even fewer can now recall. There are no poppies in sight on the fields outside, but the poppies are vibrant and bright in my mind.
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

I find an image of ceramic poppies spilling out of the Tower of London, a place I visited and that resonated deeply with me in ways I have yet to fully comprehend. The expanse of red poppies ceases to be individual poppies and instead begins to resemble a sea of blood, shed to preserve freedom.
Loved and were loved: and now we lie
At 11 am on November 11 I close my eyes and the words of a poem dance in my head, surrounded by bright red poppies flowing in waves.
In Flanders fields!  

I remember.


Friday, November 7, 2014

Honouring Morgan

When I first began writing this blog almost four years ago I cried a lot.

I often found myself in tears at events with people staring at me, and on occasion I realized people were actually waiting to see if I cried as my habit of wearing my emotions on my sleeve (and my face) was becoming quite well known. Almost 1000 blog posts and almost four years later I don’t cry nearly as often, at least not in public. I learned to keep those feelings in another place, still present but a bit more tucked away for private reflection.
Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I cried again.

I had heard the story already but had been reluctant to write about it, unwilling to do anything that could add to the suffering of a family already experiencing a searing kind of pain and loss. I feared anything I wrote would simply magnify their pain and I was so hesitant to do so, but yesterday I saw they opened their hearts to the public so we could all learn from their tragedy.
This year in June a very young woman in our community, not much younger than the Intrepid Junior Blogger, took her own life. She was only thirteen.

I remember being thirteen and being in Grade 6, because that was the year I was bullied by a group of other young adults who took great pleasure in tormenting me. The abuse went on until I finished Grade 8 and began high school, where I was able to disappear into a much larger crowd of students and my bullies moved on to new targets. It was the late 70’s and bullying was not talked about much back then – in fact I never told my parents or siblings or anyone else about the bullying, because I felt I had no recourse. I had changed schools for Grade 6 as we had moved to a new neighbourhood and while the kids in my old school were still very much kids the ones at the new school were far more sophisticated – they were dating and kissing and way further along in their development to young adulthood, and I simply didn’t fit in. In those pre-internet days, though, I was able to escape my bullies every night and weekend by going home and closing my door, because it was my refuge from them. In this era of social media there is no such refuge, and the bullying continues unabated as the bullies move their activity online and right into the homes and hearts of their victims.
We talk a great deal about bullying now, a far cry from what we did decades ago when I was thirteen. In some ways I think we have diluted the discussion as far too often people claim “bullying” when dealing with conflicts between adults, diminishing the true nature and impact of bullying on our children. The reality is adults have resources, experience and skills our young adults and children simply don’t have. We need to ensure we do not dilute or diminish the true nature and impact of bullying, and part of that may be ensuring we are not using the term too easily or too freely when doing so could lessen our understanding of what true bullying is – and what it can lead to.

Perhaps the most troubling part of this story is that Morgan ‘s parents sought help for her and were unable to find it. It is an indictment of our health care system that she was unable to access the assistance she needed in a timely manner and that she carried her pain alone for so very long.
In fact I feel this story is a story of our collective failure. We failed to help a young woman in need. We failed her and her family. This family came to Fort McMurray – my community – to call it home and build a life. And in this new home they lost their child, in a way that could have – and should have – been prevented.

I extend my deepest sympathies and condolences to the Dunbar family as they are living an experience beyond what I can imagine. This loss, though, goes far beyond their family and right into the heart of our community as when a young adult chooses to end their life we have all lost something profoundly special and unique. This is the kind of loss that rips at the fabric of our community and that speaks to our need to not only have open and frank conversations about bullying but about the lack of mental health care services for young adults and our own role in allowing these situations to occur. It is tragic that it takes the loss of a beautiful young woman to start that dialogue, but it would be even more tragic if we neglected this dialogue for a moment longer.
As the parent of a young woman I know what a long journey it is to raise a child. You get them through the childhood diseases, high fevers and visits to the ER. By the time they hit young adulthood you think you have managed to get them through all the major threats, never truly understanding that the biggest threat to them may not be physical diseases but the trials and tribulations of navigating a world that can be harsh and unkind, especially to gentle souls who are young and fragile.

You never, ever want to believe that your child could take their own life. That this occurred recently in our own community should be our clarion call to action: to a stronger stance on bullying in our schools and online, to a stronger health care system to provide support to young adults who can fall through the cracks and to speaking to the young adults in our lives about bullying, mental health and suicide.
I don’t cry very often anymore, but last night I went to sleep in tears thinking about a young woman gone far too soon and in a way that should have never happened. I am so very sorry that we as a society failed Morgan and her family. There is no way to bring her back or to lessen their pain – but perhaps we can each pledge to never allow ourselves or our community to fail another young person again. Maybe that is the pledge we can each make to honour her legacy and keep her memory alive. Too little perhaps, and too late for Morgan – but maybe just in time and just enough to save the life of another.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Stop Staring

When I suffered a spontaneous corneal perforation two months ago, a rare event, I truly didn’t understand what a learning journey this would be. A week in Edmonton, a trip to the OR, some crazy glue in my eye and eight weeks later and I have some tales to tell about this experience. The most fascinating aspect, though, has been what happens when you suffer an incident that causes a visible change in your appearance, and how people react to it.

There is no denying that for some time the appearance of my eye was less than normal. The dot of glue sealing the perforation is quite visible, but it was the accompanying inflammation that really affected the appearance of my eye. It went from looking fairly normal to looking zombie legit in a matter of hours, and the reactions of others have been intriguing. One of the most common reactions, though, has led me to share one simple rule of etiquette and behaviour:
Stop staring.

Staring is rarely good etiquette, but I am stunned at how people seem to have forgotten this social nicety and when seeing something unusual have a tendency to stare (often open mouthed, which doesn’t help). After two months of having strangers stare at my eye I have realized how prevalent this behaviour is. Now, children might stare but they do so with such open curiosity that it is forgivable. They often follow it with a question, too, like “Does that hurt?” or “What is wrong with your eye?” which I answer with good humour and honesty.
It is the adults who simply stare, though. It is a rare and refreshing person who simply asks what is going on and if I am ok, and those are the ones I commend for their bravery and decency. But the ones who just stare drive me a bit bonkers, because they know they are staring and I know they are staring and neither of us says anything (ok, on occasion I do say something, and it usually isn’t nice and references exposure to strange viruses, but honestly I can’t help myself).

I have spoken to friends who have children with some sort of visible difference in their appearance and they too share tales of having their children stared at and the pain it causes them and the child. It might not seem like a big deal, but it is and I know this because when my eye was at its worst I was already terribly self-conscious about its appearance and the staring simply made it that much worse.
I recognize that it may be a natural human reaction, but part of etiquette is about dealing with those natural human reactions which may be less than polite. I can’t think of many instances where staring is appropriate, so if you find yourself staring it might be a good time to check yourself and consider the feelings of the one being stared at. As someone on the receiving end of countless stares due to an eye disease that is beyond my control I can safely say it is at best an uncomfortable experience, and at worst an infuriating one.

So that’s my public service announcement for the week. Stop staring, people. Just trust me on this one.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Genovese Syndrome - Or "The Bystanders on the Bus" - in Fort McMurray

On occasion I read stories about incidents in our community that trouble me deeply, as a resident, woman and parent. This story from yesterday, detailing an incident that occurred on one of our municipal buses, is just such a story. It disturbs me on many levels, but particularly as the parent of a young woman almost the same age as the victim of this assault. And it disturbs me most because it appears this incident did not occur on an empty bus, but on one which contained other passengers who did not intervene, leaving the victim to not only fend for herself but to obtain evidence of the identity of the man who assaulted her. All I could think on reading this story is that we are better than this.

There are many questions to be asked, like where the bus driver was when this incident occurred. It only takes minutes for a sexual assault to occur – or a stabbing, or another act of violence - and the absence of the bus driver troubles me deeply. But I am also troubled by the lack of intervention by the other passengers on the bus.
There are those who may argue that perhaps the other passengers were unaware of what was happening, but if we are honest I think most of us have been in situations where we knew something was not quite right, even if we were not entirely certain why. I am the kind of person who calls for help even in those uncertain times, because I would rather be wrong and have intervened unnecessarily than be right and have done nothing. And I don’t mean one has to intervene in a way that risks harm to yourself, as you can dial 911 or even just call for the help of others as a crowd of individuals has a collective strength.

There is a recognized phenomenon in human psychology that is dubbed the “Genovese syndrome”. It refers to the sad case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was murdered in New York in 1964. Dozens of bystanders did little to intervene, and the case entered history as an example of the tendency of witnesses to such assaults being reluctant to intervene, and the myriad reasons behind such reluctance. At the end of the day, though, a young woman was dead and it appeared no one had truly done anything to try to save her life.
I don’t want to be too harsh on the individuals on this bus who appear to have done nothing to help a young woman in distress, although as a mother of a young woman I must admit that harshness is a reaction close to the surface for me in this instance. Instead of indicting them, though, I think this story should serve as a catalyst for all of us to consider what we would do should we witness this kind of incident. Part of preparedness is thinking through various scenarios and determining how you would react, so that when and if you are faced with a situation you have already thought through your reactions. When we are caught unawares in situations we have not considered our tendency is far too often to do nothing, as we find ourselves immobilized not out of lack of compassion but out of fear and not knowing how to respond in an appropriate way.

This story is, to me, particularly poignant given the recent media attention about sexual assault. It shows that we still don’t always know how to respond or react even when it occurs right in front of us, let alone behind closed doors and involving a celebrity. We struggle with what to do, how to react and even if we should intervene.
I have tremendous respect for this young woman who had the strength and intelligence to capture a photo of her assailant leading to his arrest and conviction. I also hope every person on that bus has taken a good, long hard look at themselves and their actions – or lack thereof – and considered what they would do should it ever happen again. And I hope this story, as sad as it is, causes all of us to look at ourselves and think about what we would do and how we would react, because the reality is none of us wants to be the bystander on the bus who did nothing when someone needed our help. And none of us wants ourselves – or someone we love – to be Kitty Genovese.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Cracking Good Story

The first thing that catches me is the headline, of course, the hyperbole front and centre and indicative of the tone of the piece: “Fort McMurray cracks under oil boom’s strain” it trumpets, implying that somehow this community – MY community – is broken.

I want to make something clear off the top: Fort McMurray is not perfect. We are no utopia, and we have issues with which to contend. Some of those issues are the same ones every community faces and some are more unique. I am no wearer of rose-coloured glasses, I see the challenges facing our community quite clearly and have written about them often. I also know, however, that this community has not cracked and is not broken.
The recent story in the Globe and Mail Report on Business is an odd piece, a mish-mash about a condo development that went horribly wrong, some shiny new buildings, a road that links us to the world and the struggles of our local homeless population (which are not much different than the challenges faced by the homeless anywhere). What little commentary there is about the residents of this community paints a fairly bleak picture juxtaposed against the chatter of new buildings and airports. It is far too short a piece to speak in any detail to any of the true issues facing this community, but of course that’s not the point of the piece. It has painted my community with broad brushstrokes, failing to note the fine details that shade every facet of the place I call home.

The words in the piece are telling: gaudy, petro-mansions, overstuffed, crumbling, “glorified mining camp” and similar phrasing, all designed to tell a very specific tale of Fort McMurray. And there are some words notably absent, too.
Words like generous. Philanthropic. Naturally beautiful. Potential. Opportunity. And, perhaps most of all, resilient, a word that describes this place, this community and these people who are far from cracking and who instead rise to meet the challenges that face us.

Fort McMurray has not cracked under the oil boom’s strain, no matter what the headline says, and anyone who calls this place home knows the headline is far, far from accurate.
Fort McMurray is facing the kinds of challenges boomtowns face, and yes, we have encountered some problems along the way, like the Penhorwood condos. But as someone who has lived here for thirteen years I have not seen Fort McMurray break or crack. I have instead seen problems arise and then people come forward to address them. In fact it seems a great deal like the other communities I have lived in that face problems and issues and has to work to address them. Fort McMurray is really not so different in this regard from the other places I have lived, although in one respect we are quite different. Unlike the other places I have lived this place attracts media attention, which often focuses on the problems and not the potential, the challenges and not the triumphs.

Recently my sister visited Fort McMurray for the first time. I think she went away with a far different understanding of this place than the one she had formed through national media. She saw not just the problems, although we drove by the Penhorwood condos and we saw some of our local homeless. She saw the problems and the potential, the strength and the resiliency. She saw the life I have built here, the life the Intrepid Junior Blogger leads here and the lives of tens of thousands of people who have chosen to call this place home. I don’t think the headline she took home was that Fort McMurray is cracked. I think she left with a headline about a place of opportunity and potential, and with great opportunity and potential comes equally great challenges. I think her headline, though, reflects the nature of the people in Fort McMurray who welcome such challenges and who will do everything they can to ensure our community does not crack under any strain.
There are so many headlines that reflect this community – but this is not one of them. This is just another in a long string of headlines that fail to capture the entirety of the Fort McMurray story, just as the piece has done. But that’s okay, you see. Perhaps the only way to capture that story is to live it, and I am so grateful that I am one of the people who have the chance to do so, because it is, as the British say, a "cracking" good story, and one that far too often goes untold.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

We Need to Talk About Jian

When I mention the name I can see the beginning of an eyeroll forming on her face. She thinks a lecture is coming and at 15 the Intrepid Junior Blogger most likely feels she has been inundated with those over the course of her life on this planet. I detect the eyeroll and say: "Look, whatever you think, we need to talk about Jian."

The story has of course captivated and appalled the entire country over the last few days. The tale of a famous - now infamous - radio host and his fall from grace has appeared everywhere, a story that is sordid and sad and in almost every way frightening. The IJB has heard the story too, discussed it at school and read about it online. She thinks she has heard and seen enough, but I don't agree, because she and I need to talk about Jian, and about men who abuse women, and about being a young woman in this world.

I shared with the IJB a personal story, encounters from over twenty years ago in a city that seems far away and a time that seems to be from another life, and yet the city and that time felt far closer this past week than it has in a very, very long time. I won't share the details of the personal story here as they add little to the dialogue taking place across this country and the dozens of stories others have written except to say that like other women friends in Toronto in the late 80's and early 90's I have a tale to tell of such encounters. This week I have received messages from some of those women, ones I have not heard from in years (in one case decades) as we recounted to each other a time when we visited the same nightclubs, lived in the same neighbourhoods and encountered the same man. We moved on from that time and that place, leaving Toronto for the most part, having children and building careers, but the story that broke these past few days awoke memories long tucked away.

But those memories are not what worry me now. What worries me now is that I have in my house a young woman who will soon tackle the world on her own, and I recall all too well being her age and thinking you had the tiger by the tail, right until the tiger showed it's flexibility and turned on you, clutching you in it's ferocious teeth. I recall going out into the world and not understanding men who enjoy degrading and beating women, and I remember the slow process of learning this, of learning to trust my instincts and listen to the inner voice. And I learned compassion for other women who were victimized by those they had begun to trust, because that fragile trust is easily destroyed just as are young bodies, minds and hearts.

This week I read so many troubling things, perhaps none more so than some who claimed that their daughters were too strong to be victims, far too tough to ever be abused or assaulted and it stung me to the core, because that attitude meant that those who were victims were clearly not strong or tough enough. It was the new version of "assault doesn't happen to nice girls", a "strong girls aren't the victims of assault" mentality that hurts us all because sexual and physical assault can and does happen to all girls and women, regardless of their strength and character.

The IJB is strong and tough, but I am not naive enough to believe she is immune from those who prey on women. I know that young women can be awed by fame and power and influence and can be destroyed by those they idolize and believe in when their trust is abused. I remember what is was like to be young and just naive enough to think I knew everything when in reality I knew so very little.

So this week in my house we talked about Jian. It wasn't an easy discussion in many ways, but if you are the parent of a young woman - or a young man - I think it is a vital conversation to have. If this week showed me anything it was that far from filing away these stories and, in some cases, memories, we need to share them with our children, because it is perhaps the silence over these decades that troubles me the most. Maybe if we talked about these experiences and stories - if we had REALLY talked about it sooner - there would be far fewer women coming forward today because they would not have been victims.

This week I told my daughter we needed to talk about Jian. And so we did, because I hope in some small way it may help her to navigate this world armed with new knowledge and a clearer picture of some harsh realities she may encounter. I don't know if it will protect her, although I hope it will. Perhaps the only good thing to come from this entire experience is those conversations and the opening of a dialogue that we so desperately need to have. And that is why we need to talk about Jian.