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

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014, We Got It Right - and We Got It Very, Very Wrong

Year end review posts and columns tend to often be the same: the top news stories, good and bad, or the top newsmakers (also good or bad). Often they serve as a recap of the year and can be a bit dry as most of us (unless we suffer from some form of memory loss) are pretty good at recalling the last twelve months and the impact of the events we saw during them. While I have done year end recap posts before, this year I decided to do something a little bit different. I thought about some of the major events and issues we saw this year and decided to give my opinion on what we got right - and maybe even more importantly what we got wrong. I know not everyone will share my opinion and some of my "rights" will be their "wrongs" and vice versa - although as I have become prone to saying recently if they don't like it then they can go write their own bloody blog as nobody is forcing them to read mine (yes, I have gotten a bit older and a bit crankier this year it seems).

So here goes, Fort McMurray: 2014: What we got right - and what we got wrong:


1) The Highway, My Way

We got it right:

The provincial government continued the Highway 63 twinning project, making great strides toward completion. While some saw the progress as too slow, particularly after years of broken promises to achieve this goal, there was no denying that the project was moving along and would save lives in the future.

We got it wrong:

While we watched the twinning progress we also watched as people continued to die on Highway 63 in tragic and unnecessary collisions. Excessive speed, aggressive driving and various other driver-related factors contributed to the death toll on that highway continuing to mount even as we paid a great deal of lip service to wanting the highway to be safer. How did we get it so wrong, you wonder? My opinion is we failed to address the biggest threat to our lives: not the highway, but ourselves.

2) Safety Talks

We got it right:

A rash of horrible workplace deaths, including a tragic and almost unbelievable mauling by a bear, sparked a dialogue about safety on site and ensuring that this was one statistic that went down in the future. Safety became of paramount importance and the anxiety about safety in an-already uber-safety-conscious community reached new heights.

We got it wrong:

Somehow, in one of the most safety-conscious places in North America, we began seeing pedestrians dying on our streets in alarming numbers. Whether it was at crosswalks or on the side of local roads we saw a sharp spike in human vs. vehicle incidents, and generally speaking the humans fared poorly in this contest. How did we get it wrong? It seems we left our PPE, including our brains, at work some days and forgot some of the basic rules of safety that pertain to both drivers and pedestrians, like looking both ways, wearing bright colours, and paying attention to the pedestrians around our vehicles. We all got this one wrong, no matter whether you were inside or outside the vehicle.

3) Under Construction

We got it right:

Finally, FINALLY, after not weeks and months but YEARS of delay and subsequent agony, we decided to bite the bullet and tear down the travesty we know as the Penhorwood condos. This blight on our landscape and our spirits was the shadow that hung over us for far too long, and while we should never forget the lessons we learned it was time for the walls to come down, especially the ones covered with graffiti.

We got it wrong:

While there were many factors at play, the reality of the delay in developing the city centre meant vacant lots and buildings, turning them into a playground for graffiti taggers who took the opportunity to leave their mark on the community, again and again and again. And, since graffiti is influenza-level contagious, it began to spread to occupied buildings, spreading the blight across our community, spray can by spray can. How did we get it wrong? We allowed - and continue to allow - far too many vacant buildings to stand, serving as blank canvases for the taggers. The trumpet has sounded on Penhorwood - let's just hope it blasts the final notes for more of the other vacant buildings soon too.

4) Show Me the Money

We got it right:

It was cathartic, it was extensive and it revealed some troubling issues right under our noses - the Municipal Audit was a difficult time for many in this community but it was undoubtedly necessary. That the audit was required seems a no-brainer and it can only help us to improve by showing us what we needed to change.

We got it wrong:

While the audit was necessary and cathartic some of us spent a lot of time dwelling on placing blame and pointing fingers instead of figuring out ways to move forward. Mistakes were made, things went wrong and trains went off tracks, but nothing would undo any of those things. All we could do - and can do now - is figure out how to make sure it never happens again. How did we get it wrong? It's human nature to engage in some degree of acrimony after things go south in a dramatic fashion, but there comes a time to set the drama aside and move forward. Let's hope 2015 is that time.

5) Growing More Grey Every Day

We got it right:

We finally saw Willow Square transferred from the federal government to the province to the municipality after much delay and brouhaha about who was at fault, how much they were at fault and how they were at fault, when nobody really cared who carried the fault and what mattered was just getting it done and showing some respect for the seniors who founded this place and who are the giants upon whose shoulders we stand.

We got it wrong:

It ain't over until the fat lady sings, or in this case until Phil Meagher cuts his hair (he is starting to look a bit like those pictures of Methuselah now), when a shovel actually breaks ground and we see an aging in place facility under construction - although it looks like there is another battle looming on that front which can hopefully be forestalled through rigorous community consultations. How did we get it wrong? This one we can blame on the politics at play, as nothing anyone else said or did mattered until all levels of government decided to play nice with each other.

6) Traffic Snarl

We got it right:

The opening of new underpasses and overpasses and exits and entrances and bridges meant woohoo, less traffic chaos! It was incredible to find driving freedom again and not be caught in hours of endless traffic on the "wrong side" of the bridge (and somehow I always ended up on the wrong side).

We got it wrong:

When there were collisions that caused delays or work on the new underpasses and overpasses and entrances and exits and bridges, we lost our minds and practically wanted to call in the army to sort it out, forgetting that even in other communities traffic does, on occasion, grind to a halt for whatever reason until it gets moving again. How did we get it wrong? We just forgot how bad it was before because we found ourselves spoiled by our newfound freedom and ease of travel.

7) When the Media and Celebrities Come to Town

We got it right:

As someone who watches external media coverage of our community very carefully I was beyond delighted to see an upswing in positive media stories flowing out of our region. It wasn't all hearts and flowers of course, and while some pieces were not exactly glowing they were at least fair and balanced, and others actually focused primarily on the positives in the community. There were the inevitable junk stories about all our terrible inadequacies, but this was the first year in a long time when I read or saw stories generated by media from outside Fort McMurray that I thought truly reflected this community in a positive and/or balanced way.

We got it wrong:

We saw a number of celebrity visitors, and unfortunately we continued to get our knickers in a twist when anyone criticized us, even when it might have had some validity. The comments I read about Desmond Tutu were appalling beyond comprehension, and I realized that even if Mother Theresa visited us and commented in some way that was less than 100% positive that she would be figuratively burned at the stake (preferably using bitumen to fuel the fire). We might disagree with their comments - they might even be ill-informed and outright wrong - but it serves us better to treat them with respect while we correct them as opposed to insulting their intelligence and their basic humanity. You can combat the haters without engaging in hate, and you can confront the inaccuracies as presented by celebrities without tearing them down as people, which is a poor strategy given their massive reach compared to ours. How did we get it wrong? We have just become a bit over-sensitive to celebrity visits and, unsure how to respond to them, we have gotten down in the trenches. It's time to take the high road, just as those at Oil Sands Action have done so successfully this year.

9)  Show Me the Social Profit Money

We got it right:

In a place known for the strength of our philanthropic spirit we just kept it going and growing, seeing the coffers at the United Way filling in a tremendously successful campaign and seeing other groups and organizations like the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, Fort McMurray SPCA and Santas Anonymous continuing to meet their mandate.

We got it wrong:

In a community of great prosperity we continued to see a sharp division between the haves and have-nots, the working poor and the homeless who share this community with all of us. Far too often we have turned a blind eye to these issues as if they do not exist, trying to ignore them and hoping they just go away so we don't need to address them. How did we get it wrong? We want to believe our philanthropy is a "cure" for these issues, but we need to understand that there are causes that run deep and wide and that can only be addressed by ensuring the continued strength of our social profit organizations through our philanthropy not just this year, but every year.

10) Yay Us!

We got it right:

For many years Fort McMurray was the Albertan underdog. We felt inferior to Edmonton and Calgary and even places like Lethbridge, feeling left out and left behind. Finally we have begun to believe in ourselves a bit, showing a significant degree of pride in our community, our industry and our people. We began flexing our muscles, telling the world that we are here and we are proud and we intend to just keep getting better, too - and it was a lovely thing to witness.

We got it wrong:

The famous adage says: "pride goeth before a fall", and, while we began to believe our own press, at times I feared we had begun to believe it a little too fully, becoming rather full of ourselves and even exhibiting a sort of arrogance that will not likely serve us well. Being proud is good - but humble pride is even better. How did we get it wrong? We struggled to find that balance between arrogance and pride, bullheadedness and assertiveness - but I believe we are on the road to finding it, because it is a bit of a pendulum swing and I think we are headed back to middle ground now.

11) Heart of the Arts

We got it right:

It is astonishing to witness the way our arts community has grown and flourished, rising in strength and displaying tremendous diversity and resiliency. From theatre at Keyano to visual arts collectives and their initiatives to the art gallery at MacDonald Island to musicians at every venue to literary arts with Northword to filmmaking with the Fort McMurray Filmmakers Association, we have seen a virtual renaissance taking place in the arts in this region, although so too we saw the demise of interPLAY, a loss which was a crushing blow to all in the arts community, and really to us all.

We got it wrong:

While we love the arts and sing their praises we have continued to undervalue them, not recognizing their importance and significance in our community. I have spoken to far too many artists struggling financially as well as spiritually and emotionally to be understood, recognized and valued for their work. How did we get it wrong? We still don't seem to understand that just like plumbers and mechanics, artists make their living from their work, and if they cannot make a living here they will look to other places where they can, leaving us poorer for their loss. And we must find a way to resurrect events like interPLAY, because that humble little arts festival was in many ways our shining moment for the arts in this community and we need to continue to honour its legacy while making the arts scene even stronger.

12) Coming Soon!

We got it right:

As 2015 began to loom large we began to kick our plans into high gear, because that is the year when the region comes alive to host a variety of events almost too numerous to name. I cannot think of one person who is not touched in some way by one of these events, whether as organizer, volunteer, participant or attendee. The excitement began to build in a big way in 2014, and we are now on the cusp of seeing dreams become reality.

We got it wrong:

Somewhere along the way somebody turned to me and said: "so, what about 2016?", and it was a show-stopping moment for me, because I had been all about 2014 being the year to get ready and then 2015 being THE YEAR and then hey, yeah, what about 2016? And 2017? And after that? Even the Mayans knew the world didn't end in 2012, even though we were really lousy at interpreting their calendar and thought they knew something we didn't. In the same way the world didn't end then, it doesn't end in December, 2015, either. How did we get it wrong? We started taking a short-term view of a long-term game - 2015 will be a helluva year, but it is really just the beginning of, well, the future.

13) The Games Politicians Play

We got it right:

Whoo boy, that federal by-election? Boy, did we get that right, at least in the excitement department! There was political passion in the air in this town, with voices coming from every angle. When Justin Trudeau visited - three times - we pretty much rolled out the red carpet (and frankly my kid and I found him absolutely delightful to speak to, enough so that she interviewed him and her article published in Fort McMurray Child Magazine). We talked policy, we argued politics, we planted signs, we knocked on doors and we got down in the trenches with some old fashioned political campaigning right until....

We got it wrong:

We kinda forgot to vote. At least in my generous moments that is what I like to believe we did, because to think we simply didn't care enough about our future to take a few minutes out of our day to mark an X is more than I can tolerate. The low voter turnout was almost criminal, really. So I have chosen to stick with the story that we forgot it was election day. How did we get it wrong? We take democracy for granted, people. Let's hope that is not our eventual downfall in this nation.

14) I'll Fly Away

We got it right:

The official opening of the Fort McMurray International Airport heralded the beginning of a new era in air transportation in the region (and it even came with Starbucks, Burger King and Famoso Pizza, among other new amenities). No longer crammed like sardines while waiting for flights, air travel got a lot more appealing and started to seem a lot less like cattle transport and more like the airport experience one would want.

We got it wrong:

Almost as soon as some international direct flights were announced (cough cough, Vegas) they were cancelled due to low passenger numbers and too few flight bookings. The hue and outcry was immediate but the airline carrier was steadfast that the new route was not financially sound - at least not yet. How did we get it wrong? I'm not sure we did - I suspect we just need to be given time to embrace those new direct flights and prove them to be lucrative for the airlines. While a good percentage of our airline traffic is still domestic,  the numbers demanding those direct flights is increasing and I would expect we will see more direct flights to American hubs in the near future.


15) Come Together, Right Now

We got it right:

Whenever it mattered - whenever it was a crucial moment and a crisis loomed, when failure seemed not only possible but probable - this community came together. We came together, we supported each other, we brought our laughter and our strength and our belief and our commitment, and we continued to shine as an example to every other community in this country. We are a community of pioneers, many of us here not because we were born here but because we chose it, and those who were born here have welcomed us as we built a community together. It has been my pleasure - and my incredible honour - to not only witness it but be part of it, not just in 2014 but in every year past and in the years ahead, too.

We got it wrong:

We didn't. Not one damn thing wrong on this one, people, not one. Happy New Year, Fort McMurray. Thank you for getting it right, even when we got it wrong, because at least we did it together, which means we have been getting it right all along.

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