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

Friday, January 31, 2014

Toasting the Champions of the RMWB

I wish I could be everywhere at everything all the time. I wish I could delve deep into all the things I am passionate about, raising funds and awareness and championing all the causes in this community, because there are so very many. But I cannot be everywhere and do everything, and that is okay, because in this community there are so very many people who are passionate and committed to making this a better place to live, work and play. There are so many here who are community champions, which is what last night at the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Mayor and Council Toast of Champions was all about.

I missed the event last night due to the Intrepid Junior Blogger's schedule, which includes the weekly torture of piano lessons on Thursday evenings. And so I could not attend the Toast of Champions, but I followed it on Twitter as the evening went on, and as we celebrated our champions.

Some of them I have the tremendous honour to know, like Nathalie Reid, a teacher at Holy Trinity High School and someone I admire for her passionate advocacy for social justice, and her ability to get students excited and involved in making the world a better place. Lynn Hannah is someone I have the honour to call a friend, and her advocacy and commitment to the SPCA has seen them become an incredibly active and respected social profit organization with a strong community profile. There are others I have watched with admiration, like young Keisha Gendron who has been putting in hard work and long hours through bottle drives and other initiatives to raise funds to restore Heritage Park after it was badly damaged in the flooding we experienced this spring, and like Mattea Adair, a young woman with a passion for volunteering and one of the most beautiful and infectious smiles I have ever seen, and like Trevor Boe, an advocate for youth sport and recreation in this community. And there are others still like Pamela Tremblay and Roxanne Marcel, who I have not had the opportunity to meet but about whom I have heard so many amazing things. And then there is someone like Barb Jewers, who will always be remembered for her contributions to this community, and who we lost last year, a tremendous loss for our community but someone who has left behind not only a legacy but inspiration.

And those names were just the recipients of the 2013 awards, as there were other nominees as well, each passionate about their individual causes and each a powerful advocate for this community and the people in it - each and every one a champion, really.

One of the greatest honours I have is the opportunity to write about this community, and the people in it. The true honour, though, is simply being part of a community of champions like the ones celebrated last night. I feel secure here, because I know that others are doing everything they can to make this a better place, to improve the lives of others and to create the kind of community where we are all proud to live.

Today in this post I would like to salute all our champions, including all recipients and nominees from last night. They are the reason this community is the place it is. They are the reason I am so very proud to call this place home.

















Thursday, January 30, 2014

No Games Here

It was probably the fifth email I had received from someone in external media asking for my opinion. Had I played "the game", they asked, and what did I think of it? And, for the fifth time, I answered that I had not fully played the game, and nor did I plan to, and I didn't really know anyone locally who had either, at least not to any extent. The game in question? "Fort McMoney", the online game about my community.

"Fort McMoney" launched in November and I admit that the day it launched I planted myself in a chair with my laptop, signed in, and began to play. I spent four hours on it that day, finding some lovely cinematography, a few glitches, and nothing I didn't really already know about the place I call home. The next day I opened up that window again and played another two hours, but by the end of it I found myself just not enjoying it. The third day? I closed the window entirely, and never really returned to the game.

It's not because I hate the game, because I don't. I participated when the filmmakers contacted me, and I was interested to see the final product. It is a bit darker than I think my community is, but I cannot say it is entirely inaccurate. It is just one perspective though, filmed in winter (not exactly the best season anywhere, a bit grey and dreary no matter where you find it). I respect the filmmakers for the length of time they spent here, and for talking to a variety of people. And I suppose it may be an interesting adventure for those who don't live here, although even an online game can only reflect a small slice of what happens here. But as for spending hours playing, voting on and debating the future of my community? I guess I just don't have time - because I am too busy living that life, not playing it.

I suspect local uptake on the game has been on the low side, but I'm not really surprised by that. You see we are living life here, not playing a game. We are making decisions every single day that affect the future of this community.

In some ways I am not sure how I feel about my community, our collective future, and our lives being turned into a "game" for others to play. It makes me think of that movie Jim Carrey starred in many years ago, when he discovered that his entire life was actually a TV show and all those in it were actors (The Truman Show). And Shakespeare said all the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players, so I suppose one could take the strategy that we are all to some extent playing a game, which we call life. I suppose I don't feel quite so philosophical about it when it comes to others playing a game involving my community, moving us around like chess pieces as they decide our future based on fragments of information. But the odd thing is that I can work up no indignant anger over it, or even much of any reaction at all. I simply feel rather apathetic about the game, because it has no real impact on my life or what happens here.

I have tried to figure out why I feel so very indifferent to the game, and all I keep coming back to is that no game, no matter how well filmed or how much time they spent here, could ever truly capture the nuances of our lives. No game could ever depict all the different shades of grey, and no game could ever reflect the true nature of our community. And I suppose in the end that's why I stopped playing Fort McMoney, really. I just lost interest, because I don't need to play the game of life in Fort McMurray. I am instead just living it.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

I Have A PostSecret

I have a secret. I have been harbouring it for some time, and this will be the very first time I reveal it to, well, anyone really. I suspect we all have secrets, things we wish we could share and that are burning to get out of us, and I have been honoured that many people have chosen to share their secrets with me over my life, where I keep them locked in the vault for eternity. My secret, though, is coming to light because of an announcement over at Keyano College that sparked me into revealing it. You see, the Students' Association at the college has launched an Anti-Stigma campaign, and it's all about secrets.

For the students this is about mental health and awareness of the cost of keeping secrets, particularly if those secrets become a heavy burden. It is designed to allow students to reveal their secrets by writing them down anonymously to be shared with others in the college on bulletin boards. And it is all inspired by a man named Frank Warren and PostSecret, and that is where my secret comes in. I am a PostSecret junkie.

Maybe you are a PostSecret fan, and maybe you aren't. It is such a simple thing, really, an initiative where people take a postcard or picture and add a few words, then mailing it away anonymously where it may then be posted on the PostSecret website or even in one of the hugely popular books. I have been visiting PostSecret for a very, very long time, every Sunday when new ones are posted, and over that time the secrets revealed have made me laugh, and cry - and feel that I was not alone.

You see secrets have a way of isolating us. When we keep our secrets and never reveal them we never have the opportunity to learn that others share the same secret, or the same thoughts, or the same feelings. When I had the honour to present at TEDx Fort McMurray in 2013 what I learned was the power of being vulnerable, of revealing those things we hold so close to us and find it hard to release. Some secrets, though, are so intimate that we cannot stand on a stage and share them, and so that is where the postcards and PostSecret come in. It allows the sharing of secrets, and the connection of minds, hearts, and souls.

As part of this initiative I was incredibly excited to learn that Keyano College will be bringing the PostSecret founder into our community to speak. The thought of him being here actually almost brings me to tears, because I think he created something so profound in this world of deep dark secrets. He provided a way for people to share these secrets in a safe way, and to connect with each other. Every week when I go to visit PostSecret for a few moments I feel I am witnessing people release their inner demons, and letting light shine onto the darkness. There are some who may dismiss it as voyeuristic entertainment, but I would argue this fiercely as I believe that it is, instead, a glimpse into the human soul.

I want to commend the students of Keyano College for their initiative on this, and for embracing a concept that as a writer (and person) I think has tremendous value and impact. I am so delighted that I will have the opportunity to see Frank Warren speak, and I can predict now that I will likely become emotional, because the sharing of secrets is a powerful thing. That I am a PostSecret junkie is now no longer a secret, but I suppose one might wonder if I have ever submitted a secret to that website for publication. I won't answer that directly, except to say that I have no doubt that small personalized postcards with a few well-chosen words scribbled on them have left this community, carrying with them secrets and whisperings of the heart. And that, as Forrest Gump would say, is all I have to say about that.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Intrepid Junior Blogger Goes Fan Girl

When I told her those eyes, already ridiculously huge and round, got even rounder. She let out this small squealing noise, the kind only teenaged girls can make and that rivals fingernails on a chalk board for pure grating quality.

"He is coming hereeeeeeeeee", she squealed, a bit breathlessly.

She, of course, is the Intrepid Junior Blogger. And who was eliciting this high drama, the huge green-brown eyes and the squealing? A rock star perhaps? Nope, that sort of thing doesn't do it for my kid. Her response was all about astronaut Chris Hadfield coming to Fort McMurray for the Northern Insights Speaker Series from the Fort McMurray Public Library.

Maybe my kid is unusual. Her heroes are not musicians or actors, at least not for the most part. She idolizes people like Justin Trudeau and the late Jack Layton instead, valuing their intellect and their beliefs (although she has called Trudeau "hot", and I can't really quibble on that one). Pierre Elliott Trudeau was one of my heroes, and so I understand her political nature and her tendency to idolize those in that career. But my kid is also hopelessly and desperately addicted to math and science, and so her heroes includes the ranks of those who have achieved acclaim in those fields, from Stephen Hawking to Einstein, and now including Hadfield, who made being an astronaut and a scientist accessible to the masses through his inclusive and clever use of social media while in space.

When Hadfield was in space the IJB provided me with a running chronicle of what he was up to - what he tweeted or interviews he gave or things he did. She has expressed some interest in the concept of being an astronaut, although given her inability to endure carnival rides without turning green she recognizes the zero-g environment may prove a challenge to overcome. And while she may never go into space (although I cannot entirely discount the possibility) I suspect she will pursue a career in science of some sort, perhaps engineering where she can continue to try to explain completely inexplicable things to her poor mother, who has an avid interest in biology but for whom the entire idea of physics and the other sciences induces tears.

I attended the press conference announcing Hadfield as the first speaker in 2014  from Northern Insights, and I was delighted as I knew the IJB would be thrilled. I was delighted too because the FMPL is continuing to completely blow me away with this series, having brought Malcolm Gladwell, Bill Cosby, Arlene Dickinsfield and Martha Stewart to town in 2013 alone. Starting the new year with Hadfield was a sure sign that this would be yet another stellar year in a speaker series that has quite honestly become one of my favourite events in this community, and one I would not dream of missing. And I think the IJB feels the same, as she has now attended some of these events with me and the experience has no doubt enriched her young life.

When I told her of his impending visit I pulled out of my bag Hadfield's book and gave it to her so she can read it before he speaks. She clutched it to her, eyes still open wide, "science fangirling" over the prospect of hearing her hero speak and imagining what he would say.

"Maybe you can get him to sign it," I said, gesturing to the book.

The big round eyes were suddenly matched with a round little mouth as she contemplated that prospect. After all, who needs to idolize rock stars when you can have an astronaut as a hero instead?

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Journey to the Gold Star

I have the program in front of me today, glancing at it on occasion as I continue to process the evening. I was incredibly surprised when I received the email a few weeks ago from Fort McMurray Tourism, telling me that I was a finalist for the annual Gold Star Awards, an honour that recognizes those who provide outstanding service in various fields and endeavours. It seems such a cliché to say it is an honour to have been nominated, but that is truly how I felt, and still how I feel today.

There were many other nominees last night, in my category and in others, and each and every one deserves recognition because they are strong enough in what they do to have been acknowledged through the nomination process. I would venture to say that not one of them does what they do to get awards, but rather do what they do because they are committed to excellence. It was truly an honour to simply be in the same room as them, as these are the people who enrich our lives daily through remarkable customer service experiences.

Often in this community we decry poor customer service, and so it is refreshing to be in a room where the best of the best are being recognized. Ten years ago Fort McMurray Tourism decided there was a need to acknowledge those who achieve such excellence, and so the Gold Star Awards were founded.

I want to be clear here, too. I don't believe what I do is exceptional, especially compared to the others honoured last night, and those who have touched my life in recent weeks. From the tow truck driver who boosted my car and restored my calm in the face of what I felt was a crisis (his advice? Stop crying over a dead battery) to a dealership service agent who commiserated over the challenges of the early days of single parenthood, I have found those who not only provide wonderful customer service but who do it with a personal touch. In comparison what I do seems far too easy, posts and articles written from a comfy chair while others do all the actual heavy lifting.

Last night, however, I was incredibly honoured when it was my name that was called and I walked to the stage. I was in a bit of a state of shock, I suppose, because my journey over the last three years has seen mountains that seemed like Everest and valleys that seemed like the depths of the oceans. All I did was keep going, up the mountains (that were really just hills) and into the valleys (which were really just dips in the road). In the end the path took me to a ballroom at the Sawridge Inn and Conference Centre, in the company of fellow nominees (including those in my category, Jerry Neville who has become a dear friend and someone I credit with some degree of my success, and Tracey Morine, who is as fiercely passionate about what she does as I am). I also had the good fortune to be in the company of many friends, and, most importantly, the Intrepid Junior Blogger who came along for the evening and was there to see me take the stage.

When I took the stage as my name was called as the winner of the Gold Star Award for Outstanding Media/Communications I was shaky, but I was ready. Watching the others go up and accept their awards had made me realize that most were giving brief acceptance speeches, which was not something I had prepared. But I knew what was in my heart, and so I said: "Thank you. While it is an honour to be recognized it is even more of an honour to do what I love in the place and community I love, so thank you". And I meant every single word, too.

Few would have caught the tears creeping into my voice, but the IJB did, and she commented on it as we made our way out to the car when it was over. At 14 she can be a bit cagey with her thoughts, and after my name was called she did not tell me she was proud of me - but on the car ride home she sat with my award clutched tight to her chest, keeping it safe and close to her, and the unspoken message was clear. She didn't need to express her pride, you see.

And I am proud too, but not so much about what I have done in these last three years. I find some pride in it, of course, but I think I find the most pride in the things I have been able to do for others. I have shared their stories, and I have covered local events. I have connected with so many people from so many different places, and I have been incredibly honoured that they have chosen to share their stories with me. It has allowed me to grow as a person and as a writer, and I am so grateful to everyone who has ever given me a chance to write about them or for them, and to practice my craft.

But more than anything I am grateful to my readers, whether of this blog or my weekly column. If I have achieved anything it is because of them - and you, who are reading this right now. Last night was a remarkable night in my life to be sure - but it is truly the journey over the last three years that has been remarkable, a journey that I never expected or anticipated I would take. I suppose all I can say is that I am deeply grateful that you chose to come along for the journey - and I always have been, with or without an award.

 
Photo courtesy of Joanne Leitch
of snapd Wood Buffalo


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Why I Reject Bill 60 - And Why You Should, Too.


It seems only fitting that both the Intrepid Junior Blogger and I have close friends who wear the hijab. To me it is a sign of our incredible multicultural diversity in this community, and to be honest it is not something she and I have ever discussed because we do not think it unusual in any way to have friends who embrace different religious beliefs and who share with us their culture. But she and I have been talking about it now, and it's all because of Quebec.

Perhaps you have seen it on the news, and perhaps you haven't. The gist of the situation is that the Quebec government has introduced a bill, called Bill 60, that would prohibit civil service employees from wearing any "religious symbols". What does that mean? It means every display that could be considered religious, from a turban to a hijab to a cross. It is meant, they say, to create a secular atmosphere in the civil service in Quebec, a deep separation of state and religion - but of course it is no such thing, and that argument is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to hide the discrimination this bill endorses.

When you enter my home you will not find any religious symbols, as I do not consider myself a religious person. In fact I would say I am quite secular, but I grew up in a Roman Catholic home surrounded by the symbols of that faith. Those items - crosses, rosaries, and the like - were part of my parents' identity, both religious and personal. And I would have fought to the end of time to preserve their right to claim and express that identity, not least of all because it is entrenched in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Bill 60 is an attempt to strip away identity, and to remove one of the fundamental rights and freedoms we as Canadians treasure - and I reject it soundly.

This bill is a slippery slope. You start by banning civil servants from wearing religious symbols (which are totally irrelevant to their ability to perform their job). How long before private enterprise follows suit, citing Bill 60 as their defense? How long before this bill is used in attempts to further strip individuals of their right to practice and celebrate their faith? How long before it spreads like a virus, infecting those it touches with the belief that it is somehow acceptable to strip individuals of their hijabs and turbans and crosses? How long before it simply becomes an institutionalized form of discrimination?

I am often troubled to read comments on social media from those who think the culture of Canada is being threatened by immigrants who bring their cultural traditions and religious beliefs to our shores. They don't seem to understand that almost all of us have immigrant roots, and that our beliefs and traditions have added to our country's rich heritage much like our newcomers do today. Far more insidious a threat to our country is actions such as this one in Quebec designed to strip personal identity from all religious people in the civil service, whether Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, or Christian. The threat to our cultural identity is not from our cultural diversity but rather from those who wish to somehow stamp it out, removing all trace of it.

I suppose the most profound personal reason I reject Bill 60 is because I am of German heritage. I am proud of my identity, but as we all know Germany has a stain upon it from a time when discrimination became so entrenched in its society that millions died based on their religious beliefs and cultural identity alone. Germany went the other way, of course, by forcing all those of Jewish faith and lineage to wear a gold star to identify them as "the other". It was just the first step on a road that ended in people being forced onto railroad boxcars, and into concentration camps. And so I find attempts like Bill 60 so deeply troubling. The Quebec government may be using a different strategy, by attempting to remove all religious symbols from their employees, but the end result is the same. The end result is identifying people based on their religious beliefs or cultural identity, and not on our shared humanity. It is a battle that should never be fought, because no battle exists. Those who wear the hijab, the turban, the cross, or any other religious symbol are no different than anyone else, and so there is no need to strip them of these things to prove it. Here and now, in 2014, we should simply understand this to be so. Bill 60 creates an issue where none exists, and where none should be.

Why should we care what happens in Quebec, you wonder? Because these are our neighbours, you see. What is happening there could happen here, too, and we need to keep a watchful eye on our neigbours to ensure that their rights are preserved so that one day our rights are not threatened. There is a very profound poem written about the events in Germany some decades ago, events that we would do well to remember in order to not repeat them. It is a poem I have often thought about, because it is easy to stand by and do nothing while others threaten the rights and freedoms of our neighbours. But we do so at our own peril, which is I why today, and every day, I will speak out against Bill 60. Because one day it may be my rights and freedoms being trampled, and not theirs.


Saturday, January 25, 2014

Learning to Listen - A Perspective on Neil Young from Fort Chipewyan

Writing takes courage. There are some who may argue that point, but I have come to learn over the last three years that it takes some degree of bravery to put your hands on a keyboard and record your thoughts. It takes courage,too, to share that effort with others, and this past week I was honoured when someone contacted me and had the courage to share her blog with me.

Over the course of the entire episode with Neil Young I have often wondered what those in our First Nations communities thought of his words and his strategy to draw attention to the oilsands, and to those affected by the industry. I have been honoured in my life to have many aboriginal friends, from my childhood in Saskatoon to my years in northwestern Ontario, and now right here in the north of Alberta. They have taught me so much in that time, and in recent years one friend in particular, an elder who came into my life three years ago, has helped me to achieve some serenity I thought might be beyond my grasp. Their friendship, their advice, and their willingness to share the stories of their traditions have humbled me, because what I learned was the value of listening.

I think far too often we talk and talk, only pretending to listen. I have been to Fort Chipewyan, and it is a beautiful place that captured my heart. The people are kind and warm, and I have had the privilege to speak to the youth, the elders, and others. I truly believe we must listen to them, and if they have concerns about industry, or health, or treaties, or anything then we must shut our mouths, open our ears, minds and hearts, and listen to what they have to say, because we build no understanding, no common ground, no dialogue, and no community if we do not listen.

Today I would ask you to listen to Angelina, with an open mind and heart. Hers is one perspective, and I am certain there are as many different perspectives as there are people in Fort Chipewyan. I am so genuinely glad she has shared hers, and I hope others from her community will do the same, because every story, every perspective, and every person has value and deserves to be heard.

Today I redirect you to:

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Right Kind of Activism in Fort McMurray

They came to my attention on Twitter, when the little video teaser they made to advertise their crowd sourcing attempt garnered international attention. You might have seen it, a brief clip that so incensed Travel Alberta that they began sending letters from lawyers threatening two LA filmmakers with litigation. It was, of course, the most absurd move Travel Alberta could have made, because that little film clip that was plugging along in some degree of obscurity suddenly became news as two filmmakers trying to fund a project were being crushed beneath a government behemoth. The actions of Travel Alberta virtually guaranteed that the project would be funded - and the accompanying brouhaha brought Andy Cobb and Mike Damanskis to my attention, too.

I tweeted at them, asking subtle questions like how they planned to get to Fort McMurray, since it seemed they planned a project with an anti-oilsands bent and were also planning a little trip to our community. It was a dialogue that occurred in fits and starts, and when my pal Tim Moen contacted me about spending some time with them to do an interview, and Toddske of YMMPodcast invited me to do a podcast with them, I threw aside my initial reservations and did both. And I am so very glad I did.

Andy and Mike hooked up with Tim, who is a local filmmaker. Tim is well known now for having worked with Neil Young and Darryl Hannah when they were here, and his involvement with Andy and Mike gave me some confidence in participating as I knew that Tim would serve as both guide and witness to what they were up to while here. And when Toddske suggested a podcast I agreed. I didn't expect what happened next, though.

I have done a number of podcasts now, with Toddske and Tito and a revolving cast of friends. I have enjoyed every single one, but I think the one that I like the most, enjoyed the most, and found the most "true" to me is this last one with Toddske, Tim, Andy, and Mike. There was something incredible about sitting at a table with two strangers, filmmakers from LA who had never been here (and I have never been to LA) and talking about industry, and community, and climate change, and activism, and the future. It was a frank, open and honest dialogue between three locals and two visitors, and five people who all find their lives deeply connected to oil as we all acknowledged our reliance on it.

I don't know what their final film project will look like. I did an interview with Andy as well, and I won't comment on it except to say that speaking with Andy is like talking to an old friend you didn't know you had and had never met before. His history of activism and mine, while different in nature, gave us a common understanding of each other and how we came to where we are in our lives now. When I first saw that film clip months ago I suppose I thought Andy and Mike were a couple of clowns, intent on disparaging my community through comedy. I still think they might be clowns, but in the best way, kind of like American Rick Mercers, and far, far more intelligent than I had ever suspected they would be. And I also discovered that unlike some recent visitors (cough*aging Canadian music icons*cough) they came to our region with an open mind, and I think while they came with one story in mind they left with a different narrative, one that reflected industry but one that touched on the community, too, and the difference between the two.

This is, in my opinion, the best podcast I have ever done with YMMPodcast. It is a long listen, and if you can get past the donkey-braying laugh you hear (which I sadly admit is mine), I think you will discover a fascinating conversation. We spent a couple of hours, we laughed a lot, and we learned a lot. I have come to be rather fond of two American clowns who landed on our shores recently, and I look forward to their finished film, whatever it happens to be. You see, I have learned that I will take every opportunity to share my story of my life here, and my thoughts on our community, no matter the eventual outcome of the article or film or project. I will take every chance to spread the word about our community - and sometimes it will result in something like this, something that I am far more proud of than I ever expected to be:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Soaring Steel and Soaring Hearts

Yesterday I saw the first glimmerings of two new developments in Fort McMurray. Both involve buildings, and both will change this community. One is huge and shiny and grand, while the other will be a bit smaller but no less huge in terms of impact and heart. One is a new complex to be built downtown, while the other is an emergency shelter to replace the often overcrowded Unity House.

I am excited to see both these developments, but for very different reasons. This one:

Golden Buffalo Development

is quite likely one of the first huge new private projects we will see in the downtown core. The entire concept behind redevelopment of our downtown was to spur projects like this, and to attract investors who see this community as a good place to invest their money. These projects, couple with the catalyst projects from the RMWB, have the potential to not only reinvigorate but transform our urban centre, taking it from a rather dowdy state (and let's be brutally honest, the word "dowdy" is me being very kind to the current architecture downtown) and into the future. Contrary to what your mother said, looks DO matter, especially when it comes to having the kinds of services and amenities that go along with those good looks, and so our downtown will be well served by buildings that have both looks (architecturally speaking) and personality (services, opportunities, and amenities).

Now, the other development is no less important, and in some ways perhaps far more so. Unity House and what they do is close to my heart because it was home to some young women and their mom that I know, a family unit who needed them desperately at one point to escape a life that had become unbearable. They were fortunate, because Unity House on occasion has to turn away those in need as they are at capacity, (putting them up instead in other shelters or even hotels, which often presents challenges for these family units in terms of accessing the help and support they need). I was delighted to hear that the Family Crisis Society will break ground this year on a new facility that will help them to address these capacity issues and enable them to help more families in crisis, just as their name says. Through their Stop the Hurting, Start the Healing campaign they are raising funds to ensure that they have the operational capacity to meet not only the needs of today but those of tomorrow, as the need for their services will surely grow just as this community does.

So, two shiny new developments. One is a soaring complex full of glass and steel, stretching high into the sky and changing our skyline forever. One is a smaller building, full instead I hope of soaring hearts as those who enter it find a place where they can  stop the hurting, and start their healing. Both will bring with them tremendous change for our community and those who live, work and play here. And I could not be more happy to welcome them both, because they are both so very, very needed in this place we call home.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

My People

This past weekend I had the opportunity to spend some time with two filmmakers from Los Angeles. They were here in pursuit of a film project about the oilsands, of course, as well as LA's addiction to oil, and how these tie together when we are having a dialogue about creating a sustainable future for all of us, from Fort McMurray to LA and all points around the globe. It was a fascinating experience, and I was genuinely impressed with them, despite some initial reservations about what they might be up to. I would not say I am cynical about visiting filmmakers and journalists, but I always reserve judgement until I meet them, work with them, and finally see the end product. I felt pretty good about these two, and I found one of the comments one of them often used as a catchphrase really resonated with me.

When Andy Cobb spoke about Los Angeles he spoke of it with the same kind of affection I speak with about Fort McMurray. He would often exclaim things like: "I will tell this story to my people!", making it sound like the people of LA are his tribe. And after the last couple of weeks I found this statement particularly relevant for me, because more than ever I feel like I have found my tribe. I have found "my people" with the residents of Fort McMurray.

It has been a whirlwind couple of weeks, The good people of this region took on Canada Post, a behemoth Crown Corporation, and David slew Goliath when Canada Post backed down on the matter of a little hidden $5 surcharge they hoped to quietly slap onto parcels being shipped into us. The collective voice we raised was impressive indeed, with enough ferocity that even Canada Post, not exactly known for speedy delivery in this region, rapidly changed course when it became clear this surcharge was becoming a debacle. And I was so impressed by how people responded, from Twitter to Facebook to an online petition to emails and phone calls to the Minister in charge of that Crown Corporation.

I thought we had accomplished something quite incredible, you see. But our triumph over Canada Post was nothing compared to what followed when I was humbled to find residents on Twitter and Facebook sharing beautiful photos of our region using a hashtag I had created. That little hashtag, designed to be a bit provocative and edgy, went far beyond our community, though, and spread throughout the country, taking with it a new narrative of Fort McMurray. It was a grassroots, community-driven effort to show another perspective of the home we love - and it worked.

Suddenly those in our country who had only seen images of oilsands sites were seeing another aspect of life here - boreal forest. wildlife, rivers, lakes, northern lights, and us spending time in the outdoors with our families. We were writing our own story with every photo we shared, showing the nation that while yes, oilsands sites are a reality, so too is our community and our natural beauty in northern Alberta.

The hashtag eventually took on political overtones as it was co-opted by others, as these things often do, but the goal was achieved, and with astonishing success. Our photos were being seen in Quebec and BC, Nova Scotia and Ontario. We stood up and said "We are more than oilsands sites. We are more than big trucks and tailings ponds."

There were those who thought this irrelevant, but to me anyone who wants to engage in true dialogue about the oilsands industry must engage with this community, too. We should not be separate from the dialogue but part of it, and the only way to achieve dialogue is to have some sort of understanding of each other. As long as the dialogue excluded our community, or believed our community was synonymous with the industry, we could not engage in any meaningful dialogue. But this week, with photo upon photo upon photo, with engaged and active citizens, we showed that we are a community.

And so when the filmmaker and comedian I spent time with this weekend would refer to "my people" I thought about the people of Fort McMurray, and how they have become my tribe - my people. I thought about all the relationships I have here, and how our lives interconnect and intertwine, and how we work together to accomplish great things. And while we were posting photos we were also doing things like supporting the Sub-Zero Challenge from the Centre of Hope, a fundraiser that saw people sleeping outdoors for a night this past weekend as they challenged the elements, and themselves. We were working on developing things like A Treat for the Homeless, a grassroots community effort that began as an attempt to show one homeless man some kindness and escalated as people came on board, culminating in a lunch on February 8 for our local homeless population, as well as donations of clothing and other items for those in need.

And this is what makes us a tribe, you see. This is what makes me proud to call you "my people". I know that we get together for causes large and small, and that we use our pride in the place where we work, live and play to inspire us to make it a better place for others while also advocating for our community.

I am always proud to be from Fort McMurray. Today I sit here and am simply proud to steal a phrase from a visiting LA comedian and say: "These are my people. Aren't they amazing?"

Because you are.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Ground Zero at My Hiroshima

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Thursday, January 16, 2014

Access Denied



I thought about it again this morning as I struggled in a local parking lot, sheets of ice and ruts of dirty snow between me and my morning coffee. I picked my way through it carefully, penguin-shuffling over the icy patches until I reached the front door of the coffee shop. I looked back at the parking lot and once again I though about how tough some days I find it to get around in this community, and how even walking can be treacherous and difficult. And I can only imagine how tough it would be if you happen to have mobility issues.

I don't talk about my extended family a lot in this blog, but it seems pertinent for this one. I had a cousin, older than I, who was born with a severe form of cerebral palsy. And Cousin Em, as I will call her,  always amazed me as while her body failed her from birth, her mind never faltered. She struggled to communicate on occasion, but you could tell that her thoughts had been unaffected by the effects her condition had on her limbs. She was confined to a wheelchair, and while her control of her arms was limited she could do many things with her feet, including astonishing acts like signing her name (something I could never do with my feet, I am quite certain). But one of her realities was that chair, and she was as reliant on it as I am on my two feet - but while my two feet can manage to take me most places her chair often stood between her and places she wanted or needed to be.

I can't even imagine her frustration, to be honest. To be trapped inside a body that failed her, and to then be further hampered by a world that seemed indifferent to her mobility issues? I am amazed even now at her resiliency, including her decision to later one day marry someone with similar mobility issues, facing life together from their wheelchairs.

And that is why I thought about her again today. I think northern cities, with seasons of snow and ice, are already difficult places to traverse even for those who don't have mobility issues. For those in wheelchairs, though, or on motorized scooters, these seasons must be a nightmare. I can only imagine their frustration at having places where they simply cannot go because they know they will be stuck in snow in a parking lot, or find themselves unable to gain traction on the ice.

We have come a long way in addressing these issues, but we still have a very long way to go to improve access for people like my cousin Em. I cringe every time I see one of those automatic doors that doesn't work when the button is pushed, because while no big deal for me it would have been just another barrier in life for Em. Every time I see a sidewalk that hasn't been cleared or a parking lot that hasn't been plowed or a crosswalk that is virtually impassable even for those who are able to walk I think about Em, and how it must have felt for her. Instead of seeing the world as accessible I look around and can almost see flashing "access denied" signs on every corner, and how incredibly frustrating - and demeaning - it must feel to realize that you do not have the same access or freedom as those who can walk with ease.

This morning I found myself entering the coffee shop with tears in my eyes as the injustice of it all hit me. Not just the injustice of a condition that afflicted Em with great challenges and great suffering, things she rose to time and time again with an indomitable spirit, but the injustice of a world that denied her the same access we all want to enjoy. I don't know entirely what the solution is, but I know this: we can do better for Em, and for all those who find themselves with access denied.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

My Hiroshima

I rarely do double posts in a day, as I don't believe that readers tend to appreciate them. Today I am making an exception and doing a brief post, as I would like to suggest a response to some recent comments from Canadian musician and icon Neil Young.

One of the comments Neil made when he was in Fort McMurray was saying it looked like "Hiroshima". Now, not only is this an insult to our region but I would say it is an insult to Hiroshima as well, a place that witnessed the kind of destruction that few can imagine.

One of my biggest issues with this comment is that Neil did not differentiate between industry and community. And I will be very frank - industry is not pretty. The oil sands sites are not beautiful, but then again I was in a gold mine once, far underground where the "ugly" was hidden from view but there nonetheless. I have been in a pulp and paper mill, and an abattoir - and not a single one was pretty.

The funny thing is, though, that the communities around those places were often quite lovely. The gold mine was beneath a small town in northwestern Ontario, a place of stunning natural beauty with lakes and trees and bright northern skies. The pulp and paper mill was minutes from a forest, a deep and dark one with lush green undergrowth. And the abattoir was on the edge of the city where I grew up in Saskatchewan, mere feet from waving fields of grain, an endless horizon, and under a bright prairie sun.

Fort McMurray is more than oil sands. We are more than industry. We are, in fact, in the middle of the vast boreal forest, and today I am going to start sending a subtle message to the world using social media. I am going to tweet or post one picture a day of my Fort McMurray, and I am going to hashtag it to three words: #ymm #tarsands #myhiroshima. In the case of Facebook I may add text to that effect, and I am hoping to accomplish three things:
  • That those from other places will see these photos and realize there is more to us than oil and industry
  • That others may share my photos and reflect that which is my reality
  • That others may choose to do the same with their photos.

And as much as I avoid the use of the word "tarsands" in this case I will use it very deliberately, as those who wish to view us as Hiroshima use that word, and I want them to perhaps get a glimpse that it may not be quite what they believe it to be.

This is my first photo. Taken during the autumn years ago in Abasand, this was the view from the end of my street, just feet from my front door. This, you see, is my Hiroshima:

Don't Come Around Here No More

I am a big fan of classic music, and often find myself listening to the music that has lived on through time and defined generations. Recently I have found myself torn, as I am a fan of Neil Young's music, but not such a fan of some of his recent comments regarding my region.

I want to start by saying that I share some of Neil's concerns about the oil sands industry. I am not a proponent of rapid development, and while I believe oil is a current reality I too have a child and think about her future. I believe in smart development, done in a sustainable manner, and using best practices in regards to the environment and reclamation.

When Neil visited Fort McMurray recently I took that opportunity to speak to some people I know who farm in southern Alberta. Neil has been quite vocal about his support for farmers, but the farmers I spoke to thought his messaging was a bit incongruous, noting their own reliance on oil for the production and transportation of their crops and animals. They too shared some of his concerns about development, but they also did not see how ending oil sands development would help them in any way, increasing the price of oil instead and making farming an even more challenging occupation.

Neil is on record as saying that "rock stars don't need oil". I imagine this statement might not sit well with other rock stars who are currently sitting somewhere on a tour bus or a plane fuelled by oil, with semi trucks full of gear and equipment as they tour. And then there are the up and coming rock stars, touring in their small VW vans and their dilapidated tour buses, just hoping to break into the spotlight. For them oil is a reality, too, and while a rock star who has made his millions might be able to contend that "rock stars don't need oil" they may have a slightly different opinion. And then one might point out that Young's biomass fuelled car cost about $1 million,  a bit out of reach for most in terms of financial reality. Neil Young might not need oil (although one could further point out that those who attend his concerts likely travel there by car), but I think perhaps he should not go so far as to claim to speak for anyone else, even all "rock stars".

And so I find myself torn. I love Neil Young's music, and always have. I have sympathy with many of his concerns, including his concerns about our First Nations people, and ensuring that they are not only treated fairly but with respect and dignity for their concerns in regards to industrial development. I am disappointed that when he visited Fort McMurray he chose to not meet with local residents who love this place, and who could have shared that love with him so he would perhaps better understand us and our point of view - but I suspect he had no time or patience for those meetings because they did not shore up his own beliefs and ideals, and, well, it is hard to have one's beliefs challenged.

I do appreciate that Neil has visited us, but he did not come on some fact finding mission. He came to confirm what he already believed, and as we all know one can easily find evidence to support whatever we happen to believe if we look hard enough. He was not particularly interested in anything or anyone who did not fall into line with what he thinks to be true, and I think that is unfortunate as I am no fan of any hard stance, whether hard left or hard right. I think remaining open to the potential that you are wrong, and fallible, and that there are many sides to any given topic is crucial to not becoming a curmudgeon - and I have known some curmedgeons in my time.

Neil is a tremendously gifted musician, and no doubt talented and skilled in many regards. And yet recently I have instead been listening to another classic musician, and one of the messages he sang about many years ago. I am sending this one out to Neil, with my thanks for his many years of music, and his willingness to visit us - but no thanks for his refusal to see another side, or to consider that perhaps he could be seeing only what he wants to see. So, Neil, this is for you - via Tom Petty:

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Successful Delivery

I was in a meeting when my phone exploded, buzzing so rapidly it almost fell off the table. Texts, tweets, and emails were coming in at an astonishing rate, all asking me if I had heard: Canada Post had reversed the decision to implement an arbitrary $5 surcharge on parcels coming into Fort McMurray.

I was stunned, to be honest, because government agencies are not known to be particularly responsive, and certainly not responsive in such rapid fashion. The pressure had been intense, though, ever since the residents of Fort McMurray had discovered through social media that Canada Post had plans to implement this new surcharge. Blog posts, angry tweets, an online petition, and emails and phone calls to the federal Minister in charge were likely the first signals of trouble brewing in a northern Alberta city where I doubt Canada Post truly understood they would find any opposition to this decision. Media interviews then followed, the story going provincial and national as the outrage spread - and finally, at the end of the day, Canada Post was backed up against a wall and had to cry uncle.

The reality is that I think Canada Post misunderstood a few things.

They underestimated the power of the collective voice, particularly in a community like Fort McMurray where we have in recent years discovered the strength of our voice. The Highway 63 twinning movement showed us what we can do when we rally in numbers, and when we use every avenue available to us to spread the word.

Canada Post also misunderstood the nature of our community. I think perhaps they thought of us as a place where such a decision could be made without announcement or explanation, a woefully poor tactic given our community's sensitivity to the importance of transparency and accountability. We take a dim view of paternalistic decisions hidden from view until presented as a done deal, and Canada Post was using an old and outdated strategy in this regard.

And I think Canada Post simply did not recognize the magnitude of the current sentiment about postal service, and how almost every single resident has a story about delayed or lost parcels. They just weren't paying attention to the complaints and concerns expressed - and didn't understand that instituting a new surcharge would not go down well given the current standard of service. I think they are paying attention now.

When the decision was reversed Canada Post said they did so because the surcharge had caused "confusion and concern" in Fort McMurray. And while I am appreciative of the reversal I wish they had acknowledged that the confusion and concern was of their own making, through a lack of proper communication with the public. A clear and concise announcement, with an explanation of where the funds raised by the surcharge would go and a solid financial case showing the need for it would have gone a long way in making the decision more palatable to the residents of this region. In the end it was their own communication failure that doomed them, no matter how they would like to spin it now (and I find it intriguing that at the beginning of all this one of their own spokespeople denied that this surcharge even existed, and then later stated it would not go to employee retention, statements that were contradicted in other interviews with CP - maybe the folks at Canada Post should try talking to each other).

Late last night a friend texted me and told me that one of my qualities they admire the most is my tenacity (others would likely characterize this as "an inability to let things go"). I will admit that tenacity is in my blood, the daughter of a father who should have had tenacity as his middle name. But what I have found in Fort McMurray is an entire community of tenacious people, those who stick together through hell or high water. We come together to sand bag during floods, to raise money for those in need, to twin highways, and to push back at government agencies when we feel they are abusing our pocketbook, our good nature, and our community. This week we once again tried out that collective voice, and saw the power and impact it has. I hope we always remember the strength of that voice, and use it wisely and well - but most of all I hope we take pride that our message was successfully delivered while a nation watched. We sent a message to Canada Post, but more than that we sent a message to Canada. We showed them that far from being some apathetic, transient, work camp town we are instead a community with strength, passion, commitment, and tenacity. It was, in the end, a successful delivery indeed.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Blue Ribbon Runs Through It

There are moments in time you never forget, etched into your memories and destined to withstand the whimsies of time. I have been fortunate to have a few of those moments in my life, like when the Intrepid Junior Blogger was born, and some have been more recent, too. Some go far back, though, decades into the past, and only surfacing when triggered by a name or a song. And so it is with Blue Rodeo, a band with which I have a long history.

My blogging friend Verna wrote recently about her memories of Blue Rodeo, and how they have been the soundtrack of her life. I too have long been a fan, although my experience was a bit different, because I had the pleasure of watching them from close to the beginning of their career, when they were not the icons they have become.

You see, over two decades ago I left my prairie city and headed east, far east to "the Big Smoke" of Toronto. I left behind family and most of my friends, throwing in my lot with my-then partner and his friends, who were pursuing their own musical dreams in that city. I had never even been to Toronto, and had only dreamed of it, but one day I found myself there, a prairie girl right in the centre of one of the country's largest cities.

And I loved it. I threw myself into the city with zeal, quickly securing a job but even more quickly becoming a fixture on the burgeoning music scene on Queen Street West. It was a time when so many bands were coming up, and a time of change in the musical industry as individuals like those in Blue Rodeo began to explore the concept of crossover, of taking country music and making it more accessible to a larger audience. I was so fortunate to be there at the start of it all, and to be at the front of the stage when they played small clubs along the Queen West strip. I saw them play in places like The Rivoli and The Horseshoe Tavern, and I along with the others in front of those stages knew we were witnessing something special.

It was an interesting time to be in Toronto. There was an excitement and a vibrancy, a gathering of talents and an explosion of music. I recall so well long nights spent at The Cameron House, a place where I would find myself at a table, Black Label beer in hand, debating music, and politics, and life. I recall all those concerts and nights before a stage, so many different bands and so many different names as they all sought to find their rhythm.

There was a group of us who followed Blue Rodeo. We were more than fans and less than friends, people who went to every gig we could. We knew the songs by heart, and we knew the set list, noticing when they changed it up from show to show. We knew when they were in their moment and had found their sweet spot, and when the music was more than just music and instead something far more, a collective gathering of our hearts. There were so many special moments at the end of the night, when the band was winding down and we would disperse out onto the streets of the city, most of the city fast asleep except for us, when it seemed we had seen something less like a show and more like magic.

It doesn't take much to trigger my memory of those days. Two years ago Blue Rodeo played here on an outdoor stage, under the stars and the northern lights. I had the honour of acting as their hospitality host and as I expected they did not remember me from those Toronto days, as I was just a face in a crowded sea of those who followed them - but I remembered them.  I stood that night on the scaffolding of the VIP section, transfixed as the music flowed above and around me, and I was transported back to a small club on Queen Street West, and a moment when I knew I was seeing something special unfold in front of me.

So many of the names I knew from the music scene back then have gone on to other things. Gordie Johnson, who I went to house parties with and saw play in various bands, went on to form Big Sugar. Chuck Angus, a major part of the group Grievous Angels, went on to become Charlie Angus, Member of Parliament (I am not sure any of us would have predicted that back then). Some have disappeared, too, and I often wonder where they have gone. But over the years I have run across the names of various others, including those in the group of more-than-fans and less-than-friends, and even run into them on occasion in the places they have found themselves as the journeys of our lives took their own paths.

And now, here I am in Fort McMurray, where Blue Rodeo will once again play this week. I don't know if I ever imagined myself here, all those years ago in Toronto when I stood in front of a stage, beer bottle in hand, swaying to the songs I knew so well that I could hear them whenever I shut my eyes and thought for just a moment. I don't know if I ever imagined that Blue Rodeo would be playing still, touring again as they presented a new album to people like me who had followed them for years. I don't know if I ever imagined that our paths would cross again and again over the years, every time I heard them on the radio or saw them on a stage once again. All I know is that sometimes there are ribbons that run through the fabric of your life, on occasion disappearing underneath but then resurfacing again to remind you of those moments in your past when you were part of something special. And I know that one of those moments will be on Thursday night, when Blue Rodeo takes the stage, and a magic moment will occur once more, transporting me back to over two decades ago, and a much different world.




Friday, January 10, 2014

Now Hiring

"You must be very happy right now", read the text.

And as I read it I couldn't help but think how wrong the sender was, as I was not very happy at all. The text had arrived from a friend, hard on the heels of the announcement from our local MP indicating his resignation as our representative effective January 17. I was far from happy. I was accepting of the decision, of course, and not even particularly surprised as I had known and felt for some time that it was likely coming. I wasn't happy, but I wasn't disappointed, either - I was just resigned, too.

I want to make something very clear: I have never had anything against Mr. Jean as an individual. On the occasions I met him he seemed intelligent and well spoken, charming and without a doubt someone who has strong family ties and personal investment in our community. It was no secret that I despised his tree-killing paper newsletters, both for their waste of paper and their content that was often of little value to me, but I knew those newsletters were likely not his own idea. And it was no secret that I often disagreed with his political views, but again I am quite far left of centre in this province, and I make no bones about the fact that I was raised in NDP-era Saskatchewan, with a strong left lean in all I think and believe. I was predisposed to never agree with much of his political view. But I never doubted that he believed in this community and in this region, and while I worried about his representation of us in Ottawa all I truly wanted was to see him grow in his role and improve our position on the federal stage, as we had elected him to do.

That was cut short today when he resigned, a move that came as a surprise to many but not to me. His recent erratic behaviour on social media concerned me, including a near-argument he engaged in with my own Intrepid Junior Blogger. I couldn't determine the strategy or the concept that was guiding this social media use, and it puzzled me. It still does, to be honest, but I am also resigned to simply accepting that, too.

You see, I believe what we need in Ottawa is strong representation. I want someone who is willing to fight tooth and nail for us, to get backed up against a wall and come out swinging, to refuse to back down or accept less than what we need or deserve. We are facing some challenges in this region, and some crucial decisions. We are at a time of great opportunity, and great potential - and yet there is great possibility for us to falter, too, and we need the kind of representatives who will ensure our needs are heard and our challenges addressed. We need strength, and good judgment, and wisdom. We need a strong voice. I had once hoped that Mr. Jean would be that voice, but for whatever reason it appears he won't be, at least not in the future, and so we are now in the position where we are hiring a new voice - because that is essentially what we will be doing, you see. We will be voting to hire a new employee, one who will represent us, our needs, and our concerns. And frankly we need to find one helluva rock star employee for this position, and I hope we will be able to do it soon, because we cannot afford to be without representation for long.

Mr. Jean, this may or may not come as a surprise on a day full of them, but I want to thank you personally. I recognize that we did not always agree, and that some days I challenged you to step up and do a better job. While on occasion I doubted the strength of your representation and your political view I never doubted your love for your community, and I never doubted that you were sacrificing a great deal to represent us, because politics is not an easy job, despite what anyone says. I know that you faced many challenges, including people like me barking at your heels, and I want to thank you for your years of service to us, and to my family. Your contribution has been acknowledged, and is appreciated by me (and even by the very left leaning Intrepid Junior Blogger).

And to this region I now say this: who will apply for the job? Who has what it takes to be our new federal representative, with a strong voice, courage, and a will of steel? Who is willing to make the sacrifices required, and bring their very best to a difficult job every single day? Time will only tell as we begin to see names tossed around and eventually a few names on a ballot - but today I choose instead to think about the future with hope and optimism, as we search for a new voice. We are now hiring.

And just for the record if they send me a damn paper newsletter after they are elected it's game on.

Going Postal in Fort McMurray, Part Two: Return to Sender

Yesterday I wrote about a little plan hatched by Canada Post to address some of their financial woes, and it involved invoking a $5 surcharge on all parcels coming into Fort McMurray. That post, and that decision, ignited a social media firestorm, and while it was intriguing to watch the response on Twitter and Facebook from local residents it was even more intriguing to see Canada Post's reaction, which was:

** crickets**

Yes, dozens of people tweeted at Canada Post and asked for an explanation of this surcharge, and they did not reply to a single person (especially outraging from the ironically named @canadapostcares Twitter account). Not one. Now, their spokesperson did an interview with the Fort McMurray Today, and when asked why Canada Post is instituting this surcharge his response? Well, this was it:

Caines said he found out about the surcharge after Tuesday, and explained that it reflects the fact that it’s expensive to do business in the city.

“It’s related to the cost of doing service there, for providing the service. It’s that much more costly for us to do business there,” Caines said.

When asked if the charge will improve service in Fort McMurray, Caines responded, “Service has improved exponentially in Fort McMurray, we know that for sure. All through the Christmas holidays we had great service up there, parcels were being delivered, everything was fine.”

He added that Canada Post is trying to hire more people to deal with the understaffing issue, but said the surcharge wouldn’t go towards raising salaries to keep people in their jobs at Canada Post.

Fort McMurray Today, January 9, 2014

Now, keep in mind this is the same spokesperson who apparently earlier this week denied any such knowledge of any such surcharge to the reporter from the Today, and who appears to be a deer in the headlights when it comes to the realities, since for months residents have been complaining about lost and delayed mail and parcels, and erratic delivery service in Fort McMurray.

I asked Canada Post - repeatedly - to advise how many parcels come into Fort McMurray on a daily basis so I could gauge what this would mean in terms of cold, hard cash into their coffers. And while they did not respond to me (or anyone else) a former local employee did. They informed me that they estimated an average of 2000 parcels come into our community daily, with approximately triple that amount at Christmas. At $5 per parcel, and considering some variances for weekends, one could estimate that Canada Post is looking at about $3 million dollars plus in new revenue - just from this surcharge.

And please note that it seems this revenue is not intended to increase salaries to improve retention, and while they are trying to hire more staff it seems this cash is not destined to bump up salaries to entice new employees. And as per the spokesperson above the common wisdom at Canada Post Corporation seems to be that all is just hunky-dory in Fort McMurray and everyone is blissfully happy with their mail delivery....except that this is not seen in the deluge of emails and messages I have been receiving.

What I have heard is dozens of complaints, and even more so comments from people who have reached out to Canada Post through Facebook and Twitter and found their comments not only ignored but in the case of Facebook even deleted and their participation blocked so they could not communicate with Canada Post further. I take a dim view of this strategy, as unless an individual is abusive to other customers then their participation on your social media should be encouraged, even if it is complaints because those complaints give you an opportunity to improve your service. If your social media is only present to pay lip service to the concept of dialogue then you are better off not having it at all, because it defeats the purpose of creating that dialogue between service provider and customer, and instead of being good public relations it becomes some of the worst.

So, what would I suggest? I would like to see a press release from Canada Post detailing a few things. Since I suspect they never planned to announce this change publicly and you were likely only going to find out about it when Nan in Newfoundland went to send your birthday parcel and got dinged an extra 5 bucks I think the time has come when they cough up some facts.

Here I what I would like to see:

  • a list of all communities who will have similar surcharges applied
  • a total amount of annual revenue expected to be generated by this change
  • a total amount of parcel volume into Fort McMurray
  • an explanation of the increased costs of doing business here if salaries are not higher
  • a response to some of the current complaints as expressed by local residents over service or lack thereof
  • a commitment to not applying a similar surcharge to parcels originating in Fort McMurray (which would seem the next logical step if applying the increased costs of service argument)
  • what impact this may have on agreements with retailers who provide online shopping and ship via Canada Post

Here is what I don't want to see:

** crickets**

I would also suggest that given this is a Crown Corporation that they not only have an obligation but a responsibility to reply to their customers, who are taxpayers and thus stakeholders in their business. These responses are not "optional", but I would rather suggest they are mandatory, because Canada Post does not "own" us - we own them, and as such we are deserving of some answers.

I would also suggest that this is an opportunity for our local MP to regain some ground he has recently lost with his electorate. He has the right and responsibility to seek answers on our behalf, and I would very much like to see Brian Jean do so, and do so immediately. This is a federal issue, and it is time for him to step up - or step aside if he can do nothing to provide the answers we seek. What I don't want to see from him is this:

**crickets**

I want to make something else clear. I am not of the "pitchforks and torch" crowd, and I am not looking to burn anyone at the stake. If this decision can be proven to me through sound financial reasoning then I am quite willing to let the matter drop - but if this is a Fort McMurray cash grab, one destined to have an effect on us and those who ship to us, whether they be Nan in Newfoundland or small business in Alberta or massive online retailers, then that should be understood as well. I think it is quite reasonable to not only ask for answers, but demand them - because I am very tired of having my questions returned to sender, like undelivered mail.



 





Thursday, January 9, 2014

Going Postal in Fort McMurray

I couldn't quite believe it when I read it on Facebook, and so I went on an independent search in the hopes of learning it wasn't true. You see, someone had posted a status indicating that Canada Post was going to implement a new area service area "adjustment" on parcels coming into Fort McMurray, and given our current postal woes I thought they surely must be incorrect and this was all some nefarious rumour. And then I found this:

Parcel Services Price and Service Overview of Changes

Service-area adjustment
A service-area adjustment of $5.00 will be applied to parcels shipped to areas Canada Post has identified as having a particularly high cost to serve (i.e.: Fort McMurray, Alberta).


That would be about when I felt my blood pressure rising. I realized I was about to go postal, but not in the good way where I go to the local post office (staffed by some lovely employees, incidentally). No, I was going to go postal over what appears to be another attempt to make some coin off our community.

What I found even more intriguing is when I went on Twitter a local journalist indicated that a spokesperson for Canada Post had denied this change, and yet I had found a document through a 30-second web search clearly showing this change is not only planned, but imminent. I'm not sure when, or if, they planned to let this cat out of the bag, but it is out there now, and it is worthy of discussion.

Look, I know Canada Post is experiencing some financial woes, and I am sorry to hear it because I support them, both as an organization and their employees. I believe in the beauty of mail, and as a writer I know nothing means more than the written word clutched in your hand on a piece of paper. I actually think the local employees are trying, but I also suspect they are overworked, underpaid and frustrated. What I do know is that in recent months postal service in Fort McMurray has been sub-par, and I and many others have experienced delayed and lost parcels, erratic delivery service, and seen worrisome things like parcels requiring signatures left on doorsteps. I found one parcel that was listed as delivered hidden in a bin of gardening equipment, where it might have stayed all winter had I not checked (as it is it sat there for a week in freezing temperatures as while CP insisted it was delivered I had no idea where it was). I have seen photos of delivery vehicles left with doors wide open and no employee in sight, parcels ripe for the picking by those who wandered by, and I have seen photos of mail delivery boxes left completely unlocked with the mail for dozens of houses in full view and again ripe for any thief (and for the record your mail likely includes enough for a clever con to stage a successful identity theft). What I have been seeing is a decline in service standards locally - and what I saw last night was evidence of some attempt to increase prices but not necessarily to address those service issues.

To be clear I am seeking some clarification on all this. I am currently trying to ascertain how many parcels are shipped into Fort McMurray on an annual basis. If each parcel being shipped in has an additional $5 surcharge tacked on I would like to know what that will total to on an annual basis as well, and then I would like to learn how that extra money will be used to address current service issues and improve local delivery. Will it go to increase the salaries of the local employees and increase employee retention? Will it go to hire more employees locally to address erratic delivery? And how will this affect those who ship to us, whether it is family or online retailers? What is the potential impact on businesses, both locally and those who do business with us? And finally will this actually drive those shipping to us away from Canada Post and into the arms of other delivery services who will not implement such surcharges? And what is this "high cost to serve" they mention as the justification for this increase?

I have contacted Canada Post to ask them to confirm if the document above is accurate and for clarification, and if so I would like to see some answers to my questions. If this is not an attempt to simply make some cash off our community (the Fort McMurray money grab is all too common a phenomenon) then I would like to see the plans to address our current service woes clearly explained, and how this surcharge will in fact benefit those of us who use Canada Post and who do our best to support them as an organization. And while they are at it perhaps they can answer some of the dozens of questions and concerns I have seen from local people asking about delayed and lost parcels and mail, as there has been trouble brewing with Canada Post here for some time, and this new strategy of actually making it cost more to ship to us is likely to be seen with very little enthusiasm until those issues are addressed. I eagerly await further information to be released on this matter, because frankly I suspect that if the answers provided are not satisfactory I won't be the only person in Fort McMurray to go postal in 2014.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Simpson-Esque

When I suggested I was working on a blog post related to my favourite line from the iconic television show 'The Simpsons' there was a lot of speculation about my favourite line, and how it might relate to Fort McMurray. Suggested was everything from "d'oh" (something I say often in traffic when someone cuts in front of me, fishtailing as they go and slowing down to ensure I almost clip their bumper) to the monorail theme song. And while I have found myself humming the monorail theme song when I was worried we were being taken in by song and dance men intent on selling their snake oil to this region, those phrases and songs are not my favourite line from The Simpsons. No, my favourite line is actually from Ned Flanders' father.

If you are a Simpsons fan you know that Ned's parents were beatniks, sort of the precursor to the hippies. When they were raising little Ned they tried to stay away from the then-current norms of discipline and parental authority, but when Ned began to display bad behaviour beyond their control they took him to see a child psychiatrist, who asked what they had tried to change his behaviour. Ned's father, desperate for help, said:

 
We’ve tried nothin’ and we’re all out of ideas.
 
 
It is, to me, not only the best line of The Simpsons but a deeply profound statement, and one that occurs to me often both in my personal life, and when talking about this community.
 
I had a conversation with someone at the end of 2013 who expressed their unhappiness with the plans to redevelop the downtown core in Fort McMurray. I have not hidden my support for this initiative, as I believe it is long overdue and necessary in order to have a downtown that becomes what we deserve - vibrant, energetic, and active. I worry when I see other communities that have focused solely on their suburban development, neglecting their downtown cores only to see them wither and die. And I know what a vibrant downtown can be, having grown up in Saskatoon, a city that managed to not only preserve but enhance the beautiful riverfront that graces that city. My conversation partner, however, wanted none of it. No redevelopment, no matter the direction, and no changes, because they believed the city had never had to intervene in such a direct way before, so why now? Why did we have to try to change the Snye waterfront, and redevelop the downtown? Why not just let it develop on its own, without assistance or intervention? Why not just let it be whatever it would become?
 
I believe there are parts of the redevelopment of the downtown core in Fort McMurray that are negotiable. Perhaps we can find a way for motorized vehicles to share the Snye with others who wish to enjoy the waterfront, and perhaps the proposed arena could be built in a different location should concerns about the proposed location dictate it. But what shouldn't be in doubt or in question is the plain necessity of doing something about our downtown core, because until now, we've tried nothing - but we do have an idea. We have an idea to make it a vital part of our community, not some forgotten core that will have to limp along on its own. We have an idea about how to create something special in our downtown, something that will attract new residents and please current ones. And the idea may not perfect, and it may need adjusting - but at least we have an idea.
 
When I was a child growing up in Saskatoon we had a Sunday ritual in the summers. My parents would pack a picnic, and we would head to Bessborough Park, one of the lovely spots along the river flowing through that city. We would stop and pick up a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and down we would head to the riverbank, my parents and I and whichever of my four sisters that happened to be around and their ever-changing cast of boyfriends and friends, and we would set up for the day with blankets and coolers and Frisbees. I still have photos of those outings, but more than that I have that picture in my head of enjoying our urban downtown, and how it felt like home. Whenever I go back to Saskatoon I head to that park, and I can almost see and hear the ghosts of those days.
 
And so this is what I want for Fort McMurray, too. I want us to have a downtown core that is not known for crime or other unpleasantries but rather remembered for long sunny afternoons with the family. I want one remembered for walks on cold winter days, stops at small coffee shops, and browsing through little shops along the way. I want us to never look back in the future and say "we've tried nothing, and we're all out of ideas", because then it may be too late, and our chance to create a vibrant downtown may be lost forever.
 
The devil is in the details, as they say, and some of the details of downtown redevelopment may still need to be ironed out - but the seed of the idea, the need to redevelop our downtown while both embracing our history, enjoying our present, and welcoming our future, is one we ignore at our own peril, and the peril of those growing up here, and who will one day have those memories in their heads. I remain committed to the concept of a revitalized urban core, one that will bring new experiences, new opportunities, and new possibilities. And whenever someone tells me we need to "do nothing" that line from The Simpsons dances through my head - because when we do nothing all the ideas fall away, doing nothing becomes the norm, and one day we realize we are not only out of time, but out of ideas, too.