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

Monday, March 31, 2014

Go Home Winter. You're Drunk.

I rarely use material in this blog that I have written for other outlets as it always feels like "cheating", but this morning on the last day of March when I woke up and looked at the temperature outdoors I realized this is every bit as relevant as when I published it in Connect Weekly some time ago. Let's hope April arrives with spring in her Easter basket, shall we?

I am in fact just ready for it to be over. It is astonishing how the excitement I felt in the fall over the first gentle snowflakes has now become a dread of looking outdoors and seeing fresh snow on the driveway. What once filled me with wonder now fills me with a sense of impending doom as I head out to shovel, again, and clean off the car, again. Winter, it seems, will just never, ever end.

 I think it is perhaps the hallmark of being a western Canadian that we have this love/hate relationship with winter. Nobody feels this way about any other season. Summer is glorious and I have never heard anyone wish the long days and sunny skies would just be over already. Fall is the time of crisp autumn leaves and spring is the time when green shoots and buds begin to appear, and no one begrudges those seasons. But winter, oh winter, how it seems to have gone on forever when March finally rolls around, and how burdened we seem by our heavy coats and mittens and toques.

Those first snowflakes often fill us with glee, having us running to our sheds to grab toboggans and get our skis and skates in order. The charm lasts for awhile, too, with most of us relishing the bright lights of the holidays contrasted against the fresh white snow – but as the weeks and months wear on the charm begins to fade, like a house guest who stayed too long, drank too much wine and now refuses to take a hint.
Go home, winter. You’re drunk – or so we think to ourselves, a season drunk on its own power and longevity and ability to drive us insane with the unpredictability of the season. We have had enough of this houseguest and we are ready to fluff up the pillows and welcome a new one, a guest who comes with a gentler personality and a promise of an even warmer guest to follow. But winter, well, it just isn’t always ready to leave.

We watch the temperature like hawks, seeing every increase in the digits give rise to our spirits while any dip, no matter how temporary, feels like a curtain of doom falling across our hopes. We watch the skies for patches of blue and for glimpses of sun, hoping against hope that this will be the day when it finally breaks and winter decides to begin to retreat, exiting quietly stage left while spring arrives stage right.
How fickle we are, really, the same ones who welcomed the season with excitement now anxiously waiting for it to depart so we can slam the door and turn all the locks, preventing its return. But so it is our nature, and so it has always been.

Spring is coming, and while we know it is inevitable we cannot help but sigh and moan about the slow departure of that “other season”, the guest we once invited in but now are giving the bum’s rush out the door in favour of a new arrival. And, when spring arrives and winter has faded we will not miss it, will not likely reminisce on how wonderful it was and how we wish it would come back…until the fall, when once again we watch the skies for the signs of the first snowflake drifting down gently, landing on our nose perhaps and making us smile.

Go home winter. You’re drunk. Go home and sober up and give us a little break and then come back again next fall, when we have forgotten your trials and tribulations and are ready to welcome you back once again. It was lovely having you as a guest, and we know you will return – but we are ready now for your departure and a new season filled with opportunities and promise.

 
 
 
 
 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Hope and Hard Work in Fort McMurray

We are headed into yet another election in this region, after what seems an endless series of elections. Two years ago we saw the provincial election, in the fall of 2013 we went through a contentious and hard-fought municipal election and now, thanks to our former MP who resigned rather abruptly for reasons unknown, we face a federal by-election.

One could get worn down by these ceaseless elections, I suppose, three in less than three years and all promising to have significant impact on our community - but this last one is perhaps the most intriguing, because things that were once taken for granted in this region are not quite so certain any longer.

On Thursday of this week this man is coming to town:


And in my mind he could well be a game-changer for this country. Justin Trudeau, the son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Margaret Trudeau, has a distinguished pedigree, no doubt, but he is also bringing new energy and new life to a party that not so long ago was in dire straights. Not everyone is a fan of Justin, or of the Liberal party - but in my household he is pretty much a superstar where the Intrepid Junior Blogger adores him with the intensity other teen girls reserve for that "other" famous Canadian named Justin.

I will not hide that I was a fan of his father's growing up, and in fact I always admired both his parents for their intelligence, their strength of character and personality. I was, much like the IJB, always keenly interested in politics, and politicians who could combine intelligence, charisma and a genuine interest in leaving the world a better place than they found it always captured me. I believe PET was one of those politicians, and Justin seems to have followed in his father's footsteps in some regards - but in others he is very much his own man, too.

The local Liberal Party of Canada has now chosen their candidate in Kyle Harrietha, well known in the region for his political savvy and his understanding of the needs and issues of this region. There are others in the running now too, Tim Moen of the Libertarian Party (and someone who is both a friend and a bit of a political wunderkind, having garnered a significant amount of attention from across North America as he presents a libertarian approach to politics), and Lori McDaniel of the New Democratic Party. The candidate for the Conservatives is as of yet undetermined, but one can only hope that they focus less on creating crossword puzzles about the colour of their hair (don't even get me started on the egregious waste of tax payer dollars our previous MP engaged in while serious issues in this region went unaddressed) and more on convincing us to vote Conservative in this region - because I do think we will need some convincing after years in which the federal government has engaged in some neglect of our region.

There is a great deal of lip service being paid to this being the economic engine of the country, perhaps the most important part of our economy as a nation, and yet woefully little has been done by the federal government in recent years to convince us they believe in our importance. Their input in this region has been shamefully lacking, and their tenure here has recently been marked by inactivity and even hindrance of progress as seen in the debacle surrounding the transfer of the land at Willow Square. I think a sense of complacency has set in, and I have heard that our Prime Minister will not even deign to come here during this by-election campaign, a crucial election for our region - and I think that is very telling. If our national leader cannot come to the "economic engine" of the country during a critical election regarding the future of our region what does this say about our true value and importance in the eyes of the federal government? What does that say about how they view us, and if they might take us just a wee bit for granted?

Here's the deal, people. This election matters, and the future of our region matters. I am not going to tell you how to vote. I am not going to tell you how I am going to vote. I am going to say that I am tired of lip service about our importance and our value and a lack of action backing up that chatter. I am going to listen to the candidates, meet with them and do my best to weigh our options. 

I must say, though, that as a writer one of the most compelling campaign slogans I have ever heard is the one from the Liberals: "Hope and hard work". You see, hope and hard work is what political campaigns are all about, and I know this well first hand. But hope and hard work is what this region is all about, too, hope for the future and our families and our lives, and the hard work we put into making this a better place every single day. In fact I don't know if there is a place in this country where there is more hope, and where there is more hard work being invested every single day into continuing to be the economic engine of this country. I know I go into this election with hope and hard work, and whatever the eventual outcome is I know we will continue to hope - and to work hard to make this the best place in the country to call home. This election, you see, is just one more chance to combine hope and hard work in Fort McMurray.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Callous Nature of a Hit and Run

Early this morning a man, his identity as of yet unknown, was the victim of a hit and run collision that took his life. I won't speculate on the details of his demise, except to say that it is tragic and heartbreaking and that someone, somewhere is going to get some devastating news today indicating that someone they love is never coming home again. There is a lot to be said about the callousness of a  driver who could hit a human being and drive away as if they hit a bag of trash, leaving them there on the road to die alone, but today I won't even write about that as the anger is still too hot to touch. Instead today I write about those individuals who had the audacity to complain on social media that they were delayed in their travels because the RCMP had to shut down the road in order to investigate a collision that claimed a life. Today I write about the cold and callous lack of compassion that seems to dwell in the hearts of some.

I have heard it before, of course, when tragic accidents have shut down the highway for hours as the RCMP picked up the debris and investigated the collision. I understand the inconvenience of being delayed and stopped in traffic, as it has happened to me, too - but how fortunate we are to be the ones safe in our cars and simply inconvenienced as opposed to the ones who lie dead on a highway. How lucky we are to be alive to complain about the delay and bemoaning how slow the police are at doing their jobs. How very fortunate we are to be the ones who are alive, and how we should hope that we will not be on the receiving end of that phone call or visit from the RCMP and learn that it is our loved one who is never coming home again.

I will never, ever understand those who can complain about an inconvenience at a time when someone has died. The callousness of that, the lack of compassion, shows that perhaps we have been fortunate enough to never have such tragedy touch our lives. It has never been one of our family or friends lying in tangled wreckage or crumpled on a road. It has never been someone we loved, and we have never gotten that phone call or visit. How lucky we are, and how shallow our complaints at the inconvenience we face when we are delayed.

It saddens me to see the sort of callousness I witnessed this morning. It is the kind of attitude that rips at the fabric of our community, and that shows a dark side of our humanity, one that does not reflect well on us in any way. It makes us seem as if we do not care, as if we do not understand the value of human life and the nature of compassion. It is a sad commentary on a tragedy which has seen someone die alone on a highway, and an even more sad commentary on those who would complain about the inconvenience of their having done so. It is the callous nature of a hit and run, and it seems, sadly, that the callousness and lack of compassion isn't limited to the hit and run driver alone. How tragic indeed.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Days of Play Doh and Diplomas (and all the days in between)

It was a day that began and finished in local schools. It started in a Grade Four classroom, and ended in the theatre of a high school. It was a long day, with the usual errands and work and things in between, but the start and the finish made me reflect on a few things.

The Intrepid Junior Blogger is now finishing her final year of junior high. As I write this she is in Jasper on a Grade Nine ski trip, a sort of final "hurrah" after three years, and then just a few more weeks of studies and exams...and another chapter closes in her life, one that began in kindergarten at Beacon Hill School.

We were living in Abasand back then, and while the area bussed to Greely Road I wanted to find the school that was the right fit for her, and so prior to kindergarten I wandered into Beacon Hill and met the principal, a meeting that convinced me that she needed to attend school there. And so that is where she went to school, from her very first days until Grade 5.

I drove her to school every single day, and I joined parent council. I became immersed in that little school of 200 students, a place where every teacher knew every student by name, and I fell in love with it. She flourished there, no doubt, but as she grew older I knew we needed to look ahead, and when I heard about the junior high opening in Timberlea I knew she needed to attend it. We moved to Timberlea, and for a year she attended Timberlea School, and then she headed into Ecole McTavish, and three more years of her educational life.

And what formative years they have been. She has excelled academically, and she has grown as a person, too. She has performed on stage, been part of science fairs and robotic competitions and gone on a ski trip. She has served as student council Prime Minister and she has volunteered with the school for the food bank. She has become a young woman, a scholar and a citizen. And, this fall, she will move on.

Last night I sat in the theatre at Westwood High School as the Advanced Placement teachers explained the AP program. As soon as I saw the AP students and heard the teachers I knew the IJB is going to love this environment, where teachers are passionate about their subjects and share that passion with their equally passionate students. I listened wistfully to the AP English and Social Studies teachers, wishing there had been AP when I was in high school (although as I wrote a few days ago I studied under the watchful eye of 'The Tank', which seems to have stood me in good stead over the years and my development as a writer). I listened with awe to the math and science teachers, as the IJB has expressed interest in becoming an engineer (and has started to express a desire to start doing my taxes and keeping the household finances, an arrangement I am considering). I was so enthralled by their total devotion to the subjects they teach and to the success of their students, and I know the IJB will feel the same. Any concerns I had about her heading to high school washed away in those short minutes, and excitement for her replaced any trepidation I may have felt as I know she is going into an environment where she will continue to bloom.

But I was in a good place for excitement, because as I wrote yesterday I had spent some time with a Grade Four class at Westview School, and their excitement and passion for blogging and writing had reminded me so much of the IJB when she was their age. These students, in Grade Four, are still at their beginning of their journey through the Fort McMurray Public School District while the IJB is heading towards the final destination of hers. That final destination? She doesn't know quite yet, a year at U of C, or maybe two...and then off to study overseas, London or Dublin or Cork, she thinks. She may come back to Canada to work, and then again maybe she won't (she is the sort of girl who might find her dream job in another country, I suspect). The reality, though, is that she will likely leave Fort McMurray after she finishes Grade Twelve, and I doubt she will ever return - but I know she will never  forget her life here, or the schools she attended.

I have had the honour and privilege of being her mother and her guide in this journey. We have three more years to go, and a few milestones, like Grade Nine graduation (I'll be the weepy one in the front row), high school courses and exams and, finally, Grade Twelve graduation (I'll be the one who is a complete basket case lying sobbing on the floor in the front row as I realize my baby has grown up). There will be adventures in between, of course, and so very many memories, too, many of them focused on her years in the schools of Fort McMurray.

As a parent you realize early in the game how much time your child spends in school. Parents are huge contributors to the development of a child, but so are the teachers they are in contact with every day. Those teachers are the ones who can open up new worlds for our children, ones that we ourselves may not even know exist. They are the ones who can discuss Shrodinger's cat with our child (look, people, she and I have discussed it and to me the cat is either dead or alive, this being both dead AND alive thing makes no sense to me but it does to her and her science teacher). They are the ones who help to steward our child's development, not just as students but as people and as citizens, and that is why it is so fundamentally crucial that the teachers be not only good at what they do, but excellent. They must be the kinds of stewards - and mentors - we want for our children, and I, and the IJB, are so fortunate to have had so many of these teachers in her life. I know, too, that she will have another three years of them before she finally ends this chapter of her life and moves on to new adventures.

Yesterday was a day that reminded me of these things, as I spoke with excited Grade Four students and their remarkable teacher, and then last night with the incredible teachers and students of the AP program at Westwood. I wished the IJB could have been with me for all of it, but she was instead on a bus to Jasper, another part of this adventure of her educational years. I know, though, that the next few years will see some tears, like when she leaves McTavish for the last time, and when one day, far too soon, she stands in a cap and gown with a diploma in those hands that were once so very tiny and filled instead with Play Doh. But in between those years, the days of Play Doh and the days of diplomas, will have been the best experience ever, for both of us - and today I want to thank the Fort McMurray Public School District for being there with great guidance, amazing schools and incredible teachers for every step of the way. The IJB - and her mom - will always be so very grateful.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

30 Minutes with Grade 4L

I am privileged to get a lot of invitations. I get invited to galas and parties, dinners and press conferences. It isn't all the time that I get invited to speak about blogging and writing, though, which is why the invitation from the Grade 4L class at Westview Public School was exceptionally special to me.

There are a few things I am passionate about: my kid, this community, my writing...and youth in general, because I think our youth have such incredible potential. I am always amazed at the way they think, and the chance to speak to them about writing was an opportunity I could not miss, which is how I found myself in front of a class of fourth graders for 30 minutes first thing this morning.

I was extraordinarily pleased when two of the students met me at the front office and escorted me to the classroom, chatting as we went. I was honoured at how excited the class seemed to be, and we immediately launched into a back and forth conversation on blogging, writing and the world in general.

Their teacher, Ms. Tebay, had contacted me a couple of months ago to ask if I would be willing to read the blog the students had been contributing to over the course of the year. I said yes, of course, and I read every single entry, commenting as I went. Their blogs were of the best kind, a blend of fiction and fact and stories of their lives. In every single entry I could see budding writers, and I could see that they were developing an appreciation of the written word.

This morning the students and I talked a lot about blogging, and about how you can blog about any subject you can imagine. I told them about my friends who blog about fashion or hockey or cars. I shared with them the fact that you can blog about anything you like and how it is all about telling stories. We talked about engaging readers through asking questions and sharing photos and videos. It was a far reaching conversation about the world of blogging, and the kind I rarely have the chance to participate in.

They were ready with questions, and they peppered me with them as we went. They asked about how and where I get my ideas (everywhere!) and I shared with them how I keep a notebook to jot down story ideas that come to me out of the blue so I don't forget them. We talked about how different things inspire different people, and one student asked how I deal with "negativity". I shared with them that as long as I am happy with what I have written then I can stand by it proudly and even if others disagree I can be content that I know I have done my best and been true to myself (at which point one student exclaimed "Believe in yourself!" - such wisdom from a nine-year old).

It was a pretty active little conversation as we covered topics from writing to cats to pet fish to how we came to be in Fort McMurray. We spoke a lot about storytelling, and about how that is really what writing is, and I shared with them my adventures in professional writing, including being published in newspapers and magazines. I laughed when one asked if I am "famous", a suggestion I denied, and I told them that writing isn't about seeking fame but just about writing for the love of writing and because you want to share the stories.

I must admit that by the end of it I was delighted by how excited they all seemed to be to do more blogging and more writing, and I suggested some of them start thinking about submitting poems and stories to places like Northword Magazine. I told them about the joys of being published, and about how not every piece you write will be published (and we even talked about editors and editing, too). We covered a wide range of the experience of writing, and while I hope they were inspired I think I was the one who was truly inspired.

When you have been writing for a long time you can lose a bit of your drive and inspiration - and yes, the negativity can get you down. Sharing my love for what I do with a class of Grade Four students had a more profound impact on me than I anticipated, because it reminded me of why I write at all - to share stories, and simply for the joy of writing. Seeing their excitement, answering their questions and talking to them about their writing and their interests renewed my own spirit.

I made the students an offer, too. I told them that if they wanted to write something I would share it here on this blog, and so in the coming weeks you might see some posts from some young people in our community who are just beginning their adventure in writing - and in life. I hope you will join me in encouraging and welcoming them, just as they welcomed me this morning to their classroom.

To Ms. Tebay and ALL the students in 4L at Westview I want to say a sincere thank you for being such gracious hosts this morning, and for sharing their stories with me - because their stories have reminded me of how very fortunate I am to share my own with you on this blog every single day. It was the best start to a day I have had for a very, very long time, and it was all because of an unusual invitation, and an exceptional group of young students - and bloggers.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Single, White and Female in Fort McMurray

I have lost count of all the interviews I have done about Fort McMurray in the last year. From journalists to film-makers, I have talked with a string of people about our community, our triumphs and our issues. One of the intriguing developments, though, has been the recent focus some of these interviews have been taking - and it's all about being a woman in Fort McMurray.

I have done a few interviews now that are taking the angle of "life as a woman in Fort McMurray". I suppose the journalists are being inspired by the fact that there does seem to be some gender disparity here, with our population more heavily weighted to those of the masculine gender than the feminine. Apparently this is a topic of some interest in some circles, and hence the interviews and subsequent articles - and yet the funny thing is that as a woman living in Fort McMurray I rarely think about it at all.

The questions I am asked are often the same, particularly now that I am a single woman in Fort McMurray.

Do I feel isolated? Um, no. I live with a teenage kid, a dog, a cat and three ferrets. I work at what might be the busiest place on the planet other than Disney, have a full circle of friends, freelance work and spend my time doing things to improve life for my kid, myself and my community. In order to feel isolated I would have to have 5 minutes to actually be alone, which hasn't happened in recent memory and actually sounds rather lovely given that I can't even go to the bathroom at home without a dog, a cat and a kid shouting at me from the other side of the door. Isolated? I wish.

Do I feel outnumbered by men? Well, I suppose I could if I looked at it that way, along some great gender divide. Actually I feel outnumbered by people in general, there are so many of them and just one of me! I also happen to work in a place where there are a lot of women, I have many female friends, I live with a young woman...no, I don't feel outnumbered, at least not in any sense that matters.

Are there any unusual challenges in being a woman in Fort McMurray? Well, other than the fact that there isn't a Nine West shoe store and I need to do most of my shoe shopping online, no. The challenges here for women are much the same as the challenges for men here - high housing costs can be difficult to address, no matter your gender. It could be a lonely place if you didn't get involved and meet people. And I suppose if you were focused on gender then it might seem a bit weird to be in a place that is predominantly male - except that I have never viewed that world across that gender divide, and to be honest the gender disparity is something I have rarely even noticed. It is, as they say, what it is.

As a single woman here do I still have hope? I must admit this particular question rather floored me, as I was tempted to respond that I was in fact hopeless and planned to slit my wrists immediately after the interview. Instead, though, I would say the odds are in favour of single women here given the gender disparity (but then again in order to date one would need five minutes free from kid, dog, cat and ferrets, so I can't comment too much on this angle as my other commitments preclude much other than the occasional attempt to get more than 5 hours of sleep). And then too there is the assumption that life is all about dating and finding love, when in my house life is more about trying to figure out if it is the dog, the cat or the washing machine that is responsible for the ridiculous number of missing socks.

What is intriguing about this community is the opportunity. I have met so many women here who are pursuing careers that may not be considered the norm, trades in which they may struggle in other places. I have met so many women who advance quickly in their chosen profession, because this is a place that needs those with talent, ambition and drive. I have met women here who may struggle a bit to find their place initially, but once they find it they discover what a remarkable place it is regardless of your gender, because the potential and opportunities are truly endless.

Once again this last week rumours surfaced of a producer interested in creating a "real housewives of Fort McMurray" style show, which is at least the third time I know someone has floated the idea in the last three years, as well as various other "reality" show ideas about "single life" in Fort McMurray. The reality of theses reality shows, though, is that the lives of women here, and men, are no different than the lives of men and women everywhere.

We go to work, we come home, we play with our kids, we walk our dog, we make supper, we chauffeur our kids to events, we go to see movies, we visit our library, we attend concerts, we participate in sports, we go the mall, we go out for coffee, we meet friends for dinner and we volunteer. We are married, single, divorced and widowed. We have kids or we have dogs or we have cats (or none of the above, or all of the above, plus some weasels). We drive cars or we take buses. We own houses, rent houses, rent apartments or live in condos. We are the women of Fort McMurray, and we are truly no different than women anywhere else, except perhaps that we get a lot of questions about what it's like to be a woman in Fort McMurray - and I suppose in that regard we may be slightly different indeed.

So, that's my synopsis of life as a single white female in Fort McMurray. And for the record, yes, I still have hope ;)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Commercial Trouble on the 881



I have often written in this blog about safety on the highways leading into our community, particularly Highway 63. In recent months, though, I have become increasingly concerned about another highway that runs through our region, and that has seen a heavy increase in traffic as we have grown in both population and industry.

I have driven on Highway 881 a number of times in my twelve years here, but far more often than usual in the last year as I found myself headed to Conklin for work purposes. The increased traffic on this narrow little highway is of genuine concern, particularly now that it has become a popular alternate route for commercial traffic especially as we have seen an increase in industry in that corridor. And that is why this story is deeply, deeply troubling:

What in the name of holy hell is going on here, people? Of 200 private and commercial vehicles inspected a whopping 85 percent of the commercial vehicles were deficient and pulled off the road? 85 percent! That's an absurdly high number, and one which should cause grave concern for everyone in the commercial fleet business as well as the rest of us who travel the local highways. But it only gets worse:
Police nabbed a 23-year old man driving at 164 kilometres per hour in a 100 zone. 

On Saturday, Mounties organized several checkstops. The enforcement resulted in two drivers being issued 72 hour suspensions for alcohol levels above the legal limit. Police also issued a 17 year old male driver a 24 hour suspension for using marihuana prior to operating a motor vehicle. 

On the same evening, a 61-year old man was caught red-handed with open liquor in the cab of a semi truck. Upon closer inspection, police realized that the man was not licenced to drive the semi and that that both the truck and the trailer were unregistered.
Look, if you aren't alarmed you should be. These individuals are driving commercial vehicles often capable of causing massive damage in accidents, including fatalities. We are sharing the roadways with intoxicated drivers, speeders, those who are not even licenced to drive the category of vehicle they are found operating and vehicles that are deficient in some regard.

This is a black eye for everyone involved in commercial driving, too. I know professional drivers, and they take their business seriously because their lives and the lives of those around them depend on their professionalism.

So, my question is this: what are the companies who employ these drivers doing about this situation? It would appear we have a serious issue here and one that needs to be addressed immediately. While law enforcement has a role to play I think it is up to those who employ drivers who are failing to act in a professional manner to ensure that this behaviour is not tolerated. I would also suggest that industry must play a role here too and ensure that the commercial fleet services they are using to transport their goods have clean records, including records noting that the vehicles themselves are in good condition. And maybe, just maybe, the time for fines is over and we start looking at jail time for individuals like this one:

As part of this checkstop Police had interactions with a 61 year old male who had open liquor in the cab of a semi truck.   The male was subsequently taken into Police custody and provided a sample of his breath that resulted in a 72 hour suspension.  Further Police checks then showed that the male did not have a proper class of licence to operate the semi truck and had no air brake endorsement.  Both the semi-truck and the trailer were both un-registered as well.  The driver was issued eight violation tickets for various offences. 

Violation tickets? 72-hour suspension? Do the words "tap on the hand" mean anything to anyone? If we cannot give our law enforcement and courts the power to take these matters seriously and mete out appropriate punishment then perhaps it is time to revisit the penalties for taking the safety and well-being of others so lightly and treating it with such disdain and disregard.

I travel on Highway 881, and I am anticipating doing so more often in the future. So do my friends and family, and it is very likely that you may do so, too. I suspect I won't be the only one viewing commercial vehicles with some degree of suspicion after this. This is a wake up call for all of us, including the commercial fleet industry. The only question that remains, then, is what they plan to do about it, because our lives are depending on them. 


Friday, March 21, 2014

Write On

God, how I hated her. And yet at the same time I fiercely wanted her approval, this little tank of a woman with the short-cropped steel grey hair. It was the most desperate of love/hate relationships, because at the same time she infuriated me she inspired me. "She" was my high school English teacher.

Mrs. Van den Beuken was roughly the shape of a square. She was short and wide, with steely eyes and a look of determination on her face. She brooked no shenanigans, that one, and she was my high school nemesis and mentor. She drove me crazy, to be honest, as her expectations were absurdly high in my eyes. I will never forget getting an assignment back in Grade 10 and finding a big fat zero scrawled on it in red ink, with the comment "This stinks". Ok, she totally busted me as I had been up far too late, forgotten about the assignment, and wrote it in the school cafeteria in the 10 minutes just before class, but I was still outraged. I was in Grade 10, dammit! Why was she riding me like a pony?!?

In Grade 11 I got a chance to look at a graded test from another student, one of our star athletes. He was a sweet guy, and super talented on the sports field, but not nearly as strong academically. I noted, however, that she had been much kinder in grading his efforts, and I took my outrage to her, sure she would see the injustice of treating me differently. Not a chance. She fixed those steely eyes on me and told me to go ask the football coach why he treated the superstar athlete harder than the other kids on the field, and why he expected more of him. She explained that if you have a gift or a skill then you should be held to a higher standard, and expected to excel. She told me if I wanted a free ride I should probably switch schools, because she wasn't going anywhere and planned to request to be my English teacher every semester until graduation. And she told me I should get used to red ink, because if I thought she was tough then I would be stunned when I worked with an editor.

By the time I reached Grade Twelve other students were coming to me to proof read their work. I still made errors, but I had learned to accept that and understand that one simply used those experiences to improve. I learned to not take corrections of spelling or grammar personally. That square little woman changed how I thought, and while I stopped writing for many years the fact that I can write at all is a testament to her and her refusal to accept mediocrity.

I was reminded of her recently when I saw a poster someone had created to advertise an event. The poster, which was shared on social media, contained a couple of glaring errors, the kind that make you wince because they detract from the message being shared. I replied to the Twitter message containing the poster link (and I won't share the subsequent fallout, but I will say that if the person responsible had ever encountered "The Tank", as I called Mrs. Van den B on bad days, they would have understood that this sort of constructive advice is not personal) and suggested that these mistakes matter - and so they do.

You have one chance to make a first impression. In writing or marketing this is perhaps even more the case, because no one knows or cares who created the poster or document. Spelling errors, lapses in grammar and similar mistakes affect how the quality of the work is perceived. And while we all make mistakes (I do, in this blog, all the time) it is fundamental to recognize that part of writing is the desire to improve, even if it takes making errors, and having others point them out, to do it. It is all about having pride in our work, like the contractor who did some work in my house and when he was screwing in light switch plates made sure that the little indents in each screw pointed straight up and down. I asked him why he bothered and he simply said: "Because I take pride in my work and another tradesperson will see that and know I am someone who cares about quality." Huh. Who knew?

Now, let's be clear on a few things. I am not some social media grammar and spelling cop, as for me social media is a free for all and I care more about message than about spelling. But if one is producing documents for the public - articles, press releases, posters and the like - then one should be trying to ensure they meet a very high standard for accuracy and quality. It reflects on the organization, business or individual if you do any less or accept any less. If I am going to put my name on something then I want it to be of the highest quality I can achieve and if I fail - which I do and will - then I will acknowledge it, correct it if I can and accept full responsibility without excuse or a "dog ate my homework", olly-olly-oxen-free attempt at escape (The Tank never believed that dog thing, anyhow).

So, what to do if you are not a professional writer but are creating documents for the public that you want to reflect well on your cause and achieve a high standard? Well, you can hire a professional writer to create them (hey, I don't do my own surgery, dentistry or car repairs and always hire a professional - why is it people think writing is any different?), or you can ask a friend who has strong language skills to put a second set of eyes on your work to catch any errors that might have escaped you. There is no more shame in that than asking someone to check out our plumbing because we aren't a plumber or our electrical panel because we aren't an electrician.

For the record I play with language a lot now. In this blog I will often do things I would never do in my professional work, like using the occasional profanity, the prolific use of dashes and run on sentences and  even starting sentences with "and". These things would make The Tank insane, and I suppose in some ways it is a gentle and final "f" you to the woman who made me lose sleep, cry on occasion and  frequently want to bludgeon her with a thesaurus. The funny thing is, though, even though I play with language and even though every single time I start a sentence with "and" I get a little shiver of excitement at pulling one over on The Tank, I love that woman more with every word I write, because she taught me that quality matters and that if your goal is mediocrity then you will never improve. Thanks to The Tank I learned to write - and to her I say, wherever she is, thank you - and write on, Mrs. Van den B, write on.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fall From Grace

It was an incredibly gracious speech, the kind you expect a leader to deliver. The level of calm composure was remarkable, given the circumstances.

We were watching together as it live-streamed on my laptop, right from the rotunda in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta into our home. The kid and I were curled up in the same armchair, wrapped around each other, as we watched events unfold in a setting where we have both walked and reveled in the history and magnificence of the building.

She came down the stairs to applause, and when she began the kid looked at me and said, "Do you think she will resign?"

"I don't know," I said. And the kid looked at the screen and then said, before the words had left our Premier's lips, "Yes, she will - look at her eyes, her face, her body language. She is going to quit."

And so she did, last night in front of the watching eyes of the nation, the province, and a mom and daughter who sat snuggled together in an armchair. And as we sat there I know we were both thinking about how we had such high hopes and dreams just under three years ago when our Premier was elected, the first woman premier in our province's history.

I met Alison Redford when she visited Fort McMurray during the leadership debates. Even then she impressed me deeply, her sharp intelligence and keen intellect on full display. She had strength and resiliency, and I believed that she would make a wonderful leader, one right for a new era in our province. She attracted the right people too, I thought, two local individuals who I believed would be strong representatives for our region, and so when the time came I worked on the campaign for one of those individuals, throwing myself behind him and Alison Redford. And so too did the Intrepid Junior Blogger, the kid who spent her spring break in a campaign office and delivering flyers. She loved the idea of a woman premier, someone to look up to and a role model displaying all the qualities she admires. It was, in fact, a glorious time for her, to be part of seeing our MLA elected and Redford become the Premier. It was the best of times.

And then, recently, it became the worst of times. When the $45,000 trip to Nelson Mandela's funeral became an issue I believed it was still salvageable. Just pay it back with a contrite apology, and it would most likely go away. But the refusal to pay it back right away - her decision or bad advice from someone else I do not know - showed an inability to read the mood of the people. And then when the bad news kept piling on, more outrageously expensive trips, more details of government flights of dubious value to the taxpayer, more rumours and allegations (unproven and potentially unfounded, but still swirling) who was there to defend her?

Well, nobody. There are people who blame partisan politics for this downfall, and there are people who lay all the blame on Redford, but I think it is most likely a combination of those things, and includes the fact that she failed to build a strong team. While she was "building Alberta" she failed to build strength in her team, and it showed. The stories of backbenchers who waited not days, not weeks, not even months but years to meet face to face with their leader - their boss. Ever had a boss you would go to war for, take a bullet for? I have been fortunate to have some of those, but those bosses are the ones who have shown you the leadership to build your loyalty and respect. Those are the bosses who showed you loyalty and respect. I wish Redford was one of those, but it seems she was not.

When her dark days came who would stand in front of her and take the bullet? Christine Cusanelli, who got booted out of cabinet for an expense scandal very similar to the premier's own? Steve Young who one day about to be sworn into cabinet and the next day unceremoniously dumped? Doug Griffiths or Thomas Lukaszuk, who both got demotions in cabinet posts? The MLAs who never got to know Redford as a person or leader but only as an aloof individual who didn't seem to connect with them?

There was no one willing to take the bullet, and those who rose to her defense did so in the most tepid manner. I like Redford - I always will and I will always respect her intelligence and her resiliency, but she failed to understand that part of leadership is building a team and engendering loyalty and respect in them. She ended with a divided caucus, and the caucus infighting she suggested she could no longer handle and that led to her resignation rested squarely with her in the end. She failed to build the strong team she needed behind her in the dark days, and so it ended last night, not with a bang but a whimper. She lost touch with her team, with the people of this province and with the very people who worked to see her in office, people like a young 14-year old girl and I. She lost our faith, and with it she lost her right to govern as Premier, and so she did the right thing. She stepped down.

I do respect that decision tremendously, and I respect some of the other things she accomplished. Thanks to our MLAs, who have advocated for us with power and impact, she agreed to commit to the twinning of Highway 63. We have seen new schools built, new schools promised and infrastructure improvements to our local roads. I will always be grateful that she was responsive to the needs of this region, the economic engine of our province, and I will always be personally thankful that she took the time to speak with me - and with my daughter. I do not wish her any harm - in fact it is quite the opposite, as I wish her well as she moves into another phase and hope she exhibits the same strength and resiliency that I have always admired.

And now we move on.

We need a new Premier, one who can rebuild the team, connect the caucus and keep this government and province moving forward. We have a chance now to put the swirling controversies to rest and get on with the business of the province, changing our focus from expense scandals to seeing our province prosper. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of all this has been the loss of focus, the fact that it became all about the Premier and spending habits and entitlement and a lost connection with the people when it needs to be about the province, the people and the business at hand. There are challenges ahead to be sure - and opportunities, too.

Last night by the time it was over I was in tears. Call me what you will, over emotional perhaps, but I was deeply affected by seeing Redford resign, a sad end to such high hopes and dreams and beliefs. I was filled with a maelstrom of emotions and it all came spilling out at the end, with tears rolling down my face.

The Intrepid Junior Blogger hugged me and said "It will be ok, Mom."

And so she is right, and it will be okay. My kid, at 14, has the strength and resiliency and intelligence to be a leader - and now she has seen how leadership can go wrong, and how hopes and dreams can end. A few days ago I was bitter about that, but now I see it differently. Now I see that this was a lesson she will value and which one day may stand in her good stead as she looks around her and realizes she needs to build a team.  She saw a fall from grace acknowledged with the most gracious speech. She saw a moment in history she will never forget, and she saw an ending she will never want to emulate. And so, at the end of the day, a chapter closes in the life of our province and in the life of my daughter, and a new one begins, brimming once again with hope, belief, dreams, and yes, optimism for the future of Alberta and young Albertans. Young Albertans, in fact, just like the one who cuddled me last night in an armchair as we watched someone we have both admired deliver an impossible speech with grace and dignity. Last night was an ending, and today is a beginning - and I suppose in the end I am truly grateful that my daughter has been a witness to it all, because perhaps it is the hardest experiences that truly build the future leaders. Sometimes, perhaps, it is the examples of leadership gone wrong that are the most valuable examples of all.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sharing the Story with Marc Garneau

Writing this blog has led me to many opportunities and experiences, including yesterday evening when I had the chance to meet and chat with Marc Garneau. The name is likely familiar to you, as while he now serves as a Liberal MP Mr. Garneau is also well-known in Canada for his former career - as an astronaut.


He was in fact the first Canadian in space, flying on the space shuttle Challenger in 1984. This is a proud accomplishment indeed, and one I remember well. I remember the sense of pride in seeing a fellow Canadian going to space, and his contributions to the space program helped cement the participation of our country in further space shuttle missions.

Now Mr. Garneau serves our country in another capacity, as an MP. Last night I had the chance to meet him and speak with him about life in our community, which is of course my favourite thing to do. Someone introduced me to him after explaining a bit about what I do, and since he was not aware of this blog we started our conversation discussing it.

He asked the usual questions, like if I get paid to write this (never, not even a dime), and then he asked why. Why invest the time and effort to write this blog for almost three years? Why do this for three years without pay? Where did it start and why?

And so I had the opportunity to tell Marc Garneau, MP and astronaut (rocketman, if you will) about the incident that started it all, three years ago in the Vancouver airport. Every person and every adventure has a genesis story, and this is one I told at the beginning of writing this blog. It was, in fact, my first blog post.

I was returning from Vancouver after a holiday with my four sisters. I had checked in and was going through security when the security guard looked at my boarding pass and asked why I was going to Fort McMurray. I replied that I was going home, and he looked at me and said: "Nobody like you lives in Fort McMurray."

I was, for a moment, speechless. I retorted that people "like me" do indeed live in Fort McMurray, and raise their kids there. I was left to wonder what he meant - did he mean because I am a woman? Because I dress business casual? Because I am in my 40's? Because I look comfortable in an urban setting and no different than anyone else? Some combination of those factors?

And that was where this blog began, almost three years ago. I sat in the boarding area and wavered between seething rage and complete disbelief, realizing that people on the outside had a completely erroneous concept of what this community was. I had no idea what to do, but a friend had been encouraging me to begin a blog about Fort McMurray for some time. He was convinced there was interest and that people would read it, but I doubted it. Who would read about life in Fort McMurray, I asked him? Who would even care? But after the incident with the security guard I knew that how many read it didn't matter, because I knew that I needed to write it regardless, because people "like me" needed to tell the world that we live in Fort McMurray, and about our lives here.

As I told Mr. Garneau last night this blog now averages anywhere between 800-1000 views every day. My readers come from all over the planet to read about life in this community. Just a couple of weeks ago I received an email from a reader in Kuwait, and over the last three years I have connected with readers in Europe, the United States, South America and Asia. In three years this blog has had almost 500,000 views, a number which astonishes even me, because I never, ever believed anyone would read about life in Fort McMurray - but I was so very, very wrong.

It was an honour and delight to share my story of life here with a true Canadian hero. We chatted about the Intrepid Junior Blogger, and I told him of her passion for science, particularly engineering, and for politics (and she is, without a doubt, becoming a hard-core Liberal even at 14). I told him that she has expressed interest in the space program (although given her inability to do more than one ride at the carnival I fear zero-g may be her nemesis), and about her desire to study overseas and then return to Canada to work and, just maybe, seek elected office to represent her fellow Canadians in some capacity. I suppose, in the end, I shared with him the story of my life here, just as I have done in this blog with you over the last three years.

It was a pleasure to meet a Canadian hero, and to share my story of Fort McMurray with him - but it has been my pleasure to have done so through this blog ever since that day in the Vancouver airport, when I realized that it wasn't optional to tell my story of life here - it was essential. And so this is what I have done for the last three years with my readers, and even, on occasion, with a rocketman.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Losing Her Faith



Whenever she approaches me with her cell phone clutched in her hand and says "I just read on Twitter..." I stop what I am doing and listen. The Intrepid Junior Blogger is likely not the typical 14-year old, this child who receives alerts from the CBC on developing news stories and who follows news events on social media. She has followed so many from start to finish, the robocall scandal and many others on the federal and provincial political scene. She has worked on a provincial campaign, seeing the candidate for whom she delivered flyers elected as an MLA in our region. She has met countless politicians from municipal councillors to our mayor to MLAs and the Premier. She is, at 14, a political junkie.

At times in the last couple of years it has been difficult, too. There was the day when I had to sit down with her and tell her a story because I didn't want her to first learn of it on CBC. And so we had a conversation about another local MLA, not the one for whom she volunteered but one she knew as well, who had been caught in a scandal that led to his removal from the party for which he had worked so hard to be elected. I know her faith in politics was shaken then, and I hoped that it would be rebuilt over time. In the last few weeks, though, she has been watching the news coming out of the Alberta legislature and I could see it in her eyes every time she came to me, cell phone in hand. I could see disillusionment.

I find myself in a position where it actually hurts to write this, but when I began this blog one of the things I was committed to was sharing my honest thoughts and experiences, and so I find myself here today. Recently she came to me to talk about the Premier's trip to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's funeral, and the costs incurred. She was puzzled about the expense, but we talked about how errors can be made, and how it was an example of how even our leaders must keep a keen eye on the details (and perhaps how it is even more important for them to do so than anyone else).

In the last few days, though, our discussions have gotten harder, both for me and her. The questions being asked about the rumours that are swirling around our provincial leader have made these conversations increasingly tough, because I can tell the IJB doesn't understand. I can see the disappointment and disillusionment in her eyes. And I suspect it is mirrored in my own.

Our leaders need to be people we respect and admire, people who may on occasion make poor decisions (as we all do, as we are humans and not infallible). They need to acknowledge those decisions and then rectify them as best they can. There comes a point, though, when one begins to lose faith. I can see my daughter losing faith in someone she idolized, and held in high regard. And it hurts to witness it happening yet again to a young woman who is passionate about politics.

I believe that our local MLAs have done remarkable things for our community during their time in government. One MLA fell from grace, and that was a blow for the IJB and our community, but he continues to represent us as best he can. I know too that both MLAs have worked tirelessly with government ministers to achieve some significant milestones, from the commitment to complete the twinning of highway 63 to new schools to developing solutions for our local traffic woes. I believe that there are many, many good people in the party now in power, and that they work hard for their constituents and for this province. I fear, though, that all their hard and good work will be overlooked as questions about their leader - our leader - continue to mount. And the more that arise the more often I find myself watching as the IJB loses faith.

I have a lot of thoughts about this situation, my own questions, disappointment and disillusionment. But it is watching my daughter's that hurts the most, this young woman who has at 14 expressed an interest in perhaps, just perhaps, seeking office one day as the Prime Minister of our nation, this young woman who was so proud to be part of seeing our first female Premier elected in this province, this young woman who has such faith and belief. I see her losing her faith - and it is something about which I cannot stay silent, because her loss of faith matters. She matters, because she is a resident of this province, a future voter and I believe a future leader. Her loss of faith matters, because in the end it might just matter to us all. Her loss of faith might mean she loses faith in the concept of leadership and leaders, and so every time she comes to me, cell phone in hand, I fear it might mean both the end of one leader, and the desire of one young woman to one day become one.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Pump Up the Jam With Northern Elements Crew

To be honest until about a year ago I didn't know a great deal about hip hop. I knew it was a dance style, of course, but I had no understanding of the art, culture, history and community of the hip hop genre. Thanks to local group Northern Elements Crew my eyes have been opened to the beauty of hip hop, and the value of our local hip hop group.

Northern Elements Crew is a group of adults and students who meet on a regular basis to practice, teach and learn. If you go to their Facebook page this is what they say they are about:

We are a group of like minded individuals with years of experience in dance and other forms of artistic expression. We hope to be able to share our passion for Hip Hop with others to create a community in which we all can learn from each other.

And this is their mission:

To create a self-sustainable Hip Hop community within Fort McMurray by promoting the foundations of Hip Hop culture to youth and young adults.

• To provide young adults an outlet for expressing themselves through the elements of Hip Hop.


Having had the opportunity to spend some time with NEC and witness their success I believe their impact is going far beyond their mission, because I truly believe NEC is creating future leaders of our community by engaging youth through hip hop. Through a philosophy of "each one teach one" and developing an atmosphere where every individual is both student and teacher, they are helping youth to learn new skills while teaching others ones they know, and building leadership skills. The ability to engage youth through a common interest and one that appeals to many youth, the athletes, mathletes and those who are neither, has meant that NEC has not only built a hip hop community but a youth community.

A year ago I knew nothing about hip hop - and now, thanks to NEC, I am a convert and a complete believer that this group has the potential to powerfully impact young lives, and create a community where each youth can achieve their potential and shine, on and off the dance floor.

This week you have an opportunity to see NEC in action when their Second Annual Community Jam comes to MacDonald Island on Thursday evening. I can guarantee it will be an evening of enthusiasm and energy as the hip hop community comes together to celebrate and "battle" out their dance skills. I can also guarantee that if you attend you will quickly realize you are seeing something special, almost magical. I can guarantee you will see local youth who have found a community, a support system and a place where they are encouraged and where their development as dancers, leaders and citizens is fostered.

Northern Elements Crew might look like a hip hop dance group - but the reality is they are so much more, which is why I am a committed fan of what they do. They aren't just dancing, you see. They are quietly helping local youth lead us into our future, one community jam at a time.



Sunday, March 16, 2014

Welcome to Wood Buffalo, 2015!

When I wrote a post yesterday about the ubiquitous signs peppering businesses in our region I knew it would elicit a response - but even I didn't expect the strength of the response. The sign in question, of course, is this one:


For the record not one person came out in favour of this sign, one that appears in so many of our institutions, businesses and organizations. Not one person felt the signs were a good idea, imparted the right message, or were even effective. Most people expressed their own concerns with these signs and the real message they give, especially to visitors to our community who must look at these signs and think this place is full of abusive jerks who are willing to harass people at the drop of a hat. These signs, the general consensus seems to be, must go. And the time, my friends, is now, because I am making it a goal to rid our community of these signs by January 1, 2015.

Why such an arbitrary date? It isn't arbitrary at all, actually. A couple of days I ago I had the honour of attending the Regional Sport Tourism Awareness Breakfast, an  event where community stakeholders discussed the sport events coming to our region in 2015. In 2015 we will welcome five major sport events, all occurring between March and August. During that time we will see athletes, coaches, fans and supporters of the Canadian Ringette Championships, Crescent Point Energy Western Canada Cup, Northern Kickoff, FC Edmonton and 2015 Western Canada Summer Games come to our community. These events will host approximately 3,800 athletes, and they are expected to attract about 100,000 attendees. That is not a typo, incidentally. 100,000 people, many of which will be local, but some of which will be coming to our community for the first time and forming their opinions of who we are, what we do and what we value. And you know what I don't want them to see?


These signs represent a tremendous liability for us when we have people visiting our community. If their first impression of us is this sign then we will have a very difficult time creating the image we want them to leave us with - of a warm, welcoming community.  If we want to create new ambassadors for our region we must ensure they see the right message. These signs imply we have a much darker side, one far closer to the reports external media spews about us, and so they must go, and they need to go by 2015.

Those sporting events don't even include other visitors to our region who come here for art and culture events, touring performers or family members who drop in for a visit. If we think about the potential for impact these signs pack a powerful punch, as each one can lead to visitors forming a negative opinion about our community, and an opinion that does not reflect who we really are. Far from protecting us these signs are hurting us, and the hurt will get worse if we do not address the issue before we begin hosting guests from all over the nation - and so the time to start is now.

But what to do? Well, this is where we need to take action, and get vocal. The next time I am in a business with one of these signs I am going to ask to speak to the manager, or get an email address or phone number where I can contact them. And then I am going to explain to them why we need to remove these posters, and what the real message that they are sending is. I will gently suggest they remove the posters and find others ways to address these issues (which existed and were addressed long before anyone decided this poster was necessary). And then I will explain why if the poster is not removed I will be compelled to take my business elsewhere, because I cannot support businesses that engage in actions that will harm my community in this manner.

With some this may be trickier than  others, of course. At the doctor's office it might mean an email asking them to think about why they have this poster, if it is truly necessary, and if instead they could change the message to a more positive one, like "Thank you for your patience and understanding" or "Thank you for treating our staff with respect", and coming from a place of positivity instead of negativity. Hopefully it will begin a dialogue within those organizations and business about these signs, and if they are truly doing anything to address the issue or if they have just become part of the wallpaper, unnecessary and outdated.

This is my campaign to rid our community of these posters. Maybe you have other ideas to do so, which I hope you will share and implement yourselves. I think we need to change the message, and I am planning to hashtag it for Twitter purposes as #wbwelcome2015 - because by 2015 I want us to be the most welcoming, warmest community in the nation as we welcome guests from all over the country to our region. 

It might be a challenge - but then again, challenges are when you really have an opportunity to shine. Our time to shine lies just ahead of us - so welcome to Wood Buffalo, 2015!


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Signs, Signs, Everywhere A Sign

The signs are everywhere it seems. I noticed them first a few years ago, but in the years since they seem to have proliferated, moving from places like the Emergency Room waiting room and medical offices to retailers large and small. Sometimes they are quite elaborate, and sometimes they are obviously something whipped up in Word and printed hastily. The message, though, is always the same:


Now, I have never gone into a business thinking abusing their staff WOULD be tolerated, and I doubt many people do. Having worked with the public in a front line capacity for many years at veterinary clinics and in the aviation industry I have dealt with difficult customers, patrons and individuals who just landed inside our doors for whatever reason. Not once, though, did it ever occur to us to put up this sort of sign, because the message is faulty on many levels. And now, in 2014, I am beginning to avoid stores and businesses where it is displayed, because to me it says something about the nature of the business.

To start, I believe these signs are "preaching to the choir". After having worked with the public I know that those most likely to be truly abusive often have mental health issues or anger management issues, or may be intoxicated. The behaviour of those individuals is unlikely to be changed by a sign, and those who do read the sign and nod their heads are not the ones likely to exhibit signs of abusing staff. The effectiveness of the signs is very suspect to me, which leads me to question a few things.

Who determines what is "abusive"? Is the customer who is angry about their faulty toaster abusive if they express their anger and disappointment? Is it when someone uses profanity? Is it threats? Who and where is the line drawn? And doesn't it make more sense to evaluate every situation on a case by case basis and not with a universal sign that poorly-defined "abuse" will not be tolerated? And how often do these abusive incidents REALLY occur? Is it often enough to truly need a sign?

What is this message REALLY saying? Remember the good old days when the customer was always right (even when they were wrong) and you as a business or front line person bent over backwards to make them happy? Now we put up signs so if we choose we can take difficult customers and boot them onto the street, never resolving or addressing their problems. We can simply say they are "abusive" and it's become the "olly-olly-oxen-free" of customer service, because then we can stop listening to their concerns, which might be real and genuine and if we can cut through the anger we can find resolution.

One of my greatest achievements when dealing with the public was the ability to turn angry people into good customers. When I worked in aviation we had one passenger who flew with us often, and when his name appeared on a flight manifest I knew the flight was doomed to experience major delays or cancellation due to weather or mechanics, because it was just the kind of luck this guy had. Added to that was the fact that he was by nature an angry person, and when he walked to the airline counter he was ready for battle every time. Could he be considered abusive? Probably, and we could have banned him from our airline, I suppose. But I took a different tactic. I started a campaign to win him over.

The next time he arrived at the airport his flight was delayed by five hours. I knew he would be seething with rage, and I was ready. We were a small rural airport, half an hour from town, and I knew he always took a taxi out, meaning going back into town to wait would cost another taxi ride which added to his fury. That fateful day he approached the counter, and I held up one hand and said "Your flight has been delayed until 5 pm", and I could see the rage building in his eyes. Then I held up my other hand, from which was dangling my car keys, and I said "These are the keys to my car. It's the green van out front. Take it into town, get some lunch, relax, and be back in four hours," and smiled. 

The look on his face was pure and utter shock. His rage faltered, and I could see confusion in his eyes. He held out his hand and I dropped the keys into it. He looked at me and said "thank you" and quietly exited the airport, still trying to sort out what had just happened. He returned four hours later, took me aside, and told me that no one had ever tried so hard to make him happy, and no one had ever made him feel like he mattered. 

After that day he was one of our calmest passengers. I had changed the message and the dialogue. He still ran into many delayed and cancelled flights, but he knew that he mattered to us and to me, and that he was not just a number or a cog in the machine. It was a customer service triumph, and perhaps the one for which I feel the most pride over the course of many years of dealing with the public.

In my years in customer service I have been sworn at, had things thrown at me, and had coffee poured in my lap. I have dealt with nice people, timid people, angry people, aggressive people and yes, abusive people. Every single situation needed to be handled differently, and some resulted in people being asked to leave, shown the door and, in one memorable incident, tossed out by my boss who overheard a threat made to me shortly after the shootings at Ecole Polytechnique in Quebec. Not once though did I think a sign would have changed these incidents or prevented them. A sign would provide only false security, and the real trouble was what the sign was really saying.

Now my customer service days are, to some extent anyhow, behind me. I still deal with the public and I love doing so, but I do so in my capacity as a communicator. I am a communicator by profession and by nature, and the messages we send are something I carefully observe because the messages have impact. When I see a sign saying:

Abuse of our staff will not be tolerated

what I am really seeing is a business or organization that has lost the ability and understanding to communicate with people. I am seeing a business or organization that expects people to behave badly, that anticipates it enough to put up warning signs. I see troubling signs of a business or organization that thinks it is easier to put up signs than to deal with difficult people. I see a distancing of the staff and the customer or patient, a line being drawn between them. And I see something else. I see these signs as a black eye for our community, because you see them only rarely in other communities and yet here they are so prevalent that they have become ubiquitous, going up at the same time a new business installs a cash register and before the first customer has been served. These signs say we are not customer-friendly or oriented, that we expect our customers to behave badly, and that we are intolerant. How easy it would be to change the messaging, with signs that say things like:

We appreciate your patience and understanding.

Thank you for treating our staff with respect.

Welcome.

I would say that last sign is the most important. One single word, welcoming everyone. No need to explain that abuse will not be tolerated, as we all know it isn't and won't be, but instead welcoming everyone to our establishment and assuming they will behave well. We need to remove the negative words. We need to change the dialogue. We need to start from a place where everyone is equal and welcomed and if they misbehave then we deal with it on an individual basis. We need to take down the signs, Fort McMurray. 




Friday, March 14, 2014

Monkeying Around at Seussical Jr - and the Future of the Arts in Fort McMurray


I sit in a darkened school atrium. It isn't the first time I have been here and will not likely be the last. I sit in awe and admiration as a group of junior high students bring to life a musical in all its glorious complexity. I watch as the opening night of Seussical Jr. unfolds at Ecole McTavish, and once again I am amazed.

This is the Intrepid Junior Blogger`s final year in Junior High. I have now watched her on that stage a few times, and every time I am reminded not only of how proud I am of her but of all the students who spend hours on these performances. As a parent I know it is a huge commitment of time and effort, all while the students must maintain their academic performance, attend to other activities and maybe even have time for a video game or two.

Last night the cast and crew of Seussical Jr. took us on a romp through the jungle and a circus. We met some amazing characters along the way, and I was blown away by the talent coming out of a junior high. From The Cat in the Hat to Jojo to Horton to Mayzie to Gertude, the performances were of excellent calibre, and these young people can only get better. The supporting cast, the Whos and the inhabitants of the Jungle of Nool and The Grinch and the Kangaroos and the Bird Girls and all the rest completed an ensemble that made magic happen in a school atrium. It was, without a shadow of a doubt, a resounding success.

And I have not forgotten the Wickersham Brothers, a trio of monkeys of which my own monkey was the smallest, often the monkey in the middle between the other two mischievous monkeys. The three of them did a stellar job of monkeying around, and the littlest one often had a sly expression on it`s face that I know very, very well.

To say I enjoyed last night is an understatement. The world of Seuss has always been one of fantasy and pure joy, but there are lessons hidden in the stories, too, ones of which we can always use reminding. I was reminded about the value of following your own heart, the importance of staying resolute in the face of adversity and the ability of a bunch of junior high students to create another universe, if only for a couple of hours. It wasn`t my role or duty as a parent to be there. It was my honour and privilege.

To the cast, crew and staff at Ecole McTavish who created this performance I want to say congratulations. You earned the standing ovation you received, and I believe many of you will see many more of those ovations in your careers on the stage there and in future adventures. I want to thank you for all your hard work, because I know you worked so hard, and I want to tell you that it is appreciated.

There is a lot of talk about the future of the arts in our community, and of events like interPLAY. If you want to see our future, our potential and the reason we need to ensure the arts scene here is vibrant and strong then I suggest you head to see one of the three remaining shows of Seussical Jr. Our future will parade in front of you on the stage, dancing and singing and acting and showing us the value and importance of the arts. This is the future of our arts, and our community. What a privilege it is to sit in front of them in a darkened atrium and cheer them on as they lead us into that future, one dance step and song at a time.