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

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Writing the Future in Alberta

Sometimes you watch something unfold and you search for an analogy to help it make sense. You are trying to sort out something that seems rather inexplicable, and so it was when I watched Albertan MLA Danielle Smith cross the floor, abandoning the Wild Rose Party for the Progressive Conservatives.

In the time since she, and other MLAs from the WRP, crossed the floor I have witnessed several resignations from the PC party, including individuals I think quite remarkable like Doug Griffiths. I have seen others declare their intent to not seek re-election. I cannot help but think that the ripple effect of the vote inside PC caucus to accept the floor crossers has been huge, with many stalwart PC MLAs finding they simply don't have the desire to share their benches with those who were the enemy but weeks ago - and I cannot blame them.

For me, though, the most troubling of the floor crossings was that undertaken by the WRP leader, as I searched for some analogy to have it all make sense, and I realized that perhaps what came the closest was if a country leader, during a pitched battle or war, crossed to the opposing side.

Can you imagine had one of the leaders during the American Civil War crossed sides during the middle of the war, laying down their own flag to pick up another? There is something so disingenuous about that, so very misleading (in every sense of the word) to see someone who was at the front of something suddenly "switch sides".

I freely admit I have not ever been a member of the WRP and I objected to some of their platform in a strong way. I objected even more to the way they chose to attack other members of government, often choosing personal attacks over ones based on policy. They went after the politicians as individuals, and yet now, after some thought that could perhaps best be described as self-serving, they decided they didn't want to fight the team, but join it.

I am not sure about you, but I suspect I would have a hard time sitting next to someone who just weeks ago was hissing at me from across the aisle, beating me up on social media or making snide comments about me. I would have a strong level of distrust and a sense of wariness, which cannot build cohesiveness in a team. And I suppose fundamentally I would have a lack of respect for a leader who chose to cross the floor as opposed to stepping down and seeking by-election under their chosen new banner instead. I doubt I would ever find it in my heart or mind to trust that person.

I am perhaps deeply disappointed, too. Between the stories of our previous Premier Redford and the recent behavIour of Danielle Smith I fear women in politics in Alberta have been badly represented, and this tarnish cannot be good for any woman in politics in this province. We have needed leaders of strength and fortitude, integrity and good faith and instead we have seen two high-profile female leaders modelling behaviour that is simply not hitting that benchmark. As an avid watcher of the political scene, as a woman and as the mother of a young woman with political aspirations I cannot help but be disappointed in these events and in what message they have sent to my daughter.

The last three years in Albertan politics have been, in a word, bizarre. We are now on our third Premier in as many years as we saw one go down in flames, one serve as interim, and one elected by a party in need of someone to save them. We have seen an entire opposition party fundamentally decimated when  several of their members - and almost unbelievably their leader - crossed the floor to join the other side, leaving their colleagues who remained behind (and many of those who voted for them) bewildered and in some cases angry, and we seem to be facing the prospect of an early election call as we head into uncertain economic times in a province that has been "living the good life" for several years. And while so many of these events are so strange, so unexpected and so very unusual none seems more so to me than the day the leader of a party chose to cross the floor, abandoning her troops and leaving her party in disarray. It has become for me the pivotal moment in the realization of how badly things have gone astray in this province in the last three years.

Recently someone said to me that a basic premise of leadership is that leaders don't cross the floor - except when they do, leading one to wonder if they ever really were a leader after all. What the future will bring in politics in our province is yet to be written - but what has been written in the last three years in this province is not a history in which we should take pride, and I would suggest it has been a dark period for all of us as we look to our leaders - in whom we should take pride, feel trust and find hope - to guide us. I can only hope that a new election is an opportunity for us to begin writing a new history in this province, one far from these bleak days of resignations, floor crossings and broken promises and bad faith. I for one welcome the chance to see new pages written in our book of history of this province, because while nothing will change the past we now have the very real opportunity to change the future instead.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Red Monday

Tomorrow I will get up for work as usual, getting ready with a coffee cup in hand. As on most mornings I already have some idea of what I will wear, as picking out my clothes at 7 am seems far too daunting a task and I like to have them chosen the night before. Tomorrow morning will be a bit easier in r=that regard, though, as I already know I will wear the colour red, not in a festive spirit but in a sombre way as tomorrow an Albertan RCMP officer will be laid to rest.

The news of the shooting of Constable David Wynn on January 17 was received in shock and horror, as we have seen this far too often in recent years. It seems like we have seen so many RCMP officers die in a similar way, and yet how we forget that these brave individuals lay everything on the line every day to protect us.

A friend posted on her Facebook wall close to the time of Wynn's shooting about witnessing a scene in which a woman berated an RCMP officer for blocking her vehicle in at a local parking lot. The officer was on an investigative call and needed to park close to the scene but since no parking spots were available he left his cruiser - momentarily - in front of some parked cars, and the woman took great offense to this "misdeed".

When I read this all I could think was how that officer might well be the first one to respond if she had a different sort of crisis, like an automobile collision or a burglary. I wondered if she understood the things that officer faced on a daily basis, things that made the momentary inconvenience of being unable to move your car pale in comparison. I wonder if she understood how her level of disrespect for the officer, shouting at him in public, was emblematic for the lack of respect others show to our police forces. I wondered if she understood she was berating someone she should be thanking instead.

Close to when this blog began I met a career RCMP officer who served most of his time in the far north. The stories he told me were enough to make me pray my daughter never wanted to be an officer, not because I lacked respect for the profession but because I never wanted her to experience the things he had seen. He was the first officer I ever spoke to in depth about their service, and the stories were enough to keep this writer with her vivid imagination awake at night - so I can only imagine what it did to him as he lived it.

Police officers have a high rate of all the issues we associate with severe stress - depression, suicide, post-traumatic stress, plus a plethora of conditions like heart disease and high blood pressure. It is a career choice that is hard on body and mind, and yet they choose to do it, day after day, year after year, even when they take hits from stories about the misbehaviour of other officers and even as they watch the officers around them gunned down.

Tomorrow in our province the family, friends and colleagues of David Wynn will lay him to rest. From all reports he was a remarkable man and much more than his job alone, but it was his job that led to his death. How many of us would be willing to die for our job? How many of us would lay our lives on the line for our work or for others, knowing we could be killed in the most senseless of ways? David Wynn did, and tomorrow thousands of his fellow officers will attend his funeral to show their respect to their fallen colleague.

And I, in my own small and humble way, will put on something red and think of Constable Wynn, his family and all the other officers who have died in the line of duty and those who continue to serve, and why they deserve our honour and our respect. Normally I adore the colour red, the colour of fierce sunsets, love and my own flaming hair, but tomorrow I will wish I was not wearing red, because tomorrow on Red Monday I will wear it to honour a man who should still be alive instead.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Chill Out, Chicken Little

Once, a long time ago, I listened to a man in the gold mining town I lived in give an interview to media. He was a long time resident of the community, having worked in gold mining his entire life, and he was close to retiring. He had seen gold rush and gold bust, and now, towards the end of his career, he was being asked about the ongoing low price of gold and how it was the death knell for the town where he lived.

When the interview was over he stopped at the counter at the airline where I worked, our small regional airport the place they had chosen as the backdrop for the interview. He leaned on the counter, wiped his forehead, looked me in the eye and said: “You know, I get the feeling those guys (motioning towards the reporters who had just departed and were loading up their van for their long trip down the highway) don’t go to a lot of weddings, but they never miss a funeral.” And then he walked away, his dignity – and his belief in the community – quite intact. A couple of years later the price of gold rebounded, and his belief was rewarded once again, just as it had been in the past, and the death knell story the media had been so keen to tell was archived in minds and memories.
I was reminded of that man this weekend when I was contacted by a journalist who seemed quite keen to tell the story of the demise of Fort McMurray. When I expressed my optimism for my future he suggested that “some others” would say I was unrealistically optimistic (the journalistic equivalent of “asking for a friend”), and I suspect the interview I gave will never see the light of day, because I refused to engage in talk about the sky falling.

There is not a single person in this community who is unaware that the current price of oil will have an impact on us. There is concern and caution, of course, but so too there is reason for optimism as those who have been here for any length of time have seen the rush and the bust cycle. They have lived through the fat times and the lean, and they have seen this community go through periods of bustle and periods of quiet – and they know there is a strength and resiliency in this place, just as there was in that small gold mining town in northwestern Ontario where I once lived.
There will be those who choose to move away, of course. There will be those who decide their future is not here and who struggle to find the optimism – but I am not one of them, and nor are most that I know. We are by nature optimists in this place, I think, believers in dreams and goals and challenges and resiliency and survival. Maybe it is because we live in the north and as such we relate in some way to the pioneers in this country, maybe it is because we are Canadian and as Canadians we tend towards optimism…or maybe we are unrealistically optimistic, although only time will tell.

We are seeing a sharp uptick in the amount of external media attention in this region right now. Stories that used to be about the environment have now become stories about our supposed demise, headlines speaking of how Fort McMurray is gone, dead, deceased…but I think it is far too early to write the obituary and eulogy of this region, because we are far from being interred in the graveyard of communities and places that have failed.
I have a great deal of respect for media and journalists, you see. I think they are an important facet of this world, and to some degree I count myself among them. I fear, though, that some who work in the field are those who rarely attend weddings but never miss a funeral, and they have come here expecting or (even worse) hoping for a funeral. To them all I can say is chill out, Chicken Little, the sky is not falling and there will be no funeral procession today, no wailing and no mourning. We will just keep on keeping on in Fort McMurray, rolling with the punches and believing in better days ahead while we deal with the current challenges. We may not be planning a wedding, but nor are we planning a funeral – we are simply living our lives every single day, just as we always have done and will continue to do under the vast northern sky dancing with northern lights and surrounded in the embrace of the boreal forest around us.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Not My Wheelhouse

On occasion I become quite taken with a certain phrase and its meaning, using it perhaps far more often than I should but always finding ways to connect it to a topic or issue that seems relevant. The title of this blog is one of those phrases that has captured me, and it is the one that kept popping into my head this week when I wrote an email to Edmonton mayor Don Iveson regarding the comments made by Edmonton Police Services Chief Rod Knecht.

As I wrote earlier this week Knecht gave an interview to media recently in which he expressed several thoughts and opinions and supposed facts about a community and region. Regrettably these were not comments about his own community or the region his polices services serve, but about mine, a place far beyond his scope and mandate. Equally regrettably some of his facts were inaccurate and the comments he made were not only poorly thought out but poorly delivered, and one had to wonder why he would do something that was simply not in his wheelhouse.

You see, your wheelhouse is the area in which you have knowledge or expertise. There are a few things I am quite good at and I would consider these my wheelhouse - writing, blogging, parenting, pet ownership - but there are others which are not, and when people come to me seeking comments, thoughts or advice on these areas I am the first to declare that these areas are "not my wheelhouse" and suggest they speak to someone who is steering that particular ship because they are the ones behind that particular wheel, not I.

It was indeed the phrase that popped into my head when I watched Knecht's interview, aghast that he would give opinion on a region clearly out of his wheelhouse and under the control of other ship captains. It led me to wonder what his motivation could possibly be, and I entertained the thought that perhaps it was related to the EPS' desire for increased funding and he thought this was a good strategy to foment enough concern about terrorist activity in Alberta to boost his attempts to secure more money for his police services - but of course dragging others into your issues is never a wise idea, and if this was an attempt to secure more funding it was a terribly poor idea as all it did was offend an entire region of people who support his community economically every time we head down Highway 63.

I followed my blog post earlier this week with a letter to Mayor Iveson as I believe angry words on a page, while they feel good to blurt out in places like this blog, are meaningless without action. When this blog first began and an Edmonton city spokesperson and an Edmonton councillor blamed Fort McMurray for a surge in crime I blogged about it - and then I confronted them directly through emails and phone calls, trying to make them understand that their comments had consequences and that they would be held accountable.

Rod Knecht may well be a remarkable police chief and good leader in his community - I couldn't really speak to that as it is not my wheelhouse. However, his comments showed his ignorance of Fort McMurray and our industry, and they were damaging to a region that has invested millions of dollars and thousands of hours of work and energy into building and bolstering our image in the world. With some careless comments about a community not in his wheelhouse, Knecht managed to drag my region and community onto the national stage again, and his motivations, whatever they happened to be, cannot explain or undo what he has done.

Many of us in this community - myself included - work very hard both personally and professionally to develop strong collaborative relationships with our neighbours, including Edmonton. We partner with them on events and initiatives. I have lost track of the number of times I have been invited to attend events in Edmonton by their organizers as we seek to strengthen those bonds and build the kind of sustainable and healthy relationship we all want to enjoy. It is truly unfortunate that one individual, a leader of an important and valuable organization, would risk harm to this relationship for uncertain reasons and perhaps to meet an agenda that had nothing to do with the community he disparaged. I would suggest he would have been far better served if he had solely addressed terrorism and radicalized individuals in his own community - in his own wheelhouse - and left my community and our wheelhouse out of the conversation entirely.

I suggested to Mayor Iveson than Police Chief Knecht owes my community an apology. I have no idea whether or not it will be forthcoming, but if I was writing his comments I would know where I would begin. I would start by saying: "I made some comments recently about a place that is not in my wheelhouse..."

Friday, January 16, 2015

Less Words, More Meaning

When this blog first began someone referred to my output of posts as “formidable”. They found it astonishing that I could blog almost every single day, only rarely missing one during the years when it really found traction. I could, as they say, “crank them out”, but in the last two years while the blog has remained active the number of posts has dropped a bit. Initially I was worried the decline in posts would have a detrimental effect, but the interesting thing is I have learned the exact opposite is true.

Now that I post a blog three or four times a week I find my readership for each post has actually gone up, not down, and I continue to attract new readers. I suppose I understand this to some degree as now that my days are filled with writing, reading and editing (it is quite literally what I do, professionally and personally, for 10-12 hours every single day) I don’t have time to read the blogs of those who post daily, and I often find it far too overwhelming to even check in on them. I find myself reading those who blog weekly far more, never feeling the guilt of having missed a day or skipped a post. I can easily catch up on those on a slow Sunday morning, one of the rare times I now have for reading for pleasure.
Recently I was discussing with some friends a subject we needed to broach with some others. When it came time to determine who would speak to the group they elected me, but not because I am one of those who talks a lot in such gatherings. I am instead more of an observer, speaking rarely, but it was because of this trait they felt I was the one who would be listened to – because I used less words, which meant the times I did speak had more meaning and impact. This was one of those “aha” moments for me, an enlightenment that speaking less can actually mean more.

A long time ago, as a child, my nickname was “Chatty Cathy” as I spoke nonstop, chattering on incessantly and likely mostly nonsense. As I grew older, though, I found I was speaking less and listening more, and this has never been truer than in the last few years when I took on new challenges and opportunities. It was both an organic and a directed transition as I began to realize how important it was to my newfound role as a writer to observe more than speak, and to write judiciously as the pen (and the keyboard) is a powerful sword.
This last week I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop designed to help some local individuals understand the role of media and how to transmit their message to the world. As someone who straddles both worlds – communications professional and new media – I find the entire process intriguing, and I am never happier than when I can help others understand concepts like key messages and strategies to build their confidence when speaking to media or publicly. I watched the faces of the participants as they began to understand the dance between themselves and media, and began to realize the power of a few key words to carry their message.

I write so very much now, but I am not a writer. Writing is instead who I am, as fundamental to my life as breathing. On days when I do not write something – even just an email – I find myself feeling empty and as if I have wasted precious time I will never regain. I find myself reaching more often now  for new stories, ones not right for this blog, and wondering if I should resurrect my personal blog, one left derelict for so long it feels like it belongs to another person. I find myself writing snippets for the book I hope to one day publish, stories of a faltering marriage, losing the life you had only to find yourself and a memoir of my life in this place that can likely only be published some day when I have moved on and to a new place. I write dark poetry that comes from a hidden place I am only beginning to discover, and I write, write, write.
But in this blog I write a bit less, fewer words but I hope with more meaning. I choose my topics carefully now, never feeling compelled to fill space and no longer worrying that people will think I have given up on the blog or stopped writing. I continue to write, but I write other words and in other places, some that people see every day, some they will see in time and some they will never see because they are private and intimate and just for the pure joy of writing them.

Less words, more meaning. It has become a mantra of sorts, of using these precious minutes and hours and days of my life to produce words of quality, not quantity. It has in some ways been incredibly freeing, because I am now unafraid to not only write but to not write on occasion, to simply observe and be in the moment. Sometimes life simply has more meaning when fewer words are said or written – except on days like today when my thoughts and musings wander to writing and words and meaning, and I find myself writing about the interconnectedness of it all.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Check Your Facts Before Talking Smack, Neighbour.

Just when you think your relationship with your neighbour has improved and you are working together to build a better neighbourhood, the guy goes and does something stupid and you find yourself back to square one. Neighbour relations can be tricky things, with high points and valleys, but usually if neighbours speak to each other and work together things can go pretty smoothly - it's when they decide to start talking about you behind your back that things can begin to go sour, like when Edmonton Police Services Chief Rod Knecht decided to do a media interview about potential terrorists coming to the oil sands to raise money for their subsequent acts of terror.

I don't know what possessed Knecht to give this kind of interview and to start pointing fingers north. I don't know that he has a good grasp or understanding of Fort McMurray, the oil sands industry or terrorists, but for some reason he made the choice to go on record as saying that young men who are radicalized come to the oil sands to live an anonymous life in camps and get hockey sacks of money to fund their terrorist activities. He also said that our new international airport allows these radicalized individuals to bypass American airspace and head straight overseas.

Unfortunately for Knecht, he didn't really check his facts.

The new international airport in Fort McMurray, which is lovely and which has made air travel much more comfortable for everyone who uses it in this region, does not have direct flights to destinations in Europe or Asia. In fact the few international flights there are and have been head to American destinations, with the exception that heads to Mexico. Knecht's comments on the airport are so absurdly wrong that one has to wonder about his level of expertise to speak to this issue at all, because clearly he didn't do his research on one basic fact - so what about his other claims?

Hockey sacks of money? Talk about perpetuating the myth that people wander around this town with loot bags stuffed full of dolla dolla bills, like kids stuff their Halloween sacks with candy bars. Yes, there are good wages to be made in the oil sands, but this is not the land of hockey sacks of money (or candy bars, for that matter).

The comment about the anonymity of the camps should be offensive to every single person who lives in one of those camps when they come to this region to work, because those people have names and homes and identities and they form friendships in camp, too. The camps, no matter what Knecht seems to believe, are the temporary home for thousands of hard working Canadians who contribute to the economy (including the Edmonton economy) and not some hotbed of anonymous radicalized individuals seeking to make cash to then take non-existent flights to Europe or Asia from our airport - and I deeply resent that he has suggested they are.

This has happened before, you know. We have had Edmonton city councillors blame us for their crime rate and an Edmonton city spokesperon who suggested oil workers were fuelling Edmonton's homicide rate. It is far easier to blame one's issues on external forces rather than look inside and see the core problems, and I cut the councillor and the spokesperson some degree of slack as they were facing some troubling issues and searching for some answers, even if it meant they implicated us in their problems.

But Edmonton Police Chief Rod Knecht? There was no good reason for these comments, nothing to gain in terms of his community's profile and no reason to turn the blame on oil sands for an issue that affects us all in this country (as the RCMP said subsequent to Knecht's comments). In fact all his comments did was damage the neighbour relationship we have been building with Edmonton and make many of us in Fort McMurray wonder if some of our neighbours to the south really have the faintest clue about us at all, including the leaders of some of their most significant organizations.

What Knecht said was irresponsible, inaccurate, unnecessary and downright insulting to this community and everyone who works in the oil sands industry and contributes to the strength of the economy in Canada.

And frankly, I would suggest he owes us a contrite apology and an acknowledgement that in this case he really doesn't know what he is talking about, and then perhaps he should go back to looking after the issues actually under his mandate, like Edmonton's crime issues. Perhaps he could leave Fort McMurray's issues to the experts and to those invested in our community. And maybe, just maybe, he should think twice before talking smack about his neighbours.

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Disturbance In the Twitterverse

For the past couple of years in January I have compiled a “Twitter list”, comprised of accounts that over the past year had come to my attention on Twitter for being innovative, interesting, unique and worthy of following – but this year when I went to make the list I realized I didn’t feel the need to do so, because Twitter has changed.

There are many who have been gnashing their teeth (or expressing delight) over the supposed demise of Twitter, and while I would agree that the medium has changed I think it is a bit soon to post its obituary. There were most certainly departures of well-known and well-followed figures from Twitter over the last couple of years, from those who drifted away quietly to those who went out in a blaze of glory, all guns firing and leaving the Twitter-masses puzzled by what they had just witnessed. The reality, though, is that Twitter has in many ways stopped being the “new” medium it had been for some years and as such doesn’t really need much in the way of “must follow” lists and “top Tweeters”. Those who remain on Twitter are, generally speaking, comfortable with the medium and have found their own groove, whether it is following the news, engaging in politics or posting memes. Twitter just isn't the wiggly new puppy everyone must play with as it used to be - Twitter has grown up into a full-fledged family pet instead, and as everyone knows we all love puppies but not everyone loves it when they become a dog.
Twitter remains a useful medium for many of us, both personally and professionally. I maintain a number of Twitter accounts and while some users (or former users) decry the amount of time Twitter takes I would suggest that with a tweet-scheduling function and judicious use of  time one can successfully operate not only one account but several and for different purposes and functions. Those who seem most concerned about the time-sucking aspect of the medium appear to be those who are most concerned they will fall prey to it, but like any potentially time-wasting activity (television, movies, Facebook, etc) it is something that each individual must determine in terms of their limits and interests. I am most bemused by those who comment on how much time others spend on the medium, as it says far more about their own concerns than those upon whom they level judgement, and just like everything else our social media time is, in the end, our personal choice. I am equally bemused by the ex-Twitter user, as they are on occasion as vehement as ex-smokers in their anti-Twitter campaigns, although it seems clear that just like there are those who will choose to continue to smoke so will some continue to tweet, retweet and favourite, because it is something they enjoy doing regardless of what others may think of their choice.

There are those who claim Facebook is a FAR better medium, but in many ways Facebook has changed too, becoming the bastion of the spreading of rumours, misinformation and click-bait articles designed to lure you in with the worst kind of tripe (in some ways Facebook is the reality TV of the internet, really). In my opinion the two mediums are different, neither better than the other but really just used in different ways and for different purposes.
As I thought about my annual Twitter list I realized how unnecessary it has become. When I advise someone new to Twitter on how to use it I simply tell them to observe initially, follow those they find interesting, never be afraid to unfollow someone and wade in as feels right, always realizing that the medium is limited by 140 characters and so you must be concise in both words and meaning if you want to be understood (and to hopefully avoid conflict, unless you are into that kind of thing in which case no advice is really required).

Twitter is not rocket science. For some it is useful and enjoyable, and for some it is not. It is also not the playground of devils or bullies as some claim, but nor is it without some potential perils and pitfalls - and like most social media it is a tricky place for the easily offended or fainthearted, as it is as different as every single user on it. Given that this number is in the millions in Canada alone it is safe to say that Twitter might not be for everyone, but it certainly has become the place where many choose to spend their idle time.

So, no top Twitter list this year, no "must follows" and no breakdown of the accounts that inspired, intrigued, amused and/or appalled me. When I meet elderly senior citizens who tweet - and I have - I know that the medium has become commonplace enough that the must-follow lists are not necessary. I also don't believe that Twitter is dying, as I cannot count the number of times Facebook has been declared effectively "dead" and yet it is most definitely alive and well, just changed over time just as Twitter has done and will do. And if you disagree with me and want to argue the point in 140 characters, feel free to hit me up - on Twitter, of course!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Wear the Red Hat - Use the Good Dishes - And Live Out Loud

"Nice hat!" he says with a smile. He pauses, and then: "You don't see people wear hats like that often anymore. We should, I think," and he nods and smiles again and walks away, leaving me standing in the aisle at the grocery store on the verge of tears.

I have just come from a long meeting at work and on my head is perched a jaunty little red chapeau, one of those felt and feather numbers. It has been stuck in my closet too long, the felt a little ruffled and the feathers slightly bent. It is not my favourite hat but the night before when I went digging for a hat it was the only one I could find that was suitable for a day of -35 windchills, as most of my other hats are the wide-brimmed sun hat variety or the John Deere ball cap I consider my lawn mowing hat. No, this was the only hat suitable for the winter, and so that morning I had placed it carefully on my head and snapped a photo, because the hat wasn't entirely for me.

While my body and part of my mind was at the meeting yesterday, my heart and a good portion of my thoughts were with a friend some distance away. While I sat and gazed at my red hat on the table in front of me hundreds of other hat-wearing people were gathered to celebrate the life of a young man who left us entirely too soon.

I wrote about him before in this blog, my dear friend Kathleen's son Mackenzie. Kathleen and her family, in their infinite courage, have been very open about the fact that Mackenzie, at the age of 18, chose to end his own life. Kathleen has shared the journey with many of us through her social media, something not everyone understands but that I certainly do. Someone commented to me on her openness and willingness to share this intimate dance of grief with the world, and I could only respond that some of us, like Kathleeen, choose to live our lives out loud, with the world a witness to our triumphs and failures, our strengths and our weaknesses, and, on this occasion, pain.

Yesterday my social media feeds were flooded with people wearing hats of every kind, snapping photos of themselves in a show of support for Kathleen, in memory of Mack and to help blow the lid off mental illness and end the stigma that drives this disease underground. Far too often we still try to hide mental illness, treating it as if it is different from all the other diseases that ravage us, and yet it is exactly the same and quite often more likely to touch our lives than some of the other diseases we are so open about. We shy away from talking about depression and anxiety and suicide, as if we are afraid these things are contagious. And we just don't know what to say when someone we know loses someone they love - especially a child - to suicide.

And so yesterday we donned hats, hundreds of us who know Kathleen personally and those who know her only through social media. We tweeted, facebooked and instagrammed photos of us and our kids in our hats, letting her know she is not alone and that she is supported and cared for - and that we too want to ensure we are talking about mental health. And while Mack's family and friends remembered his life I was reminded of something else.

I stood in the grocery store aisle for some time after my brief conversation about my hat. I was reminded of a story from another mother who lost a son under different circumstances, and how one day for a semi-special occasion before his death he had asked why they weren't using the good dishes, and why they saved them instead of using them daily. And as I stood there in my red hat I wondered the same thing, why we save the good dishes and why we don't wear the jaunty red hats and why we don't do and say all the things that make our hearts sing when we know life is so fragile and uncertain. Why do we put off living when we never know if we will be alive to live it?

When I left the grocery store I sat in my cold car, my fingers quite numb, crying as I thought of my friend and her family and her son. I thought about ways to keep this conversation about mental health going, because I know that suicide in youth has touched my community, too, and I know other mothers and father and brothers and sisters in pain. But I thought too about good dishes and red hats, and about living every single day as if you did not know what would happen the next, because the truth is you don't.

Just as the jaunty red hat is not my favourite hat this is not my favourite band - but this song perhaps sums it up better than I ever could. If today was your last day, or the last day for someone you love, what would you want to do or say? Maybe we need to stop saving the good dishes, maybe we need to start wearing the hats we have shoved in our closets, and maybe, just maybe, we need to begin living out loud. It took a red hat, a kind man in a grocery store, and tragic loss to remind me to do those things, and to ask the questions that really matter.

I was reminded of why I choose to wear the red hat, use the good dishes - and live out loud.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Day After Day, Post After Post

We are on the elevator and it is first thing in the morning, before I begin my work day and when I am still trying to shake off the sleepiness from the night before. She turns to me and says: “I follow what you are doing in YMM Magazine and the newspaper and things. I love seeing strong, independent women making a difference in the world.” And then she smiles at me and I don’t even quite know how to respond to this new work colleague, as she has brightened my day and world in a way she doesn’t realize.

I think we all need affirmation of what we do from time to time, some sense that what we are doing matters. Already this year I have had two conversations that have done that for me, starting 2015 out on the right path in a significant way.
I was talking to someone else recently who has been in our community for a couple of years. I made a comment about the time here when nobody knew who I was, and they responded: “Wait, what? What do you mean nobody knew who you were?”.

I explained that four years ago, before this blog began (I make that sound like the blog started itself – I suppose I should say when I began to write this blog), I was a stay at home mom. Nobody beyond a small circle would have known me, and while my life was in most ways happy it was also to some degree unfulfilled. I went from hobby to hobby, searching (I now realize) for something that would fill that hole I felt and that would give me the sense of accomplishment I was seeking. Nothing filled it, though, and I went through life doing the things we all do, but feeling like I could do so much more. I just didn’t know what it was – and then I began to write this blog and my entire life changed. My new friend was surprised – they had just assumed that I had always been known here, had always done what I do now and was always trying to make a difference – but they were quite wrong.

I don’t know that back then I would have described myself as a strong independent woman making a difference in the world. Oh, I was a good mom and I served on parent council and I did “things”, but I did not feel strong or independent and while I was raising an amazing child I suppose I was resigned to her being the one to make a difference in our world – until I realized that it was not too late for me to do so, too.
When I began this blog I had no idea where it was headed or where it would take me. It was one post after another, one step after another, along a path that took me where I am today. And while I would not call myself a “role model” I am deeply honoured that last year when the Intrepid Junior Blogger was tasked with writing about a hero who makes a difference she chose to write about me. If I am a role model for her alone, someone who is strong (most times), independent (although with a heavy reliance on my family and friends) and making a difference through what I do, then I have accomplished a goal I didn’t even know I had but had been searching for my entire life.

But in reality this post isn’t about me. This is about the other people who may be like me out there, struggling to find their way to fill that hole they feel. Perhaps they feel the chance to make a difference has passed them by, but I want to assure them that it has not, no matter their age or place in life. Making a difference is as simple as making the choice to act, seeking until they find that niche they can fill and the thing that makes their heart sing. I found mine in this blog and in every single opportunity I have had ever since to do something – anything – to make this community better, to share our stories and to make it the kind of place that some day, long after she has moved on in her life, the IJB will be proud to say is her hometown.
It isn’t about notoriety to me, and it never has been, although that has been to some degree a corollary of what I have chosen as my niche. There are those who make differences through other ways, some far less public than mine, but they are no less worthy of recognition and so I thank them for finding their way to make that difference, too. But for those still searching, those still feeling that gnawing inside them that says they can do more, I say this: don’t give up. Keep working at it, keep seeking, keep trying and above all realize that it is never too late to leave your mark on this world, whatever it happens to be. Twice this year already I have been reminded of that, and I am so grateful as on occasion we all need a reminder of why we do what we do and why we began to do it in the first place.

Do I see myself now as a strong independent woman making a difference in this world? I don’t know, really. I do know though that I am happy, that I feel fulfilled in what I do and that I believe that on occasion I have had the honour to make a difference in some small way – and in the end that is all that I need to continue to do it, day after day, post after post and step after step.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Ending the Silence for Mack

I sit in my office on December 31, the last day of the year.

In front of me on my computer screen are photos of lovely floral displays, everything from roses to lilies. I click a link and order a beautiful arrangement, but as I do so I feel no joy or happiness in the flowers.
This is not a celebration.

I am ordering flowers not for a birth, a wedding or an anniversary. I am sending flowers to a dear friend who has just lost her eighteen year old son to suicide, and my heart has cracked in half.
I met Kathleen Smith four years ago when this blog began, and she has been a constant in my life ever since. We are so similar in some ways, so different in others, but one firm link is that we are both mothers who fiercely love our children. The Intrepid Junior Blogger is a scant three years younger than Kathleen’s son Mackenzie, and when Kathleen told me Mack was gone I cried in a way I have not cried in a very, very long time.

It wasn’t just about her loss, though, but the loss to our society when a young man chose to end his own life. I won’t speculate on his reasons, because they don’t matter. What matters is that this young man was in pain, as are so many of our other youth. And our youth are not getting the access they need to mental health services, and it is destroying them – and us.
The loss of every single young person is a tragedy, because when they die we lose their potential, a potential which has not even come close to being realized or recognized. When they choose to take their life we are left with heartache and grief and a keen feeling of the senselessness of it all.

Suicide has touched my family, too, as has depression, anxiety, anorexia and a host of other mental health issues. I have seen the struggle to access mental health services as we are still so woefully underserviced in this regard. I know in my community that young adults with mental health issues often fall in between the cracks as we have so few services available to them, and as a result we too have seen young adults taking their own lives. This is a travesty. This is unacceptable. And this must end.
Mental health is in no way different from physical health. If our youth were dying because they could not access treatment for cancer we would be outraged, storming the legislature and tearing down the doors to demand more for them. And yet with mental health, perhaps due to the stigma, far too often we remain silent. But not anymore, because my friend Kathleen is turning her son’s tragic, untimely death into a cry for better mental health services for our youth. She is tearing away the stigma, ripping it off and exposing her pain so that others will not need to endure it.

You can read her own words here – in fact I ask you to. It is difficult to read and painful, but not nearly as painful as it must have been to write. That Kathleen is a picture of dignity and courage is without question – and even more than that she is a grieving parent who has done the thing no parent should ever do: write her child’s obituary.
This weekend, on Saturday, there will be a celebration of Mackenzie’s life in Edmonton. I wish I could be there, but I cannot. Instead, in honour of Mack, in his memory and with respect for Kathleen and her family, I will be toasting Mack with my favourite gin and tonic, and with a fedora on my head as Mack was known for his passion for wonderful hats. I will take one of those ubiquitous selfies and send it out in my social media world, hashtagged with #hatformack – and I hope you will join me. If you care about our future, about our youth and about ensuring all those who need it have access to adequate mental health services I ask you to add your voice to ours in demanding better for our children. I will raise a glass to Mack, with hat on my head, not only in his honour but for all those who left us far too soon. I will toast his memory and make a promise to never be silent on this issue, because our silence is deadly.

And we will not be silent anymore.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Tail of Tiny Tim

Christmas Eve is one of those magical times for most of us, when we come together in peace and love with friends and families as we celebrate a special occasion and pause, for just a moment in time, to reflect on all that is good. But for one small creature this year December 24 was a turning point in his fragile young life, and one that could have ended in the saddest of ways. Named after the Dickens character for whom the future was so uncertain, he was found in a dumpster on Christmas Eve, saved by a kind soul who saw a tiny retriever puppy in distress and did the only thing one can do in such circumstances – rescued him.

Tiny Tim, as the little pup has been named, was in desperate need of rescuing, too. Now under the care of the loving folks at the SPCA, Tiny Tim was suffering from pneumonia and pulmonary edema, a condition normally associated with some form of trauma. He was, to be frank, close to death, exposed to the extreme cold, likely thirsty and hungry, and, perhaps most of all, alone, a tiny pup left to die in a dumpster.

I worked in veterinary clinics for over a decade. I have seen some horrific things in that time, things that made me realize, if not comprehend, the kind of cruelty human beings can commit on other creatures who share this planet with us. I will not pretend I did not shed tears in those years, as I did on far more occasions than I like to recall. Hearing the tale of Tiny Tim brought those memories flooding back, thoughts of severely injured animals who suffered abuse at the hands of those they trusted to care for them.

It is said that our society will be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable – children, the elderly and animals. I believe this to be fundamentally true, because how we treat those who cannot protect themselves is very telling of our nature, our beliefs and our values. Once I had someone tell me that they were appalled at how animal abuse engendered such anger because they did not see the same thing occur when children were abused, but I could only reflect on how wrong they were as they did not understand the intrinsic link. I recalled the times our veterinary clinic was involved in investigations of animal abuse, and how those investigations often led to the discovery of domestic violence in the homes from where the animals came. Those who do not understand that those who abuse animals can – and likely will – abuse humans fail to understand the link between these acts, and the basic lack of empathy that lies within the hearts and minds of perpetrators of animal abuse.
I don’t know how someone tosses a tiny puppy in a dumpster and walks away. That is beyond imagining to me and raises the kind of fury within me that I try to keep in check but that surfaces when I see such egregious abuse or such a horrific injustice done to an innocent creature. I do know, though, that someone reached in and fished out Tiny Tim, and his fragile life was saved in the nick of time.

I wish I could say this is the only time this has or will occur in our community, but it has happened before and it will likely happen again. Were it not for the kindness of good Samaritans who pull puppies and kittens out of dumpsters and for organizations like the SPCA, creatures like Tiny Tim would likely perish. And perhaps there are those who think it is only the life of one tiny pup, but the reality is that one tiny life and how we treat it may well be the way our society is judged when history looks back on us.
Tiny Tim spent some time in veterinary care and is now with the good people of the SPCA to continue his recovery. His prognosis, initially tenuous, is still guarded, but they are hopeful he will make a full recovery and find his forever home with someone who will love him fiercely and who will ensure that through a life of long walks, cuddles, treats and love that he forgets his time spent dying in a dumpster.

The SPCA has a fund set up specifically to help pay for the medical treatment of creatures like Tiny Tim. The costs for his care are significant, and I would encourage you to visit the SPCA website to donate and help pay for his treatment and for the treatment of other animals like him who are found in similar circumstances.

In Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol the fate of Tiny Tim rested on the acts of others, in his case specifically on Scrooge, who had the opportunity to decide little Tim’s fate through his actions. Whether Tiny Tim lived or died was up to Scrooge, and of course in the end Scrooge realized that he had a responsibility to others. Scrooge realized that how he would be judged would depend on the fate of one tiny life. There is a powerful message here, one that applies to a tiny retriever puppy found in a dumpster on Christmas Eve. How we will be judged depends on the lives of creatures like Tiny Tim, and all the other vulnerable creatures on this earth – and every year as we celebrate Christmas and read or see the tale of Scrooge we are reminded of it.

How very fitting, then, that this tale will hopefully have a happy ending, in the form of a small wagging tail and a rescued puppy who reminds us all of our role in protecting the vulnerable in this community.

Please click HERE
to donate to Tiny Tim's recovery
and to the other vulnerable creatures
who share our community.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

2015: Year of the ...

I was discussing the topic of this post with a friend, who was debating with me if one could deem a year as the "year of something" before the year had even begun. Unless one was talking about the Chinese year, like "year of the horse", they argued, one should not deem a year in advance. After all, what if you called it the "year of the magnificent" and it turned out to be the "year of the abysmal"? I was bemused by the discussion and argued that in this case I was deeming the year with this name in advance because if 2015 is NOT the year of this by December, 2015 then we will have had a difficult year in Wood Buffalo indeed. And what, you ask, have I decided 2015 is the year of?

2015 is the year of the volunteer.

Last spring I had the pleasure of working on an event that was showcasing all the sports tourism events coming to our region in 2015. As I did more and more research the numbers began to mount: numbers of athletes who would participate, numbers of coaches who would attend, numbers of support individuals, staff, families, friends and, yes, tourist visitors, who would come to our region. But the one number that was really being tallied up in my mind was how many volunteers it was going to take to pull off the events in 2015, and that was just the big, shiny, new events and did not include all the annual events, plus the events we didn't even know about yet.

And the difference between this and the other numbers I was tallying is that you always draw from the same pool for volunteers. The volunteers aren't guests to the region but rather the people who live, work and play here - and who also give freely of their time to ensure local events, large and small, are successful. They play such a crucial role and yet I suspect we often don't even realize how vital they truly are.

This year is different, though. As the Wood Buffalo region hosts everything from the Canadian Ringette Championships to the Western Canada Summer Games, thousands of volunteer hours will be needed to ensure success. Every single volunteer will become indispensable and every single volunteer should be celebrated - which is why I think 2015 needs to be the Year of the Volunteer in Wood Buffalo.

I've already started getting my own in-house volunteer ready. The Intrepid Junior Blogger has done some volunteering before, but this year it gets kicked into high gear as we have decided she will spend some of that precious non-school time volunteering. We have already put the plan into action, in fact, as she was one of the greeters that attendees at The CRAZE at MacDonald Island Park saw when they entered that party of the year on December 31. She handed out programs and glowsticks, she answered questions and fielded complaints, and at the end of the day she was exhausted, sore - and accomplished. The year of the volunteer was about to arrive, and she was ready to greet it just as she had greeted thousands of community members.

So, in this year, as we embrace new events and host annual ones, as we shine on a national stage like never before and as we boldly go where Wood Buffalo has never gone before, I ask you to consider doing one thing: volunteer. Give a little of your time, your effort and your energy to the community and be part of the excitement of this year. But even better yet, be one of the ambassadors of Wood Buffalo and of 2015: Year of the Volunteer.

The IJB, ready to welcome the community to The CRAZE

Friday, January 2, 2015

Happy Merry New Christmas Year

Just before the holiday season began I received an email from someone who reads both this blog and the column I have the privilege to write in Fort McMurray Connect. They were very kind about my work, but they had one question: why didn’t I write more about being a single parent?

They too are a single parent, and explained to me that they feel it can be a somewhat lonely existence in this community, as the nuclear family is alive and well here. As they pointed out there is nothing wrong with that, but they found few people talked or wrote much about single parenting in Fort McMurray. They wished someone was writing about single parenting in this community when you are here without family or a partner, the challenges and the triumphs – and the occasional loneliness. And they asked why I only touched on the topic lightly.
It is indeed a fair question. No matter what else I am – a writer, an employee, a colleague, a community advocate – I am first and foremost the parent of a teenage daughter, and yes, I am single. My daughter’s father lives in Calgary and, while she spends a good deal of time with him, for the most part I parent alone on a day-to-day basis, although for most of her young years we did so together. And there are challenges to single parenting, from finding enough time to do laundry to ensuring we spend quality time together. I suppose I have only touched on the topic lightly in the past for a few reasons, but perhaps mostly because it was one I was not yet ready to tackle.

Now, though, as a new year begins I have decided to delve a bit more deeply into single parenting, thanks to the prompting of my kind reader who suggested that perhaps my writing could make her, and others like her, feel not quite so lonely in their adventure in parenting solo. And this seemed like a good time to start, too, since this Christmas was the first one since my daughter was born fifteen years ago that she did not spend with me.
When my husband and I separated one of the things we decided was to divide up holidays. On the first Christmas after our separation the Intrepid Junior Blogger chose to spend it in the new home we have established together along with the inhabitants of the Triple M Zoo – but this year was the year she was headed off to her father’s, flying to Calgary as she has now done so many times.

Early in December we discussed whether we should celebrate our own Christmas before or after the actual date, and we decided that since she arrived home on December 30 that we would celebrate on January 1, opening presents and making a nice meal. And then, a few days before the holidays, I saw her off at the airport.
I don’t cry when she leaves now in the way I did at first. As she has grown and changed and adapted in the most remarkable way to this new aspect of her life so have I, missing her every moment she is gone but knowing that she is enjoying the time spent with her father. She also has new relationships to build now, with a stepmother and younger stepsister, and these trips and time spent with them helps her to continue to adjust to this brave new world she inhabits.

This time when she left there were tears in my eyes, as it was my first Christmas away from the young woman who will always be my baby. As I drove home from the airport, though, I thought about how days like December 25 are so arbitrary, not set in stone but simply dates that have become traditions we adhere to.
The IJB and I spent the day of December 31 at The CRAZE, the annual family New Year’s Eve party at MacDonald Island where I happen to work. It was a normal work day for me, but for the IJB it was a day she spent as a volunteer. We came home that evening exhausted but we managed to stay up past midnight, me with a movie and a bottle of wine and her with her laptop and surrounded by cats.

On New Year’s Day I woke early and with coffee in hand watched a movie, and waited for the IJB to awaken. I spent the time watching the soft fluffy white snow falling while the indoor Christmas lights twinkled. I put her presents under the tree and kept the cats from scratching them open to reveal their contents, and I reflected on how part of single parenting is adapting to change. I had spent my own Christmas quietly, watching movies I have waited months to watch, catching up on my favourite TV series and reading. It was a different sort of Christmas, but I had enjoyed the solitude that I so rarely get to experience.
The night the IJB returned home from the holidays I learned the son of a dear friend had died very unexpectedly. As I sat there on New Year’s Day I reflected on this too, on her sorrow and pain and on my own as I felt her loss so deeply, as her friend and as a mother. I had held the IJB close when I heard the news, having never been happier to have her home and with me than I was at that moment.

The IJB finally awoke on New Year’s Day at about noon, and we opened presents. We gave the zoo their gifts, too, Sirius Black Cat so enchanted with his new cracknip (as we call catnip) mouse that he ran away with it still in its packaging and we had to hunt him down to retrieve it. And as the day wound down I hugged the IJB and said: “Happy Merry New Christmas Year!”. She looked at me, clearly puzzled but also quite used to her mother’s quirks.
“Happy Merry New Christmas Year,” I said again. “I think we just invented our own holiday – a new tradition,” – and she smiled at me, a young woman who will always be my baby, no matter how old she is.

Single parenting, dear readers, is all about being flexible. Some years it means spending Christmas Day away from your babies, whatever their age, and finding a way to develop new traditions. Single parenting is often about not dwelling on the time you are away from your kids but celebrating the time you are with them, no matter on what date it falls on the calendar. Single parenting is about celebrating Happy Merry New Christmas Year, and not only accepting it but embracing it, because our time with our children is finite and life, as I learned so painfully through my friend’s experience, is fragile and uncertain.
There is a quote of which I am very fond. It is the one that kept running through my thoughts on New Year’s Day as I waited for my daughter to wake up and begin our holiday together. I think perhaps it is my motto for this year, one that is almost certain to be the most challenging for me in both a professional and personal sense. Happy Merry New Christmas Year, everyone. I wish for you a year that takes your breath away.