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.