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

Saturday, February 28, 2015

When the Student is Ready

I suppose I had heard the adage before, but I had never thought about how it applied to my life until I met someone who was on a very special journey. As I have written before in this blog in 2013 I had the pleasure - and the honour - of presenting on the TEDx Fort McMurray stage, a life changing moment for me in many ways.

It is funny now that I thought it was in some regard the "culmination" of my journey of the last few years, only to learn that of course it was just another stop along the way, as this life isn't about destinations and culminations but about journeys. I didn't fully understand at that point, though, that my time with TEDx wasn't over and that I had another distance in that journey to travel, but this time as a coach.

It is always a bit unnerving to be asked to coach someone else because it is a heavy responsibility. It is even more unnerving to be asked to coach someone you have never even met, not knowing if your personalities will mesh, if you will find that connection you need, if you will be able to help them in the way they need to reach their goals. I now know how my TEDx coach must have felt, and I am more grateful to her than ever as she shared the journey with me, just as I have now done with my presenter - Kaitlin Armstrong.

Last weekend, after months of preparation, hard work and thought, Kaitlin took the stage at TEDx Fort McMurray. I sat in quiet awe in the audience, three rows in and watching intently as she went through a presentation I knew well and had watched her craft from very early on in the process. When we first met I was impressed with her, as she is a woman who has come to know herself well through her own journey, one that was not easy or without challenges, and one that involved the very humbling process of getting to the core of oneself. I suppose in some ways I saw my own journey over the last few years, although hers was different of course, but the similarities were there and the connection because of it deep and strong.

At one point Kaitlin speaks of how life presents us with challenges because we are ready to learn the lessons the challenges bring. When I first heard this part of her presentation I could not help but think of my own struggles last year with my eye disease, a difficult and humbling experience that has taught me patience and willingness to relinquish control of those things I cannot control. But when she said the line "when the student is ready the teacher will appear" it touched me deeply because it is so true - and not because I was Kaitlin's teacher, but rather quite the opposite.

You see I think people come into our lives at certain times to remind us of things we have forgotten, to open us to new ideas and thoughts and to help us to reconnect with the people we used to be - or want to be. Over the last few months as I watched Kaitlin build to her shining moment on the stage I reflected on my own journey, not just towards TEDx but over my life, and how in the helter-skelter, top-speed, flying-from-one-place-to-another wheel I am on I had stopped just being, stopped just taking moments to feel the emotions in my head and my heart. I had come a long way since my own time on that TEDx stage, but along the way I had disconnected with some of the lessons that had taken me there in the first place  - but Kaitlin, the teacher who appeared when this student was ready, reconnected me to that time and place.

At the end of Kaitlin's talk she stood on that red dot, and I remembered how I felt at that moment in 2013, relieved and in wonderment and exhausted and energized all at once. When the crowd rose up, surrounding her with a standing ovation, I stood too, because she had earned it from that audience, and she had most definitely earned it from me. Her moment of triumph, her journey, was something I had been privileged enough to share and then witness, and I freely admit I cried when it was over, allowing myself to simply be in the moment. The teacher had appeared in my life, and the student had been ready.

In future days I will write more about TEDx Fort McMurray, which was once again a stellar event and perhaps the very epitome of the phrase "when the student is ready", because on TEDx day we are all students. I will post the videos and share some of my thoughts. Today, though, this is all about one woman, one teacher, and one humbled student who might have been the "coach", but who really, in the end, was the pupil.

Kaitlin Armstrong
shines on the TEDx Fort McMurray stage

Photo credit to Tito Guillen
TEDx Fort McMurray

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Free, Unconditional and Unreserved: Compassion

If there could be a scenario more tragic it is hard to imagine it. A mother, desperate to address a persistent problem with an insect infestation in her home, spreads a fumigant she has brought back from another country, quite unaware of the lethal nature of this chemical.

Days later, four children are gravely ill - and one, just a baby, is gone.

I struggled with writing this story, because it is both too close to me as a parent, deeply painful for our community and far too raw for those involved. I have struggled too to stay out of online debates about responsibility, about blame, about accidents and consequences. For the most part I have been successful, but on occasion I have failed, responding with my own thoughts on this tragic story.

There are many questions to be asked, to be sure, questions about the apartment complexes in our community and how they handle infestations of bed bugs and cockroaches. Questions about how one brings a chemical of this nature from another country and it is undetected by our border security who are meant to find items such as this. Questions about how we educate people about chemicals of this sort, how we cross any cultural or language barriers to ensure we do not allow people to put themselves or others at risk.

But these are questions for another day and another time, because the reality is that a family has lost a child, and continues to pray and hope for the wellbeing of their others. It is perhaps easier to ponder those questions and think they matter right now if you are not a parent, because when you hear this news you don't feel that cold fear in your heart or remember the times you did things - foolish things, perhaps - that endangered your own children. You don't imagine being the one who has lost the child, don't feel a glimmer of the pain they must feel, don't see everything else fall away as all you can focus on is the profound loss of a child, a loss from which you will never recover and the world will never be the same.

A long time ago someone told me that until you are a parent you cannot understand what it means, and I scoffed at them. Then I had my daughter and I realized how right they were, and this week I remembered those words as I waited for news of my daughter's recovery from the general anaesthesia she was receiving for dental surgery. Even though I knew it was safe and that the odds of anything happening were infinitesimally small I felt that cold fear, those moments of panic, that incipient pain should she not wake up. And when she did wake up, walked out of the recovery room groggy and in pain I thought about the parents who had a child who didn't wake up, no matter the reason for their eternal slumber, and while I held my daughter close tears slipped out of my eyes as I felt my joy mixed with tinges of their pain.

As always our community has responded to this tragic loss with grace and dignity. A crowd funding effort has seen tremendous support, and local religious groups have raised significant funds in a very short time. This outpouring of financial support will no doubt help the family as they try to recover from an incident destined to leave physical and emotional impacts that will last forever. It is however the emotional support - the words of sympathy, empathy, compassion and, yes, love, that touch me the most and that will likely enable them to survive this tragedy.

There will be those who think this is the time for the questions, who see this situation in some distant light, far from themselves and simply a matter for debate and discussion. They are, in my opinion, quite wrong. Two children continue to fight for life, a funeral for a small baby is yet to be held and the time at hand is the time to put aside questions, debates and discussions and simply allow oneself to feel what it would be like to lose a child - and then act accordingly, with compassion, sympathy and understanding. These tragedies are never as far from us as we would like to believe them to be, and only those who suffer from a strong degree of hubris would claim otherwise. As I have said recently, compassion is a gift we freely give to others because we know some day we may ask for it ourselves. This week, in a week filled with sadness and sorrow and tragedy, some good comes out of it as people reach into their hearts and connect with their compassion and offer it freely, unconditionally and unreservedly.

It is in that offering that we find the true nature of community.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Don't Want to Miss a Thing

When I was a child I fought sleep. My mother would tell you I would protest until the very last moment, fighting to stay awake until my little body finally gave in and succumbed to slumber. And when I awoke in the morning my first question always was: “Did anything happen while I was asleep?” No event was too big or too small to escape my notice, and I didn’t want to miss a thing.

Two years ago today I walked into a steel and glass and concrete building I had walked into hundreds of times before in my years in this community, but this time it was different. Two years ago I pinned a badge onto my blazer and I became part of MI Team, the group of employees that operated MacDonald Island Park and that has become ONE Team and the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo.  

I had no idea how proud I would become of my colleagues, how much I would come to respect and revere our team and how many moments would bring me to tears, simply overwhelmed by my emotions.
I had been part of the community engagement process to develop Shell Place, but two years ago I went from being an observer to being on the inside. I was there as a community citizen when ground was broken for the project – and I was there as part of the team when the first piece of steel was laid.

For the past two years I have been part of something that I once thought was pure magic and mystery, and that in that time has become no less magical but even closer to me than I ever thought possible. I was there for announcements of sports events, like bringing the CFL to Wood Buffalo. I was there for community celebrations, I was there to see concerts and for art gallery receptions, there for moments big and small, every moment savoured and felt and remembered. You see for last two years I didn’t want to miss a thing.

And today, two years after that tenuous, nerve-wracking first day, I put on my name badge once again and I walked down those grand stairs in the main concourse. I had the honour – and it is an honour, one I feel keenly and deeply – to MC a press conference announcing a concert at Shell Place this summer that I think will change history in this region.
Over the last two years I have not missed a thing. There are still times now in my life when, like the child I once was, I fight sleep, protest against that deep curtain. You see I don’t want to close my eyes. I don’t want to miss a thing.

Nexen CNOOC Stage
Shell Place
July 19

Monday, February 16, 2015

Fifty Shades of Naive

It was a Facebook post that caught my attention almost immediately. A poster in a local group was sharing a story about a young woman who was at her house for a sleepover with her daughter, and her shock when the young woman in question asked her if she intended to go see the movie "Fifty Shades of Grey". The poster was startled and apparently appalled that the young woman (a 14 year old) would ask such a question or even know something about such a movie, as clearly her own 14-year old knew nothing and would never ask such a question - and I was startled too, because the degree of naivete about what our kids are exposed to stunned me a bit.

Let me start out by saying that I am not a fan of "Fifty Shades of Grey". I tried to read the book, but as a professional writer I could only get a few pages in before tossing it into the trash - literally - as the writing was so reprehensibly bad that it offended me. It wasn't the content of the book that bothered me, at least not at that point, but the lack of writing skill and ability. It wasn't until the entire Jian Ghomeshi debacle that I thought more about the content of the book.

You see I have no issue with what consenting adults do in their bedroom (or kitchen or living room or whatever). The key word of course is consenting, and in order to consent to anything one must be informed. From what I now understand in "Fifty Shades of Grey" the characters are anything but informed when it comes to consent, and those who know far more of the world of BDSM tell me it portrays a very dark - and inaccurate - picture of that world. They tell me it is far closer to rape literature than erotica, far more like a story of sexual assault than a tale of sexual adventure - and this worried me deeply, as in a time when we have seen a tale like that of Jian Ghomeshi unfold it has become more important than ever that we not only understand what is going on around us but be talking to our kids about it.

Anybody who thinks a 14-year old girl in this country hasn't heard about "Fifty Shades of Grey" or had some curiosity about it is naive. Curiosity about sex is not only normal but expected in the young adult mind, particularly in a world that is, quite frankly, obsessed with sex. Not only are our TV advertisements filled with sex, so are our TV shows, our documentaries, our movies, our magazines, and, thanks to people like Ghomeshi, our news. Sex, in all its dimensions and facets, is part of our world, and every 14-year old (and those far younger) is exposed to it on a daily basis, whether we want to believe it or not, and whether we are comfortable with it or not. So, when a kid approaches us and asks us about "Fifty Shades of Grey" or Jian Ghomeshi or twerking what do we do?

Well, I will tell you what I do. I don't act startled or shocked, because I am not. That these topics are ones they are thinking about is not only normal but expected and, in fact, healthy, because it opens the door to discussion. When my daughter comes to me we talk about these topics at length (for instance we cover the lousy writing in "Fifty Shades", but also the chance that anyone who writes that badly probably doesn't know much about their subject matter, either, and that their expertise in the topic should be viewed with suspicion). We talk about consent, informed consent, and how twerking is a word we wish had never been invented. Our conversations are frank, open and honest, and there is not one subject or word that is taboo, off-limits or unsayable. Everything is on the table, open wide, cards laid flat - because the real danger isn't in our kids knowing about "Fifty Shades of Grey" - it's in them not knowing, not discussing, not exploring, not thinking and not questioning. I would rather my kid - and her friends, if need be - discuss BDSM with an adult like me who cares about their safety and well being instead of in an anonymous online chat room with someone likely to have a far darker agenda. I would rather my kid hear about Jian Ghomeshi from me than find herself in the clutches of someone like him some day and wondering how she could have been so very naive.

You see that's the real problem. As long as we are fifty shades of naive about our kids and what they face every day, as long as we think they aren't hearing about or thinking about sex and "Fifty Shades of Grey" and BDSM and pornography, we are putting them at risk of being naive, too. I want to raise a kid tough as nails, armed to the teeth with knowledge of the world, including, if required, an understanding of bad literature masquerading as erotica and how informed consent really works and what it means. Yep, she might be cynical, wise beyond her years and have knowledge that even some adults lack, but at least she will never, ever be or feel fifty shades of naive, and I am thankful for that, because the only times I landed in trouble in my young adult life was when I was too naive to know any better.

So if your kid is asking about "Fifty Shades of Grey", or any other matter relating to sex, put aside your discomfort and your own naivete. First listen, then ask questions, then talk, and develop the kind of relationship where they are coming to you for your thoughts, and not heading to the Internet. It might on occasion be uncomfortable, but know that by doing so you are raising a kid who will never be fifty shades of naive - and you just might learn something, too.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

To Thrive, Not Survive

When the Intrepid Junior Blogger came home from school at the beginning of the year with the news that she was a founding member of a new school club I admit I knew little about the club she was part of founding. She explained it was a Gay-Straight Alliance - or GSA for short - and I could tell she felt it was important in a way I didn't yet comprehend. The reality is, though, that the IJB has grown up believing in social activism and I wasn't surprised she was involved in a club of this nature. I suppose what has surprised me over the last few months is learning just how important a GSA is, and why she knew it.

Last week the IJB and I had the honour of attending a talk from Dr. Kristopher Wells, who  is an Assistant Professor and Director of Programs & Services, Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta. Dr. Wells is also co-founder of Camp Fyrefly, a leadership retreat for sexual and gender minority youth (and, according to what I have read, a life changing experience for youth).

I was delighted that the Fort McMurray Public School District had brought Dr. Wells to Fort McMurray to talk to both the community and their administration and teachers, as the issues of gender identity and sexual orientation are perhaps one of the most pressing in our society today. It has perhaps been one of the greatest wars for civil rights of all time, particularly if one notes that inclusion of sexual orientation in human rights legislation in our country has been a fairly recent addition.

Dr. Wells tells a troubling tale of youth in our schools who are bullied, and the impact this has on them. Higher rates of suicide (both attempted and completed) in LGBTQ youth, as well as lower rates of completion of Grade Twelve and lower rates of going on to post-secondary education, point to a serious issue in our schools. And one point he made repeatedly - and with which I resoundingly agree - is that schools should be places where all students thrive, not survive.

That used to be the mantra, you know. The "it gets better" talk we would give to youth who were struggling in school, telling them to "just hang in there!" with the ease distance had given us and the sort of casual "oh it's not really THAT bad!" indifference of adulthood. And it was then and is now entirely the wrong message, telling our kids they just need to "survive" their school experience as opposed to finding ways to make it an environment in which they thrive. The trouble is that some kids don't survive the experience, finding the bullying based on their gender identity or sexual orientation too much, and ending their lives.

Ending their lives. I don't even know how we can be so blase and indifferent to this, argue the concept of groups like GSAs when these have been shown to provide the support students need to not only survive but thrive. We act as if this should even be a conversation, as if it is a matter of debate when we should be encouraging every school to have one of these groups if there is even one sole student who wants it and could benefit. But no - we talk instead about school board autonomy, hiding behind that argument as often the real sticking point is religion and morality.

I know there will be those offended by this, but as a parent and a youth advocate I would be terribly remiss if I did not take a side in this dialogue. I am the product of twelve years of Catholic education, and the child of a Roman Catholic family. I respect religion and those of faith, but I do not and cannot accept when an attempt to supecede  human rights is made on the basis of religious rights.

The argument I have heard is that "inclusion" and "diversity" clubs serve the same purpose as a GSA and therefore a GSA is not required. The theory states that the school boards arguing against allowing the formation of GSAs do not wish to see students "labelled" - and yet I cannot help but think that they would have no trouble allowing a Filipino club to form, or another cultural group. And they are arguing against allowing students to identify themselves as they choose, in effect telling them they cannot self-identify as gay, and why is that? Students find safety and normalcy in surroundings where there are others like themselves - in fact we all do, not just students. We feel represented and included when we know there are people like us in our world, and we find comfort in identifying with others like ourselves, whether we are gay or straight or anywhere along the rainbow that is our identity and orientation as a species. By denying them the right to self-identify - to call themselves a Gay-Straight Alliance - we are shoving them back into the closet and trying to close the door, pushing as hard as we can to keep it shut.

And it will not work. I have spoken to many young adults who tell me of harrowing experiences in high school and how they wish they had access to the kind of GSA now found in three schools in this city. They tell me tales of both casual and overt homophobia, and of incidents in which they feared for their safety.  And some have told me of dark moments when they felt so alone they considered ending their own lives. They survived. They did not thrive.

During Dr. Wells' talk I watched the IJB as I often do, observing her reactions. I was deeply troubled to see her nodding in vigorous agreement when he discussed spaces in schools students see as "dangerous" - hallways, washrooms and locker rooms - and on the way home we discussed this as I was so alarmed to see her degree of agreement. She told me that she did not personally feel afraid in those spaces but that she knew these were "dangerous spaces" for other students, and that there was always a heightened awareness and alertness when in them as what happened there could be unpredictable, spaces not supervised as closely as classrooms and other common spaces. We talked about ways to change that, including groups like GSAs which could "blow open" those dangerous spaces and find ways to make them safer, including simply having other students being vigilant for trouble if it arose and immediately seeking help.

And on the way home we spoke about the casual homophobia which the IJB and other students witness every day, the "that's so gay" comments, the taunts about "fags" and "dykes", the insidious bullying that is occurring in our schools every day but often in an undercurrent where teachers and administrators cannot hear. Our youth are smart and they know they cannot say these things openly in front of the adults, and so they reserve them for times when there are no adults around, casually tossing around these words as if they are nothing and as if they do no harm. I wonder at times if we as adults even realize the harm they do, wonder if we would be so blase if the words were instead racist and not homophobic?

Everything the IJB told me made me understand why the GSA in her school was necessary. It made me realize that we still have a great deal of work to do in schools to ensure students can thrive, not just survive, and that we are still fighting a battle to ensure all students, regardless of race, colour, creed, sexual orientation or gender identity can enjoy a safe and inclusive learning environment. I like to turn it around in my head and wonder how I would feel if my work environment was as the youth of today describe life in their schools, with spaces I felt were dangerous and colleagues who casually said things filled with hate - I would be miserable, of course, and yet our youth are in their work environments in their schools, not much different as they are there to do our job just as we go to our workplaces to do ours. Just as we have the right to expect we will not just survive our job they have the right to expect they do not just have to survive school, as if it is a trial they need to endure - and yet for some it still is.

I am not about to shut up on this issue, either. We have every reason to anticipate an election is coming in this province, and I intend to seek a commitment from any candidate wishing to represent my constituency that they will fight to see the right to form GSAs entrenched in any legislation put forward in the future. I do not want to hear arguments of school board autonomy or religion or morality - I want to hear that anyone wishing to represent us and our youth understands that things need to change in favour of our youth and not in favour of the adults who already wield the power. And change is coming, you see, as I can see it in the face of the IJB who I suspect will one day be one of the ones leading this world and wielding the power. She already sees the disconnect between our generation and hers, the way we put school board rights in front of the rights of students, and how we seem to casually ignore that while we get to expect to thrive in our lives we seem to expect some of our youth to just survive in theirs because we hold onto old norms and ideas, seeing the world as it was and not as it is for them.

I firmly believe that GSAs should be mandated by the government in any and all schools where students request the ability to form one. The school, regardless of board or district, should be required to support this initiative and put aside any questions of religion or morality (often hidden behind the veil of autonomy of the board). This is about the very LIVES of our youth and ensuring that we provide every and any support necessary to have them thrive in their schools - and maybe, just maybe, stem the tide of youths who commit suicide because they do not feel included, represented or reflected in their schools. This is NOT a question of religion. This is NOT a question of morality. This is a question of human rights, and I would suggest the time has come for us to be on the right side of history and stand with our youth, of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and give them our unconditional and unreserved support to thrive.

This is about thriving, not surviving. And I don't know about you, but I will do whatever it takes for my kid and others to not just survive - but thrive. And I am both unapologetic and unafraid to do so, too.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Synonym for Joy

There is a synonym for the word puppy. That word is joy.

After a decade spent working in veterinary clinics, owning a couple of dogs of my own and spending most of my life since childhood around animals I know that there is nothing more full of energy, life and pure exuberance than a puppy. Puppies are the purest form of joy, a gift to all who understand and embrace the concept.
And so it was yesterday I found myself sitting at my desk in my office, tears forming in my eyes when I read the sad news that Tiny Tim, the little pup found in a dumpster on Christmas Eve, had died due to the trauma and injuries he sustained when he was tossed into a garbage bin like trash.

Tiny Tim had appeared to be recovering well, but after all those years treating ill animals I know too how quickly things can change, and how fragile life, especially the life in tiny little bodies, can be. I had truly come to believe that Tim would be okay, would go on to recover and live a full and happy life just as we all believe Tiny Tim in the Dickens classic did after Scrooge changed his ways – but for this tiny puppy it was simply not to be.
I must admit to dark thoughts of rage, anger and revenge to wreak upon anyone who would toss a puppy into a dumpster, but in my heart of hearts I know that anyone who could do such a thing is likely already in such a dark place that anything I did would be unlikely to have much impact other than add to what is probably an already miserable life. In those years in vet clinics I encountered animal abusers, too, and there is no doubt there is something fundamentally wrong with anyone who can harm an innocent creature, including a puppy that trusts implicitly and fully. Those who can abuse animals are often those who will abuse other humans, too, so lacking in empathy and sympathy, a deep crack or flaw in their character that runs so deep that I cannot even fathom it. Despite knowing all that, though, I find myself wanting to take those who would dump a puppy into a dumpster and wrap my hands around their neck, or perhaps dump them into the darkest, deepest and coldest dumpster so they can experience the fear and pain a small puppy did on Christmas Eve.

But I try to not dwell on those dark thoughts, as they lead me down a dangerous path, one far too close to that walked by someone who could – and did – put a puppy into a dumpster, knowing it would likely die. And now, weeks later, the puppy has.
I take solace that in his final days Tiny Tim was surrounded by love and comfort, kept warm and given food and treats and toys. I find small bits of happiness in that, knowing that at least – at least! – his final hours were not spent freezing to death in a dumpster, his body unlikely to ever be found and his story never told. At least Tiny Tim got to know joy. At least Tiny Tim got to be the pure joy that is a puppy.

I wish I could say animal abuse is rare and unusual. It isn’t. It is far too common, as anyone who works with animals knows, and it is a dark indicator of where we are at in our society. We will be judged in the future by how we treat our most vulnerable, including small puppies. I am so grateful we have organizations like the Fort McMurray SPCA, where they care for these animals and in most cases are able to find them loving, forever homes – and where in some cases they are simply there for them with love and gentle care until their tiny little hearts, so full of unconditional love and joy, can beat no longer.
If you have been touched by the story of Tiny Tim I ask you to visit the SPCA website and donate to their Isabella Paws Fund, which provides financial assistance for animals who have come to them suffering injuries from abuse and neglect, like Tiny Tim. Money cannot save all the lives that come through the doors of the SPCA, but it can ensure they are given the best possible care and the best chance at survival, just as Tiny Tim was given.

I will admit my heart is broken today, and last night I cuddled all my little fur-friends a little tighter than usual. Three of those pets came to us through the Fort McMurray SPCA, and they have uncertain histories. I do not know if they endured any sort of abuse, but I do know they were abandoned and left to fend for themselves, tiny creatures filled with love and trust and, yes, joy.
Tiny Tim’s days of joy are over. I am grateful that at the end of his life he experienced love and his joy was rewarded with the kind of human devotion those soft little eyes deserved. I will not dwell in the dark place where the person who tossed him into a dumpster resides, and instead I will focus on that joy and that complete and utter unconditional love only found in the small body of a puppy.

Good bye, Tiny Tim – perhaps at one point in your life you were unloved, but I can guarantee that at the end of your life you were loved by an entire community who saw all the joy inside you.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

To Everything There Is A Season - The Battle Over Willow Square

There are names that will go down in history in this community as reminders of difficult times and contentious issues. One of these is of course Penhorwood, the ill-fated condo complex now reduced to rubble but very much alive in the memories of anyone who witnessed that particular debacle. One of the others, of course, is Willow Square.

It is with trepidation I write about Willow Square, the plot of land at the corner of Hospital and Franklin Streets that sits empty, surrounded by a chain link fence that has been there so long it has become prone to falling down in places and marked by a forlorn, although somehow still glossy, sign. This piece of land, once the spot of affordable housing, has once again become the focal point of a raging battle.

At various points in this blog I have written about Willow Square, my thoughts and my opinion. I watched the original buildings there go down, I watched the fences go up and I watched the signage declaring it the site of an “Aging in Place Community” installed. I watched more recently as the land was turned over, after long and painful negotiations, to the municipality and then onto the Wood Buffalo Housing and Development Corporation.

I think we have some very basic problems with what is happening at Willow Square. If one Googles “aging in place” what pops up is pages and pages of information on the concept of seniors literally aging in place, meaning staying in their own homes with assistance as required until they are no longer able to do so. The concept of an “Aging in Place” facility, at least using that terminology, seems almost unique to our community, and herein lies one of the essential problems, as I am not sure we have ever clearly defined what aging in place means in Fort McMurray.

I know what it means to me. It means a facility like the one my mother spent her final years in, one where seniors had a range of options from independent apartment-style level right up to the highest level of care. Seniors who became part of that community could stay there regardless of their level of need, as it encompassed everything from those who were quite able to care for themselves on a daily basis to those who required long-term care. But you see that is the image I have in my head for Aging in Place, the definition I gravitate towards as it is the one I know – but what is the definition others carry? Is it similar to mine or different in some regard?

We have started discussions on this Aging in Place concept without even clearly defining it, I think, and this has been some of the root of the issue. Names do matter, and by calling it Aging in Place I think certain expectations and images have been evoked that may not match what is now being proposed in order to keep the concept sustainable for the long term. And sustainability does matter, too, but the next question I have is who is the right entity to ensure that sustainability?

Wood Buffalo Housing and Development Corporation has stated fairly clearly that if they are limited to developing seniors-only housing at Willow Square that they will not be able to create and deliver a sustainable facility and will hand the property back to the municipality or province for further development. This once again leaves the property in limbo, but I am not sure we understand what or who would come forward to develop this property should it be returned to the government. Would private  interests look to develop a revenue-generating “aging in place” facility at the property? It seems clear none of the levels of government intend to do so, so would it require the formation of a new entity, along the lines of the corporation formed to develop Abrams Land, to do so? And once the property is built who would run it, where would the funding come from and how would it function?

There are so many questions and so very few answers, it seems. I have great empathy and sympathy for the seniors in this community, who must feel they have been, for lack of a better phrase, “jerked around” by several different entities along the way towards the development of Willow Square. I think however the “jerking around” was not intentional and was rooted in the very fact that we have never defined what aging in place actually means and that we may well have very different ideas of what it entails.

I don’t believe there are any villains in this story, incidentally, no names that will live on in infamy for their treachery. I think instead there has been a great deal of misunderstandings, a lot of expectations along the way that were perhaps unrealistic but were always optimistic and many, many individuals who cared deeply on all sides of the story but who found it was so tangled and so sticky that there seems to be no way forward – or even backward. This is not a story of bad guys versus good guys, no “hidden interests” or “secret agendas” in my opinion – it is simply the story of a painful process in this community as we try to provide the respect and dignity our seniors deserve while balancing that goal with what we can achieve and accomplish in a manner to keep it sustainable, functioning and viable for the seniors of tomorrow, too.

So, where do we go from here? I think we need to begin answering some of the questions:
  •         Begin by taking down the Aging in Place signs as suggested by one of our wise councillors, because the signs are misleading given we have given it a name we have never even clearly defined.
  •       Start a very basic dialogue with seniors about their vision for the property and how they see Aging in Place (should we choose to call it that) or a seniors-focused community.
  •        Establish if any other entities are capable or interested in taking on the task of developing the property and what this would entail and what it would mean to the community.
  •        Put down the swords.

That last part may be the most critical, you see. We have taken up swords over this issue for so long and it has been so adversarial that it has begun to hurt us, not help us. As the Biblical passage says “to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven”. The continued adversary over Willow Square puts us no further ahead, and the time has come to work together, listening more than talking, putting aside names like “Aging in Place” and “Community Campus” until we have established the vision and then, perhaps in a slow and agonizing process, finding a way to make it happen.

I believe in this community, and in the people in this place. In recent months I was honoured when I was discussing a difficult issue with someone who had every reason to be angry with me. Instead of accusing me of dark motives and unkindness, though, they told me that they know I have a “good heart”, and that it was because of their faith in my good heart that we would, and could, move forward. And so we have, believing in each other’s good hearts and working together when it could have very easily gone down a different path. Fort McMurray, this is a time to believe in the good hearts of others in this community. I happen to believe that every person around Willow Square has a good heart. I believe that if we try to come from a place where we believe that, casting aside any doubts on motives, agendas, expectations and anger or hurt we have held onto, that we can move ahead and find some resolution.

I also believe that I will likely get beaten up over having the audacity to write about this issue, but my heart and I can take it, because whatever anyone else thinks I know my motivation comes from watching my own mother in the final years of her life and wanting all other seniors to experience the kind of warm community she was fortunate enough to find before she died. There is a time to break down, and a time to build up, as it states in Ecclesiastes – and the time to break down the anger and distrust has come in this community so we can begin to build up – and turn Willow Square into a name that rings with pride, not anger or sorrow, and speaks to a community that can turn a time to mourn into a time to dance.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

My Circus, My Monkeys

One of my colleagues has the best sign ever made above her desk. This is it:

I have kind of fallen in love with this phrase (or Polish proverb, so it seems) because it sums up my relationship with this community rather beautifully.

There are days I watch the lovely insanity of this town - the political chicanery and the moving of the chess pieces, the rather odd little Facebook groups where everything goes, nothing goes and all is confessed, and all the other absurdities, and I quietly divide them in my head into not my circus, not my monkeys categories of concern. 

The only trouble is that this town IS my circus and these ARE my monkeys, for better or for worse because I have chosen this place (or it has chosen me, I still haven't quite worked that out yet). Every news article, every radio story, every event, every person...they contribute to this circus and the occasional monkey-house atmosphere of the joint, a sort of gentle insanity of a place that bubbles over and simmers down just as the price of oil does and that is endlessly and ceaselessly entertaining for an observer like me.

My new running joke these days is about the book I can only publish some day when I have left this town, filled with stories I could never tell while still here as life would become uncomfortable at best. It is only a joke to some degree as some day I will publish that book and the stories are already being written, all about this circus and these monkeys. Except the trouble is that I am not just observing this circus, no casual guest in the stands watching it all unfold in the rings in front of me. No, somehow along the way I have become one of the monkeys.

I was sitting in my car driving home one day last week and shaking my head over the latest bemusement/amusement of local politics. I could not help but smile and think about my colleague's sign, but I had to change it up a bit to make it suitable for my thoughts. 

You see this is my circus, and these are my monkeys, thank god. I can't actually imagine it being any other way, because what an incredible circus it is to witness - and how lucky I am to be just another one of the monkeys.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The TEDxperience in Fort McMurray

There are moments in life I will never forget. Some are, of course, more significant than others, like the birth of the Intrepid Junior Blogger, while others are smaller moments but still ones that have changed my life. One of those moments for me was when I took the stage at the Suncor Energy Centre for the Performing Arts almost two years, stood on a small red dot of carpet and began to speak.

Since that day in June 2013 I have often reflected back to that moment in time, even though I only truly recall the beginning and the end, my mind blocking out the moments in between when I told a story that was personal and meaningful and that I had never anticipated I would tell to an audience. I recall the shaking voice, the quivering hands and then starting to feel the flow of the story I had rehearsed time and time again, in front of a mirror and in my car and in dark quiet moments when I lay in my bed at night. It was what I now refer to as my “TEDxperience”.
This year I was honoured to be asked to serve as a coach for one of the presenters at TEDx this year. It was truly a transition to move from presenter in 2013 to coach in 2015, and I am so thrilled to have been the coach for Kaitlin Armstrong, a remarkable woman in every regard with a deeply compelling tale to tell on the TEDx stage this year. When we first met I quickly realized why the TEDx organizers had assigned me as her coach, as it was clear that she and I might be different in many ways but our similarities outweighed the differences. As we grow ever closer to the event I have seen Kaitlin follow a similar journey to the one I travelled in 2013, her story becoming more refined, more powerful and more potent as the days until she takes the stage slowly count down.

Kaitlin is just one of the presenters, of course, and there is a line-up of speakers for TEDx Fort McMurray this year that will inspire, enthrall, engage and excite. The exchange of ideas and thoughts will be without true measure, as I know while telling my own tale was a pivotal moment in my life it is what I learned from the stories and tales of my fellow presenters that truly changed my life. I met a group of other people who told their stories, some personal and some of a more professional nature, and in that group I found new friends, new ideas and new energy. I walked away from my TEDxperience with the memories of a journey I will never forget, and people who had found their way into my heart through their own courage in standing on that stage, their voice shaking a bit at first, their hands a bit quivery, and then telling their story, whatever it happened to be.
The theme for TEDx Fort McMurray this year is Pioneering, a phrase that often comes to my mind when I think of this community, this region and this country. My great-grandparents were among the group of European pioneers who came to this country to forge a new life, and I feel their spirit strongly in my blood as I have never been afraid to blaze a new trail where none existed before. Perhaps this is why I feel so keenly attached to Fort McMurray, as this is a place that seems to both breed and attract pioneers, those unafraid of bold new ventures, new ideas and even what seem to be impossible dreams. To be a true pioneer requires that kind of fearlessness and ability to believe, to bravely throw oneself into  unknown territory…like onto a stage in front a couple hundred of your fellow community members, and tell a story.

Two years ago at TEDx  I spent an entire day immersed in the experience, as both presenter and audience. The Intrepid Junior Blogger and I both sat in an adult ballpit and met a stranger, prompted by questions on balloons to share a bit of ourselves with our new friend. When the video of that moment emerged again this week I was flooded with memories of that day, recalling the journey, the moments and the way the TEDxperience changed my life in more ways than I could ever recount.
This year on February 21 you have the opportunity to be a part of the TEDxperience, too. You can watch as pioneers of ideas and stories take the stage to tell their stories, ones likely to be as diverse as this community is. There will be unforgettable moments, ones that make you think, make you laugh and perhaps even make you cry. It is all part of the TEDx experience, a day of ideas and thoughts and concepts and moments in time you will never forget.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Dirty Tricks of Politics

Ah, politics. Love them or loathe them, there is no escaping them, particularly right now in our community as elections at all levels of government loom large. A municipal by-election has already been scheduled, it seems an announcement on a spring provincial election can only be days away and even a federal election isn't that far off. It's a heady time for political junkies, and even a time of excitement (and some trepidation, too). And it is also the time when some of the dirty tricks of politics begin to appear, including the one that irks me the most: anonymous accounts on social media designed to take shots at political candidates or parties.

I am not a big fan of anonymity online in general, but particularly so when it comes to election time. The tendency to hide behind the cloak of anonymity, allowing one to say whatever comes into one's head (through their fingers onto a keyboard), is not a positive development in political discourse in my opinion. In fact I think it demeans the entire process.

I am an opinionated person. I also unhesitatingly attach my name to those opinions after I made a decision a long time ago to attach my name to this blog and to everything else I do. I suppose I acknowledge that the things I write may have consequences, but part of what has kept me honest, forthright and thoughtful is knowing those consequences exist. To be in a land of no consequences is dangerous territory for most of us, allowing us to express things that may be better left unsaid or that simply add nothing of value to the conversation.

During the last provincial election I had the honour of serving as the communications manager for one of the candidates. It was with dismay that I watched a number of anonymous social media accounts spring up, ones that had nothing to do with our campaign and that threatened the reputation of everyone who had taken the brave step of running for office. Standing for election is in my mind quite a bold and courageous thing to do, no matter your political stripe, but these anonymous accounts were the exact opposite of that: they were the work of cowards who wouldn't even put their name on a tweet, let alone a ballot.

I am excited about the coming elections, as I enjoy the banter of politics. I enjoy the gamesmanship, the rattling of word-sabres and even the occasional debate dust-up - but I have absolutely no respect for those who choose this season as the time to express themselves through anonymity and behind a curtain of deceit. This nonsense only adds to the perceived dirty tricks of politics, and far from making the anonymous ones look clever it simply makes them look like what they are - cowards. Politics needs passion and belief and discussion and engagement - but what it doesn't need it more dirty tricks and I sincerely hope we see far fewer of those this time around.