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

Sunday, March 29, 2015

On the Hunt for Community

There is every reason for optimism, you see. I believe in the resiliency of this community, in the strength of our industry and most of all in our greatest resource: our people. I cannot help but find myself troubled, though, as I browse through local social media sites and see the tales of those who have been laid off, lost jobs and who are now experiencing difficult times. I am seeing a great deal of anxiety and fear, and our mood is both fragile and taut like a violin string, easily plucked and made to sing our song of worry.

I suppose this is why I am thinking the way I am these days, about how it is more important than ever for this community to come together at every opportunity. I worry about the fragility of our community bond as families begin to consider selling their homes, moving away and seeking lives elsewhere as their lives here have either been altered or they fear it will happen. I suppose this is why I was saddened to hear that the annual Easter Egg Hunt at Dunvegan Gardens may not happen this year due to some behind-the-scenes wrangling over whether or not such activities should be permitted at that location.

I won't speculate on the reasons for the possible end of this annual event, but it is my understanding that there has been an ongoing dispute along Draper Road for some time. I've written about this dispute before in this blog, one occurring between residents of that area. Neighbourhood disputes are always messy and unpleasant, and they are rarely resolved tidily or to anyone's complete satisfaction. I suspect, although I do not know, that the appeal to disallow the annual Easter Egg Hunt may be tied to this years-old dispute and may simply another symptom of a long-simmering disagreement over the activities taking place in this area. To be honest I have sympathy and empathy for both sides on this dispute as I have expressed before, because as is often the case both sides have validity to their claims and points - but on this occasion I find that immaterial, because what suffers the most if the annual Easter Egg hunt is cancelled isn't either side but this community.

Traditions matter in a community. They are the ties upon which we build our cohesive bond, they are the events at which we find our neighbours, they are the moments we will remember forever. That the Easter Egg Hunt matters can be seen in the manner in which locals reacted upon learning of the potential cancellation of the event, perhaps in some cases an over-reaction as there is no need or benefit in creating villains or pointing fingers of blame at individuals, but the strength of the emotion was clear and powerful and showed the depth of feeling community members hold for this event.

No doubt when this post is published I will receive messages telling me that despite tough times in our community governance must continue as it should and we cannot just ignore due process. I will no doubt hear from those on both sides for not taking a strong enough stance or for taking a stance at all, as writing about this issue has in the past provoked hate-mail as it is a subject fraught with emotion. For me, though, the reality is that this is a terrible year to end a tradition that people have come to anticipate with excitement and I would be remiss if I failed to express my thoughts on why the possible cancellation of this event seems to have touched us so deeply this year.

During a time when we are already facing significant challenges and worries this event becomes a moment when we can forget those worries, even if for just a bit, and watch our children hunt for Easter Eggs. I would argue that this is a time when our community must come together, putting aside old differences if only for a day, to face an uncertain future together. This is a time when external forces - the price of oil, for instance - threaten to tear us apart, and so it becomes even more crucial for us to put aside any differences, real or perceived, and instead form a united front.

There are those who will think this is an overblown argument in favour of a small thing like an Easter Egg hunt. But it isn't the big things - elections and such - that truly tie people to their community. It is the small things like Easter Egg hunts that we remember and that we hold onto when times turn tough. This is a time when one would hope we can put our own issues aside in favour of simply enjoying a simple tradition that exists for our children and which contributes to the development of our community bond.

On Wednesday at 6 pm the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board will hold an Appeal Hearing on this matter at Council Chambers in the Jubilee Building. Anyone wishing to speak or present evidence must submit it in advance (by Monday March 30). I would suggest anyone interested in learning more about the appeal attend this hearing, but if you are unable to attend the hearing and wish to express your thoughts you can email the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board.

If you wish to see this event go ahead then instead of laying blame or expressing anger I encourage you to simply share with the Appeal Board what this annual event means to you and why you think it needs to continue in our community. There is no need for anger and for argument, no need to further inflame the situation when our emotions are already so heightened - the best tactic now is to simply share why this matters to us, our children and our community. This is a time when we must be on the hunt for ways to strengthen our community - and for me this is an opportunity to do so, and a chance to work together to achieve a positive resolution for all.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Driving Miss Amelia

I'm in a new relationship.

It began rather suddenly, with a decision that I needed something new and different. It began with a small number of quick dates, speed dating of a sort that lasted just long enough for me to know what I did not want and to settle on what I did. It only took a matter of hours for me to commit to my new significant other. It might seem abrupt, but we have now begun to co-habitate, and as I write this I glance over to see them in my driveway.

My driveway? Yes. 

You see, I bought a new car.

Maybe that is no big deal to you. Perhaps it is something you have done dozens of times, buying a new car every few years, but not me. This is the very first car I have ever bought on my own, a novel experience I now savour in my head as I write about it.

My old car was a small gold Ford Escape. It was the car I got when I divorced, a reliable beast that had been driven to site for a couple of years before it came to me. It was in relatively good shape, but in the last few months the reliability had begun to falter. And so too had my relationship with it, as the car was one of the last remnants of a marriage now over and lives that have moved on. It was a reminder of the past, one  of the few remaining in my life, and I knew it was time to end that relationship, too.

But there was a sticking point. I have never bought a car, and I was terrified. You see growing up my father had regularly brought home new cars (always Fords, as for him only Ford made real cars and only John Deere made real tractors) and when I married my husband did the same. I had never been part of the process, never even test driven a car, never really set out to buy a car...and so I was afraid, even though in the past two years I have done bold things like bought my own house. Buying a car, though, was a daunting new adventure.

That's where my friend Arianna came in. Arianna is one of those friends who is there whenever you need them, good times and bad. She is one of those people of whom you say "I can count on her", but it is so much more than that as you don't even need to ask what you want as she is already thinking it. I told her I was looking to buy a new car, and she immediately asked if she could come with me - and so we set out on an adventure.

I had been looking at cars online, but I can't help it. I am my father's daughter and so my web browser kept finding itself on the Ford website, looking through their lines of vehicles. It seems I could not imagine deviating from his legacy, and so this woman who wears a John Deere t-shirt and cap when she mows her lawn, headed to NorthStar Ford.

I don't intend this blog post to read as an endorsement of those I have dealt with on this journey, but I am afraid it probably will as I have encountered such incredible people along the way. The minute I stepped into NorthStar Ford I told them I was new to this - and they took that to heart, setting me up with the most patient salesperson and finance person they could. In a three-visit process Alexsis and Hassam took me from novice to expert, guiding me through the entire transaction until yesterday, keys in hand, I drove out of the stunning new facility NorthStar has built and into my next adventure.

Along the way I encountered others who were so kind they must be mentioned - Lana from AMA who handled my insurance transaction, telling me stories as we went and her gentle friendliness a strong counter to my evident nervousness about this entire thing (incidentally AMA has my loyalty forever, as when I went to insure my new home and change over ownership of my old car after my separation they were so incredibly kind and patient with me, the agent telling me how brave and strong I must be, kind words from a stranger that came at just the right time). There was the young woman from the BMO who handled getting me a certified cheque, and at every turn I reflected on the remarkably efficient and kind service I received in a town often derided for the exact opposite.

I test drove three different cars, all from the SUV class of vehicle with which I have become comfortable. It was the last one I drove that I fell for, a blue creature with a moon roof and a traditional SUV type style which appealed to me. I suppose in some ways it was as close as I could get to my father's F-150 without actually getting a truck I simply don't need, and it made me think of him as he loved the colour blue just as I do. And the name of the vehicle was not lost on me, either, as it was not designed to "escape" or to live on the "edge". It was meant to be an explorer.

When I came home I told the Intrepid Junior Blogger I had purchased a new car, a bright blue Ford Explorer, and that she would need a name. One of my colleagues had suggested Dora, but the IJB was vehemently opposed to this name and so we discussed it for a bit. Late that night, just before bed, I found her downstairs and suggested we name our new friend after a famous female explorer, and the IJB was intrigued.

When she asked the name I said: "Let's call her Amelia."

"After Amelia Earhart?" she said. "Didn't she get lost?" she asked, fixing me with a quizzical look.

"She did," I said, "and has never been found."

"But here's the thing," I continued. "I think Amelia Earhart was the kind of person who would have rather gotten lost doing what she loved than been safe staying in one place forever. That's what an explorer is. Maybe that's what life is."

And the IJB looked at me, a smile spreading across her face. 

"Amelia is a good name," she said, and so it was settled.

You see I suppose this entire journey of buying a car has been an exploration for me, just as my entire life has been. I haven't always taken the right direction - and on occasion I have gotten lost. But like Amelia Earhart I would rather get lost exploring than be safe by staying still, and if I only ever teach the IJB one lesson that might be it. Life is an exploration - and one should never let fear of getting lost stop you from living it.

This is Amelia. This isn't the end of an adventure, you see. It's just the beginning.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Why You Shouldn't Vote

Ah, election season. It’s a glorious time of the year, as it seems to be becoming an almost annual event in our community to see an election of some variety taking place. Perhaps this is why we seem to be experiencing some degree of voter fatigue, a lack of interest or excitement about the upcoming by-election that is prevalent enough that my favourite barista has no idea there is an election, and my neighbour seemed puzzled that a candidate for an election she knew nothing about knocked on her door. The voters are weary, it seems, tired of marking their x’s or filling in their little circles, and various groups are trying to encourage the electorate to get out and vote.
But not me. In fact I am going to encourage you to do the opposite. Don’t vote – not in this by-election, and not in the next election, either. In fact don’t bother voting at all – it’s time consuming, it doesn’t make a difference, it’s just one vote after all. Your vote is meaningless, really, just a drop in the bucket of voters who will cancel out your vote with theirs.
That’s right. Don’t vote. Instead, let me decide your future. Actually, let me and others like me decide it, because we are quite happy to do so, the ones who always vote regardless of our own weariness of lacklustre campaigns, shallow words and fallen-over campaign signs. Regardless of this tiredness, though, we are quite content to decide the future for this community – and for you.
Your lack of interest in voting plays right into our hands, you see. It allows us to control not only our destiny, but yours. You stay home and watch Netflix, and people like me will go out and quietly make the decisions you are too “busy” to make. It works for us if it works for you.
Alright, have you caught on yet that I am being a bit facetious? To some degree I am of course, because I believe every citizen of voting age has not only the right but the responsibility to vote – but if they choose not to exercise it then I am quite okay with making the decision for them as they have forfeited their option to do so. If you want to leave the decisions to me – and people like me – we are happy to make them for you. After all it only takes minutes of our time, it’s as easy as marking an x and we have helped to direct the future.
So, when you are thinking about whether or not to “bother” voting keep in mind that people like me are voting – and if you are okay with us deciding your future, so are we.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Crystal Clear Blindness

I round the corner with my cart a little sharply, I admit. I am overtired and not paying as much attention as I should, but I also simply don’t see her cart, which I hit ever so slightly with my own.
It isn’t much of an impact – just the clang of metal on metal, no harm done, but when I look up she sighs at me. It is such an exasperated look on her face that when I say I am sorry I add that I am blind in one eye, my peripheral vision gone on the left side and that I simply didn’t see her cart. What happens next is something I could have never predicted.

She hisses in almost a whisper: “I am so tired of people making excuses for their mistakes”, and she glides off with her cart, her vision intact even if her humanity is suspect.
I can’t help it. I might be in the chips and pop aisle at a grocery store but I am so angry, so incensed, that I call out after her retreating figure. I am in some sense not proud of what I said, but in some ways I am proud of it, too.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I almost shout, to the shock of the other person in the aisle who eyes me with some degree of alarm. I have just begun my shopping but I am so shaken I abandon my cart right there and head to the parking lot. You see I know what is wrong with me – I am blind in one eye due to a common virus that 90% of adults carry dormant in their body but that in mine ran amuck 15 years ago leading to a cascade of problems eventually resulting in my blindness. And while I know what is wrong with me I simply do not know what is wrong with people like her.
I have heard other stories of this kind, too, people being told they need to stop using their medical issues as “excuses”, that they should just “get over” whatever disability they are struggling with. It is stunning to me that anyone could feel this way and could think that someone like me would choose partial blindness and the subsequent fallout, like an inability to perceive the depth of stairs and a constant feeling of vague unsteadiness.

Most people, when told about my blindness, are sympathetic and some are even intrigued enough to want to hear the story of a common virus that led to glaucoma, a corneal perforation, an operation to seal it with medical-grade crazy glue and my likely eventual corneal transplant. At the worst people are indifferent – but the reaction of the woman in the store enraged me in a way few things do, because while she likely has good vision now it may not always be that way. Some day she may be the one who loses a limb, goes deaf or loses her vision – and what then? Will she continue to be as unsympathetic to herself as she apparently is to others? Or will she hope people will understand that her disability is something with which she must contend but that on occasion may change the way she sees and experiences the world?
The reality is that my vision loss is hopefully temporary. There is reason for optimism, and with a corneal transplant I may one day see the world again with my left eye, clearly and in sharp focus. But it has been through the loss of my vision in that eye that I have begun to truly see. I began to see things I had not seen before, the world from the eyes of someone who notices things like stairs that are not clearly marked and a hazard. But I also began to see through the eyes of someone who struggles with a chronic health issue, one affecting my daily life and existence. I am blind in one eye, it seems, but I can see with a clarity I have never had before.

To the woman in the store: I still don’t know what is wrong with you. I know I hope you never experience what I have, and I know I am genuinely grateful that you are a rarity in this world where most people express compassion instead of condemnation for things we cannot control and that happen to us, not because we have chosen them. I know what is wrong with me. I am blind in one eye. But my real vision – the one that counts – is crystal clear.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Stick a Fork In It

Last week I penned a column for the space I am so honoured to hold in the local Connect Weekly newspaper. I have been writing there for a couple of years now, both articles with a more journalistic bent and personal opinion pieces. Last week I wrote about a new breed of individual that the Internet has created, the Casual Cowards of the Keyboard who hide behind pseudonyms and the moniker "anonymous" to comment on everything from online newspaper articles to blogs like mine, and how my father - who believed in a very fundamental version of freedom of speech where you attached your name - would have been appalled by the shenanigans of the Casual Cowards.

The online world has certainly changed how we read - and what we read. Perhaps one of the things I find most intriguing is what people choose to read online. On occasion I encounter a reader of this blog who basically says (and I paraphrase slightly): "I read what you write because I hate it and it makes me angry."

I must admit I find this bemusing. There are many ways one could make oneself angry, like repeatedly poking yourself in the eye with a fork. Maybe I am missing the masochism gene, but I find myself struggling to understand why anyone reads something they acknowledge they hate. I suppose I think life is just too short to be using a cattle prod on yourself. I studiously avoid the works of authors or writers I can't stand,  particularly if they are opinion pieces that I know I won't appreciate - I would rather spend my time reading the work of those I enjoy. And if I do happen to read them on those very rare occasions when one sneaks onto my screen I don't bother contacting the author to argue with them, because I recognize it is pointless and if this is their opinion they are as unlikely to change their mind as I am to change mine. If the person is a journalist and the piece is factually incorrect I may contact them to advise of the factual discrepancies, but an opinion piece? It's tilting at a windmill I will never shift.

But there are those out there - maybe you reading this now are one of them - who hate what I write and what I think, and I all I can ask is: dude, why are you reading this? This is just an online blog, an opinion-editorial on the Internet, written by someone who is unpaid to do so and who writes it simply because she wants to. There is no requirement to read it, no compelling reason to do so - so if it makes you angry (and in turn makes you want to send me hate mail, of which I receive a startling amount) why are coming back here to read it? I got two pages into Shades of Grey before I tossed it into the trash because the writing was so egregiously awful, and all one has to do if they feel the same about this blog is to click that little X on the window in which it appears. Call it free anger management advice, if you want.

As I approach the fourth anniversary of this blog, a rather startling realization, I find I write it for the same reasons I began it four years ago: for myself, and to tell the story of my life in this community. Some detractors have suggested this blog upsets them because it is "all about me", but of course it is as that has always been the intent and purpose of the blog - it is a blog about me, and my life, opening myself up in ways that have on occasion made me very vulnerable. This too is an option the Internet has created, an ability to share one's thoughts and life freely with the world. The reality is that anyone who has an issue with it - or with me - has a very clear choice: keep poking a fork in your eye, or simply hit that X and make me disappear from your screen, going about your life while I go about mine. I'm cool with either choice, really, because this blog isn't about you - it's about me, just as it always was and always will be - and after four years of doing it I am pretty comfortable saying that if you don't like it, well, you can stick a fork in it.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Cry: Human Trafficking and our World

Perhaps the most troubling aspect is how it flies under the radar, one of the most prevalent crimes in our world today and yet we hear so little about it, and know even less. We think or believe that it happens elsewhere, certainly not in our country, our province or our community. We think it impacts people who are not like us, from other cultural or economic groups. And when we do learn of it - when it touches our lives in some way, I suspect we have a similar response - we cry.

I admit I knew very little about it until a few years ago when I was working on a story about missing and murdered Aboriginal women in our country. One of the resources I contacted at Crimestoppers mentioned the issue of human trafficking, and what followed left me stunned. The information that human trafficking was an issue in our own country and communities shocked me to the core, because I was one of those who thought it affected "other people" in "other places". I spoke to friends and family, and even other writers, to see what they knew about the subject of human trafficking, and the answer was virtually always the same: next to nothing.

There are many stories I could share, frightening ones. A quick web search brought up stories like this one and this one. Human trafficking is far from a rarity in this world and even in our own country, but the trouble is that the statistics are somewhat nebulous as we simply don't really know the magnitude of the problem. It is a slippery thing to grasp, under reported and misunderstood. How many of our missing young adults, supposed runaways. have been trafficked? How many missing women are forced into a life of servitude, sexual or otherwise? What are the real numbers? We don't actually know - but here are some things we do believe to be true: 






Human trafficking is a global "industry", one that provides a pool of human labour for everything from the sex trade to sweatshops. It is not a small problem but one that has global impacts - including in our own community as many who work in our social profits that deal with youth can attest to. And human trafficking preys upon our most vulnerable, the youth in our communities.

Just as I learned about this topic a few years ago so too did a local man. Gordon Ponak, who has been writing scripts and presenting productions on a variety of topics for years, learned about trafficking at a conference. The subject stuck with him, the longevity proven when he realized it was a story that needed to be told as the silence surrounding the topic was deafening. And so he wrote a script, one that is from all reports compelling and powerful and impacting - and appropriately titled "Cry".

"Cry" debuts next weekend at Keyano Theatre. Just as all good creative work should be, it is provocative and it will not be easy to watch, because the tale it tells is an uncomfortable one for us to see. It is far easier to deny that human trafficking exists or has any impact in our world. It is far easier and far more comfortable to think that this issue is one that involves "other people in other places", but one of the great truths in life is that the most uncomfortable realities are the ones we most need to understand - and accept.

Perhaps I am more passionate about the topic as the mother of a young woman who would easily fall into the age range targeted by human traffickers. Perhaps it is because I am concerned about the vulnerable in our community, particularly our youth who can easily fall prey to schemes designed to entrap them. Perhaps it is because is I recall how I felt when I learned about it, when I realized that my understanding of the topic fell far, far short of the reality. 

I would encourage you to do a few things. First, get tickets to see "Cry" next weekend as there is no doubt it will be a changing experience. Second, visit the website for the production to learn more about human trafficking, and about ways you can contribute to ending human trafficking. And I will ask you to watch this video, compelling on its own, to learn more about human trafficking, the upcoming production and the impact this issue has in our world - and our community. This is not an easy topic, and not as easy issue to understand - which is perhaps why it is so vitally important we do so, because the easy things in life are the ones that we rarely need to think about - or the ones that make us cry.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Do Something - GSAs and the IJB

“Do something,” she said, the hazel eyes flashing. “Just do something.”

The Intrepid Junior Blogger fixed me with those eyes and in them I saw the little girl she once was, the one who believed her mother could fix any problem and soothe any hurt. This time, though, I was not as certain what to do, as the problem was complex and far beyond my reach alone to address. But there was no way I could ignore my daughter’s plea to do something, and so we entered into an adventure that, in some ways, ended yesterday.
At the beginning of this year the IJB came home from school and announced she would focus on her studies, intent to secure stellar marks in all her classes to pursue the education overseas she has dreamt about for years. She would forego her usual pursuits – drama and the like – to focus on that, and hence my surprise when days later she came home to announce she was helping to found a new group in her school: a GSA.

I should be clear here: I had no idea what a GSA was. I asked her to explain and it spilled out of her, the concept of a Gay-Straight Alliance dedicated to developing a strong group in her school to ensure that all students, no matter their sexual orientation, felt safe. When I reminded her of her commitment to her school work she looked me in the eye and said: “This one matters, mom”, and I knew this was close to her heart for whatever reason and that she would not be deterred or dissuaded.
It was not long after that when the topic of GSAs blew up in our province, when the provincial politicians began an extended battle over the right of students to form these groups under the name of their choice and in any school district. We watched the battle unfolding with dismay, and it was one evening after school that she said: “do something”. When I asked her what she wanted me to do she asked me to do something she had never asked me to do before: she asked me to write about it.

And so I did. I wrote an open letter to Premier Prentice, using a photo from the evening he met the IJB and I told him that he was losing her, not just her future vote perhaps but her faith and trust in our government, our leadership and our province. I helped her to write and edit a letter to the MLA for whom she had campaigned, spending her precious time three years ago to ensure his election. I spoke to journalists and radio hosts, sharing her and my thoughts as best I could, under her direction and with her consultation.
It was a journey for me, and along the way I learned why GSAs, under the name students had chosen and with the support of their schools, were so important. From those who suggested such groups were primarily for parents (never mind that most parents like me didn’t even know what a GSA was and that in this case it was very much the kids leading the adults) to those who suggested “diversity clubs” were enough (not nearly enough and not recognizing the students in the way they wished to recognized) I came to realize that many of the adults in this province were woefully misinformed or misled on the subject, not understanding how and why GSAs mattered – and saved lives.

But I knew from the emails I got telling me how a school GSA might have changed the experience of those who wrote to me, individuals who endured tremendous challenges during their school years because they were gay and how a GSA would have been their safe place. I knew from the hate-filled emails from those who were so terrified of the very concept of being gay that they could not even type the word out in full, like it would infect them should they tap out the letters on their keyboard. I knew because of the friends who sought me out to tell their personal stories, of themselves and their friends and family members, stories that made me cry when they shared them.
And I knew from the number of journalists, strangers and even friends who asked if my child was gay, like the label mattered and like it was necessary for them or me to place a label on her and other kids in order to understand the issue or its importance. It showed so clearly how we didn’t get it, how we were failing our kids and how we viewed it so differently from my child and her friends who never even think to ask such a question. I learned how much GSAs mattered.

We were texting back and forth furiously when Bill 10 was put on pause pending consultation with the public and particularly youth like her. And yesterday, when the amendments for Bill 10 were read, indicating a commitment to ensuring all students, regardless of school board, could form a GSA on school property with the name of their choice, I texted her to tell her.
It might seem strange to say I cried when the amendments were read, and cheered when those who truly pushed for this, like Laurie Blakeman, were thanked. And when the vote took place, when it was finished and over, I texted my daughter and said “you won”.

And so she did, but not just her. She and all the kids in this province won, securing the right to form a group not much different from the chess club or yearbook society. They won the right – finally, as she said last night as she made me dinner – to form GSAs without being denied by the adults for whom such groups did not matter and were not intended, making it so easy for them to say no. It wasn’t the lives of adults on the line, but lives of young adults, and yesterday the young adults to whom these groups really matter won the right to have them, as it should have been all along.
That it happened yesterday is perhaps why I was more tearful and emotional than I might have normally been. Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death, a day I will never forget as I held her hand as she left this world and slipped away from me forever. My mother was a remarkable woman, someone with a depth of love and compassion rarely seen in this world, and to be like her in that regard has perhaps always been my greatest goal. To be the kind of mother she was, the kind who supported their child regardless of the magnitude of the challenge, the kind who loved fully and unconditionally and without reserve, was always something I wished to achieve.

I don’t know if I have achieved it yet, but yesterday as I remembered my mother I held close to me the day my daughter came to me and said: “do something”, and that “something” became a journey that finished with my daughter going to bed in a province slightly different than the one she had woken up in that morning - and knowing that she and I had been part of making it happen. I am grateful to a lot of people today – every person in this province who lent their voice to this cause, every politician who pushed for it openly and behind closed doors, every youth who shared their stories with our government to show them why it mattered – but I am mostly grateful to the IJB, because she was the one who led me on this journey.
Yesterday the IJB was late getting home after school. She was in a meeting, the kind of meeting every student in this province will soon have the right to attend. And I have never been so happy to be impatiently waiting for her to come home.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

International Women's Day - and Leaving the World a Better Place

When this day rolls around every year I cannot help but reflect on all the amazing women in my life, all those I have been honoured to know. Strong women, courageous women, women of kindness and compassion.  I think about the challenges women have faced and the challenges they continue to face around this world- and I think about my own role as a woman and most importantly as the mother of a young woman.

On Friday I wrote and published a blog post that proved to be quite controversial, as I expected it would be. On occasion though I forget how people can react to such posts, because people are often unnerved by people expressing opinions that diverge from their own. The post inspired some healthy debate, which I was pleased to see as all good, controversial writing should inspire debate - but it also inspired attacks on the author - not just on her opinion, but on her person, and, of course, that author is me.

With every controversial post I write I receive messages and emails questioning my competency, my integrity, my decency, my intelligence, and, on some memorable occasions, my very right to live. That expressing an opinion in this world can lead to such behaviour by others is deeply troubling to me, particularly when I discussed this with some male friends who also happen to write and who have told me they have never received such messages. Oh, people objected to their views on occasion, suggested they were dead wrong, but they never suggested to them that they were not smart enough to be a writer, not better suited to life "in the kitchen", not a "cow", or "stupid" or a "dumb bitch".

Yes, misogyny is alive and well and I know because I have been the recipient of it. When I scroll through the messages I have received over the years about things I have written it is startling to see how often my gender is directly or indirectly referenced in the criticisms of my work. It seems we still have a long way to go when it comes to seeing gender as immaterial and when it is not used as a weapon.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I do what I do, and why I refuse to back down even when what I have said is controversial. Perhaps it is because I want the Intrepid Junior Blogger, a young woman with formidable intelligence and strength, to understand that her gender should not only never stop her from doing anything but should never be used against her, regardless of the situation or circumstance. Perhaps it is because I want her to understand that it is her right to have, hold and express a point of view that may be controversial, and that while the opinion may be open to debate her status as a person should not be.  I want her and others like her to understand that being different and holding different opinions is not only okay but to be celebrated because the concept of a world where everyone thinks the same is a frightening one indeed.

Every strong woman I know and have known, from my mother and five sisters to all the female friends in my life, share one common trait: they are unafraid to express themselves, they say what they believe and they fully believe in their right to do so, no matter their gender, their religion, their culture or their beliefs. And they extend that to others, meaning they are unafraid of the opinions of others. They may disagree with the opinion - they may debate the belief - but they do not debate the person, because they know this is a fool's game in which no one wins, because just as they could judge others, others could (and would) judge them.

On today, International Women's Day, I honour the women who are fearless, and the ones who forged the path I walk today. I honour those women who expressed their opinions in eras when such a thing was shocking, but who refused to back down when attacked because they believed in their intrinsic right to do so. I honour those women who fought for equality, and for those who fought for the right to be controversial, to be heard, to be unafraid of being who they are and saying that they believe. And I honour the young women like my own daughter, the ones who I want to be fearless and courageous and I who I hope will be able to one day express themselves without being subjected to criticism based on their person or their gender.

On International Women's Day I reflect on the courage and strength of women, and simply hope that whatever I do in this world adds to it and sets an example for my daughter, because one day this world will be hers, not mine, and I hope to leave it a better place than I found it.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Nature of Integrity in Fort McMurray

I recall the day very clearly. I was moving into my new house, on a hot and sweaty July day, when the news broke of a sordid story. It would have been of only mild interest had it not been about a local politician, an elected official I knew and counted as a friend. I recall sitting on the sidewalk in front of my new place, surrounded by movers, feeling a mixture of anger and disbelief and wondering how I would tell the Intrepid Junior Blogger.

It’s almost two years since Mike Allen was arrested in Minnesota, and anyone in this community – and likely this province – remembers the story well. In the days that followed the media interest was intense, and the pressure was powerful. There were calls for his resignation, particularly after he was dismissed from the PC caucus. In my own head these thoughts were foremost, too, focused on the embarrassment to him and to those who elected him, on his removal from caucus and his inability to therefore represent us properly, on the face of my kid when I told her someone she respected had been involved in such a mess – I suppose in my head I was calling for him to resign.
But he didn’t. I cannot even imagine how difficult it was for him to walk back into the Legislative Assembly and face his former colleagues and take a seat across from them instead of with them. I cannot imagine how difficult it was for him to face the questions from his constituents, the media, his friends and, quite likely, his family. It would be like returning to school after your most embarrassing teenage moment, except multiplied by one hundred. I will be honest – I don’t know if I would have the courage to do what he did, day and in day out, for months.

And during those months he didn’t sit quietly, either. He continued to represent his constituents, ask questions, probe the government for responses, attend events and be part of his community. He did not hide in his car or his house, he did not hide on the back benches of the Assembly, and he did not quietly disappear. I know, because I was watching.
It was months later when the Intrepid Junior Blogger and I spoke about it again. I had held on to some of that residual anger, I suppose, still had it in my heart and head, until she said: “He has been really brave, hasn’t he?”, and I realized she was completely right, and I was entirely wrong.

What is the nature of integrity? We toss the word around a lot, but what does it really mean? Integrity isn’t always doing the right thing, or never doing the wrong thing. Integrity isn’t some mask of perfection we attempt to wear, because we all know – all of us – that we are human and imperfect and prone to making mistakes. Integrity isn’t about being perfect and never doing anything wrong – integrity is about having the courage to own the mistakes you have made, to refuse the easy way out through resigning, hiding, running away and disappearing from view. Integrity is about recognizing your failures and admitting them, and learning from them. Integrity is shown in how we handle our errors, not in our ability to never make them.
Integrity, to me,  is someone like Mike Allen, who has never shied away from answering my difficult and often pointed questions, even when he knew the answer was something I would not like and would probably use as a stick to beat him with. Integrity is going to work every single day even when everyone around you is likely talking about you, dark whispers in corners and hallways judging you. Integrity is having the courage to just keep going, even when you have messed up royally and when the world – and even people like me – think you should just give up.

At the beginning of this story, in July almost two years ago, I was angry because I thought a bad example was being set for my daughter, a young woman passionate about politics and keenly interested in one day seeking office. I thought one of her role models had failed her, and I was seething with disappointment and rage. Over time, though, I have realized that what happened has actually taught my daughter the true nature of integrity, of second chances, of forgiveness, of atonement, of contrition, of courage and of the strength of the human character. We have this tendency to judge our political representatives so harshly, not only expecting them to be perfect but some sort of super-perfection, beyond mistakes. We set them up to knock them down, dominoes for us to topple at will, forgetting they are human and forgetting our own imperfections, too.
This Saturday Mike faces a nomination challenge for the PC candidacy in his riding of Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo. It is the latest in a series of challenges he has faced, and which he has handled with integrity and dignity. There are those who are likely still angry with Mike, who hold on to that anger – but I am no longer one of them. I wish Mike well this weekend, because I believe that it is in his darkest hour that he showed his greatest strength, earning my respect over a journey that has likely been far more difficult than I could ever imagine. I thank Mike not only for his service to our community, but for showing my daughter the nature of courage, displaying it in a far more real and human way than I could have ever done with words. For this I will always be grateful, because he taught my daughter that integrity is not about being perfect. He taught her – and me – that the nature of integrity is found in how we handle our imperfections instead.

There are those who will despise what I have written today, who will object to my thoughts and opinions and who will disagree with me - but integrity also means being honest in everything I say and write, just as I have done on this blog for the past four years. For me, that is the nature of integrity in Fort McMurray - and it always will be.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What's Your Three, Wood Buffalo?

When the invitation to join the committee arrived in my email inbox I was intrigued. A movement to encourage people in our community to do good things – small things perhaps, but good nonetheless – through a campaign built by members of our community? Of course I went, which is how my involvement with a large purple 3 began.

3 Things for Wood Buffalo is based on a movement in Calgary. It is a simple concept: develop a grassroots movement to encourage people to do three things to make their community a better place, and share those three things with others in an attempt to encourage them to do the same. Over a period of the last few months purple 3’s have been popping up all over the region, a small reminder of how each person can change their community by doing three simple things. Today, in an exciting landmark of this movement, 3 Day will be proclaimed in Wood Buffalo, a day to celebrate the concept of doing positive community-building things, whether large or small.
For awhile I shared my office with a large purple 3. Mister 3, as we called him, reminded me of my three things every day, prompting me to think about what I had done, could do or would do that day to make my community a better place. I am truly fortunate in that my very job is a commitment to that goal and that every day I believe I do things that help to make this a place where people want to live, work and play – but Mister 3 was a reminder that it did not stop at the doors of my office.

Over the journey of the 3 some of my things have been simple, like mowing the strip of lawn I share with my neighbour (even though when they mow it they will often mow their portion and leave my strip of lawn – about 8 inches in width – untouched, but I digress and my only hope is that my effort of goodwill may encourage them as well) or shovelling their sidewalk. Sometimes it has been buying coffee for the person behind me at Starbucks, or simply picking up some trash that I did not drop. Some of my three things – as the three things have become a weekly habit now – have been larger, but done in secret and not likely to be shared as some of the best good deeds are done anonymously and without anyone ever knowing how they were accomplished.
And over the course of the journey of the purple 3 I have been the recipient of good deeds, too. My garbage bins are somehow always returned to their proper place after garbage collection, although I am rarely the one to put them there and I have no idea who does or has been doing so for months. I have found small gifts waiting for me on my doorstep, with no card attached, and I have been the grateful recipient of everything from gifts of cupcakes to flowers. Small things, perhaps, but important things, nice things. community-warming things.

Community is not built by government or organizations, not by politicians or business leaders. Community is built by those who live in it, and those who do three things not just as part of their job but as part of their everyday lives. Community is built by people who do three things – or six things, or 9 things, or an endless string of things – for others with no other goal than making other people happy and their community a place where people smile.
Today in honour of 3 Day I donned my favourite purple heels, my purple blazer and my purple purse (three things, you see, a number that has caught on in my head as it is a “just right number”, more than two but less than several). And on the drive to work I thought about my three things this week and devised a small plan to do something nice for someone else who will never know who did it, or why, and may not even understand the significance of a purple 3 – but it doesn’t matter, because that purple 3 has become my touchstone and reminder of doing Three Things for Wood Buffalo – and maybe even a few more.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Fort McMurray Job Interview

The names for the ballot have been decided, and the race is on. Most of the candidates declared their intent to seek election some time ago, with only a new name or two popping up on nomination day. Yep, election season is on us (again) and with it comes the political punditry and advice.

I feel like a veteran of the election season in Fort McMurray. I have worked on campaigns, voted in campaigns, hung around the fringes of campaigns and learned a few (dozen) things. I have learned everyone has an opinion, including how to run a campaign, how to get elected and, once there, how to hang onto your seat (literally and figuratively). We have been through a municipal by-election, general municipal election, provincial election and a federal by-election in just the last few years I have been writing this blog (and we are now on our fourth Premier in that time span, but that may be best left undiscussed as it marks a bit of a dark period).
A few days ago I commented on the tepid nature and slow start of this most recent by-election on my Facebook page, a comment I had been hearing frequently but that few were expressing openly. I took some heat for perhaps being “unsupportive” of friends who are campaigning during this election, but I was unfazed by this as if there is one thing politics should not be it is personal (and since I know virtually all of the candidates it must become even less personal, because I cannot split my vote for every person on my friend list). Running for office is not about friendships or personalities: it is about the best fit for the job – because a political campaign is really nothing more than an extended job interview with an HR department of thousands of voters. There are personal relationships – and then there are politics, and the two do not mix and mingle in my world (just ask the politicians I have worked with and for, and who might have been the recipient of my vote and my support and my hard work but also of my occasionally blistering emails of discontent once they are in office).

Today, though, I want to talk about job interviews. A political campaign is one helluva job interview, probably the longest a potential employee will ever endure and, at times, brutal. The reality is, though, unless approached as a job interview I think a candidate undersells themselves and the importance of the job, meaning it is a job interview that deserves nothing less than a full commitment.
What does that commitment mean to me?

1)      Aggressive door knocking: I will be straight up here and say that the concept of door knocking terrifies me a bit as I have heard of candidates getting punched, bitten by dogs and thrown off porches – but this ground game is an essential part of a successful political campaign.

2)      Communications are key: I would anticipate the candidates use whatever platform they have available to them, including the aggressive use of press releases to discuss the issues at hand, which brings us to...

3)      The issues: I would suggest candidates don’t tell us what the issues are, as we know them. What the voters – their future employers – need to know is their ideas for solutions, not some whinging (sort of like whining but a far better word borrowed from the British) about the problems that exist. They might not even the be right solutions or the ones we eventually use, but I want to see that we are electing problem solvers. And since the candidates are discussing solutions, not problems, that means they can...

4)      Resist from laying blame at the feet of others: That’s right. Maybe the candidate thinks the previous members of council didn’t do their job right or got decisions wrong, but as we all know the armchair quarterback is the easiest position to play on any team. Recognize that the previous councillors acted as they did because of the information they had at the time, and put the blame right in the same place as the whinging.

5)      Experience is gold: Far from being unimportant this matters. Experience on boards, in organizations, work experience – all of these matter and should be addressed (perhaps cleverly as opposed to bluntly) in those communication tools. That a candidate “cares” about the community or will “work hard” matters little to me as it should be a given and assumed – what I want to know is their experience, their expertise and their ideas for the future.

6)      Humility helps: One should never assume they have the job before the contract is signed. Each and every candidate is asking for the support of the voters, and as such a degree of humbleness is appropriate in the case of this interview.

To be very frank I do believe this by-election has gotten off to a very tepid start, and as a result I fear exceptionally low voter turnout. Along with this I think we are experiencing voter fatigue in our region, a sense of apathy as we have seen far too many lawn signs come and go over the last few years. I am hopeful that now with the names on the ballot decided we will see some excitement ignited, and I look forward to that happening.

I wish my best to all the candidates. They have a long four weeks ahead (and people like me watching and opining, which is undoubtedly a headache but all part of the package deal). It will be interesting to see where it goes from today, as I think this is truly anyone’s election to win – you know, if they impress their new bosses, the voters of Fort McMurray.