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

Thursday, April 30, 2015

It's About Blooming Time in Fort McMurray...

I will admit I am not much of a gardener. I may come from a long line of farmers (my father being the one closest to me) and a long line of green thumbs (my mother famous for her ridiculously huge gardens where she could grow pretty much anything) but it does not seem the gift was passed along to me. I may be part-owner of the family farm, still in our possession years after my father’s death, and I may be a dabbler in growing things, but I am not by any means a horticulturalist.

I am, however, someone who understands our intrinsic bond with growing things. Perhaps it goes back to our hunter-gatherer past when our survival depended on the foods we could hunt or forage. Perhaps it goes back to when we developed the idea of growing our own food as opposed to foraging, a practice that quickly led to growing things not only for consumption but for pure pleasure. I don’t know where it comes from, but I recognize and feel the bond with things that grow, from houseplants to shrubs, which I suppose is how I ended up joining the Communities in Bloom Committee.
Communities in Bloom is a remarkable local organization that encourages residents to not only grow things but to improve our communities through responsible stewardship of our resources and encouraging sustainable practices. Communities in Bloom is about so much more than simple beautification, but creating beauty through our plants is part of it, too.

Every year Communities in Bloom selects a “flower of the year”.  This flower becomes the one they not only encourage residents to grow but is the one for which they package and provide seeds, handing out the seed packets primarily at the Fort McMurray Tourism Spring Trade Show. That would be how I found myself filling 1,000 seed packets for a lovely little flower called a “Sweet William” and then handing them out at the trade show.
There are things that might be a hard sell at trade shows – non-stick pots and spin mops, perhaps, but free flower seeds might just be the easiest sell in the world. The Communities in Bloom booth was pretty eye catching, what with Rave the giant stuffed raven perched at the corner, but it was when people saw the flower seed packets that they would stop.

“Sweet Williams,” they would exclaim, and then these complete strangers would follow with a personal story. Maybe they grew them “back home”, or their mother did. Maybe they already had a few of them in their yard or maybe they had only just seen them and never grown them. I do know, though, that I handed out hundreds of packets of flower seeds, the ones packed by me (with help from Sirius Black Cat of course) and the other members of the committee. And every single person who saw the seed packets smiled, because there is something about a cheerful little flower that makes you smile.

And the Sweet William is a cheerful little flower, delicate in appearance perhaps but quite hardy in reality. It is a tough little plant, often stubbornly self-seeding so that it returns every year despite snow and cold temperatures. It is tougher than it seems, withstanding difficult conditions and able to flourish despite challenges. It reminds me a lot of someplace, actually. It reminds me of Fort McMurray.

I was thinking about it as I was handing out seed packets over the weekend. Fort McMurray is not really a place for the faint of heart. Oh, we are quite gentle in appearance in some ways as there are those who think we are the land of milk and money (my own twist on an old term) but who do not realize how hard we must work to make that money. One must be hardy to thrive here, able to withstand challenges while embracing opportunities as they present themselves. During this period in our history we are facing some uncertain times but there is one thing I do know: like the Sweet William we will not only survive, but thrive.
This weekend the Communities in Bloom committee on which I now proudly serve handed out thousands of seed packets for a beautiful little flower that is deceptively tender looking, hiding its hardiness and toughness under soft petals. I found the entire experience remarkable, blending my adoration for this community with my fascination for how things like flower seeds can spark conversations and memories of times gone by both here and in other places we have known and loved. It was one of those moments in my life here that became far more remarkable than I ever thought it could be, and I must admit there are a few Sweet William seeds waiting to be planted at my house too, joining my other attempts this year at beautification including the hanging baskets of petunias that I cannot be without every year. This year, though, I plant knowing that I am doing so not only to beautify my life and neighbourhood but in homage of my family past, too, a legacy of farmers and gardeners. Even more than that, though, this year I plant to honour this community, a place where the hardy not only survive but thrive, and where a packet of seeds can become the connection between complete strangers and make us a community.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Where There Is Smoke

Where there is smoke, there is fire – or so the adage goes. One early Monday morning this month, we saw a tragic house fire that destroyed four homes and took the life of a beloved family pet. It was one of those moments in my life here where my heart was actually in my throat as I realized this fire occurred on a street I know well, because it was my home for several years. It was a devastating moment in our community, and when the cause of the fire was revealed through the fire investigation another shock wave rippled through Fort McMurray.

A cigarette, not properly extinguished and improperly disposed, was the cause of a fire that left several people homeless.
There was, regrettably, some pointing of fingers of blame at those who smoke, understandable perhaps as anger accompanies such preventable tragedies. What I thought instead was how complacent we are about fire, given that many of us have a powerful fire risk in our backyards, and one that presents a significant potential cause of such devastating fires: fire pits.

I am not saying that the person who discarded the cigarette on Roy Lane is without blame – in fact I suspect whomever it was is already carrying a heavy burden of guilt and I will not add to it. I will say though that when I lived on that street what I feared was not cigarettes but the fire pits, as we were right on the forest edge and in spring and fall surrounded by dead and dry grass, the perfect conditions to spread a fire. Almost every house had a fire pit, and we were reliant on each other to ensure the fires we so enjoyed as friends and families were extinguished properly.
Before we begin blaming those who carelessly toss away a cigarette perhaps we should ask ourselves some hard questions about our own behaviour that puts ourselves – and our neighbours – at risk.

How many of us have had our permanent fire pits inspected by the fire department? When I had this done with mine they measured the distance to combustible materials. They advised me of issues I needed to address (the woodpile too close, the grate inadequate) and they told me that many people do not bother with this step with their fire pits. Each and every fire pit presents a strong risk factor in our own back yards, and yet it seems we are a bit lackadaisical about them.
How many of us have left a fire pit before it was properly extinguished? I am afraid I have seen this happen with neighbours, their fire pits roaring back into life after a late night and a few wobbly pops, them leaving it thinking they have doused it enough but not realizing some glowing embers have escaped their notice.

How many of us leave a fire pit unattended, even if just for a moment? Given that two houses were fully engulfed within minutes on Roy Lane we must recognize this can happen in moments, not hours.
A fire advisory has now been issued for Fort McMurray, and it seems we are headed into a warm, dry spring creating perfect conditions for fires, both wildfires and in an urban setting. We have now seen a second urban fire this spring, destroying another home and displacing two more families. The need for fire safety awareness has never been greater, and we have received a not-so-gentle reminder that we need to brush up on fire safety basics, from proper storage of flammable goods to thinking about those fire pits around which we love to spend long warm summer evenings.

We need to consider our own habits and realize that fires don't just happen to "someone else", they can happen to us - and adjust our behaviour accordingly. The recent fire on Roy Lane may have started with a cigarette, and the most recent one has a so-far undetermined cause - but where there is smoke, there is fire, and given we have a long season ahead of us filled with fire pits billowing clouds of smoke I would suggest now is a good time to give it some thought.

Roy Lane house fire, photo credit to

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Parachute Failure in Fort McMurray

In an election a “parachute” candidate usually means someone from outside the constituency has been "dropped" into the area because a suitable local candidate was not found. In the best of cases it means someone who has some knowledge of the area - perhaps a former resident, or someone who has worked extensively in the area. Unfortunately far too often it means a candidate who is nothing but a name on a ballot, one who doesn’t show up for debates or even evince much interest in the riding they have indicated they would like to represent.

Before I continue I should disclose that I am the President of the newly formed Alberta Party Constituency Association for the riding of Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo. When we formed the constituency association we had a discussion about a potential candidate, and we determined that any candidate we would put in front of voters had to meet certain criteria. They had to be local, they had to credible and they had to be electable, meaning that anyone marking an X next to their name did so because they truly believed this individual could represent them. It is a shame that other parties in the province (cough, cough, Alberta Liberal Party) could not do the same and instead chose to parachute in two candidates, including Melinda Hollis in the Fort McMurray-Conklin riding.

If you frequent social media the name may ring a bell. In a recent civic election in Edmonton Ms. Hollis also appeared as a candidate, but during her candidacy some troubling things came to light. First was the accusation that she had been involved in plagiarism, with an allegation that she reproduced a document written by someone else in a blog post where it appears she neglected to credit the original author. As a blogger I find this particularly worrisome, as all who share written work created by others, wherever it is shared and how, need to give credit appropriately. This is perhaps even more crucial in a medium like blogs, which are still seeking recognition as a credible source of information.

And then there is the incident on Twitter for which I remember Ms. Hollis. In a discussion about the hours politicians work it would appear she suggested that parents who work 60 hours a week are putting their children at increased risk for addiction and self-harm. As a single parent to a young adult I recall being incensed by this, as many parents must work long hours in this community to afford to be here, and manage to continue to be engaged, active and involved parents despite these hours.

It seems this individual has attracted some controversy in the recent past, and yet this is the candidate the Alberta Liberal Party has decided to parachute into our community. From what I can find their candidate has no real ties to the community nor any significant investment in our region or our future. It would appear the party is following the concept that any candidate is better than no candidate on the ballot, a political fallacy if ever there was one as an inappropriate candidate will not only not succeed but can potentially damage your brand and reduce your future chances of success.

I am incredibly disappointed at the disrespect for our community as displayed by the Alberta Liberal Party. Dropping a candidate into a community is risky enough, but to drop in a candidate that has no apparent ties to our region is, quite simply, offensive to the hard working people of our communities who deserve local, credible and electable candidates. Perhaps they thought that the people of this region just aren’t paying attention but we do and we are, and to suggest we deserve anything less but a candidate that is top-shelf,  preferably local but at the very least familiar with our region and cognizant of both our opportunities and challenges, credible and electable isn’t likely to go down well in the region responsible for a good deal of the economic prosperity of this province.

The trouble with parachute drops is sometimes the parachute fails to deploy – and in this case a crash landing was guaranteed. We deserve a soldier on the ground, and not a parachute failure.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Throwing Rocks

There is an old adage: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

I have always disliked this adage as I found it disrespectful of those in our world who teach, as teachers of any sort are remarkable individuals (as anyone who has spent time with a classroom of boisterous students would know). I think the adage, however, has some value when you revise it a bit to reflect our current reality:

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t throw rocks at those who do.”

I must admit I was thinking this when a “document” surfaced recently in this community, one containing my name as well as the names of many other engaged citizens. The document suddenly appeared on Twitter and on a local Facebook page, with the origin or author of the document never revealed. I considered reproducing it here, but long ago I decided I would not give cowards the chance to use the platform I have created, and since the author of the document has not stepped forward I decline to give that kind of cowardice an audience. The general gist of it, though, were some vague allegations about citizens who are politically involved at both the federal and provincial level, but for different parties (“Mein Gott”, as my father would say when he was feeling particularly sarcastic after reading some idiocy in the newspaper – Mein Gott, the audacity to be involved in politics but with DIFFERENT PARTIES). The allegations were rather nebulous, the author of the anonymous document lacking in either the writing skill or courage to make themselves entirely clear. It doesn’t really matter, though, because it seems the intent was to smear those named, to create suspicion and doubt about them and to discourage their participation in democracy.

You see not everyone thinks democracy is a game everyone should play. They would rather hoard it to themselves, controlling the destiny of elections and of political parties. They object to the involvement of anyone who does not think like them and they fear anyone who may change what they think should not change - and fear is a powerful motivator (powerful enough that someone would spend their time to pen such a document, and powerful enough that they would be too afraid to put their name onto it).  And there are those who believe it is their right to simply throw rocks at other people, particularly at the people who are actually doing things for this community because it is much easier to throw rocks than to be involved in making a difference.

Several of the individuals named in that nebulous document are ones who are deeply involved in this region. They serve on the boards of non-profit organizations. They work with groups and individuals to make this a better place. They have invested heavily in this region, not just with their cash but with their hearts and their time and that investment has been made because this is their home. It is disheartening – and even angering – to see others throw rocks at them from the sidelines, particularly given those throwing rocks seem more invested in that hobby than in investing in this community.

Rock throwing doesn’t build a community. Creating and sharing anonymous, ill-spirited and accusatory documents doesn’t build a community. Differences of opinion can and should occur and be encouraged, but these kinds of anonymous personal attacks designed and created to damage others? They have no place in this community, particularly during a time when we are facing some significant challenges and we need to pull together, not apart.

For the record I was not particularly troubled to read my name in that document, as I have become used to being a target of rocks by virtue of this blog. It did trouble me, though, to see the names of others who I know work hard every day for this community, and to see that those throwing rocks at them were quite happy to name them, but far too cowardly to name themselves. Those who choose to share those anonymous documents simply encourage that kind of cowardice, and allow it to breed while using it as a shield from behind which they can throw their own rocks.

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, throw rocks at those who do.”

Mein Gott, I know which side of that adage I intend to be on. The only question is: do you? 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Going Home to Roy Lane

A sunny summer day on Roy Lane
When I heard the news of a fire in Abasand I admit my heart leapt into my throat, forming a lump there that has not yet gone away. It was on my media feed first thing this morning when I awoke, and my first thought was that surely, almost definitely, it could not have possibly occurred on the street where I had lived in Abasand, the place where my then-husband and I had built a house and where we had happily lived for several years. And when I heard the name of the street I felt something I cannot quite describe, because when I read the name it was that street, and very close to my former family home.
I was one of the first residents on Roy Lane, and one of the first to purchase a home there. In fact while we waited for our house there to be finished we bought a house two blocks away so we could keep an eye on the construction, my husband and the Intrepid Junior Blogger walking over almost every evening to watch the progress. We made several modifications to the house, making it ours before we even moved in, and it was our home for many years.

The pictures hurt my heart. Our old house, a place that will always be special to me because it holds memories of a time so close to me, survived the fire it seems – but several did not. Several of the neighbouring houses went up in flames, but as my reaction this morning told me these were not just “houses” – they were homes.

I don’t know about you, but I have a connection to my homes, both present and past, and my neighbourhoods, the ones where I grew up and where I lived over my life. I am one of those people who will drive by their old homes to reminisce, to remember and reflect on days gone by.
I don’t know if I will be able to drive down Roy Lane again, because it will hurt so deeply to see the tragedy that unfolded early this morning and that stole the homes of my neighbours. That lump in my throat hurts and I have felt off-kilter all day, trying to comprehend what happened not only in my community but in a neighbourhood I love and where I spent some of my happiest times as a young family in this community.

And it’s not even my house that burnt down. I cannot even imagine what those who managed to escape with their lives are feeling, but I know that I hurt so badly for them and for everyone on Roy Lane that I can feel the tears threatening to spill at any moment.
We can help as a community. There is a Go Fund Me site setup, as the families who lost their homes will need assistance in these early days as they try to recover from the shock, and I encourage everyone to donate what they can.

 I am so grateful that no person died, although a family has lost a beloved pet and that is a sad loss for anyone to endure. I am so grateful to the Fort McMurray Fire Fighters who answered the call and who stopped the spread before even more houses could be engulfed in flames.
I find myself lost in memories today, of watching the houses that burned down being built as we lived in the house across the street as they finished their construction. I think about all the neighbours we knew there and how we loved that street. And I find myself unable to write much more, as I feel raw and deeply unsettled, for once unable to truly express what I feel except perhaps in one word.

I am, simply, heartbroken for Roy Lane, and all those who have homes there, just as I once did. These were not houses. They were homes. My address might have changed, but today my heart and mind has gone home to Roy Lane, and will be there for some time to come.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Four Years of Musing

Four years ago today I started on a journey. There was no set plan, no path and no great agenda, other than to share the story of my life in a quirky place in northern Canada that was often misunderstood, frequently misrepresented and yet dearly close to my heart.

It is almost hard to believe it has been four years now. I had no expectation or anticipation that this blog would last this long or that it would have the impact it has had – not on the life of anyone else, but on my own. I had no idea where it would lead me, or the places it would take me. I suppose what I truly never expected was that I would somehow become McMurray Musings.
McMurray Musings was always meant to be the name of the blog, not of the person behind it. Over time I realized I had inadvertently created a brand – and the brand was me. I found people who actually referred to me as McMurray Musings, and those who told me they “knew me” because they read this blog – although of course the person they knew was a persona, not the person.

It is a bit startling to realize you have become a brand of sorts, and that your persona has taken on a life of its own. There were times when I struggled with it deeply, feeling trapped by the persona and image I had created, and there were times when it was a convenient shield to hide behind as McMurray Musings was far brasher and bolder than the person behind it ever could be – or at least that was true at the beginning, when I was still tentative and finding my way.
When I began writing I was a stay at home mom and was told I shouldn’t share my opinion because I didn’t know enough about the world. When I got a job I was told I shouldn’t share my opinion because I was employed and there were those (thankfully not my employers) who felt it was a conflict. But McMurray Musings always had an opinion and fought for her right to express it, even when others thought it was misguided or outright wrong.

And somewhere along the way something happened. I became McMurray Musings, or maybe she became me. It was no longer a persona, but part of the person. And we changed.
The readers of this blog have seen me go from being a married, stay at home wife to a divorced single parent woman working full-time (plus some) and flying-by-the-seat-of-her-pants-most-of-the-time. But the changes that they saw were the external ones, not the internal. And it was the internal changes that were the most impactful.

In the last couple of months I began to consider ending this blog. I had mentioned doing so in the past, but always in a reactionary way, often stung by some avalanche of hate mail and pondering whether I had the desire to continue. Those were the times when McMurray Musings carried me through, as she always moved forward regardless of how daunting things seemed. But things changed as I began to realize that I am not the same person who started this blog four years ago. I began to think that perhaps I had outgrown the blog, and that maybe it was time to walk away from it. Maybe it was time to stop being McMurray Musings at all.
And then late last night I realized something. Maybe it was not time to end the blog, but maybe it was time for the blog to change a bit, too. Maybe it was time to explore some of the other things I find myself finally ready to write about – divorce, single parenthood and the like – while still undoubtedly penning pieces that may be political, unpopular or controversial.  Maybe it was not time to stop being McMurray Musings, but to embrace what she - what we - had become.

Thank you for reading for the last four years. I may not post as often as I once did, as my world has become a whirlwind of words, and I while I may write less here I am writing more than I ever have before, just in different places. And this blog may not stay the same, as I cannot promise that I will not take it off into new tangents in areas that have less to do with McMurray and more to do with Musings, but I hope you will gift me with your patience when I do, because as much as I love Fort McMurray there is more to life than just this place, no matter how special it is.
Last night as I came to a decision about this blog I realized something else: I do not have a single regret about starting this blog four years ago. I would not change one moment of the journey, as it is what has brought me here. It has been four years and yet it feels like yesterday when I settled on the name – and when McMurray Musings began to muse.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Sew There

Sirius Black Cat "helps" me sew

The whirring noise is a bit disconcerting for the pets, to be honest. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, to which they have become accustomed but continue to despise, this machine is new to them as it is not hauled out of the closet very often. In fact when I posted a photo on Facebook of Sirius Black Cat “helping” me I got an immediate text message from a friend exclaiming: “I had no idea you know how to sew!”

I must admit I was perplexed. Isn’t sewing something everyone knows how to do, an instinct as strong as riding a bike and your mind never really forgetting how to sew around a corner and what a selvage is? Isn’t threading a sewing machine one of those things we all know how to do, ingrained somewhere in our heads? But I was wrong as friend after friend revealed they have no idea how to sew, a skill they never learned and regard with a certain degree of awe, as if those who can sew are performing some kind of alchemy.
And I suppose it is alchemy of a sort, turning strips of fabric into clothing or quilts. This past weekend I spent some quality time with my sewing machine (actually two of them, as midway through the old machine began to make unhappy noises until the bobbin cover popped over and the machine flung the bobbin across the room as it whirred its final whirr, requiring a trip to Wal-Mart for a new machine). I was making the Intrepid Junior Blogger’s cosplay outfits for Comic Con in Calgary, and the sewing machine was needed to accomplish a task that seemed a bit monumental for a bit as I feared I would not remember how to sew as it has been so long.

Sewing, though, is not something you forget. The rhythm developed quickly, my hands remembering what my head did not and quickly the cosplay began to come together. As the IJB slept I sewed and sewed, pieces of fabric added to pieces of fabric. As it goes with sewing there were occasional misadventures and the seam ripper was employed, and before I knew it I was almost enjoying it, the entire thing taking me back decades ago to when my mother taught me to sew.
I have often said I am the daughter of a farmer, but I am also the daughter of a farmer’s wife. My parents had lived through the Depression years and as such were frugal people, able to employ a variety of skills. My father could fix any machine, and my mother could grow any vegetable. And oddly they both knew how to sew, my father on a large industrial sewing machine he used to create covers for furniture and seat cushions, my mother on her old Singer machine she used to create clothing and tablecloths.

I will never forget her patiently teaching me to sew, the hours I would spend on that machine making a dress or a skirt or a blouse. Some turned out great, and some immediately headed to the “recycle for a new project” pile as they turned out so poorly – but what I never fully understood was what a gift she had given me, because I know how to sew, a skill that not everyone possesses it seems.
When I had most of the cosplay together I called the IJB upstairs from her basement lair and had her try it on, worried that she would be unhappy with the result. Instead she fixed me with a beaming smile and said “It turned out better than I thought it would, it’s great”, and I admit I almost burst into tears of relief, my hours at the machine having apparently been well spent.

As I sat at the machine again this week and listened to the soft whirring I stopped and called her upstairs again. She came and when she looked at me quizzically I asked her if she would like me to pick up a simple pattern and some fabric and teach her how to sew, and her eager affirmative reply made me feel almost indescribable.
There are a few things we pass on to our kids, like the colour of our eyes and hair. Sometimes we pass on our political leanings. And sometimes we have the opportunity to pass on a gift that was given to us long ago from our parents, like the ability to cook, or fix things, or sew. This year I will pass that gift on to her, a gift that goes far, far back in my family history. I will teach her a new skill, one that not everyone knows, and all I can think is the saying: “and sew it goes.”

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Breaking Eggs and Hauling Buckets

When I was about twelve I watched my father wheel his lawnmower down the sidewalk on our street, headed for the house of the neighbour nobody really liked.

The neighbour had been away for a week or so, and his lawn had grown substantially in his absence. My father, who was a farmer by history and heart but due to circumstance had ended up living in the city, fired up his lawnmower and quietly mowed the lawn, taking every bit of care that he did when mowing our own and that of our other neighbours, as he often did.
This neighbour, though, was difficult, not the kind to come over for a barbecue. He was the kind who complained about the noise from block parties and the traffic from garage sales, the kind who never stopped for small talk, the kind who had a huge black dog that liked to chase down kids on bikes, pulling them off by grabbing their pant legs, never biting but snarling at them until his owner called him away. This was the neighbour nobody really liked or wanted on our street, and as my dad slowly wheeled the lawnmower back as I sat on our front step I thought about how I couldn’t imagine why my dad would mow his lawn.

“Treat your neighbours well, Theresa,” he said when asked. “Some day when your barn is burning down you want them hauling buckets, not clapping.”
And off he went in search of a cool drink, pulling off his green John Deere cap and wiping the sweat from his sunburnt forehead, leaving me to ponder the until-then unconsidered topic of neighbour relations.

My father was a good man, community minded and the kind who always had a spare coin for the local kids when they saw the ice cream truck and always had a dog cookie in his pockets for the canines on the street. He was a pragmatist, too, one who knew that the only way to deal with a difficult neighbour situation was to take the high road, extending to them the same kind of kindness he would do with the ones he genuinely liked. And when my father died, years later, all of his neighbours attended the funeral, including the difficult one who checked in on my mother when he saw my father removed by ambulance, and who, when he saw that our lives were on fire, began hauling buckets, not clapping.
I thought about my dad a lot last night when I sat in RMWB Council Chambers as the Sub-Division Appeal Board heard an appeal against the annual Easter Egg Hunt at Dunvegan Gardens. Although the hearing was ostensibly about the egg hunt and issues about things like permits and traffic and safety it was quite definitely not about any of those things. It was about a neighbour relation gone south in a big way, in the kind of astonishing way these things do, in a way that actually made my heart hurt as I thought about my dad.

In situations like this one people often become so entrenched that they don’t even know how to compromise any more, although there were signs of willingness to do so last night, particularly on the part of the owner of Dunvegan Gardens. Much of the chatter slid sideways from talk about the hunt itself and into talk of the business as an entity, and the dredging up of years-old tales of hurt feelings and perceived, and real, injustices. So much of it came back to neighbours who had stopped talking to each other, or who perhaps had never begun, the entire thing mushrooming until it encompassed all of Draper Road and beyond, affecting an Easter Egg Hunt and inflaming the online world as a struggle painted as one between villains and heroes, the good guys and the bad.
The reality, though, is that it was just a neighbour dispute gone very bad, the kind that easily could have arisen on my father’s street decades ago had he decided not to mow the neighbour’s lawn and instead chosen to complain about his nasty dog. It was the same kind of dispute but just allowed to fester and grow until it played out before a group of individuals who were no doubt as weary of it by the end as I was, frustrated and saddened by a situation where simply talking to each other could have likely resolved things a long, long time ago.

In the end it was decided to deny the appeal, and the Easter Egg Hunt at Dunvegan Gardens will go ahead with a few new conditions. It was the right decision in my mind, one reflective of the desires and the will of the general community and recognizing that Dunvegan Gardens has always been a good community partner and will hopefully continue to be.
I doubt this will be the last of it, though. This issue has simmered for years now, boiling over on occasion on painful nights like last night when one sees how badly relations between us as people can go astray and end up played out in front of an audience like those who watched online, on Twitter and on Facebook.

As I pulled into my driveway last night though I looked at the small strip of lawn I share with my neighbour. Even after two years I don’t know them well, not as well as I should by now I suppose. I sat in my car for a moment and thought about how I am looking forward to this summer, and how every couple of weeks I will pull out my lawnmower, put on my John Deere cap and mow that strip of lawn we share.
I suppose some day when I need them I want them hauling buckets, not clapping.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What If You Held an Election and Nobody Came?

One could only hope it was some kind of April Fool’s Day prank, but sadly since it occurred on March 30 even the classic day of fools cannot be blamed. It seems unfathomable, almost beyond belief, and yet it is true. What if you held an election and nobody came? Well, Fort McMurray, we came darn close when only 5.6% of eligible voters bothered to show up and cast a ballot in the recent by-election.

I have been asked repeatedly since Monday why I think the turnout was so abysmally low. By-elections traditionally have low turnouts, but this is a new low even for us.
I think there are a variety of factors, including election fatigue as the last three years have seemed to be one long political campaign in this region that has seen a provincial election, two municipal by-elections, a general municipal election and a federal by-election in that time. It seems the signs for one campaign barely come down before the signs for another are erected, and I think it has contributed to our malaise about the entire thing.

I think too that there were no burning issues in this by-election, nothing into which any of the electorate or even the candidates wished to sink their teeth. On the rare occasions a candidate dared to issue a press release regarding a stance on some issue they were soundly thumped for having the audacity to take a stance at all, suggesting they were wiser to simply stay silent than speak at all.
I think it is no accident the top finishers in the results were those who were known to be out door knocking, as this was a ground war campaign and those doorstep conversations showed their value in the end. One cannot run a campaign on Facebook, especially when there aren’t even any topics to generate any sort of conversation or discussion and every post simply disappears to be buried by funny cat memes and videos of baby goats.

Even those who tried to encourage the electorate to come out to vote saw a backlash, which cannot have helped the turnout. When the RMWB embarked on a small Twitter campaign to encourage people to vote by identifying topics that fall under municipal scope they had their knuckles rapped in a letter to the editor that suggested they were trying to influence the outcome of the election (a serious allegation that was accompanied by no evidence but that created a certain degree of kerfuffle regardless of its lack of substance).
And then there were people like me, who judiciously refrained from commenting publicly on our choice for candidate. I was asked why I was so quiet, and to be honest it was an experiment as when I comment on politics of any level I find there are those who suggest I should not express a personal opinion given my professional role. This inability to differentiate between one’s person and one’s profession troubles me deeply, as it implies that almost anyone with employment should not be allowed to express a personal opinion for fear of engendering some conflict of interest, but in this instance I decided to stay mute to see what would happen. I was not surprised when friends alerted me that my name was being discussed on a local Facebook group to which I do not belong and do not frequent, and the topic was whether or not people like me should be “allowed” to express personal political opinions during elections such as the by-election given our professional roles – because this, it seems, is what democracy has become, discussions of who is “allowed” to express personal opinions and who is not, neglecting to remember that freedom of expression is a right for which all those who believe in democracy have fought.

After contacting some local schools I have learned that many hold mock elections in their classes mirroring the elections going on in our communities. The students research the candidates, they engage in discussions and conversations and then they vote and see how their results stack up against those of the voting public – and I can guarantee their turnout and their engagement is higher than a measly 5.6%. I am on the verge of suggesting we turn the electoral process over to students in fact, as they seem to have more interest in it than their adult counterparts do and perhaps it would be for the best as this is their future we are talking about, anyhow – or, as the Intrepid Junior Blogger puts it: “Just get out of our way and let my generation run things already, because you people are screwing it up.”
And so here we are. We have achieved a new low in the democratic process in Fort McMurray, and to be honest I am not sure if anything can ever be done to change it. We need to investigate the concept of online voting, to be certain, and making it as easy as possible for voters to engage – but even then I think we are dealing with something that runs far deeper than a simple fix. I am feeling quite pessimistic about it because I think we have lost a great deal of our reverence for the concept of democracy, for freedom of expression and for understanding that our right to vote is not something we should ever take lightly. I am not disappointed in the results of the election as I believe we have elected a strong individual to council, but am I disappointed that only 5.6% of us thought it was necessary to cast a ballot at all? Indeed I am. Monday we held an election, and almost nobody came. It is a low point in the history of democracy in our region, and one we should not be quick to forget as we move into our future – a future that it seems only 5.6% of us care about.