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

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Hope in the Dark 2015 - Final Thoughts

5:50 am

I am huddled deep inside my sleeping bag. My throat feels raw, likely from the cold night air combined with the forest fire smoke that has been hanging above us all night. I've been awake (but not up) for awhile, woken by the sounds of voices and just wanting them to shut up so I can sleep some more. There is no noise coming from the box beside me, as the IJB is fast asleep. And then I hear Barb's voice and I know it is time to go.

Hope in the Dark is over for another year.

I fling back the top of my sleeping bag and realize the field around us is deserted and we are, it seems, the last ones still asleep. I shake the box and a muffled angry voice tells me to go away. I tell the voice that I will pack up my things and return for her, allowing her a few more moments of sleep as 5:50 in the morning is not a time teenagers like to be awake, unless they are still up from the night before.

I pack up, trudge up the hill to the car and then come back for her, the last person standing (or sleeping as it is) at Hope in the Dark 2015. She reluctantly slithers out of her warm den and puts on her boots, We break down her box and pack up the car, and then we head home.

Home. A word that is loaded with meaning and emotion, a word that for four years now has come to mean even more after a night sleeping in a park.

11:00 am

I've managed a small nap and I'm at a store picking up a few things. I tell the clerk I spent the night in a park and explain why, and they look at me and say: "Well, some of them choose to be homeless you know." I look at them and after four years of a night of cold and dark and learning I simply say: "No. They don't."

It is a nice lie we tell ourselves, you see. I don't believe a single person in this world grows up with the ambition to be homeless. I don't think anyone says: "Hey, I think I'll be homeless today." It happens to us through situation and circumstance, and on occasion perhaps those who are experiencing homelessness choose to stay there not because they don't want a home but because the experience has so changed them that they know it will be a fight to adapt to a different life in a home again. Some have tried to get off the streets and failed because they have become accustomed to a life on the streets and they know they will struggle to leave it because it is a life they know and understand.

And I know this because after four years of Hope in the Dark I realized that this year I was used to the experience, as was the IJB. We could have slept in that park all day, long after the others had left. We were okay - not happy perhaps, but we had adapted to a life in the rough. We understood the rhythm and the routine, and we were prepared.

It is convenient to tell ourselves that others choose to be homeless. You see of we can put that choice on them then it eliminates our responsibility and culpability. Suddenly we have no blame and no role to play because "they" have chosen it. It is a comforting lie, as so many lies are - but it is still a lie.

Every night in our community about 50 people sleep rough on our streets. Over the past ten years sixty of them have died. Don't you dare lie to yourself that they chose to live and die on our streets, because they didn't. While that lie makes it easier for us to sleep at night in our cozy homes it does nothing for them, and it does nothing to create the hope they need to survive - and eventually help them to turn hope into home.

To the Centre of Hope: thank you for taking me and my daughter on a journey of learning and understanding. I think it is vital for you to know that not only do you provide hope and change the lives of those experiencing homelessness you have changed our lives, too, and shown us the meaning of both hope and home. 

To my fellow Hope in the Dark participants: thank you for being there and giving up your bed for a night to learn and understand, and for fighting the lies we tell ourselves together.

And to my daughter, the IJB: thank you for being the last one standing at Hope in the Dark and for being the kind of person I am not only proud to have given birth to but honoured to know. You are the reason I think our world has every right to have hope - even in the dark.

Hope in the Dark Live Blog - Part Four

1:30 am

It is quiet now, almost everyone settled into their sleeping bags. I can hear voices here and there, scattered and indistinguishable in the wind. Someone close to our bags is snoring. Some others are talking too loud in my opinion, the lights on their phones too bright. I am already irritable it seems, starting to get cold and cranky.

The moon, affected by the wildfire raging far too close to Saprae Creek, has gone blood red. It is a startling sight.

Earlier a friend dropped off hot chocolate and coffee, much needed as the night turned darker. The IJB and I have talked a lot tonight, perhaps even more than we usually do at home. Separated from the distractions of life like computers and cats, laundry and dishes, we are forced to rely on each other. We are a good team. Strong. Resilient. And occasionally goofy, tossing pillows at each other and laughing.

But that was earlier. Now we are trying to sleep, although the rustling noises from her box tells me the IJB is still working on her homework.  The damp is beginning to set in, the cold starting to make itself known. The reality is she and I are sleeping outdoors in a park, not because we are homeless but because we want to understand what it means to be. We never want to forget how lucky we are. We never want to take our lives for granted. We never want to lose our hope, including the hope we find in each other. Together we want to find hope in the dark.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Hope in the Dark - Live Blog Part Three: Flickering

12:30 am

Just as they do every year when the sky turns dark the people from the Centre of Hope held a candle light vigil to remember the patrons they have lost over their ten years of operation.

Sixty. Six and zero, the candles a stark reminder of sixty lives ended on the streets of our community. The brisk wind threatens to snuff out the candles and I cannot help but see the similarity to the lives snuffed out on our streets every year.

Sixty. An average of six every year over the last ten years, members of the Centre of Hope family gone. It has been, as Barb from Centre of Hope explains through tears, a bad year. They lost too many family members, too many patrons gone.

Lives snuffed out, just like candles that don't stand a chance against the wind.

Hope in the Dark - Live Blog Part Two

11:00 pm

We are already in our sleeping bags (with the IJB in her box). It's cold already - and the mosquitoes are out, buzzing around our heads.

I peek into her box and find her doing her AP math homework by flashlight. I find it strangely upsetting, maybe because I have met young adults like her who are on the streets and who may never finish school.

The folks from Centre of Hope have been around "stealing" from the participants. The IJB and I are wise to this trick and one of us always stays in our camp to keep watch. Reality is when you are homeless you are prone to being the victim of crime - theft, assault, everything and anything. What few possessions you have are fair game for others.

As I put in my nightly eye drops I reflect on how anyone who has my eye condition and is homeless would likely simply end up irreversibly blind. When I was in the hospital for the surgery to fix my corneal perforation the nurses were talking about a fellow patient with the same condition who was "non compliant". It was pretty clear this patient was seeing some rough times - she was my room mate and while she may not have been homeless I suspect her life was difficult. At times my eye disease has meant putting in eye drops every hour and having ones that must be kept in a fridge - how would someone homeless do this? How would they travel to see the specialist I see in Edmonton on a regular basis? How would they be able to follow the treatment plan I will need to follow for a corneal transplant like I will soon receive?

Truth is if I was homeless, I would be blind with no likelihood of ever regaining my sight, a chance I only have because I have a home, a job and a support system.

Suddenly I'm terrified. This is going to be a long and troubling night,

Hope in the Dark - Live Blog Part One

9:00 pm:

We have camp almost set up. Speeches are over and thanks to ATCO Gas we had supper. We got the Intrepid Junior Blogger's box set up early and even remembered to bring duct tape. Sadly she also decided she prefers my sleeping bag to her own, so I may need to mug her so I have somewhere to sleep tonight.

Looks like it will go down to 7 degrees tonight, but Phil says it shouldn't rain - not like last year which was miserably cold and wet. So this year the weather should hold out for us - I hope. Not many mosquitoes yet - but I think I already have a black fly bite.

This is the easy part of the night. It's still warm, but breezy, and everyone is still cheerful. From past experience I know this usually doesn't last. Some people leave in the middle of the night. I get that I guess - but people who are truly homeless don't have that option.

Good Bones

I do a lot of editing work in both my professional role and as a freelance writer. People will often send things they have written to me with an almost-apologetic note downplaying their writing ability or suggesting it is just not very good. The reality is that often all it needs is a bit of clean up and some enhancement, as what they have written usually has what I call “good bones”. It has the right information and content, and a good foundation…and lately this is what I think a great deal about when I drive around my community.

We have good bones in Fort McMurray. Our riverfront area downtown is this incredible gem, the kind of property most cities would die to have as it is a natural and unique focal point. Our surrounding boreal forest is amazing at this time of year, green and lush and beautiful in every respect. We have outstanding facilities, like those at MacDonald Island Park where I am so fortunate to be employed and the Syncrude Health and Wellness Centre at Keyano, the two serving as anchor points along our long downtown corridor. Most of all we have phenomenal vibrancy and energy in this region, most of it found in our most precious resource: our people.
What we need is just some cleaning up and enhancement, I think as I drive around. The ever-present graffiti mars far too many surfaces. Despite the demolition of the doomed condominiums at Penhorwood there are far too many desolate and vacant buildings. There are areas where a deeply troubling dispirited feeling have set in, places for which there were once grand plans but which now sit quietly and in anticipation, waiting for something – anything – to happen. Willow Square is just one of those spots, a place where great hopes and dreams now sit idle and where weeds and dust gather now instead.
I do not pretend I have the solutions to what we need to do or the path forward on this. I know that when I drive visitors around the community in recent months I have felt far more defensive than normal, feeling as if I have to explain the vacant lots, empty buildings and graffiti. Some from otuside choose to interpret these as signs of some sort of downfall of my community, a harbinger of things to come as the price of oil dwindles and an economy based on it falters – but I do not see that. I still see a community in transition.
We have come a long way since I arrived here almost fourteen years ago. I still see the community as it was then, smaller and still prone to the cycles of boom and bust, but no less robust or resilient. Many things have already changed significantly in my time here and I have no doubt things will continue to change – hopefully always for the better, seeing new growth and new opportunities come to our community.
I know one thing for sure, though. We have good bones, Fort McMurray. All that remains to be seen is how we edit our masterpiece.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Deep in the Heart of Wood Buffalo

It wasn't because I had oodles of free time, as anyone who knows me knows I am busier now than I have ever been. The challenges of being a single parent, holding a full-time and fulfilling professional role, working as a freelance writer and the daily tasks of life are really enough to keep me quite occupied - and yet in 2014 I decided I would get just a bit more involved in my community, and I applied to join the committees and boards of two local organizations.

The Communities in Bloom Committee was one that had caught my interest some time ago, as it is about so much more than "pretty flowers" and instead about the concepts of environmentalism, sustainability and neighbourhood cleanliness as well as encouraging horticultural pursuits. Joining the committee is my opportunity to not only learn more about what the organization does but to help them achieve their goals. The second organization I joined was the Board of Directors of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, a group that has been close to me since this blog began and that is likely where I truly began to understand the nature of social profit organizations and their fundamental value in our community.

I thought a great deal about my journey of learning about social profit organizations when I attended the Heart of Wood Buffalo Leadership Awards this week. I was honoured to present an award as part of my role on the board at the Food Bank, but even more so I was honoured to be in the company of the many people who work tirelessly in our social profit sector.

There were apparently dozens of nominees for the awards, narrowed down to a select group of nominees in each of the six categories and then finally, as announced on that night, the winner - but the reality is that while some won an award that evening and were recognized for their hard work I think we should take the opportunity every day to acknowledge the work of those who volunteer for boards and committees, those who work directly in and for our social profit groups, the businesses and companies who commit their resources and employees to social profit causes and those who spend their precious free time volunteering.

The busiest people I know are volunteers, you see. They don't do it because they have tons of free time or because they have nothing else to do - often they are going flat out in their jobs and lives but they volunteer because they know it makes a difference, both to others and themselves. The people I know who work in social profit organizations don't do so for the pay cheque, which is often far less than what they could earn in similar positions in industry; they do so because they believe in their cause, their organization and the need of the community. The businesses and companies who donate their time or money to social profit organizations do so because they know the organizations improve the quality of life for those in the community where they operate their business. Those who serve on boards and committees give of their time to provide support to the organizations because they know they can offer their collective skills to help make the organizations even stronger.

It was a bit remarkable for me on Thursday evening to realize I knew or at the very least recognized almost every single person who filtered into the Suncor Energy Centre for the Performing Arts at Holy Trinity. These individuals, who serve on boards or work in our community social profit organizations, who work for the companies that support them and who volunteer every time the call to action is heard, have become part of my life over the past 4 years as I have developed more and more respect and admiration for each of them. I have come to realize that they serve as the backbone of our community, and they are the organizations and people who are there both when times are good and when times are challenging. And in the end I suppose that is why I decided to use some of the little free time I have to serve two such organizations, because I wanted the chance to be among that group.

I extend my congratulations to all the nominees and winners at the Heart of Wood Buffalo Leadership Awards this year - but more than that I extend my sincere gratitude to them and all our local social profit organizations, volunteers, boards and committees and supportive partners in industry and business. It is a genuine honour to not only know you, but to stand among you at events like this and know I am with the heart of our community and with those who give so much of themselves simply to make the world a better place for others. You are truly the Heart of Wood Buffalo.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Is It Time to Address School Dress Codes?

Once upon a time, in a country not far away at all, the sight of a woman's ankle was considered both shocking and provocative. It seems a woman's ankle, when displayed openly to the world, was feared to be tremendously distracting to men and those men, completely unable to control their carnal appetites, could not really be blamed if they were so overwhelmed by the sight of an ankle that they were unable to continue to function as respectable men do. And so women, in deference to this, acknowledged weakness on the part of men, kept their ankles covered - and the rest of their bodies, too, hidden behind long skirts and shirts with arms that went down to the wrist and collars that buttoned under the chin. It was necessary, you see, to keep civilization going by covering up so that women did not show any skin and inadvertently distract men from the busy business of being, you know, a man.

And then, over the course of a few decades, we woke up and realized what utter bullshit this was. We began to realize that men, far from being some weak gender who lived only on their instinct and impulse, could see an ankle without swooning. We began to realize that women didn't need to cover  every inch of flesh to protect men from themselves, and could instead expect men to behave in a civilized manner regardless of how much skin a woman showed, because in civilization we expect other people to behave in certain ways. We stopped assuming that showing a hint of female skin would lead to the downfall of the world as men would be so distracted they would stop doing things like running governments and businesses (and oh yeah, we realized women could - and should - be running those too, and we started electing them and they began to do things like become CEOs). So the question that begs to be asked is if we woke up to this some time ago why do we still have dress codes in schools that treat young women - and I mean elementary school girls - as temptresses who might wear spaghetti straps and throw young men off their game by showing them a hint of shoulder?

I am the parent of a young woman. She is almost 16 now, and we have discussed the subject of dress codes pretty extensively. Now, her fashion happens to run more towards vintage dresses from the 50's and things like crinolines, but the discussion we have often had centres on why these dress codes we often see in schools specifically refer to how young women are allowed to dress but say little about their male counterparts.

The standard for most of these dress codes is no spaghetti strap shirts or dresses, no shorts or skirts shorter than fingertip length when your hands are at your side, no midriff-baring tops, no cleavage - all aimed at preventing young women from showing the modern equivalent of an ankle as it seems shoulders are quite distracting to young men.

It all flared up again in our country when a young woman went to school in a spaghetti-strap maxi-dress and was called on the carpet for breaking the dress code. There were those who said she should be as if rules exist you need to follow them - but the reality is rules need to be revisited and revised on a regular basis as the world often changes far faster than the rules do. Those dress codes in place in schools are the very same ones I saw in my educational life - and I graduated decades ago. The world has changed, and I believe it is time we revisit the subject of dress codes and exactly what these codes are saying to young men and young women.

Here is what I think they say to young women:

Your body is a tempting thing. Your skin should be kept covered to avoid distracting young men who cannot control themselves and their impulses. If you show skin you should expect that young men will react to you in ways that you do not want but that you have invited because you have showed your skin. You are to blame if you are treated this way because you showed too much skin. We created these rules to protect you from young men because young men cannot be trusted to behave properly.

Here is what I think they say to young men:

Women are temptresses who should not show this much skin. We don't expect you to control your impulses or your behaviour because we do not think you can. We do not trust you to behave in a civil manner if you see the skin of a young woman and should they show you this skin we know you will behave badly. We created these rules to protect you from yourself, because we know you are unable to control yourself.

Sound familiar? It is the type of thought process that leads to victim blaming in sexual assault cases, where the woman is to blame because she dressed provocatively and the hapless male could not control himself because he was so overwhelmed by his impulses. And if we don't buy it in a court of law why are we buying it in our schools?

Shouldn't we be teaching our young women and young men that proper conduct is based NOT on how someone else is dressed but on the standards that dictate how we behave in a civilized society? Shouldn't we be showing them that we are all - every person of every gender - more than our body parts and that how we dress our body parts has nothing to do with how we are expected to treat each other? Shouldn't we be avoiding sexualizing children in elementary school by implying that their wearing spaghetti strap sundresses is in some way provocative behaviour? Shouldn't we be treating our young men with respect and acknowledging that not only can they control themselves but we expect them to, and shouldn't we be showing our young women that how they dress should not dictate how they should expect to be treated? Or are we actually trying to educate our children that men are animals with no self-control and that women are far too provocative and tempting?

Are you a parent? Ask your school if they have a dress code in place. And if the dress code seems outdated or unreasonable to you ask if it can be revisited, and ask your kids what they think of the dress code, as they have great input on the messages these dress codes send to them. And if you are inclined to think the dress codes are a-ok as they are, just remember there was time when the sight of an ankle was considered quite shocking and provocative, and ask yourself if the world is the same as when you were in school. Ask yourself what message we want our young adults - both male and female - to receive from us on this topic, and act accordingly.

This song was running through my head when I was contemplating this blog, reflecting on a time when a "glimpse of stocking was something shocking". It's a bit tongue-in-cheek, as it complains that "anything goes", in the way that those who abhor change often deride the changes they see in the world. The world has changed - and it is continuing to change. In my opinion it is time for things like school dress codes to change and better reflect our youth of today and not the youthful years of their parents. I don't believe that "anything goes" - but I do believe that as a society we need to stop often, ask why we are doing things and reflect on if this is the right path for the future. And school dress codes that fundamentally teach our youth the exact lessons we don't want them to learn? It is time for them to simply go.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Extending a Challenge to Find Hope in the Dark

“Two tarps this year,” she says. “Duct tape for my box, of course. And mittens.”

We are starting to prepare our list for an event we attend every year, one that does not require fancy shoes and glittering gowns but tarps and sleeping bags and duct tape.
Once again we are headed to a park downtown to sleep outside as part of the Centre of Hope’s homelessness awareness event “Hope in the Dark.”

I have been part of this event since the inaugural year, one night annually in which I freely give up my bed and sleep instead on a bench or on the ground. The Intrepid Junior Blogger has joined me for the last two years, sleeping outside in a park in an adventure designed to help us understand the nature of being homeless.  Exposed to the elements, we have discovered the value of things like two tarps and duct tape and fuzzy mittens or even socks to keep your hands warm.
Hope in the Dark is an opportunity to understand something that most of us will likely never experience. There are many beliefs about homelessness and those who are homeless, and many ideas about how to solve it. I know that for the last three years these beliefs and ideas have danced through my head at 3 am as I lay in a sleeping bag in a park. For the past two years I have done it with my child beside me in a cardboard box, and felt something tugging in my heart as I realized that there are many homeless youth in our country who are the same age as she is and much the same as her in many ways.

It is the night every year when there is a moment, after all the others have gone to sleep and the noises from the box beside me have quieted, that I find myself feeling more alone than I have ever felt in my adult life. It is a moment of total solitude and quiet, just before the birds begin to sing, far too early for my liking, and the first rays of sun begin to shine. It is a moment I have come to both dread and treasure as it brings me close to the core of who I am.
It is tough to explain this moment, and I can see why people would want to avoid it as it is troubling to experience yourself with honesty and clarity, but every year I find myself learning more about myself – in the middle of a park, in the dark of night, far from my warm bed and my complacency about the world as I want to believe it to be.

Homelessness is one of those topics uncomfortable to discuss. It taps into our deepest fears and often our strongest opinions as we believe we know the answers as to why homelessness exists and the nature of those who are homeless. It is terrifying to realize that those who are homeless are not so different from ourselves, and that their road to homelessness is not so different from the roads we have travelled. We do not want to believe – not for an instant – that we could ever experience homelessness.
This year once again the IJB and I will pack up and head down to the park. We have a rhythm now, a strategy to combat the cold and the dark and the rain. We know how to handle the logistics of this temporary homelessness, but we still struggle with the emotions and the sensation of being alone in the dark. In the morning we cling to each other, as while she pretends she has not felt it I know she has her own moment in the dark when the truth sneaks into her box, too.

You see the truth is homelessness is not the sole territory of any one group. It can – and does – affect those from a variety of walks of life and does so through different paths: mental illness, physical injury, domestic violence, substance abuse and more. We all have the potential to be homeless, and that realization is one of those fundamental truths that once you know you cannot unknow. It is that moment in the dark when you find this truth that you realize two things: that you are not immune from this experience, and the importance of hope should it ever happen to you.
The Centre of Hope, that humble once-blue building on Franklin Avenue, is a beacon of hope for those who are experiencing homelessness. It is a place that reminds them of their value and of the hope to which they can still aspire. But it does more than that, too. It serves as a beacon of hope for all of us, a sign that hope does exist, even in the dark.

This year I will not ask you join us at Hope in the Dark. I am instead challenging you to do it. I am challenging you to have your own moment in the dark and to find the truths that lurk inside us but that we like to silence because they are far too uncomfortable to face. I am offering you the opportunity to seek that truth and to find the hope it brings with it.
We will have mittens and duct tape and two tarps. We will be the mother and daughter who have the logistics of sleeping in a park down to a science, but who still experience that moment and wake to the world filled not only with new truth but with renewed hope.

Join us on May 30. I challenge you. Join us to find Hope in the Dark.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Being the Change: Thoughts on Mother's Day 2015

When I first began to write this blog I found myself in tears often. There are many reasons for that, I suppose, from being on an already emotional personal journey at the time to encountering stories with an impact for which I was not prepared. And then there was the belief that the tears were almost genetic in nature, as my mother, the most deeply compassionate and loving person I have ever known, cried freely when I was growing up, and I learned to never fear tears.

In recent years I cried less often, though. The tumultuous nature of my personal life settled down considerably and I developed a pattern and rhythm in my life that was less prone to sudden emotional occurrences. There is no doubt, too, that hearing more and more stories makes you a bit less subject to the tears, as you would spend all your time crying in your car (as I did a great deal at the beginning) as opposed to writing, and so I learned to put the tears aside for the most part, still feeling the emotions but putting my energy into writing about them and not the tears. On occasion, though, I find something that still makes me cry, like I did early on Saturday morning.

It was a video, just a simple video from our local Shaw TV outlet. You see they had been in cahoots with the Fort McMurray Fire Fighters and cooked up a little surprise for some local non-profit organizations. The firefighters - you know, the people who risk their lives for us on the regular as part of their job - had spent their free time and energy fundraising cash for local groups, and having collected $75,000 they decided it was time to give it away with some help from Shaw to capture the reactions.

And so away they went in those big red fire trucks that usually signal trouble when you see them, pulling into parking lots with the air horn blasting, and then when arriving at the local non-profits (the SPCA, the Centre of Hope, the Boys and Girls Club, the Wood Buffalo Food Bank and Unity House) pouring out of the trucks in a tumble of fire fighters and a large mascot and an equally large cheque in the amount of $15,000 for each organization.

I admit it. They weren't even finished with their first stop at the SPCA before I began finding tears running down my cheek. You see my life has been touched by every single one of those organizations, and I know the people behind them who work so hard to serve this community. In our house we have three adoptees from the SPCA, my connection with the Centre of Hope goes back to when this blog began, I have interviewed Howard Rensler of the Boys and Girls Club many times, I serve on the board of directors of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank and I have friends who have been kept safe at Unity House. As I watched them at each stop the tears flowed freely for me, especially as I watched the tears of happiness and gratitude from those people I consider friends and truly valued community members.

As I sit here and write this on Mother's Day I reflect on my own mother, gone for several years now, and the impact she had on my life. My ability to feel that compassion is not innate, but was learned from her. She taught me to love and to feel, while my dad taught me to think and to act. It was a remarkable gift they gave me, a combination of traits destined to serve me well in life, and ones I hope I have passed on to the Intrepid Junior Blogger.

Although they never said it my parents were the embodiment of the phrase: "be the change you want to see in the world". Were they still alive today they would not be the kind to hang out on social media complaining about the world, pointing out all the things that are wrong and done badly, attacking other people (often those working to create change) in an attempt to make themselves feel better about their own lack of action. No, they would be the ones out doing things to make the world a better place, small things perhaps but the things they could do while knowing that while they could not change everything they could change some things. They knew that positive change does not and cannot come from a place of anger and bitterness, and so they focused on doing good, not doing harm. They taught me that if you want to see the world change then you must do it, because you cannot expect others to do it or complain about those who are not doing it the right way if you are not willing to do it yourself. If I have learned nothing else from them at least I have learned that, a lesson that is perhaps the most valuable I have ever been taught.

I thought about them a lot while watching the video, because they would have loved it too. They would have been as delighted as I was, my mother crying and my dad simply sitting there with that smile, as they watched fire fighters coming to the rescue of local organizations who are struggling right now during a difficult time in our community. I want to thank the Fort McMurray Fire Fighters for not only putting their lives but their hearts on the line for us. I want to thank Shaw TV for being there to capture these moments. I want to thank all our local social profit organizations as they are the true heart and soul of this community and I am so grateful to them. But I suppose most of all I want to thank my mother today, on Mother's Day, for being one of the two people in this world who really guided who I have become, and who showed me that love and compassion are qualities that can not only save lives but save our world. Happy Mother's Day to her, always in my heart and soul, as she is a fundamental part of me.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Brave New World of Alberta

Tuesday evening I sat quietly in the ballroom at the Radisson hotel, glued to the television with an ever-changing cast of fellow political junkies and people I call friends. We watched together as the election results rolled in, a history-making, history-breaking kind of election that changed our province. I sat there, not speaking for the most part, not tweeting or Facebooking, but just being in the moment and letting it all wash over me.

When I got home I got several messages from friends - ones asking if I was still alive, as I had been so silent, and others trying to initiate conversations about the results - but I wasn't ready to discuss it yet as I needed to sort it out in my own head first, one of the things I have learned over the past four years when I leapt too fast into something before I stopped to think first and lived to regret my haste.

I think I slept for about two hours, still wired on the events of the night and trying to sort out my thoughts and feelings on it all. Finally I realized the only way to do it was to break it down into categories, and my reaction on each one. These are my thoughts from a long night, and you may or may not agree with them. Undoubtedly you have own, just as this province is made up of individual stories, viewpoints and perspectives. These are mine.

My reaction as the president of the newly formed Alberta Party Constituency Association for Fort McMurray - Wood Buffalo:

What can I say? I am so proud and pleased to see Greg Clark elected into office, as he has worked hard and long to be there. I have had the privilege of speaking to Greg on a few occasions, and he, the others in the Alberta Party and my knowledge of what it stands for are why I agreed to help build the party in our region.Yes, there are challenges to starting a new party, but we would do well to remember that every single party in existence was once new, and that's simply not reason enough to doubt it, and with this win the Alberta Party has gained a toehold in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. We did not run a candidate here this time, a conscious choice based on wanting to find a candidate that was local, credible and electable, but I have no doubt that when the next election is called we will be ready, with Greg leading the way. Wanna learn more about the Alberta Party? Fire me an email and let's talk, because now is the time to begin to build.

My reaction as a former resident of Saskatchewan:

Cut me deep enough and I suspect I bleed orange, the residue of a childhood and young adult life spent in the province where the NDP has long been an important player. I have no fear of the vibrant orange and instead a genuine weakness for it, and so the election of an NDP majority government in the province I now consider my home might have been a surprise, but did not throw me into any sort of panic.

My reaction as a political junkie:

I worked on the 2012 campaign for Don Scott, serving as his communications manager. I was proud of it then and I am proud of it now, as regardless of what anyone else may suggest I know that Don and Mike Allen worked incredibly hard to represent the people of this region. They spent three years of their lives serving us in a job that is often thankless and always open to scrutiny, and I doubt many of their critics could achieve even a fraction of the things they accomplished in that period of time. They not only did the large things but the small ones too, like coming to speak at schools and inspiring students to get engaged in politics, and answering emails and phone calls from pestering constituents like me. I am so grateful to them for their service,  but it is no secret that I had a "falling out" with the PC party this year when they went in entirely the wrong direction on an issue the Intrepid Junior Blogger holds dear: GSAs. My rift with the party, one that began months before, was fundamentally sealed with their treatment of the issue of student run organizations for LGBTQ students and their allies, and it was irreparable. Add to that the IJB's evaluation of our Premier ("I don't like him and he has weird eyebrows" she said), and I realized that while I supported Don and Mike I could not and did not support their leader and the path he was choosing. It was a difficult place to be for me, as I saw two good men tied to one broken party.

I knew in my heart it was time for the PC party to go, a decades-old dynasty that had become filled with hubris and almost entirely deaf to the people shouting at them with pleas to be listened to, but I was saddened to see many very good people, both in our region and across our province, go with the party. And Prentice's resignation on the heels of his crushing loss? Indefensible, and, as the IJB pointed out, cowardly. I thank Don and Mike for their service, as I am so grateful for all they have done for us, but as for Jim Prentice? Thanks for nuttin', pal.

My reaction as a resident of Fort McMurray:

While we lost Don and Mike in provincial government we gained two members of the official opposition in Tany Yao and Brian Jean. I suspect they will have a tough time ahead of them, as they are a small minority in a sea of orange. I have no doubt they will do their best to represent us, and for Brian it will be even more challenging as he will need to be leader of the Official Opposition as well as represent the people of Fort McMurray-Conklin. I don't know Tany Yao, but it is no secret that in the past I have not always been fond of Jean's strategies for communicating with his constituents. Hopefully though we can now move into a future free of crossword puzzles of dubious value and instead into open, honest and frank dialogue with the people of this region, discussing our needs and our expectations. I congratulate them on their win, and I truly hope they are successful in their representation of us as when they are able to represent us well we all win in this place we call home.

My reaction as an Albertan:

The sky is not falling, Chicken Littles. We have a group of novice MLAs moving into office who will take some time to find where the bathrooms are, let alone understand how caucus and cabinet work. They have a steep learning curve ahead of them, and I hope we can grant them some leeway as they get their feet under them. I also hope our new government chooses to implement any changes slowly as opposed to doing anything of a sweeping nature right away, as you don't get a second chance to make a first impression, and we have just given them one helluva chance to make a first impression on the people of this province. I don't think our province is going to go bankrupt, I don't believe they are going to turn us into the haven of hippies and I have zero plans to pack up the Ford Explorer to get outta Dodge - in fact I want to see what they can do, because what we learned in the last three years is if you always do what you've always done you will always get what you've always gotten. I think we are ready to get something new, don't you?

My reaction as a parent:

This is the most complex and yet the most simple, perhaps. The IJB has known for some time that she leans left, much like her left-leaning mom, and the election of the NDP in Alberta in her lifetime is undoubtedly a remarkable thing. We were texting back and forth as the results rolled in, her texts revealing both excitement and surprise as even she did not expect the outcome. After watching our next Premier's victory speech with her quip about math the IJB turned to me and said: "I like her, she's sassy!", and I could see a new hardcore member of Notley Crue had just been born. You see the IJB has dealt with some serious political disappointment over the last three years, particularly in the case of a Premier that she had admired and saw as a strong female role model but who failed her (and all of us, too). The IJB firmly believes we should drop the voting age to 16, as it is the future of our youth we are deciding. I think it only dawned on her today that should this new government fulfill their entire mandate she will in fact be old enough to vote in the next provincial election, a prospect that makes her practically giddy as she often expresses her desire to have "us people" get out of the way and allow her generation to take over and get it right already. Her reaction to this election has been perhaps the most incredible moment of all for me, as it was a confirmation for her that democracy is real and it works, hopefully restoring some of the faith she lost over three very tumultuous years in our province, the one that will always be the place where she grew up.


After categorizing them all late into the night as I lay in bed I began to realize why it was taking me so long to sort out my feelings on this. There were so many angles, so many nuances and so many facets to consider and explore. There were highlights and low points, moments of pride and moments of sadness. It is no wonder I lay there staring into the dark for hours, working it all through but finally falling into a deep and sound sleep, content that the world, while it might have shifted slightly, was still spinning just fine. The phrase that kept coming to me was that we are now in a brave new world, one that we can fight or embrace, one we can avoid or one we can explore. I am, at the end of day, one of those people who always chooses exploration and as such I am thrilled that I woke up in a different Alberta, one every bit as wonderful as it has always been but this time with a fresh start and a new beginning for all of us. I don't know about you, but I like new beginnings and so I welcome this brave new world of ours, one that I think will at the very least be interesting and has the potential to be truly quite remarkable. I have never been one to reject an adventure, and friends, we are on one now.

It all comes down to this, I guess: Bring it on, Alberta. I'm ready.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

What Would You Do With One Million Dollars?

What would you do if you had one million dollars? What if you could enter a competition to try to win one million dollars in funding so you can try to achieve your dream? And what if to make it happen you needed the support of your family and friends, and heck, the entire community? Sound far-fetched, perhaps? Well, not if you are the local gang behind Comic Book Wednesday.

First let's cover the details as given to me from that local gang:

  • CineCoup is a national film competition where teams develop their film concept with weekly missions designed into interact with fans
  • Fans need to vote for their favorite project in order to advance the team into the next round
  • Teams will advance from a Top 60 to a Top 30 then to a Top 15
  • Out of the Top 15, CineCoup will pick 5 finalists to travel to Banff in June for the World Media Festival to pitch their concept to CineCoup in person in front of a live crowd 
  • From there 1 team will win $1 million to create their film and have it screened in Cineplex theatres across the country 
  • For the last 8 weeks, one team from Fort McMurray (Tito Guillen, Steve Reeve, Ashley Laurenson and Todd Hiller, plus a large number of other community members) have been evolving their film idea 
  • Comic Book Wednesday currently sits active in the Top 30 with the Top 15 Voting Period opening from May 4 @ 7pm to May 8 @ 7pm. 
  • Fans can RATE, COMMENT and SHARE our weekly mission content in order to gain more votes that they can put towards their favorite project
  • Comic Book Wednesday is 1 of only 2 Alberta teams left in the challenge
  • We NEED everyone's help to get us into the Top 15! 
  • We need to bring this competition home to Wood Buffalo as this is where we want to shoot our feature film!

Now those are the details - but let's talk about why this is important. 

Almost every single day I get a phone call or email, either personally or professionally, from people who are coming to work on "projects" in our community. Sometimes they are film projects, documentaries often, and sometimes they are magazine articles or newspaper pieces. They are coming here for various reasons, but almost every single one wants to develop some sort of relationship with this region in order to further their own careers or dreams, and pretty much unfailingly I, and others in this community, agree to help them. This time we have an opportunity to help a group of local residents and film makers not only pursue their dream but to bring it home to our community as they do so. They have the chance to put Fort McMurray on the map as the home of the CineCoup winner, and showcase the work of some of our talented community members on screens across the nation. And they need our help to do it.

I know Tito, Steve, Todd and Ashley personally. They have been part of my life for over four years now, and I have been incredibly honoured to watch them develop as podcasters, filmmakers and community leaders. There are a lot of people who talk about the things they "want" to do, but often following it up with inaction - but whenever this group comes to me with an idea I know that they will not only dream it and talk about it and plan it but execute it, too. I have had the incredible privilege to be there for some of their special moments, film festivals and the like, and I have been proud to have been able to help them in small ways along their journey. 

And this is the next step in that journey. This is their moment to shine, when the lessons they have learned, the successes they have found and the hard work they have accomplished comes together to present them with an amazing new opportunity - but they need our help to get there. In this community where we have shown time and time again that anything - truly anything - is possible we now have the chance to help a group of local filmmakers bring home one million dollars and a chance to not only live their dream but make us all intensely proud to say that they are from Fort McMurray.

We are region that is often known for the films made about us, the ones that call us things like "Fort McMoney" and that prey upon us to advance the dreams and careers of those who do not, have not and never will call this place home. We now have a chance to instead be known as a community with talented filmmakers like this collective and to see them represent us on a national stage.

How can you help? You need to visit this link and vote for Comic Book Wednesday. Our group of local filmmakers is already one of only two Albertan teams in the running, and we now have the chance to help them get into the final fifteen. I believe they can do it - in fact, I believe they can achieve their dream and be the last team standing, and the one with a film featured on screens across Canada.

On a final note: I am so proud of Todd, Tito, Ashley and Steve. I will be proud of them regardless of whether or not they are the finalists who come home with one million dollars, because I know they pour their heart and soul and a helluva lot of hard work into everything they do. Even more than that, though, I am proud of them because they are the essence of what makes this community special, a group of friends who become family and who form a bond strong enough to accomplish amazing things. Comic Book Wednesday and the team behind it is a quintessential Fort McMurray story, the kind I have been writing about for over four years now and that never diminishes with retelling. I am proud to call them fellow community members, proud to call them local filmmakers, and even more importantly so damn proud to call them friends.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Being a Better Boss in a Political World

I would like to believe that over time and with experience most of us grow and change. As we learn more it shapes how we view the world, and it can change our perspective. On occasion, though, this can be startling to others in our world who may not understand this change or for whom it may be unfamiliar - and so it was when I sent a message to a dear friend recently. We were discussing politics, and the message I sent was brief but true to what I have come to believe. Their response was indeed one of surprise, as I think they did not expect this of me. What I said was:

I think we are too hard on politicians.

Now, let me be quite clear on this, as I know I have in the past been quite hard on politicians, and some in particular. In some cases they might have deserved it, particularly when it related to the way they voted on certain issues, or the stance they took on topics that matter to me. In some cases, though, I suspect I veered into being more unkind than I could or should have been, and I have watched as others went into attack modes that had little to do with politics but rather with personality. Over time it has come to trouble me deeply, because I have also come to know many of those who serve us in the political realm and I have seen what we do to them with these kinds of attacks.

Politicians are people. They are not robots, not stone cold automatons without feeling or emotion. Oh, I am sure a select few may be that way, but for the most part I believe they enter politics out of a genuine desire to serve, although most likely have a certain dose of ego involved too (likely a good thing as those without ego would be decimated by the criticism they face once they are in office). They enter into a realm of "damned if you and damned if you don't" with people like me barking at them at every corner, hopefully doing so in a civil manner but not always succeeding.

Politicians don't make anywhere near the kind of money we think they do for the most part - ask them and most will tell you they would make far more in the private sector than as an MLA, for instance. Many municipal councillors in small communities have full-time jobs in addition to their council duties, and the small amount they earn on council is fairly little when compared against the time demands of the job. And the jobs are not nearly as glamorous as we might think either, often just involving a lot of delayed flights, missed connections and lost days they could have been spending with their families but instead spend far away in places like Ottawa. And then the very people they represent don't thank them for their service but instead spend time beating them up online and in newspapers, often veering far too far into the personal and away from the political.

I have considered - and have been asked - to run for political office. Thus far I have always declined, because I know it is not an easy life, not on the campaign trail and certainly not if you succeed and find yourself in office. I know the skin you must grow needs to be inches thick and practically iron clad, able to withstand the barbs of those very people you are trying to represent. If I had to name one strong deterrent to running for office I would suggest it is this one, because anyone who has spent time in the public eye knows how painful growing that thick skin can be, and how it changes you in the process.

Will I be gentle on politicians now, stroking them like kittens and murmuring soft whispers in their ears? No, because I think it is reasonable to have expectations of them in terms of their policies and how they represent us - but I have become far more cognizant of my own contributions to the howling masses. I am sure there will be those who think this post hypocritical, but then again not everyone understands or embraces the concepts of growth and change, either. There are those who remain stuck in time and behaviour and who think others do and should, too, but I am quite happy to not be one of them.

As we head towards another election day - one bound to be contentious - I remind myself of my new understanding and my belief that we can hold people to be accountable without being unkind, and expect them to serve us without trying to skewer them and serve them up on a platter like shishkebabs. I may not always be successful - and on occasion I may slip, too, as old habits take time to break - but I believe the first step in growth is acknowledging the need to do it. We can hold them accountable and we can debate their policies without debating on their worth as human beings, and we can give to them the same kind of respect and dignity with which we hope and expect them to view us.

What I know is this: our elected officials serve us and are in essence our employees - and given the way we treat them sometimes we are terrible, terrible bosses to work for, too. Frankly I doubt many of us would be interested in working for the kind of employers we often seem to be, which is why I hope to be a better boss in the future, so we can attract even better kinds of employees and make them want to stick around, too.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Under the Influence

It is intriguing, really.

Over the course of the last few weeks I have been the recipient of several messages quite curious about who I am supporting in this provincial election. Some were of the “well, I hope you will endorse X” variety, while others were of the more ominous “I hope you don’t intend to publicly declare your support and attempt to influence people” kind. Both were equally thought provoking as both seemed to suggest that what I write about my choice would have the power to influence others to make the same choice, a premise that I actually reject in many ways because I think the concept of influence is quite over-rated in the world as it is today.

Perhaps the ability to influence others was stronger once, in a world before social media and where everyone could not be an expert on everything. Social media – and the internet in general, perhaps – has evened the field in a way where it is hard to ascertain who has actual knowledge and who simply claims to have knowledge, who is a real expert in a subject and who is a pseudo-expert. In a matter of seconds we can expound and express our opinions, present them as fact and send them out into the world, where once we were limited to letters to the editor and opinion-editorial columns. The world has changed, and with it so has the concept of influence, as I think the internet has hardened us, too, made us more cynical as we have come to realize that not everyone can possibly be an expert on everything.
I actually think the entire idea of the ability to influence others has not strengthened with the use of social media but rather become diluted. This blog is simply another blog in a sea of blogs, every tweet is just 140-characters in an avalanche of words from around the world. There is no longer a definitive message, no longer those to whom all eyes turn when matters of opinion are discussed. There are no experts when we have levelled the playing field so much that expertise is something of which we are justifiably skeptical. In this brave new world I find the concept of someone changing their mind or forming their opinion based solely on what I, or anyone else, has written to be rather absurd as we are inundated by these opinions, canceling each other out in a cacophony of voices.

So why do we both so fear and embrace the concept of influence? Why do we both want it to exist and wish it had no power? Do we even understand what influence really is in a world that changes so rapidly? And why do we believe it has any power in a world where we are just as likely to form our opinions from a 140-character tweet as a well-thought out and rational argument in a prestigious newspaper?
Does influence still exist? Maybe, but I am not entirely convinced it exists in the way we either think or fear, or that it even works the way we once believed it did. Just as the world has changed so has influence - and where it comes from and the impact it has on us, our opinions and things like elections. A world of free flowing information allows vast numbers of people to become "influencers" diluting the power of the few and distributing it among the many. There are far fewer of us who are "under the influence" and far more who are instead influencers, making the very concept suspect and, perhaps, antiquated as each and every one of us becomes an influencer through our social media streams.

In the end perhaps all this means is that instead of being worried about the influence exerted by others we should instead be far more worried about our own, and ensuring that the influence we are exerting - and more importantly perhaps the legacy we are leaving - is truly reflective of who we are, and the way we want to be remembered one day long after our supposed "influence" has faded away.