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

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Making History in Fort McMurray

There are few things I find myself unable to write about, at least immediately after they occur. For troubling events I often find myself working them out through my words - but it is the other events, the ones where I can almost feel my heart bursting at points, that defy my attempts to pin them down on paper, instead fluttering around like tiny butterflies unwilling to be captured.

This weekend I was part of two such events. All I can say about them - at least right now, until the butterflies drift down to earth once again - is that they were magical. They were the kind of magic, though, that comes from hard work, teams of amazing and dedicated people and a belief in what we can accomplish - and in our community.

Two days, back to back, that have left me aching in every muscle, feeling slightly hung over without having touched a drop of alcohol and completely, overwhelmingly, exhilarated. Instead of words today I am going to rely on some photos, because these are the images I will carry in my heart long after the words have faded away. 

Thank you, Fort McMurray and Wood Buffalo. I am so grateful every single day to be part of this community, but you see over the last two days we made history - and I am so proud, and so humbled, to have had the opportunity to be part of it.

Shell Place Grand Opening, June 12, 2015

Northern Kickoff presented by Shell, June 13, 2015

~The official disclaimer: these comments are purely my own reflections and thoughts, 
and do not represent the opinions or views of the organization by which I am employed~

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Living in the Moment with the Imagine Dragons

There are moments in time so unique and unforgettable that you know they have found a special spot in your memory. You know you will tuck them away and pull them out in the future, reflecting back on an experience that meant more than it would seem to on the surface. Last night was one of those moments.

We almost didn't go. I had purchased the tickets - and not just "a ticket" but an entire experience - months ago but work matters had intervened and I had told the Intrepid Junior Blogger that sadly we could not attend the Imagine Dragons concert in Edmonton. She was understanding, if disappointed, but she was even more surprised when suddenly this week the clouds parted and it became not only clear that we could go but should go, an opportunity for a small road trip before the summer and a break before our lives step into very high gear for awhile. And so, on rather short notice, we threw some things into a suitcase and hit the highway, travelling a few hours down south to make a memory.

As we waited in the line-ups, first to check in for our VIP experience and then to meet the band, the IJB was remarkably calm. She doesn't get excited about much, approaching life with a degree of calm I wish I could emulate. She isn't much of a hero worshipper or fan girl, either, generally unimpressed by fame or fortune. Much like her mother, though, she struggles to live in the moment, always thinking about the next class, the next exam, the next phase of her life. Her outward calm hides her constantly working mind, one that is relentless in conjuring up expectations and creating often unanswerable questions. It is a pattern I know far too well.

As we waited we both noted how terrific the staff were at Rexall Place, and how calm they seemed to be too, the flow of these events honed over the years and dozens of concerts just like this one.

But for the IJB this wasn't just another concert. This was her first stadium concert, different from the small concerts of 1500 or so fans she had attended before. As someone who cut her teeth on huge concerts in the late 1980's featuring bands like New Order, Psychedelic Furs and Echo and the Bunnymen, I knew how special that first concert is, and how it sets the tone for your expectations of those in the future. I knew how concerts are one of the rare times when you can set aside all other thoughts - the pounding music and bright lights making it almost impossible to do otherwise - and live purely in the moment. But I also knew not all concerts are like that, some instead lacklustre affairs with disengaged performers there to earn a paycheque and disinterested in their audience. As someone who had spent years with musicians I knew the magic that happens when audience and artist connect, feeding their energy to each other and leading to one of those heart-stopping moments of perfection. I also knew this was unpredictable and elusive, and one never knows when it will happen...and now I know it happened last night, and the IJB was there not just to see it but be part of it.

In our brief moment with the band we discovered a group of four young men who were kind and gentle, calling the IJB sweetheart, telling us how much they love Alberta and how happy they were to be there last night. One could think these were just hollow words, rehearsed and insincere, but we didn't doubt their authenticity as they were delivered in such a seemingly heartfelt manner it erased all doubt. And once they stepped on the stage any doubts of their love for what they do, of their genuine affection for their fans, of their pure joy in being there, disappeared in a puff of smoke.

There are so many things one could say about the Smoke and Mirrors tour. Opening act Halsey was intriguing, particularly her reference to the Pride Parade held in Edmonton the very day she was performing for us. I was delighted to finally see Metric perform, a band I have loved for a long time and had been anxious to see live - but it was the Imagine Dragons who owned the stage and the audience from the moment they walked out.

The stage set was unbelievable, the remarkable column-like screens creating a unique backdrop for every single song. Watching them move and shift, watching them become not just part of the set but part of the narrative of the songs, was astonishing - but even without the stage I believe it would have been an incredibly special moment.

There were points when it was incredibly beautiful, when Rexall Place was lit up by the tiny lights from thousands of cell phones floating in the dark like little fireflies. Decades ago we held up lighters, and every time I see this I feel that flashback to the past and I know how much the world has changed - and how much it has stayed the same. 
There were points when there was laughter, and points where there was nothing but the sound of thousands of voices - including mine - singing the lyrics we know by heart.

For me though the special moments were when I would look at the IJB and see her, eyes closed, singing along and knowing every word, and completely and entirely living in the moment. It is so rare to live in the moment now, in a world filled with distraction and information rushing at us from every angle. It is a gift of the most precious sort to live in the moment, one we often struggle to find.

It would be an unkind understatement to say they brought down the house. They did so much more, leaving it all on the stage as good artists do, connecting with an audience of thousands and yet I suspect making each person feel like they had connected with them personally. When they played their encore - after the crowd erupted into cheers when they left the stage the first time - huge glittery leaves rained down on the crowd, creating a moment that was not only beautiful but magical, and one I managed to catch on camera.

There are some firsts in life. You can only ever have one first kiss, one first lover, and one first concert like this. You never know how those "firsts" will unfold, and how they will shape your memories. Last night I had the honour of being there as my daughter experienced her first stadium concert, and I saw in her face the kind of our joy and abandon a live music experience should bring.

As we left the stadium with the crowds around us and walked towards our car, the sky now dark and the city lights bright, she said: "I don't know what it is but concerts like that just make you feel like you don't give a damn about anything else." 

All I could do was smile, because that's exactly how I wanted her to feel. That feeling is called "living in the moment" and last night, thanks to a band called Imagine Dragons, we did.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Biting the Hand That Brews You

The latest brouhaha (brewhaha?) swirling around a once-Canadian (and now foreign owned) coffee company and the oilsands is making headlines all over the country, it seems. Tim Hortons, traditionally associated with core Canadian values like hockey and moms and dads and kids, was running some ads on the video screens in their restaurants, which likely brought them some nice little revenue in addition to that they garner from that  crack-like addictive coffee and those delectable Timbits. Trouble is one of the ads they were running was promoting Enbridge, and when some anti-oilsands activists got wind of this they started a movement to have the ads yanked.

The anti-oilsands group claims 30,000 Canadians signed a petition to force Tim Hortons to drop the ads, and so, caving to the pressure of those individuals, Tim Hortons made the decision to pull the ads. The real debacle here isn't that Tim Hortons pulled some advertising from their stores, as is their right, or that they spit in the face of oilsands workers (they probably didn't make any friends at Enbridge, but I think Enbridge will survive, and I don't believe Tim Hortons are anti-oilsands, just anti-being-the-target-of-a-petition). No, the debacle is that apparently Tim Hortons has no idea who their market demographic is, because I suspect few of those 30,000 petition signatures were penned by Tim Hortons regulars.

Tim Hortons has a clear and definable brand. It's not elitist coffee with fancy Italian sounding names for cup sizes. No, you can get a small or extra large at Tims and not need to learn an entirely new language. Oh, they brew up lattes for those in need of the fancy coffee, but their core business is the standard double-double, served hot and preferably with a donut. And their core clients are blue collar Canadians, people like the farmers, ranchers and oilmen in my family who show up at Tims in dirty coveralls and boots that smell suspiciously farm-like. They love Tims because they don't want a serving of politics with their coffee - all they want is a good solid brand that espouses their values on things like hot coffee, artery-clogging donuts and Canadian beliefs like hard work and family, and a place where they can freely (to borrow their phrase) "shoot the shit".

I am frankly stunned that Tim Hortons seems oblivious to this. I didn't even know they were running Enbridge ads until they yanked them and the outcry arose among the very core of people who will wait in drive through line ups 30 cars long just to get a damn cup of coffee they could get anywhere. Tim Hortons actually allowed politics and controversy into their doors by yanking the ads and earning the ire of those who really just want coffee and a Timbit.

I would hope somebody in their communications and marketing red flagged this. And anyone in those departments who told the upper brass that this would be an okay move without significant repercussion should be fired as clearly they don't have a clue about the Canadian market, as this bonehead move shows. Far better to withstand the complaints and hide behind the contract excuse ("we have a contract with Enbridge we must honour") and just not renew that contract than yank the ads causing a furor and, in the end, damaging their brand.

Brand is something that may take decades to build. It's the association your mind makes when a name is mentioned, like when someone says Tim Hortons and you think coffee and donuts and charming ads about parents getting up way too early to take their kids to hockey practice, Tim Hortons cup in hand. But now Tim Hortons has managed to tie their brand to controversy and politics, likely tarnishing it forever in the minds of some of the Canadians who sit in those drive through line ups every day. The trouble with a strong brand is it can take decades to build - and only moments (or one bad decision) to destroy.

This isn't really even about oilsands or petitions. It's about not understanding the people who have bought into your brand, and in this case those who drink your brew. Tim Hortons shouldn't be ashamed that they have offended the energy sector. They should be ashamed they don't know who their customers are, even when their customers knew - or thought they knew - who Tim Hortons is.