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

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Why the Fuss About Pertussis?

Today, on a lovely Sunday just hours before local children return to their schools after a wonderful season of warm weather and fun, I was going to write about some events coming to our community - a film festival and a carnival, to be exact, fun things headed our way as the season turns from summer to autumn. Those topics will need to wait for a day, though, as today I knew I needed to write about something just as timely, just as pertinent and, although far less fun, far more likely to save lives: vaccination.

The news of a recent outbreak of pertussis - know colloquially as "whooping cough" - in northern Alberta stopped me dead in my tracks, particularly when medical experts suggested the reason for the outbreak is that we are under-vaccinating our population, creating a situation where enough remain unvaccinated (or under-vaccinated) to allow the spread of diseases like whooping cough. And while whooping cough on its own is enough of a worry, the fact is that the vaccine for pertussis is usually part of the series known as "DPTP" - Diphtheria, Pertussis, Tetanus and Polio, and if we are under-vaccinated against pertussis odds are very high we are also under-vaccinated against some very other very frightening diseases, like polio.

If you are my age chances are you have never known anyone with polio. If you are part of my parent's generation, however, chances are good you know someone who was maimed or killed by polio. In their era polio was a known, real and terrifying affliction that paralyzed, led to years (or even a lifetime) spent in contraptions known as "iron lungs" and in some cases outright killed. During outbreaks parents kept their children away from schools and swimming pools, playgrounds and libraries in an attempt to quell the disease, often to no avail. Polio is an insidious disease which is still found around the world, and it still kills - and there is absolutely no guarantee it could not infect North Americans again.

The one thing standing between us and diseases such as polio is vaccination. In recent years there has been an outbreak of another kind, a form of near-hysteria that blamed vaccines for the rise in conditions such as autism, but the truth is that vaccines have never been proven to cause autism. The one definitive thing vaccines HAVE been proven to do, though, is prevent disease.

I wonder if in the face of a disease like Ebola, which has an incredibly high fatality rate, anyone would refuse a vaccine that would prevent it? The news of the development of a possible vaccine against Ebola is reason to rejoice in the countries this disease has struck, as they have clearly seen the devastation such a disease can bring, and they know their only hope is a vaccine that will prevent it from ever gaining ground again. Should Ebola ever truly land on the shores of North America - not as a random positive case brought back from overseas but as part of a continental epidemic - would we refuse to vaccinate because we fear some unproven side-effect in the face of a disease that is virtually always fatal?

And yet we seem to believe the completely unproven allegations about routine childhood vaccinations causing developmental conditions, perhaps because we have been fortunate enough to never actually see the diseases these vaccines prevent. We have become complacent because we have never had a sibling die of polio, or watched our neighbourhoods quiver in terror as a case was confirmed and we feared for our families. The anti-vaccine groups have done a damn fine job in scaring us about vaccines, but it seems we have forgotten the real terror is the diseases we are vaccinating against.

Maybe the truth is that we need to be frightened. Maybe it takes an epidemic to make us think clearly and to realize that our best strategy is to prevent these diseases that maim and kill. It is sobering to think that perhaps the outbreak of whooping cough is just the canary in the coal mine, warning us that just as pertussis can return so can all the other diseases we have worked over decades to prevent and even eradicate.

What I know is this: my parents, who saw polio and pertussis, measles and mumps, diphtheria and tetanus, would have thought the idea of not vaccinating against these diseases completely insane. They had witnessed them first hand, seen family and friends suffer and even die. They had the first hand knowledge we lack, and from it they knew the value of vaccines because they knew they would do anything to protect their children from insidious diseases that had already stolen from them during their lives.

This outbreak of pertussis is a siren call to action. Check to make sure your children's vaccines are up to date - and while at it check to make sure your own are, too, as adults still require vaccination to ensure they cannot contract and spread these diseases (as they are often far more serious in the young, the elderly and the immunocompromised). Stop listening to what "celebrities" who have never studied epidemiology (the study of disease) say and listen instead to those who have devoted their lives and careers to saving lives. And if you are reluctant to do that then find someone who lived through the early years of the previous century and ask them about polio and the other diseases they saw as both children and parents. If you need to be scared straight about vaccines, that should be enough to do it. The fuss about an outbreak of pertussis is that it signals we have a problem - and one that if not addressed could grow in magnitude and cost us far more than we have ever imagined.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

To Go Your Own Way

If I have ever had any single goal in my life it was to raise a strong, smart, independent and brave young woman.

The trouble, of course, is that when you raise a child in this manner what you end up with a strong, smart, independent and brave young person who is capable of making sound and reasonable decisions, even difficult ones that are best for them but perhaps terribly hard for you as a parent.
So it has been this summer as the Intrepid Junior Blogger, stretching her wings and strengthening her independence, made the decision to leave Fort McMurray to live in Calgary with her father in order to finish her high school years there.

It has taken me weeks to type those words without crying, let alone saying them out loud. You see while she is ready to go – a young woman who is undoubtedly a “big city kid” feeling a bit constrained and out of place in our northern community – I was not quite ready as her mother to see this transition take place. I was prepared for it two years from now, after graduation from high school, but even though I could see the signs that she was ready – more than ready – for a new challenge, I wasn’t ready for it yet.
The truth is, though, our kids are not – and should not be – all about us. We work to foster and encourage this kind of independence, this ability to make their own decisions, but how hard it is on occasion for us when they actually make them! How we struggle with our own feelings – in my case, wondering how I will cope as I will live alone for the very first time in my entire existence on this planet, and wondering if somehow I failed her as a mom.

And yet I know that her decision is not a signal of failure, but one of success. She is not leaving to escape but rather to explore, not to abandon her former life but to embrace a new one. Her strength and courage is a bit formidable to me, because the safe path would be to stay here in the place she has always known, but I did not raise my daughter to follow the safe path. I raised her to follow her own path instead, and so she is.
Shortly after she decided to remain in Calgary I learned of the death of a child of a friend. My own mourning for my situation quickly dissipated in the face of true suffering, as my friend’s pain was the true mourning for a lost child, while my mourning was of the selfish kind. It put my own loss into sharp perspective, as I realized I had in the grand scheme not lost anything at all.

The IJB will visit often, as much of the Triple M Zoo will remain here with me (and I recognize I am running the risk of becoming a cliché, the single woman with too many cats). She will have an opportunity, though, to develop and grow in a far larger city, one perhaps more amenable to her nature and personality as she is older and wiser than her years. While her decision was initially very difficult to accept I have come instead to welcome it, because while I am in some sense sad to see her decide to go I am thrilled at having raised a child who could make this kind of decision and know it is the right one for her.
In time I suspect I will begin to see this as an opportunity for both of us, as for the past three years I have been so immersed in being her full-time parent that many things I treasure slipped to the side, and I rejected opportunities in favour of that role. I have a book to finish, for starters, and so many projects I put off to begin two years from now. It seems the time, however, is now.

When she first suggested her desire to live in Calgary I admit I thought of relocating, packing up the entire zoo and selling my house to head south. When I told friends they reacted in the kind way friends do (“you can’t leave, you belong here!”), but the truth is I decided not to go because in the same way the IJB knows where she needs to be I do, too. Whatever I am meant to be doing in Fort McMurray, whatever my purpose here is, I know somehow it is not over yet, and there is far more for me to accomplish. You are stuck with me, I am afraid.
And so it is. The IJB will live in Calgary with her dad, returning for frequent visits with her mom and her menagerie of crazy animals. It has not been – and will not be – an easy transition for me, but then I remind myself that being a parent isn’t all about me, but about her. That realization always dries my tears as I instead find myself feeling intensely proud of a young woman unafraid to follow her own path – and perhaps just a bit like her mother in that regard, too.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Of Black Magic and Mumbo Jumbo

Black magic and mumbo jumbo, undoubtedly.

Such was my dismissal of certain things of which I was suspicious as I simply did not believe in their benefits. I was certain they were examples of gullibility on our part, signs of our fundamental human weakness for believing in absurdities.
Boy, what an idiot I can be.

It began about a year ago when I could not move my neck. Increasing tension in my neck and shoulder muscles had left me intensely envious of owls, with their ability to turn their heads 180 degrees. My head was frozen in place, and just shoulder checking while driving had become agony. Finally, realizing I could no longer live in that kind of suffering, I booked in to see a massage therapist, despite being dubious of their genuine ability to help alleviate my pain.
I will admit it took trying two or three different therapists to find the right one for me, just as one has to try a few hair stylists to find the right one. But even after my very first visit I knew I was onto something, as while my muscles ached in an entirely new way I could turn my head, even if just slightly. After finding the perfect RMT for me, with just the right touch and a growing knowledge of where as a writer I carry all my tension in my neck and shoulders, and with monthly appointments, I no longer view owls with envy. A once monthly massage has eliminated my neck and shoulder tension, and a practice that once filled me with doubt has become something I consider essential to my job as it allows me to work free of pain.

The experience with massage therapy triggered something in me, because I often outright rejected ideas designed to help as being unlikely to actually help. When I began hearing about the use of essential oils in diffusers I once again was dubious, but even so when  I was in Edmonton I found myself in a large store devoted to essential oils and their use. I left armed with two diffusers and an array of essential oil blends, once again mentally doubting their ability to help me but recognizing I needed to do something to address the restless nights I was experiencing, and the stress-related headaches.
I began loading up the diffuser nightly with essential oil blends that promised things like tranquillity, and the strangest thing happened: I started sleeping again.

It was like the weirdest form of black magic, but for some reason those soothing scents actually seemed to have an effect on me and it wasn’t long before I was relying on them when I was feeling stressed or overwhelmed, or when I needed a kick of energy or sunshine.
Suddenly I was hooked on massage therapy AND essential oils. And then I heard about adult colouring books.

Yep. Colouring books for adults, the latest and hottest trend in publishing circles. Not the colouring books of old, these ones feature patterns of mandalas and paisleys, supposedly designed to calm and soothe stressed and anxious adults.
I liked colouring as a kid, and to be honest I was still colouring long past when most children give it up, but colouring as an adult of a certain age? I was beyond skeptical and into scoffing, but when I found myself in front of a display of colouring books in a local bookstore one day I couldn’t help but be enthralled.

One adult colouring book of whimsical designs and a package of 60 colouring pencils later and I was hooked, as I watched Netflix and coloured while my anxieties and worries of the day drifted away, finding myself focused on just the right shade of crimson red for a flower and the perfect shade of soft green for the leaves. Having little artistic talent of my own to paint or draw I found it incredibly freeing to release what little I had in a colouring book, taking me back to an era when bills and deadlines were something adults dealt with and I could just live in the moment.
Massage therapy, essential oils and adult colouring books. Suddenly all the black magic and mumbo jumbo I had been dismissing made sense to me. I had never for a moment considered that any of these things, let alone all three, could enrich my life and actually increase my happiness and yet each and every one had become something I no longer considered superfluous but essential.

I pride myself on being non-gullible, one of those people who doubts everything until it is proven and who scorns those who fall prey to the obvious scams in this world – but recent experience has shown me that there is a difference between gullibility and being open to new ideas. How often do we close ourselves to new possibilities by being unwilling to consider they may be beneficial? How often do we take a leap of faith in the chance it may be a success?
All I know is I am now a fiendishly colouring, hooked-on-essential-oils devotee of massage therapy – and I am far more open to new ideas than ever before, thanks to simply considering the possibilities instead of shutting down my mind. As Shakespeare wrote: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, and just maybe those things we dismiss as “black magic and mumbo jumbo” are some of them.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

We Got 99 Problems, But This Ain't One

When I read commentary about our community I usually do my very, very best to be objective and see it from the point of view of those making the comments. I work extra hard to see it through their lens and to see if their comments have any basis in reality, and, on occasion, they do and I find myself thinking of ways we can improve our community to address the valid issues they have raised.

And sometimes instead I just think: "hey, if you think we are so bad, don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out of town, eh?".

That happens to be what I thought when reading a Letter to the Editor in the Fort McMurray Today from someone who apparently was in town recently as their childr(en) competed in the Western Canada Summer Games.

Now, I happen to know that there are people out there exhausting themselves to make these games a success. They are putting in 18-hour days for two weeks straight, and some of them are spending their vacation time to volunteer. They are the ones at every venue, at every event, at every single hour of every single day working their asses off to welcome those visiting our community and to ensure they leave our community having had a great experience, and one to remember with pleasure. But it seems that at least one visitor, rather than acknowledging the hard work that has gone into these games, has instead chosen another tactic.

The complaints listed are three-fold: the increased price at a local hotel during the games, being honked at and witnessing an arrest. I'd like to address these in order:

1) Peak times at hotels: Ever gone on a cruise in the winter? Flown at Christmas? Stayed at a ski lodge during Spring Break? Guess what: hotels, airlines and other tourist related services charge more at peak times. It's the way the world works, even in Fort McMurray, Alberta. It's just one of those realities of life you need to build a bridge and get over, because it is simply the truth and a matter of economics - businesses will charge more when they can. It's kinda how they stay in business, really, charging more at peak times and less when they need to drum up some business.

2) Being honked at: I've been honked at, too. In several cities and towns, in fact. I mean, the audacity of someone not only owning a jacked-up pickup truck, but then HONKING at someone from inside it. I mean the very nerve...oh wait, the missing part would be WHY they were honking. Generally speaking if I tell a story like that and leave out that key detail it is probably because I did something idiotic and got honked at, but adding that detail would lessen my righteous indignation, so there is no good reason to include that, right? Right.

3) Witnessing an arrest: I have kinda lost track of how many arrests I have witnessed in my life. Not here, mind you, but in other cities and towns where I have seen arrests outside bars, restaurants, casinos, malls and in one memorable instance a very popular children's restaurant in Edmonton. People get arrested, every day. It's why we have this thing called "jail" and these nice people in uniforms we call "police officers".

It would seem the letter writer was sort of scraping the bottom of the barrel for their righteous indignation and complaints about their visit in our community. I notice they did not comment on the Games themselves, the staff of said Games, the volunteers, the opening ceremony extravaganza, the venues or any of the other myriad things that would be tough to criticize in any honest way because they have been, frankly, spectacular. No, the visitor to our community reached as far as they could to find things to complain about, because apparently this was the first time in their entire existence they had a) been charged more for a hotel at a peak time, b) been honked at, and c) witnessed an arrest. One must wonder if they have lived a very sheltered existence if this is true.

I am genuinely sorry that this is what they based their sentiments on our community on - because apparently they couldn't see the forest for the trees. Sure, we have some issues in our community, but the ones they identified are so far from being any of them it is actually a bit amusing to a long-term resident. One must also wonder if they actually never wanted to come here, didn't intend to come with an open mind and had no intention of deviating from the stereotypes they already had playing in their head when they drove into town. And I am actually truly sorry that they missed out on enjoying an experience that can be amazing if you open your eyes, your heart and your mind - because that is what Fort McMurray has been for me, and for so many others, too. We are not perfect - but we are truly unique and worthy of looking past hotel prices, honking and an arrest to see the strong undercurrent of community in this place.

But, enough ink wasted on this, as for the most part what I am hearing from visitors is how amazed they are by our community, how it is not at all what they expected and how grateful they are to have had the opportunity to visit to learn more about us and to experience our big spirit and our energy. We know enough in this place to know that we cannot allow the sour grapes of one individual to colour how we feel about ourselves or our accomplishments, and so I hope that every single person in this region continues to take great pride in the Western Canada Summer Games, the team that has brought the games to life and the thousands of other residents of this region who have welcomed our visitors with open arms - and I hope we continue to be kind and grateful to those who have chosen to visit us, too.

And while I am taking the high road here to some degree I must admit there is a small part of me that secretly wishes we could line up every jacked-up pickup truck in this town along Highway 63 as our letter writer departs, giving them a salute of thousands of wild honks as they leave town, just to say "Buddy, we got 99 problems in this town, but this ain't one".

Update - On occasion we all react in haste and do things we regret - and I am pleased to update this story to include a link to an apology from the author of the original letter of complaint. It takes a person of integrity and character to recognize when they have been unfair, and I would like to thank him for both his apology and his subsequent kind words about Fort McMurray.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Embracing the Changes - Jubilee Plaza and Snye Park

To be very honest my original intent was not to spend my few days off this summer in Fort McMurray.

I had made plans to fly to Kelowna to visit my sister, spending a few days with her in that lovely location, but as the date for my trip began to approach things in my life changed and I realized I didn't feel like leaving home.

The reasons are complex, and undoubtedly I will share them in a future post, but the reality is that I just wasn't up to even the minor stresses of flights and airports. I needed some time to decompress, and, to be very frank, I needed some time to remember why I fell in love in with Fort McMurray. I needed an actual staycation.

I always thought the staycation concept a bit weird - I mean, aren't vacations about going somewhere and doing something new? How is staying home doing anything new? Except in my case I had the opportunity to explore some new things in Fort McMurray, which is exactly what I have been doing with my time off, as well as revisiting some perennial favourite spots, too.

Monday morning found me bright and early at Jubilee Plaza on Franklin Avenue to check out our newest - and perhaps most exciting - local and independent coffee shop. Blue Mountain Bistro has opened up, and what an incredibly refreshing advance it is for us. Instead of a chain coffee shop, BMB has brought the rhythm of Jamaica to downtown Fort McMurray (the owner also happens to operate Chez Max, the new Jamaican food joint in the Towers). The vibe, with the wide open atmosphere, sunshine and smiling staff is laid-back, friendly and casual, bringing a new vibrancy to the Plaza.

When Jubilee Plaza was envisioned I suspect this is what they had in mind, and it is finally a vision coming to reality. I sat in the early morning sunshine with my coffee, reflecting on what an idyllic little spot it is for a coffee shop/bistro, and quietly observing the "weather catcher", a public art piece that has elicited some local controversy.

The weather catcher certainly looks like steel scaffolding, but when operating apparently sprays  fine mist down below, and given the exceptionally hot and sunny plaza this would likely provide some relief on days when it might otherwise be a bit unpleasant. It wasn't misting when I was there, but I couldn't help but reflect on the fact that public art of this kind is often controversial (remember 'Traveling Light', the giant blue ring in Calgary?). There are many who decry this structure in our downtown core, deeming it ugly, unappealing, too expensive and useless, but then again the same accusations have been levelled against a lot of similar installations and public art pieces (except for the very safest and most innocuous pieces, which is how you end up with those ghastly and terribly inaccurate-in-detail dinosaurs all over Drumheller). I found the piece rather interesting, to be honest, observing the sunlight reflecting off the steel and wondering if the mist creates small rainbows as the light passes through the fine water. Some day I will return to find out.

As I sat and enjoyed the new coffee shop and the plaza I realized how just one small change can truly act as a catalyst. It was clear employees from local businesses were gathering at the new coffee shop too, starting their days in the sunshine at the small tables in the shop and the ones at the plaza. Suddenly a space that was, for the most part for many years, under-utilized was bustling in a way few places do in our downtown core, and it was incredibly exciting to see as one can only hope this energy continues to grow.

Once my coffee was done I headed down to another new spot - Snye Park. I had been seeing photos of it on Twitter for a bit, the new building, playground and park, and I was anxious to see it. When I arrived the kayaking competition at the Western Canada Summer Games was in full swing.

How lovely it was to see the park busy even on a Monday morning, children at the playground, the water alive with young athletes while parents cheered from the shore and the beach volleyball courts filled with teams warming up for their coming games. The building, compact but functional, looks like it will eventually host a cafe as there is a small space designated as a kitchen and another space designed as a cafe, along with some offices. I explored a tiny bit, just enough to satisfy my curiosity, and then I went out and sat on the grass for the moment to watch the kayaking.

I observed the children on the playground, the people sauntering along the boardwalk and the fans gathered for the kayaking event and again I thought about how even such small changes can create such a large impact. Ever since I arrived here, 14 years ago, I wondered why we did not maximize the usage of our waterfront, a natural focal point for our community. Having grown up in Saskatoon I had always had such waterfronts as part of my life, places for picnics and outdoor play, places for quiet Sunday afternoons and sunny early weekday mornings. A space that had for years been overlooked was coming to life with just a few small changes, but ones destined to have a significant impact.

Some of these changes, from the public art weather catcher to the plaza itself and the re-visioning of the Snye, have generated a great deal of controversy. Change of any sort can be an unnerving, unsettling and disturbing process, whether it is in our community or in our personal lives. Sometimes the change is truly for the worse, but often it is simply a change that we have trouble embracing because we have become accustomed to the status quo, and we are reluctant to see it change, particularly if there is some risk that it will harm us, not help us. But life is about risk, and change, and moving forward even when it is difficult and even when one is reluctant as hell to take a chance on the changes and see where they will lead you.

Check out the new coffee shop, and the plaza and the weather catcher - and do it with an open mind and heart. Take a walk on the boardwalk at the Snye and honour the past of our waterfront while envisioning its future. Change is inevitable. Some we will like - and some we will not. One short morning in Fort McMurray reminded me that change, whether we like it or not, happens, and it isn't the change that colours the future; it is instead how we respond to it.

It was a reminder I desperately needed, and found it right here, in the often-baffling, sometimes-confusing, frequently-maddening and always amazing place I call home.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Game On, Indeed - The Western Canada Summer Games 2015 Wood Buffalo Opening Ceremonies

From drummers and dancers to stunt ATVs and motorcycles, from parachutists and helicopters to float planes and giant puppets, from sudden blasts of blazing fire to a virtual cannonade of firework blasts, it had something for everyone.

The Opening Ceremonies of the Western Canada Summer Games 2015 Wood Buffalo took over Shell Place last night in Fort McMurray, and when I say "took over" that is so much less than what actually happened, which was a spectacle of light and sound and colour that on occasion left me breathless and not even entirely sure where to direct my eyes as there was far too much to see.

Over a week spent watching the rehearsals from the vantage point of my office, I had quipped to colleagues that the only things I had not yet seen in the ceremonies were ponies and blimps, and that I half expected them to appear at any moment, too. And while no ponies or blimps were used in the production in the end I think it was far more than anyone expected, and far more incredible than anything we have seen in this community to date.

It was an opening ceremony worthy of welcoming 1400 young athletes and their parents and supporters from across Western Canada. They walked into the stadium last night (well, some, in their youthful exuberance, cartwheeled in, giving a pretty good indication of who were the gymnasts in the bunch) and were greeted with shouts and cheers, the kind of warm Wood Buffalo welcome we give to visitors. I was perhaps most excited for them, these young athletes having the opportunity to participate in an event like the Games, not only excelling at their sport but having the chance to meet other young athletes from different cities and towns in our nation.

Photo courtesy of 
Western Canada Summer Games 2015 Wood Buffalo

The few speakers that took stage were succinct and to the point, perfect in tone and pitch and length, allowing the gathered crowd to focus on the beauty of the event and not the speeches (and while I love a good speech, I love short and heartfelt speeches even more).

I suppose I should not have been surprised with how incredible it was, given that PRP (Patrick Roberge Productions), the production company, has in the past been responsible for events like the opening and closing ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, and yet I was in some sense surprised as PRP took an incredible vision for a spectacular show and wove our community, our history and our legacy into it tightly, paying homage to our rich past from the float plane fly-by to the local musicians rocking out on top of a bright yellow loader.

Photo courtesy of 
Western Canada Summer Games 2015 Wood Buffalo

It was very much a Fort McMurray, Wood Buffalo spectacle, designed for and created with the people of this region, showcasing people like the aboriginal drummers who worked so very hard to be there last night (a story I have been following from the beginning, one of commitment and dedication and steadfast devotion to an end goal, all thanks to two people I am honoured to call friends, Sonia and Bill) and like the many young dancers who rehearsed for endless hours to shine on the stage last night.

It was, in a word, magic.

I watched it all unfold and couldn't stop myself from grinning, this foolish, almost gobsmacked kind of grin as a helicopter landed on the berm outside the baseball stadium and the flame arrived to light the cauldron. I choked up a bit to see Elder Elsie Yanik, someone who has touched my heart more than she will ever know, light the flame in the cauldron just as I witnessed her do when the Olympic flame came to our community several years ago.

To all those who contributed to the opening ceremonies, all those who have worked so hard to deliver the games to this community, from the staff at the Western Canada Summer Games 2015 Woof Buffalo to the many volunteers, all the visiting athletes and supporters and all those who attended last night: thank you. Long after the final firework lit up the sky, the energy, vibrancy and enthusiasm of our region and community continued to shine, just as it will for the next ten days and as it will do even after the closing ceremonies signify the end of an amazing journey on August 16.

Last night, though, we officially declared "Game on, Wood Buffalo", and so it is, ushered in in by one of the most amazing, spectacular and sensory-rich events I have ever witnessed.

 Game on, indeed.

Photo courtesy of 
Western Canada Summer Games 2015 Wood Buffalo

Friday, August 7, 2015

Game On, Fort McMurray, Game On

There are points at which I am slightly incredulous at the passage of time, and today happens to be one of those points.

On several occasions  over the time I have been writing this blog I touched on an event that was, at those points in time, a vision, a dream, a hope and then, finally, a plan. Today, on August 7, 2015, it is a reality.
Tonight SMS Equipment Stadium at Shell Place will be filled with a spectacle of colour and sound unlike anything we have welcomed in this region before. It is the culmination of years of hard work and the investment of thousands and thousands of hours. It is the opening ceremonies of the Western Canada Summer Games 2015 Wood Buffalo.

This blog was young and fresh when this idea was first presented to the community. I attended the pep rallies designed to impress the bid committee when they were selecting a host city, and I was there when our success as that host city was announced. It is almost unbelievable to me that tonight we see the official opening of the games, and in two short weeks it will be over, leaving behind only memories and a legacy of that time we had this idea to do something amazing...and then we did it.
Things have changed since the bid to host the games was first proposed. Our community is going through a difficult time, and anyone who tries to deny this is either not being honest with themselves or is seeing through a very different lens than I do. I am not all doom and gloom, but realism must be exercised when I see people I have known for a very long time leaving this community as their employment prospects dim. It hurts my heart to see them go, and I can only hope that when things improve they will return, but I also know the heart of Fort McMurray will keep on beating, because that is just what we do in this town that has seen the peaks and valleys of a resource-based economy before.

It is in times like this, though, that events like the Western Canada Summer Games take on even more significance. Conceived at a time when the economy was brighter, the games remind us that there is more to life than the price of oil. We have the opportunity to come together as a community once again and embrace an event that will bring thousands of visitors to our region to celebrate, to compete and to cheer.
2015 has already been an incredible year in this community. I know there are detractors and naysayers, but to see what has happened in this year as anything less than remarkable truly underplays the magnitude of growth and change we have seen in this region. In the best of times the economy would be more robust, perhaps, but even so we have seen a year that has brought the people of this region amazing opportunities. When I began this blog I only expected to be a witness to them, but thanks to this blog I had the chance to instead become part of some of them.

I won’t deny it. I am so very proud of what we have accomplished in this community in 2015. I am so proud of those who invested their time and energy into the Western Canada Summer Games, not just this year but in all the years leading up to today. I am so proud of all those community residents who will attend the opening ceremonies this evening, the events over the coming days and the closing ceremonies on August 16. I am so proud of all the volunteers in this community and all those who have contributed in any way to delivering the games to this community.
Perhaps the summer of 2015 is not the best of times in Fort McMurray, at least as far as the economy is concerned. But in terms of the community I am not sure if we have ever shone brighter, exhibited more energy, exuded more spirit and shown more pride in who we are and what we do than we have done this year. It is not in who we are during the times of plenty that we show our true character, but in the times of challenge – and during a challenging time Fort McMurray and the Wood Buffalo region continues to stand tall and straight, confident in both our present and in our future.

And so Fort McMurray I get to now write the words I have been waiting for years to write: Game On! Now get out there and participate in this once in a lifetime, once in a community kind of event – and don’t let the summer of 2015 pass you by. This summer, the summer of 2015, is only going to happen once - and it is a must-not-miss event.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The War on Fort McMurray

There was a time, not so very long ago, when I felt much like a soldier in a war. It was not a war of swords or weapons, but rather a war of words when I felt our community was under attack by journalists, film-makers and others who came to the place I have chosen as my home to write salacious stories about our community.

The stories they told often seemed like thinly veiled schemes to expense trips that consisted of visits to strip clubs and bars, their toes never crossing the threshold of places like recreation centres, schools or churches to find stories that perhaps reflected a different reality of life here that did not support their hypothesis that this town was “no place for young men” or the den of lifestyles devoted to “hookers and blow”. I would find myself tracking down the writers, sparring with them on  Twitter or through email, disputing their stories as being only part of the story of our region, one small slice they had chosen to reflect as opposed to the entirety.
And just as I was doing this, so too were others, writers and podcasters and filmmakers, all striving to tell other stories of life here. We didn’t try to discount the ones told by those we sparred with, as we would be foolish to suggest these things didn’t occur here, just as they occur everywhere – but we tried to present other stories, the ones we felt were not being told and that spoke to our community’s heart and our incredible energy and enthusiasm.

After several years of this, after blog posts filled with some degree of anger and others filled with stories that provided an alternate viewpoint of our community I would suggest that something has happened: the war on Fort McMurray is over, and we won.
When the Globe and Mail first informed me they were creating a bureau office here I knew that a crack in the armour of the salacious story had appeared. No longer would the journalists stay for a day or two, just long enough to catch a show at the strip club and maybe a night in the casino. No, they would be here long enough to learn the cadence and rhythm of our community, to explore the stories that others had left untouched as they did not involve sordid details. They would have the chance to see the real Fort McMurray, the blooms and the weeds, the successes and the failures, the triumphs and the heartbreaks, and so they have as recent articles have shown.

Over time I found myself meeting with journalists and filmmakers before they even began to write their stories, working to connect them with people who could tell them a rounded tale of life here. Not a white-washed, picket fence tale of some utopian idyll, but stories of depth and complexity reflecting the true nature of this community. What happened is that the salacious stories became old and jaded, reruns of stories that had already been told, and the media, always hungry for something new, began to tell a different narrative of life in Fort McMurray, one far closer to the truth and the reality that life here is almost exactly like life in every other Canadian community, with both challenges and opportunities.
I found myself sparring less and less and working more and more collaboratively with journalists from around the world. The war was over, and armistice had begun.

Just as in every war there is some soldier left on a desert island who didn’t get the “war is over” memo and who is continuing to fight a battle that no longer exists. Instead of a war, though, we have moved on to a dialogue, not one based so much on our community but focused on our industry instead, and dialogues of this nature are not only necessary but needed for the development of every industry, not just the one we hold dear. One of the things I have fought hardest for is the delineation between community and industry, as while they are connected they are not synonyms, and we have begun to achieve the understanding of that distinction.
Perhaps the war was always in my head, as even when it was being waged I did not feel that those I fought were truly adversaries but rather individuals who simply did not see the larger picture, maybe because they did not have it presented to them. I fought not to prove them wrong but to show them that picture, always ending every single scrap with an invitation to visit again for a personal tour of my community and a discussion on what makes us great – and what makes us troubled, too.

All I know is that I no longer feel as I once did; the sense of needing to defend my community has lessened, although it rises again on occasion when I meet someone who simply doesn’t know anything but the old stories of hookers and blow. There is a new narrative of Fort McMurray, and it has been quietly spreading across the country through those who are telling more complex stories about life in our community, whether they are residents or those who now come not seeking sleazy tales but the truth. And those who do choose to tell the sleazy tales will, I suspect, find less of an interest in their stories and significant pushback from those who have lived and seen a different reality of life in this northern community.

The war on Fort McMurray is over. The stories we have begun to see are more balanced than ever before, and now our only goal should be ensuring a wealth of good stories originating here that not only can be told but cannot be ignored. And in this - and in us - I have every confidence.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

There Are Bad Ideas - And Then There is Killing a Lion

The saga of Cecil the lion and the dentist who killed him has raged on the internet for days now. No doubt hundreds of thousands - maybe millions - of words have been written on the topic, from the unnecessary and deeply troubling death threats made against the dentist and his family (while killing a protected and majestic animal is horrific death threats are no less so) to those who have risen in his defence, scattered as they may be. Wound into the story has been threads of those outraged that we as a society could have so much outrage over the death of a lion, a collective global anger, when crimes against humans often go unpunished.

"Why aren't we as outraged about child abuse? Child pornography? Human trafficking? Domestic violence?" these voices cry, as if somehow the outrage over the death of one lion minimizes the outrage I would suggest most people feel about those very issues. I think that for most of us, though, we feel powerless in the face of those issues because we don't know how to address them. They anger us, they sicken us, they torment us, and they are entirely too close to us as we know they are happening in our own communities, as opposed to the death of a lion in a country far, far away. We can express our outrage over the death of a lion because it doesn't require us to try to consider how to stop it, other than vowing to never trophy hunt lions ourselves, as opposed to thinking about issues much closer to us and finding the bile rising in our throats as we recognize how woefully powerless we feel to combat them.

I am not upset or angered about the collective anger over the killing of one lion. I am troubled at the threats and the vociferousness of some, but instead I am genuinely relieved that the death of a lion in a country far away elicited a strong response in our hearts - because it means we still have them.

Let's be honest: thanks to the internet we are now deluged on a daily basis with horror. My timeline fills daily with horrific things, the sorts of things that smash you upside the head and make you almost wish you had never known them. I now know the terrors experienced by children all over the world as they are forced into slavery, the pain experienced by millions for various reasons, the agony they is enough to make one numb, and it is the numbness I fear the most for us, because constant exposure to such horror can make one numb and incapable of feeling empathy.

I have had friends who have worked in difficult professions, medicine and law enforcement, for instance, who "burned out" and left their professions when they realized they no longer felt anything for the suffering of those they encountered. They had been so exposed to these horrors that they became numb, disconnected from our basic instinct to feel empathy for the pain experienced by another. One of my fears is that social media has the capacity to do this on a massive scale, exposing us on a daily basis to such horrific occurrences that they stop being horrific and instead become commonplace, just a story we scroll by instead of stopping to read and absorb it.

Is the reaction to the killing of a lion that few of us ever saw in a country far away excessive? Probably, particularly when it touches on darker sides of our own nature and we threaten a fellow human and his family over it. But am I troubled that people expressed sorrow over the death of a lion? No, not at all. Better sorrow over a lion than sorrow over nothing, and hopefully this is a sign that our ability to feel and express empathy has survived this brave new world, allowing us to still feel that same kind of empathy for all those other issues that are far closer to us and far more likely to touch our own lives.

The saga of Cecil the lion will fade into obscurity soon enough, as these internet sensations always do. Maybe it will prove the catalyst to enact better protection of vulnerable wild animals, and maybe it won't. Whatever happens, for a brief moment in time at least some of us connected with that empathy that is being dulled on a daily basis by a world awash in tragedies, and we remembered our ability to feel anger, and sorrow, and pain.

We still have our hearts, and whether they are triggered by the death of a lion or issues much closer to home I am so very grateful we have not yet lost them. It is in this knowledge that we should take comfort, as it means we still do have the ability to care about all those issues much closer to us - and act on them, too.