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

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.

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