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

Thursday, December 31, 2015

McMurray Musings' Moments: Top 15 of 2015

As I began compiling my top 15 of 2015 I quickly realized one thing: I am absolutely abysmal at math. As I jotted down notes it rapidly became apparent that the list was much longer than 15 moments, but one of my other flaws (in addition to poor math skills) is a stubborn nature that prevents me from whittling things down to fit some arbitrary number (this is how I go into a shoe store with the intent of buying one pair and walking out with three). I am however remarkably good at justification and downright sneakiness, and in order to encompass all my top 2015 moments and memories I decided to stack them into categories, neatly allowing me to cover even more territory and still fit into the number 15. And now that you have that glimpse into my head, let’s talk about my top moments and memories of 2015.

It should be noted that these are MY moments and memories, and as the saying goes YMMV (which actually means “Your Mileage May Vary” but for this means “Your Memories May Vary”). These are my favourite moments, the most compelling and the most meaningful (and unlike many “top news stories of the year”, this one doesn’t need to be read in the tone of Marvin the robot from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which should be a reference you understand and if you don’t you should really read some Douglas Adams immediately).
So, 2015: what a year! These are my memorable moments and events in no particular order:

1)      igNIGHT – The second year of the annual public art display featuring lighted artworks was, in my opinion, even more spectacular than the first. In a community still struggling to understand what is and is not public art (e.g., Weather Catcher = not public art), igNIGHT was another step in the evolution of developing our appreciation of the concept of public art. It lit up the cold dark nights in our community and allowed hundreds of residents to enjoy public art – and frankly it was a true delight.

2)      Communities in Bloom Committee – At the end of 2014 I was appointed to the CIB Committee, and while still very much a novice horticulturalist I have over the past year developed an even deeper appreciation of the work of Wood Buffalo Communities in Bloom. About far more than pretty flowers, CIB encourages residents to not only beautify but to develop pride in our region. My fellow committee members are people I have come to not only respect but admire, and my time on the committee will continue in 2016, a fact for which I am profoundly glad as I am so very proud of what this committee does in our communities.

3)      Opening of the Redpoll Centre at Shell Place – What a phenomenal moment it was when the Redpoll Centre, operated by the United Way of Fort McMurray, first opened their doors at Shell Place and provided a new home for several local social profit organizations. Having seen the incredible collaborative opportunities found in the original home of the Redpoll Centre on Franklin Avenue, it was a genuine delight to see them in bright, fresh new spaces where they can continue to strengthen our community and work together to make it an even better place.

4)      Elections galore – What an astonishing year it was in politics. From the Orange Crush in Alberta to the Red Wave federally, changes were in the wind and the mind of voters. As someone who embraces the concept of change I welcomed both, although I must admit I was particularly delighted when Justin Trudeau was elected as our new Prime Minister. Having had the opportunity to spend time with him, and to see him interact with the Intrepid Junior Blogger, I had long believed he would be the individual to run our country one day. And now he does.

5)      Each one teach one – When I was asked to teach two courses on Communications through the FuseSocial Academic program I was initially hesitant as I was dubious about both what I had to offer and my skills as an educator. As it turned out it was an amazing experience as it made me realize how much I have learned over the past few years while also recognizing how much more I need to learn. I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity, as someone I once interviewed explained the concept of “each one teach one” to me, and I was delighted to have the chance to live that ideal.

6)      Driving Miss Amelia – Amelia isn’t a person. She is my car, the new Ford Explorer I bought this year through the amazing people at Northstar Ford. And while she isn’t a person she plays a fairly central role in my existence, as she and I have already been on a few adventures, with far more planned for 2016. The very first car I have ever bought on my own, she is named after Amelia Earhart, and despite the onboard GPS I have managed to get lost on more than one occasion, just as her namesake did. But just as her namesake, Amelia and I would rather have fun getting lost than be bored sitting still. Need a new car? Go see Northstar Ford. I cannot recommend them highly enough, as they turned a first-time, terrified and uninformed car buyer (me) into a fan of their incredible service.

7)      Bill 10 – Remember Bill 10? What a gong show that was, and perhaps for me the definitive moment in my relationship with the PC party of Alberta. Ensuring that LGBTQ students have the right to form Gay-Straight Alliances in their schools, regardless of their school district, was simply the right thing to do, despite initial serious missteps from the PC government. I have no doubt this will be ensured under our new NDP government, although there are some in our province (and region) who continue to resist this idea – but then again there were those who resisted the idea of allowing women to vote and black people to be free from slavery. The protection of LGBTQ youth is simply another step in the long journey of civil rights. It’s wonderful to see us making some significant tracks on that path.

8)      Nathaniel Crossley – Once, several years ago, I interviewed a rather shy young boy who was just beginning to do something remarkable by raising money to build wells in Africa. Over the years Nathaniel not only raised a significant amount of money for this cause, but travelled to Africa to see the communities impacted by the wells he helped to build. And this year he was recognized in Washington DC at a gala hosted by Africare, where he was awarded the honour of being named a Young Philanthropist. He is no longer a shy boy, but a confident and charming young man who is still early in his journey of making an impact in our world. I can’t wait to see where his adventure takes him next, and I am beyond honoured to have been even a very small part of it so far.

9)      Jeremy Snook – One evening this fall I sat down and did an interview about another young man, but this time he wasn’t present to tell his own story. Instead his parents, Brian and Gail, shared his story with me, one that brought me both to tears and to awe as they told me of their son who died at the age of 19 from an incurable form of brain cancer. It was one of the most profound interviews I have ever done, and gave rise to what is likely one of the most personally meaningful pieces I have ever written. I was humbled to be given the chance to write it and to share the story of a very unique and beloved young man who lived his life with no regrets and no excuses.

10)   Grand Opening of Shell Place – Official disclaimer: these comments are reflective only of me and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer. Now, that being said, one of the most incredible moments of my entire year was standing on a stage in the middle of the Baseball Stadium at Shell Place and watching as over 2400 community members cut the ribbon marking the official opening of Shell Place. It’s a good thing I was the MC that day, as that is likely the only thing that prevented me from bursting into tears due to being overwhelmed by the emotion of watching hundreds of local students and community members help to open the very facility they will enjoy for decades to come. Both personally and professionally it was a pinnacle, and one moment in time I will never, ever forget.

11)   Snye Point Park – While some of the plans for the revitalization of the city centre of Fort McMurray came to an abrupt halt, the completion of Snye Point Park in time for the Western Canada Summer Games was a remarkable achievement. As someone who grew up in Saskatoon, a city famous for the bridges and riverside parks it boasts, I had long wished to see the waterfront in our community truly reflect what a gem we have right in our downtown core. One day this summer I watched some of the water events at the Snye and marvelled at how this development would change the enjoyment of our waterfront for decades. Bravo to the RMWB and all those involved in ensuring Snye Point Park will be a prime destination for both community residents and visitors to the region.

12)   Wood Buffalo Food Bank – Spending the last year serving on the Board of Directors at the Wood Buffalo Food Bank made me not only appreciate my own good fortune but made me truly grateful for the hard work and commitment of the staff of this organization. One of my favourite memories from this year will always be driving the Hospitality Van with my fellow board member Dennine Giles during the annual Syncrude Food Drive, delivering hot chocolate, coffee, cookies and deep gratitude to the many volunteers who supported the drive this year and helped to fill the shelves at the Food Bank. I am humbled to be able to serve this organization, and so very grateful for what they do, and I am reminded on a regular basis of what an incredibly generous community we live in.

13)   SPCA Vet Clinic – I admit it. When SPCA Executive Director Tara Clarke toured my colleagues and I through the new veterinary clinic at the SPCA I kinda got all teary-eyed. Maybe it’s because three members of the Triple M Zoo – Sirius the cat, Smaug the cat and River the ferret – all came to us from the SPCA. Maybe it’s all those years I spent managing vet clinics and my memories of how veterinary care truly makes the difference between life and death for the precious creatures who entrust their very lives to us. Maybe it’s because I know how hard the staff at the SPCA work, and how devoted they are to their mandate. Whatever it is, I got all weepy over the sight of x-ray equipment, a surgical suite and all the materials needed to ensure the good health of every animal that enters the doors of the SPCA. I am so proud for them, and of them, too.

14)   Bo Cooper – What a sad list this would be if I didn’t mention one of the most remarkable things I have EVER seen in my fourteen years in this community. The way an entire region has rallied to raise funds for a young man facing the fight of his life is not only astonishing but heart-warming, particularly given that the need comes at one of our most difficult economic periods. It is one of the most stunning things I have ever witnessed as people from every demographic come together to fight for and with Bo Cooper. Our hearts and minds are with him and his family, and his fight has become ours, too. There aren’t even enough words to really capture what this has meant, as one has to see it and feel it to understand the magnitude of the impact this has had on our community.

15)   Never a dull moment – First, go back and read my disclaimer on Number 10. Now, let’s talk about a year filled with some of the most memorable events ever seen in this region. From the Grand Slam of Curling Syncrude Elite 10 to the Monster X Tour, from two CFL games to a concert featuring legends of rock Aerosmith, from the spectacular Western Canada Summer Games to the Fort McMurray Half Marathon to the announcement of the arrival of WMBL baseball in Fort McMurray, it has been one heck of a ride. Some of the events found me at the very middle of them, like when I got to spend the day being Kevin Martin’s tour guide (quite a coup for someone who knows very little about curling except the joy of small town bonspiels) or when I got to spend the day working as local crew for Aerosmith. I got to put members of the media into a monster truck and grin as they shrieked when it tilted them around the corners at full speed, and I got to be there when the green and gold of the Edmonton Eskimos hit the field at Shell Place. I was there when the spectacle of the opening ceremonies of the 2015 Western Canada Summer Games unfolded before me, and it was a pure joy to simply be a spectator and stand there in awe and wonder. I will never forget the moment when a fan saw me walking onto the field at Aerosmith and ran up to me, recognizing my blue jacket, and thanked me for helping to bring the act to Fort McMurray. I stood and watched as Steven Tyler performed under the setting northern sun. From the events in which I was directly involved to the events at which I was only an attendee, I was honoured to have the opportunity to be there at all and to see them taking place in Fort McMurray, Alberta: my home town.

So, there you have it. That’s my list, my top 15 of 2015 (don’t bother pointing out the bad math and calisthenics I went through to fit it all in). Yours might be different, although some might be the same. For me, though, 2015 was a pivotal year in my life, both personally and professionally. There were hard moments, too, and ones which carry sad memories. Fundamentally though I believe life is a game of perspectives. When the moments that take your breath away outweigh the moments when the breath has been knocked out of you I think you can count it as a good year – and so 2015 has truly been an amazing year for me, despite the occasional dark moments. One can look back in sorrow at all the things that went wrong, or one can reflect on all the moments that touched us and changed us from who we were into who we are today. This list is my moments from 2015. Perhaps it will inspire you to pause and reflect on yours, and to remember yet another year in this place blessed by the abundant boreal forest, the dancing northern lights and the most remarkable people I have ever had the privilege to know.

Happy New Year, Fort McMurray!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Definitive Fort McMurray Story

There is no use denying that 2015 has been a difficult year in Fort McMurray. I think most, if not all, residents have felt the impact of the external forces that bear down on us in the form of the price of oil and the resulting economic challenges. Most of us have seen neighbours, friends and families lose jobs - or we ourselves have done so. Perhaps it is just me, but on occasion I have wondered about the strength of our community, worrying it will be too fragile to withstand many more of the blows of layoff notices and cancelled or delayed projects. It is not because I have a lack of faith in us, as my faith is abundant, but rather that I have reached an age where I know there can be a limit to resiliency, a point at which even the resilient and determined simply walk away to seek an easier path. It has been a trying year, one not made much easier by the media coverage of our current economic woes.

Fort McMurray is an unusual place, the kind where external media comes during our high points to point out our flaws and during our low points to document our fall. There have been so many who have come to this place looking to write, record or film the "definitive" story of our community, with titles like:

Down and Dirty in Fort McMurray
No Country For Young Men
Fort McMoney

And in recent weeks this included articles and pieces from every outlet from BNN to many others almost gleefully charting the fall of the price of oil and the impact on Fort McMurray; the impact on us - the people in this community. Each and every story, while perhaps catching a glimpse of some sliver of life in this community, has by and large missed the mark of capturing the true narrative of Fort McMurray. As we approach Christmas, though, a remarkable story has been developing. It is a story that, perhaps more than any other, captures the true nature of this place.

Over the last few weeks there has been a movement in this region that defines us more than any external media outlet ever could. The drive to save the life of one man - to raise the funds he desperately needs to secure experimental treatment in the United States for a rare form of cancer - has become the heartbeat and pulse of our community.

Bo Cooper, a 26 year old firefighter and MMA combatant, is in his third fight with this beast of a cancer, but he is not alone. He fights now with an entire community of people, or, as I have come to think of it, "Bo's Army".

And an army it is. From bake sales to wine raffles, hockey games to GoFundMe, donations of services to donations of goods, this entire region has come together in the most astonishing way to attempt to raise what can only be considered a staggering amount of money (over $500,000 is needed) - and we are doing it during one of the most difficult economic periods in our recent history.

If one wants to find the definitive story of Fort McMurray, this is it. I would suggest the children who empty their piggy banks for Bo, the businesses who donate their profits for a day, the individuals who organize hockey games and raffles, the groups who make cookies and cabbage rolls, all of it to benefit one young man who is fighting a terrible disease: THIS is the narrative of Fort McMurray.

It's not about drug sales, but bake sales. It's not about criminal acts, but acts of kindness. It's not about this being no place for young men, but rather about a young man who was born and raised here and for whom this place is home. It's not about tawdry nicknames acquired because of our greed (Fort McMoney?) but rather about using our money - even during a difficult time - to save the life of one of our own.

2015 has been a difficult year, and at times one in which I feared our fragile fabric would unravel under the weight. But this year has also been a hallmark year, as it is the year when we have come together - from every demographic, every age, every cultural group, every walk of life - to bond over one individual and his family. Perhaps most remarkably many of us don't even know him, but it doesn't matter, because he is one of us and that is all we need for reasons.

In the future when external media comes calling (and they often do) I would suggest that the story we collectively point them to is this one. Far from the strip clubs and local bars, far from our societal woes (incidentally the ones we share with every community), this is the true and definitive story of our community, a place where there might be big wallets but there are even larger hearts, and where even when the wallets get smaller our hearts just get bigger. It is in this we take pride, not our incomes, our big trucks, our houses or our "things", but in our ability to coalesce behind one young man and his family to give him a fighting chance, and to become Bo's Army.

The fight is not over, of course. For Bo a significant battle still lies ahead. For this community our battle goes on as we continue to raise the funds he needs, and while we are doing so we are repairing the rips 2015 has torn in our community fabric. We are rebuilding the faith, the trust and the belief in each other, in ourselves and in our community, as we know that even in the dark times we can be the light. We are now, day in and day out, creating the definitive story of Fort McMurray and our region, and it is not one based on the price of oil, the price of houses, the price of cocaine or the price of drinks in the local bars. It is based on the priceless nature of our hearts and souls, and the indomitable spirit of a community that has been bent, but not broken, in 2015.

2015 will not be remembered as the year oil tanked. It will not be remembered as the year Fort McMurray died. It will be remembered as the year an entire region came together determined that one young man would have the chance to live if we had any ability to change his destiny, and then we did whatever it took to ensure he had that chance. 2015 will be remembered as the year of Bo Cooper, and how while we were fighting to save him we began saving ourselves, too. It will be remembered as the year that instead of falling apart, we fell together.

And that, my friends, is one helluva definitive Fort McMurray story, and one we continue to tell.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Why Bah Humbuggery Has No Home This Christmas

I was quietly whiling away my time in the big chair at the dentist’s office, watching CBC with some degree of general disinterest until a story popped up about the recent WestJet Christmas video. This video, the latest in a long string of such videos for WestJet, portrayed Westjet employees around the world performing small acts of kindness in celebration of Christmas. But the commentator and expert the CBC invited in to chat about the video wasn’t there to talk about the charming nature of the video or how it embodied the essence of Christmas. No, they were there to discuss how WestJet was marketing to all of us, pulling on our heart strings with their poignant video and suckering us into what is fundamentally an advertising campaign.

Well, duh. It would seem the only person who thinks anyone might be fooled by what WestJet is up to might be this supposed expert, as anyone over the age of 8 would recognize marketing when they see it. Far from being the unintelligent masses, people are more cognizant of marketing than ever before, and nobody would claim that what WestJet is doing is solely for the benefit of those receiving their acts of kindness. But the truth is, we aren’t being suckered into anything, and in this instance we are quite okay with this kind of heart-string tugging marketing because it has both practical purpose and poignancy.
As someone who now works as a professional communicator and has learned a great deal about marketing I have come to understand that part of building a brand is evoking a feeling in the people who interact with your brand. WestJet, through these videos, has done a bang-up job of connecting their brand with the concepts of kindness and generosity. Only a Grinch with the smallest of hearts would quibble with the feel-good nature of the actions of WestJet, and only a true cynic would be unable to find something redeeming about them.

There are other videos out there, too. And yes, they are all also marketing and designed to evoke feelings in us while developing brand recognition and loyalty. And so what, exactly? What kind of Scrooge sits around and watches these while picking them apart (apparently the kind of Scrooges who appear on television to comment on these videos)?
It’s (almost) enough to shrink one’s heart to those Grinch-like proportions. Instead, however, I choose to watch these videos, some that make me laugh and some that make me cry, putting aside that cynical side of my brain in favour of the one that says that even if I am being marketed to, it’s okay because there is true good will and kindness behind the marketing campaign. Even marketers are real people, and I can guarantee that creating these campaigns with a difference touch their hearts, too. We can be both pragmatic and poignant, both marketed to in our brain and touched in our heart – it does not need to be either/or.

These are some of my favourite videos from this year. To the Bah Humbug Scrooges out there who view them with cynicism all I can say is I am so sorry you are so lacking in Christmas spirit that all you can see is marketing when others see kindness and joy. Christmas is the one time of year we can put aside the cynicism and embrace the poignancy – marketing campaigns and all.

Monday, December 14, 2015



I have a clock in my house. I know most of us do, but as opposed to a digital clock I have quite deliberately purchased one of the old-fashioned kind, where the hands tick-tock out the minutes, sounding a bit like a heartbeat. I find it both soothing and sobering, as the clock is a reminder of the passage of time, and the precious nature of that time. Our time upon this earth is finite, and the tick-tocking of my clock reminds me of this fact every day. Recently the tick-tock has come to mean something else to me, too.
Approximately ten days ago I sent an email to our Albertan Minster of Health, Sarah Hoffman. It was in regard to a post I had also written very recently, and touched on the ability of the provincial government to potentially save the life of a member of our community by agreeing to fund an experimental cancer treatment he can only secure in the United States.

To date my email has gone unanswered. On Friday I took to Twitter to ask why this email had gone unanswered and why this government was dragging its heels on making a decision that could save the life of Bo Cooper, a young man who, through his work as a firefighter, risks his life to save others.
The Alberta NDP government was elected in this province on the winds and promise of change. I dearly wish the answers provided to me by the Minister of Health thus far were reflective of this change, but instead they are the same tired old answers we have received from the other politicians running this province for decades.

In response to my question regarding the time it was taking to reply to my email I received this:


Of course thousands of Albertans, including myself, receive dozens of emails daily – but we do not have an entire staff of communications professionals to respond to them. No, we are expected to respond ourselves in a timely manner, and this sort of tardy response cannot and should not be excused by the volume of correspondence one receives, particularly when one has staff dedicated to formulating the responses.
And then there was this:

And there it is. The standard government hand-off, the suggestion that Ministers don’t actually make decisions but instead leave those crucial, literally life-and-death decisions in the hands of committees. It is the ever so traditional and predictable “fobbing off” of responsibility, abdicating any sense of ownership of it despite the fact that the Ministers in our provincial government are, by virtue of their roles, among the most powerful individuals in our province. Incidentally we don’t elect committees of doctors – we elect individuals to represent us and make decisions such as this one; and to make the kinds of decisions we ourselves would make.
When a government claims to bring change one could expect this kind of change would include choosing to be bold leaders instead of passive followers. Alberta Health Services has shared that they will not fund Bo Cooper’s treatment because it is “experimental”. One should keep in mind, though, that most standard cancer therapies were at one point considered experimental. When one faces a choice of no treatment and a certain (and dire prognosis) versus an experimental treatment and a chance (particularly when the treatment has been showing strong results) it would seem prudent to choose the experimental treatment – as what is there to lose, really?
It would seem our government of “change” might not be as committed to this concept as one would hope. This is an opportunity for a Minister of Health to make a bold decision, one that may be criticized but that will also be widely praised, and that could save the life of a 26-year old man who would undoubtedly risk his own life to save hers should the situation be reversed. But the only risk the Minister of Health needs to take is a financial one – and by making it she has the chance to truly be the kind of agent of change one wishes to see in this world.
This past week I have been watching that clock in my house, but now the sound has taken on a darker tone. I am so very proud of my community for coming together to raise the funds necessary to ensure Bo Cooper has a chance at treatment, but I am dismayed they have to do this at all when we have a government that could embrace this as a chance to show the actual nature of change. Every day, every hour and every minute has the potential to change the future of one young man, his family and perhaps this entire community and province.
Tick-tock, Minister of Health. Have the courage to be a Minister of change, or simply fall to the side as others have done in the past, wringing your hands about how sad this all is and how you empathize with the family, never once acknowledging that you hold the power to change it. One day when this narrative is told it might well be one in which a community came together to save a young man while a government stood by, willing to let him die while they hid behind committees and a lack of conviction in their own ability to effect change. What a sad indictment of a government elected on a promise of change that would be.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Thoughts on Chinooks, Climate Change and DiCaprio

Dear Leo,

I was horrified to hear of your recent close encounter with climate change in Alberta. How shocking it must have been to you and your film crew to discover that Calgary, despite your beliefs, seemed to be subjected to sudden gusts of warm winds that would melt all that perfect snow you needed for your film. And really, how inconvenient for you, since you were filming a movie and obviously climate change was at work and getting in the way of your craft.

Except, um, Leo? Calgary and surrounding area has a long history of these things called chinooks. These are gusts of warm ocean air that come in over the Rockies, bringing with them moderate temperatures and yes, melting snow. And they happen often enough in Calgary that they even name shopping malls after them. Yep, they are just that ubiquitous.
And those locals who told you this “never happens” in our province? I hate to say this Leo, but I think they were having a bit o’ fun with the visiting movie star who they hoped was gullible enough to believe this was the evil of climate change at work, and not a naturally occurring phenomena that has been around since, oh, the Rockies popped up on the landscape. And yeah, we do think that kind of gullibility is rather funny, so sorry about that. Our bad.

But I get it, Leo. It makes a good story, full of moral righteousness and indignation at a world that seems bent on warming itself out of existence, because you have WITNESSED CLIMATE CHANGE – except that false outrage, like mistaking chinooks for signs of climate change, doesn’t do much to convince anyone of your credibility.
And, well, it kinds makes people snicker, too.

Leo, I have no doubt you and your crew totally thought this was unnatural and aberrant weather in Calgary, although if you were really looking for snow you should have come a bit further north where it is far more predictable (we don’t get chinooks here in Fort McMurray, Leo, but then again you visited in the summer). Truth is you probably wanted some snow and some cold for filming, but not TOO cold and not TOO much snow, right? So you picked Calgary, but honestly every single Albertan (and most folks from the prairies) know that snow and cold in Calgary is about as predictable as movie stars getting their facts straight. It’s a hit and miss kind of thing, really.
And it’s actually a bit cute, in an “aw, lookit Leo, he thinks chinooks are climate change” kind of way, but then again I doubt you were going for the cutesy factor and hoped instead to be seen as a serious warrior in the battle against climate change. You probably should have checked your weapon headed into battle on this one, though, as it appears somebody gave you a Nerf gun when you thought you had a rifle.

Oh Leo. I’m not one of those who says people should stick to acting or that they don’t know anything, but on this one I am a bit embarrassed for you. I have to wonder what the environmental cost was to move filming your movie from Alberta to Argentina (did you move your equipment and crew there on pedal bikes, Leo?) and what kind of research your crew did when picking Calgary for a cold, snowy film destination when anyone could have told you that southern Alberta can have quite mild winters, including chinooks.
But hey, thanks for the laugh, Leo. I can’t wait for your next visit to Alberta. You might want to stay away from the locals, though. I think they’ve pegged you as an easy mark now, and there is no telling what they will try to tell you next. Like if they tell you to pull their finger, just don’t do it, Leo. And if you do, that warm gust of wind that follows? That’s not climate change, either.

Trust me on this one.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

1 Vending Machine, 3 Coins and A Month of Giving

It was late Friday evening and I was leaving Wal-Mart with some cat slippers under my arm.

No, not slippers FOR cats, as everyone knows cats would never agree to wear slippers, but cat-themed slippers destined for the Intrepid Junior Blogger’s feet. As I was heading out the front door of the store, though, my eyes were drawn to the vending machine just outside and I noted a piece of paper taped to it.
Curious, I drew closer and realized there was also change taped to the machine, along with a very brief note: “Merry Christmas - Enjoy a drink!”

I stood there for a moment and felt this warm glow spread over me, and then I pulled out my cell phone and snapped a photo. I left the note and the cash, of course, hoping it would be found by someone who would appreciate the kindness of such a small act just as much as I did.
I posted it on Instagram and Twitter, and almost immediately someone responded that this was one of the acts mentioned on a “calendar of giving” that was going around. I asked them what this meant, and apparently it was a sort of Advent calendar in reverse, one that instead of dispensing chocolates for every day leading up to Christmas instead suggested an act of giving one could do every single day during the festive season.

I found several other examples of these calendars, including one that was sent to me directly. I was delighted to see how simple some of the suggestions were, and how they tied into the true meaning of this time of year – which is not of receiving but of giving to others.
It is funny how the smallest of things can warm our hearts. 3 coins and a small note taped to a vending machine has left me smiling for days, wondering both who left the coins and who eventually used them.

It has been a difficult year in our community. There have been some hard moments, ones which almost took my breath away as the place I know and love went through the pains that come when an economy you cannot control turns on you. It has been a learning year, too, and some of the lessons have been hard ones. It has been the kind of year where simple acts of kindness, like coins taped to a vending machine, become moments to warm your heart and smile.
Thank you, Fort McMurray. Thank you to the kind souls who practice acts of kindness every day, thank you to those who have just kept going this past year and thank you for continuing to believe in our community and each other.

You truly are the most amazing place and people I have ever had the honour to know.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Fight of His Life

I can usually gauge the level of community interest and investment in an issue based on the emails, messages and phone calls I receive on said issue. In the last week or so I have been virtually deluged by these types of messages, and they all begin in very similar ways:

“Bo Cooper is a friend…”
“Bo Cooper is a colleague…”
“Bo Cooper is someone I went to school with…”
“Bo Cooper is this really great guy I know…”

And then this introduction sharing their connection to Bo is followed by the fact that Bo Cooper, a 26-year old man born and raised in Fort McMurray, a member of our local fire department and a beloved member of our community, needs help.
Bo was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in 2011. In October of this year Bo learned his cancer, which had been in remission after two previous bouts, had returned.

That Bo Cooper is a fighter cannot be doubted – and I mean that quite literally, as Bo is a devotee of martial arts. In fact, Bo has competed as an MMA fighter, meaning Bo is no stranger to battle, including the two battles with cancer he has already faced and won. But now Bo is in his third fight with this horrendous disease, and the rules of the fight have changed.
Bo has received his lifetime limit of chemotherapy. Currently his best hope for treatment lies in the USA with promising, but experimental, medication. This is, quite literally, the fight of his life, but this time Bo needs all of us in his corner.

I think one of the common misperceptions we have under our health care system is that all health care – whatever is required, whenever and wherever – will be funded by our government system of universal health care. Sadly, this is not true, and in Bo’s case his friends, family and colleagues are now facing the significant challenge of raising the funds to ensure Bo has access to the best possible ally he will have in this fight, medical treatment in the USA.

I will share with you in a moment how you can help Bo, but first I also must insert my own thoughts on this in light of our new NDP government in Alberta. As someone who was born and raised in Saskatchewan, the land of Tommy Douglas and the original home of the concept of universal health care in Canada, I must wonder where exactly our new NDP government is in all this. Bo Cooper’s family and friends should be spending this time caring for Bo and for each other, not desperately trying to raise funds to allow him to access the only treatment that may save his life, and yet here we are. Our new government has an opportunity to do the right thing here, and to follow in the footsteps of the great Tommy Douglas, the man to whom they owe their origins. For this government to deny Bo Cooper the financial assistance he requires for medical treatment goes against the very concept of universal health care, and I consider this one of the first tests of their commitment to their principles, the people of this province and most specifically the residents of this region, who risk losing one of our own should they refuse to fund his treatment. I ask the Government of Alberta to give serious consideration to this matter, because how they treat it will likely impact how this government's adherence to their own guiding principles is seen.
Now, how can you help Bo? I am going to ask you to do two things:

1.       Visit this Facebook page where you can see all the different fundraising efforts taking place. It can be as simple as a straight donation to his Go Fund Me account or participation in one of the many events taking place. And make sure you share the information, too, on your own Facebook and other social media.

2.       Email the Minister of Health for Alberta, Sarah Hoffman. This issue is not limited to Bo Cooper, and while this time it is his family and friends scrambling to raise funds for life-saving medical treatment next time it could be yours. Mention the history of the NDP, universal health care and Tommy Douglas, and ask if the NDP government of Alberta intends to “walk the talk” or if they plan to hide behind governmental bureaucracy while Albertans like Bo are forced to worry not only about their health but if their finances are strong enough to save their life. Maybe you are reluctant to make this a political issue – but let’s be clear: it is one, and we deserve some answers on it.

Unlike all those who emailed me, messaged me and called me I don’t know Bo. However, I know that anyone with a network of family, friends and colleagues that strong and large must be a special individual. I also know that Bo, as a firefighter, would risk his own life to save mine or yours. Firefighters are a unique group, the ones who run into buildings when everyone else is running out, the ones who place themselves in danger when everyone else is trying to escape it. For that alone I think we owe it to Bo to ensure he receives the best possible treatment he can get, and his best chance to win this fight. This is one fight, though, where he cannot be in the ring alone. He needs all of us there with him as he battles a foe more formidable than most of us will ever face. The only question I have is: will you stand beside Bo in the fight of his life?

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Most Precious Gift

On occasion I am given a gift. It is a truly precious one, and a gift I treasure for years to come as it means more to me than others will likely ever know.

Perhaps for some this kind of gift involves diamonds or rubies, furs or luxury cars. But for me, as a writer, the most precious gift I can ever be given is the opportunity to write a story that is so personal and close to the hearts of others that every word I write becomes both a tremendous responsibility and a privilege.

So it was with a recent story I penned for YMM Magazine. Early this fall, long before the snow now on the ground had arrived, I spent two hours with three people who had a more profound impact on me than anyone has had in years.

The truth is there were really only two people I was interviewing, but the third person, their son, was so present in the room that I could feel it, even though he was stolen from them and our world some time ago. The time I spent with Brian and Gail Snook allowed me to not only come to know them and learn what remarkable people they are but it allowed me to come to know, in some very small sense, their son Jeremy. The loss of Jeremy is one we should all mourn,  because there is no doubt he was a very special, wonderful and truly unique young man. I will always regret that I did not know him - and I will always regret that this world lost him.

You can read the story in the most recent edition of YMM Magazine at the link below. What you cannot read, though, is the unwritten story of Jeremy and his parents, forever imprinted on my heart when they gave me the honour of not only telling me his story but allowing me to share it with others. To say I am grateful is far too little - I am so very truly honoured to know Brian and Gail, and through them to know a young man who lived the kind of life I embrace: no regrets, and no excuses.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Close Your Left Eye

 Close your left eye.

Now keep it closed for a minute.

An hour.

A day.

A week.

A month.

A year.

Sixteen years.

Now you are me.

Sixteen years ago I developed the first signs of the chronic eye disease that has led to a cascade of complications, including scarring of my cornea, glaucoma, and a corneal perforation. I have undergone countless tests, had several frightening and painful medical exams and procedures, dealt with daily medications (both topical and oral), and seen numerous specialists in the field of ophthalmology - retinal, corneal, glaucoma and more.

And for the last sixteen years I have been functionally blind in my left eye, although for the last 14 months quite completely blind due to the medical grade cyanoacrylate glue (aka "crazy glue") used to plug the hole in my cornea and obscuring my vision entirely. I am now considering a corneal transplant in the next year or so (as my current "eye guy" says we can just keep putting crazy glue in my eye, or we can "go big or go home" and try for some actual vision through a cornea that once belonged to someone else).

That I will ever see again from my left eye is, at best, uncertain. And it is a reality I have been trying quite hard to deny for some time.

About 2 weeks ago I received an invitation to attend a session being held here by representatives of CNIB, the non-profit organization that seeks to provide support to persons living with vision loss. I was hesitant to respond to it, not even RSVPing as I was unsure I would attend, coming up with so many reasons not to go.

Work. Being tired. Just not believing it was necessary,

But lurking was the real reason, of course. Hidden away, even from myself, was my reluctance to identify as someone with vision loss.

I have written about my eye disease before, but always in the most cavalier of fashion, if truth be told:

Hey, I might be blind in one eye, but the other one still works! 

Hey, it could be temporary and after a corneal transplant I might have normal vision! 

Hey, so what if my depth perception kind of sucks and people who sneak up on me on the left side can startle me as I have no idea they are there until they enter the peripheral vision of my right eye! 

Hey, so what if my eye is often red, frequently sore, tearful in bright lights and looks completely weird due to the spot of crazy glue you can clearly see! 

Hey, so what if my balance kind of sucks and even walking on uneven pavement is kind of scary because there is a real chance I could fall because I can't detect the difference in depths!

Hey, so what if the glue could pop out and my cornea perforate again, leading to another urgent trip to Edmonton to shove glue in my eye while I lie on a gurney in a cold operating room and am completely awake while they poke at my eye with needles and the freezing that should eliminate the pain doesn't always work!

Hey, these constant trips to Edmonton are no big deal, waiting in "the big chair" to see my corneal specialist to determine if the glue is still holding or if the eye pressure has skyrocketed or if I should begin thinking seriously about what a corneal transplant will mean (lengthy recovery time, time off work, inability to drive, months of frequent rechecks, chances of rejection, risks of surgery) because it has now become an EMERGENCY and I need am immediate transplant to save my eye at all! 

And really, a corneal transplant is NO BIG DEAL, amIright?!?

The lies we tell ourselves can be the most painful ones to recognize.  Last Thursday morning I went and met the very nice folks from CNIB Edmonton, and they were kind and respectful. I spoke to them and to the main presenter, a man who lives not only with significant vision loss but deafness, too.  It was a big step for me, because it pulled me out of the constant chatter of how this was all okay and no big deal and not a big part of my life and into finally acknowledging that the last sixteen years have been one helluva journey, and one I would not wish on anyone.

I am, currently and potentially forever, blind in my left eye. One of my greatest fears is something happening to my other eye, a fear I avoid even thinking about often. But last Wednesday night when I lay awake and thought about whether or not to attend the session with the CNIB I thought about that fear, and how losing all my vision would impact my life, And I thought a lot about my vow to never let fear rule my life ever again, a vow I made years ago but that neglected to consider an eye disease that would be permanent.

I am not alone. There are others in this community with vision loss, some who are seniors and some who are not. I worry about those in my life and this community who forgo frequent visits to the optometrist and who may have silent eye diseases they won't know about until it has already affected their vision. I want to learn more about CNIB and the services they offer to those with vision loss, because if my vision loss is permanent it seems perhaps I should be exploring what exists as support for people like me.

People like me, with vision loss. There. I said it, and maybe now it will seem real to me instead of something I prefer to gloss over as being unimportant.

Close your left eye. Now you are me. And even if you are me, or like me, a person with vision loss, it is going to be okay. I promise.

PS:  If reading this blog has ever meant something to you, then do me a favour: get your eyes checked annually. Even if that is the only "real" thing I can ever do for you, that is quite enough for me. Your vision is precious. Trust me on this one, if not on anything else. Now go call the optometrist.