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
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.