Vulnerable

Over the past few days, I have watched local social media with a mixture of anger and sadness as our region prepared itself (perhaps “steeled itself” is a better phrase) for the visit of a 16-year old Swedish girl.

From comments that were outright threatening (suggesting dark endings to such a visit) to those that suggested that her “mental illness” (she, like millions of others, acknowledged she has experienced depression and anxiety) somehow negated her ability to form and/or hold an opinion or made her a susceptible pawn, I found the sheer unkindness almost overwhelming.

What I think has been exposed, though, is how deeply vulnerable we feel right now in the Alberta oil sands.

The visits of past celebrities have been greeted with powerful criticism of course, but this visit evoked a depth of anger I had not really witnessed previously. And all those other visits – the actors and directors, the TV personalities, the musicians – well, they were a lot less troubling because of course they had all built their lives and careers thanks to the presence of the very resource they now decried. But this 16 year-old…well, she was something different than them, because her investment in the future and perspective on it comes from someone who will be around to live it after many of us are gone.

But whether you share her concerns or not, whether you think she is funded by some anti-oil machine, whether you think climate change is real or false, the most intriguing part of this has not been what she has said or where or how.

It has been our response to it.

Late last night I could not sleep, as I was recalling days long ago in the veterinary clinics I managed and times when we would be dealing with a frightened animal. I can guarantee you that NOTHING fights like a cat when it is cornered, even when otherwise that little bit of floof is the most loving and sweet little animal one could want. When a creature feels threatened, it does not hesitate to fight back with full force, using every capability it has to ensure it’s survival. After all, that’s how survival works.

And that is when it dawned on me, why I was thinking about those cats, the crazed look in their eyes and their actions often entirely disproportionate to the threat being encountered. They were simply deeply afraid.

And I believe the responses I have seen, the ones that have troubled me so deeply, are simply the human equivalent of the expression of that fear.

We have been through some terrible times in the oil sands in recent years. The plunging price of oil, the impact on the economy and then the subsequent swift punch of the 2016 wildfire that devastated some of our neighbourhoods while also completely breaking our hearts has been almost more than one can bear. We have all seen the impacts of these events, and we have all felt the same fear; the fear that our community might never be the same ever again.

And then, while we are still reeling and trying to rebuild and recover and heal our hearts, a kid with braids and an accent shows up and implies that our industry – the very life blood of our community – is contributing to the destruction of her future.

And we respond with anger, but the truth I think is that that anger is simply a mask for our deep fear and vulnerability, an expression of the suffering we have already experienced and a frustration as we try to move beyond that suffering.

I feel it too.

The difference from the cornered animal, though, is that unlike those desperate cornered cats, we can control our response. It is okay to be afraid. It is okay to be angry. But it is truly in our own best interests to temper that response by remembering that we share this world with millions of others, including a 16-year old Swedish girl with braids, and that we can respect them and their beliefs without agreeing with a single thing they might have to say. We can remember that you can be both pro-oil and pro-environment, taking deep pride in the environmental work being done in the oil sand industry. And we can remember that we as a community have been through so much together, and that we will continue to be there for each other, even – and especially – when we feel vulnerable. Our anger is simply our vulnerability, raw and exposed and tender.

And while we feel vulnerable, we can also feel compassion – for ourselves, for each other, and even for those who differ from us in their opinions and beliefs. We are, in the end, in it together as we all share this planet, just separate corners of it. And all of us, truly every single one of us, feels vulnerable as we know the world can, and does, change in an instant. That vulnerability, though, can be our strength, as it is the tie that binds us when so many other things – our age, our nationality, our beliefs – try to pull us apart.

It is okay to feel vulnerable. It is okay to feel vulnerable as we continue to move into the future of this community – and to know that no matter what is thrown at us we will survive it – together.

Because in our collective strength we also know one thing: we have survived that fear, and that vulnerability, before.

Choreography

I grew up in an era that was largely pre-Internet. Oh, computers existed but the concept of a “world wide web” that would connect every part of the globe was still more novelty than reality; and as I grew older the technology that I take for granted today was growing, too.

There was such heady optimism about the concept when it began; a way to share ideas at lightning speed, to create a global village filled with facts and information and knowledge. The naivete is somewhat astonishing now, as we should have realized that every sword has two edges; the world wide web would prove both the most connecting and yet damaging form of communication we have likely ever found.

And perhaps the most troubling and intriguing is social media, a method of communication that has taken our entire world by storm and changed the way we interact with each other.

A few years ago I abandoned Twitter, having seen it morph from something that seemed largely positive and connecting to something mostly negative and disrupting. I had been quite active on the medium, and had found much to enjoy; but there was a darker side that began to disturb me in ways I could not quite define.

This past summer, I abandoned Facebook for a couple of months, deactivating my account to see what would happen and choosing to disconnect from the social media outlet in order to reconnect with my own world – and myself.

It’s hardly a novel idea, and I am hardly a brave pioneer as many others have taken similar “social media breaks”; and others have completely abandoned social media, decrying it as a “time suck” or as an addiction they needed to resolve. For me, it was just a break, not a break up, but when I returned it was with a new sentiment towards social media and my own relationship with it.

The truth of course is that I do like social media; the immediacy of connection, the ability to share thoughts and moments and photos and stories. But the other truth is that far too often social media is used to cause harm or damage, to attempt to destroy rather than build, to hurt rather than heal, and to misinform rather than educate.

But as I realized during my social media hiatus, I could only control two things: my own social media and my relationship with the medium. I could use the tool as I chose to use it, and ultimately, if the targeted ads and negative memes and other nonsense became too much I could, very simply, walk away.

As a professional communicator, I know the tremendous value of social media. As someone with friends and family flung across the planet, I know the joy of being able to see, in real time, their lives unfold. And yet I also know that when the medium controls us instead of us controlling the medium that we have given away our power.

I often wonder what kind of relationship the next generations – ones like my daughter’s – will have with social media. I am bemused that we, the ones responsible for creating this medium, now decry those young adults who use it as narcissists who must chronicle every moment of their existence. How ironic that we gave them the tool and then criticize that they have used it in perhaps the most expected and logical manner! And yet, I see in them far more skepticism about it too, more cynicism and a far less complicated relationship than people like me, who grew up before cell phones and laptops that fit in a purse and tablets and the internet. I suspect it is my generation who may well struggle with this the most, because we are the ones who transitioned from that time before to where we are now.

Giving up social media for a couple of months was perhaps the wisest thing I have done in years. It was weird at first, reaching for my phone and tapping the Facebook icon only to realize I had disconnected. But as the weeks rolled on, it felt more comfortable; and more natural. I didn’t know what was going on everywhere and nor did I need to, and realized perhaps the adage is true: ignorance may well be bliss.

I returned to Facebook this fall. In fact, you will likely find this piece because you will find it on my Facebook page. And you may think how ironic that is, or how hypocritical; and perhaps it is, but the truth – my truth, anyhow – is that our relationship with social media is a strange little dance for which we must each develop our own choreography.

My dance with social media is my own; I choose the tempo and the steps. And if, one day, I find the music not to my liking, I will simply, very simply, stop dancing.

It Takes A Village

It takes a village.

When my daughter learned she had been selected as one of the 2018 Top 50 Under 50 in our community, this is what I said to her.

My daughter grew up in Fort McMurray. I always knew her future would likely take her away from this community, and so it has as she studies engineering in the sunny and warm community of Kelowna. But while she has left Fort McMurray, it has never left her.

When she first started university, she was asked to deliver a speech to the incoming students who were recipients of major scholarships. When she told me the focus of her speech, I recall feeling such pride; her speech was not about her accomplishments or her plans of future career success.

Instead she spoke about her excitement over what she hoped to be able to contribute to her new community.

And I have no doubt that is because she grew up here, a place that prides itself on contribution – to our national economy, to our social profits, to philanthropy in general and to each other.

When she was named one of the Top 50 Under 50, I knew she would see it as an honour – and a challenge. After all, we can sit on our accolades or we can build on them, choosing to continue to strive to achieve more; and not just for ourselves but for the benefit of others, including the communities in which we reside.

I am pleased to say she is very active in her university community; she serves on the executive of several student organizations while continuing to pursue her degree, because she knows life is about more than jobs and degrees and personal success.

Life is about service to others.

Fort McMurray, the honour my daughter received isn’t hers alone. It belongs to all of you, as you are the village that raised her. It belongs to the Fort McMurray Public School District and Beacon Hill School and Ecole McTavish and Westwood; it belongs to the Fort McMurray SPCA and the Wood Buffalo Food Bank and the Centre of Hope; it belongs to the Westwood GSA; it belongs to all the adults and kids who touched her life when she was growing up and who contributed to who she has become.

And yes, I am proud of my daughter. But I am also proud of Fort McMurray, the kind of place that raises kids like mine and so many more, who take what they learned about contributing in their home town and use that knowledge as a launch pad to contribute to the world.

And yes, I am so proud that when she is asked about her home town, she proudly says she grew up in Fort McMurray. As her path takes her to other places, she and the children like her who grew up here serve as the best kind of ambassadors.

It takes a village. And like my daughter, I am so glad her village has been Fort McMurray.

My Mother’s Voice

The flight was late. And the connection was tight.

We were flying out of Fort McMurray, a plane packed mostly with shift workers heading home after many days away. In front of me was a group of men from eastern Canada; the flight delay meant they had already missed their connection, so in making the best of it they were drowning their sorrows with selections from the airplane bar.

I was in my seat, anxiously eying the time and trying to figure out the chance I would make the connecting flight; it was the last one of the day to my destination, and even worse I had been listed as stand-by on the oversold flight so I would need to plead my case to the passenger service agent when we arrived.

Every second counted.

When we finally pulled into the gate after what seemed to be an endless time on the tarmac, the group in front of me was slow in collecting their belongings; after all, they had missed their flight and so there was no need to rush.

On airplanes, the usual approach to disembarking is to go row by row, waiting patiently for those in front of you to move along.

I am normally a patient person; I am not a line jumper. But this time I did not have the time to spare, and so I grabbed my things and brushed past the group of slightly older and now slightly intoxicated men.

“I guess she must be special to be in such a rush” sang out a voice from behind me.

“Must have some place very important to be,” said another, and a chorus of laughter arose.

The words were like arrows in my back. Despite my hurry, despite my need to move quickly, I paused for a moment. I considered saying something to them, something to answer their derisive comments; and then I straightened my back and hurried off the plane, where I pled with the gate attendant to put me on the flight, to give me the last standby seat.

So I could get there before my mother died.

That is what I would have said to them.

“I am in a hurry,” I would have shouted. “My mother is dying, and I am trying to get home before she does. So I can say goodbye.”

I suspect it would have shamed them; in my experience folks from the east coast of our country are some of the very kindest I have ever met. I imagine it would have changed their attitude, perhaps even provoking an apology; but I did not say those words as while I had thought them I wasn’t ready to say them yet, because it would make the entire surreal experience, which had begun just twelve hours before, real.

In retrospect, I think that experience – a few casual words on an airplane – changed me forever as it proved a lesson I already had known to be true but had failed to yet come to know first hand: you never know what is going on in the life of another person.

My rush to get off that plane undoubtedly seemed rude; it went against the norms and protocol of airplane travel. And yet I am almost certain that not a single person would have resented it had they understood the reason for my hurry, or the nature of my travel.

That I have never forgotten this incident, despite it occurring several years ago, is evidence of how deeply both those words and that experience impacted me.

It is perhaps the moment when I first really understood the need to reserve judgment, to assume goodness, to believe that there are reasons why people do things we may not always understand.

The truth is we may not always know the entire story.

Kindness and compassion cost nothing; and in the absence of the entire story, they should almost certainly always be our default setting. They were something I had always practiced, but after that experience on a plane as I flew to be with my mother before she died they became my guiding principles.

I never wanted to be the person who hurt someone else simply because I didn’t know their story. And we all have a story.

I tell this tale not to shame the men who said those words; and not for some sense of retribution or revenge. I share this tale as we head into a new year as a gentle reminder (both to myself and to any who wish to hear it) that we have the power to show kindness and compassion even when it challenges us to do so; even when the situation does not seem to warrant it.

There was one person in my life who embodied the kind of compassion and kindness that allows us to practice it when we don’t know the entire story; and that person was my mother.

In the end, I boarded that last flight to my final destination, and I had the opportunity to not only say goodbye but to hold my mother’s hand as she left this earth. I learned so many lessons through her death: the tremendous gift of life, even when it is fragile and fleeting; the need to live – and love – every day as if it is your last; and that kindness and compassion are two of the few things we can give freely and without reservation.

And now when I think back to that day on the plane I don’t even hear those voices anymore, the ones that felt like arrows in my back; instead I hear my mother’s gentle voice, filled with the kindness and compassion I now work every day to instill in my own voice – and my heart.

The Best of Us: Remembering Bo

It is a fairly simple plaque; the bronze gleams in the autumn sun as the plaque is as shiny and new as the fire hall it adorns. A small town comes together to celebrate the opening of this new fire hall, but it isn’t just the beautiful new hall they welcome;  it is this memorial to a young man who was, undoubtedly, the best of us.

I have written about Bo Cooper many times; this may seem unusual given that due to circumstances and situation I never met him during his all too-brief time on this planet. But I have met his parents and his wife; his friends, his firefighter family and the many people his life touched.

And when I say he was the best of us, I mean it. Bo was a fighter – a firefighter, a MMA fighter, a cancer fighter – and if there is any word that springs to mind when I think of the people of this community it is that: fighter.

We have fought our way through so much in recent years; economic adversity and a raging wildfire being only two of the things we have faced. And we have met all of these challenges as fighters; resilient, determined and unwilling to ever give up.

Bo was a fighter. He fought for others when he fought fires, and he fought for himself during his battle with cancer. And Bo wasn’t just the best of us.

Bo brought out the best in us.

When I meet people – journalists, visitors – who ask me to summarize this community I tell them the story of Bo Cooper and how an entire region came together to fight with him. The wine raffles, the bake sales, the average, every day person who contributed whatever they could so one young man – a young man they often didn’t even know – could continue his fight.

Bo brought out the best in us; he brought us together in the most remarkable way, and I think sometimes that is what prepared us for how we faced the fire in 2016. We had found such strength in coming together for Bo; and when the fire threatened our community and began to singe the community bonds we had forged, we did what we knew we had to do.

We fought. We fought for ourselves and for our neighbours. We dug in and we dug deep, we found our strength and our resiliency. And we knew we would never, ever give up on each other or this community.

We never gave up on Bo; we will never forget him. I know that even though I never met Bo, he changed me and how he lived – and how this community fought for his chance to live – inspired me.

And I don’t think I am alone. I think Bo Cooper changed all of us, whether he ever intended to, whether he ever knew he would or had, whether he wanted to or not.

Bo was the best of us. And he brought out the best in us, showing us all how to fight and never give up.

Yesterday I was there when the plaque dedicating the fire hall in Anzac to Bo was revealed. It was a beautiful fall day; dozens of community members had gathered and eyes filled with tears as we collectively remembered and honoured this young man.

I wish things were different; I wish Bo were here with us today, with his parents and his wife and his friends and his firefighter family. But life doesn’t always grant our wishes; it is unpredictable and it is undoubtedly unfair. But sometimes in life we are part of an experience that changes us and that, like a stone dropped into a pond, ripples far beyond the original point of impact.

The best of us and the best in us; what a remarkable legacy. What Bo left behind is nothing short of a community forever changed; and forever better. We found our own strength, our courage, our determination and our fighting spirit through him and because of him.

Bo was the best of us; he brought out the best in us. And while I know he was likely grateful for the way this community came together to support him, it is we who should be grateful to him. He showed us who we were and who we could be; and as we fought beside him and with him we learned to be fighters. And while Bo may be gone, his spirit will always be with us, in a community that will never forget – and never, ever give up.

 

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The Death of the Five-Year Plan

Almost two decades ago, when I first moved to Fort McMurray, someone approached me at a house party and asked what our plan was. They were someone who had lived here for awhile, and I told them our plan was to buy a house, and maybe I would find a casual job…and they laughed. They asked what our PLAN was – were we here on the three, five or ten year plan?

I remember how puzzled I was. They went on to explain that virtually everyone who came here did so with a time-limited plan; a built in exit strategy that guided their choices over that time span.

I have never forgotten that conversation, as it had a profound impact on me. Fort McMurray was in a period of prosperity then, and for many years after that continued to be, attracting residents from across the country and around the world; and many of them came with a plan.

The plan was fundamentally based on money. Get in, earn lots, maybe flip a house as the market was then still red-hot and then get out with your cash, often with the intent to go back to where you had come from. You know – to go home.

This line of thinking troubled me as what it meant is that some who lived here on such a plan did not consider this home. Undoubtedly, that shift in thought affected how they interacted with the community. I recall a neighbour who said they wouldn’t volunteer as after all, this wasn’t really home and they wouldn’t be staying past three years. The transient nature of the community was very real and very tangible; people came and went with an intensity that made me often wonder if the Klondike gold rush had felt similar. In this case though, they came to pan for black gold, helping to draw bitumen out of the earth.

And then, as things often do in a resource based region, things changed. The oil industry, once the economic engine of our community and really our country, began to struggle due to low oil prices and high production costs. And with it went the overtime and bonuses and massive wages on which many of those year-plans were based.

And then, the fire in 2016. The economy of oil had set the stage, but the wildfire truly set the play in motion as those who still clung to the concept of the plan found themselves facing a decision: return to Fort McMurray and accept the challenges ahead, or opt out for another life elsewhere?

Some returned. Some left. There is and should be no judgement in that; they made their decisions based on criteria known only to them and valid in each and every case; but I think the fire was perhaps when the concept of the five-year plan finally died.

You see, when I meet people now – people who have arrived after the fire – they never mention the five-year plan. They talk about why they have come here and what they have found since arriving; they talk about what they hope to do. But what they do not seem to do anymore is to discuss their exit strategy based on the concept of getting in and getting out with pockets full of cash, as while we are still home to great opportunity and potential, we are no longer an oil rush city.

And I, for one, do not mourn the death of the five-year plan. It was such an odd phenomenon to me, and one that I think was truly detrimental to the work being done to build our community, because the pattern of thought it encouraged – to consider this only a stopping place, not home – affected the way people invested emotionally.

I am not saying those who lived here under such a plan did not contribute, as I know they did; but what the plan did is limit their ability to commit fully and completely to this place as in the end their mind – and their heart – was elsewhere.

The economic challenges we have encountered, along with the recovery from the wildfire, have not been easy. What I have found is that many of the people who have remained here may have come once long ago on a time-limited plan, but it has long been abandoned. And those who are arriving to this place with fresh new eyes, those who have not seen the times of boom and flames, come with optimism and no time limits; they come because their end goal isn’t necessarily to leave.

I find it tremendously refreshing. The last house party I attended was bustling with people talking about their work, their hobbies, their kids, their volunteerism…and nary one single comment about “the plan”. I looked around and thought about how the transient nature of this community has finally changed; how those who are here and those who are arriving are choosing to call this home, not a stopping place.

It hasn’t come without challenges, and there are undoubtedly more to come. But when I asked someone new to the community about their plan – asked if they were on the three, five or ten year plan and they looked at me with deep puzzlement – I knew that we will be okay, because the five year plan appears to be dead.

And I, for one, won’t miss it.

Pride and Prejudice, YMM

In 1984, an obscure British band named Bronski Beat released a song called “Smalltown Boy”. On their debut album, the song not only went on to secure them fame in the 80’s New Wave scene, it also became an anthem for millions of young adults coming of age in that era. And for some, like me, while it wasn’t my anthem, it opened our eyes to the stark reality of the world: young people felt forced to leave their homes and communities for one sole reason – because they were gay.

In 1984, I was in my final year of high school. Growing up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I had friends who were gay, although the letters we now use (LGBTQ or some variant of) were not yet in common use, and in my limited understanding I believed people were either gay or straight; it’s all I knew at the time. And thanks to my parents, who might have been older, hard-working German Canadian farmer types but yet the very embodiment of never judging others on anything other than their actions (were they kind? Were they friendly? Were they good?), I never judged my gay friends and in my clear naivete thought this was true of others, too.

I left home at the age of twenty, leaving Saskatoon behind as in my existential-crisis-white-suburban-middle-class-straight mind, I knew the answers I sought couldn’t be found there. I went to Toronto for the adventure and the mayhem, to grow up and grow smarter, to finally begin to realize how fortunate I was compared to those who left their families and their communities solely because they were not accepted due to their sexuality.

I never experienced that, as even though I had perfected the 80’s goth-before-it-was-a-thing look, the discrimination I experienced was so mild it was laughable, and in reality it was all a faux-rage based on an appearance I could change in a heartbeat, unlike my friends who would remain gay as long as their hearts beat.

It was Smalltown Boy that woke me up, and as one after another of my gay friends left my city, I knew it was because they felt that had to and not necessarily because they wanted to. To find acceptance and a community, they would go to cities like Toronto and Vancouver and Montreal, places where they could blend in instead of standing out, and hopefully minimize some of the discrimination they experienced on a daily basis.

And I suppose that is one of the reasons I find myself somewhere on the verge of angry and sad tears every time someone questions the need for things like Pride events; because while we have come so far, my little city of Fort McMurray still has a very long way to go.

There are people who claim being LGBTQ is no longer a big deal, and that therefore there is no need for events to celebrate it; and yet I KNOW that there are still smalltown boys and girls in our own community who turn away and run away from this place because the answers they seek will never be found at home in a community where prejudice still exists.

And it takes me back to 1984, over three decades ago when an obscure band wrote an anthem for a generation, and I feel heartbroken that even now the song has relevance instead of seeming dated and reflective only of the past and not the present.

There are so many examples of this; the people who say they are tired of “gay lifestyles” being shoved in their face, and yet who don’t blink an eye at the landslide of heterosexuality in movies, television shows, books, songs and advertising; the people who object to student-led GSAs, which may be the only safe place for our smalltown children to express who they are; the people who suggest there is a gay agenda, despite never being able to articulate what exactly that might be; the people who think being LGBTQ is somehow contagious, as if they can catch it and as if it somehow in some way impacts their own existence, which it does not and cannot unless of course they happen to be LGBTQ.

My parents were simple folk. I don’t know if they know how many of my friends back then were gay; I doubt they cared. What mattered is that I loved my friends, and so they did too, feeding them and helping them fix their cars and giving them a glimpse of the kind of home some of them did not have; and when they turned and ran away from my community, my parents felt their absence, as did I.

And that is why I have become such a staunch supporter of events such as Pride YMM and GSAs in local schools and our LGBTQ community; because until no smalltown boy or girl feels the need to run away from our community, we have failed. Until the day when they leave only because they want to, and not because of prejudice, discrimination and lack of acceptance, we have failed them as the adults upon whose shoulders the present and future of this community rests.

And I refuse to allow us to fail. I believe my home is one of the most amazing places in the world, but it is not perfect, and the ongoing exodus of some of our best and brightest because their sexual orientation differs is sharp evidence of that. And please don’t try to tell me this isn’t happening, as I know it is. I have witnessed it, and no matter the strength of your denial, the truth prevails.

This month we will celebrate Pride YMM. I will be there, as will my daughter. And while I will take great pleasure in the smiling faces and the positive atmosphere, I know I will still on occasion hear the strains of that Bronski Beat song running through my head as I reflect on how much has changed and yet how much has stayed the same; and I will know that true success will only be found when there are no more smalltown boys or girls who need to turn away from their homes, because instead of prejudice all they see is welcoming and acceptance – and pride.