When my ex-husband visited Fort McMurray recently he commented on how it seemed different. After our divorce, he moved to Calgary and thus was not here as the price of oil slid inexorably down, the layoffs began and the next blow – in the form of a massive wildfire – fell on us. But I knew his sentiment to be accurate, as it would be impossible to deny that the community had changed since that day in May, although I would suggest the changes began long before.
That difference is something I have been carrying with me daily, trying to observe what had changed and why; it seemed the only answer was that we, the people who live here, had changed due to life-altering events and the impact of that change was felt region-wide.
And so it was yesterday I set out on my day, a day I thought would be one of the “new normal” kind of days. But it wasn’t.
My first stop at a local home-based business introduced me to to remarkable entrepreneur who is running a dress shop from her basement. My visit ended with a shopping bag filled with dresses, a tale of a bold entrepreneur and a memory of all the times in my 16 years here that I’ve encountered people like this who shaped our community simply through a new idea or business or adventure.
My next stop found me at the Wood Buffalo Regional Science Fair, a place I know well from the years when my own daughter participated in the fairs. Those projects felt like they took months, although it was likely weeks. There was the one testing glues that ended in every surface in the kitchen being slightly sticky; and from the fossil experiment I still have gobs of hard-dried plaster-of-Paris stuck on my patio. And each fair ended with the exhibition, and I stood there proudly as she explained her experiment to visitors, just as the parents did yesterday as their progeny explained to me their hypotheses and results. I was blown away by the level of intelligence and intellectual curiosity on display; the project on cultural impact on natural disaster readiness in particular struck me as genius. And standing there I knew that these kids were destined for greatness, as I’ve seen so many others from these fairs go on to achieve amazing things (like my own daughter who will begin studying mechanical engineering this fall).
I stood in that room and I could feel myself getting almost tearful without even understanding why; it felt in some strange way like the old Fort McMurray before the fire. I didn’t understand it but I felt it as that youthful energy and exuberance surrounded me, laughter and voices echoing down the hall as I walked away.
And then I visited the Fort McMurray Tourism Spring Trade Show. I didn’t know how I would feel about it, as last year on the final day of that trade show events began to unfold, eventually leading to May 3. The trade show last year ended with a hasty flip from field house hosting a trade show to field house hosting an evacuation centre, and I recalled very clearly how last year I watched water bombers in the sky, fighting the fires popping up around the city. I remember being there as the show ended and walking to my car, finding it covered in ash, and before I could even start the engine my phone rang with the news that evacuees would soon be arriving. For me, it all truly began on Sunday May 1, 2016, as I dropped my purse back in my office and headed back to the trade show floor, this time not to shop but to set up tables and chairs for weary community members who had to leave their homes. Somehow, my instinct told me that day that things were serious and about to get far more so; it wasn’t until May 3 that my instinct clocked me with an “I told you so” as I fled the city late that day.
So how would the tradeshow feel this year, I wondered? Would it provoke memories of that day and would it take me back to moments in time before everything felt different?
The answer is yes…and no. The trade show felt almost exactly as it does every year, but even better. I saw dozens of people I know and met some new ones, including those beginning new business ventures and taking that leap of enormous faith. And it was packed, the line for admittance backed up just as it used to be, and the aisles in between the booths completely jammed with people, most of them toting various shopping bags. It was trade show mayhem at its most glorious, and what was most striking is how it felt.
It felt like the old days. It felt like the days when opportunity and hope and optimism filled the very air we breathed, and when the beautiful sunny sky and warm weather reflected our attitude. Yes, things had changed and we had seen some dark and difficult times, but the sense was of the future and not the past; between the science fair kids, the business entrepreneurs, the frantic shoppers and the smiles and chatter I found it again: the soul of Fort McMurray.
We talk a lot about resiliency and strength. And there is no doubt it exists here, the kind of true grit that would put cowboys to shame. But the real soul of this place is the unrelenting and undeniable hope and optimism of the people.
That’s what I felt in that basement dress shop, the science fair and the trade show; hope.
It was the kind of hope and optimism that has always been the hallmark of this place, but that over the last few years – and particularly the last few months – seemed dimmed by the darkness left behind by the flames, much like the ashes the fire left behind covering the forest floor. But just as fresh shoots of greenery poke out from the ashes, so too are fresh new glimmers of hope and optimism poking out everywhere.
And I can see them growing and I know they will blossom, both the tender green shoots in the forest and the tender fresh hopes of the residents of this community. As we approach one year I sense a shift, one in which we move to collectively support those still in need and navigating their way through the recovery while we water those hopes and dreams and foster that optimism.
When I reflect on what has changed in Fort McMurray, the obvious answer is I have. And if I have, it seems likely others have too as we each travelled our own path through the unimaginable. I know my sense of hope and optimism was struggling, and on occasion I felt so weighed by the challenges I neglected to see the opportunities. Will Fort McMurray ever be the same? Will I ever be the same?
I don’t think so. The person who existed on May 1, 2016 is no longer. She was changed by the events, and at times the ashes from the emotional fire felt like they would smother her; but they didn’t. What saved her is the kindness of others, seeing their courage and determination and witnessing their unremitting hope and optimism.
What got me through the last year was all of you.
But while I am different – while Fort McMurray is different – I think we are the same, too. We have always been resilient and strong, courageous and tenacious. And we have always known the value and joy of hope and optimism; now we just know that sometimes hope rises from the ashes of what existed before, and gives us the courage to move into a brave new future.
As we head into a week loaded with emotions and memories I find myself no longer dreading it; instead I find myself thinking that we made it, my friends. We did it together and we managed to do it with our hope and optimism intact, as evidenced by my adventure this weekend. That there is still a journey ahead of us is certain. That we can handle absolutely anything is also certain; after all, we already did.
And we did it with the strength, courage, resiliency and unrelenting hope and optimism we have always shown. No matter how we have changed, no matter how Fort McMurray has changed, those qualities? They are as immutable and unchangeable as the flow of the Athabasca and the shine of the Northern lights. They are who we are and what we are; and that will never, ever change.