She’s So High

Any minute now, I think.

Any minute I will feel them pricking the corners of my eyes, that painful feeling of impending tears you are trying to snuffle back and failing. After all, there she is in her cap and gown, looking somehow very similar to the way she looked for her kindergarten graduation and yet in some way more than a decade has passed and she looks different, too.

Older. Wiser. Sort of like an adult, which makes sense as she is just months shy of her 18th birthday.

But as I sit in the uncomfortable seats for the hours in which it takes over 500 students to walk across a stage (and as her last name begins with W I have plenty of time to contemplate) I find myself not even close to tears. Instead, I feel overwhelmingly proud and excited, not for me but for her as she steps from one path onto another.

When my daughter chose to finish her final two years of high school education in Calgary, I was devastated as it meant she would leave my home to live with her father. It was both the most difficult and best thing I have ever done to let her go, as she has always been mature for her years and she knew she was ready for a new challenge and different opportunities. It was a hard transition for me as I was not prepared to see her go, but as someone said to me once, what good are wings if you are afraid to fly?

And for my daughter’s entire life, my goal has been to help her find her wings.

Until the age of thirty I did not want to have children; in fact the idea seemed foreign to me and my life was completely centred on myself. But when I turned thirty for some strange reason the idea of raising a child became more and more compelling, and at the age of 33, my daughter was born.

People told me it would change my life, and they were right, far more right than I ever could have anticipated. The arrival of my daughter changed everything.

When my daughter was two, we left the small town in Ontario where she was born and moved to Fort McMurray; it was a place I had never even seen, but there we were. And so it was she grew up in this northern community with dancing green lights in the sky above and lush green boreal forest all around.

As I sit there and wait patiently for her name to be called to accept her diploma, I think about what it takes to raise a child. And the truth is that it takes far more than a parent; it takes a community. It takes a village, as the cliché states.

In our case, it took Fort McMurray.

I am so deeply grateful for all of those who participated in raising my daughter, whether directly or indirectly.

There were the teachers and administrators at the Fort McMurray Public School District: Beacon Hill Public School where she was a Bear from kindergarten to Grade 5, one year spent at Timberlea School, three incredible years of growth at Ecole McTavish Junior High and one year of young adulthood at Westwood Community High School. There are so many unforgettable moments at each school, principals like George Decker who told me once that she would change the world one day and Scott Barr who shared with her and I the vision of every student becoming a global citizen; teachers who shared with her their passion and enthusiasm and taught her not only to read and write and multiply and divide but to think; and school environments filled with a desire to do what is best for kids, my kid being one of the many to pass through those doors and be forever better as a result.

There were all those who provided her with opportunities I could not, like the time it was “take your kid to work day” and she declined to accompany me to my job as she deemed it dull (!) and instead spent time at a local radio station and the food bank. I will never forget picking her up that day and being told how Jerry Neville taught her about radio advertising demographics, Ferne Wynnyk talked politics with her and Arianna Johnson took her to a bank appointment to discuss finances for the food bank. When I commented that I had assumed she would be sorting cans at the food bank, she looked at me with exasperation and said: “You know, there’s a lot more to running a food bank than food.” Indeed.

There were the extracurricular activities, like figure skating with the Noralta Skating Club which eventually gave way to piano lessons and then to things like helping to co-found Fort McMurray’s first GSA, her passions changing and evolving as she did.

There were the political campaigns she worked on, delivering flyers and knocking on doors, celebrating the successful election of her candidate; and there was the time she was given the opportunity by a local magazine to interview Justin Trudeau, then the Liberal Party leader who gave her thirty minutes of his time and a memory for her entire life.

There were the meetings with famous musicians and with Chris Hadfield, one of her most thrilling moments given her keen interest in space exploration.

And all those moments, every single one, happened here in Fort McMurray.

And perhaps some of the most powerful for her was when my life changed and she watched how I embraced this community through my written work and it welcomed me, giving me the kind of opportunities others could only dream about. She saw how I was able to grow and evolve, and how I was determined to give back to the community which has given me – and her – so much.

When she chose to relocate to Calgary, I considered moving there, too. But when I approached her with the idea she looked at me and said: “I think I will be happy in Calgary, but I think you will be happy where your heart is – and that’s Fort McMurray.”

And so part of my heart went with her as she moved on and part of it stayed here, still being her mom but parenting from a distance while she grew even more…

Finally leading to a stage in Calgary where her name is called, and she walks across, accepts her diploma, smiles for a photo, pauses to have her tassel moved to the other side and then exits the stage, beaming the kind of smile of accomplishment and wonder I have come to know so well over the last 17 years.

Not a tear was shed that moment, not by me or her as we celebrated the end and the beginning. In the fall she moves on to her chosen university with a generous scholarship, ready to pursue her degree in mechanical engineering and then perhaps on to aeronautical engineering and maybe one day, just maybe, working in a space exploration program.

That I am proud of her should come as no surprise to anyone; but I am also so proud of Fort McMurray and grateful, too. While she did not graduate here, she is undoubtedly a Fort McMurray success story, and when asked where she grew up the name of this northern community will be her response.

It takes a village.

It takes a community to help a child find their wings, and this incredible community helped my daughter to find hers. She took flight before even I was ready, launching herself from the safety of the nest in Grade 11 when she chose a bold new adventure, and she has been flying high ever since.

So to all of you I say thanks: to the community leaders and builders, to the educators and administrators, to everyone who touched her life directly and indirectly: thank you. I know there are moments when we wonder why we are still slogging away at what we do, occasionally feeling defeated and wondering what our purpose is; the purpose can be found in the success of every child who grows up here and finds their wings, even if it means they one day fly away from us.

And as my daughter flies away, she takes with her so many of the lessons she learned here: integrity, strength, perseverance, resiliency, enthusiasm, responsibility, tenacity, courage and determination. She is the very reflection of the place where she grew up, and now she shares a bit of who we are with the world; and I believe the world will be better for it, too.

She meets me after the ceremony, cap in hand. She looks at me and grins, saying: “Did you cry?”

I wrap her in my arms and whisper: “There is nothing to cry about today,” and at that very moment I suddenly feel the tiniest of tears in my eyes as I watch her soar ever higher once again.

This is the song that came out around the time of her birth;

I played it again and again as I held my infant daughter,

never realizing how high one day she would fly.

    Sam Wells, Class of 2017

Hope – and Home – in the Dark

Hope in the Dark, 2012

When I open my eyes, I can see the green shimmer of the Northern Lights dancing above me; for a moment I consider pulling out my cell phone to snap a photo, but decide instead to simply enjoy the show before hunkering down once more in an attempt to sleep.

My pillow has gone askew again and my neck hurts; one of the mittens on my hands has gone missing, and I think my right hip is now on top of the flashlight I have tucked inside my sleeping bag to ensure I can find it during the night. It is my fifth adventure at Hope in the Dark, and like every other year it is both the most uncomfortable and humbling experience I have ever had.

In 2012, I attended the first Hope in the Dark event hosted by the Centre of Hope, the daytime drop-in facility for the homeless and at-risk-of-homeless in our community. My decision to participate that year was one made due to some new connections I had found through the team at the Centre of Hope, who welcomed a fledgling writer into their midst to learn about what they do. What I discovered was not only an incredible team of professionals caring for some of the most vulnerable in our community, but also an entire culture that until then I had only known from the very margins. Through conversations with local homeless individuals I came to understand the many reasons for homelessness: mental illness, physical disability, substance addiction, domestic violence, child abuse and more. I heard the kind of stories that opened not only my mind but my heart, and made me realize the line between those who were homeless and all the rest of us was a thin one indeed.

The opportunity to take part in Hope in the Dark was a chance to learn, for just one night, what it was like to sleep rough in our community. And the experience was so compelling that I have done it every year since, with the exception of last year when the event was cancelled by another event that, for a brief moment in time, perhaps helped us all understand what it might feel like to be homeless.

In May, 2016, we fled our community with only what we could fit in our cars, forced out of our homes by a fire so ferocious it threatened our entire city. There was a period in which I suspect all of us wondered if we would have our homes to return to; and for that split second of time, that fraction of a moment, I think we saw a slight glimmer of homelessness. For most of us it was  brief and replaced by gratitude that our homes had survived; for some the worst came to life and their homes were snatched from them by a fire so animate it earned it’s own nickname. Suddenly all of us, no matter the outcome of our personal experience, were reminded of the power of home.

On May 27 last year, I was preparing for my return home, stocking my car with supplies and steeling myself for whatever lay ahead. This year on May 27 I drove home to Fort McMurray from a trip to Calgary to see my daughter graduate from high school, anxious to be here in time to sleep rough in a park. Yesterday morning I loaded my car with my suitcase loaded with dresses and blazers, a separate bag loaded with shoes and all the bags and bags of shopping I had done in Calgary; yesterday evening I loaded it instead with two small bags carrying only what I needed: a sleeping bag, a tarp, some warm socks, some mittens, a flashlight. The contrast was stark indeed. When you are homeless you travel light, with only what you can both carry and protect.

This year at Hope in the Dark I was missing the sidekick I have had for the past few years, though. For the past three years my daughter has attended the event with me, often doing her homework late into the night inside a cardboard box lit only by her flashlight. This year she was in Calgary studying for her diploma exams as her life moves into the next phase: university.

Last night the team from the Centre of Hope extended an invitation to me to speak at the event, and it was truly an honour to do so. And when I did, I spoke of the remarkable work they do in our community, and of how grateful I am for how they welcomed me so many years ago and taught me about homelessness in our community.

And I spoke of my pride in my daughter, fresh from celebrating her recent graduation. I spoke of how I am proud of how she has done throughout her academic career, but also how proud I am of her compassion and her keen in interest in social issues. She moves into the next part of her life journey knowing that she has a responsibility to make a difference in this world, and I spoke of how I believed her participation in events like Hope in the Dark fostered this understanding in her.

I spoke of how I would miss her last night, and so I did, missing seeing her cardboard box beside me as it has been for several years, knowing that inside the box lay a small human creature who cared for others and who understood that as a human who had been the beneficiary of much privilege she now had a duty to pay forward to others what she has received through her life.

When I awoke in the middle of the night and saw the dancing Northern Lights, shimmering far above me and yet seeming so close I thought I could touch them, I thought of all I have learned since 2012.

I thought about how in 2012 we held a memorial moment for the 32 lives of homeless individuals lost on the streets of Fort McMurray since 2005; I thought about how now in 2017 that number has sadly climbed to 83.

I thought about how I began my adventure at Hope in the Dark in 2012 sleeping on a cold metal bench in an inadequate sleeping bag and how in 2017 I had found a far more ideal formula of a tarp, bedroll and far warmer sleeping bag, learning more every year about how to survive a night sleeping rough.

I thought about how in the last year the concept of home has taken on new meaning and poignancy for me because at one point in time I thought my home might have been lost to a fire that I could not control or change.

And I thought about the other homeless individuals sleeping rough last night, but who would not have the option to leave that park in the morning and drive home to crawl into their warm beds in their real homes, something I knew I would do and this morning did.

I thought about my daughter and how proud I am of her in every way.

And I thought about the nature of compassion and understanding, a gift every single one of us can give freely and that costs us exactly nothing, but enriches us and others in a way we might not even understand and yet is of more value than gold.

After  few moments of watching the green lights dance above me, I adjust my pillow and find my other mitten. I move the flashlight from under my hip and pull the sleeping bag over my head, slipping into the darkness of sleep for a few more moments.

And as I drift off I think of how sometimes hope is all we have, the kind of hope I have clung to since May 3, 2016 when I hoped the best for my home and my community. But what I have learned over the last year is that hope isn’t always enough; most times hope needs to be accompanied by hard work and belief in your ability to make a difference to really be fulfilled.

So it is at the Centre of Hope, where they invest that hard work and belief in their patrons, and where they allow people like me to share in their stories and witness them breathe life into hope. In that humble building on Franklin Avenue, they dispense not only hope but dignity and courage; and I am so very proud to say I have been able to see the difference it has made and maybe over the years, just maybe, add a bit of my own hope to theirs.

And in my final moments before sleep overtakes me I think about my home and am filled with the same deep gratitude I have always felt for it, but renewed powerfully in 2016 and every year at Hope in the Dark. Once again I feel the hope to be found in the dark, the kind that shines as bright as the Northern Lights but can on occasion be just as subtle and elusive; and I fall into sleep, seeing green dancing lights behind my closed lids and holding hope – that elusive, subtle and burning-brighter-than-a-wildfire hope – tight in my heart.


Dear Mom

Dear Mom,

Today is the day we celebrate moms. And while it seems it might be about cards and flowers and brunches, it’s really about celebrating the person who has a tremendous influence over our lives.

I am so lucky you are my mother. I didn’t always feel that way, of course. There were times when I wished you were more or different or other; but as I’ve grown up and become a mother I’ve come to understand that anyone else wouldn’t have been you.

You weren’t the perfect mom. Oh, you baked and cooked and cleaned like the cliche “perfect mom”, but you had flaws, too.

And thank you for having them.

You taught me it was okay to be an imperfect mom.

You were the mom who taught me compassion, to love freely and without condition and to live and embrace without judgement.

In this judgemental world, that’s a tremendous gift.

And when my daughter came along 17 years ago, I worked to bestow on her the gifts you gave to me.

She’s not perfect either. And she knows it’s okay to be imperfect, too.

Today on Mother’s Day I reflect on the woman who gave me not only life but pure love and the ability to believe in myself. There were times the role you took in comforting me was reversed; the final of those moments was when I held your hand as you slipped from this world seven years ago.

But even when you left the world, you didn’t really as your legacy lives on in me and in your granddaughter, who is both remarkably like me and completely different, much like you and I.

I miss you every day. I miss our twice weekly phone calls. And even after all these years there are times I forget you are gone. 

When you died I slipped a letter under the pillow where you laid your head for your final rest; it contained all my love and gratitude, as I wanted you to go wherever you were going knowing that you went there loved. I believe you did, even when I was an imperfect daughter who struggled to express it.

I wish you’d had more time with my daughter. I wish you’d had more time with me. I just wish you’d had more time at all.

But in the end I am just so grateful for all you were and all you did and the time I had with you and all of you that still lives on in the children you raised. You made a difference in the world.

You made every difference to me. 

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. 



Rounding the Corner: The Future Starts Now

I am gazing out the window of my car. I can see the first buds of green on the trees in the distance, and the grass, sharply yellow until just a day or two ago, is showing some sign of the brilliant emerald shade it will soon turn. Spring has arrived in Fort McMurray, and along with it of course came the first anniversary of the wildfire evacuation on May 3, 2016.

And as the trees begin to bud and the grass begins to green, something has sprung to life in me, too. I liken it to rounding a corner; somehow instead of looking back I find myself deeply keen to look ahead.

But in the same way that the trees are a bit thinner this year, and the view has changed in that I can clearly see far further than I once did, I think my personal clarity has become far sharper, too. I can somehow see a bit more clearly now, and certainly more clearly than I have done over the past year when it seems some lingering smoke obscured my vision.

In some inexplicable manner, the smoke cleared for me on May 3, 2017. Perhaps it was when I was able to return to my home that night and sleep in my own bed; perhaps it was even more so when I woke up on the morning of May 4 and realized I was far from the place I was a year ago, both emotionally and physically.

And perhaps it was when I took a moment to realize how far we have come as a community over the past year, and how far we have yet to go.

Someone asked me if it seems like it has been a year since the wildfire, and in truth it is one of those experiences in which time seems to both stretch and contract. It seems like the year lasted 47 months, and yet it seems like it was only days ago that the sky was darkened by something far more sinister than a thunderstorm. It was a storm of sorts, a perfect storm of weather conditions that led to tinder-dry forest and a spark that grew quickly. It was a storm which swirled around all of us and around the place we call home; and just as with a ferocious thunderstorm, it left damage in its wake.

The immediate damage was clearly visible. Thousands of homes lost. The blackened and burned forest. Entire neighbourhoods virtually wiped out and for a time uninhabitable. What was less obvious was the subtler damage, the smoke that infiltrated not just houses but hearts, minds and souls.

A few days ago I took a drive to Abasand and the neighbourhood in which I used to live. The sound of saws and hammers filled the air, and the streets which were so desolate a few months ago are beginning to be filled in with dots and clusters of new homes. These are such encouraging signs, along with the developments in Stone Creek, Beacon Hill and Wood Buffalo.

Far more troubling is the lack of similar progress in Waterways, an area that holds both the history and the heart of Fort McMurray in many ways. This little pocket community continues to struggle with uncertainty and challenges, and it is heartbreaking to see that even after a year construction in that area continues to be slow in pace.

Recently released population figures and growth projections show that the skyrocketing growth we saw in the years of the oil boom are likely past; in fact we may see modest growth followed by some decline and then the eventual flatlining in our population over time, a new prospect for a region that always believed unfettered growth would be our cross to bear.

Instead, as many resource-based communities eventually do, we may find ourselves grappling with the opposite of infrastructure deficits and uncontrolled growth.

The truth is that fire was only the latest body blow in a series that began with the falling price of oil, delayed or cancelled projects and layoffs. It would be foolish to think the problems we are facing, both now and in the future, are completely related to the fire. The fire simply intensified the challenges; and in some ways the artificial burst of employment and activity it will create may mask the harsh economic realities we may face over time. A construction boom will help the local economy for a time, but when the houses have been rebuilt and that lift in the economy has drifted away, then what?

The rebuild of lost homes and businesses is truly only one part of the challenges that lie ahead. Uncertainties such as Bill 21, which would reduce the taxes industry pays to the municipality and thus increase the taxes residents pay, the continued practice of fly-in, fly-out and the tenuous nature of the oil industry present another perfect storm, and one that could leave even greater damage than the fire.

And there is the reality that some of the things we thought true just a few years ago – unprecedented growth, a robust economy, population expansion – may never materialize, and as a community we may need to adjust both our expectations and our plans.

For the past year I have spent a great deal of time looking back and reflecting. But as a full year has passed, I find myself looking ahead and not only to the immediate future but far beyond. During a recent interview, the interviewer asked how I saw Fort McMurray in ten years. My response was that I saw it as a community of individuals who had reaffirmed their commitment to this community and a collective of people who had been through a natural disaster and were wiser for it, having learned the kind of lessons one only discovers in the hardest possible way.

The truth though is that thinking only ten years ahead may well be our undoing; at the same time we focus on the short-term goals of rebuilding and ensuring that every single person who has chosen this as home has a home to return to, we must also focus on the long-term.

I know this: if we rebuild this community in the short term only to see it falter in the long term, then we will have failed. My vision on this point has become crystal-clear, found through the knowledge that we avoided the entire destruction of our community in 2016 and have now been given the chance to not only rebuild it but prepare it for a sustainable, realistic, strong and resilient future.

The strength and resiliency we have displayed over the past year and that will be needed to carry us through the next three to five years as the immediate recovery from the wildfire continues will most certainly still be needed long after the thinned out trees have begun to fill in and the visible scars of the fire have begun to fade. I continue to have great faith in our ability as a community and region to not only survive but thrive, but we can only do so if we recognize that we must begin to look not only into the near future, but into a future for which we as individuals may not even be present. In this place where rapid change and fast-paced growth were the hallmarks of our existence, this kind of thinking may be a bit novel; but it is also entirely critical.

And this method of thought should be guiding every decision, particularly as we find ourselves in a year when the municipal election of our representatives will likely determine what our collective future will hold. The luxuries we had in the past of making mistakes is long over; every mistake made now holds the potential to forever alter the future and affect our destiny as a community.

There is a famous quote that seems quite apt:


My friends, we must think about our future. And the future, as you may know, starts now.


Thank you : Thoughts from a Fort McMurray Fire Viking Warrior

It is a simple email.

It originates from the contact form on this website, and all it really says is “thank you for sharing and writing your experience after the fire this past year – you helped me to find my way through it, too”.

It is one of a few of these I have received, thanking me for writing about my journey and my feelings since May of last year, but these kind people have it all wrong. I am not the one who should be thanked.

It’s them.

My friends, today I am consumed not by thoughts of fire and fear, but of complete and profound gratitude. It’s the kind of gratitude that makes my eyes well up with tears and my head hurt a bit as I try to keep them from spilling over. It’s the kind of gratitude that humbles me in the deepest way, because I know my ability to navigate the past year has been due entirely to others.

It has taken me some time to admit that at various points over the last year – far too many, in fact – I felt overwhelmed. While my personal losses due to the fire were slight, the losses I saw that impacted friends, colleagues and this community hit me far harder than I anticipated.

And so I did what I do, and I wrote it out. The fear, the anger, the uncertainty, the lingering sense of being smoke damaged in every way; when I could I blurted it out onto a keyboard and then sent it into space with the click of the “publish” button.

Sharing my journey has been incredibly healing for me. If it has been of benefit to anyone else, then I am the one who is thankful, as then it means that I have been some small part of helping others to heal, too.

A long time ago I learned the power of words. I learned you can use words to hurt or to heal, to provoke rage or to inspire hope. I made a pledge to always be careful in the manner I used words, because I knew they carried power. I came to understand that words can be a sword used to fight wars, both just and unjust.

Today, as I reflect on gratitude and the power of words, I know the time has come for some long overdue words of thanks.

Thank you to the first responders; firefighters, RCMP, bylaw, sheriffs – You saved my city. I have no doubt of that, and my gratitude cannot be expressed in simple words. I hope it shows in my eyes whenever I see you, because I know it shines in my heart. When I walk the Birchwood Trails, just a block from my home, I think of you and how you fought for all of us. And I always will.

Thank you to the unsung heroes – The municipal workers who stayed behind, the REOC team, municipal government, the industry partners, the camps, the businesses, the essential service personnel; without all of you we would not have seen this community come back to life.

Thank you to “the helpers” – The Canadian Red Cross, the United Way and every single local social profit organization, their boards, their teams and their leaders; they have been absolutely critical and integral and I appreciate all they have done and will continue to do.

Thank you to those who helped me rescue two ferrets and a hedgehog – On that day in May I was forced to leave my caged pets behind, never for a moment believing I would end the day having to evacuate the city completely. My gang was rescued by bylaw, the SPCA and other volunteers, and while I was evacuated kind strangers kept them safe for me until I could reunite with them. My entire fur family and I are so grateful.

Thank you to my friends – You made me laugh, you made me smile, you made me remember that life is good and goes on and that there are people around me who make everything better. I love all of you – you are the family I was not born into, but was lucky enough to find.

Thank you to members of local media – You told the stories of our community with compassion, with understanding and with kindness. And many of you lived through the experience beside the rest of us; I am so very thankful for all you do, and to consider myself your colleague.

Thank you to my family – I have four sisters, along with their families. I love them dearly, as they know me well enough that over the past year they simply let me be, forgiving the lack of phone calls and emails as they allowed me to heal.

Thank you to my colleagues – You will never, ever know or understand how much being part of our team has meant to me this year. Through all the challenges, the tough moments and the good moments, the fun and the work, there we were: together, making a difference every day. And that meant everything.

Thank you to my daughter – You are the reason I do everything and anything. You give me the strength and courage to get up every day.

Thank you to the kindness of strangers – You offered me everything from gasoline and food to a place to stay, shoes to cat food. Your incredible kindness and generosity and simple purity of heart and sincerity will always, always humble me beyond words.

Thank you to this province and country – I have always been proud to be Canadian. I have never been prouder of this country and province than during the past year when I saw my fellow citizens reach out to us time and time again. Your support is how we got through any of this, and I know I am so very grateful for it.

Thank you to my fellow community members – You inspired me every single goddamn day. You got up and went to work or sifted through the ashes of your home or fought with your insurance company or drove your kids to school or went to a baseball practice. You lived, you shared, you just kept going. I am so honoured to simply be among you, let alone be one of you.

On May 5, 2016, I sat down in a hotel room in Edmonton and hammered out the very first real blog post on this website. I sat there, surrounded by three unsettled cats and one anxious dog, crying while I wrote. I had barely slept since the night of May 2, and I had not bothered to shower, dress, eat or think. I was living in terror of what was happening to my community, and I poured out the entire shaky story.

Just hours later, on one of those contact forms from this site, came an email from a stranger in Toronto. She told me I was a gorgeous writer – but more importantly she used the words that would get me through the past year:

You are a fucking Viking warrior.

I read her email once, and then again. I didn’t feel like a warrior, let alone a Viking. I felt hollow, and empty, and sad and afraid and uncertain.

I read her email a third time.

Then I huddled the animals in the hotel bathroom with me. I took a shower and washed off the smoke and the sweat and the tears, and when I emerged I picked up my sword that looks suspiciously like a keyboard and I began writing again.

And I haven’t stopped, and every single time over the past year when I felt like stopping anything – writing, working, thinking, feeling – I told myself I am a fucking Viking warrior.

And I picked up my sword, and continued the fight for myself, my community and our future.

And this warrior thanks you, every single one of you, for reading. It means more to me than you will ever, ever know.


 From one Viking warrior to another.