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.