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.



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.