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.