Merry McMurray

There can be no doubt that Christmas is right around the corner; the temperature has dropped considerably, as seems to be the trend for most December 25ths I recall here, parking at the mall has become atrocious and only the brave venture into the grocery stores. The slow slide into the holiday season has now sped up into the final few hours and then…Christmas will arrive in Fort McMurray.

I find myself feeling reflective, as I often do when the year begins to wind down and thoughts turn to the events of the year past and those of the year yet to come; and as I ponder all these things while wrapping gifts and baking cookies and trying to find a parking spot at the mall I find myself particularly reflective on the merry nature of our community.

McMurray Merry, you query? How could we be merry, given the challenges we have seen in the last few years, from economic downturn to devastating fire?

Much like Bob Cratchit and his family in Dickens’ famous tale “A Christmas Carol”, being merry – and making merry – is not dependent on one’s circumstance and status. Ol’ Bob and his family are quite merry indeed, despite their poverty and Tiny Tim’s medical state, while old Scrooge “bah humbugs” through the season despite his wealth and apparent good health (give his advanced age in an era not known for long life expectancies).

What we have seen in the various retellings of this tale is that being merry is not inherent in us; we all have the chance to make things merry, and in particular this merriment seems best found when making it happen for others who may find merriment elusive.

Take, for instance, the local Santas Anonymous initiative. Every year, this student led venture at Father Mercredi High School enables families across the region to enjoy Christmas with gifts for the children and food for the table. In the last two years, the demand on this program has increased exponentially, showing the need that now exists in our community; and just as in every year the students and the staff advisors worked with community volunteers to collect donations, wrap, package and deliver Christmas to hundreds of families in our region. They are indeed the very embodiment of making merry, I think.

And then there’s groups like the folks at YMM Magazine, Hines Health Services and Country 93.3, who partnered this year to develop the Santas Anonymous Cookbook, soliciting recipes from local people, printing them in a small-batch and highly collectible cookbook, and then selling them with proceeds going to support the very initiative I mention above. When they asked me for a recipe I was pleased to send my mother’s famous chocolate chip cookie recipe (although my daughter was mildly aghast when I revealed I had shared this with the world, as she thinks of this recipe as a family heirloom, but she acquiesced when I noted that it simply meant Grandma’s love was going to spread just a bit further).

Of course there is the annual Syncrude Food Drive to benefit the Wood Buffalo Food Bank; this year what a pleasure it was to stand outside a store door and ask people to consider donating. And donate they did, returning to me with hands full of red bags packed with food for the clients of the food bank, providing fresh stock for shelves that often begin to look a bit bare at this time of year.

And then there are the initiatives from individuals, like my friend Blake who just began fundraising this month as part of fulfilling his dream to run the Boston Marathon. Blake, who has endured myriad heart issues, is an avid runner and next year he will run the Marathon through participation in the support of fundraising for rare disease research, advocacy and support; and what could be better than fundraising to support research into a rare disease that struck one of our own littlest community members, Tessa Tough? This past fall I had the great pleasure of seeing Blake run in Fort McMurray Half Marathon and was even able to arrange to have Tessa and her mom Dawn meet him at the finish line to hand him his medal, a profoundly special moment to witness. If there are any people who know how to make merry for others, it is perhaps these kind folks who despite their own challenges find ways to make life better for others; and while this may not strictly be a Christmas initiative it simply shows the generous spirit and kind nature of the people of this community.

And how about local builder Shawn Chaulk and the team at Stratford Homes, who upon seeing on the Facebook page of one client that all they wanted for Christmas was to be home again after losing their house in the wildfire, put in extra hours and time and effort in order to be able to give her the key and welcome her home before December 25 and well before the anticipated key release date?

I could go on and on and on. This year I have friends who will be home for Christmas for the first time since the fire; and I have friends who continue to wait for their homes to be completed. I know people who have family here for the holidays, others who are travelling to be with theirs, and some who will spend it with friends – or volunteering at the annual Christmas Day dinner that feeds those in need of a place to be on that day in our community.

And as I write this, my daughter sleeps downstairs, home after her first semester at University, and my niece is curled up on the couch, here to spend the holidays with her cousin-who-is-more-like-a-sister and I.

I am so very fortunate to have had a part in raising these two remarkable young women, and what I am perhaps most proud of is the way in which they look for ways to enrich the lives of others, regardless of what is happening in their own world. If I have done nothing more than been part of creating more Cratchits than Scrooges, then I think I have done well in this world.

And right here in Merry McMurray? There is nary a scrooge to be found, even when lines in stores are long, parking spots are scarce and the time to Christmas is ticking down.

The final line in “A Christmas Carol” is perhaps my favourite. Scrooge, after learning the error of his ways, reforms and learns to not only embrace but live the spirit of Christmas, and not only one day a year but all year long. And in this same way, I believe it can always be said of Fort McMurray that we know how to keep Christmas well, through making the world brighter for others – on a daily basis, and not just one day of the year.

Merry Christmas, Merry McMurray.

And god bless us, everyone.


No, You’re Weird

Sometimes it’s hard to trace where an obsession began; many begin in some murky past with poor definition. But my obsession with a certain Canadian shoe designer and his remarkably unusual creations began in 1984.

It started with a friend who had purchased a pair of boots while she was in Vancouver. At that point in time in the 80s there is no doubt that I was part of the new wave movement, a sort of post punk precursor to what is now called Goth; it was all black clothing and hair and make up and attitude. The challenge is that I was growing up in a small western Canadian city, and being different was considered more strange than avant garde. After years of being bullied in elementary school for not fitting into the norm, I was rebelling completely, deciding if others thought I could not fit into the box society had created, then I would not only step out of the box but make my own box, paint it black, and defy others to enter it.

But while my exterior attitude was rough and tumble and dark, on the inside I was still that bullied kid who was deeply hurt by their inability to fit in. What was lacking in me that the others had, I wondered?

And then along came a pair of boots that changed my life.

They were black and definitely designed to resemble bondage wear; lots of straps and buckles and fierce attitude. And when my friend realized they pinched her toes, she gifted them to me, and my love affair with John Fluevog began.

You can read the history of Fluevog here. I think it is quite likely that Fluevog, like me, realized early on that he wasn’t like others, particularly when it came to designing shoes. And so instead of trying to fit into a box, he made his own box. In fact, thousands of boxes, blue shoe boxes filled with shoes of the most incredible design and diversity. And somehow, his shoes told me, that kid in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, that I wasn’t alone and that being different wasn’t only okay, it was good.

I wore those boots until they fell apart; until the straps broke and the buckles would no longer buckle. And while I didn’t get another pair of Fluevogs for years after that, I never forgot how the boots made me feel or how they allowed me to recognize that being different was good.

Over the years as I became an adult I lost some of that difference. I found myself trying to fit in and losing some of the unique qualities that made me who I was. It wasn’t really until I begin writing again a few years ago that I began to rediscover that “different” girl inside, the one who had her own box painted black and who defied others to enter it.

And with that rediscovery came the rediscovery of Fluevog shoes. Once again I embraced the love of difference and just as I rediscovered myself, I rediscovered my love of those shoes.

Fluevog is known for some fairly unusual marketing techniques. One of them is the tagline “no, you’re weird”. It’s like the ultimate bully come back, the thing you say to all of those bullies when they say that you’re weird. And for those who love Fluevog shoes it’s become an anthem of why it’s not only OK to be different and weird, but good.

When I became a parent I decided that I wanted my daughter to understand that she didn’t have to be the same as everyone else. I wanted to make her bully-proof, so she would never experience what I had. And so I taught her that it was OK to be different. In fact I taught her that being eccentric and strange and weird was more than OK. It was good. The people who change the world are the ones who aren’t afraid to get outside of the box and, even more importantly, to make their own boxes.

That’s likely how I ended up with a daughter who is fearless, pursuing her dream of mechanical engineering with a hope to one day work in aerospace technology. She has chosen a path that is challenging, but one in which she believes she can make a difference.

And of course she also loves Fluevog shoes. When she moved to university this year she took with her several pairs of shoes, almost all of them Fluevogs. And for all of the major events her life she has worn Fluevog shoes, ever since she’s been able to fit into them. She crossed her high school graduation stage in Fluevogs, she attended her father’s remarriage in Fluevogs, she graduated from junior high in Fluevogs, and they are always at the top of her gift list for every occasion.

In September of this year I learned that John Fluevog, the shoe designer who had helped me to learn that it was OK to be weird, was going to be visiting the new shoe store his company had opened in Edmonton for a public meet and greet. I knew I had to go.

They say you should never meet your heroes; I suspect they say this because sometimes our heroes can disappoint us. Sometimes they are not who we think they will be or maybe they’re not who we want them to be.

John Fluevog was everything I thought and hoped he would be.

In my very brief conversation with him I told him how many pairs of Fluevogs I own, how many years I’ve been wearing his shoes, and how he helped me to understand that it was OK to be different.

And when I told him those things I could see the look in his eyes; it was the look of someone who understands the challenges of being different. He gave me a hug, he thanked me, he signed a pair of my favorite Fluevogs, and he signed a postcard for my daughter to hang in her room at University.

To meet John Fluevog, I took two days off work, drove 4 1/2 hours one way and then back again, paid to stay overnight in a hotel, and found a pet sitter for all of my pets at home.

It was worth all of it.

Even to just have a moment to tell someone that they have made a difference in your life is worth everything it takes. I know there are some who think he’s just a man who designs shoes, someone who sells things for a living. But to me John Fluevog has always been a sort of hero.

During a time in my life when I needed to know that it was OK to be different, I needed role models I could look up to. What could be better than a Canadian shoe designer who was brave enough to not only step outside of the box but to make his own?

And make his own he has. In a time of economic downturn and financial uncertainty, the Fluevog empire continues to grow. New stores are opening up, the latest one in Amsterdam, and the message of being different – in fact being weird – is spreading around the world.

When I posted a photo on my Facebook page of John Fluevog and I, a friend commented that the guy looked weird. I could only laugh. I responded back “no you’re weird” and explained that in the world of Fluevog, being weird was perfect.

It’s been a very long journey from that young girl in Saskatoon who struggled with being different. Along the way I have found many mentors and role models and developed profound respect for those people who are brave enough to be different – and especially those brave enough to be weird. And now I occasionally count myself among them, having rediscovered a box that was always there and the one that was just right for me. It’s no longer painted black, and that girl with the ferocious attitude has instead become an older woman with ferocious compassion, understanding and belief in the value of helping others.

I recognize that you don’t need to wear Fluevog shoes to be different. And I understand there are people who can be different and weird and not need reassurance to know that they are not alone. I have achieved those things now that I’m older, but there was a time in my life when I needed that reassurance. For me it came in the form of musicians, artists, actors and a Canadian shoe designer.

“No, you’re weird”.

It’s like a mantra now. Because in that weirdness, in that willingness to be different, is beauty. What a boring world it would be if we were all the same. My Fluevog shoes do not define my difference, and I no longer rely on them for the reassurance I once did. But they are an external manifestation of that girl within, the one who recognized long ago that she wasn’t going to fit into a box and so she made her own.

Because it’s not only OK to be weird. It’s beautiful, just like a pair of 1980’s Gothic black boots, covered in straps and buckles and with the name John Fluevog stamped on them.

If You Love What You Do…You’ll Work Your Ass Off

The first time I heard the adage “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life”, I probably thought it was absolutely prophetic and deeply profound, a goal to which to aspire; then I started doing what I love and realized one thing:

That adage is utter horseshit.

I know dozens of people who love what they do with intensity, and you know what? They work their asses off doing what they love, because when you love what you do you are constantly driven to do it better.

It doesn’t matter what you do for a living. Doctor, lawyer, landscaper, realtor, writer; if you love what you do, the truth is that you are likely going to work at it harder, longer, and more aggressively than someone who hates it.

Loving what you do doesn’t mean it isn’t work. In fact, achieving improvement in what you do will almost certainly require work, as gaining experience is the only way to improve. Which means doing more, doing better, doing faster and, yes, doing the work necessary to do more better and faster.

So why does this ridiculous adage exist when it seems to imply that people who love what they do don’t think it is work?

I suspect it is to provide some ambition of a zen state in which work is love and love is work and you never find yourself feeling stretched thin, challenged or even slightly overwhelmed; and yet often what we love does exactly that to us because when we love it we care deeply about it, and the things we care deeply about often push us out of our comfort zones.

I love what I do; in fact I love it with intensity and passion. And I work at it every single day because I do love it, and because I know there is always room to grow and improve. And while I do love it, to suggest it is not work demeans it in every way.

Love what you do. Work your ass off at it. And when it feels like work, don’t feel like you’ve failed because some tired and bullshit adage has tried to tell you that loving what you do means it shouldn’t feel like work. Growth feels like work. Improvement feels like work. And work feels like work, even when you love every second of it.

And that’s okay, no matter what some tired, old and very, very wrong adage tries to claim.

Love what you do. And then, get to work doing it.




The Rainbow Connection

Who knew it would be such a powerful catalyst?

I suppose I had an inkling of an idea, a suspicion that a brightly coloured crosswalk could prove both evocative and provocative; what I have only come to understand over time is that the dialogue it inspired proved exactly why its existence is so critical.

Not long ago I wrote about Fort McMurray’s first Pride crosswalk, a brightly coloured rainbow of colour gracing one of the most neglected and ignored crosswalks in downtown Fort McMurray. Even as I was writing that post, the topic exploded on local social media as photos of the crosswalk began to proliferate, and the response seen was everything from expressions of pure support to expressions of pure rage and hatred.

It was very, very clear that the crosswalk, a simple stretch of pavement, had prompted a conversation that desperately needed to be had.

The negative responses to the crosswalk varied widely in tone and intent, but most fell into one of the following categories:

  • When is straight pride day and when do straight people get a crosswalk?

The funny thing is that straight pride day is every day when heterosexual relationships are held up as the norm in movies, television shows, magazine ads, song lyrics and every other aspect of culture. People only get all twinge-y about thinking their “straight pride” is being infringed on when it seems LGBTQ people are expressing themselves about their orientation. And for the record, the rainbow crosswalk is open for use to anyone.

  • Gay people are accepted in 2017 and don’t need any recognition like a crosswalk.

Huh. The people who say this are straight people with exactly zero idea what it is like to be LGBTQ in 2017, and particularly to be a LGBTQ youth. The suicide rates in LGBTQ youth are staggering and seem a strong indicator that LGBTQ people continue to struggle with acceptance and understanding, despite the year. And some who say this will refer to a token “gay friend” who says *they* are perfectly accepted, which is fantastic except that one gay person cannot speak for any others and indicate that none have faced discrimination solely because they haven’t.

  • Gay people need to quit shoving their lifestyle down other people’s throats.

You mean completely unlike how heterosexuality is constantly present and yet nobody complains about it being shoved down their throats? Please.

  • I don’t care if you’re gay, but stop forcing me to listen to you talk about it.

These people are my favourite. They will argue FOR HOURS about how they don’t care, the irony of them being so involved in the argument and yet claiming not to care completely escaping them. And the funny thing is nobody is being forced to listen; if you really don’t care, then stop paying attention to it.

  • A Pride crosswalk will just prompt people to say hateful things.

See, I think what prompts expressions of hatred is hateful people. And frankly, I am a big fan of shining bright lights in dark corners to see what scurries out, and what has scurried out in this case is something we all need to understand is still happening: discrimination against LGBTQ people.

  • Being gay is unnatural – thank a straight person for you being here today!

These people missed a biology class or two. Not only can LGBTQ people have children, but the evidence that orientation is determined before birth and thus eminently natural is overwhelming.

  • What a waste of money!

When the cost of the crosswalk was revealed, people went BANANAS. Trouble is, not one of them could indicate what a typical crosswalk costs, and yet they were all suddenly crosswalk experts because they knew the cost of paint. The truth is that even if the cost were to be high (and to be frank, we still don’t know the comparison of the cost of the Pride crosswalk to a typical crosswalk) I think it was money well spent to do two things: ensure LGBTQ youth in this community realize they have support and begin a conversation that was clearly well overdue.

Shortly after the Pride crosswalk was finished, the first set of “burnt rubber” tire marks appeared on it (and there were many on social media who suggested they would do exactly this to the crosswalk). I initially found this a bit disheartening, as it is clear we have individuals in this community juvenile enough in thought processes to think this kind of vandalism to be “making a statement” or amusing.

All I could do is wonder if they had a “Fort Mac Strong” sticker somewhere on their vehicle and if they had so quickly forgotten the lesson we learned in 2016 that taught us that what makes us similar is so much stronger than what makes us different; had they really learned nothing at all during a time when we came together as a community to support each other without caring anything about each other’s gender, orientation, religion or race?

The truth though is that those burnt rubber marks are simply visible reminders as to why this community needs Pride crosswalks and Pride events; so all those on social media decrying the crosswalk, the ones who burnt rubber on it and the ones who expressed everything from “not caring/yet caring a lot” to hate? They just ensured that Pride crosswalks and events are here to stay for a long time, because until we truly reach a stage when they are not even a blip on our radar they need to keep  happening to provoke these conversations.

It has been a truly interesting experience. One poster on my Facebook page shared passive-aggressive comments on how things like Pride crosswalks “emboldened” gay people, as evidenced by the fact that they had witnessed gay people be rude to other people; you know, because straight people are never rude. What orientation has to do with being a rude person escapes me, but the reality seems to be that some people continue to be so uncomfortable with LGBTQ people that we would prefer them to be less bold (and maybe they could just climb back into that closet, like good gay people).

My kid’s theory is just that a couple of generations need to die out and that after this occurs a new state of acceptance will be reached, as she advises in her generation it is a non-issue. But until that, we need these conversations and dialogues, even if at times they are painful or angry-making.

Because the conversations can, and do, make a difference.

After my last blog post I received messages from people who said I provided a perspective that helped them to understand why the Pride crosswalk is in fact a reason for overall community pride in that it showcased our community as accepting, particularly to LGBTQ youth who may be struggling.

And in every single social media dialogue I saw, every nasty comment was countered by other expressions of support, kindness, acceptance and love.

I think what I mostly saw through all of this, though, is that society has come a long way since I was a young adult; but there is still a long way to go. And I saw people who continue to struggle with the changes society has seen, not realizing that times have changed and their way of thinking is being discarded by a more accepting and progressive populace. Part of the struggle I suspect arises because they know things have shifted and they have no way to shift it back again, and their beliefs are now exposed as not only antiquated but lacking in basic human acceptance and understanding; cognitive dissonance is a tough thing with which to contend. But the way to break through it is through dialogue; not arguments and fights, but honest dialogue with those who are willing to engage in it from a place of respect.

So, about that Pride crosswalk? It’s here to stay. And about that Pride event in August? I hope it becomes an annual event. Fort McMurray didn’t just take a step into the future; we took leaps and bounds into showcasing our nature as a welcoming and accepting community in northern Alberta, a place which I am so very proud to call home. I am even prouder to do so when we engage in the hard conversations and when we must face not only our strengths but our weaknesses; I believe we can only grow in strength when we do exactly this.

This summer Fort McMurray grew in strength. It grew in acceptance.  And in some strange way, despite the burnt rubber and the hateful words, it grew in love because it prompted us to think not about what makes us different, but what makes us the same.

And the catalyst?

A rainbow connection.

Gorgeous: All the Colours of the Rainbow


It is her one word response to the photo I have sent, a quick pic snapped and texted to her while she is in Germany with her father celebrating the end of her high school years and the start of a new adventure: adulthood.

I have forced a friend to stop at the spot with me in the early evening, and as the setting sun beams down they capture the image. And even though it isn’t finished yet, and the rainbow crosswalk is at that point only half-painted, I know I must send it to my daughter because it reflects something we have discussed more than once.

When my daughter was in Grade 10, she informed me she was a cofounder in her school GSA, or Gay-Straight Alliance. I didn’t even know what a GSA was at that time, but she brought me up to speed quickly as her school had started the very first GSA in Fort McMurray history. For the next year, it was a significant part of her life, and when she decided to finish her high school years in Calgary she continued her involvement in the GSA at her new school.

What I learned through my daughter was that the acceptance of people identifying as LGBTQ was not quite as much of a given as I thought it was; she shared with me that many of her fellow students in the GSA had revealed they lived in fear of revealing this aspect of themselves as they were in family situations where it would not be accepted.

One of the things my daughter also identified was the lack of visible support in our community for people who identify as LGBTQ; she said the story of the pride flag being burned in a parking lot during the last attempt at a local pride event was legendary among youth and seen as indicative of how this community feels about LGBTQ people and issues.

It was for this reason she felt the GSA was critical, and I agreed with her once she began breaking it all down for me. She not only encouraged me but asked me to write about the need for GSAs, and we both found ourselves astonished at some of the responses my work received (like those who claimed the GSAs were “mostly for the parents”, a laughable notion if there ever was one as most parents were similar to me and had no clue what a GSA was) and those who suggested there was no reason LGBTQ people, particularly youth, should feel vulnerable in our community.

Well, no reason except for that time when somebody decided to burn a pride flag when LGBTQ individuals were just steps away. Or the times when LGBTQ people were physically assaulted or threatened with physical violence based solely on this aspect of their persons. Or the times when they felt unsafe, targeted, unsupported and unaccepted.

The lack of visible support for LGBTQ people was indeed troubling. It is intriguing to me that it is really the youth of this community who led the breakthrough in recent years through the formation of school GSAs, and in recent months we have seen a resurgence in the local Pride movement.

And on Saturday evening, as the sun began to set, I had my photo taken in front of a rainbow crosswalk in downtown Fort McMurray, and sent it off to my daughter who might have grown up and away from this place, but for whom this will always be her home town.


That was her simple reply of a vibrant rainbow crosswalk that says, with great simplicity, that this community is accepting. Welcoming. And embracing of people from all walks of life and all demographics, all ages, ethnicities and sexual orientations.

One of the comments I first read on the crosswalk was a question as to *why* there needs to be one. My daughter’s experience in the GSA is why. It is because there are vulnerable youth in our community who do not feel accepted. It is because they need a visible sign that there is room for them in our community, and that we not only accept but celebrate all people.

The more people decrying the rainbow crosswalk, the more powerful the indication that it is needed. The statistics are very, very clear; LGBTQ youth are significantly more likely to attempt to take their own lives. If we can pursue some simple courses of action – like a few cans of paint on a rainbow crosswalk – to show they are supported, then I would suggest we have a moral responsibility to do so. If we have kids in our community who feel they are not accepted by those close to them, then we must show them they ARE accepted by this community as a whole, and what could be more visible than a brightly coloured crosswalk?

And it IS gorgeous, because who could ever think a rainbow anything less than beautiful? And almost a beautiful as the people in this community, all of those who identify as LGBTQ and all of those who don’t; really all of those who come together to build a strong, powerful community founded on acceptance and kindness.

At the end of August, Fort McMurray will see a Pride event celebrated. It is long overdue in my opinion, and I suspect my daughter would feel the same way. I wish she were here for it, but she will be instead be moving on to the next phase in her life and moving into her university residence. I know, though, how proud she will be of this community and all the people who have come together to support each other in initiatives like Pride; and I know that when she visits she will likely want a photo with the rainbow crosswalk to share with her friends to show them that her little city in northern Alberta gets it.

Fundamentally, aren’t communities built on diversity, inclusion and acceptance? Isn’t that truly the core of being Canadian? And don’t we find significant pride in how our citizens came from all over the world to found this nation, and their gender, age, ethnicity, religious belief and country of origin mattered little as long as they wanted to be part of the communities we are building?

If a brightly coloured sidewalk on a downtown street enables just one kid in this community to feel accepted, welcomed and encouraged, then I would happily paint the crosswalk myself to make that happen. I think most of us, even the ones with any reservations about the “need” for such a crosswalk, would do the same; because in the end if it helps one kid then we have become part of the village we always talk about being needed to raise a child.

Fort McMurray, we are that village. Our children – whatever their orientation – are our collective future. How they feel about this community and the adults that inhabit it will be based on how we shape this community for them, and if we want our children to show kindness, love and acceptance then we would be wise to model this behaviour for them.

And if modelling it means one single solitary bright rainbow crosswalk, then I would suggest it might be something we might all want to support to ensure the youth in our community know that Fort McMurray is their home, and they belong here. Because to do any less – to allow them to grow up thinking this community does not accept them – not only weakens them, it weakens us.

And that is why when I saw that rainbow crosswalk with the sun beaming down on it, I smiled; because I knew it would have meaning for my daughter and the thousands of others kids growing up in this town who need to know this community supports and accepts them, no matter who they are or who they love.

Love is love is love; and sometimes all one needs to be reminded of it is to see a rainbow, whether high in the sky or under your feet, lifting you up as you feel the strength of your community beneath you. Fort McMurray, I am always proud of you; this week I am prouder than ever as I see us supporting vulnerable youth in our community through a visible symbol of our acceptance.

And yes.

It IS gorgeous.

Champagne Tastes, Beer Budget: The New Fort McMurray

When I first arrived in Fort McMurray 17 years ago, the real boom hadn’t even quite yet begun. You could feel the simmering of it, like that moment when a pot on the stove is just beginning to boil with the tiniest of bubbles breaking the surface. But just like that pot, when the heat was turned higher with rocketing oil prices, the simmer became a full-on boil, with the occasional boil-over as a city not quite ready for a boom in population struggled with infrastructure deficits and the woes that accompany a fast injection of people and money. We spent fast and we spent hard, both on a governmental and personal level, as evidenced by recent stories on the amount of debt incurred by residents of the region.

And then, just like a pot whisked off the stove, the boil stopped. Oil prices began dropping, and the bubbling began to lessen…and now it is back to a simmer again and the odds of a full boil – those days of tremendous boom based on expectations and predictions of $200/barrel of oil – seem unlikely to surface again.

The boom-bust nature of resource based towns is well understood; from the era of gold mining to oil drilling, this aspect of communities built on a sole-industry has never really changed. I have now lived in two such places, one based on oil and one based on gold, and one of the most remarkable things about them has always been their flexibility and ability to adapt to ever-changing economic situations, knowing the tide will ebb and flow as it does with a resource.

I had always thought this true for Fort McMurray as well, but this most recent downturn in the economy has me deeply worried, as something I had always before discounted as a factor in our get ‘er done, pioneer and maverick attitude has taken firm root: entitlement.

I hate that word, you know. I have in fact fought against it, as there was no way I could acknowledge that I or the members of my beloved community would ever or could ever be “entitled”, so spoiled that we have come to expect the times of boom to never end and become disconnected from the nature of a resource based economy.

But entitlement is something I can no longer ignore. Fort McMurray, once the home of a champagne budget and accompanying champagne tastes, now finds itself with a beer budget and an unquenched thirst for champagne.

The economic realities have undoubtedly changed; you can sense it in every corner, and that was before the fire in 2016 that swept through an already economically challenged region and took yet another savage punch at it.

Once I was very secure in our resiliency; not just in our ability to withstand the blows but to adapt to the changes with ease. This time, though, I see us struggling as we try to balance our wants with our needs, and find our champagne tastes challenged by the beer budget.

We were once the home of high disposable incomes, but with the economic changes we have seen diminished overtime, bonuses and wages. We have seen job losses, project delays and cancellations and people leaving. But still, on some level, we both yearn and expect the Fort McMurray of yesterday.

Do you know how resource based communities survive? Because they can adapt. They understand that good times (and bad times) can spin on a dime and that the bright days of yesterday can give way to dark days of tomorrow, and vice versa. The communities that understand this withstand the vagaries of a resource economy; those that fail to understand it will eventually fall.

I think we got complacent about the whole boom thing. And when I say “we”, I don’t mean “just you”. I mean me, too. After all, I invested all I have in this community, bought a house, raised a child here and built my life in a place where it can all go bust on a moment’s notice. I don’t regret a moment of that, but never did it occur to me that I could lose tens of thousands of dollars in home equity; never did I think I would wonder and worry about our economic future. It just seemed like the good days of the economy would never end, and then, of course, they did.

And now, things are different. If we want to have local shops and services then we bloody well better support them or they will disappear. If we want sustainability then we have to recognize we may need to give up some of our “wants” in order to achieve our actual needs – and on occasion that may sting. And we need to realize that some of the changes headed our way, like Bill 21/Bill 8, have the potential to forever alter our region.

I fear that we have not yet shed the champagne tastes we developed during the boom, and yet we have now encountered the beer budget of the bust. This discrepancy is the real risk to our community, and if we cannot counter it then we will face a real challenge: our inability to adapt to the bust end of the cycle.

There are hard decisions ahead. We are heading into a municipal election, and this next government will be faced with making choices that will affect lives and which will not always be popular because they will require adaptation to a new reality in which the wants must be brought into line with the fiscal realities.

So what do we need to do to make it through this and come out even stronger? I would suggest the following:

  • Accept that which we cannot change and instead seek ways to adapt to it
  • Ask why we are still doing things certain ways and if it continues to make sense to do it that way
  • Stop countering every proposed change with a response that reeks of “but we have always done it this way”
  • Understand the difference between wants and needs
  • Recognize that once we were able to indulge in our wants, but that now needs must take precedence
  • Know that this will not always be easy and may in fact hurt on occasion
  • Support those in this community who fill the needs, like local social profit organizations
  • Reconsider complaints that are based on “the way it used to be” and acknowledge that things are not the same and that things are likely to keep changing
  • Be willing to change
  • Be grateful

Yes, be grateful. Many communities will never, ever experience the kind of economic exuberance we have. We have so many things for which to be grateful; to now find ourselves whinging about things changing doesn’t seem exactly grateful and instead seems, just a bit, entitled.

I would suggest there are few people in this region more optimistic about the future than I; I have great confidence in our people and in our nature as most of us came here in search of a better life. Few of us came here with much more than our ambition, our commitment and our work ethic, and through hard work we have established our lives in this community. I have always likened us to the pioneers who originally settled the prairie provinces, doing so through sheer determination and an incredibly plucky attitude when facing challenges.

We face a new challenge. We face changed, and changing, economic times. If we are obstinate and refuse to change with them, clinging to our champagne tastes as the beer budget descends, we will find ourselves not only struggling, but deeply unhappy. But if we recognize the changes, and understand that beer is pretty damn good and champagne *might* be over-rated, we will be just fine. It will require us to work together, support each other and remember that what we need to achieve in the end is a functional community.

It’s time to put away the high-end bubbly and embrace the beer instead; after all, we are in this for the long haul, so we may as well have a few drinks – ones within our budget – along the way.


For several weeks I have been struggling with writing about this topic. Perhaps it is because it is far, far too close to me and my struggles go far deeper than trying to find the words to chronicle it. Perhaps it is because it is difficult to find the words at times when our emotions are so tangled.

As some readers know, I am in need of a corneal transplant. And this summer is likely to be the time when it will happen, as my name now hovers at the top of the waitlist, waiting to be matched with a suitable cornea.

And what happens next is really and truly anyone’s guess.

Almost three years ago when I suffered a corneal perforation, it was just another step in the years-long journey of chronic eye disease. A common virus that attacked my cornea when my daughter was only three months old led to corneal scarring, chronic inflammation of the iris, and glaucoma. The perforation was only the latest in a string of terrible things to happen to my left eye, but it was also undoubtedly the most threatening.

I will never forget the moment the corneal specialist explained how they would plug the hole in my cornea with medical grade crazy glue; and there it has been ever since, a white dot of glue quite literally holding my eye together as we tried to determine next steps. On good days I am in discomfort; this is about 5/7 days. On the other two days I am in pain, and eye pain is difficult to describe without using words like “skewering”, “white hot” and “agony”. What I’ve learned is that eyes don’t like having glue in them, and respond with pain to the daily presence of this very foreign object.

Prior to the perforation my vision had been blurry at best, and the glaucoma had threatened my peripheral vision. After the crazy glue all vision ceased as the glue obscured my vision entirely, and what was happening in terms of functional vision was, and is, largely unknown.

And so a year ago I faced a crossroad.

My corneal specialist said there were two options; the first was to enucleate my left eye.

For those not familiar with the term, “enucleation” is simply a euphemism for removing the eye entirely.

I have never come so close to puking on a physician’s glossy wingtip shoes as I did that day, as while removal of my eye had always been a possibility it was one I had refused to even consider.

Had a physician said we need to remove your spleen or your appendix, I think I would have been okay; aside from the regular worries of surgery, of course. But it seems when a physician suggests removing something you can physically see, like an arm or a leg or a hand or an eyeball an entirely new attitude develops. I can’t see my spleen or my appendix, but I can see those other parts and their loss has a different significance; and so as I shakily pondered the possibility of a glass eye, he suggested the second option: a corneal transplant.

From basic testing we know my eye still has light sensitivity and thus some visual acuity remains. And we know a new cornea will be unblemished, compared to my poor old tired cornea which had suffered repeated scarring from viral attacks. But how much vision I will regain, if any, will not be known until the surgery is done, and likely not even then until several months have passed and the new cornea slowly adjusts to its new home.

The decision was fairly simple: remove my eye and end all problems with it, but also end all possibility of ever seeing from my left eye again, and taking a chance to see.

My friends, life is all about taking a chance.

Several months ago we added my name to the corneal transplant waitlist, and over time my name has gradually risen to the top. During the intervening time I have had much time to think and wait and worry, and engage in new jokes (like my daughter’s favourite, which is a rather morbid “my mom sees through dead people” line delivered in the driest of fashion).

And I have had time to reflect. None of this has been easy, not from the moment my eye disease was diagnosed almost eighteen years ago. Even in the last two years there have been challenges as I have been on medications that caused a cascade of side effects, like chronic exhaustion, ferocious heartburn and kidney stones (I don’t recommend kidney stones, avoid these). There have been times when I feel tired of it all and other times when I feel so fortunate compared to others who face far more significant health battles than my own; and now as I face the transplant I find myself simply in wonderment of what is about to transpire, and how the tragic loss of another life will very possibly change mine forever.

People ask if I’m excited; if by excited they mean completely fucking terrified, the answer is yes. The odds remain in my favour, and I hope to regain some vision. The odds that my eye will reject the new cornea are low; but if it does then there is a chance I will find myself again facing the complete loss of one of the beautiful blue eyes I inherited from my parents.

But I am weary, too. Weary of the battle, weary of the chronically red eye I fight when it is tired or stressed, weary of the pain, weary of the droopy eyelid that appeared a few years ago, weary of the endless visits to specialists, weary of downplaying the severity of this disease and the impact it has had on my life. And so, I embark on this next phase, ready to accept whatever happens.

Because things cannot continue as they are. Either I will see the world through a fresh new cornea (well, slightly used but it’s best not to think of the mechanics too deeply) or I will never see from my left eye again. I accept either outcome.

I have a tendency to downplay things; very few people know much about my divorce for instance as I tend to speak of it lightly, but there is nothing light about the end of a 24-year marriage. And few know the intricacies of the battle I’ve fought with my left eye and the tremendous journey I have ahead, with a significant recovery period fraught with potential for it to all go wrong.

And this waiting for a cornea? It’s unbelievably difficult for someone who has a patience factor of zero. It is a bit like having a baby; at any moment the wheels could be set in motion by a phone call, and 48 hours later I will be the recipient of a new cornea. But it means every time my phone rings I jump slightly, as this could be “the call”. Every morning I wake up wondering if today will be the day, and every night I fall asleep thinking it might be tomorrow.

So there we are. I now sit and wait, and everything in my life has taken on new urgency as nothing can be left to wait or to chance; if the lawn needs to be mowed it must be done now as I might be gone tomorrow, and I feel like I am constantly teetering on the edge of a cliff of uncertainty.

I have debated often on sharing the depth of this experience, but those who know me best know that part of the reason I write is to encourage others to share their experiences, too. So many of us live with chronic illness, disease or dysfunction, but like me we often downplay it in our desire to be stoic (and in some cases like my own a stubborn refusal to admit or acknowledge we may not be Wonder Woman after all).

And so today, like every other day over the last year, I sit and wait and wonder and worry and hope. One day I will get the call and be gone for a few days, and when I come back instead of glue in my eye you will be able to see the tiniest of sutures, where the cornea of some kind and generous soul has been stitched onto me, the very thinnest of tissues giving rise to the very greatest of hopes.

This entire journey has been visionary; it has changed how I see everything. People have asked my how I have kept my optimism through the last 17 years, but in truth isn’t optimism sometimes all we have? And so I enter this phase of the journey with my eye with optimism and with an understanding that no matter the outcome, I have a new vision because of it. While the sight in my left eye remains open to question, my life has come into sharper focus than ever before as in the last ten years I have seen the death of both my parents, the end of a 24-year marriage, the survival of a natural disaster, the transition of my daughter from child to adult and now, most unexpectedly, a corneal transplant.

And the view, my friends? It is, quite truly, resplendent.

Flag Flap: Is Canada a Flag?

I am a proud Canadian.

That shouldn’t even need to be said, but before I launch into the rest of this I think I should make it clear right off the hop. I am third generation Canadian, and I have never taken for granted this incredible nation or the people who inhabit it; but this week I found myself both disheartened and disappointed by the response to my most recent blog post.

In that post I shared my excitement at the Pride event coming to Fort McMurray this summer, and I mentioned a controversy I had noted regarding a flag that has surfaced at other Pride events across the country. It is a modified Canadian flag, and as there is no prohibition on modifying the flag it breaks no laws; and yet it has become quite a lightning rod for dissension.


What was most disheartening to me was that when I chose a photo of the modified Canadian flag to accompany my blog post on my professional freelance writing Facebook page, what readers focused on was not the content of my post but rather that image; and while there were a few flag purists in the crowd who simply believe the Canadian flag should never be modified, it became increasingly clear that for others the problem was not with the modified Canadian flag, but rather with LGBTQ Canadian people. And it was very clear that many did not even bother to read the accompanying blog post, reacting solely based on the image that accompanied it, displaying a knee-jerk reaction that was rooted in something far deeper than a simple attachment to the flag.

Within a period of 24 hours, I was forced to delete more comments and ban more people from accessing my Facebook page than I have done in the entirety of the last five years; and the comments deleted and individuals banned were not because they disagreed with me as I am quite okay with that, but rather due to the sheer level of hatred and anger expressed by them. It was an appalling thing to witness in 2017, and it simply reminded me that even though so much has changed, we have a long, long way to go to truly end discrimination based on sexual orientation.

It is intriguing that during the discussion taking place on my Facebook page, another was taking place on the page of a well-known beer manufacturer. This manufacturer was using the Canadian flag to promote beer sales, and in cases of beer purchased one could find one of two flags: one was the traditional Canadian flag, and the other a modified Canadian flag.

It was fascinating to see that for the vast majority this did not seem to raise any sort of concern, and even for those who thought it wrong to modify the flag the response was rather more muted than the virulent expression of disgust I was seeing with the modified Canadian flag displaying rainbow colours.

The dichotomy was striking. And it was very clear that many of the comments expressed about the Canadian Pride flag were rooted not in concern over the flag, but in bigotry and hatred for the people it represented, although those expressing these concerns often tried (in vain) to wrap themselves in the Canadian flag in an attempt to hide their hatred.

It didn’t work. These individuals expressed no concern over the hatred and discrimination faced by LGBTQ people as I mentioned in my post; they showed no outrage over the fact that LGBTQ people continue to face physical violence in our country simply due to their sexual orientation. All their concern and outrage was reserved for the flag, in this version not red and white but rather a rainbow of colours. What was exposed was the undercurrent of bigotry that remains in this nation, and it was deeply troubling to witness it so closely. If I am to be very honest, it broke my heart as I thought of my many LGBTQ family members and friends, who are as Canadian to the core as any of us are.

I am a proud Canadian.

If I walk down a street and see a Canadian flag burning next to a Canadian person burning, let me be clear: I am not going to save the flag. I will save the person, as flags do not have feelings and nor do they feel pain or injury; and yet in this country it seems we are willing to see other Canadians burned through discrimination and even physical violence with nary a peep, yet we will raise a ruckus over a modified flag.

People must come before symbols, no matter what the symbol happens to be. As much as I love the Canadian flag, I think it serves us well to remember that flags are fundamentally “brands”, a way of identifying and unifying a group, but as with all brands they can change. In fact, the Canadian flag (or “brand”) changed in 1965:

flag canadian

And the adoption of the maple leaf flag we now know and love was not without controversy, as my parents told me many resented the change to the current flag and protested it with vehemence, claiming it desecrated and disrespected the “real” Canadian flag. Yet over time we adopted the maple leaf, and in fact few who were not alive in 1965 would even recall that once there was a different flag flying over our nation.

Flags matter. They act as symbols of national pride and unity and they have relevance and importance, but know what matters more?


Living, breathing people of every colour, religion, sexual orientation and every other thing that makes us different and yet somehow also makes us exactly the same. Every single thing that makes us Canadian, in fact.

Canada isn’t a flag.

Canada has a flag.

Canada is the people.

Perhaps we can try to remember that.

Pride, Fort McMurray Style

At the end of August this year, Fort McMurray will welcome an event unlike any other we have welcomed before; on August 26, Pride will arrive in Fort McMurray.

Several other communities recently celebrated Pride events. For the most part, the events were greeted warmly and openly, although there have been some troubling incidents that should be seen as evidence as to why Pride events are still needed.

In Lethbridge, a rainbow crosswalk was the target of vandals, who looked to mar the symbol of LGBTQ pride and solidarity with black paint.

In Edmonton, the rainbow Pride flag at a local school was cut down and removed, undoubtedly serving to further marginalize LGBTQ students who already face challenges in feeling safe in their school environments.

And in our own community I have seen dissension about the Pride flag (and whether or not it dishonours the Canadian national flag), and this despite the existence of many flag modifications we seem to accept or tolerate without much controversy or even comment, like the following, as well as the national flag appearing on every imaginable item from mugs to underwear with nary a whisper of outrage or offense:

And sadly I have seen comments like the following:

  • So, when is straight pride day?
  • I don’t think those people need to rub our noses in their lifestyle.
  • I have no problem with gay people, but this Pride stuff is bullshit.

And here’s my questions for all the straight folks in the crowd:

  • When was the last time you were threatened with physical violence for your sexual orientation?
  • When was the last time you were assaulted due to your sexual orientation?
  • Have you ever felt you had to hide or lie about your sexual orientation?
  • Have you ever been afraid to hold the hand of your significant other in public because of the potential reaction of others?

The reality is straight pride day is every day, 365 days a year. And I say that as a straight white woman who answered “never” to the questions above, and who sees heterosexuality celebrated by popular culture in every single way on every single day.

The truth is that those who identify as LGBTQ continue to face significant challenges in our society. We have come a long way in terms of acceptance, but we continue to have a long way to go. And mere “acceptance” and “tolerance” aren’t the benchmarks we should be seeking; until we can say we genuinely celebrate diversity of every kind, we cannot claim to have achieved equality.

It is a bit startling that in 2017 we remain so preoccupied with the lives of others, including their sexual orientation. Our interest in it betrays our discomfort with it; and if we truly have “no problem with gay people” as some claim then we should have no problem with Pride flags, crosswalks or parades. These things shouldn’t even be a blip on our radar if we really have achieved the kind of equanimity we like to think we have.

The reality is we haven’t. Vandalized crosswalks, controversy over flags and dissension over LGBTQ events betray the truth: we haven’t come nearly as far as we think we have, and a lot of straight folks still have no idea what it’s like to be openly LGBTQ in today’s world.

Pride Fort McMurray has my full, unequivocal and vocal support. My daughter’s involvement in co-founding the region’s first GSA opened my eyes to issues I thought had been laid to rest long ago: discrimination, hatred and, if we are to be honest, fear. Every time we express our discomfort with some aspect of Pride we betray our own discomfort with LGBTQ individuals and we portray why rainbow flags, crosswalks and Pride events are still very much needed.

Pride sums it up well; I am proud of those who not only find the courage to be themselves but who support others in doing so as well. I am proud of those who are unafraid to celebrate our diversity and who seek to develop welcoming communities. And I find great pride in those who can empathize with others despite our own narrow experience of the world and understand that they may face challenges we cannot and will not ever know.

Take pride, Fort McMurray. Take pride in our tremendous diversity in this region, including our LGBTQ community that has chosen to join with others across the country in celebrating. Know that rainbow crosswalks, flags and parades are celebrations of our country, our people, our diversity and our unity. Take pride in us – in ALL of us, no matter our religion, the colour of our skin or our sexual orientation – and truly feel the joy and wonder and yes, pride, in simply being Canadian, part of the true north strong and free.


Of Bison and Babies; Have We Lost Our Minds?

A plywood representation of a bison created from small pieces of wood; trying to define what qualifies a child as a “fire baby”; what do these two things have in common?

They are moments in time when I had to step back and wonder if we have entirely lost the plot on the concept of community, and if the critics are right and the idea of “Fort McMurray Strong” really has kicked the bucket.

The plywood bison are small pieces of art created from inexpensive wood, added to some of the municipal planters around town. Apparently they were created by municipal parks employees in the off-season – you know, the guys and gals who work their asses off trying to keep our city public spaces looking presentable. Well, someone noticed one of the bison was sporting an additional tail; instead of simply appreciating the piece as a nice if subtle addition to the landscape, they posted a photo with a snarky comment, which evoked further snarky comments about the waste of money (plywood) and using the money not on public art but to instead build Willow Square (yep, that $50 of plywood is gonna go a long way to that goal).

Never once did the armchair critics consider who might have spent time making the pieces or the pride or enjoyment they might have derived from them; nope, a small error on one was enough to unleash the hounds.

And then there are the “fire babies”, an ill-defined term for babies born or conceived during the wildfire of 2016. The parameters on this are loose indeed, as who is in a position to judge what child is and is not a fire baby? And yet the topic enraged people who argued about what constitutes a fire baby and whether or not some children deserve this title.

It is enough to make you weep, my friends.

Have we become a town of curmudgeons?

Or to put it more bluntly, have we lost our fucking minds?

OMG, the plywood bison has an extra tail. And can you believe those people are calling their kid a fire baby when clearly it falls outside of the imaginary timeframe I devised in my own head for that qualification?

I fear we are becoming a city of complainers, whiners and arguers. We sit back on social media and type out our criticisms of everything and everyone. But if we have these concerns, do we really step up and do anything? Are we involved on the boards and committees that make decisions on things like public art? Do we volunteer our time? Do we go to public engagement sessions? Do we fill out the surveys?

Bro, do you even vote?

And do we ever consider that maybe sometimes we should just shut the hell up and think that other people might have feelings, too?

As the next few years pass by, I can guarantee we will face enough challenges coming at us from outside that we do not need to be creating any internal drama to supplement it. If ever there was a time to begin rowing together, this is it. We need to begin from a place where we assume every person is doing their best and means well; and while we may be wrong some of the time in that, for the most part we will be right. And if we can come from that place then we can also begin to treat each other with kindness, consideration and understanding. And maybe before we fling out criticisms and nasty-isms we would pause and consider there may be things we simply don’t know.

There is something I do know; the unkindnesses I have witnessed recently left me not only deeply sad but discouraged. In a time when there are real battles to be fought, like the one for the rebuilding of our community, we are instead punching at plywood buffalo (OMG did I just call the bison a buffalo? In the immortal words of the Pet Shop Boys, “call the police, there’s a madman in town”) and fire babies. If it wasn’t so disheartening it might almost be funny. Almost.

And if you are reading this and feeling angry at me and indignant and thinking that this is about you…well, if you think this is about you maybe that’s because you have been involved in the conversations I have mentioned or similar ones of equal unkindness. These conversations are mean-spirited at best and embarrassing at worst; if I saw them happening in another community I would have serious doubts about the people living there. And I don’t mind you being angry at me if it makes you think for one moment about these acts of unkindness and whether they move us forward as community or if they simply serve to make others angry, miserable or sad.

I actually don’t believe the concept of Fort McMurray Strong is dead; I think like all of us it has taken a bit of beating over the last year and is feeling a little weary as a result. But I also believe that with our conscious decision to be kinder, thoughtful and come from a place of optimism and belief in others that we can breathe new life into it.

And I know that if we spend our time gnashing our teeth and flapping our gums over plywood bison and fire babies we are going to have one helluva time claiming the name Fort McMurray Strong.