The joys of Fort McMurray

In one month, we will be unpacking boxes and getting set up in our new home down in Okotoks.  I'll be leaving Fort McMurray after 24 amazing years of calling it HOME.  Looking back on almost a quarter century, I can clearly identify joys that I've experienced while living in this community.  Here are a few that jump out.


I did some volunteering in the communities I lived and worked in before coming here, but it was in Fort McMurray that volunteering became a central part of my life and my growth as a human being.  As a senior manager with the OK Radio Group (CJOK and KYX 98) I was expected to plug into the community.  I jumped on the board of directors of the interPLAY Festival and spent the next 15 years as a volunteer helping to elevate the arts and provide performance opportunities for artists of all stripes.  Not only did it connect me with the community in a deeper way, it strengthened me as a leader and as an artist.  My list of volunteer opportunities is long and deeply meaningful thanks to having been in Fort McMurray.  I am so grateful for them all.


I've been a theatre performer for a long time, but it was in Fort McMurray where my acting skills grew the most and I had the opportunity to learn from outstanding professionals.  Our sons also had this same opportunity.  We should never take for granted what Keyano Theatre Company means to this community and the hundreds and hundreds of people who have had the chance to get involved in productions.  Dylan and Ben both speak the language of theatre and understand the discipline and joys of production.  In Dylan's case, it has taken him to the National Theatre School in Montreal.  It was one of my greatest joys being able to perform with both of them in what many say was one of the best productions ever mounted in Fort McMurray:  Les Miserables in 2014.


I remember having preconceived notions about what Fort McMurray was going to be like as I drove up here for the first time in 1996.  Good God was I wrong.  It was absolutely beautiful.  I continue to be struck by the natural beauty of this northern paradise.  From stunning sunsets to lush forests; from angelic winter nights to jaw dropping northern lights, Wood Buffalo is a limitless banquet of outdoor delicacies.


I remember standing at the till of my neighbourhood grocery store with four or five ladies in burkas just ahead of me.  At the time, I didn't give it a second thought.  Over the almost 25 years of living in downtown Fort McMurray, it has become completely normal to see people from all different cultures, religions and traditions.  In our small cluster of streets, we have families from Lebanon, China, Philippines, Eritrea, Somalia, Nigeria, Russia, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and myriad other countries.  We also have many Treaty 8 and Metis families who live here and have called this region home for generations.  I did a painting at Father Turcotte Catholic School this week.  As I painted, all the different classes came through to sit, watch and ask questions.  The cultural diversity among those students was beautiful to see.  It has been a gift to raise our boys in this place where different people from all over the world have chosen to call home.


I think my love of giving back was birthed by my time with United Way and nurtured by friends like Kent and Lee of Bracelets For Buildings, Marty and Dennine from Northstar Ford, Colin Hartigan of Coldwell Banker, Robbie Picard and many others.  I discovered in a visceral way that "the gift is in the giving".  Along the way, I found out that my painting ability was a great tool to give back in a bigger way.  Live paintings, in particular, have proven to be an amazing way to generate unbelievable generosity.  Connor McDavid's portrait ranks at the top in terms of funds generated.  It sold for $18,000 in 2017, with proceeds going to the Alzheimer's Society of Northern Alberta and NWT.


Somewhere on this journey, I discovered that I have a skill for facilitation.  A decade of chairing a nonprofit, attending multiple creativity conferences and participating in Leadership Wood Buffalo and countless community building processes and initiatives provided me with a set of soft skills around creative problem solving and working with groups to achieve a set of objectives.  l've really enjoyed creating painting experiences using these skills.  I'll be facilitating "Painting Your Postcard" at Mindcamp Canada this August.  Canada's creativity retreat has been instrumental in my late career change of direction to being a full-time artist.


At some point over a decade ago, I started writing emails to family members about what was happening in our lives.  That, coupled with an intention to lose weight, inspired the creation of this "Middle Age Bulge" blog.  I wrote arts columns for the Fort McMurray Today for years.  I created ways to share impact stories for the United Way.  I even did a TEDx talk called "Social Media Timeline".   Most recently, I hosted a radio/tv program called IMPACT.  My love of sharing stories was nurtured in Fort McMurray.

Many people who have moved away from Fort McMurray assure us that we will miss it when we go, as they miss it dearly.  While I appreciate the assurances, there is no doubt in my mind that this community will be in our hearts and minds for the rest of our lives.  I also have no doubt that we will be back to visit many times in the years ahead.


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