Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Attawapiskat...Too Familiar, Too Close To Home

Unless you've been living under a rock recently you've no doubt become aware of the plight of the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat. Aside from the fact that Ontario is my home province, this hits home with me in many ways. Not only because I can't imagine my 8-month-old son living in this type of situation but also because I witnessed living conditions similar to those of Attawapiskat in some of the places I worked over the past decade. I count myself lucky though because in the end, I have the choice to leave for somewhere else. I get a choice. There are kids there that do not. I had a choice to leave a community after being under a "boil water" advisory for close to a year. The kids there do not. I had the luxury of a 3-bedroom school board-owned house where I could squirrel away and listen to Bach and Mozart to my heart's content. Very few, if any kids there, had that option.

I found it interesting initially to see kids' reactions when they would stop by for a visit. I recall one boy remarking about what a big, clean house I had. At the time I found it puzzling. The house I was staying in wasn't anything special. It hardly seemed a palace. Clearly, they hadn't noticed the small mountain of laundry on the floor in one the two other empty bedrooms or the dust on the counter tops in the kitchen. I'm reasonably tidy but I can get lazy at times. (Later that fall I started getting annoyed because the tap in the bathroom sink wouldn't stop leaking and the sound kept me up at night. Now, I think about how fortunate I was to have running water.) I wondered for quite some time what would prompt someone to think I lived in a palace. And then during report card time I visited a few of the students' homes....and got the shock of my life. I won't go into all the details of what I saw but I will say, I said many times in later years, that I felt as if I had been transported to a third-world country. But I had a choice, kids didn't.

When I was a kid, I always thought it was neat when my grandparents or other elderly people talked about "the old days" and how they would boil snow to make tea or coffee. I never thought I'd have to do this....until I arrived in one community which was under a "boil water" advisory for pretty much the entire time I was there. Boiling water in a pot on my stove worked up to a point. After a few days I began noticing a rather disgusting yellow ring of crust at the top of the big pot I used. That was the day I made coffee for the first time using snow behind my house for water. At the time, it was more of an experiment to see if I could do it and filter out all the seeds, bark and dirt that might be in that snow (I did a pretty good job) and I also figured it would be a great story to tell the kids one day. Turns out that it takes a lot of snow to get a single pot of water and I quickly soured to this chore as it was rather more labour intensive than I figured. But in the end I was only making coffee. I didn't have to rely on my backyard snow for more important things like, say, basic hygiene needs. In the end, I had a choice. I didn't HAVE to live those conditions if I chose not to. Kids there didn't have that choice.

I'm sure you can see where I'm going with all this, or at least that is my hope. Before people start bashing government, or Aboriginal people or start seeing this issue as solely one of dollar signs and poor fiscal management (and I"m not saying this isn't), could we remember that there are vulnerable CANADIANS here that don't have any other choice but to live under conditions such as what I've described. (I'm sure what I did see was only a very small snap shot of the bigger picture.) If you think that the average Aboriginal person is laughing at you while they spend tax money to fund a lavish lifestyle I can disavow you of this notion. Clearly they are not living in the lap of luxury. From my own experience, communities like Attawapiskat are, sadly, not a place you want to be.

I'm sure I could write a small tome here based solely on my own experiences. Perhaps there might be a blog post for that sometime in the future. For now, I truly wish all the nay sayers, bigots, racists, red necks and other such ilk would get off their high horse. There are a lot of kids in this community who don't have a a choice. Can we not put aside our myopic thinking for a few minutes and realize that these vulnerable citizens are CANADIANS and that they deserve compassion and assistance? And while I'm at it, will politicians off all political stripes close their mouths, work together on this issue and stop using this situation to score cheap photo ops and political points?

Then, we might begin to start to accomplish something. A lot of kids in one small northern community are counting on us.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Apparently There's A Sign For That

In our industry there are a number of different hand signs used by scaffolders for all the different materials. I'm not sure off the top of my head how many different scaffolding parts we have but it is a pretty big list. I got chatting with one of the other foreman this morning and he went through all the signals with me. We don't really have much use for them in the yard but its something you need to know if you're out "in the field" obviously. Anyhow, I've always been fascinated with different languages and always saw these signals and just another form of communication. I've come to know a few of them but was interested to know more.

So the foreman ran through them quickly and I was pretty pleased with how quickly I picked them up if I do say so myself. (I DO have a pretty good memory for certain things, though I know that perhaps Lisa might dispute this.) The hand signals were all good practical information, including one that I think might be VERY practical should you find yourself atop a scaffold in a certain situation. Yes, there is even a hand signal to show that you have to go pee! Seriously. Who knew?

Presumably the same signal you would use for a "number 1" can also be used for a "number 2".

Random photo of the day. Historical church in Fort McMurray's heritage park, one of my favorite buildings down there.

Friday, November 25, 2011

There's More Than Bitumen In Them Thar Hills!

Back during the last ice age the land on which the city of Fort McMurray sits lay under a vast inland sea penned up by ice. As the ice sheet melted and receded the lake drained away, helping to form the Athabasca River valley we see today. (It was this glacial action that was responsible for the creation of the oil sands.) The retreating ice scoured the land north of the city and its action helps explain why north of the city the oil sands are located much closer to the surface than they are to the south of us. Anyhow, as retreating ice left not just bitumen-soaked sand lying around but also the remains of creatures that once roamed the planet so many millions of years ago. Occasionally, some fossil remains turn up as happened recently out at Syncrude...a plesiosaur in this case. (We can't give Drumheller all the credit for Alberta's dino discoveries.)

This is the second major discovery I've heard of this year, the first being back in the Spring at Suncor. Fortunately for the archaeologists called in to examine finds such as these, we have plenty of big shovels and trucks to pitch in and lend a hand. Maybe its just me, but I think it would be really interesting to have our very own dinosaur museum here to showcase all the unique and interesting finds that have been dug up here in recent years.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Not A One Horse Town!

Its pretty rare I step into the realm of advocacy as I'm not one who likes to rock the boat. I'm a poor swimmer anyhow. But reading a recent post from a fellow blogger at Fort McMurray Musings hit my frustration button. Theresa does a fantastic job at highlighting all the great things going on in our community and is a wonderful writer to boot. I've done my fair share of traveling around this great country, from Prince Edward Island to Vancouver Island, from Point Pelee way up to Resolute Bay, Nunavut. While I may have grown up in southern Ontario, I now find myself in Fort McMurray and proudly call it home.

I wish Ms. Murphy, writer of the SUN News article in question, would get out of her bubble and see the bigger world. Many of things you think you know about a place very often turn out to be wrong. (Of course, this is SUN News we're talking about here so I may just be engaging in wishful thinking and wasting my breath.) I've lost track of how many ill-informed and just plain ignorant comments I heard about Nunavut when I lived there. Nunavut isn't some barren wasteland. PEI isn't about potatoes and Anne of Green Gables, Saskatchewan isn't endless fields, Vancouver isn't the sole refuge of long-haired hippie protesters. Heck, even Toronto grew on me after awhile. Fort McMurray isn't all about "hookers and blow" and the flavour of her article suggests. We are definitely NOT a one horse town.

Now I did some searching a managed to locate an online version of the news item which can be foundhere. I realize the article has to do with financial matter but to simply thrown in statements about life here with no one to rebut them, she simply adds to old preconceptions. Perhaps Ms. Murphy is unaware, uninformed or simply has never paid our fair town a visit. Regardless of the reason, I found it necessary to fire off an email giving her my two cents. You can find my response to her article below.

Dear Ms. Murphy,

As a resident of Fort McMurray I am writing to express my disappointment and disgust with the focus of your recent article on Fort McMurray. While any growing urban centre has its issues I feel that focusing solely on problems and not counter-balancing this with the many positive things about our community only serves to reinforce prevailing negative stereotypes.

Contrary to what Mr. McGuire [a man interviewed in Murphy's article] states, the vast majority of Fort McMurrayites are not wandering around Franklin Avenue with "a ton of disposable income" and "little else to do." I myself bought a house and moved here with my family of 4 kids. I suspect there are many other families here as well. I can assure you there is PLENTY to do here. Those who complain there isn't simply aren't looking hard enough. We have the largest rec. facility in Western Canada, if not the country. We have an outstanding Junior Hockey Team in the midst of a stellar season. We have nature trails in spades, nearby Gregoire Lake Provincial Park, and many outdoor pursuits I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of. We have theatre events, concerts, a fantastic public college, a brand new middle school and high school that are a tech-lovers dream, tons of free events during the summer, community groups and clubs to suit all tastes and passions (apparently, there is even a scuba diving cub in town.)

And did I mention last summers KISS concert, and last season's first ever outdoor AJHL game which set an attendance record? I could go on. Writing an article, the simple gist of which being that people here have only "hookers and blow" to occupy their time is simply not accurate. On behalf of the many Fort McMurrayites who make this community our home, we invite you to come visit us to get a fuller picture of all this community has to offer. The idea that Fort McMurray is a one horse town is a ridiculous and facile stereotype. We who live here know best.


Darcy Steele,

A Proud McMurrayite and Albertan.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Scaffold Tree

Why buy a tree when you can build one? This Christmasy creation greeted me as I left work today. I was put together by one of my foreman using materials from our yard. With the exception of the lights, it's made of nothing more than a standard, and a bunch of ledgers and collars. The photo isn't mine. A co-worker beat me to it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

My Apologies To Harry Potter Fans

No, I haven't read any of the books in the Harry Potter series though my nephew has. The series has been around almost as long as he has. I know he read quite a few of the books though he didn't develop the obsession with them I remember seeing on the part of some young fans. I've always enjoyed a good read myself and through pure luck stumbled onto a few good books over this past summer by a certain Welsh author. I think I can relate somewhat to the excitement of a Harry Potter fan back in the day because while I used to think they were half nuts I have to admit I can't wait for the sequels for the books I have been reading to come out over the next few years.

I started out this past summer reading Ken Follett's novel "Fall of Giants", the first of a planned trilogy. As I said, it was a complete fluke I discovered this book. One afternoon back in the summer at the end of a work day, a summer student was reading a book as we waited to sign out from work and I happened to notice the date "1918" at the top of a page. I said something along the lines of "You must be reading something about the Great War." Anyhow, as a history buff, I found her subsequent synopsis of the novel, "Fall of Giants" piqued my interest so on my days off I headed down to the mall and picked up a copy.

Ken Follett was an author I had never heard of until then. But since I mostly stick with real history rather than historical fiction, I wasn't all that surprised. Glancing around on the shelf, my eye fell on two more titles "Pillars of the Earth" and "World Without End." Reading the back cover, I saw that they involved Medieval history, something I didn't spend much time studying at university but which I've grown more interested in in recent years, especially aspects such as architecture, church history and the guild system. I think I appreciate the history of guilds a little more since I am now currently eligible to go into the field as a second year apprentice scaffolder. The journeyman-apprentice relationship is touched upon and both "Pillars" and "World Without End" describe scaffolding in early construction. Talk about art imitating life. Anyhow, I picked up a copy of "Fall of Giants" first, read it, and then returned a short while later to purchase "Pillars of the Earth" and "World Without End".

I won't pretend to be a literary critic here. Follett has a very straight forward writing style. There isn't a lot a grand description or long, flowing sentences. More like an epic narrative along the lines of The Lord of The Ring trilogy. There isn't much character development. Good characters are good and bad characters stay bad and get their just reward at the end. On the surface, this doesn't sound all that interesting yet I find it a good read. My guess is that since I've read so much history from the eras the books portray that my brain just fills in the details and and compare what I read in the book to others I've read. My mind is engaged in imagining life in an everyday English town in the 14th century (I just recently started "World Without End") rather than focusing on the actual writing style itself. Anyhow, the book is proving to be a wonderful companion on my commutes to and from work. I know my some of my history professors might shoot me for saying this but I think Follett, while he has several strong female characters, gives them more power than they probably would have had at the time. For a self-professed atheist, though I find he does an admirable and fair job at portraying the everyday workings of a medieval priory and the thought processes of the people involved.

So having said all this I am now trying to finish off "World Without End" so that I will be ready to tackle Book 2 of Follett's Century trilogy when it comes out next year. Apparently, once this trilogy is completed, a follow up to "World Without End" is due out sometime in 2014 I believe. So while I'm not about to dress up like a wizard or wear a funny set of glasses and line up at the wee hours of the morning in front of Cole's Books down at Peter Pond Mall (what a scary sight that would be), I do find myself fidgeting with anticipation for these next books to come hot off the presses.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Occupy Fort McMurray!

Normally I wouldn't do this but a few on-line discussions had me thinking this morning about the "Occupy" movement and its distinct lack of presence here in Fort McMurray. I have no idea why this is so. After all, this community is seen by viewed by some elements as the "dirty oil" capital of Canada, an environmentalist's version of Satan incarnate if you will. What better way to voice your objections to the oil industry than by venturing up Highway 63 on a "holier-than-thou-because-I-am-a-university-educated-urbanite" pilgrimage into the belly of the beast?

Ah, but where to hold said protest? Fort McMurray isn't a huge place by American, or even Canadian, standards but it is fairly spread out geographically. After a great deal of pontification and some consultations with the great tree goddess, it suddenly came to me. Forget downtown (see reason 4 below) or even uppity Timberlea. What better place to pitch a tent and hold a protest than in my little corner of Thickwood?! Need some reasons? Awesome! Thanks for asking. I have plenty.

1. Thickwood overpass - The recently completed Thickwood overpass will get you to your tent right quick. No more stopping at the set of lights at the bottom of the hill. Did I mention it opened ahead of schedule? See! It's like we've been expecting you.

2. Tim Horton's - We only have 2 Timmies and one of them is right here in Thickwood! Better yet, the drive-thru was recently expanded into 2 lanes. No more long lines stretching out of the parking lot and down Thickwood Boulevard. For those who prefer Starbucks instead, look no further than the Safeway on Signal Road right around the corner.

3. Birchwood Trail - For those needing a daily nature fix, the Birchwood Trail system is within easy walking distance and highly recommended. Tree-hugging fetishists could spend a lifetime there.

4. Less traffic congestion - Franklin Avenue downtown can be a traffic nightmare at times, particularly during shift change.

5. Casman Centre - Thickwood is home to the Casman Centre where our AJHL hockey team plays. The Oil Barons are having a fantastic season and tickets are quite reasonable so if you need a break head here. You can even network among visiting fans and spread your message across Alberta. Calgary (home base for many oil companies) has 2 AJHL teams. You can double your audience right there. Incidentally, the Fort McMurray Oil Barons are locally known as the MOB. Think about it - your mob meets the MOB!

6. Easy access to MacDonald Island, Fort McMurray's Island Playground! - Take the 1A from Thickwood to city hall and hop the #9 bus from there.

7. Lots of Parks and Green spaces - Hellen Pacholko Park is just down the road from The Dollar Store for your shopping convenience.

And finally...sick of hearing all those one-percenters berate you to "get a job"......we have plenty of employment opportunities here!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Mr Johnston

Back when I was taking my history degree at the University of Windsor I took a course covering the Second World War. A large part of the mark for the course involved writing an essay based on the experiences of a local veteran. Now I've heard it said you learn and appreciate history more when you see it through the eyes of someone who was there and lived it. I still have no reason to question this maxim. As a result of this assignment I met a most remarkable man - Mr. Johnston.

One pleasant fall afternoon I found myself on the doorstep of his home in the east end of Windsor. He invited me in and I learned and grasped more about the experience of war than I could have from reading any textbook...and I've read countless texts on all sorts of topics and sub-topics surrounding WWII over the years. At the time I was serving in a local reserve regiment. Obviously my experience were a complete joke compared with what he went through. But I found that he treated me like a fellow soldier and I greatly respected him for that. While he had slowed down somewhat with age (he was well into his 80's at the time) you could sense from his manner that back in his prime he was a real man's man. I'm sure he would have given some of my old training sergeants a run for their money.

Mr. Johnston spoke of the need for service, for standing up for what you believed in, for doing the right thing even if it may not seem popular today. He participated in the ill-fated Battle of Dunkirk (where he was wounded), fought in Italy (where he was again wounded) and the latter part of the war found him in Europe. All told, the man was wounded 4 TIMES and yet he wasn't about to let "a few scratches" as he called them stop him from what he felt needed to be done.

Sure I did well on the assignment but I haven't a clue what I wrote. I can't recite a single sentence I committed to paper. But I totally remember Mr. Johnston. My biggest regret is that I didn't keep in contact with him. But I carry fond memories of a feisty, determined and well-spoken man (to say nothing of his sacrifice and bravery) with me to this day. He embodied many qualities I feel are sadly lacking within my own generation but which were commonplace then. Thank you for your life lessons, Mr. Johnston. I will carry them with me always.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Super Fail

So the snow I blogged about in my previous post materialized over night....with some pretty crazy consequences. It wasn't very much snow, hardly anything to get excited over, though it did cause a traffic nightmare this morning on the way to work for a lot of people. I'm sure there are many people tonight thinking, "How the heck could the city have been so unprepared?!"

My first hint of what was to come came as my bus pulled up this morning and I saw the back tires skid a little on the road.   Rather than heading down the hill from Thickwood, my bus headed over to Timberlea as it had done the day before.  There is a bus-only lane there which allows us to hit the highway much quicker.  Everything seemed fine and dandy and I dozed off.  When I awoke awhile later we were parked in solid traffic somewhere on 63 and my phone told me it was 7:30am.   Initially I thought I had perhaps caught the wrong bus. It's happened before. But no, that wasn't the case.

Road and weather conditions conspired to turn the highway into an icy mess. Super Test was down to a single lane and then closed off. It was simply too dangerous for the bus company to send its buses down this big hill. There must have been a good dozen vehicles in the ditch at the bottom. Both north- and south-bound traffic was stopped until the situation improved. I had doubts about whether we'd make it up the 8% grade but thankfully we made managed. We ended up being pretty lucky as I caught word that another bus had been rear-ended by a pick-up at Suncor's base plant. Passengers were transferred to another bus which then later side-swiped or grazed a concrete divider. I only know of this because a couple guys I work with happened to be on that bus. In any event, no one was hurt but I'm sure it was quite the little experience. My foreman drove in this morning in a company truck. Leaving Timberlea at 5:10am, he got into work at 10am.

As for my bus, I got on around 5:40am this morning and clocked in at 9:23am. There were only three others that made it in ahead of me and work didn't commence until almost 11am, after we finished clearing the snow from the yard. Hopefully tomorrow's commute will much less of an ordeal. At any rate, I'm glad I decided to pack a really big book.

Monday, November 7, 2011

We Know It's Coming

I don't recall the date of our first measurable snow fall last year but it seems to me we are a little late this year. I'm fairly certain we had at least something on the ground, if only temporarily, by Hallowe'en last year. So far it looks like we have lucked out (or lucked in) at its looks like every other place I've lived in over the past few years has had at least some snowfall by now. Weather here can be as unpredictable as in any other place as I was reminded when looking through some photos from shortly after we bought our place here....

March 2010...The snow had completely melted.

In early April, we got a rather unexpected deluge of snow. If you look carefully you should be able to make out our neighbor's pine tree. The poor thing got clobbered beyond recovery.

Our poor backyard tree went from this..... this....

I honestly thought the thing was done for. It obviously had 9 lives though. Following a little minor surgery on a few branches it bounced back just fine.

This was our street in the aftermath.

Snow is predicted in the next few days. Time to wait and watch....and perhaps dust off the shovel.