Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Protocols were not observed

I was at a conference a couple of weeks back.

I thought all was going well.

Suddenly with no warning one of the participants stood up.

"Protocols were not observed," he said. This was followed by a long speech about observing protocols, what the protocols were, and how upset he was they had not been followed.  Then a series of apologies, a scurrying around to make it up to the offended party, more apologies. Tears were shed.

There had never been any intention of rudeness. People simply did not know what the protocols were. Yet trust was broken.  It became almost impossible to move forward.

It was awkward.

I left.

Last week in a political group I belong to, protocols were not observed.  I'm not sure how innocent the breaking of the protocols. They had not been made clear.  But trust was lost.

It's hard to come back from.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

The colour of your skin

I was four. Mom said we were going shopping. We were going shopping for a doll for me.

I already owned three dolls, See-See, Susie and Freckly Face. My parents had this adorable habit of letting me name my own toys.

But back to my story. A new doll? That I could pick out myself? What?

We went to Kresge's and the Co-op. The local toy store. But none of the dolls we saw would do. We were looking for a "special" doll said Mom.  Finally we found it in Woolworth's.  This one, she says. I was dubious. She had no clothes. But she was pretty.

What are you going to call her? Mom says. Chocolate, says I. I was a kid. What did I know? My mom must have thought, well, there's a lesson in cultural diversity gone wrong.
Freckly-face, See-See, Chocolate, and Susie
The year I got the doll, my parents adopted my brother. My mom didn't think she could have more kids and my parents wanted more. The social worker asked them if they would consider adopting a child of a different race. The question threw them. They hadn't thought about it. Of course, they said. What difference would it make? 

So my brother was adopted. He was my brother. I never thought about the colnour of his skin. Except in summer when my skin burnt red and his was golden brown. I didn't think much about his race or even what "adopted" meant. We were family.

In Dawson Creek in the early 1960s, there weren't many people of colour. I suppose the special doll was my mom's way of showing me there were people in the world who didn't look like me because in my world,  among the Jenkins and the Dixons and the Jorgensons and the Baliskys and the Connellys, there were just a tiny handful of families who weren't white. Except for the indigenous people like my brother and sister who didn't look like me, but somehow didn't seem "different".

There were the Asian  families. Mr. Mah who owned the Mile Zero Cafe and always gave my Dad whiskey or "special Chinese tea" when we went for Chinese food.Bing Mah who owned Bing's furniture.Japanese Mr. Seto who owned Seto's Studios. Mrs. Parmar from Pakistan who taught grade 4.

The native kids certainly weren't as exotic as the Hamiltons. Mr. Hamilton, the story went, was an American working on the Alaska Highway who fell in love with a local lady. Herbie Hamilton was in my grade. Phyllis Mounce was my age too. She was adopted. They were our token African Canadians.  Everyone wanted to be their friends to prove they didn't care about skin colour. We were so proud that we did not discriminate against Herbie and Phyllis and the Mahs and Mr. Seto. In the heat of the civil rights movement, we white Dawson Creek kids knew we weren't like our U.S. neighbours who were the kind of racists we saw in the photos of riots and protest marches in Life Magazine.

We studied cultures and customs of people all over the world, but we never talked about our native classmates as having a unique way of life or their own spiritual beliefs. We knew their ancestors were here before our ancestors but we didn't wonder much about how they lived. They were just like us, weren't they? Except in Dawson Creek in the 1960s, we didn't go to their houses and they didn't come to ours. We were just kids. We didn't wonder why they were poor and we were middle class. We didn't wonder why by junior high their numbers dwindled. Or that by high  school, there was just one. Lorna Laboucan, whatever happened to you? 

I'm not a kid anymore. The things I never thought about back then haunt me now. 

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Like if you packed your X-Box

Our Evacuation Timeline: May 14 and 15 2011. Pieced together from dated text messages, Facebook posts and time stamped photos.

May 14

5:15     Nicola leaves for Athabasca with daughter, Elizabeth and disabled elderly mother Janet to attend a ballet performance put on by her cousin, Kerry. As they were leaving, Len says to keep an ear to the radio as there were wildfire reports.  They listened to local radio and CBC news until 6:30 but no fire reports
6:45    When they arrived Athabasca, they receive a text from Len saying highway from Mitsue closed due to fire.
8:15    Len phones Nicola to tell them that the fire situation is very bad.  Nicola checks CBC and CTV web news via iphone but no reports
8:57    Nicola receives a Facebook message from friend, Ellen Criss who reports that the highway at Mitsue turnoff is closed and they are stuck on the road there
9:00    Nicola receives a text from Hart asking where the rabbit cage is. 
9:45    Nicola calls home: Len tells her that he has been photographing the Mitsue fire which was moving quickly towards town.  Kerry contacted RCMP officer at dance the recital Highway is closed, possible access through Wabasca, no guarantee.  No internet reporting
10:30   Nicola checks into a hotel.  No TV or internet report of fire. AMA reports road open.  Local state of emergency declared for the town of Slave Lake.
11:39  Nicola receives a Facebook message via Blackberry from Ellen Criss who reports the highway has been opened back to Slave Lake
1:00  Hart and Len drive around town where the wind has died and smoke fills the air. Bulldozers are widening firebreak along Highway 88 beside town.

May 15

9:00 a.m.  Nicola finds no internet reports, AMA reports road closed. CTV runs short story on TV. She receives FB confirmation from Cindy Harmata that they got through on the road last night.
9:52    Residents southeast of town are on 2 hour evacuation notice and residents of Popular Estates east of town have been evacuated. 
10:18  Nicola leaves for Slave Lake.  Local radio news not reporting the fire. View from highway shows spot fires throughout Mitsue area, nothing huge
12:00    Nicola arrives home
2:30    Town website states “Town of Slave Lake not under evacuation notice.” 
2:45    Evacuation for entire South Shore has been ordered reported on local radio. All residents must register at Northern Lakes College.
3:00    Lake FM reports Roland Michener is temporary evacuation site.  Go over to see if help is needed. Friend Ross MacDonald is there.  Wait around
3:30    Neighbour Randy Ross, government employee in charge of evacuation, arrives to say no one is needed at school
4:15    Nicola goes to mall to buy dog food and beer, returns home. Power goes off during trip home.
4:20    Power goes back on.  Nicola and Len drive to edge of community trail near 14th ave and Highway 88 to see fire progress.  Thick smoke and flames can be seen.  Speculate that the angle of wind appears to be more to the south to miss our neighbourhood
4:40    Return home.  Hart and Elizabeth are packing personal items and checking internet, primarily  Widewater and Wagner have been evacuated. Lake FM broadcasts there is no evacuation notice in effect
Power goes out and then comes back on. 
5:10    Update on states there is no evacuation notice and that highway 88 and highway 2 east and west are closed
Power goes out.  We try to get internet updates on CBC and CTV and –no news
5:30    Len takes photos of the contents of the house
5:35    Go out and speak to neighbours who are packing vehicles and looking towards the fire. Lady across the street has been told to report to work to the hospital. 
5:40    Len’s photos reveal a fireball in the sky just east of the town. Randy Ross returns home frantic about the location of his daughter. We ask him what to do, he says the latest word is evacuate to college and wait. Randy Ross says the emergency plan is to “stand and defend.” 

Lester Perrott, a former forester drives by.  He’s been evacuated from Widewater and does not know where to go.  We tell him he is supposed to go to the college.  We ask him what to do.  He takes one look back at the approaching fire and says “Go.” Former student Cody drives by and tells us 13th street is on fire. Neighbour returns from hospital, yells at Cody, he hops in with the neighbours truck and they drive off
5:54    Phone Jordan on cell in Edmonton to tell her to get on and provide us with an evacuation route.
5:57    Jordan calls back to say latest update is 5:10 on –telling people highway 88 and highway 2 west is closed, highway 2 east is open, and there is no evacuation notice
We get both kids, their boxes of treasures, a change of clothes, Jordan's grad dress needed for upcoming event, Janet, two dogs and the rabbit in the van, leaving the other vehicle behind. We drive down 5th ave toward TAGS. Get to corner of 5th and 10th street-cops are directing us south,
6:03    Elizabeth sends Jordan text “We found cops. We’re leaving.” Still no evacuation notice on
6:14   We exit town by driving up an embankment at the end of 14 ave, along the community trails to highway 88 and then highway 2 heading west
6:15   On highway, Elizabeth texts Jordan to tell her we are out
6:09   Jordan is with her friend Krista from Slave Lake who’s frantic about her parents who are still in their house waiting to be notified about the evacuation.  Jordan sends us a text to say Krista was calling Glen and Sheila to tell them to leave from the NE.
6:15   Hart's Facebook status “Like if you packed your x-box”
6:26   We arrive at former Noralta Lodge parking lot.
7:45   Robin Lee Vance says the highway south is opening
8:00    People start driving back towards Slave Lake.  Move at walking pace. 
8:30    See our neighbourhood which is along the highway.  Neighbours are standing along the spillway  See our house which is one block from the spillway,  2 or 3 blocks away from the fire. Len, Elizabeth and Hart return to house for items. 
8:45    Elizabeth and Len take the other car and drive out via community trails. No police or security people present.  Fire could be seen behind playground.  A lot of explosions can be heard from houses a couple of blocks to the south. On community trails were two young firefighters hosing down spot fires in the trees on the east side of town. 

10:09  Mandatory evacuation notice is announced

Monday, 9 May 2016

Red Cross and other Agencies

Some people have been asking me about the Red Cross.

The Red Cross does a great job dealing with emergencies, getting emergency response volunteers on the ground, getting emergency services in place immediately, and registering evacuees so everyone is accounted for. They are quite frankly amazing at that. The Red Cross is a registered Canadian charitable organization and as such must be regularly audited. It receives high ratings from organizations that rate charities in terms of efficiency and transparency.

The money people donate to the Red Cross is earmarked for the initiative they donate to. So in Slave Lake, more than 5.5 million was collected in donations and it all went to the community. The same will happen for Fort McMurray. 55 million has been donated so far and that amount will be tripled as the provincial government and federal government are providing matching sums.

So why do people complain about the Red Cross?

First, although they apparently spend just over 17% of their budget in administration, they certain seem to spend a lot of money on staff and volunteers.

The second problem and the one that evokes the most anger is the way the Red Cross distributes direct aid. There is apparently some kind of formula but it's unclear what that formula is. And that direct aid to individuals and families does not continue after the initial crisis as far as I know.

Take a look at the Slave Lake example. In the first year following the Slave Lake fires there was:

· $770,000 in direct aid for food, clothes, household goods, occupational supplies, rent, utilities, mortgage payments, damage deposits and so on

· $2 million for community development projects (see list below)

· $400,000 for rent and improvements for Slave Lake interim library

· $529,000 for staff and volunteers

· $229,000 for Red Cross Slave Lake office and facility

· $815,000 for transportation and housing of aid workers

· $800,000 to support ongoing recovery operations of the Red Cross in Slave Lake

If you consider that more than 700 families lost their homes, this translates to an average of just over $1000 per family in direct aid and more than 1.5 million in staff and office costs.

Rumours circulate that if you had insurance, you did not get Red Cross financial aid. Or if you earned over a certain amount, you were disqualified from receiving assistance. Could evacuees who did not lose their homes get assistance? I do not not know the answer. I asked but I did not receive a reply other than "visit our website."

Community projects

The following worthy causes received Red Cross funding.

· Healthy Snack Program Providing a free snack to all children
· Family Fun Night Free activities for families
· Student Hot Lunch- Koinonia Christian School
· Tuesday's Lunch Program Providing lunch to junior & high school students.
· Breakfast Program Grades 7-12 Purchasing new equipment to upgrade.
· Art with a Heart Transportation of art donations
· Ukrainian Society Replacing costumes lost in the fire
· Youth Drop-in Programs at Field House
· Lakeside Nursery Replacing lost equipment and repairs
· Wolves Hockey Replacing destroyed hockey equipment that was lost in the fire.
· Slave Lake Scouts Replacing lost equipment, and to waiving fees
· Slave Lake Boys and Girls Club Delivering after school programs
· Slave Lake Boxing Club Helping to cover equipment replacement
· Slave Lake Friendship Centre Helping cover the cost of renovations to the facility
· Slave Lake Legion Helping cover the cost of renovations to the facility
· Slave Lake Catholic Church Helping cover the cost of repairing the flooring
· Slave Lake Elks Lodge Helping cover the cost of repairs to the lodge’s roof
· Gilwood Golf Course Supporting community meeting place
· Multi-Recreation Centre Enhancements to the centre
· New Daycare facility
· Mental Health Initiative
· Youth Leadership & Resiliency Program
· Community Kitchen

What about direct aid?

As it did for Slave Lake, the Alberta government provides emergency funding to all registered evacuees. While you need to be registered with the Red Cross to get your money, the money comes from provincial tax dollars. Not the Red Cross.

Handing out cash brings a whole world of other problems. What criteria is used to decide who gets it? What proof of need is required? Who polices it?

Food banks and Friendship Centres are the only other organizations I know that give direct aid, but just in the form of food as far as I know. These all have some degree of oversight and administrative costs and they all do good work.I don't believe any of them hand out cash. If anyone knows otherwise, please comment.

The Rotary collected donations for Slave Lake that went into many excellent local projects. All of it. No middle man. The Rotary has set up a charitable fund for Fort Mac and all money donated will go to programmes there based on established needs. But it will not go to individuals.


  • If you really want to help individuals, act locally. See what is happening in your own town. Are there evacuees there? Your local Friendship Center or food bank is where I would start. 
  • If there is a cause you are keen on, do some research and donate there. Schools, libraries, museums, animal shelters, performing arts organizations, women's shelters, hospital auxiliaries- they will all need a helping hand. Even if their facility is standing, they will have lost volunteers, person-hours, and local fundraising potential. 
  • If you want to donate to 100% locally managed projects with no admin costs, consider the Rotary. 
  • If you want your money to go a long way through matching grants, if you want to donate to a large organization with a long history of donating to disaster relief and community programming, the Red Cross is a viable option. But I think it's time for them to be more transparent about how these donations are allocated. 

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Hey Mom

Hey Mom.

Remember when you used to make fun of the neighbour lady who said getting a dishwasher changed her life because now she could vacuum twice a day?

Remember how you used to say "Housework is for people who can't think of better things to do?"

Remember how you used to host all those big parties and Dad would disappear into the basement for three hours doing who knows what and we used to scramble around cleaning up and then you would say "One of you go outside and come back in and tell me what is the first thing you notice?" And whatever we would see is the thing you made us clean up next?

Remember that year I was away at school and I came home in March and you hadn't taken down the Christmas tree yet?

Remember how when I moved away and I would come home on weekends the first thing I did was clean out all the old food from the fridge that you and Dad never got around to eating?

Remember that time just after I got married and I was supposed to make chinese for dinner and you couldn't find the wok? Remember how mad I was? Because how can you lose a wok?

If you were still here, even if dementia hadn't taken you, I bet you would remember none of those things. Or maybe if I reminded you, you would get that distant look, and shrug and laugh and remind me you had better things to do than housework.

Just thought you would like to know that I just found some chickpeas in the back of the fridge that have been there since December. Along with the dip I made for my big Christmas party. And I haven't vacuumed in a month. And the first thing you would notice coming in my front door is the dirty floor or maybe the pile of books/minutes/notes on the piano or the pile of shopping bags I keep forgetting to take to the car. And I didn't move the box with the Christmas tree in it out to the garage until the day Elizabeth came home for Easter. I only moved it because I knew she would roll her eyes at me. And I honestly have no idea where my wok is. Maybe the laundry room like everything else I can't find.

Just thought you would like to know.  

Happy Mother's Day.

Saturday, 7 May 2016


"There is a massive wildfire in northern Alberta and it is heading directly for Slave Lake!" 

That was the voice of Peter Mansbridge on "The National" 15 years ago. 

As the Chisholm fire approached our town, our mayor's reassuring voice was heard on local radio every 15 minutes, informing us how far away the fire was and how fast it was travelling. Then it was "Be on standby..." and then "Be prepared to evacuate immediately..." Treasures gathered, we stood with our neighbours on doorsteps and driveways, watching the sky as ash and burned pine needles rained down on us. 

Then winds changed, the welcome smell of rain...and we were safe.

The welcome smell of rain from my driveway, May 2001
Five years ago today, another massive wildfire headed directly for Slave Lake. This time, no reassuring words from the Mayor. No regular updates. Just an occasional "Slave Lake is NOT on evacuation notice" on local radio and no mention whatsoever on any news network. 

Still we gathered on doorsteps and driveways watching the sky. 

The terrifying sky, from my driveway, May 15 2011
The terrifying sky. 

Then the power went out and the radio fell silent. And still no emergency alerts. And then we were searching for our families and getting into our vehicles, driving through smoke and wind-born cinders and fire, roads blocked in all directions, until highways re-opened and we joined the long lines of traffic to welcoming communities wherever we found them.

Two weeks later we were home.

Those of us who had houses to go to were greeted with a pail of cleaning supplies and a packet of instructions, including signs to put in windows to alert utilities companies when services had been restored.  Seeing the signs "DONE. DONE. DONE. DONE." meant your house was back to normal and you could go on with your life. We looked for those signs. 

We wanted it to be done. All of it. We wanted everything back the way it was. 

These are old stories for Slave Lake. 

Stories we told.

Stories we shared. 

Stories that are now part of our history as individuals and as a community. Stories we thought we were done with.  Until images of the Fort McMurray fire flooded our media channels, our hearts, our minds and our guts. A friend emailed me. "I can't stop looking at the pictures. I'm mesmerized. And I smell smoke." Another said, "I felt physically sick. Like a punch to the stomach." My normally calm daughter who lived through our fire and now lives elsewhere told me she started shaking and she couldn't stop.Suddenly it all came flooding back. We relived it all over again.The escape. The relief of learning no one was lost. The not knowing. The brutal return. The devastation. The loss.

You think you're done. 
You think it's all back to normal.
But you're not done.
The fire and all that came after is part of you now. Part of us.
You'll never be done. 
Would you want to be?

Thursday, 5 May 2016

What not to say

I said some of these things a few years ago. It's too late to take them back. But not too late for others who might be dealing with those who have just been evacuated from Fort McMurray.

Don't say...
  • Did you lose your house? People lost more than a house. They lost the place where they could close the door and just be themselves. They lost the life they used to live and their dreams of the future they planned on living  But everyone loses something in a disaster like this. Your community is never the same. You lose neighbours and friends. You lose a sense of security for yourself and your family.
  • They're only things. The only people allowed to say that are those who experienced the loss. Our possessions are more than things. All the furniture and nicknacks and mementos and artwork and journals and books and photos. The things that were passed down from the previous generations. They are history. They are memories. People are allowed to grieve for them.
  • At least no one died Okay, it's true. It's a miracle. We all know it. We all celebrate it. But by saying it we minimize the trauma people experienced. We may make people feel bad about feeling sorry for themselves even though they are entitled to do so.
  • Insurance will pay for it Insurance comes with its own set of headaches. Imagine sitting in a room with someone you don't know for hours and possibly days listing every single possession you owned. Remembering everything you lost. Then fighting to get compensation.And forgetting to list things that you now won't be compensated for. All while still in a state of shock.
  • You'll get a brand new house! These people mostly did not build the houses they lost. They did not choose to rebuild again. Now they are faced with a million decisions from finding a contractor who won't gouge them or go bankrupt mid-build or leave them with more problems than the old house, to choosing floor plans and appliances and paint colours and door pulls and furniture. All the while thinking of everything they no longer have to put in this new house.
So what should you say?  

"I'm so sorry."

"How can I help?"

Or just listen.

That is enough.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Take Courage, Fort Mac

What is courage?

Courage is the wildland firefighter who stands in swirling flames, fighting the fire. Courage is the last nurse making sure her patient is safely evacuated. Courage is the pilot who descends time after time to dump water on the flames. Courage is the cop who stands in wind and smoke and debris, directing people to safety. But courage too, is the neighbor who let you into the line of traffic so you could make your escape. Courage is the volunteer who came to rescue your dog. Courage is the unknown man who gave you his gas so you could drive away. Courage is driving past the flames, through the dark, without food or water, not knowing what awaits. Not knowing where your friends and family are. Courage is waking up tomorrow, not knowing if you have a home to return to.

Have courage, Fort Mac.

Because you will find courage comes from the smallest of things. It seems bleak now, possibly as bleak a time as you will ever know.  But you will find hope in the days and weeks that follow. You will find it in the homes of hundreds of people who open their doors to you. In the meals cooked by volunteers. In hugs from total strangers. In the companionship of those who cry beside you. In the new friends who will share your journey. 

Take courage.

We have been where you are. We know you have the strength to overcome.


Slave Lake
Rebirth of a forest after the Chisholm Fire

Monday, 2 May 2016

I just can't wait

400 middle aged white guys met in the middle of the province, vowing to form a new party to defeat the NDP in the next provincial election.

They want a return to the past where middle aged white men were in charge. Guys such as the pouty millionaires who begged us all to vote PC last April. Perhaps then, and only then, when the wealthy and entitled "Look in the mirror" PCs and the homophobic, climate science denying, "we-don't-have-a-social-policy" WR,and all the "commonsense conservatives" join together, can the voice of the centre-left be terminated.

They call themselves "Albertans Can't Wait". 

I don't know what it is they can't wait for. 
#WeAreAlberta is their hashtag. If you're not with them, apparently, you're not an Albertan. See all those tiny flags?  See how much they love Alberta? More than I do I guess, since I don't go around waving a flag, wearing my heart on my sleeve, or proclaiming how patriotic I am.  

Grande Prairie's Chris Warkentin says "
This kind of enthusiasm hasn’t been seen in provincial politics for decades."  


Maybe he doesn't know what excitement looks like.

Or maybe he was dozing in his comfy MP chair when more than 700,000 people didn't vote conservative a year ago.  I seem to recall a lot of excitement then. From those who threw out the PC government and couldn't stomach the Wildrose. 

Or maybe it just doesn't seem like excitement it it's not waving a damn flag.

Back in 1970, the Brotherhood of Man penned the following: 
United we stand...divided we fall....And if our backs should ever be against the wall....We'll be together, together you and I
Take another listen, Albertans Can't Wait. Do you really think Albertans need another right wing party?

As for me, I know what it is I can't wait for.

Five parties on the far right. 

Just in time for the next election.