Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fort Mac: Returning and Redefined

In about a week, barring any unforeseen reversals, the citizens of Fort McMurray will begin taking the first steps toward cobbling together the routines of daily life. The odyssey toward that new normal will prove to be a daunting, lengthy and ambitious task. After having so much support and comfort from strangers during the four weeks that they have been taking scattered refuge across the Alberta and beyond, they will now have to grapple with the apprehensions and anxieties of trying to put so many things back together, realizing at ever step along the way that they will have to wait for even the most basic and overlooked of daily requirements.

The people of Fort McMurray will need time to reorient themselves to the landscape and will drive north more slowly to absorb the change and take a bit more time to prepare themselves for the extent to which their environment will have changed.  They will need new bearings in this familiar but altered place and then from there they will try to look within and determine what they will need going forward. The list of the tangible will be easy to form and will be lengthened and reinforced with each turn of the head, each wet blink and the new horizons.  The intangible will be harder to account for and the challenge will be to hang onto the optimism to maintain that list with the hope that they might put and "x" or a checkmark in a box or two on that mental list of what they need to make life go on.

In preparation for the return of citizens to the city, Fort Mac's infrastructure has been assessed and tested and its needs triaged.  There will be gaps and shortfalls in the weeks and months ahead and early patience will come from people being in their homes once again after weeks of transience and uncertainty. The individual task of cleaning up will be unpleasant with, at the very least, the hazmat preparations required to reenter one's abandoned kitchen and address the state it might be in after the power being off as long as it has. That grotesquery will be the tip of the iceberg of the challenges that people will face in sorting their lives out.  For those who have lost their homes and still face the precarious questions about their employment and their future face even more daunting questions about their present and future, including the question of whether they ever go back. Once again, people in Fort McMurray will feel the peril of being in the crosshairs of forces far beyond their control.

For all that though, Fort McMurray has been taken to the hearts of the country in the last four weeks. For much of the last decade and a half, if not longer, the city was synonymous with the largesse of the oilsands, the oil industry's indifference to the environment and the excess that oil wealth induced in the people who lived there or were just passing through. For the longest time, Fort Mac had was a place that was home for only a few and only for a short time. That reputation was among the first things engulfed in the flames first threatened the city.

The citizens of Fort Mac who will reunite in the weeks ahead will realize a strong longing for the neighbours that they shared this nightmare with and as they gather to survey the damage and the good fortune they will be able to communicate volumes to one another, if only with a terse nod, a smile twisted to hold back tears or hugs warmed with the deepest of unspoken promises. As they go back to put their hearts and shoulders into the task of toughing out the months ahead and eking out the life they once had there, they will also carve out a deeper sense of community than one would attribute to a place with such a long-standing reputation for transience.

Fort McMurray now resonates in our collective vocabulary as a place that requires a commitment and an homage from the people who go there, no matter how long they stay. As newcomers - people without the firsthand experience of the May 2016 fire - start to arrive again, there will be among them an impulse to connect with this particular volume of the city's history and survey the landscape for the scars and victories that the city has been left with.  The reminders and reminiscences will be on the lips of those who remain and there will be a closeness amongst those who remain in Fort Mac. There ought to be enormous pride among Fort McMurray's citizens for what they have survived and what they will rebuild in the years ahead and, hopefully, that pride will infuse the people and the streets of Fort McMurray with a sense of community that will ensure the city's future is a bright one no matter what uncertainty they face in the weeks and months to come.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Geographer Poet

Eight years ago, on a road trip to Seattle for my bachelor party weekend, we made a required stop for gas. My best friend, the best man who had organized the trip, meandered a few steps to take a picture of the hotel that was in eyeshot, the Golden Rim Motor Inn.

I knew nothing of the place or the nostalgia it evoked in my friend. To me, it was nothing more than another roadside landmark windmilled into view during the pursuit of the horizon or the next time zone. The poetry of the near rhyme and the perfect cadence of those four words evokes so much in the imagination: the story of a small town businessman's ambition in building such a place with its "soft water and colour TV" (and water slide); the alternation of adventure and tedium of the road for touring musicians or any other itinerants earning their keep by venturing on to the next town. As an aside, the hotel is now the Days Inn Golden and the Trans-Canada charm of the maiden name lost to a corporate boilerplate that is far, far less evocative or is so in a pejorative sense.

As news hit us this morning that Gord Downie, the electric, eclectic, eccentric force of the Canadian rock stage has been diagnosed with brain cancer, I thought of that hotel on the side of the road in Golden and how he stored the poetry of that name, filed it among the mental notes and jotted it in a journal until he penned "The Luxury." On this occasion, as so many others throughout his career with The Tragically Hip he elevated this little unknown place, one of hundreds or thousands strung out along the spine of the Trans Canada Highway and elevated it. Could anyone possibly calculate the number of times people have stopped at this hotel for a shot like this or how many will stop in the days and years ahead to acknowledge the way that Gord Downie elevated this hotel to this particular height of Canadiana?

Throughout his exceptionally literate and explicitly Canadian canon, Gord (which the Barenaked Ladies insisted in its wry way is the most quintessentially Canadian of names) has harvested the fabric of this country's history, geography, tragedies and passions in a way the few other songwriters have even tried.  Stan Rogers comes to mind with the flurry of what-if's about his too-brief career. Over the course of the 30-plus years that The Hip have held command over their fans, they have done it with a passion for this country as a source of inspiration and material in a way that coincided with a remarkable transition in the state of the Canadian identity.

I was not in Canada during the time that The Hip were at their peak.  I left the country a few months before the 1995 referendum in Quebec and returned home the day before the 2010 Winter Olympics were awarded to Vancouver in July 2003. When I left, the long-lingering navel gazing over the Canadian identity was the rich source of conversation that it had always been and when I had returned there was a pride in the country and a sense of unity that I would not have anticipated in the fall of 1995 when people asked me if I would have a country to return home to.

On the musical front throughout their career and especially at their peak, Gord Downie and The Hip mapped and excavated this country in a manner that went far beyond the rock band mandate.  They have made Canadians -- of my generation at least, and hopefully our kids -- aware of the breadth and depth of our land in ways we used to tell each other that a once-empowered CBC used to do. We know a little more about the hidden corners of the country, our heroes, our artists, our authors, our villains and victims and get the pre-web Yelp review thrown in for good measure.

For that, we have every reason - fan or not - to be thankful for the career that Gord Downie has had and given to this country. This rock star who is equal parts Earle Birney, David Thompson and Michael Stipe (have I misstepped on my choice of front man?) has left an indelible mark on Canada, its music and its sense of self.  Today and in the days ahead, we will pause to honour and contemplate the work he has done. In the concert halls we will congregate to thank him in the months ahead but we will always be able to pause on a street corner, in a library, in a canoe or at the next bend in the highway to pay homage to the corners of this country that he has illuminated and shone a light on with his poet's brush.

Thanks, Gord.  Godspeed.