What’s The Story Wood Buffalo?

There is something mythic about the city called Fort McMurray.

The stories make it sound like the Emerald City in the land of Oz. Streets are paved with gold, people come and go in a flash, and there are challenges for which you need brains, heart, and courage. There is even a fancy bridge with an arch that lights up in rainbow colours…and a rainbow crosswalk, too.

That is the fabled Fort McMurray…

But that alone is not Wood Buffalo, which is what those who live here, in this very real place, call one of the largest municipalities in Canada.

After the wildfire — after everyone in Canada saw a community evacuating on the one road out of Fort McMurray — the community stories changed a bit. So did mine. The more I tried to describe the evacuation and loss of our home, the more my story became rote.  I reduced it to humorous anecdotes that I got down pat: how I grabbed a rolling pin while I was leaving my house, in case I needed to bake an emergency apple pie; how I took some sleigh bells off a shelf, even though it was the hottest day of the year.

After my book about the wildfire was published, a lot of people told me their own stories. For the most part, they include funny anecdotes about putting on shoes that didn’t match, giant dogs in tiny cars, as well as those challenges that needed a brain, a heart, and some nerve. There are interesting characters, and the story ends more-or-less happily, with families safe and a town rebuilding from the ashes.

Those are the stories we tell outsiders. We tell them because we are tired of the finger-pointing that comes with living in an oil town, from those convinced that extracting oil makes one more complicit in climate change than driving a car or heating a home or flying on a plane. We tell stories of neighbour helping neighbour, stranger helping stranger, of the Indigenous communities that opened their doors as we poured out of the city of Fort McMurray and into that larger region we know as Wood Buffalo. Water shared, sandwiches made, homes opened, help in every quarter.

We know that this narrative is important because often the mainstream news media – which I love and read every day – seems largely clueless about our town. Stories can be callous, reducing our future to a price per barrel of oil, as if that defines our existence. Telling our own stories, controlling our own narrative, is how we try to force the story to go a certain way.

There are other stories — wonderful stories — that we tell about this community. Floatplanes. Northern Lights. Multicultural potlucks. Dance groups from India. Dance groups from Ukraine. Hockey teams. Soccer teams. Football teams.

I am fond of these stories. I love that this is the type of town where people speeding away from a deadly fire stop to pick up a total stranger by the roadside. I love that people have fed me Jiggs dinner, vegetable biryani, and homemade naan bread. I have gorged on sushi, aloo chole and vindaloo, pink macaroons and honeyed baklava — sometimes all at the same event. Deep-fried whitefish and Bannock? Man, there is nothing like it.

I learned a lot of things here. Keep an extra toque in the car with the booster cables for nights when it drops to minus 40 degrees Celsius. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, sparking pillars of light appear to reach up into the sky over the boreal forest, which means the next day will be very, very cold. (Probably minus 40, so I will need that toque.)

I have also learned that, while we tell our stories of resilience and recovery, while we wonder at the beauty and the culture of this northern town, beneath the surface there is the glint of experience and a touch of sadness that we had to learn things the way we did. The lessons keep coming, the pandemic, economic instability, and a spring flood that sent thousands of people evacuating to higher ground, an eerie echo of our wildfire evacuation.

“I learned a lot about myself,” people say. “I wouldn’t trade the experience.”

We tell our stories about Fort McMurray to process that experience, to build our resilience, to push away the thought of things turned into ash. At least, that’s what I did, until I realized telling these stories time and time again, getting it down so pat, was blocking me from seeing the bigger picture that is Wood Buffalo and all the idiosyncrasies that come with it.

Because this is also a town where a landlord will charge you double the rent while he eyes your insurance money. Large trucks pull back concrete barriers in the middle of the night so all-terrain vehicles can tear up trails groomed for baby strollers. People unleash dogs on public trails rather than go to a dog park. People insist the street parking in front of their house is for their sole use, and woe betide the unsuspecting newcomer who pulls a car in the wrong spot. People park on the street and sneakily steal some electricity by plugging their block heater into the outdoor electrical outlet of a stranger’s home. Fisticuffs at black-tie galas headlined by big-name entertainers.

I understand people have trouble coming to terms with the fact that a place they adore so much has imperfections and silly quirks. But quirky imperfection is part of being alive. A town with a future should have lively and sometimes silly arguments about how we live. We need to question and to strive. We need committees for more off-leash dog parks, for more leash enforcement, for more ATV trails, for more walking trails. Lively communities have colourful committees, cranky political arguments, and gossip at the Tim Hortons.

So, our discussions continue back and forth, with all our new arrivals, all our departures, each bringing a nuance that shifts our exchanges and reminds us that this is a place that is changing. This is a community where human beings from all over Canada — all over the world — live together in a cacophony of opinion. Any time you want to be in the community, you can find your people and join in the discussion. Any time you want to be left alone, work your shift, get some sleep, you can do that, too.

The time has come, however, when those of us who have come to Wood Buffalo, who are not part of the Indigenous community, must join together and put our hard-learned skills of resilience, dialogue, and growth, to one shared issue: Truth and Reconciliation.  Because there was a residential school within Wood Buffalo — the Holy Angels residential school in Fort Chipewyan, part of the government-run program that devasted generations of Indigenous people in Canada and Wood Buffalo. It may be that those of us in Fort McMurray think that the 200 kilometres between our city and Fort Chipewyan give us distance from historical fact. It does not. We must think, too, about the generations of children torn from the arms of their family and sent away to one of the other residential schools throughout this province. Those of us who are not Indigenous cannot continue to eat our banquets and dance at our rough-and-tumble black-tie events until we have educated ourselves about this shame.

Personally, I have had the great honour of learning from my friend, Elder Robert Cree, a residential school survivor. Robert doesn’t have funny anecdotes to gloss over his horrific experience. He has a great generosity of spirit and a deep commitment to Truth and Reconciliation.

“It’s time that people everywhere know the story of what happened to us,” Elder Cree told me. “I ask that people do their research about the schools and that they listen to the stories from the students about how they were impacted by the atrocities they had to get through.”

We can start, he suggests, by reading the 94 calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “Think about what you can do to move them forward,” says Elder Cree. “Learn. Listen. Be respectful.”

As I write this column, it appears some learning has begun. Many joined our Indigenous communities to mark the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on September 30, a day to honour the lost children and survivors of residential schools, their families and communities. Orange shirts were sold out. Messages of solidarity were posted on social media. Elder Cree says that’s a good thing, that it is a start.  Public commemoration of the tragic and painful history and ongoing impacts is a big part of reconciliation. But we must think about it every day, as he does.

“You never forget the things that happened to you in those schools,” Elder Cree says. “It always comes back. It will always be there. I will never get over it. I can only learn to live with it. I have to carry on.”

Do those of us who are not Indigenous have the brains to silence ourselves, to stop telling our own stories over and over?

Do we have the heart to listen to the stories of our Indigenous communities about the intergenerational trauma caused by the racist government policy of taking children from their families? 

Do we have the courage to face the stories that tell us there is an indelible stain on any community that contained a residential school, that allowed its Indigenous children to be stolen from their families, a stain that seeps deeper into the ground than any bitumen deposits?

Can we walk the path of Truth and Reconciliation with our Indigenous communities?

Because, if not here, where?


Photo: Elder Robert Cree of Fort McMurray 468 First Nation is a champion of Truth and Reconciliation. Photo supplied

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Therese Greenwood’s memoir What You Take With You: Wildfire, Family and the Road Home, published by the University of Alberta Press, was a Finalist for the 2020 Alberta Book Publishing Awards. She has won the Western Writers of America Spur Award and is a three-time Finalist for the Crime Writers of Canada Award of Excellence.

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