The Strength Within Us
If one were to never leave certain areas of the region, one might think it had never happened. Driving up Thickwood Boulevard, the landscape looks virtually unchanged, the trees fresh and covered in foliage, the grass green and lush. The dichotomy is startling when one drives into the areas where the fire touched down. The scenes of ghostly devastation are difficult to reconcile with the areas that seem untouched. The Fort McMurray Wildfire of 2016: it changed everything – including us.
Fort McMurray has always exuded strength and resiliency, as communities subject to the vagaries of a natural resource industry often do. We are to some degree accustomed to meeting challenges that are due to factors beyond our control, but this most recent, a wildfire that has forever altered the face of our community, is almost undoubtedly the most significant we have ever encountered. The fluctuating price of oil and the impacts it has had pale in comparison to a fire that spread faster and further than we ever believed possible. The impacts are immense. But then again, so are the broad shoulders of those who happen to live in this region.
We are the kind of place where the plight of one firefighter and his battle to beat cancer can inspire us to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars – not over the course of years, but with months. We are the kind of place where philanthropy reigns supreme, garnering accolades as Canada’s most giving community. We are the kind of place where a bright idea never goes to waste, and where support is found for all who seek it. We are the kind of place where on occasion people come only to find their fortune, and instead find friends who become family and a remarkable community to call home.
Since May 3, 2016, a new phrase has been used to describe us. It sprang up on social media as these now do following every natural disaster and world event, where those involved and those simply observing seek to encapsulate the experience in a few short words. The phrase that has caught on, the one seen on car decals, t-shirts and hats, is “Fort McMurray Strong”. It captures the essence of the event, of course, the location and the quality we will need to survive it; but it is so much more than a hashtag or a slogan. It is the tattoo stamped on the very heart of every person who calls our region home.
The truth is we were strong before the first flames ever touched us. Our strength, now summed up in a hashtag and a slogan, has been there since bold people first came to our community and forge new lives. We were a kind of northern pioneer, acknowledging this was not a massive urban centre we were living in, but northern Canada, the kind of place where you find blizzards and hailstorms and, yes, wildfires. Our strength was not borne of this fire, although there may be those from outside who believe that to be true. No, on the contrary, our strength has been inside us all along.
That strength showed itself in a million ways since May 3rd. From the way we helped each other in the very first moments of an unfolding disaster, to the way we came home and helped each other begin to rebuild; our strength has shone in the face of the challenges we have seen. It has been a pillar of the foundation of our community, a critical component to everything we have done – and to everything we will do.
And what will we do now, after the flames have been quelled and a strange sort of eerie calm after the catastrophe envelopes us? We will take our strength, our collective belief in each other and in our future, and we will not only rebuild but we will be reborn. We will never forget what happened to our community, and even one day when all we see is lush grass and green trees and rebuilt homes we will remember a time when we faced the kind of moment we all fear – and how we refused to back down, give up or turn away. We will take comfort in our strength, and we will know that Fort McMurray Strong is more than a hashtag or a slogan. It is, quite simply, the very beat of our hearts and the drum to which we march. It is who we are, but not just since May 3, 2016. It is who we always have been.
Photo: Bryce Bodner