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The Other Side of The Mayor, or Why We All Love Melissa

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On her left, Seamus O’Regan of CTV fame. On her right, Newfoundland icon Alan Doyle – lead singer of Great Big Sea and shameless namedropper of Hollywood pals – referred to the lady in the centre as “Your Mayorness” several times and “Your Holy Worship” at least once. Although he was playing for laughs he wasn’t totally wrong. She has spent over eight years as mayor of one of the most politically charged municipalities in Canada, and although the power she wields would justify either of Doyle’s erroneous titles, or even her official one of Her Worship the Mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, she has her own preference…

“Call me Melissa,” she says.

This is my story about Melissa. Last summer my family was down at one of the events that go on every weekend in Fort McMurray. I forget which one it was, they occur throughout the warm weather and by July they have all blurred into one another. You know the type of thing. There were bouncy castles and hot dogs, either Nolan or Jerry was doing the music, face-painters, balloons, free gifts, firemen, more balloons. A midday delight.

It was a muggy day and the mosquitos were out in force, so we applied suitable anti-bug spray to Junior and ourselves and settled onto the grass slopes to eat and watch the performers. About 20 yards away I saw Melissa and her two tax deductions doing the same. I also heard bits of the conversation between her and her husband, the upshot being that they seemed to have left their spray at home. Rather than get up, I took ours out, shouted “Melissa” and as she looked at me, I lobbed it over to land at her feet. She waved and used it on her family, then walked over to return it. She said “thanks,” stayed and chatted for a while and then went back to Peter and the boys.

It’s not much of a tale, truth be told, but what stuck in my mind was thinking back to where I used to live. Would that have happened the same way if I had been in Toronto and the mayor was Rob Ford? It’s unlikely. Ford is not known for being a man of the people and had I done the same to him, I may very well have been detained by his security detail for assault with a deadly spray can. Our mayor, on the other hand, is someone who is for, and of, the people.

Here’s some homework for you. Try smiling all the time. Even better, imagine you are out at a function and every 30 seconds any one of these people: someone you know, someone you’ve barely met, maybe even someone you’ve never seen before, wants to talk to you. There is no respite, no break. You have to keep smiling, keep being polite. Even though the chicken on your plate is going cold or your family wants you to go on the waterslide with them, you can’t get away. I guarantee after about 10 minutes you’ll want to scream and bury your head in the sand. Nobody should have to live like that.

“All politicians have the same life,” I hear you say. “They should be used to it.”

So, you think you can do it, smile and be nice and always know the right thing to say?

“Of course,” you say. “Especially if the job is so cool and has so many benefits. I mean, being the mayor must be fun, right? Plus, then there’s the fat salary, right?”

Wrong. Aside from not having a moment to yourself, you would be better paid in an office job at Suncor than the mayor. According to the municipality’s own data, the salary for the top politician in this town is enough to, well, not survive. It’s below the poverty income line of Fort McMurray.

Admittedly that’s a very high bar, around $104,000 for a household. We live in an expensive town. But the fact of the matter is if the mayor were a single parent, what we as a town pay her would probably qualify her for a visit to Arianna Johnson’s food bank.

It’s perhaps not a fair comparison as virtually no family up here can survive on a single income. But it does lend itself to these questions. If she’s not in it for money, or peace and quiet, why does the mayor do what she does? Why would anyone? Is it destiny?

A resounding “no” comes from the lips of Phil Meagher, and he is perhaps more qualified than most to comment.

“I started teaching at Composite when I was very young,” says Meagher. “I was a teacher there when the mayor was in high school, although I didn’t actually teach her.”

He says that as if to say she was lucky, but Councillor Meagher, 18 years on council, Chief Deputy Superintendent of the school board and a winner of more than 40 marathons – testament to his tenacity and maybe some insanity as well – has nothing to be self-deprecating about. Plus, his insights into the mayor as a teenager are fascinating.

“I’ve had a motto for years, which I share with all the teachers, ‘See them as they can be, not as they are.’ That certainly applied to Melissa.”

When I asked him if the mayor stood out as someone who would do great and interesting things, he laughed. “She was a normal high school girl. I got to know her quite well as I refereed in an industrial hockey league and Melissa liked one of the players. She did the scorecard for the games and I used to talk to her quite a bit. I remember she giggled a lot. She certainly didn’t stand out then as the potential leader she has become.”

In the mayor’s defence, she sounds no different than any other high school girl at any time in history, and she happens to agree with Meagher’s assessment. “I had no grand ambition to be in politics back then,” she recalls. “I was more interested in boys.”

So what changed? She told the Globe and Mail part of the answer in one of her interviews, saying that she had found it difficult, when she was an oil sands recruiter, to get people to come to Fort McMurray despite the salaries. She would hear comments such as “‘Well, you don’t have a major swimming complex or recreation center ... child care for my kids so my wife can come,’” she said. “These kinds of stories just kept coming in and I kept thinking, well, I can fix that.”

“I can fix that.” So it wasn’t an overnight change of heart, there was no Damascene conversion. Robert Kennedy perhaps said it best. “Some see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?” Slowly, over the course of some years, Melissa evolved into a “why not” kinda gal.

Getting onto council the first time was relatively easy for her. It was 15 years ago and the picture of an attractive 20-something woman running to be elected would have won a lot of votes in a community fuelled on testosterone and diesel. Staying there required substantive work, not as simple to do in those days when she was sometimes dismissed as a ‘skirt’. And as for running for mayor? Why would she take on the headache? Why not?

One of the things about the Mayor that not many people know is that in a room full of people she is, more often than not, the smartest one there. This is not something she will ever admit to; she always has been too polite and is now also too politically savvy. But it does mean that people rarely get a chance to underestimate her twice.

When she first ran for mayor she was up against the old boys club at the time and they laughed behind her back. So she focused on the issues and the voters listened. When she won, kicking the incumbent Doug Faulkner into an ignominious fourth place, he was graceless enough to say to the Calgary Herald that “lady mayors don’t go over well in industrial towns.” It wasn’t the last time he was proven wrong. Eight years later he lost the provincial vote to one of the mayor’s councillors, Don Scott. A weaker person, vindicated and feeling vindictive, may have made much of it. She didn’t.

Doug Faulkner’s running mate at the time was the sitting MLA and former Mayor Guy Boutilier. He also lost to one of Melissa’s councillors, Mike Allen, yet it is a measure of the mayor’s bridge-building, or maybe bridge maintenance, skills that it has not affected their relationship.

Mister Boutilier, now an adjunct professor at U of A, has a lot of admiration for Melissa and acknowledged her abilities as only a former mayor can, “Melissa has done very well with all the pressures we face,” he said to me. He recently invited her to guest lecture in his Canadian Business and Government Policy class. Naturally, she accepted.

But more interesting than a measure of IQ in a room are perhaps the mayor’s two greatest strengths. She listens to dissenting views and she surrounds herself with intelligent people.

Most executives end up working with sycophants who pander to their ego and reiterate what one wants to hear. Mayor Blake wants, and gets, an honest opinion and as a result is probably one of the most informed mayors in the country. In addition, the nature of her position means that she has a keen knowledge of the oil sands business and its effect on the region.

The CAO (Chief Admin Officer) of Fort McMurray is Glen Laubenstein. He had worked here before and then had gone on to bigger positions in Kingston and Winnipeg. With 30 years of experience, he could pick and choose where he wanted to end up, but he returned to the RMWB. Was the mayor’s vision of what was about to happen here, the downtown development and all the other fun stuff, instrumental in persuading Laubenstein to come back?

“Absolutely,” he said. “A CAO can accomplish nothing without direction and support from the mayor and council. Our mayor has had unanimous support from council for all of her initiatives. This makes my job very clear.” And interesting too, no doubt.

This is important with all the major changes taking place. When she started in the top job, the infrastructure was sagging and there seemed to be no chance of keeping up. Continuous population growth of 2-3% stretches the ability of any town to handle the development necessary to maintain quality of life while 4-5% is quite frankly a growth that makes municipal planners throw up their hands in despair and dream of easier jobs, reorganizing Haiti maybe or subdividing the Middle East. When you get to annual growth of 6-7%, which is what has happened here for most of the last decade, you are entering uncharted territory. And yet on top of that, the mayor and council are daring to think even bolder thoughts.

The revitalization of the downtown is perhaps the core of the ‘Big Spirit’ happenings in Fort McMurray and there is some delicate juggling that needs to be done among provincial, local, and business partners to ensure that everything proceeds smoothly. Nine years ago, with a fractured council and a new mayor, the redevelopment may well have stalled. While the plans to change the community are not, and never were, going to be easy, the mayor and her team have a chance at making history. The congruence of opportunities that exist to recreate an entire community from a backwater gold rush to a vibrant, dynamic city – think Austin, Texas or Portland, Oregon without the mistakes – is one granted all too rarely to people in public service.

All of this is part of the answer to the most important question in the region: WWMDN? What will Melissa do next? She has been courted at a provincial and federal level and hadn’t, as of March 2013, officially even decided to run again. But I’m telling you she will. The evidence is there if you look. She has a young family and a husband with his own career intertwined into the fabric of the region. She has roots that would be hard to break off, plus she really loves it here. Fort McMurray is her home and is why she works so hard to make it the home of choice for others.

She also won’t leave unfinished business on the table. Expect her to be mayor for a long time, as the refurbishment of Fort McMurray could take years.

With all the opinions given freely, and all the special interest groups who want to claim her, it is a testament to her temperament that she never, and I mean never, lets feelings get in the way of the job. During the course of writing this, I spoke to many who know her and I could fill pages with quotes testifying to her goodness and fairness, and also to her vision and dreams for the community. I shall refer to only one, from someone who knows her better than most. This is from her personal assistant (and the guardian of the ‘gate’ leading into the mayor’s inner sanctum on the seventh floor), Maureen Mielke.

“Mayor Blake is extremely humble and I think that’s what makes her the extraordinary person she is. She is genuine in every sense of the word. Ready to provide a compliment or present an award to those most deserving, she has difficulty accepting them herself…almost to a fault.”

It’s very hard not to fall slightly in love with Melissa. She is glamorous in a timeless way. Meeting her for the first time, you can imagine her over the years: as a tomboyish freckled 10, a coltish teenager, a pretty, slightly giggly young lady. Now at the still-point of her career, the mayor is poised, confident and elegant. In 20 years, one can imagine she will be dowager duchess regal, like the nice one in Downton Abbey. The Matriarch of McMurray, as Phil Meagher, and only Meagher dare call her. Still the mayor at that point? If we’re lucky.

Back to the question I have tried to answer. During my last conversation with her she let slip the one sentence that comes closest to explaining what makes her tick, “Why do this?” I asked her.

“It matters”, she said.

So do you Melissa, so do you.


Kevin has been writing for YMM since the first issue. Many of his articles have been pseudonymous, hidden behind the tags Keyano writer or YMM staff. Kevin has been a columnist for many years, working for some of the leading newspapers of the world, including the New York Times and the Devon Dispatch.