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Heart of Wood Buffalo Awards

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The history of the Heart of Wood Buffalo Awards is linked almost directly, back through the idealism of the creation of FuseSocial, to what was originally known in 2009 as the Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo Project. The Suncor Energy Foundation, the University of Waterloo, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and the United Way of Fort McMurray came together to build the capacity of the social profit sector in Wood Buffalo and create a culture of sustainable social innovation within the community. One of the ways to do this was to recognize the community champions. The Heart of Wood Buffalo Awards had its first unveiling in 2011.

It almost seems illogical to recognize people who do not want to be recognized, nor even to have recognition foisted upon them. It is still one of the more understandable problems for the organizers, trying to get nominees to sign their nomination forms, and then to get them to dress up and present themselves at the awards ceremony, (to be held this year on May 24th, 2017 at the Suncor Energy Centre for the Performing Arts at Holy Trinity High School).

It’s easily explained in the definition.


Volunteer: (noun). Someone who does something without being forced to, without recompense or recognition.


There’s that word again, the one they by definition don’t want: recognition.

The first awards were held in 2011, 28 nominees gathered at Keyano theatre, not quite sure what to expect. A quick glanced through the list is interesting. The community is well served by meaningful people and organizations, any of whom would have deserved the award that night or on any subsequent evening. In keeping with the theme, the prize money was a gift to be disbursed by the winner to the social-profit organization of their choice.

The first event was a success, as have been all the others. In keeping with any gathering where social-profit workers and volunteers come together, it is a function that is now highly touted for its networking opportunities, and that may very well be one of its most important functions Unlike networking in the business world which is largely self-centred, the social part of the Heart of Wood Buffalo Awards throws together people who don’t always get the time to connect. They are able to share ideas, hear of new needs and projects, and link differing skills for the ultimate betterment of all.

There are six awards: Board Leadership - recognizing the achievements of the people who steer the social-profits; Executive Leadership – looking to honour those who find new and better ways to lead; Community Impact – aimed at an organization that has made a significant impact in the community; Social Prosperity – honouring the philanthropic work of an individual. group or organization; Newcomer Engagement – perhaps the most heartening award as it encourages people who have arrived and jumped right in to  be involved; and the Volunteer Recognition Award which thanks those who invest in the community through their work, time and effort.

The list of winners and nominees is too long for this article, but it is a veritable who’s who of the community. Some of the many notables include Marty and Dennine Giles, John Wilson, Christine Burton, Roseanne Davidson, Arianna Johnson, Ed Kamps, Rolando Inzunza, Vilia Tosio, Suzanne Chaffey. Community leaders all, they share an abhorrence for the spotlight that is common in the social profit sector, and will not thank me for highlighting them. Nor will last year’s winners.

The Volunteer Recognition award went to Aiman Naeem. The president of Artists against Poverty and with a list of achievements that would astound people three times her age, she was in Grade 12 when she won.

Board Leadership went to Paul McWilliams who sits on so many boards, - seven currently, including two as the Chair - it’s a wonder his family ever sees him at home.

Executive Leadership winner Chantal Beaver also is involved in too many committees to name. Her focus in her five years in the community has been on the social fabric of the community and ways to strengthen it, and the award was recognition of her achievements so far.

Suma Jose has found her niche in the arts community and was recognized for her work on the Arts Council among other volunteer time. Her commitment stems from her belief that art can create change in society and her Newcomer Engagement award was a fitting reward.

The Community Impact award, to the Fort Chip Animal Rescue Society, shows how social profits can create immediate change. In the three years of their existence, they recognized a need, the surfeit of stray dogs in the community, and have gone a long way to solving it.

Perhaps the most popular award in a ceremony that decries popularity, the Social Prosperity went to a man rightly known as Fort McMurray’s ‘Mr. Theatre’. Alan Roberts started out as the lighting guy at Keyano nearly 30 years ago and has been the nucleus of its growth into one of the premier small city theatrical organizations in the country. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a show at the Keyano Arts centre has this man to thank.

So why are these rewards so important to the community? Well, if you’re going to have people for your children to look up to, the nominees for these awards are a better catch than those who get paid $20-million to be in a movie or to hit a ball into the bleachers.

But the bigger and better reason us that it is self-sustaining. Recognizing the current caring of the community instills the spirit of the future caring in the community. Being nominated for an award is not the reason to get involved, nor is it the reason why they do.

The Heart of Wood Buffalo Awards are of paramount importance because it is good to have good examples. Everyone is at heart a volunteer, someone who helps their fellow man. This community saw 88,000 examples of that in 2016. But sometimes all those potential volunteers may need a little nudge. It could be a headline that hints at a need. It may be the mention of an organization one has supported, realizing that sometimes they need more.

I think, as I watch my family grow with and in this town, that there is another reason. Everyone needs a champion, someone to look up to. Often they are people who do more than one would expect. Muhammed Ali was a bigger champion in his later years raising awareness for Parkinson’s than he’d ever been as a boxer, and he was the greatest. P!nk becomes more than a singer with flamboyant hair if you know she, one of the most powerful voices of her generation is a huge supporter of chronic asthma charities, because she has the disease herself.

Our champions, our heroes that are recognized so briefly at the Heart of Wood Buffalo Awards, don’t start out from the winner’s podium or the stage of the Hollywood Bowl. They rise from their daily lives and somehow find the extra time to make a difference.

And that is why they should be honoured.


The Heart of Wood Buffalo Leadership Awards take place at the Suncor Energy Centre for the Performing Arts on Wednesday, May 24, 2017


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.