The Legacy of Mayor Melissa Blake
“Melissa has been a tremendous leader, not just for Wood Buffalo and Fort McMurray, but for the nation. She has shepherded the community through extraordinary growth and unspeakable tragedy--all with an unwavering eye for what is right, both today and for future generations. I’ve been very proud to call her a colleague.”
—Naheed Nenshi, Mayor of Calgary
I’m sitting talking to Melissa Blake, probably for the last time in her role as Mayor. Her office is like her; crisp, professional, organized, and just a little bit intimidating. The last is not an image she aims for. I’ve known her a long time, and I admire her. We laugh a lot over the course of the interview, and she is more relaxed and charming than ever, if that were possible. But I have known people who have underestimated her once. I’ve never met anyone who has done it twice.
I’m here to talk, in a way, about her legacy. The Mayor doesn’t think like that. We can talk about her job and time in office, her thoughts and experiences. She is interested in her work in the way to get things done, not in how history will perceive her. For someone who has been in the national consciousness for so long, she really is one of the most un-egotistical people in the public eye. Yet her period of service coincided with monumental changes in the region she has served, changes that played out on the provincial, the national and at times the international stage thrusting her at times front and centre.
Who is Melissa Blake? She came here from the Quebec Townships as a schoolgirl, finished high school here, studied at Keyano, and got a job with one of the oil companies. She was still in her twenties when she was voted onto council the first time. Doug Faulkner was Mayor, Ron Morgan received the most votes for Ward one, then Melissa, Phil Meagher, Jim Carberry and Tom Griffin. Another first-time councillor, Sheldon Germain, squeaked the last seat over Keith McGrath. There wasn’t a lot of diversity, but the back room backslappers were soon to find out that this young firebrand, the girl among the good old boys, had the courage and conviction to back up her views. She wanted to make her home town a better place for families, and she wanted it now.
She had two terms as a councillor learning how the system worked, and realized that true change comes from the top. She won election as Mayor in 2004, and has been re-elected three times since. If she wanted to she could probably have stayed in the position forever.
She has had two collaborative councils as Mayor...places where they could get things done. The first understood the need for provincial cooperation and infrastructure growth, while the third had plans for the growth of the town itself that were ultimately thwarted by the economy and bad timing.
In between, she’d already experienced a fractious council, had learned how to deal with personal attacks, and to stay focused on the issues. They were lessons she needed for what was to come.
After her third term, all the potential good they had strived for, and to be frank, fallen short of, was laid low by economic uncertainty and a level of unwarranted and unsustainable hubris among some of the City Centre staff. This laid the ground for a wind-sweep of a change. The new council came in preaching righteousness and fiscal probity. It was hard to watch, the paper-thin veneer of moral rectitude that covered up the vindictiveness with which they set out to tear down the walls of the Municipality. They came into office to clean up the RMWB buoyed by popular opinion that had largely ignored the facts. Led by Councillor Boutilier, enjoying a short-lived renaissance back in local politics before his sudden resignation, council rode the waves of self-awarded virtue and holier-than-thou morality, promising an audit that would root out all the criminal activities that had taken place.
There were none. There was a lot of noise made over lax procedures that were targeted and rectified. The councillors, idea and rudderless, stagnated through the second half of their term, saved from the scrutiny their lack of ideas and application deserved by the great fire of May 2016.
For the Mayor, the accusations and innuendo continued. She was accused of orchestrating the hiring of the previous CAO, Glen Laubenstein, (it was a committee of five members of council responsible, among them some of her accusers). She supposedly turned a blind eye to the excesses, (the pay and benefits were legal, a carryover from the previous CAO’s administration) She was naive (Mayor and council have one person reporting to them, the CAO who applies the rules of the municipality). This last is another of the double standards favoured by her naysayers. On the one hand, she was supposed to be manipulative and conniving with the CAO, on the other she was so gullible she didn’t know what the CAO was doing. Which one was it? It seemed everywhere she turned someone was accusing her of something. And then there were the vicious attacks on her integrity, petty social-media meanness that spread without rhyme or reason but were so similar in their retelling that they seemed to be seeping from the same cesspool.
I asked the Mayor to help me dispel the biggest of them. She seems genuinely puzzled, she really doesn’t pay attention to social media gossip so they seem to catch her by surprise. “Do you,” I ask her, “live in Calgary and fly in and out to work here in Fort McMurray every day?”
“Of course not, that would be impossible.”
I know this, of course. Melissa and her family live around the corner from me. Her kids go to school in the neighbourhood. It’s a crazy story. Such a commute would be impractical, expensive and tiresome. But there still people who believe it. “Where do they come from, these stories,” she says, then seems deflated when I tell her I heard that one from several sources including a former staff member in the RMWB communications department.
It is also not true that her husband, a senior oil executive, has been turned down for promotion because it would mean moving to Calgary and disrupting his wife’s job.
“That never happened,” she said to me, and the contradiction in the rumours makes her smile; she secretly lives in Calgary, but Peter’s career has suffered because they can’t live in Calgary. She also has no secret municipal funding for all the flights she takes to her non-existent home in Calgary, or for her vacations. I don’t even ask her about those; the municipal audit would have turned them up.
I tread carefully with my last one. “Is it true that you’ve been less engaged during this council’s term than in other periods? There have been accusations that you’ve merely been going through the motions, that you have seemed less immersed, less involved.”
I sit back as if to add some distance between us. I’m not an investigative journalist. I write stories about my hometown, so I’m not comfortable with confrontation. Also, I like the Mayor and I don’t like asking mean-spirited questions.
Her brow knits a little in concentration, which is about as angry as you will ever see her. “I have always done my job to the best of my ability, always showed up ready to work, ready to do my best.” She pauses, thinking. “The start of this last term of office was difficult. It was a much different council voted in, and the level of personal invective I sometimes had to endure was hurtful and trying. That may have made me seem different in my manner to previous terms, but I never lowered my professional standards at all.”
Even the question of the crazy benefits some staff was being paid has a more even-handed explanation. Before Glen Laubenstein came back to be CAO again, the municipality was having difficulty, during the biggest boom in the history of the area, in hiring staff. It was acknowledged as far back as 2006 that if you wanted the quality of staff the oil sands could attract, the municipal compensation and benefits needed to be revitalized. That some of these new hires seemed to flaunt their benefits was unfortunate. To blame the Mayor was totally unjustified. But the last council seemed to take delight in accusing her of everything, and belittling her with demeaning and petty comments. Did she look distracted sometimes? Well, faced with such a barrage, wouldn’t anyone? After all the wins for the region: the expansion of utilities, the sensible growth of the housing market, the facilities extended to the rural areas, the success of the pressure brought to bear on the twinning of 63 among many others, she leaves a council that squabbled about money, tried to give themselves exorbitant pay raises within sight of a fire that had devastated the community, and resorted to petty backstabbing politics that have not been seen in this municipality since, well since she was first elected, back on the 19th of October 1998. Is it any wonder she’s had enough?
In the course of her long career, Melissa Blake has met with some interesting and high-powered people. The Duke of Edinburgh and the Countess of Wessex from the Royal family, three Prime Ministers (Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper and Paul Martin), the last six Alberta Premiers, (Rachel Notley, Jim Prentice, Dave Hancock, Alison Redford, Ed Stelmach and Ralph Klein), Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Peter Mansbridge and Rex Murphy, Wayne Gretzky, and countless other celebrities. She met with David Suzuki, and would have liked to have been given the chance to talk to the other celebs-with-agendas; Jane Fonda, Neil Young, James Cameron, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert Redford among many. They shied away from her, maybe aware that their brand of doomsday environmentalism, laden with sound bites yet short on facts, wouldn’t survive the logic and forcefulness of the Mayor’s knowledge and passion.
Yet for all the great, the good and the not-so-good glitterati she has met and spoken to, when I asked her who was the most impressive of all, she answered without hesitation.
This may seem odd if you haven’t met Rick. Onscreen he is a comedy buffoon. Offscreen he is charming, inquiring, intelligent and interested in people’s stories. I’ve seen him work a room full of gung-ho elite soldiers in Afghanistan, and his compassion and warmth are obvious. The soldiers all love him as someone who cares about them. In truth, he cares about everyone. He has a lot in common with his fan and friend Melissa Blake. He has visited Fort McMurray often, and has been one of the more balanced reporters on the area, showing the good life and good people up here, all without denigrating them for their jobs. It’s not surprising they like each other.
The Mayor is at her best when she is working with or surrounded by passionate, caring people. She doesn’t worry about awards or honours except for what they say about the work she does. She has addressed the movers and shakers of the world, powered by her passion for the people she represents, and she is always on topic and on top of her game.
But there was one acknowledgment that touched her deeply. In 2012 she was given the Esquao award by the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women. It honours her for her outstanding courage and achievement within her community, but its value to her is to be recognized by a peer group she respects above all others, the women of the First Nations of Canada. Melissa is Metis. It’s not something she uses as a political crutch, but neither does she hide it. However, to be a successful first nations woman means she has had to fight and struggle farther and harder than almost any other member of any other social group in Canada. This award, a simple pink plaque, is the one that makes all the uphill struggles worthwhile.
Melissa became a politician reluctantly. She came here in the eighties and fell in love with the same small town ambiance her family had left behind in Quebec. But as the town started to grow and the fabric of services and lifestyle began to stretch and tear, Melissa fumed at what her home was becoming, and wanted it to be what it once was, a great place to grow up and a great place to start a family. If you are part of a family here now, and you complain that there is nothing to do, it is only because you are unwilling to open your eyes and engage in the life of the community. Yes, it was like that, once, and although the Mayor has been a substantial part of that change she will be the last to take the credit for how it has moved from a boom town to a bloom town.
She has had her naysayers, exacerbated by the vituperative effects of social media that allow non-stop nastiness hidden behind cowardly anonymity. Anyone who believes the image of Canadians as a kind caring country filled with polite people need only read what the dark trolls have to say about Mayor Blake. She suffers under the triple whammy of being an intelligent good-looking woman, qualities that scare the knuckle draggers into angst and apoplexy.
She will tell you, however, that the positives have far outweighed the negatives. Her achievements have been unprecedented and may only be truly recognized by the look back on history. She has represented her home with dignity and grace, and her integrity has never been questioned by anyone other than mudslingers and political hacks. She has a loving husband, a happy family and is still young enough to jump into any other career she wishes, though she told me that staying at home and being a mother and wife for a while sounds really attractive.
Don’t bet on it for too long. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of our Melissa.
I’ll leave it to the astute political commentator below to have the last word:
“Meeting Melissa Blake so early in her tenure as Mayor of Fort McMurray was a great experience. I remember her passion. In television we always want short answers and when I interviewed her she hadn’t quite mastered that political skill. She could talk forever about Fort Mac, the challenges the city faced, its future and more importantly what made it a great city to live and work in, to raise a family. She was a tremendous believer in what she was doing and her community.
I knew she was going to be a political rock star and it came as no surprise years later when talking to various political operatives in Ottawa that they all wanted her as a candidate. Every party wanted her because they recognized her passion and her sincerity. You can’t fake that.”
— Rick Mercer.
First photo: Photo: Former Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake in her office on July 26, 2017 in Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Others: Left: A collection of snapshots highlight Melissa Blake through her time as Mayor for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.