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Middle Age Bulge

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10,000 First Impressions

As the 2015 Western Canada Summer Games Countdown Clock gets closer and closer to zero, I have increasing moments of delight in anticipating the reaction of the thousands of guests who will visit Wood Buffalo for the very first time.  Let’s face it: we have a reputation that has been sullied, dragged through the mud (or, in our case, oil sand), and much maligned.  Little do these young athletes, dedicated coaches, seasoned officials and supportive parents know what they are about to experience.

We have been trying to inspire and influence a balanced understanding of Wood Buffalo, Fort McMurray and oil sands for almost a decade.  At times it feels like progress is being made; then, some wayward celebrity decides to make a visit and spend some time on their soapbox, and it feels like all the ground we’ve gained has been lost.  Other times, things beyond our control put us in the negative spotlight, like the falling oil price and its purported catastrophic effect on our economy.

The truth of Wood Buffalo is that this is a beautiful, remarkable and resilient place.  It is a collection of communities that are renowned for leaving a lasting and positive impression on those who spend time here.

“This is remarkable,” said Alan Doyle, lead singer of Great Big Sea, when visiting the Suncor Community Leisure Centre a few years ago.  “I make a point of visiting these complexes all over the world, and there is none that compares.  This is the single greatest civic accomplishment I have ever seen.”  His comment was made before the Shell Place expansion.  I can’t imagine what his reaction would be today.

We have great facilities; that is a fact that is going to blow our guests away.  But Wood Buffalo is so much more than the buildings, sports fields and venues that will play host to this major event.  We are a region with great people and unexpected surprises.  In some circles, we are actually envied.

At a recent United Way national conference, it was announced that we were a community of just over 100,000 people that raised over $8-million during our annual community campaign.  The reaction of people in the room from across Canada was one of shock and awe, with a healthy helping of envy.  Yes, we have extraordinary income levels in Wood Buffalo, but our per capita level of charitable giving is equally impressive.  We have been tops in the country for the last eight years – a fact that turns heads and changes minds about the true nature of Wood Buffalo.

The warmth of the welcome and the diversity of the people are going to be two of the resonant takeaways of the Games.  In this respect, we all have a responsibility to play our part in making a great impression.  Every single greeting, interaction, and smile is going to make a profound impact on how this event will contribute to the strengthening of our brand.

The estimates of the number of people who will be spending time in the region in August for the Games have ranged from 10,000 to 15,000 people.  Never before have we had such a significant opportunity to create a balanced and authentic understanding of Wood Buffalo and why we love living here.  Thousands of new ambassadors are going to be in our grasp and then return to their home communities with impressive stories and lasting impressions about their experience.

I can’t wait for the declarations of disbelief, surprise and delight as they enjoy the competitions, special events, shopping, attractions, facilities and fun.  Seeing moments of spontaneous surprise never gets tired. 

The clock is ticking, athletes are in training, and volunteers are fully engaged in the final stages of planning.  Finishing touches are being done to our facilities and the communities are being spruced up in preparation for the arrival of the first batch of athletes, coaches, officials and visitors in and around August 5th. 

Will Rogers said, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” We have an opportunity to make over 10,000 first impressions. Let’s make them the best ever. 

Russell Thomas writes a regular blog at and can be followed on Twitter @rvthomas67.


Russell is a 19 year resident of Wood Buffalo, a community builder, facilitator, social media practitioner, actor, director and artist. He began his Middle Age Bulge blog as a way of capturing his journey to wellness. It has morphed into a daily journal about all aspects of life in the north. Russell works with The United Way of Fort McMurray and co-owns Birdsong Connections with his wife Heather.