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Middle Age Bulge - Murals Honour Local Legends

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In the back alley between Hill and Demers Drives are three murals.  They provide a surprise for everyone who wanders down this way, a splash of colour and personality.

The portrait of Metis elder Elsie Yanik was first, painted back in June 2014.  At some point my shop got tagged and I thought to myself that it would be nice to cover it up with something large and friendly.  Elsie was the first person to pop into my mind, specifically a photo of her that had been taken by Joey Podlubny at the Oilsands Banquet a number of years ago.  It took a day to bring to life using a collection of mistints from the local paint store.

Elsie is one of the most revered seniors in our community, providing blessings at major events, giving mentorship to young people, and lighting the torch at the 2015 Western Canada Summer Games.  Some of those prayers are written into the mural as a way of getting visitors to pause, read and reflect.  Elsie is 97-years-old and still going strong; she lives just a few blocks away. 

The portrait of Elsie inspired the #selfiewithelsie movement and a visit from a number of dignitaries, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  She has that alluring affect on people.

The second mural that was painted is of the late Dorothy McDonald, former leader of the Fort McKay First Nation.  She was the first female Aboriginal Chief in Alberta and was a fierce champion for her people.  Ground Zero Productions put together “On the River” in 2014, a multi-media performance about the life and memories of Dorothy featuring Maria Dunn and Asani.  It was a powerful way to better understand the impact that this great leader had in our region.  It inspired the painting.

I consulted with Rod Hyde, Dorothy’s surviving spouse, before taking on the project.  It was important to me that I had the family’s blessing before proceeding.  I got the thumbs up and Rod popped by a number of times as the piece was coming together.  After it was done, visiting family members have been by to see it on numerous occasions.

The most recent mural is of Tom Morimoto, a presenter at the 2015 TEDx Fort McMurray, an oil sands pioneer, and author of Breaking Trail: From Canada’s Northern Frontier to the Oil Fields of Dubai.  I had the honour of both talking with Tom over the phone and meeting him in person when he was here to speak.  He is an impressive guy with an iron grip when he reaches out to shake your hand.  He is, like Elsie, 97, and up until recently was still golfing three times a week. 

Tom’s memoirs provide a living link to Fort McMurray’s formative years.  He worked for Wop May, the famous WWI ace; spent time at Bitumount, back when it was still operating; and worked side by side with oil sands pioneer Dr. Karl A. Clark.  He landed in Normandy on D-Day in 1944 and went on to a successful career in the oil industry.

There is a fourth mural, though it is in the yard next to ours.  Sheila Sutton, our neighbour, asked me to paint her husband Norm last summer while he was away on a holiday.  When he got back, we had a little unveiling ceremony, with Norm having no idea what was going on.  He was speechless – and with Norm that’s saying something – and tears started rolling down his cheek.

I’ve known Norm for years.  We worked and volunteered together on the interPLAY Festival and have acted together on the Keyano Theatre stage.  While he is originally from British Columbia, Norm and his family have called Wood Buffalo home for over 20 years, starting their tenure in the region running the Northern Store in Fort Chipewyan before coming south to Fort McMurray in 1997.  He is a larger than life character and performer and I had fun immortalizing him on their shed.

There is something powerful about painting murals of local legends.  Elsie, Dorothy, Tom and Norm have all played big roles in the shaping of this community and region.  Years from now, long after they are gone, maybe someone will wander by, stop, look and wonder who these people were and what they did to warrant being painted so large. That possibility brings a smile to my face. 

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.