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Middle Aged Bulge

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How we change community image, one conversation at a time.

I’VE BEEN DOING A LIE TO ME MARATHON IN RECENT days, a show starring Tim Roth about deception expert Cal Lightman, who watches micro expressions in peoples’ faces to determine whether or not they are telling the truth. So truth, and its presence (or not), was on my mind when I traveled out to Janvier for the annual Athabasca Tribal Council Regional Gathering in August in my role as Deputy Mayor (a function that rotates through all ten members of council every three months).

It was my first visit to this small community 125 km south of Fort McMurray on Highway 881 and I honestly didn’t know what to expect. The directions I had been given were pretty clear: turn at the Janvier sign, drive until the pavement turns to gravel, drive a little bit further, then turn left.

I was a little hesitant as the path in front of me was carved with deep ruts after a day of rain, but I pushed through and arrived at the event site, teepees off in the distance, a smattering of tents and trailers, and a brand new arbor.

As I stood behind the impressive circular structure, erected in just seven days by Rodney and his crew of eight – a herculean task by any measure – nestled next to the graceful flow of the Christina River, I became struck by the community passion being expressed.

“I love this place,” said Rodney, with a level of sincerity that I hadn’t seen or heard in a long time. There was complete truth embedded in those four words and in his face.

“I know Janvier doesn’t have the best reputation,” he said. “I just wish people would come and spend some time here and give us a chance.”

Rodney landed on a strategy that is most effective in creating a better understanding of community – changing perceptions one conversation at a time.

In the past few months we’ve had a number of opportunities to inspire appreciation for our region and industry through dialogue. The Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference study tour rolled through town in June - 18 young leaders on a fact-finding mission from locations across the country. In just 90 minutes of conversation, their understanding of Wood Buffalo had dramatically changed. The Canadian Oil Sands Education Tour, an initiative of the Inside Education organization based in Edmonton, produced a similar result for 40 high school educators from coast to coast. Minds were changed, and in some cases, foes became fans, and friends.

Venture capitalist turned philanthropist, Ian Hill, suggested that we take an approach similar to what Israel employs, paying for influencers and media people to come to their country, opening up all the doors and letting them judge for themselves. They specifically do not try to manage the message, rather encourage the visitors to dig deep and unearth the truth.

The truth for us, sadly, is that we have been burned on more than one occasion when throwing open the doors of our community and industry. Too often, the seedy, the sordid, and the sodden leap to the forefront of the story, and all the big spirit stuff that helps explain why this is a hometown not a boomtown, gets left on the cutting room floor.

My wife’s cousin Nika is an American freelance writer who very easily could have gone down the road most traveled by media types. A passive participant in the recent Occupy movement, and an initial gut-level opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline project, Nika had the means and the motive to add to the vitriolic attacks against Fort McMurray, like the one hurled our way recently by Esquire columnist John H. Richardson who described us as “the little Canadian town that might just destroy the world.” Pardon?

To Nika’s credit, instead of leaping to the cliché in crafting her angle on the relationship between Fort McMurray and the oil sands industry, she started by asking us some questions. What began as a series of emails, turned into a self-funded trip from New York City to Wood Buffalo. She spent three full days with us in July and yes, we made sure to get her into a room with our passionate mayor Melissa Blake and recently elected MLA Don Scott, as their informed voices would add credibility to a story that had yet to be written or pitched. Nika also spent time with Aboriginal business owner and Keyano College distinguished alum Mike Deranger, a passionate proponent of engaging the largely untapped and rapidly expanding Canadian Aboriginal workforce in the development of the oil sands resource.

I have no idea what the final story is going to look like, if it is going to be net-positive or net-negative, despite the fact that the writer is family. In three days on the ground in Fort McMurray, Nika talked to some incredible people who share my optimism and positivity about this place we call home. But she also was given a taste of the alternate view.

Heather took her out for a night of dancing on the next to last weekend of Diggers, before it was shut down to make way for a new development. In that raw, unfettered, alcohol-fueled environment, Nika met people who absolutely detest living here and don’t have a single solitary kind word to say about Fort McMurray. But even in the pulse-pounding melee of a raucous Saturday night at the bar, the story of unparalleled opportunity and community resonated above the din.

We all have a role to play in improving our image. Face-to-face, person-to-person, we can inspire a different understanding of this community, region, and industry. One conversation at time, stretched consistently over many years, will make a world of difference. And one day, in our ideal future, when Fort McMurray or oil sands gets dropped into the middle of a conversation, a gut level response will occur that is bubbling with excitement, prosperity, and unparalleled opportuniy. That’s the truth you’ll see when you look in my face.

Don’t believe me? Look at New York City. In the seventies and eighties it was known as the armpit of the world. Today, it’s one of the most revered places on the planet.


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.