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We Will Rebuild

Rebuilding what was lost in the 2016 Wildfire will take time, but the #FortMcMurrayStrong spirit is propelling the efforts forward. In this section we’re featuring stories that speak to the challenges, the opportunities, and the plans of action; highlighting the resiliency and strength of Fort McMurray and the surrounding areas.



Together We Are United For Fort McMurray

(2 votes)

May 3rd started like most other days. Agencies were hard at work in The Redpoll Centre, and United Way staff were scattered about doing a variety of different tasks.  I was out of the office much of that morning, as I had hosted Stephen Bryant from Centre of Hope on our Impact radio show, heard Tuesday mornings on KAOS 91.1. I also had to pick up a bunch of supplies for a staff development painting workshop at the Mark Amy Treatment Centre, one of our member agencies, just outside of Anzac.

It was a strikingly beautiful day. The only smoke visible from our vantage point at Shell Place was off in the distance, down the Athabasca River valley. The sky was blue and the sun brilliant as I drove south on Highway 63 around noon. I had absolutely no inkling that something was about to shift, in rather dramatic fashion.

About 18 staff members at Mark Amy were almost finished sketching out their portraits of Chief Dan George when I got my first message from Cheryl Tang, one of my United Way colleagues.  She had sent a photo of the situation that was igniting up in Abasand (pictured above).

“Happening now” she typed.

She sent a few more photos in the minutes that followed and I started checking in on Twitter. When I saw that Thickwood was under a mandatory evacuation, I knew the fire had gone from benign to beast.

A bunch of us jumped into our vehicles and sped off for town, wanting to get back to our homes and our families. I was the last to leave, as I needed to pack things up.  I’m not sure if the extra minutes would have helped, as several people who left before me also ended up back at the Mark Amy Treatment Centre as a place of refuge. Most of us didn’t made it back to our homes or families.

Like many businesses and organizations, our staff and volunteers scattered in the wind, some knowing their homes had been lost, others worried theirs might be. Thanks to social media, texts and phone, we were able to reconnect and keep track of one another.

The United for Fort McMurray campaign started taking form on the second day of the evacuation, championed by United Way colleagues in Ottawa who knew that funding for social agencies would be a challenge in the weeks and months to come. The sooner we put out an appeal, the better. They also had experience putting together a mobile-friendly donation interface from previous work. They ran things by Diane and I, as we made our way south, and were able to launch the website just four days after the mandatory evacuation.

The following day was Mother’s Day. I painted the portrait of Fire Chief Darby Allen that evening and posted it to social media before going to bed. What I woke up to the following morning was a complete surprise, as the portrait had gone viral and sparked interest from people and media outlets across Canada.

I didn’t do Darby’s portrait with the intention of tying it to the United Way fundraising effort. However, it became the perfect vehicle to harness the generosity of Run Digital Inc., a print company in Northeast Calgary that wanted to help. It also became a great way to draw attention to the hundreds of men and women that contributed to this fight with the fire, or, as Darby took to calling it, “The Beast”.

As we had a company willing to do the printing as a gift-in-kind contribution to the recovery effort, and the fundraising portal already gathering donations, it was quite easy to bring the two things together.

Each person who donated $100 or more received an email asking if they would like a commemorative print as a small thank you. Hundreds have accepted the invitation so far.

While all of this was happening, Diane Shannon, Executive Director, and several members of our team – Muna, Valerie and Hanna – were hard at work in Edmonton.  They were connecting with United Way partners, board members and other Fort McMurray agencies to develop a collaborative approach to reentry, recovery and rebuilding.

Diane, Ben Dutton (post Board President) and John Evans (2nd VP) had an opportunity to visit with Conrad Sauvé, President and CEO of the Canadian Red Cross. He asserted they would be working in, and with, the community for a long time to come. This was a crucial meeting that set the tone for a positive working relationship between this national NGO and local community benefit agencies.

As we moved forward, preparing for reentry, a group of leaders in Edmonton and Calgary were hard at work planning a massive benefit concert that would be held in the largest facility in the province’s capital. Fire Aid for Fort McMurray was announced for June 29th at Commonwealth Stadium featuring a stellar line-up of artists including Nickelback, Blue Rodeo, Ian Tyson, Corb Lund and seven others; all proceeds will go to the United Way of Fort McMurray.

Some people have asked “Why United Way?” It’s a great question. Initially, organizers envisioned raising funds to build or rebuild a public recreational facility of some kind. However, the fact is that we didn’t lose any major public amenities. What was becoming evident, as the smoke cleared, was the scope and scale of the fire’s impact on families and neighbourhoods. The critical piece of the recovery effort that would need the most help would be rebuilding the social profit sector. Human care of all kinds would be required as people began reentry and the rebuilding process.

“This tragic event revealed a number of gaps,” said Diane Shannon. “We had new Canadians with significant language barriers feeling completely helpless. There were seniors in the community who were isolated and didn’t have family members to assist them during the chaotic hours during the initial evacuation. We have a lot to learn about the complexity of our community and how agencies can respond to changing needs.”

As our staff slowly return to the community in the weeks ahead, we will be excited to welcome back member agencies and partner organizations in the Redpoll Centre.  We know that the ten per cent loss in the community is going to be reflected in the sector; of the 40 people who work with us on the second floor of Shell Place, we have confirmation that at least five lost their homes.  

We also know that a number of agencies are facing restoration challenges in terms of facilities and getting their staff back to work. The Redpoll Centre will serve as a temporary work and meeting space during this rebuilding period. We look forward to welcoming community benefit organizations, including our new friends at the Canadian Red Cross, making our hot desk and meeting spaces available.

The work ahead is going to be tough and require a collaborative approach, making best use of available resources. We have a sense of some of the challenges that children, youth, adults, families and disadvantaged individuals are going to face in the weeks and months ahead. We will also discover new challenges and will need to be ready to work with agencies to provide the supports and services to respond.

One thing is clear: “we are here and we are strong”. We are also ready to activate the incredible network of community leaders, companies and organizations to do whatever it takes to look after people as we recover and rebuild. The United Way of Fort McMurray has been playing this role since 1979 and we are honoured to help during this unparalleled period in our history. We are confident that when the fires are doused and the smoke clears, we will collectively be ready for the heavy lifting that will follow.


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.