I’ve been working in Northern Alberta for three years, and up until a few days ago I’d never seen a dog in camp before. The wildfire that raged through this part of the province drove 22,000 of the 80,000 evacuees north, where the only place of refuge is oil sands sites, and the one I work at took in a significant number of them and their pets.
It is true, that tragedy brings out the best in people. Yet I am distrusting, and I am struggling.
In the aftermath of the apex of the worst disaster that I can recall in my years in this province, the spotlight of the nation is still on Fort McMurray; as it should be, as this is an event that is worthy of all of the news coverage that it receives. The gargantuan loss of property, and the heroic response to it, is something for the history books.
However, it is also a truth that tragedy brings out the worst in people, and that is why I am struggling.
I am struggling with the fact that Canadians have donated 30 million dollars to an organization who’s US branch raised 500 millions dollars in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, and only managed to build six houses. I struggle with worry that we are donating money to help people, and will only help the year-end bonus for six-figure salary earning CEOs. Charity is a business like any other, and the fear that all of this monetary help will get lost in the haze of that business, and end up in undeserved pockets, is a real one.
I am struggling with the fact that politicians who have ignored, ridiculed, and abused this province have now come slithering out of the woodwork to give great sound bites about perseverance in tragedy. They are seemingly oblivious to the fact that great leadership has nothing to do with photo ops, tweets, and hollow statements about how hard emergency responders are working on the front lines. These same emergency service workers were left with their wildfire funding sliced and diced in the weeks leading up to the emergency by the very provincial heads that now call them heroes.
I am struggling with the fact that in the months prior to the fire, I encountered numerous instances of zero sympathy for the plight of Syrian refugees who were fleeing their destroyed country. Subversive, almost non-discussed racism is a problem Canada suffers from, and to know that the worth of a person’s destroyed life depends on what country they hail from, is tragic. Nobody, be they from Fort Mac, or Fallujah, deserves to have their house destroyed.
I am struggling with the hornet’s nest that is social media. That it took a 300,000 hectare fire to make people outside of this province realize that Fort McMurray and its oil sands is not a place of dirty rig workers and crack addicts, but a vibrant community of families and people, is a demonstration of how quickly tragedy turns opinion into opportunity; Opportunity to demonstrate how much one cares about things that were previously only there for ridicule and comment. Additionally, I struggle with the hurricane of disinformation being peddled on these websites; a dearth of information that breeds nothing but fear and discontentment, with the reward being nothing but attention for liars.
I am struggling with the exploitative orgy that is being attended by both the media, and the press relations groups of the area’s major oil companies. The media seems to want to suckle on to every ounce of tragedy and heroism that can be wrung out of a situation who’s opening acts featured plenty of both. However, in the days that followed, it seems that national news outlets have begun to prey on the fears and frayed nerves of their viewers, by reporting untrue stories about sites rationing food and forcing workers to stay on site under threat of job dismissal. It reeks of an attempt to keep intensity at a fever pitch, and to fill a 24-hour-news-cycle till the issue of wildfires is replaced by a fresh event.
Continuing, large oil companies, such as the one that owns the site I work at, did jump into action to help the citizens of Fort Mac. Their immediate response has been commendable. What has not been commendable is the seemingly endless congratulatory backscratching ring that has started in the aftermath of this initial action. These companies that now claim in press releases to care endlessly about the families and workers of this area, have just finished a months long process of lay offs, pay cuts, cut backs, and other economic sucker punches to the very workers and families they say they value. Billion dollar companies see a tragedy such as this as a chance to buy their way into the hearts of those who will easily forget that a large corporation will set you on fire one day, and then give you a free bucket of water and ask to be vigorously thanked for it the next.
As I stated above, tragedy brings out the best in people. In the initial days of the wildfire, thousands of good people responded with a helping hand and did whatever they could. The human spirit of aiding others, is on stunning display here in Alberta, and a quick look at the facts and numbers of the level of help that was rushed out by fellow citizens is enough to make one’s heart swell with pride at being a member of this community.
Yet, it is in the aftermath of tragedy, that those who exploit it for the worst, slither out to deaden and dampen all that is good, hoping that our memories are frail and weak.
Author P.C. Hodgell once wrote, “That which can be destroyed by the truth, should be.” The truth of this situation, is that those who responded to news of the fire by grabbing a flat of water, and jumping into their car to go help out that long convoy of cars driving south down a hellish highway 63, are the good people that shouldn’t be forgotten. They are working-class heroes. They deserve all of the praise that is to be heaped on them. Praise that will be piled high, until those who see tragedy as a dollar sign, and appear under the guise of help, swoop in to tear at the aftermath of this situation like vultures at a corpse.
The truth that should be destroyed is that politicians that tweet about tragedy care no more than their 140 character ready-made statement indicate, that oil companies use their communities and workers as anything other than tools, and that those who seek attention by offering hollow prayers on social media want something other than to feel better about themselves.
We must preserve one truth, and destroy the others. As the days pass, look closer at the truths we wish to preserve, and those we need to destroy.