In some ways, today was just like any other spring day, clear and sunny with a slight breeze. In many ways though, it wasn't, as many people gathered at MacDonald Island for a rally to make our voices heard. Highway 63 has been earned the moniker "Highway of Death" and in light of last weeks tragedy, community members gathered to be counted, to raise their voices, to let the provincial powers that be that Highway 63 must be twinned. The time for waiting and the time for talk is over.
While I took my camera and notepad along and was writing furiously at times, it all seems quite a blur so rather than try to decipher my penmanship, I've decided to more or less "go with the flow"and write from the heart as it seems more important to get the message out rather than narrate a minute-by-minute recollection. Having said that, certain moments do stick out in my mind.
A convoy of Diversified buses (one for each victim) left the Casman Centre bringing in people to attend the protest. 28-year-old Courtney Penney, who was 6 months pregnant with her first child, worked in Diversified's HR department and was tragically killed. Her husband Mark, was one of but two survivors. If any company had first-hand knowledge of the dangers of Highway 63, it would be Diversified Transportation. They are the company contracted to provide busing for oil sands employees from Fort McMurray to the different sites, including Suncor, Syncrude and Albian Sands. I travel daily on Diversified to and from work, fortunately on the (very small) section of the highway that has been twinned.
This tragedy has touched the community in many ways but it extends beyond Fort McMurray. One young victim Faith Kondusky-Sennett was originally from St. Catherines and had moved with her family to Calgary. Miraculously she was pulled alive from the wreckage by passer-by Dion Lefebvre. Tragically, later died in hospital. Faith was 11 years old. Another victim, John Schroeder, grew up in Windsor, Ontario, where I lived and attended university in the '90's. I knew the area he grew up very well and went to university with more than a few graduates of his high school in Riverside. Schoeder, like many Windsorites I've known, gave back to his community by volunteering at a retirement home in Calgary.
The youngest victim was 2-year-old Ben Wheaton, only a few months older than my own son. Both his parents died along with him. Amazingly, his 3-year-old brother Timothy survived. His father, Shannon was a pastor at a local church in Dickensfield, a mere 5 minutes from my house. A work acquaintance of mine knew Shannon a little from back in Newfoundland and told me how his "biker look" masked a caring man, passionate about his family and his church.
The Diversified convoy lined up prior to leaving for Mac Island.
Even before arriving me encountered our first group of supporters outside a church on Thickwood. It was an encouraging start.
I spent a few minutes once I got down there just wandering the crowd, trying to get a sense of the mood. It seemed rather somber and yet there was an energy in the air. I think too often Fort McMurray is disparaged and there is a certain self-consciousness about drawing attention to yourself, or at least that's been my read in the time I've been here. At any rate, people wanted to make their voices heard and I felt a growing anticipation.
I noticed two little boys playing in the grass next to a sign they had made and it caught my attention. A simple and heart-felt message that brought a tear to my eye to be honest. Timothy of course was the youngest of the two survivors.
After an opening prayer from a local clergyman, there was a musical performance of a couple of songs written for the occasion. I recall the crowd being rather quiet for the first song, however applause and shouts of support went out at the second song at the lyrics "cry out at the shame"and "call out the army if you have to, we're sick of losing mates."
A few speakers then took the stage address the crowd. First up was local blogger Theresa Wells, whose open letter to Premier Redford has received more than 24, 000 views. Another speaker, a mother and 32-year resident, her voice full of emotion, told of the pain of losing her only son one New Year's day. One speaker spoke of the impact of these tragedies on children, how a child would never graduate, know his first kiss or go on his first date because, due to someone's stupidity, he had become a statistic. She also spoke of a child not even getting to experience what life was like because they didn't even have a chance to be born. Sadly, this was the case in this recent tragedy. Another lady, an 18-year-resident, spoke of how, even though she is originally from Newfoundland, Fort McMurray is now home for her. She read from an open letter she had written about how many close calls she's witnessed. Yes, we also have Highway 881, which connects to 63 a few kilometres south of the city. BUT, again, Highway 881 is another two-lane highway. She urged all listening not to wait until we were personally affected before taking action. Dion Lefebvre who witnessed the crash and rushed in to help, also spoke. He was very blunt and to the point -- "Big Oil is profiting off our community and people here pay the price so let's twin this highway. Let's just fucking get it done." Finally, both our newly-elected MLA's took the stage. Both Don Scott and Mike Allen spoke of their commitment to keep the twinning of the highway a priority when the legislature meets. They spoke of their intent to meet with the soon-to-be-appointed Minister of Transportation and other officials and push for progress.
And push for progress I hope we continue to do. I haven't read any media reports yet, though I intend to do so once I have this post up. Both CBC and CTV were there so I know we got out message out.
Yes, safer driving is part of the solution. I'm not sure there was anyone there who would have argued against it. However, given the sheer volume of traffic on Highway 63, it is clear that improving the road by twinning it is also an important piece of the puzzle. The provincial government committed to this in 2006. Little progress has been made. We've heard all the excuses. Enough. It's time to get it done. Premier Redford, the ball is in your court.
I thought I'd finish up with a few photos from fellow McMurrayites, many of whom sported signs expressing their concern or mourning the loss of a loved one.