By now pretty much all of Canada knows about the bond between Fort McMurray, Alta., and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. It was forged by necessity, over decades of migration west to the oil sands country for good pay. But that path created by the search for jobs evolved into a conduit for friendship, family and culture, too. Chris Andrews, guitarist and lead singer of the accordion-driven Newfoundland band Shanneyganock, has played Fort Mac many times over more than two decades of touring. “Years ago, it had a reputation as a rough, hard place,” he says. “But lately it’s more about lots of families, schools and ballparks.”
Aware of how well Andrews knew that far-away, familiar city, CBC Radio in St. John’s interviewed him early last week as the Fort McMurray evacuation began dominating the news. Kirk Youden, a town councillor in Conception Bay South, known locally as CBS, about 20 km southwest of the Newfoundland capital, was listening. When he heard the interviewer mention the possibility of benefit concerts, Youden emailed his fellow councillors, proposing one for their spanking new CBS arena. All quickly agreed, and Shanneyganock was soon on board to headline a show slated for May 15, all proceeds to the Canadian Red Cross’s Fort McMurray fund. Similar fundraising concerts and kitchen parties are being held up and down the East Coast, where it seems everybody knew somebody in the path of the fire. Andrews has a friend whose house burned down, while Youden has two longtime buddies working in the oil sands.
If Fort Mac’s need struck a special chord in Atlantic Canada, variations on the theme played across the country. Somebody caught a news report and was moved to make some calls, send some emails, launch a Facebook page, get something going. The cumulative result is an outpouring that might just be unprecedented. As of May 10, the Canadian Red Cross had received $60 million in donations for Fort McMurray, and the federal government’s pledges to match all individual donations. That dwarfs the $43.3 million the Red Cross raised in 2013 after the Alberta floods, the organization’s largest domestic Canadian appeal before this week.
If the images of Fort Mac residents fleeing in convoys down a highway flanked by flame was, as Andrews put it, “gut-wrenching,” the stories of children taking up their plight were heartwarming. In the suburbs of Toronto, kids who set up lemonade stands to raise money for Fort McMurray raked in more than $400 in one case, better than $2,500 in another. Kids in Saskatchewan’s Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation filmed messages of support. At Toronto’s Northlea Elementary and Middle School, students will be invited to wear pyjamas every Friday this month, but are encouraged, for the privilege, to bring at least a toonie for the Red Cross’s Fort Mac fund.
If the idea sounds a little silly, well, thoughtful Northlea kids get that. Josh Girvan, 13, says younger pupils, like his nine-year-old little brother, are just excited about the pyjamas part, but he adds, “I think the older kids are going to understand how serious it is and keep up the spirit by donating.” His Grade 7 teacher, Allana Ossher, thought up the idea, partly because she spent six years of her childhood in Calgary, and is using the fire in geography lessons. Josh’s classmate, Clara Leslie, also 13, says Fort McMurray has been a frequent topic of conversation with her parents, too. “I’m learning about a place I had never heard of before,” she says.
In fact, many Canadians are learning to consider Fort Mac in a way they hadn’t before. News reports focusing on hard-hit evacuees humanized a city previously associated, for many outsiders, with images like photographer Edward Burtynsky’s aerial photos of epic-scale oil sands mining, which tend to suggest a ruined boreal landscape. “If I flew over it, I’d probably be appalled,” says JJ Hilsinger, owner of the Water Tower Inn in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. That didn’t stop Hilsinger, though, from spearheading a drive to get Soo businesses to create a pool of at least $25,000, out of which they will match any individual donations from local residents to the Red Cross’s fire fund. His environmental misgivings? “It didn’t come into the equation,” he says. “You just saw that there were a whole lot of people in dire need, and going through a fearful point in life.”
The oil sands’ impact on the landscape and implications for climate change have long been political flashpoints. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared it would be wrong “to make a political argument out of one particular disaster.” Indeed, Trudeau took care not to be seen to seek any sort of political edge out of the situation, putting off a visit in order not to get in the way of the work of first responders. So the Prime Minister—whose in-person welcoming of Syrian refugees at Toronto’s airport made international news last year—was not present in Edmonton to meet evacuees. On May 10, however, Trudeau announced in the House, “I will be going personally to Fort McMurray on Friday to offer up some support from all Canadians.”
For the most part, the stolid voice of the federal response to the disaster belonged to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who also happens to be, as a veteran Saskatchewan MP, the senior Prairie Liberal. Goodale repeatedly touted Ottawa’s contributions, while carefully deferring to Notley’s leadership. Goodale and Trudeau took every opportunity to urge Canadians to give to the Red Cross, repeating his government’s pledge to match donations, while shipping thousands of cots, blankets, generators and other basic supplies to Alberta’s evacuation shelters.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Space Agency helped track the blaze with images from several satellites, including RADARSAT-2. The Canadian Forces contributed four Griffon helicopters and one Hercules transport plane, helping airlift civilians, deliver medical supplies and monitor the fire zone. (The military made a point of touting the first humanitarian mission for one of its newly acquired Chinook helicopters.) Among contributions from provinces, Quebec sent four water bombers, Ontario sent three 21-person firefighting teams, and Manitoba sent an urban search and rescue unit.
Still, many details of the federal response remain hazy. “I know there will be lots of discussions in the coming days and weeks about what we need to do to rebuild Fort McMurray, but I can ensure and reassure Alberta that all Canadians will be there,” Trudeau said.
Less emotionally gripping than the plight of individuals forced from their homes is the shutdown of oil sands production. Federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr was reportedly in discussions with oil companies about what was needed to get the massive operations up and running again.
For at least the next two weeks, however, human stories will overshadow the economic toll. Among the most touching was Syrian refugee Rita Khanchet’s response when she saw in Fort McMurray’s plight something of the same trauma she had gone through in her own war-ravaged country. Khanchet, who has been in Calgary with her husband and young son for just five months, used a Facebook post to rally other Syrian refugees to donate $5 each and pooled that money to buy hygiene items for Fort Mac evacuees.
Among many business efforts to help out, Labatt drew notice by temporarily canning water instead of beer in London, Ont., and delivering thousands of the aluminum cans—lighter, less prone to breaking, and thus better for disaster-response situations than bottled water—to Edmonton. Companies with big presence in Fort McMurray faced special challenges. The response of Sobeys Inc., which has three supermarkets stores and two liquor stores in Fort Mac, is a saga in its own right. The grocery chain had some 500 evacuated employees to track. A lone manager, still in the city as it emptied out, rushed back to a store at the last minute to distribute water, batteries, power bars and other supplies to firefighters. By 8 a.m. on May 4, Sobeys had decided to donate $100,000 in goods and another $100,000 to match customer cash donations, and signs were up in its stores across the country asking shoppers to give to the Red Cross.
In fact, the Red Cross was so ubiquitous in the response that it could almost be overlooked. Yet behind its institutional aura there are, of course, individuals, sometimes providing not just the crucial practical help, but also moments of precious normalcy to those plunged into crisis. Jenn McManus, the Canadian Red Cross’s vice-president of operations for Alberta, spent much of last week at the Expo Centre at Northlands in Edmonton, which has been transformed into a 1,300-bed shelter. On Mother’s Day, flowers suddenly appeared there by the bucket. Kids and fathers swarmed, taking bouquets from staff and volunteers, to present to their partners. McManus’s voice dissolves into tears when she talks about it. “You know, my brain and my heart probably haven’t caught up with each other yet,” she says. “This is going to be a long haul, so let’s celebrate the small things.”
In the shelters, McManus says evacuees hunger for information about what they left behind. They hunch over their phones at charging stations, trading info with friends and family, or bunch themselves around televisions blaring news. But McManus and her staff and volunteers encourage them to take a break from it all once in a while; it’s just too emotionally exhausting otherwise. “Families and individuals are coming off of that fight-or-flight adrenalin rush that happened last week with the evacuation,” she says. “Now the reality and impact and the scope of this is starting to settle in.”
Even within the crowded centres, McManus has seen small moments of kindness and dignity for people who have precious little control over anything right now. There are bowls of fruit where evacuees can help themselves, and kiosks offering juice boxes, those water cans from Labatt, and pop. Tim Hortons showed up with trucks of coffee and tea.
As of Monday, the Red Cross had 600 staff members and trained volunteers responding to the crisis. The organization’s offices in Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Calgary, Red Deer, Edmonton and Grande Prairie are helping evacuees who have landed in those cities, while other staff and volunteers are on the ground assisting at emergency shelters in Lac La Biche, Edmonton and Calgary. “Sometimes, you have to find the silver lining,” says McManus. “Hands down, across Alberta, the generosity and openness to coordinate and put resources on the table has been truly remarkable.”
Next to the Red Cross, the Salvation Army is perhaps the next most reassuring presence around the emergency. Major Brian Beveridge, a Salvation Army minister in Grande Prairie, has served hot meals to first responders out of a mobile canteen during Alberta emergencies from the 2011 forest fire that destroyed much of Slave Lake, to the 2013 flood that inundated High River. Rolling into Fort Mac last Friday morning, Beveridge and other Salvation Army volunteers began working around the clock to serve about 2,000 freshly cooked meals a day—roast beef, chicken, lasagna—to weary police and firefighters. “They like to have a bite to eat, that’s right,” Beveridge, 65, said, speaking to Maclean’s by cellphone from the side of the highway south of Fort McMurray, on his way out for a rest after four gruelling, satisfying days.
Few Canadians have the chance to help as directly as Beveridge or McManus. But thousands are reaching out. Back on the East Coast, Kim Doyle, a professional event organizer in Charlottetown, says “nobody is taking a cut” at the fundraising bash planned for this Friday at P.E.I. Brewing Company. Musicians and servers are working for free. All the proceeds go to help the fire’s victims. “Not the profits, the sales,” Doyle stresses. “If you buy a beer for $5, $5 goes to the Red Cross.” The party is scheduled to stretch from six in the evening until two the next morning. The feeling of a vast country bound more tightly together will last even longer.
With files from Shannon Proudfoot and Emily Senger