On May 1, 2016, a wildfire began raging through the tinder-dry boreal forest that surrounds Fort McMurray, Alberta. By May 3, the entire city of Fort McMurray was under orders to evacuate. Two young people were killed in a traffic accident as they fled the city, and the fire destroyed approximately 2 400 homes and buildings. At this time, the city remains under a State of Emergency, with a phased-in return for residents beginning this week.
Almost since the oil sands first began wide-scale development, Fort McMurray has been both misunderstood and mythologized. To some, it has been a golden land of opportunity where hard-working people can make above-average wages and provide a good standard of living for their families. To others, it has been a dreary frontier rife with fast times, depression, and drug use. To others still, it has been a symbol of the desecration of our planet and a much-maligned target in the fight against climate change. But whatever your opinions on the oil sands, the industry culture, or what you think is best for Canada’s economic future, the fact remains that Fort McMurray and the surrounding area is home to nearly 90 000 people, many of whom have lost their homes and businesses, whose past has been burned up, and whose future remains uncertain.
In a crisis such as this, our first response should always be support, generosity, and a recognition of our shared humanity. Fortunately, we have been doing ourselves proud, as Canadians from coast to coast (and especially Albertans) have opened their hearts and homes and donated their time, possessions, and money to help evacuees in need. And as the citizens of Fort McMurray continue to share their stories, their courage in the face of danger and uncertainty has been both captivating and inspiring.
It is my incredible privilege this week to be able to publish an interview (conducted via e-mail) with Fort McMurray resident and theatre artist Steph Link (I first met Steph nearly 13 years ago in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, while working in a semi-professional production of Guys and Dolls, and we’ve remained connected through social media). I wanted to learn not only about the fire, but also about the community of Fort McMurray, and what the city means to those who live there. Here is Steph’s story:
Lauren: You are from Saskatchewan and studied theatre at the National Theatre School in Montreal. What brought you to Fort McMurray?
Steph Link: Growing up in Sask I worked on a lot of community theatre and was mentored by a couple who were working in theatre there; they taught me everything I knew before I went to theatre school. After I finished theatre school, they were making the move to Fort McMurray so he could take the position of Production Manager at Keyano Theatre Co. I remember [having a] conversation about them moving and I had said “So you’re going to get me working up there right?” Turns out he was serious because I got an e-mail from the Artistic Director some months later. I was given a list of shows and told to take my pick. It was amazing because I was young and had just gotten into the Union, but they gave me a chance to SM [stage manage] two giant shows. I went up for a five-month contract and three weeks into it I was making plans to move and make Fort McMurray home. They offered three shows a season plus some casual crew work. It was a dream come true, working on theatre full time and being paid and not having to worry about where the next pay check was going to come from.
LK: Describe life (work life, arts and culture, general community feel, etc.) in Fort McMurray prior to the fire.
SL: Fort McMurray is an interesting place. The town is young…the median age is 35 [with an average age of 30 according to Maclean’s] and there are more babies born there per capita than most of Alberta I believe. What that means is there are lots of people in the town who don’t have a ton of experience prior to arriving. So the town takes chances on people and trains them, which is great for young people looking for a trade/career. It also is a place for new beginnings for people who need to make a change, and that means that there are some people with skeletons and people trying to re-invent themselves.
When I arrived it was also a place with a lot of money. Most people had more than they needed in the toy, house, and vehicle department. Rent was at least three times what I had been paying in Montreal. So being a broke artist who had never owned a car, much less a house–it was an interesting place to arrive in.
Stuff is missing there…we don’t have a bowling alley or a fabric store and the movie theatre looks like it hasn’t been updated since 1990. But it has all the big name box stores (except Costco😦 ) An interesting thing I noticed right away was…every bar had an Open Mic night…and they were always busy! So many people had given up music for a “real” job but still played in bands or at Open Mics on their days off.
Once I tapped into the arts scene, I saw a whole new community…it was small but blossoming and there were people who were so excited about it. Since then the arts scene has blown up, there are always people writing, painting, making music, filming, playing and exploring and it’s exciting to see. The theatre company [that I work for] doesn’t employ actors, it instead relies on volunteers from the community to act in the shows. I grew up in that kind of theatre so it was really exciting to me to do more of that. The community is bold and creative and they rise to any challenge the theatre can think up.
People who have made Fort McMurray their home are fierce in their love and devotion to that city. It’s unbelievable, I have never in my life seen a place so unconditionally defended…and it has to be for the most part–the hate that it receives on a daily basis, from people who have zero clue to people who maybe have a point–we get slammed all the time. I won’t go into what I think of the oil sands…I drive a car…I work in a building…I live in that city…I love that city…my boyfriend is employed by the oil sands. Enough said. The hashtag #ymmstrong didn’t come out of nowhere…it was born out of a reality that the people who call that city home are some of the strongest-willed people I have ever met and will defend and rebuild that city till the day they die. I have met some of the most courageous people and artists I have ever met there.
Where were you/when did you realize that you and your partner needed to evacuate?
I was at the theatre [Keyano College Theatre] for a meeting at 2pm…when the Voluntary Evacuation for Beacon Hill, Abasand and Waterways was declared, a colleague of mine (who lived in Abasand) had said the night before he had no concerns and the press conference at 11am didn’t show any concern then [either]. At 2:15pm the President of the College declared the College would be closed for the rest of the day. I helped clear the building of people and then went home. At about 2:30pm a Mandatory Evacuation of the three neighbourhoods was called. It took me half an hour to make my usual five-minute commute. That was when I realized that I had better start packing. My boyfriend, Justin, called me from up north at about 3:30pm and they had no clue what was happening or how bad it was; they were outside not checking phones or listening to the radio. When he heard me on the phone I told him I wanted him to come home and that was when he realized how serious it could be. I had lots of time to pack, a couple of hours, I listened to the radio the whole time…the scariest moment for me was hearing two radio DJs who I know personally and who were on the air (at not their regular times) saying that they were being evacuated…and I live five blocks from the station. That was when I started to really boot it.
How did you decide what to bring with you?
So many people have asked me this and they all say the same thing “I wouldn’t know where to start/I wouldn’t know what to bring” and trust me…you just start…I started by getting all the suitcases out and threw in our passports, cash and insurance papers. Then I made sure my dog had food. Then I piled in clothes and started doing tours of my apartment just picking up anything that I thought was important or expensive. I was a bit distraught so I took a couple things that didn’t make sense (Buddha figures?) but also lots of stuff I’m glad I got out (external hard drives and laptop). I also packed all the booze in the apartment…because you know, who doesn’t need a drink during an evacuation!?!
What was the evacuation like? What was going through your minds as you made your way out of the city?
It was surreal. I went north and I’m sure I was the same as others, every fibre of my being was telling me to go south…but the RCMP weren’t letting anyone. They had stopped Justin from coming to town and my only thought was to get to him…if I got to him everything would be okay. Once we were together we talked to the RCMP and I think that they were starting to realize that 80 000 people were on their way to work camps that couldn’t possibly hold them…so they let us go south finally. We drove south in convoy and started calling family and friends to let them know we were okay and find out how they were. A girl was vomiting out of her car, there were people riding horses, cars were abandoned on the side of the road, the Super 8 was on fire right by the highway.
The pictures you see online are worse than what I saw…I imagine those are from the neighbourhoods that were lost, or taken much later in the day. We saw fire on both sides of the highway but they were small. Emergency vehicles were driving fast down shoulders. All I could think was “Move, Drive, Keep Driving.” At one point I got frustrated and we drove through the meridian and drove on the wrong side of the highway for about 15 minutes…the RCMP directed us down the 881…we didn’t want to go that way but something was on our side because we ended up in Conklin and they somehow still had gas.
Where did you go? Where have you been staying since the fire and how were your daily needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) being met?
When we were in Conklin we realized that we were close to Christina Lake; they have a work camp and cabins there so we slept there the first night in a tiny little camp room with a single bed. We were glued to the news on the little TV. We stayed in hotels for nearly a week. We made our way to Calgary where we finally rented an apartment to stay in for the duration of the evacuation. We have been very fortunate. The Red Cross came through with funds and weekly gift cards to places like Safeway and Wal-Mart, the government gave us funds as well. Our insurance sent a check and some friends offered money as well. We went to several donation centres and got food, clothes and dog supplies. Clothing stores like Bootlegger, Reitman’s and Roots were all offering discounts and restaurants were also giving discounted food, friends and family have taken us for meals and also cooked for us. We have been amazingly taken care of and we are so grateful for everyone across the country and beyond who has been helping with this cause…88 000 people are a lot to take care of.
You mentioned on Facebook that your dog, Maggie, was able to stay at a farm when you first evacuated. How did that come about?
Funnily enough…we were planning a Calgary trip that weekend so we had already made plans with a friend who lives on said farm (although she’d called it an acreage but there are horses so I call it a farm) for Maggie to stay there for a couple days…we arrived early and she stayed later, but they were great about it and loved having her.
In addition to being a stage manager, you are also the director of a documentary called A Little Cabaret about staging the musical Cabaret in Fort Mac. Coincidentally, it was screening at NorthWest Fest and was a nominee at the Rosies (Alberta Film and Television Awards) while you were evacuated. Can you tell me a little bit about that project and its connection to your community?
The project was born out of my love for the theatre community in Fort McMurray and community theatre in general. I’ve always thought that what we do is magic and I thought people would want to see it– it’s a special breed of person who gives up all their evenings and weekends to rehearse for weeks on end, and I have always been in awe of those who do it. So I approached my friend Tito who is a Fort McMurray native and an avid film maker (he along with some others founded the Fort McMurray Film Makers Association) and he didn’t hesitate, he said yes right away. We both wanted so badly to show a different side of the region. The actors were equally excited to show off their town and how it is about more than the oil industry. The project really helped to teach me about film and teach Tito about theatre, which was a side purpose to the project as well.
What now? What’s next for you and your little family?
Justin has gone [back] up north to work; he will be living in camp until we can get into our apartment or until his days off. We are waiting for our landlord to give the go-ahead for us go home. Once we are home, we will have to see what kind of damage there is, I will probably spend a lot of time cleaning as I won’t be working. And then…we’ll see what life brings. I will need to find work as most of my summer contracts were cancelled due to the evacuation.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the fire, or about the Fort McMurray community in general?
Fort McMurray is a lovely place with lovely people and just like any city it has its flaws; we have been through a terrible ordeal and we will return and we will rebuild.
Thank you so much to Steph Link for taking the time to write down her experiences for me and for allowing me to share them on my blog (it’s a bit humbling, so say the least). I’m incredibly grateful and I’m sure readers will join me in wishing Steph, her partner, and their puppy Maggie all the best as they rebuild their lives in Fort McMurray.
If you’d like support residents of Fort McMurray in a more tangible way, please consider making a donation to one of the many great organizations offering relief and assistance, such as the Red Cross Fort McMurray Fire Relief, or United Way – Fort McMurray.
[Note: if you’d like to learn more about the Fort McMurray wildfire, Maclean’s ran an excellent issue devoted entirely to the community and the disaster and now has an online archive of images and articles.]