Everything Is Not Okay In the Communities That Raised Me

I planned this week to write a funny blog post about politics and ghosts.

Instead, before I could get started, my mother broke the news that a young man from St. Walburg, one of the communities I consider “my neck of the woods” (my childhood home in rural Saskatchewan is equidistant from the towns of St. Walburg, where my mother taught, and Turtleford, where I went to school) and his wife and son had lost their lives, allegedly in a more upsetting and shocking way I would ever have thought possible.

For information about this tragedy, I have turned to the Saskatoon Star Pheonix and CBC Saskatchewan, which have given me some facts, I guess, though I resent the splashy way in which these horrible events are being presented, and the audacity of the reporters who would be so callous as to contact family members for comment at a time like this.

When I saw the photos of the family I recognized him right away. When I was in high school I thought he was cute. My mom taught him in grade 3. I competed in the Meadow Lake Music Festival with his sister. There is nothing in my thoughts or memories of this young man or his close-knit family to suggest such a horrible thing was possible.

But the horribly impossible has become horribly possible. I am in shock, I guess, I can hardly believe it (I certainly don’t want to). When I think about what the families of these young people must be going through (which, at the moment, is all the time), I feel sick to my stomach. To say I am experiencing grief would be an insult to the families and friends of this young couple and their son, because their grief is beyond imagining now.

Instead, I am casting around myself, trying to understand something that can’t be understood, that maybe isn’t any of my business to try to understand right now. For the second time in the past year and a half, a young man my age, from my tiny rural area, has lost his life in an inconceivably desperate act (although in these most recent events the deaths of his wife and son have exponentially heaped horror on the tragedy). Both of these young men were good-looking, good-humoured, gentlemanly young men with supportive families and close friends. They also both worked in Fort McMurray, an oil town gaining a reputation for suicide, violence, and desperate acts among its workers. It’s fairly common knowledge that working and living conditions in Fort Mac are extremely dire in terms of mental and emotional health.

This is unacceptable to me. Nothing is worth this loss of health and life and this senseless devastation of families. Not oil, not money, nothing. How many other families in other provinces, Alberta or Newfoundland or Manitoba, etc., see young men go up to Fort Mac, only to have them return mentally and emotionally strained to the point of breaking (or not to return at all, the victim of a suicide or murder)? This is not acceptable to me. It is not acceptable for anyone.

And yet the conditions that help contribute to these tragedies are accepted. The oil life is no picnic no matter where you are (which is why I also know several young men who’ve become addicts or alcoholics while working on the patch) and this has become an accepted part of life in the Prairies. I’m frustrated by this. I’m horrified, I’m angry, and I’m completely heartsick.

I can’t write a funny or clever post today. I’ve been thrust into a world that is harder, meaner, more senseless and more dangerous than the world of the communities I grew up in. And my communities have been thrust into this world too.

Where I’m from, people look out for one another. We are good people. Our parents worked hard all their adult lives to provide a good life for us. We are not unfamiliar with the harshness of cold winters or summer drought. We are not unfamiliar with the cruel indifference of fate as it intersects with farm life (though I must admit that as the child of teachers I was insulated from the worst of this). The communities that raised me know how to accept the good luck with the bad. But this is not a case of luck. I do not accept this. And I am utterly sick at heart.

[I am categorizing this post under “Politics” because ultimately, any push to improve the working conditions in Fort Mac will come down to the will of regulators and lawmakers, as long as there is public support for positive changes.]

9 thoughts on “Everything Is Not Okay In the Communities That Raised Me

  1. I, too, was raised in St. Walburg and I find your report just wrong. You don’t know what the cause of this tragedy was, and to suggest it is due to Fort Mac is ridiculous. By using this family to push your own political agenda is disgusting. So until more facts are revealed, keep your opinions to yourself.

    • I’m sorry you feel that way, Pat. I tried very hard to be very respectful and non-partisan when I wrote this piece but obviously I was not successful with everyone who read it.

      That said, I do not agree with your accusation that I am using this tragedy or any family to push a “political agenda”. I was not the first of my hometown friends (many of whom have completely different political views from me) to suggest that the conditions in Fort McMurray need a serious look in the wake of this tragedy. The fact that the Saskatoon Star Phoenix chose to include information about Fort Mac in its coverage of this story suggested to me that there may have been a connection, and the fact that I suddenly lost a friend last year who’d also been working up there seemed more than a coincidence to me.

      Yes, the post I wrote was a knee-jerk reaction to a horrible event, and I also know that any tragedy has complicated factors that lead up to it, but I certainly wasn’t waiting around for a tragedy to push a certain “agenda”. If neither of the tragedies I mentioned in my post had happened I’d be a much happier person and would never have felt the need to write this post. My post is also not anti-oil in any way. I simply feel that conditions can and should be improved for the people who work in the oil industry because I’m tired of seeing my friends and members of my community hurt in mind or body after coming back from stints in Northern Alberta.

      As for “keeping my opinions to myself”, I would like to remind anyone reading my posts that NiftyNotCool.com is a personal blog, and I make very clear on my “About” page that it is a forum for me to express my own opinions. I am not pretending that I speak for the community of St. Walburg and I’m definitely not pretending to speak for the families involved. If you find my posts offensive or disgusting I urge you not to read them.

      That said, if I have offended or hurt any member of any of the families connected, or anyone close to these families, I am deeply deeply sorry. I take responsibility for my opinions but it was never my intention to hurt anyone.

  2. Just in response to Pat’s comment I suggest a good Green Peace article for education purposes. I agree that the cause or stresses leading up to this tragedy are not yet determined, and they probably never will be.
    The true facts about this are outlined in the article and even if these events are isolated from the conditions in Fort Mac there are hundreds of other deaths that are directly related! Both Lauren and I can personal mention one and there are thousands. Fort McMurray has the highest suicide rates in all of Canada by a landslide and it is not because there is something in the water.

    Snap shots of the Green Peace article.

    -“Rents have skyrocketed: some workers
    pay $700 a month just for a cot in a walk-in closet; some
    tradespeople will wrap insulation around their vehicles and camp
    out in -40 degree weather.”

    -“For example, Fort McMurray:
    • has the highest suicide rate in the country for men age 18-24;
    • reports five times more drug offences than the rest of Alberta;
    • has an 89 per cent higher rate of assault;
    • has a 117 per cent higher rate of impaired driving offences.”

    If he or anyone else wants to read this full 2 page article just google “suicide rates in Fort McMurray.” It is called Tar Sands and Social Costs.

    ~Just to shed some light on the reasoning for Lauren to rightfully feel the way she does~

    • Though you don’t agree with one another, the both of you do have a point. Research and facts are helpful in unraveling any issue and I do hope to be doing more research into this particular one as it struck close to my heart.

  3. I am 22 years old and I have lived and worked in Fort McMurray for 3 years now. I was a Very close friend to Jordan. I was the last person he contacted the night that he died. I never stop thinking about him and the things we talked about. We were very close and I miss him so much, But I too think that what you have said in your report is wrong. Yes, the places we CHOSE to live in and the people we CHOSE to surround ourselves with is what shapes us and makes us the people we are. and they influence us. but Jordan was suffering from things that were deep within himself and its not your place to say that it was because of where he lived. Maybe it was a contributing factor yes. but definitely not the cause. No body FORCES these young people to come and work and live up here. They come here because it is a great opportunity to get ahead in life, build connections and gain experience. It is THEIR CHOICE. If they are unhappy then it is up to them to get the strength to leave. Some are stronger than others and Depression is a disease of the mind. It doesn’t stem from a PLACE.

  4. Also all of the major oil companies up here have Free and Confidential Counseling Programs. Its up to the young people to realize that they need help and to reach out for it 😦 Sometimes it is hard.

  5. Thank you K. I did make the personal choice not to name my friend in my post (especially since we’d lost touch in the last years) but since you were a close friend of his I respect your decision to use Jordon’s name. I miss him too.

    I completely agree with you that no LOCATION can be the absolute cause of someone’s distress or suicide. But I firmly believe the conditions under which people work in Fort McMurray could be a contributing factor. Depression is not the direct result of choices, and is beyond the sufferer’s control. Complicated factors such as life events, brain chemistry, genetics, environmental stressers etc. come into play. And if even ONE factor (like a work environment stresser) can be removed, who knows whether that ONE factor was the straw that broke the camel’s back? Who knows whether a positive change in ONE factor could have saved a person’s life?

    Although on the surface, yes, people do choose to work in Fort Mac and that is THEIR choice, even then I think it’s more complicated. A lack of well-paying employment and opportunities for young men in many rural areas leads them to choose jobs in the oil industry. We cannot fault a young person for wanting to make a decent wage even if the work is dangerous, the hours are long, or the location of the work is far from their family or support system. But the price is too great. No one should have to choose between having a decent job and their mental health, in some cases their life.

    Ultimately, you’re right–the responsibility to make use of any mental health services available rests with the individual. If someone chooses not to use them it is not anyone else’s fault. But what I take issue with is the culture of “toughness” in the oil industry. To complain or seek help is, in many cases, to be unfairly called a “pussy”. Substance abuse is also a major problem in the oil industry, and its well-known that substance abuse exacerbates mental health conditions.

    While depression and mental health issues are incredibly complex and not enough is known about them, what we do know is that they are isolating. So much so that a person may not see any way out of their situation, may not realize it is within their power to seek help. As you said, “some are stronger than others”, and it is for those who are weaker that I believe conditions, and importantly, ATTITUDES in the oil industry (and places like Fort Mac) need to change.

    I respect that you had a close personal connection to one of the young men I mentioned, and I am sorry for the loss of your friend. As I said, I miss him too, and never realized that the next time I came home to the Prairies he wouldn’t be there. I respect that you disagree with me and I know you have your reasons. You will grieve in your way and I will grieve in mine. Best wishes. -L

  6. It is a tough world. There are many opinions and feelings when it comes to the topic of working in the oil industry. I respect yours as well. Best wishes.

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