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.]