Wildfire changed national image of Fort McMurray, mayor says – Edmonton

Strong. Resilient. Always. When I used those words to describe my community in my first column in this space back in February 2016, I never imagined that they were about to take on a whole new level of meaning.

In the intervening months, much has changed in my community and yet the residents of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo continue to be the same incredible people who inspire me with their remarkable strength, grace under pressure, and can-do attitudes.

This is Treaty 8 territory and our First Nations partners have lived in this region thousands of years. They not only survived the harsh land and challenges of northern living, they adapted and innovated.

So, too, did the early explorers and traders who arrived here. To this day, people are drawn to this region from all over the world, fuelled by a desire to make a better life for themselves and their families — and they do; they thrive.

Mayor Melissa Blake of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo says the Fort McMurray wildfire last spring humanized area residents in the eyes of Canadians. (Jonathan Castell/CBC)

This region is not for the faint of heart. It attracts people of strong stock with a passion and drive for a better life. These are people who know the value of perseverance and aren’t afraid of hard times.

They intrinsically know how to weather the storm. Indeed, that’s what we were doing prior to the wildfire as we adjusted to the end of the oil boom cycle.

Our community is known as the heart of the oil sands.

Prior to May 2016, this meant a near-constant struggle of trying to break the stereotypes and misconceptions outsiders had of our region. We were little known to most Canadians.

Instead, we were perceived as a caricature based on extreme views about the environmental impact of the oil sands and the big problems stemming from big paycheques and big-time population growth.    

But when images began surfacing of roughly 88,000 residents fleeing the inferno — on the one road that connects us to the rest of the province — that started to change.

‘We were humanized’

Suddenly, we were humanized. The rest of Canada began to see us as regular hardworking folk, with families and friends, jobs and mortgages. As we fanned out across the country, we had an incredible chance to get acquainted with Canada.

Then another big shift happened: the community that the United Way of Canada has ranked as Canada’s most giving community per capita for close to a decade, had that generosity returned to us tenfold. Complete strangers stepped up, giving what they could: gas for vehicles, water, clothing, shelter, financial support and so much more.

The response to our desperate need was overwhelming. Corporations, churches, communities and individuals all chipped in and together contributed $319 million to our cause. In fact, more than one million Canadians donated $185 million to the Canadian Red Cross’ Alberta Fires Appeal, before matching funding…

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