This post was originally published May 3, 2021 in Medium. It is provided below in its entity.
When I last thought about memorializing Abasand, I was mere months from experiencing one of the more traumatic events in my life. I had been evacuated, I had returned, I had walked around charred remains of my house and neighbourhood covered in white tactifier that mixed with the ash and rust to transform a once vibrant landscape into blinding black, brown, and white. I visited the wreckage of my old home, I picked through the remains, I found what I thought might be mementos — a handmade tea pot, warped silverware, rusting stainless-steel pots and pans — and I carefully placed them into a Rubbermaid bin, saved them for another day.
Everything in the bin was spared being scooped out by the backhoe then plowed under by the bulldozer which came through the neighbourhood days later. The warped and bent remains soon became all that was left as the void became a rush with motion, as Abasanders tried to put their lives back together one rebuild at a time. While this process was easier and more exciting for some than others, soon the desolation was built over and people’s houses once again became homes.
While the neighbourhood was reborn, it was not the same. Neighbours came and went; new homes replaced many (but not all) of the gritty overpriced fourplexes and duplexes that gave the community its character. Scattered empty lots reminded everyone that not everything had proceeded as planned.
Some returnees refilled their homes with new mementoes and memories, eager to move on from the trauma of scrutinizing old photographs to create contents lists for insurance companies. While many were undoubtedly grateful to be provided the opportunity to start over, circumstance and life did not always make that possible. Many remained frozen in a moment that seemingly lasted forever, while others started again, finding hope as life moved beyond the fire.
Now, five years later I reflect on all of the above. I look back on those contents lists created by remembering things as they were. I am surrounded by the new things I bought to replace the old ones, understanding many of these new things would never be the same. I remember those times wandering the streets in Edmonton, lost and unsure as I processed what happened. I also remember the opportunity that the lost and unsure wandering brought to me as I found love and family that I’m not sure would have ever come to me in a forty-year-old Abasand duplex.
So five years later, I reflect on what I took, and what I left behind. I pull out my Rubbermaid bin and spend a long time looking at what remains of 252 Athabasca Drive: the handmade tea pot, warped silverware, and rusting stainless-steel pots and pans. I’m left not thinking about what was, but rather what has become, and how all these artifacts — damaged, but still here — contributed to what I am today. And though I have changed in ways I cannot fully explain, the charred remains I took, and those I left behind, have made today possible.
Peter with the contents of his Rubbermaid Bin and Jacob and Patrick, May 2021. To see some of the pictures of
This post was originally published as a Facebook note April 22, 2019.
It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Sami the Cat, otherwise known as Fort McMurray Ugly Cat (#ftmcuglycat). Sami died peacefully after a short battle with cancer. He is survived by his loving family: Peter, Gretchen, Patrick, and Dakota the Sheepadoodle, and he will also be missed by former roommate Jay Telegdi.
Sami’s early life was marred by near tragedies. Born in eastern Europe, Sami’s original family bred and showed purebred Persians. Sadly, Sami’s trademark facial growth limited his stage career. His family took to the river with a burlap sack. At the banks, a fortuitous exchange occurred. “Are you about to drown that kitten?,” a passerby asked. Sami found his next home, and his kitten days passed peacefully in the Transylvanian mountains, which we imagine was enveloped in Old World mist.
Immigration to the New World
In search of a better life, Sami’s first adopted family crossed the ocean to Toronto, Canada. They met with a shock in their new home. Their Scarborough rental disallowed cats, and Sami had to find refuge in this strange land. Not speaking the language, he nonetheless persevered, finding his next home with the young family of a graduate student in political science. Times were hard: food was meagre, but Sami caught twelve mice in his first week, and earned his keep.
Journey to Western Canada
Like many eastern Europeans before him, Sami was lured by the prospect of open fields and big skies in the western expanse. By vehicle, his second family moved slowly across the plains, finally stopping in Calgary, Alberta. Soon after his arrival, the Bow River swelled and escaped its banks, endangering the intrepid Sami. Drawing on his vast reservoir of survival skills, honed in the old country, Sami stayed dry and led his family to higher ground. Sadly, members of his family soon discovered their allergy to his long, luxurious show fur, and Sami yet again had to find a new home.
Move to Fort McMurray
Sami’s next move—which he thought would surely be his last—was north, to Fort McMurray. He may not have found his permanent home (which was a rundown, old duplex in Abasand), but he found his forever people: Peter and Jay. Peter, Jay, and Sami became roommates and fast friends, battling political foes and fighting for a better world. It was during this time that Sami first began to dabble in social media, starting a Twitter account and developing his own hashtag #ftmcuglycat.
Surviving the Flames
It was a warm early spring day, like most others, when Sami’s world was turned upside down, and he was unexpectedly thrust into the media spotlight. As his roommates watched a wildfire cross the Horse River and began feverishly packing their belongings, two ice-cream sandwiches, and Jay’s extensive collection of expensive cologne (without any cat food or treats), Sami rushed into his cat carrier (the same one that brought him first from Europe and then to the west) and once again hoped for the best. From there they outran the fire from Abasand to Waterways, Waterways to Draper, when he, Jay, and Peter were evacuated by helicopter to the airport and then to Edmonton. The event was traumatizing, but like many other Fort McMurrayites, he persevered, depending on the kindness of strangers, most notably Tammy who made sure he had litter, a vast supply of wet food, and a safe place to stay. Though still shaken, Sami knew the importance of his survival story, and appeared on CNN, and German TV. This plucky Transylvanian immigrant captured the hearts of many across the world, and his story was featured in the CBC show “Still Standing.”
Using his newfound platform, Sami decided to raise money for those in need. Knowing what it is like to be a refugee, Sami felt a deep empathy for Syrians who were fleeing their homeland. Sami prompted his people, Jay and Peter, to put his image on a T-shirt, along with the words “Be Kind.” The initiative raised approximately $3,000 for refugees and helped to heighten awareness of world events.
After the fire, Sami, like his roommates, was left homeless. The fire had razed their duplex to the ground. Not a cat tree or toy was left behind in the rubble. They were all taken in by a loving Fort McMurray family on the north side of the river, where he continued to find his sunspots, although making do in a basement suite that was a little tight for three.
Soon, Peter met the love of his life, Gretchen, who was residing in the little town of Cochrane in the foothills, 700 km to the south. Once more, Sami was on the move. This, truly, would be the last one. Sami came to live with his special little friend, Patrick, and earned the nickname “Thunder Paws” for his joyous romping down the upstairs hallways and playing hide and seek, or as he and Patrick called it, “capture the wild animal.” Sunspots were abundant at the end of Sami’s life. For one beautiful year, Sami lived with his family, being visited by Jay and meeting many new friends. His family adopted a younger sister, Dakota the Sheepadoodle, who at first annoyed Sami by her puppy boisterousness, but he got used to it, and they joined together to serve as Best Cat and Dog of Honour at their owners’ nuptials.
Sami will forever be remembered as a caring companion, always helping his people to get their work done by sitting on their desks or nearby. His dying wish is that we always look for the sunspot in any situation, and to be always Be Kind. In lieu of flowers, memorials to the Red Cross or your local SPCA would be appreciated. Sami also leaves behind a large collection of XL t-shirts, and if you would like one, please let Jay or Peter know. To see photos of Sami please visit this gallery or search for the hashtag #ftmcuglycat in Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
Sami enjoying a sunspot at his last home in Cochrane, Alberta. March 2018.
This was originally published as a Facebook note January 20, 2019. The picture is of Patrick and I on the family farm, west of Airdrie.
Over the last number of years, I, like many others have been faced with many obstacles, but through those times, I have tried my best to always respond: “how can I help.” I’m not sure how this came to be my default answer, perhaps it was a lesson learned while growing up on the farm, when I was taught the importance of helping no matter the situation. Perhaps it was in university when I learned about many of the great helpers in history, and the ways that their assistance helped to change the world. Maybe, it was in more recent years, when I was taught the value of helping those facing insurmountable odds and circumstances beyond their control, learning to hold their hands when necessary, and let them go when help was no longer required. Maybe I learned to help when listening to Indigenous Elders like Elsie Yanik who always actively sought out opportunities to help.
As many of you who follow me on social media are aware, I now have a stepson in my life, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how I might teach him how to actively seek opportunities to help. I’ve been blessed with one of those opportunities next week, where I will give a stranger the gift of a kidney, while at the same time someone else gives my Dad a kidney to replace the one that doesn’t work. So if you don’t see me for a little while, or you next see me photographed in a hospital bed in Halifax, know that I helping someone, and they in turn, are helping my Dad.
If you would like to help, there are a few things you can do. First and foremost, take a few minutes and visit the Organ Donation Website and ensure your family knows that you to would like to someday potentially help someone with an organ transplant. Second, the program I’m participating in is called the Kidney Paired Exchange, which is facilitated through the work of Canadian Blood Services and the Kidney Foundation; you can find a brief description of the program here. In short, the program helps families who do not have a blood-type match for the person experiencing kidney failure to pair with another family in a similar situation. The program is fully funded through generous donations to the Kidney Foundation as well as through our world-class medical system. If you would like to learn more about the program, or donate to help others, please visit the Kidney Foundation’s Donation page. Finally, just take a few moments today, and tell someone, anyone, “I’m here to help.” That act will make you and them feel better.
See you all soon!
This blog was originally posted on www.willospringsss.com Nov. 29, 2016.
This weekend we lost one of the pillars of our community, Métis Elder Elsie Yanik. Mrs. Yanik touched many, but there is one particular story that has stayed with me, and I think it will be the one that helps our community recover from the trauma of last summer.
She told me this story a few times, and in a few different ways; She shared it as part of her 2014 University of Alberta Convocation Address where you can still find it in print and as a video (go to June 11, 2014 and fast forward to about the 32 minute mark). She did a much better job telling it, but I will do my best to honour her story as I share it today.
Elsie was a beautiful and inspiring Elder who has accomplished so much in her long life. She has explained to me many times that those many accomplishments are all grounded in a simple lesson she learned as a child – the importance of always being kind.
The lesson came to her in 1925 when she was 7 years old in Fort Fitzgerald. Her mother had been ill for almost a year and her father was away cooking on the steamboats. Elsie was the oldest child at home, and her bed-ridden mother needed to teach her daughter to look after the family. In that year Elsie learned how to bead and sew, how to make bannock and stew, how to look after her younger siblings. In the fall, Elsie turned 8 and her older brothers returned home from the boats and decided they needed to take their mother to Edmonton for medical treatment, sadly this would be the last time Elsie saw her mother.
Elsie explained that everything was fine until Christmas, when it seemed Santa Claus had forgotten the family. When Syd Porter checked in, he discovered a crying 8-year-old girl trying to do her best for her family.
Syd was a solitary man who lived in a little cabin in Fort Fitz. A WWI volunteer, he had seen unimaginable scenes, though he never talked about his past to those in town. Instead he did what he could to be kind and help those in need.
After Elsie told Syd that Santa had forgotten her and her family. Syd left, returning a couple hours later with a gunnysack full of gifts. He explained to the young girl that Santa had not forgotten the family, but had simply misplaced the gifts.
Elsie explains: “You see, kindness is enduring. Kindness makes everyone feel good. The person who gives kindness feels just as good as the person receiving kindness. When we witness kindness it makes us feel good. We were not the only children that Syd Porter cared for. Syd’s old gunnysack full of gifts was repeated countless times. Whenever the need arose he was there. He did not wait to hear about it, he actively sought out opportunities to help.”
These last few months I come back to this story often. I now know how Elsie felt as a child. Doing all she could to care for her family, but barely being able to care for herself. As I’ve sat searching for answers after May 3, it is the kindness of our community that has helped me through the more difficult times - 88,000 Syd Porters actively searching for opportunities to help and 88,000 Elsie Yaniks overwhelmed by individual acts of kindess.
So now, as days stretch to months, and our community’s patience and understanding are pushed to new limits, please remember Elsie’s lesson and be kind, our community needs it.