Our national epic tells us that Canada was forged as a nation at Vimy Ridge. Surging up the hill and holding it against the Germans in World War I showed that Canadian soldiers could fight better than the rest. In an imperial world, when we were fighting for Britain and the King, we embraced Vimy to symbolize our emergence from colony to nation. It was a valid symbol for the 20th century.
The devastation in Fort McMurray and the response to it, both locally and across the nation, suggests new iconography for the 21st century. Newspaper images are of raging fires looming over roads and buildings, helicopters flying in red skies among clouds of smoke, burned out homes in Beacon Hill, convoys of cars threading their way down Highway 63 to Edmonton and south from the northern work camps. More than 80,000 people evacuated, 2400 structures destroyed.
Saturday’s Globe and Mail had a two-page special with maps showing the origin of MWF-009 (its technical name) and how it had spread day by day during “A Week of Hell.” The statistics in Monday’s Globe are stark: 1,610 square kilometres burning by Sunday; 36 separate fires, 3 out of control; 1500 firefighters in the province; 36,000 people registered for Red Cross help.
The headlines scream “Catastrophic,” “A national disaster unlike any other,” “Alberta declares state of emergency,” “Feeling Fort Mac’s Pain,” “Trudeau will offer ‘total support’ to the province,” “Albertans rush to aid fire evacuees.” “Fort McMurray residents ‘will rebuild.’” Total strangers open their homes, garages and trailers as a temporary refuge. Volunteers tend to pets, provide tons of supplies, cook community meals, offer places to park. Firefighters, fire-fighting equipment, water bombers, and helicopters from across the province and across the country flood in to fight “The Beast” (as the fire is now called). The federal government offers to double all contributions to the Canadian Red Cross for Alberta fire relief. The Alberta government does the same. By Sunday, the Red Cross fund has swelled to $54 million.
Among the donors are the people of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, themselves devastated by an exploding railroad car in 2013. Their local MP and mayor emphasize that, “Three years ago it was our population that was struck down by tragedy, and all of Canada mobilized itself for us. Now, it’s our turn to support this community.” And so it is: Canadians have always rallied to support their fellow Canadians in times of trial. During ice storms in Montreal or Toronto, flooding in Calgary and in Winnipeg, forest fires in Slave Lake and in Kelowna, the resilience of Canadians has been tested and never found wanting.
That a firestorm has destroyed the heart of the Alberta oil sands affects us all. The locals who have carved a modern community out of the boreal forest in the far north are living everyone’s worst nightmare. New immigrants who settled in Fort McMurray find themselves in yet another “war zone,” this time against the forces of Nature. Oil production in the area has ground to a halt, raising worldwide oil prices, and throwing shell-shocked oil workers from Vancouver Island to Cape Breton out of work. The personal, psychological and economic cost of the devastation is as yet unknown.
It strikes me that this is the Canadian condition. We live with these disasters, and with the potential for similar disasters, because Nature in our country is large, powerful and close at hand. It is the motif of our existence. When locals remain resolute and determined to rebuild, and when the rest of us rally to help, we are forging ties between our regions and creating a stronger nation with all the effort. In the 21st Century, Fort McMurray and all it represents could well become our new Vimy Ridge. I can think of no better symbol for the challenges of the century which lie ahead.
Donations of cash (the most useful response at this stage) can be made on the Canadian Red Cross “Alberta Fire” webpage. Individuals can make a $5 donation by texting RED CROSS to 30333. To all our family, friends and everyone else in Alberta, please know that we are with you and have got your back.