Tag Archive | Fort McMurray

Dances with Wolves actor joins “Wall of Women” opposed to Kinder Morgan Expansion

Photograph of Tantoo Cardinal

“It breaks your soul,” actor Tantoo Cardinal said, deep in a conversation about growing up in Alberta’s boreal forest. Cardinal had flown into Vancouver from Toronto to join  the “Wall of Women” opposing Kinder Morgan’s oil pipeline expansion. The group included Squamish First Nation leader MandyNahanee, Lubicon Cree First Nation leader Melina Laboucan-Massimo, and Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer.

Cardinal, who starred in Dances with Wolves (1990), Legends of the Fall (1994) and Black Robe (1991), grew up drinking water from the rivers and lakes near Fort McMurray and the changes that have taken place since Canada’s bitumen boom, make her crazy, she said. This is what inspired her to travel from Toronto to oppose the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion in Vancouver.

“It was a pain in my being for many years. I felt hopeless and desolate because nobody believed me,” she said, of the environmental destruction she warned was happening in Alberta’s tar sands.

“Nobody wanted to hear about it. People were making money and living the life. I was a wild-eyed actress who had no sense of reality. Going back, it was all poison, I couldn’t see myself living there. It was filled with all these people from all around the world, their eyes were on fire with all the money they were making.”

Cardinal and the other activists stood on the beach Ambleside Park on a cold, rainy Saturday morning, preparing to up the ante on their fight to stop the American pipeline company from bringing more tar sands bitumen from Alberta through to the coastal waters of Vancouver.

To Cardinal, the real issue is water.

Read the full story here.

Tar Sands Trouble

The Syncrude oil sands project, North of Fort McMurray

The Syncrude oil sands project, North of Fort McMurray

Finally the big day had come…I was to drive North to Fort MacMurray for the Christmas Show. I had heard nothing but terrifying reports on the danger of the highway, the wildness of the weather and the unpleasantness of the town in general from everyone whom I had spoken to about my trip, so I was truly braced for the worst. It was almost disappointing to experience an easy and uneventful drive up, with clear skies and clearer roads. Evening fell as I neared town, however, freezing rain began to whip across the single-lane highway, and I started to see what all of the fuss was about. But I didn’t have to navigate the harsh weather long and soon arrived at my B&B, another house that I was renting a room in. As I approached the house, I could see a woman just leaving to get into her truck. I called out to her, saying that I was the B&B guest, was there anyone inside? ‘Nope!’ she shouted cheerfully. ‘You’re on your own!’ and promptly hopped into her truck and drove away. I was dumbfounded. I discovered the door was indeed open, so I went inside. I was greeted by three large dogs barking loudly from the kitchen, and jumping up over the baby-gate that separated them from the living area. ‘Shhh-shhh!’ I said, trying to calm them, but they only got more excited and barked more loudly, and in their enthusiasm, knocked the gate right off its hinges. A bit startled, I quickly ran to fix it, as I could see the dogs seemed slightly sheepish for being so overzealous and had made no attempt to actually exit the kitchen. I fixed the gate and gave them each a pat–they were all beautiful, friendly dogs, one clearly a boxer cross of some kind, with a long snout and a brindle coat that made her resemble a tiger. There was also a golden retriever and a big shaggy Saint Bernard mix, all equally affectionate with loud barks but no bite. I headed upstairs and discovered an open door to a nicely made-up room with a towel on the bed. When I managed to figure out the WiFi, I found an email from the host explaining that she was out and had left the door open, and that I should make myself at home. So I did.

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The Oil Sands Discovery Centre clearly explained the bitumen extraction process,
but it left a few questions unanswered.

A good night’s sleep later, it was tradeshow time. The show started uncharacteristically late the first day, 1pm, which left me the morning free to visit the Oil Sands Discovery Centre. I was keen to find out how they were presenting the oil sands projects to the public. I walked into the building and was surprised to find they were charging $7 for entry. It only cost $6.50 to visit the Undersea Caverns in the West Edmonton Mall, and they had live stingrays. It looked like the Discovery Centre was a bit of a revenue producer in addition to being a hub for oil sands education.

The exhibit was very well designed, I was impressed with by graphics used on the placards.

The exhibit was very well designed, I was impressed with the graphics used on the placards.

I wandered through the exhibit reading the placards on display and snapping photos discretely (I wasn’t entirely certain this wouldn’t be frowned upon). I only had a limited time, so I opted out of watching the many videos available, which seemed to be geared toward much younger audiences anyway, featuring a nutty British professor and a talking drop of oil. As I wandered through the exhibit, I was amazed by the loveliness of the displays. As a graphic designer, I couldn’t help but admire the quality of the layouts, the beautiful photography and perfectly-rendered diagrams, the font styles, colours and sizing. It all made for an impressive and exhaustive display–there were no fewer than ten placards describing in great detail every process involved in removing bitumen from the sand and preparing it for transport–centrifuges, inclined plate settlers, deaeration, separation, catalytic conversion, hydrotreating, distillation, coking, the list went on, complimented by glass tubes of oil and other substances that you could spin around to demonstrate the processes visually. But quite abruptly the displays turned to talk of transporting ‘diluted’ bitumen through pipelines to go to market. I searched everywhere for information on what they actually diluted the oil with before sending it through the pipelines. I couldn’t find any placards illustrating this point, despite there being a huge display on the wall explaining ‘Hydrotransport,’ which is merely the process of moving bitumen mixed with water from the mines to the processing plant. I managed to find an interpreter at the front entryway, and asked him where the information on bitumen dilution was posted. He explained that this wasn’t in fact a part of the display, but he was happy enough to fill me in on it. He told me that the majority of the bitumen is cut with 50% naphtha, an oil by-product produced in the process of ‘upgrading’ bitumen, so it was made on site. When I asked him what naphtha was, he explained that it was essentially the same as lighter fluid, highly toxic and highly flammable. But it was abundant and cheap, since it was a by-product of what they were already doing with the oil, so that was their dilutant of choice. I asked him about the dangers of mixing a highly flammable substance with an oil product, and he agreed that there could be potential for combustion, but that this had not yet been proven. Interesting.

The process of removing and refining the bitumen from the oil sands was illustrated in great detail using diagrams and models.

The process of removing and refining the bitumen from the oil sands was illustrated in great detail with diagrams and models, yet a description of the process of dilution for transport was conspicuously absent.

Another interpreter showed up at this point, so I decided to question her as well, in case she happened to know where this information might be hiding in the display. She concurred that it wasn’t represented on any of the boards, and confirmed all of the claims made by the first interpreter. I said that it was concerning that this fairly significant bit of information had been left out of the exhaustive info in the showroom–every process  had been explained in such excruciating detail except for this one, and it seemed to me like an important point. She assured me that it must have simply been an oversight, and that they often updated the information on display as the technology progressed, so perhaps they would be adding that information to the exhibit soon. Perhaps.

I asked who was funding the Discovery Centre, and I was told that the Alberta Government funded it along with a number of sponsors, including Syncrude and Suncor, who were both running massive oil sands projects just 40 minutes North of town. Strange that these beneficiaries of the oil sands projects would  leave out such an important point in their public educational display: the addition of highly toxic, highly flammable chemicals to an already toxic oil substance, that was then being piped through the country’s forests and cities. It’s funny how these small details can sometimes slip through the cracks.

The Syncrude Aquatic Centre

The Syncrude Aquatic Centre brought odd images to mind.

The tradeshow that weekend was extremely uneventful. I didn’t sell Spirit Bear, as there were concerns that it might prove controversial in this oil town, considering my stance on the pipeline. One thing that made me raise my eyebrows at the show was the Syncrude Aquatic Centre. I can’t imagine wanting to swim in a pool named for an oil company with the word ‘crude’ in the title. It brings unpleasant thoughts to mind.

I eventually met my hosts, who turned out to be a lovely couple plus a friendly downstairs roommate, all originally from BC and very earthy people–not what I had expected to encounter in Fort Mac. The first morning my hostess served me vegan power balls and fresh apple slices for breakfast, and made me a delicious vegetarian enchilada for dinner the same night. That was the last I saw of them, though, as they left Saturday morning for a yoga retreat in Mexico that they had organized, leaving me with the downstairs roommate (an acupuncturist) for company, who kept me happily fed with homemade soups and a delicious vegan, flourless pumpkin pie made with ground cashews and coconut oil. Amazing. I didn’t even need to find my organic cafe, and a good thing that I didn’t, the closest thing in Fort Mac was the local Starbucks.

The highway up to the tar sands projects was snow-blown and littered with giant transport trucks.

The highway up to the tar sands projects was snow-blown and littered with giant transport trucks.

Monday rolled around and it was time for my oil sands adventure. I did a few errands in the morning and had planned to go back to the B&B to pack before driving North, but the radio was sending out a storm warning for the area, with strong winds up near the Suncor plant where I was headed, and snow was falling steadily. I considered not going–I knew most people would have advised me against it, but I couldn’t miss this opportunity. So I headed straight out of town.

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The Syncrude sign seemed welcoming. Upon arrival, I felt anything but welcome.

The drive up was a little scary. Huge logging and oil trucks sped up the two-lane highway, unfazed by the snow and wind. I drove carefully, trying my best to discern where the line in the centre and the edge of the road had actually disappeared to beneath the muddy snow piling on top of them. As I neared my destination, I began to notice that sensation Neil Young had described when he had compared the oil sands to Hiroshima–a kind of choking feeling when you breathe, a caustic sensation in the throat, and a strong, distinct and incredibly unnatural smell…burning oil. I turned off the heat in the car to minimize airflow from outside. The drive went quickly despite the conditions, and I soon saw signs for oil sands projects. Suncor was the closest one, but luckily I had asked the girl at Starbucks (I did break down and finally go there) which projects you could actually get a good view of. I had heard they were not very accessible, and you really needed to go on a tour in the summertime to get any decent visuals. She told me that at Suncor all I’d be able to see was the parking lot, and that Syncrude was worth the extra ten minutes drive if I wanted a show. So I kept on going right past the Suncor signs until I saw Syncrude’s. And oh, what I saw behind that sign. The day was foggy and snowy, so I had been concerned that I wouldn’t be able to see very much. I was dead wrong.

I was hoping I'd be able to get a clear view of the tar sands projects. I wasn't disappointed.

I was hoping I’d be able to get a clear view of the tar sands projects. I wasn’t disappointed.

Countless smokestacks at the Syncrude plant billowed dark smoke into the overcast sky.

Countless smokestacks at the Syncrude plant billowed dark smoke into an overcast sky.

Smokestacks too numerous to count sat bunched together just off the highway, gated off but clearly in view, spewing dark smoke into the white, smudgy sky. It was slightly surreal. There was a little unmanned kiosk with a stop sign at the entryway to the plant, so I pulled over and jogged up to the barricades that separated the road from the developments. I snapped several shots on my camera phone, my fingers quickly going numb from the cold. It was about -20º. I could see a couple of guards down the road at a checkpoint that was the main entryway to the plant. I decided I’d try to engage with them, see how they responded to me, if I would be allowed to get in any further. What happened made me feel like I was in post-war Eastern Germany. As I rolled up toward the guards, I had to wait in line as they spoke to the person in the car in front of me, so I snapped a quick, blurry photo of them before driving ahead. As I pulled up I sensed that this was not going to go over well, so I quickly put my phone down in the mug-holder next to my right elbow.

‘Hi there!’ I said cheerfully through the window.

‘What are you doing here?’ They asked cheerlessly.

‘Oh, I’m just a tourist,’ I said, putting on my best ‘harmless woman’ impression. The guards were women as well, and they weren’t impressed.

‘You actually aren’t allowed to take pictures around here,’ she explained tersely. ‘You’ll have to wait here.’ My heart started beating a bit faster as she eyed my Android accusingly. Would they confiscate my phone? Force me to delete my pictures? I breathed small sigh of relief knowing that I had already sent one photo of the smokestacks to Mikey before I had approached the guards–I’d at least have one piece of evidence remaining that they couldn’t delete.

The guards were not happy to discover a 'tourist' taking photos of the Syncrude project.

The guards were not happy to discover a ‘tourist’ taking photos of the Syncrude project.

The guard was radioing someone else, saying ‘Yes, we have the person here who was taking photos. Yes.’ My God. They had spotted me with my phone and reported it already–they were watching out for things like this!! Not a surprise, with all of the negative press the oil sands had been getting these days, but it was something else to actually experience it. My heart was hammering in my chest. How much trouble was I in?

I wrinkled up my nose and popped my eyes wide open. ‘I heard you could go on tours up here, but only in the Summertime. They told me at the Discovery Centre that this was one of the sights to see up here, they said I should just drive up. I didn’t realize it would be a problem!’

The guard seemed to buy my story and innocent act, and radioed back, ‘It’s just a tourist. Yes.’ Phew. She was still looking at my phone, so I wasn’t sure if I was out of harm’s way just yet.

‘Gee, sorry to cause trouble. I guess I’d better turn around.’ The woman leaned into the car, her face friendly and conspiratorial now. ‘Yes, you can just pull around here. Just don’t take any more pictures, okay?’

‘Sure!’ I exclaimed cheerfully, ‘No problem!’ Wow, I nearly got busted. If I had spoken to them they way I’d spoken to the interpreters in the Discovery Centre, I’m sure I would have been detained. It felt like I was at a checkpoint in a war zone there for a minute. I felt like I’d really dodged a bullet.

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I managed to get in a little closer and take more photos despite my brush with the security guards.

I swung my car around and drove down the opposite road, which led towards the highway, but took a detour at the parking lot. I was out of their sight now, and I wasn’t quite finished with my recon. I pulled into a parking lot meant for busses that brought in the workers, and snapped a few more photos surreptitiously from the car. My heart was racing the whole time. If I got spotted taking more photos after I’d been told not to, I had no idea what might happen. I jumped at the sound of a honking horn, and realized a bus had crept up behind me wanting my space. I quickly pulled out and drove in a little closer to the fence and took a few more shots, and then I sped away (as fast as one can speed in falling snow). My paranoia was in full bloom. How much surveillance did they have, if they’d picked up on me taking those photos so quickly? I wanted to get away before there was any further trouble.

I returned to the highway and drove back to the Suncor project. I decided to check it out since I was there anyway, and Suncor hadn’t yet targeted me as a potential threat. It was true what the girl at Starbucks had told me, there was really nothing to see, just a big parking lot and some fenced-in buildings. Suncor had cleverly kept its development well away from the highway, and had positioned its smokestacks far from the prying eyes of visitors. I could see no evidence in the deep fog of any real industrial activities, save for the whisper of a few smoke stacks off in the distance that meshed in with the white, low-hanging clouds.

But I was satisfied. I had seen the true face of the Tar Sands, even if I hadn’t been able to witness the scarred land, or the enormous tailings ponds. I had seen much more than I had expected, and the reactions of the guards confirmed their insecurity to me–they had a lot to hide.

With a light heart I zipped back to the B&B, packed up my things and headed to the airport. Fort Mac had revealed some of her secrets to me, and I was very pleased indeed.

Nothing to see here–the Suncor project was very carefully tucked away from prying eyes, the best view I could get was of a few buildings behind chain-linked fence.

Nothing to see here–the Suncor project was very carefully tucked away from prying eyes,
the best view I was able to get was of a few buildings behind a chain-linked fence.

On my flight home later that night, I found myself sitting alongside a worker from the Syncrude plant. What are the chances? We had a great discussion, and I gave him the link to my blog. I hope he reads it and finds it educational if nothing else.

Please share this blog with others, so all Canadians can learn more about the large industrial projects happening in this country. 

Ducks Killed In Alberta Oilsands Tailings Ponds Will Result In No Charges Laid

Alberta’s Environment Department says no charges will be laid in the death of hundreds of ducks on oilsands tailings ponds.

The government says there won’t be any charges against two oilsands companies that own tailings ponds in northern Alberta where hundreds of ducks died two years ago.

The Environment Department released a report by a University of Alberta biologist Thursday that said nothing could have been done when an early winter storm in October 2010 forced the birds to land on the toxic waste ponds belonging to Syncrude and Suncor near Fort McMurray. Others landed on nearby roads and parking lots.

More than 550 birds, many of them covered in oily goo, had to be destroyed.

The bird deaths came just days after Syncrude agreed to pay $3 million in penalties after 1,600 ducks died on one of its tailings ponds during a storm two years earlier. Pictures of dead and dying birds flashed around the world and Syncrude was cast by its critics as an environmental pariah.

Read the full story here.

Across the Plains

The view on the way in to Saskatoon

The view on the way in to Saskatoon

My week in Saskatoon was nothing short of wonderful. My cousin (my Dad’s cousin to exact) is an amazing lady. One of the friendliest, most energetic, and kindest people I’ve ever met, she is also one of the most petit. Standing at only 4’7″, she is a tiny fireball of amazing energy and personality. She and her lovely 20-year-old daughter hosted me in typical Prairie fashion, with plenty of warmth and welcome, even arranging a family dinner one night so that my other relatives (I have a few) in Saskatoon could come by for a visit. I was able to reconnect with an old roommate and dear friend from my University days, which was equally wonderful. I’m so pleased I got the chance to reconnect with all of these great people who I rarely get to see. And staying at my cousin’s place there is never a dull moment, due to the presence of three very cute, very small, very friendly dogs that would race up to greet me whenever I entered the house. The littlest one, a Yorkshire Terrier named Bean, even slept on my bed at night on her little yellow towel, so I was never lonely.

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My adorable housemates

Too cute for words!

Little Bean kept me company at night.

I spent my days in Saskatoon working at Earth Bound Bakery, and I really don’t know where I would have been without that place. The day I left town, I loaded up on sandwiches with thick, freshly-made hemp-seed bread, homemade soups and chocolate croissants made from organic, unbleached wheat flour and organic butter (you can really rationalize that something is good for you if it has enough good ingredients!).

My (almost) guilt-free breakfast treat–an organic latte with a chocolate croissant made from organic, unbleached flour and organic butter.

My (almost) guilt-free breakfast treat at Earth Bound Bakery–an organic latte
with a chocolate croissant made from organic, unbleached wheat flour
and organic butter. Yum!

I set out for Lethbridge at what I thought was a reasonable hour, but I had somehow shortened the driving time in my mind. Google tells us it’s 6 hours 41 minutes, which of course means in perfect conditions with zero traffic and no stops. I clocked in at about 8.5 hours with gas and food breaks (my sandwiches eventually ran out), and at times I felt like the drive would never end. The weather was cold and there were a few flurries at times, but the highways were mercifully clear. I made my way through Swift Current and Medicine Hat (which were both much larger than I expected), and finally, at about 9:30pm, I arrived in Lethbridge. I called my Air B&B hosts to let them know I was nearby, and followed the GPS through a labryinth of similarly-named streets to find the house where I was staying. Vastly different from my Regina accommodations, this was a family home, where I was to stay in the spare room in the basement and share a bathroom with the owners and their two teenage daughters. As daunting as this may sound, it was actually great. The family blew me away with their kindness, hospitality, and down-to-earth attitude. They invited me for home-cooked meals each night, (which always featured beef and were uniquely delicious), and printed out numerous maps to help me find my way downtown, to the show, and in and out of their maze-like suburban neighbourhood. They had a big white cat named Paul who took a liking to me, and the last night I was there I thanked them with a bottle of red wine, which we sat around enjoying over great conversation until the wee hours.

Aside from the oddly complex neighbourhood street system that I was positioned in, Lethbridge was quite easy to navigate. As always I sought out a good organic cafe, and one of their daughters directed me to the next best thing. ‘The Penny,’ a coffee and lunch shop with delicious homemade sandwiches and soups, that nearly gave Earth Bound Bakery a run for it’s money, except for the organic designation. I made it my daily morning stop, which was possible only because Lethbridge was so small and easily navigable. That weekend a snowstorm hit, and I found myself driving (sliding) in about a foot of snow on most streets. At one point, on the way to the exhibition grounds, I tried to round a corner on a quiet, snow-covered street, and my steering and breaks failed me completely. I slid right into the curb and heard a loud ‘CRUNCH.’ Oooohhh, that can’t be good. When I checked the tire, I saw that the rim was pretty badly damaged. I didn’t think I could make it to Edmonton in that state, but I had to get out of Lethbridge. It was a Sunday, and I had to work at the show all day, and Monday was a bank holiday. Yikes! There was nothing I could do for the time being, so I decided to worry about it later.

'The Penny' coffee-house in Lethbridge, home to great homemade eats.

‘The Penny’ coffee-house in Lethbridge, home to great homemade eats.

The Christmas Market itself was smallish, as to be expected, but we still did a respectable amount of sales, and what was really wonderful was that Spirit Bear began to sell well. Part of this, I believe, was due to my improved sales pitch, but it also seemed as though an inordinate number of people knew what a spirit bear was in this town. In Regina, I could count on two hands the people that had actually heard of the spirit bear, yet here every second person seemed to know about it. Many referenced a documentary, and a few mentioned Simon Jackson of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition having visited Lethbridge to speak about the bear, so word was getting around. On Friday I was shocked to find that Spirit Bear outsold all of the other titles at my booth, which was something I really didn’t expect. But it seemed that people here really connected with the idea behind the book, and appreciated the free learning resources and low eco-footprint. It gave a me a great feeling to see so many people getting excited about the book in its printed form, and not just as a concept anymore.

Monday morning was spent searching for a mechanic’s in Lethbridge that was actually open. I called the car rental company but I soon became trapped in a maze of circular dial pad pressing, and I realised it was all a ruse–I wasn’t going to get ahold of a person that day. Finally I found a Canadian Tire that was open and had a garage. Thanks goodness!!! The mechanics were a team of teenagers, the oldest one being 18, but he looked no more than 15. The head mechanic happened to be there on his day off, and he had a few more years under his belt. He took one look at my tires and told me the front ones were essentially bald, and unsafe for winter driving. He said he wasn’t at all surprised that my brakes had locked up and my steering had failed. He said I should never have been sent out with tires in this condition. This surprised me greatly, as I had specifically requested winter tires from the rental company, as I was driving on dangerous highways, not the least of which was the one to Fort MacMurray.

My damaged rim had to be sacrificed in order to make it to Edmonton.

My damaged rim had to be sacrificed in order to make it to Edmonton.

I explained to them that I needed to get to Edmonton that day, and the boys kindly bumped me to the front of the queqe and hoisted my little car up onto the lift. Before I knew it, they had replaced my rim and rotated my bald tires to the back, so that I’d at least have some traction for my drive North. They advised me to trade the car in as soon as possible, though, and agreed to back me up if the rental company tried to hold me liable me for the accident. Prairie kindness strikes again!!!

I wound up waving goodbye to Lethbridge much later than planned, loaded up with goodies from The Penny, and made my way up North in my newly souped-up vehicle. Luckily the roads were clear, so I didn’t have to test the baldness of those tires yet again, and I arrived safely in the late evening at the home of family friends. This family had been very dear to me as a child, we had often visited each other when my brother and I were young, and we loved playing with their two boys, who were just a few years younger than us. The boys had long since moved away, but their youngest daughter was still at home, and I had only met her once before as an adult. Busy lives, years and distance had caused us to drift apart, though I had seen their parents from time to time when they came through Vancouver.

I was greeted warmly when I arrived, and welcomed in as though I were family. Their daughter even moved into the basement while I was there so that I could sleep in her room. I was touched. My first evening was spent sipping wine, catching up and reminiscing.

My first order of business the next day was to switch out the car. I was nervous that the rental company might try to hold me responsible for the damage, but I had the mechanic’s phone number in case things got dicey. I needn’t have worried. The staff fell over themselves apologizing to me for this terrible inconvenience, and swiftly packed my things into a shiny new upgrade for no extra charge. Now I had a sweet Sonata with brand-new all-seasons (they don’t offer winter tires), and a trunk big enough to actually fit all of my books plus my suitcase. I was ready to roll!

Saying goodbye to the Mitsubishi that got me from Regina to Edmonton in one piece despite the bald tires.

Saying goodbye to the Mitsubishi that got me from Regina to Edmonton
in one piece, despite the bald tires.

My new sweet ride with extra trunk space – all ready to get dirtied up on the road to Calgary!

My sweet new ride with the extra trunk space–all ready to get
dirtied up on the road to Calgary!

That evening I caught up with a friend who lived in town, who I had actually met on a Whistler trip through a mutual friend years before. We went for a drink with his co-workers in the Strathcona area, which I found quite delightful, as it was peppered with brick buildings and charming little shops, bars and restaurants. A welcome break from the series of strip malls that seemed to populate the roadsides of Edmonton, Strathcona is an historic district located in the south-central part of the city, and was once the downtown area of the separate city of Strathcona. It’s now Edmonton’s main entertainment district, filled with theatres and live-performance venues. There are also a number of character buildings in the area including the Canadian Pacific Railway Station and the Strathcona Hotel. Always a sucker for the old part of town, I made a point of walking up and down the strip, popping my head into all of the little shops along the way. It’s so nice to see a city like Edmonton taking pride in their heritage and preserving their historical areas for the people to enjoy, as it truly enriches the experience of the city on the whole.

The Old Strathcona district in Edmonton, Alberta.

The Old Strathcona district in Edmonton, Alberta.

My last night in town, my host and her daughter took me to dinner at one of their sons’ restaurants; the younger of the two boys I had played with as a child had begun a highly successful chain of pizza restaurants using classic Italian cooking techniques and ingredients. The food was delicious–thin-crust pizza made from fresh dough, with tomato sauce made with tomatoes imported from Italy. And we finished  off our meal with a tiny glass of real lemoncello, just like I’d experienced in the old world. Deliziosa!

I was presenting at a school in Calgary early the next day, so I had to wake early for my drive. I was sad to say goodbye even though I’d be returning in ten days time, as reconnecting with these old friends had been amazing, and they felt more like family to me now. No matter what I sell on this trip, the relationships I’ve had the opportunity to re-establish have been more than worth the journey.

One of those boys that I had played with as a child (but had not seen since before my teen years) now lived in Calgary, so his mother insisted that we meet up when I arrived in town. It’s been nearly twenty years since I saw him last, so this ought to be interesting!

Next Blog: Connections in Cow-Town

Prairie Bound

My next blog post was meant to be about how I came up with the idea for Spirit Bear, but I am going to bump that storyline in favour of relating my experiences on my first ‘book tour’ of the Prairies.

As mentioned previously, the Moose in a Maple Tree  Christmas collection was my first experience with children’s books–I illustrated the three-book series for my friend Troy who has his own publishing company, Polyglot.
He wrote and I drew, and for the past two Christmases I have worked various tradeshows and Christmas markets selling the series along with a compilation CD featuring musical versions of each book.

This year it was decided that I would do a Prairies tour. I have visited Edmonton and Saskatoon before, as I have family there, but Regina, Calgary, Lethbridge and Fort McMurray are all new to me. I’m excited!!! Fort McMurray in particular interests me, as I plan to drive North to the Tar Sands to observe the situation up there for myself. I understand it’s a treacherous drive, and tourists aren’t exactly welcomed, but I intend to have my own Tar Sands experience and report on my findings here, so stay tuned.

Troy has kindly agreed to let me to sell Spirit Bear alongside our MIAMT books, so this tour will be a great opportunity to test out our newly printed book on the Prairies markets.

The Dragon's Nest B& B

The Dragon’s Nest B&B, my home for 3 days in Regina

My tour began in Regina at the Signatures show. I arrived at 2pm on Halloween day and got settled in at my B&B, a delightful character house called the Dragon’s Nest. My room was lovely and cosy, and cost a modest $70 per night. It was perfect with a little desk for my computer and a full bathroom down the hall shared with one other guest. I soon discovered that this place was famous among the locals for the colourful dragon statue that sat above the front entryway, as I had only to mention the name when I was out exploring the neighbourhood, and people knew exactly the place I spoke of.

I must say that my first day in Regina was all I could have expected it to be–everyone I encountered was incredibly kind, friendly and helpful, living up to the reputation that Prairie people have earned over the years. Even the neighbourhood animals shared the same warm, welcoming demeanour–cats and dogs alike rushed up to me as I walked down the street, greeting me with wagging tails and friendly purrs, begging for a bit of affection, which I was happy to proffer.

I was fortunate to find that two ladies from Red Deer who were staying in the downstairs suite at the Dragon’s Nest were also working the same show selling Christmas fruitcake, and they kindly offered me a ride to and from the show each day. They even helped me to unload my gear at the B&B on their way to the airport (I had planned to walk and take cabs, as the show was only about a kilometer away).

The first day I arrived at the show to set up, Spirit Bear was there waiting for me. It was my first time seeing it in print, and I held my breath as I turned the pages. I had been terrified that the recycled paper would make the colours look too washed out and dull, and that this would hamper sales. I was prepared for the worst,  so I breathed a sigh of relief as I flipped through the pages–it looked alright! Yes the colours were duller than those in other children’s books, and it lacked the lustre of MIAMT’s coated pages, but it didn’t look bad, and the illustrations were strong enough to shine through despite the natural, muted tone of the pages.

A first copy of 'Spirit Bear,' hot off the presses!

A first copy of ‘Spirit Bear,’ hot off the presses!

My first day at the show, however, I began to worry once again. People didn’t seem to see the tiny, thin paperback stacked neatly beside the colourful MIAMT hardcovers, and passed right over it to pick up the bigger, shinier books. I found myself ignoring Spirit Bear myself and focusing on the Moose books, or selling it with a half-hearted pitch that impressed no one. Had I made a huge mistake? I began to wonder if I should have gone against my beliefs and printed hard covers on new paper–the books would look so much more impressive that way, and would certainly capture people’s attention. But that was not the intention of this project, the whole purpose was to create a book with a low ecological footprint, something that we could be proud of as a ‘green’ company, something that could stand out as a good example in an industry that relied upon new trees and chemically-coated paper to attract buyers. Was it possible that no one would ‘get’ what we were trying to do and actually buy our book?

As the day wore on, my sales pitch got a little better, a bit more confident and concise. I began to realise that I had to ‘sell’ Spirit Bear in the same way I ‘sold’ the MIAMT series, by showing it in it’s best light, and keeping the pitch short and to the point. This had been a struggle for me to learn with the MIAMT series in my first year of selling, as I am no sales person by any stretch of the imagination. But over time you learn what to say and how to say it.

By the end of the show I had a short, confident pitch for my new book that engaged people and made an impact on them, whether they bought the book or not. I discovered that there were a lot of people who really loved the concept, and felt that it was a truly wonderful idea and a beautiful book. They understood the importance of using recycled paper, and once I filled them in on the reasoning behind the choice we had made, they decided they really loved the natural look of the pages. Once again, I breathed a sigh of relief.

The show was a moderate success. I sold 30 copies of Spirit Bear as well as 190 books and CDs from the Moose in a Maple Tree series. I will approach upcoming shows with new confidence, and the knowledge that there are people who can appreciate Spirit Bear, as well as the shiny, colourful books I’ve been known for in the past. I even connected with several Regina-based teachers interested in booking me for school visits in the New Year. So many possibilities ahead, it’s truly exciting.

Earth Bound Bakery and Delicatessen, an amazing organic cafe in Saskatoon.
A great spot for coffee and blogging.

Today I sit in a lovely organic cafe in Saskatoon. I drove up last night from Regina via Moose Jaw, where I stopped in at the Temple Gardens Mineral Spa for a much-needed massage and dip in the mineral pool. After a weekend of sales at the Regina show my neck and back where in rough shape. The deep-tissue massage was wonderfully rejuvenating, and the pool was just incredible, the highlight being the outdoor section where steam rose off of the heated waters into the chilly night air. Floating on my back in the warm mineral water, I had a view of the lamp post and a leafless tree dotted with white Christmas lights, set against a dusky cobalt sky, as tiny flecks of icy snow swirled down and stung my cheeks. It was truly heavenly. A short stint in the steam room completed the visit, and I was ready for my trek to Saskatoon by 7:30pm. It begs mentioning that Moose Jaw certainly earns its reputation as the ‘Friendly City’–everyone I encountered seemed in the best of spirits despite the icy weather, and treated me like an old friend being welcomed back to my hometown. I certainly recommend stopping in at the spa, and Veroba’s on Fairford Street is a great spot for some solid home-cooked food made from scratch.

Mar19 MJ POOL

The beautiful outdoor section of the mineral pool at Temple Gardens Mineral Spa in Moose Jaw

Good home-cooking at Veroba's in Moose Jaw

Good home-cooking at Veroba’s in Moose Jaw

That night I set out in my little mid-sized rental car on roads that had been receiving a healthy dusting of snow throughout the day and over the course of the previous evening. My first hour on the road was clear and ice-free, but as I neared the halfway point of my journey, the roads became caked with snow that was rapidly approaching the consistency of ice. There had been a bit of salt applied in places, it seemed, but overall the highway was incredibly scary. At times I drove straddled between both lanes, as that was the only way to avoid driving on top of what was fast becoming a skating rink. Not a few times I found myself beginning to lose control of the car, and at one point I was certain that I was bound for the ditch, as my little Mitsubishi began fishtailing wildly across both lanes. I kept my cool, pumped the brakes rapidly and steered into the swerve as I’d been taught, and managed to regain control. Thankfully I was alone on that strip of highway–had traffic been heavier at that moment, things could have taken a disastrous turn. For most of the drive I was far from any other cars, with the exception of a number of semis that I passed along the way. It was a good experience in Canadian winter driving for me, and it gave me new confidence in my ability to handle treacherous, icy roads in the dark.

I arrived an hour later than expected at my family’s house, where I was warmly greeted by my cousin’s husband with typical Saskatchewan-style hospitality. He was off to Hawaii first thing in the morning, my cousin was working the late shift and their daughter was already in bed, so he and I stayed up for several hours visiting and pouring over their travel photos from Australia and Cancun. When I finally hit the sack at 1:30 in the morning, I slept like the dead.

I’m beginning to enjoy this Prairie life.

Next Blog:  Headed for Lethbridge

Neil Young: Turning the world green with a car

Canadian rocker Neil Young is wading into the heated debate over the oil sands and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, warning of the health effects on First Nations peoples and the “wasteland” that is Fort McMurray.

It was a rousing homage to the rebel spirit of popular music and, in a certain sense, to the American dream itself – two things dear to the heart of the 63-year-old rock star.

Central to these passions for Young, however, is the classic American, gas-guzzling automobile – complete with dazzling chrome, wide grilles, long sensuous fenders and Batmobile-style tail fins.

He has a collection of such cars. His favourite, though, is a white Lincoln Continental MK IV convertible, built by Ford Motors in 1959. It’s a 19.5-foot, 2.5-tonne monster – the longest and heaviest car of its time. And up until Young decided to transform his prized classic into an eco-car, it did a gas-guzzling and carbon-belching 9 miles-per-gallon.

Young’s current “runaround” is a 1982 Mercedes Coupe which is fuelled by used vegetable oil he buys from local restaurants.

But as far as Young is concerned running the Merc on biodiesel is just a “band aid.” This is why, in autumn 2007, he decided to set himself the task of not only creating a zero-emissions car, but to make one out of a hulking great gas guzzler from the glory days of American automobile culture.

Read the full story here.