The conversation went a little like this:
Me: I met Malcolm Gladwell last week.
Them: What? So cool, I didn't know you were in New York! Did you just run into him or something?
Me: No, I didn't meet him in New York.
Them: Oh, you were in Toronto then? When did you go? Was he speaking there or something?
Me: I didn't meet him in Toronto. I met him in Fort McMurray. And looks like in May I might get to meet Bill Cosby here too.
Long silence and then...
Them: You met them in Fort McMurray? What the hell is going on up there, anyhow?
What the hell indeed is going on in Fort McMurray, you might ask. How did I get to spend time talking to Malcolm Gladwell, and Bill Cosby? What is bringing these people so far north? Well, what is bringing them is the Northern Insights speaker series from the Fort McMurray Public Library - but I think what is really drawing them in is the narrative of this community.
When I spoke with Gladwell it was clear he is curious about Fort McMurray. And he had given it a lot of thought, too, and when we talked it was apparent to me that he had heard some of the other narratives about this place, the ones that paint it in a less than flattering light. But he was interested in the story from people who live here, and curious to see how our narrative differed from the one often told.
Fort McMurray is a place that is controversial, no doubt. There are those who cannot separate the industry from the community, and who condemn both. This is deeply frustrating for those who call this home, because we know that our community is in most respects no different than any other. We have our strengths and our weaknesses, our triumphs and our challenges. And we are beginning to tell our own stories, and we are inviting people to come here to tell theirs - but also to learn about us, from us. To learn from the people who live here, and not from journalists who come for three days, or television crews who drop in for a night. We want to hear their perspectives, but we also want to share ours with them - and to some degree that is what the hell is going on up here.
The other thing that is "going on up here" is a certain bold audacity. Given that Gladwell is only doing ten or so speaking engagements this year one would doubt if he would agree to give one of those presentations in a far northern community - and yet he did, because he was invited. The same holds true for Bill Cosby, who may do far more speaking gigs but who also agreed to come here (despite not being able to find it on a map when he looked). Why did they come here? Because the people at Northern Insights had the courage to pursue them, and convince them to come. It was part of that northern Alberta spirit that says the only way we can fail is if we don't think big enough.
The next speaker in this series is Arlene Dickinson, and I hear rumours of some astonishing speakers to come. And they are coming right here to Fort McMurray, a little place in the far north of Alberta. What the hell is going on here, you ask? Well, the answer is simple, really. Community is going on here, and has been for some time. And every day it just gets a little bit stronger, and a little bit bolder. But if you really want to see what is going on here keep an eye on the Northern Insights speaker series and if you see a speaker you must see then come on up and visit us - and we will show you what is going on, and share our narrative with you.