Donated items for evacuees of Fort McMurray set up outside Lac La Biche's evacuation centre on May 7. Photo/Courtesy of Lac La Biche County via Facebook

A nation that cares

  • May 12, 2016

In recent decades Fort McMurray and the oil industry it symbolizes has divided Canadians. The Alberta oil hub was regarded as either a badge of national prosperity or symbol of ecological disgrace. The arguments were fierce.

So it is ironic that the fire-devastated town has now brought the country together. The ugly political and environmental debates, although not entirely muted, have been muffled by a national eruption of caring and generosity. From coast to coast, people from all walks of life have banded together and, where there was despair, brought hope.

 Who would have predicted that the bitumen capital of the world would be embraced as Canada’s city? Even many who oppose everything the oil town stands for have opened their hearts and wallets to support a pan-Canadian relief effort. True, some sanctimonious fools have suggested Fort Mac, as it is affectionately known, got what it deserved, but those cold voices were quickly shouted down. Compassion has won the day.

 The wildfires that forced almost 90,000 people from their homes, creating perhaps the largest refugee crisis in Canadian history, bluntly remind us that nothing we build can match the occasional fury of nature. But, as many have pointed out, Fort Mac’s ashes also declare that even when nature throws a tantrum it can’t crush mankind’s capacity for kindness. Buildings may burn to the ground but human spirit endures.

The Catholic Register has written often about people forced to flee their homes in fear. But these accounts normally deal with situations of war and terror in places like Syria, Iraq and east Africa, where millions of desperate people have become refugees, moving to distant lands or living as nomads within their own country. These victims know the fear and pain of losing their homes, their possessions, their livelihoods. Thousands of them have also lost loved ones, victims of war.

Natural disasters are not the same as war, and no one died in the Fort McMurray fires (although two teenagers died in a road accident during the evacuation), but there is common trauma in having to flee in fear and not knowing when you will return or if your home, your belongings and your livelihood will still be there. Tens of thousands of displaced people from Fort McMurray are now coping with that trauma. No amount of goodwill from across Canada can totally erase their anxiety but receiving a virtual hug must help.

When flames jumped the Athabaska River to sweep down the streets of Fort McMurray, to their credit most Canadians put aside differences about oil sands and climate warming and instead asked the most straightforward of questions: how can we help? It was that simple.  As it should always be when people are in need.

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