For much of this country, Fort McMurray is a stranger; a place we have heard or read about but don't know firsthand. Maybe it's more like a friend of a friend; a city with which we have all become acquainted through if not personal experience, then the media: feature stories about migration to the place and life in the oil patch; business reports about Big Oil, prices-per-barrel and, with increasing frequency, layoffs; opinion pieces about fossil fuels and the environment.
And now, catastrophe. Fort McMurray is front-page news and top of mind as wildfire rages, homes and businesses are destroyed, tens of thousands have fled, and oil and gas facilities have halted operations.
It is a local disaster. The distress, however, is being felt across the country.
Because of the commercial activity that fuels Fort McMurray, its reach is wide; its arms spread nationwide in a (not always comfortable) economic embrace. On one side of the country, Atlantic Canada has supplied the oil sands with a large portion of its labour. On the other, British Columbia shares a lot more than a border with Alberta; there are common concerns and resource economies.
With a population of about 80,000, Fort McMurray punches well above its weight not only economically but in Canada's imagination – a target for criticism, a magnet for workers, a fascination for many. We are intrigued by the place – so remote yet so central to the economy and the environmental debate.
I noted with interest a few years ago that Leah Costello, who runs a high-end Vancouver-based speakers' series, was offering excursions to the oil patch as part of a program "combining first-class speakers and ideas with first-class travel and accommodation." A luxury trip to the oil sands? You bet – and the tours, offered in 2012 and 2013, attracted "a ton of interest" and filled up, according to Ms. Costello, who says she could have offered them again and again. "People really wanted to see for themselves both the economic engine and also try to understand the environmental issues outside of the perspective from only the environmentalist side," she told me by e-mail on Thursday.
It was also one of the dreary destinations featured in Andrew Blackwell's 2012 "travel guide for the eco-apocalypse" Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places.
But for thousands of people, Fort McMurray is simply home. And across the country, there are Canadians who have worked there, have family there or other connections. Gary Mason wrote beautifully this week about dancing years ago with his then one-year-old niece in a Beacon Hill living room – which may have burned to the ground this week.
Even for many of us who have never been and may never get there, Fort McMurray now feels like a friend in need. For the most part, people have been able to separate environmental concerns about the oil sands from concerns about the people who live there. The country is firmly behind Fort McMurrayites.
I'm not just talking about Canadians texting to donate money, or emergency workers and volunteers putting in superhuman hours, or Albertans opening up their homes or heading out with jerry cans full of gas for stranded motorists (oh, the irony), food and water. All of that is beautiful. But at the core of it all is heart. I'm talking about people really, truly caring; feeling genuine concern for fellow Canadians they do not know and will probably never meet.
I'm sure I'm not the only one who has gasped at the surreal photos or been shaken by stories of evacuees who had to leave behind beloved pets, baby photos, family heirlooms or wedding dresses. I am certain I'm not the only person who choked up as interim Conservative leader – and Albertan – Rona Ambrose, fighting back her own tears, spoke about the crisis in the House of Commons and received a standing ovation – and then a hug from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who crossed the floor to embrace her.
Given the news of the week, I can't help but think about this in contrast to what's going on south of the border; that offensive billionaire who would – could! – be president. Whatever natural disasters the United States endures over the next few months, I can't imagine that embrace happening between Hillary Clinton and that unnatural disaster, Donald Trump.
While it's unfair to paint the entire U.S. with the mean-spirited Trump brush, it's also impossible to dismiss the support he has received. Across the country, people are cheering on his scary policies – plans to ban Muslims and build a wall to keep out Mexicans (even if he loves taco bowls and Hispanics, as he declared in a bizarre tweet on Thursday, Cinco de Mayo).
Mr. Trump, ever incendiary, is talking about building walls; Mr. Trudeau is talking about emerging from the ashes and rebuilding.
"To those displaced, please remember, we are resilient, we are Canadians, and we will make it through this most difficult time together," he told the House.
We all know the pain of loss. But most of us, thank goodness, will never know what it feels like to have our home and all of our belongings go up in flames – and the surrounding community too.
Canadians are doing their best now to create a larger community; to surround Fort McMurray with support.
When all seems lost – or really is lost – it somehow helps to know that people are in your corner, even if you've never met them; even if they're very far away, spread out across the land.