Reflections: Back to Fort Mac

George Rowe


Today is May 8, 2015 and I am enjoying the 49th Annual Convocation at the Keyano College in Fort McMurray. Our granddaughter Caitlyn Frenette will be receiving her Business Administration Accounting Diploma.

While waiting for proceedings to begin I began to reflect upon my past. I thought of diplomas, certificates, plaques, letters identifying accomplishments and achievements in the world of academia. I wondered about the quick passing of time and here I am witnessing the graduation of our oldest granddaughter while still holding on to some of my certificates received almost fifty years ago. I am looking at another generation that will meet the challenges of a very technical world. I am so excited to be a witness of this great event.

I follow the Order of Proceedings with tremendous interest. The processional and the singing of O Canada was done with such dignity and gracefulness that an emotional twinge pulled on my hearts strings. Two of our First Nations people performed an Honor Song with such a high pitch and clarity of note that I literally got shivers going down my spine. Wow! Absolutely perfect.

As the two performers moved off the stage, a well-known elder of Fort McMurray led us in a prayer of blessing as she addressed God and then The Great Spirit. The blessing so touched me that I approached her following the Convocation and thanked her for the prayer of blessing. She was so kind and gracious to this complete stranger. Because of our spiritual convictions there was an immediate bond between us.

Before the Presentation of Parchments I was glued to each speaker as they talked about academic achievements and the fact that education is one of the most cherished attributes of a free and democratic society. The President and CEO of Keyano College stated: “Today you join a proud fraternity of men and women who have crossed the stage at the Keyano College Convocation. Among those individuals are respected political leaders, successful business owners, inspirational educators, leading-edge scientists, and countless others who leveraged their post-secondary education to achieve great things and change lives. This is your time. This is your moment.” Wow!

I thought about the academic achievements as alluded to by the President and Vice President and wondered if indeed the hundreds of graduates about to be certified would make and leave indelible footprints on humankind. Knowledge and the world of academia is broadly described as the accumulation and retention of information while wisdom is the ability to dispense that information in a meaningful way and thus make a difference in a technically savvy world. Wisdom becomes even more profound through our own life’s experiences.

The Mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo said, “By successfully graduating from Keyano College you are closer than ever to achieving your dreams.” Close but not there yet. At what point do we look into the calendar of life and say, “I am now educated? I am now a wise and accomplished person?” Knowledge and wisdom is a life long journey that ends only at the time of death. Together they form a formidable partnership that can and will change our world – your world. The Bible says in Psalm 111:10, “Reverence for the Lord is the foundation of true wisdom.” and then we read in Proverbs 1:7, “The fear (reverence) of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” The Bible is a book that can still be used in the world of academia.

I was so impressed with the representation of multi-culturalism as graduates walked across the stage and received their Parchment. Following the Convocation I approached one of the instructors and asked, “How many countries were represented in today’s Convocation?” “Dozens,” was his reply. My immediate response was, “Wow!” I then went out of my way to talk with a number of graduates.

One student shared with me the excitement of leaving a very small country in Africa to come and start a new life in Canada. When he stepped of the plane he could not speak English but today he spoke very clearly in describing the excitement of receiving his Parchment. I spoke to students from Pakistan, India, China, Somalia and Iraq. I felt so proud because as Canadians we all play a part in the lives of immigrants who make Canada their home or as a stepping stone that will help catapult them into the future. I can now understand the tears as O Canada was being sung on this special day in the lives of many. I will always be grateful because my granddaughter was a part of the multi-cultural representation on that day at Keyano College.

The next day, May 9, we left Fort McMurray to drive Highway 63. The excitement of the past twenty-four hours will help prepare us for an emotional visit of seven wooden crosses on the right side of the highway.

On April 27, 2012 on Highway 63, South of Fort McMurray, a two vehicle collision with nine occupants resulted in the death of seven people. Three of the seven people were members of our family. Sheila’s niece Trena, her husband Shannon and young son Benjamin were killed. We weren’t sure of the exact location and after several phone calls the site was confirmed with an approximate mileage.

As we approached the site it was only natural that emotions would be stirred. We saw them at a distance. In slowing down the vehicle my heart began to pick up speed. We are still having a difficult time accepting the death of seven people and maybe a visit to the site will help bring some closure. All three of us—my wife, our daughter and myself simply look and remain silent. It was surreal and yet calming to my spirit. As I stepped out of our vehicle a cool but crisp wind whipped our bodies and a sudden chill was bone penetrating.

Walking toward the crosses was like a dream—trying to close the distance but your legs felt like rubber. I walk slightly ahead of the ladies and I hear soft whisperings but an anxiousness in their voices that is profoundly nervous. The crosses are a little haphazard in their placement but each has its own decorations to help identify the deceased.

A baseball at one cross told us that this must be placed in memory of little Benjamin. Two numbers, the 1 and the 3, were partly covered with dead grass: 13. This must be placed in memory of the thirteen year old girl who died in the other vehicle. The other five crosses held the remnants of dead and faded flowers, cards and small memorabilia.

My wife and our daughter placed fresh flowers by the crosses knowing something of its finality in that in a matter of days they also would be faded and just drift back into the soil. Shannon was a Youth Pastor and Trena was a nurse. Benjamin’s life was just beginning to bloom.

I thought of the Convocation just twenty-four hours ago and then recalled the excitement as Shannon and Trena received their Parchment with all kinds of promise and challenges and excitement. How quickly it was all over. As we paused I knew in my spirit that this was not the end but just the beginning. My faith would have me believe that our family and friends are in Heaven enjoying bliss with our Father God.

At this moment of reflection, with the cool wind and the beautiful sunshine, knowledge and wisdom was not on a collision course but embraced each other and looking toward heaven I thanked God because the sun is always shining.