Fort McMurray becomes Canada’s city and a nation steps up to help

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President's Message with Jerry Dias Picture

Published in the Huffington Post  Wednesday May 11, 2016

The startling images that have come out of Fort McMurray over the past week have shaken this country to its core.

Flames have engulfed whole neighbourhoods and forced an entire city of 88,000 to flee after a wild fire outside the city suddenly switched direction and grew faster than anyone expected. Dash cam videos of highways lined with fire and embers raining down like snow dominated social media.

Canadians held their breath, hoping for the best as families fled, often unsure where they would end up, hoping with the rest of the nation that they would find someplace safe to lay their heads.

Beyond the flames, we have seen and heard incredible stories that should make each and every one of us proud to be Canadians.

The dignity and bravery of parents as they put on a brave face for their children, saving their worries and tears until after their young ones have fallen asleep.

Homeowners in southern Alberta, including many Unifor members, opening up their houses to those fleeing the flames.

Syrian refugees who just months ago were themselves on the run and relying on the kindness of others, now donating to relief efforts for Fort McMurray residents.

Suncor hiring jets to get thousands out of the line of fire.

Two Alberta men giving away thousands of litres of gas to those fleeing the fires, and wanting nothing in return.

 Firefighters working themselves to exhaustion to save as much of the city as they can.

These stories, as much as the flames, will be part of what we remember and how we come to define ourselves as Canadians after this very difficult ordeal.

Across Canada, corporations and unions are donating hundreds of thousands of dollars – Unifor itself pledged $500,000 to the Red Cross on Monday, and many of our locals and members have also made large contributions – and individuals are digging deep to help any way they can.

As a nation, we have not been able to tear ourselves away from the news, praying for an end and taking comfort with each story of another family reaching safe haven.

Fort McMurray is Canada’s city. A town of just over 8,000 just a generation ago, it has grown into a city 11 times that size as families from across Canada and around the world flocked there to build a life for themselves. Because of that, this fire and evacuation has touched communities across Canada like few others have.

One of the most harrowing images from Fort McMurray over the past week is that of a charred set of swings, its seats burnt out like the landscape around it and its chains hanging from the overhead rail. It reminds us of all of the children who were forced to flee as the flames moved in.

I have been to Fort McMurray many times, where Unifor is proud to represent more than 4,000 workers, and have got to know many of the people there. These are people whose faith in the future and determination to provide good lives for their families took them north to find work in the first place.

I have spoken to many of them over the past week, and with their children. The same spirit that took them to Northern Alberta is search of work is alive and well today, even as they have been forced to flee.

Sitting on bunks in community halls or in the homes of friends and family after fleeing the fire, they are already planning for the future once again. Fort McMurray will rebuild, and Canada will be with them as it does.

As generous as Canadians have been over the past week, the rebuilding process will be long and difficult. I urge all Canadians to continue to offer whatever support they can in the weeks and months ahead.