When it was time to evacuate with the rest of Fort McMurray, some of the city's homeless were shoulder to shoulder with volunteers. And when the last of the residents were on their way out of town, it was very hard to tell who was where on the social totem pole. That blindness seemed to run through the month's chains of events. I noticed the demeanor of some of the shelter’s past clients when they returned.
Tony, for example, was chronically homeless. Clean. Timid. Soft spoken. I know him from the ‘wet’ emergency shelter here in town, known as the Mat Program. It’s located in the basement of the Salvation Army and was only open during the winter. It has since unlocked it's doors because of the wildfire. Tony was a regular client there and had his ups and downs. It seems like the Wildfire changed all that. Since reentry he has been working, thanks to some strings pulled through the Nistawoyou Friendship Centre. He has been sober and glowing with pride lately. The disaster must have leveled the playing field for him. For a minute. Maybe something that happened during the evacuation sparked his idea to build. I was posted at the Nistawoyou Friendship Centre upon reenty and brought in my abalone shell and sweetgrass, so that I could pray before having my morning coffee. I left the sweetgrass by the front entrance so that anyone could smudge.
"Can I pray with you?" Tony asked.
"Of course," I said. "That's what it's there for."
Trying to avoid eye contact and with a little smirk on his face, Tony slid the abalone shell towards him.
He picked up the turkey feather with the beaded shaft, took off his hat, closed his eyes and began to fan the burning sweetgrass. It was almost like the healthy smoke was lifting a weight off of him. He cupped his hands over the shell, trapped smoke in his palms and washed it over his face. After a heavy breath he opened his eyes, and with the return of the smirk on his face, he put his hat back on.
“That is a nice feather,” he said confidently.
He is staying at a hotel free of charge because of the Wildfire. I knew his days there were numbered.
“Thanks,” I said. “Hey, I made some macaroni and tomato soup earlier. Do you want some?”
“Sure… but… it says ‘staff only’ on the door,” he said quietly. “Or else I would go into the kitchen and have two big bowls of soup.”
The soup kitchen wasn’t open yet. Neither was the Mat Program. Regardless, he looked better than ever.
“I got you,” I told him as I walked into the kitchen, only to find out that someone emptied the pot.
I quickly poured another can of tomato soup into the pot and dashed in some macaroni noodles.
“I am just warming it up,” I told him.
“No, it’s okay. Don’t go out of your way,” he said making his way to the door, still standing tall. I wasn’t going to chase him.
When the soup was done he was nowhere to be seen but I still filled the biggest bowl I could find with soup and left on the table where he would see it. Sure enough, he walked back in moments later.
“Your soup is on the table,” I said nonchalantly, pretending that I hadn’t noticed he left.
He sat down at the table, grinning childishly.
“Hey,” he said looking up at me. “You made this just for me?”
“Everybody deserves a full belly after a long day’s work,” I replied.
He nodded his head proudly and brought a spoonful of soup to his lips.
“Yeah eh?” he said with a smirk.
I couldn’t help but wonder had happened during the evacuation that brought back his sense of confidence and hope. Was it because the Wildfire leveled the social playing field? Everyone in Fort McMurray was homeless for over a month. Was he treated with such a sense of camaraderie during this time that it revived him? Did this motivate him to give back to his community and in turn give him a strong sense of purpose and appreciation?
I feel like the Sweetgrass was there because he needed it. It was like his prayer officiated his dedication to staying on the right path. That’s why he confidently walked out with a full belly.
By Melissa Herman
Names have been changed to respect the privacy of the client.