Photo: Facebook/Jessica Saulnier- Breen

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Early in his life, my late father, Norman Nerenberg, was a professional organizer for the National Federation of Labour Youth, the United Jewish People’s Order and, ultimately, the Labour Progressive Party of Canada (LPP).

In September 1941, he volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

He was only 18, the minimum age.

The depression and the war radicalized many, and Norman was among them. 

By the end of the war, he had become a young up-and-comer in the pro-Soviet left. He even ran as an LPP candidate in the 1953 federal election. He got 727 votes, but came ahead of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, predecessor party of the NDP) candidate, who only got 500.  

In 1956, a cataclysm shook the Left worldwide, especially that part of it with close connections to Moscow: the 20th congress of the Soviet Communist Party.

That’s when the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced the dictatorship, personality cult and crimes of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin.

The next day, activists around the world left the movement, in droves. My father was among them.

And so, at the age of 32, Norman had two kids, rent to pay (on a cold flat in an immigrant, working-class neighbourhood of Montreal), no money in the bank, and no job. He had been a full-time, paid (minimum wage) functionary for the Party.

He was lucky, and quickly landed got a job in real estate, first as a broker, working on commission, and, in time, as a developer.

He did quite well, but always cared much more about the social and aesthetic value of what he built than its profitability. In the 1960s and 1970s he resisted the temptation to get into quick money, suburban tract development, of the sort that was sprouting up everywhere in North America.

Designing real communities in the north, not mere dormitories

My dad was not a big fan of the suburbs, of the dream of having a freestanding house on one’s own plot of land.

He believed in cities.

He did not agree with everything Jane Jacobs advocated — he thought there was a place in the urban landscape for large apartment buildings, for instance — but he did agree with Jacobs (and many other urban thinkers) on the value of vital and dense urban environments.

And so, when a major resource company approached him to design and build a residential community in a remote, northern town, he turned them down.

“They have a fantasy,” he scoffed, “of everyone living in their own little cottage, with their own grass-covered backyard.”

He wasn’t interested in building that kind of community. He didn’t think it even made sense in a big city such as Montreal. And it made less sense in an environment that is covered with snow seven months of the year and swarms of mosquitos the rest of the time. What would you do with a back yard in a place like that?

Had the resource company been interested, Norman would have proposed a development inspired by what he had seen in some northern Scandinavian communities.

The word community is key here, because his emphasis would be on creating conditions for a genuine community, not merely an atomized series of separate housing boxes.

He thought a relatively dense development, based on multi-residential buildings, with much parkland and well-resourced, shared cultural and recreational facilities, was most appropriate to the north.

The companies that build these resource towns have scant interest in fostering a sense of community. People are economic units to them, and not much more.

I think of all this not only because it is nearly six years and six months since my father died, but because of one reader’s response to my own small contribution, earlier this week, on the Fort McMurray/environment nexus.

This is what a frequent commenter who goes by the nom-de-plume Gonzaga had to say:

“I hope they rebuild to create a less sprawling, more walkable city. It’s also possible to build zero-net-energy structures that pay for themselves in energy savings over a relatively short period. There may be some opportunity here to rethink Fort McMurray, to make it a better place to live.”

A more walkable city. Some of us, even in large metropolitan areas, wish our cities were more walkable.

I happen to live in one of the very few neighbourhoods in the National Capital where public transit is convenient, and where one can walk to the greengrocer, the butcher, the baker, the pharmacy, the bank, some clothing shops, the Saint Vincent de Paul outlet (where you can get really cheap second hand stuff), a farmers’ market, two supermarkets, and multiple restaurants and coffee shops. (Sadly, both the magazine store and the independent bookstore closed not too long ago.)

Most residents of this urban agglomeration are not so lucky. They need to get into their cars, or take long trips on rare buses, to get the necessities of life.

Lack of planning, even for transportation infrastructure

Ottawa and environs became a nightmare of urban sprawl because of shortsighted planning, and because it was built before we woke up to the realization that a life built around the automobile is neither agreeable nor environmentally sustainable.

That much smaller northern towns suffer the same sprawl effect is unforgivable. Development in such places can be more easily planned than in major centres. But there has rarely been any sort of plan.

Another who commented on Fort McMurray pointed to transportation infrastructure. She said:

“There are ways to mitigate risk of forest fires for towns. But if you consider that there is one main route out of town running north-south that everyone needs to take … things become clearer. Wouldn’t a city designed for the safety and well being of people have other means of ingress and egress. A city designed for industry isn’t concerned with the well being of its people. There are railway tracks but they only transport goods not people …”

Having said all that, planning a new Fort McMurray is for the future.

For the today, we have to focus not on the so-called bad karma issue — as many commenters vigorously point out — nor, too intensely, on post-disaster rebuilding.

Today, the overwhelming challenge is to support more than 80,000 people in a moment of great need.

To those who are tempted to wag their fingers in moral outrage at any of us who raise larger issues at a time like this — we get it.

Environmental movement wants to help, not talk about bad karma

Here, for instance, is what the Sierra Club’s Interim Executive Director, Diane Beckett, has sent via email to her organization’s friends, members and supporters.

“Right now, tens of thousands of people from Fort McMurray and surrounding communities have fled the raging fires overtaking and threatening their neighbourhoods, their homes, their treasured keepsakes and memories, and their most basic sense of safety.

With shortest notice, residents were ordered to evacuate, leaving only precious minutes to secure children, family, and pets, figure out what they might need and to pack what they could. For how long or when they might be able to return home, nobody knew. Right now, they need our help. Right now, they need to know we care.

Please consider making a donation to the Red Cross and show the people of Fort McMurray and surrounding First Nations communities that we are with them. When re-building in these communities begins, it will require plans to adapt for the repeat risk and potential for fires of this magnitude. We can all be a part of ensuring a disaster like this doesn’t consume another community. We need to work together as fellow Canadians to take action to reduce the life-altering risks of climate change in a hotter, drier world. We need to work together to protect each other from this harm. Please show your solidarity and support for the people affected by these fires in whatever way you can.”

And so the story of Fort McMurray is neither one of bad karma nor the wrath of the gods.

It is one of human beings trying to do the best they can for themselves and their families, within the context of the Canadian resource-based economy as it has existed for many decades.

Those people are not the problem nor even part of the problem. They might even, one day, be part of the solution.


Photo: Facebook/Jessica Saulnier- Breen 

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...