One Year Ago on Highway 63

By Theresa Wells

On April 27th, 2012, a collision on Highway 63 killed seven people and one unborn child, and left two survivors. It impacted hundreds of family members and friends, and the ripple from that accident spread far and wide into this community, and across the country. As we approach the one-year anniversary of that date I find myself growing increasingly thoughtful about it, and about what that tragic day meant to this community.

There have been far too many of these tragic days when families lost beloved members in collisions on Highways 63 and 881. Over the last year there is no other single issue I have written more about, or researched more intensively. I have spoken to politicians, and family members of those killed. And I have even talked to survivors, hearing their stories first hand. The impact on me as an individual has been immense, because there are few things I think about on an almost daily basis. Highway 63 happens to be one of them.

At the end of 2012 we saw a commitment from the Alberta provincial government to complete twinning of Highway 63 by the fall of 2016. This past week I was in attendance when Alberta Minister of Transportation Ric McIver visited Fort McMurray to reiterate that commitment, and to share details on work already in progress and work to come soon. I am deeply gratified to see this ongoing commitment, and the securing of funding to make it happen makes me believe this commitment will be met. Like the rest of this community, however, I will be watching to ensure that the commitment does not falter or fade.  That has been one of my pledges since that tragic day one year ago.

I made several pledges that day. I pledged that I would work to see Highway 63 twinned, because I believe it will reduce the severity of the collisions. I also pledged to write about our responsibility in ensuring our own safety on these highways – and the safety of others. I vowed I would write about what we can do to improve it, and to continue to encourage all who read what I write to make a difference by practicing safe driving habits. I pledged that I would not only write about the highways and my concerns about them but that I would speak about it at every given opportunity and on any platform presented to me, and as such I have over the last year appeared on both radio and television. I vowed that I would make a difference, as small as it might be. I pledged that I would practice safe driving habits, and think about my own inadequacies in this regard.

On the night of April 27th, 2012, I sat down at my computer and poured out my pain and anger in an open letter to Premier Alison Redford. I posted it on my blog, expecting it would be viewed by my usual readership. The next morning I awoke to dozens of emails about that letter, hundreds of comments on the blog post, and thousands of views. The emails and comments and views were coming from all over the country, coast to coast to coast, and I received emails from the United States, too. It was only then that I realized the true impact of these collisions, because the ripple effect spread far wider and deeper than even I had imagined. I was overwhelmed in the early days with requests to do media interviews, and email and phone discussions with individuals across the country that had stories to tell, ideas to share, or simply thoughts to offer. I spent days answering every single email, and I read every single blog comment. I struggled on occasion because I was not sure I was the right person for all this, because who was I to speak to it? I was not a road safety expert, not a police officer, not a politician. I was just a mother and resident who travelled the highways on a regular basis and who had been emotionally impacted by the losses over the years as I saw our community lose members. Eventually I realized that we are all the right people to speak to it, because all of us who call this place home are impacted by it. I realized that every single person in this community needed to speak to it, because it had a profound and deep impact on us all.

And so we did speak, at a protest rally one week after the tragic collision. We spoke to it when we signed petitions demanding twinning, one of those petitions started by a mother much like myself, but one who lost her beloved son on Highway 63. We have been speaking to it – and about it – ever since.

The one thing that I have wondered was if time would lessen the impact of that day one year ago. This week I spoke to a few people in the community, and I realized that every single one of them remembered that day with clarity. Each and every one had felt the impact, too, and so it had not been forgotten. Since that day every time there is a new loss on Highways 63 or 881 I have lit a candle to honour those who are lost, and to remember those who are left behind to mourn them. On April 27th of this year I will attend a candlelight vigil organized by community members to memorialize those lost and support the survivors, family, rescuers, and first responders. And then I will go home and light my own candle and remember a day when thousands of lives changed forever – including my own. I will memorialize all those losses over the years, the ones from one year ago and the ones from decades ago. I will remember, because that too is one of the pledges I made on April 27th, 2012. I vowed to never forget – and that is a pledge I intend to keep.