Fort McMurray Branch raises its flag again

November 12, 2016 by Tom MacGregor
fort-mac
Norman Rockwell

Canada’s Maple Leaf flag is once again flying proudly over McMurray Branch of The Royal Canadian Legion, a sign that the town of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta is starting to recover from the devastating wildfires that swept through it in April.

The flag-raising ceremony was held Aug. 27 at the branch, which remarkably survived the fire, contrary to earlier reports. The flags were important in keeping up the morale of the community. Many residents lost their homes completely.

“During the fires someone asked if anyone knew where we could get flags for our trucks,” said President Pat Duggan who is also a member of the local fire department. “I said I knew where I could get my hands on three or four. We went down to the branch and got them. We had them on the trucks all through the fire. People liked to see them.”

The branch is in Waterways, the older part of town which suffered heavy damage. “Right now the Waterways area is open between 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m.,” said Duggan in September. “We are in the demolition stage right now. People have to clear the rubble and a layer of topsoil before reconstruction can begin.”

The large parking lot and surrounding area at the branch forms a firewall that saved the building. “We only suffered smoke damage but it has been painted now and being cleaned for inspection, so we can open again,” said Duggan. “Right now, the chef is reorganizing the kitchen.”

Large flames and heavy smoke surround congested Highway 63 South.
David Levy, WikiCommons

The branch is being used as a support building for the community while people return to their properties and try to get their lives back to normal.

The response to the crisis from Legionnaires across the country was tremendous. In early September, Alberta-Northwest Territories Command President Chris Strong sent a letter to update Legionnaires on their activities and the fundraising program.

“Pictures of our friends, family and comrades fleeing the wildfire in Fort McMurray touched our hearts and weighed heavily on our minds,” wrote Strong. “On May 5, a call went out across Canada asking for support for those affected and the response, in true Legion style, was overwhelming. Your donations total $1.196 million and counting.”

The Red Cross also set up a fund-raising drive. It quickly surpassed its goal and stopped accepting donations. The command office began administrating the Fort McMurray Wildfire Relief Fund.

“In the first few weeks, we assisted evacuees with funds for food, clothing and accommodations. Although the fire is out, and people have begun the process of returning to Fort McMurray, the need is still there and your donations continue to fulfil that need,” wrote Strong. “It has become evident that insurance does not replace everything. Many of our veterans and comrades have been without work for several months, making it difficult to replace needed items.”

Strong also included a breakdown of the fundraising efforts. Dominion Command donated $100,000. Ontario Command donated another $468,328 while Alberta donated $289,147 and British Columbia $108,339.

By early September $220,081 had been spent on assistance to individuals and families. McMurray Branch received $74,747 while donations of $25,000 each were given to the Fort McMurray Fire Fighters Relief Fund, the Northern Lights Health Foundation, Wood Buffalo Bank and the Salvation Army in Fort McMurray. Smaller donations were made to the Fort McMurray Public School Board, the Catholic School Board and other local organizations.

The flag that had been flying over the branch during the fires was taken to the dominion convention in St. John’s, N.L., where Legionnaires signed it.

“That flag is now being framed,” said Duggan. “We want to hang it in the branch to show the generosity and solidarity of Legionnaires.”

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