Fort Smith, the little town in the Northern bush with so much going on, can be a tough place at times and the politics can get nasty.
It can be especially unfriendly for a reporter, if they have to write stories about someone who really does not want their information “out there”. I am always a bit nervous that some young, innocent, well-meaning reporter I bring to the community will get slammed with that.
It has happened – more than once.
When Shawn Bell first arrived in Fort Smith three years ago, with a Bachelor of Arts degree and a journalism certificate from a school in London, England that I had never heard of, I wondered, as always with new employees, what hand I had been dealt.
He was quiet and unassuming and seemingly competent. As is my usual practice, I let him find his way for the first month or so with little guidance – so he could establish himself and also to see what he was made of, how he fit in with the community, how he responded to the issues of the day; and, importantly, how good a writer and how hard a worker he was.
That was in the fall and as winter came on, we settled in for “the great darkness” that is our northern winter.
After several months, much to my surprise and delight, I learned Shawn had signed up to instruct minor hockey. “We will see how this turns out,” I thought to myself. Since he had no kids and nothing to gain, it was unlikely he would be that committed. I also found out with interest, since I also strive to be a hockey player, that he was a goalie. It turns out he was a good one and he found a team and became part of rec hockey league play.
These were an excellent entrance into community life.
If you think back three years, things were starting to fester in Fort Smith town hall and there were serious issues with the effectiveness of the town council. The mayor at the time was spinning his wheels, not achieving any success in the single economic initiative he had tied all his hopes to – a road through Wood Buffalo National Park to Fort Vermilion. Add to that the beating of the drums that signaled fractious political change at Salt River First Nation. Fort Smith was fraying around the edges, coming into a tough time for the community.
It was especially not an easy time to be a reporter with the Slave River Journal.
Over the next year, interviews with the mayor, town senior administrative officer, members of town council and the off-and-on new Salt River First Nation chief, with her brass knuckles style of politics, made any efforts at reporting a trial by fire. You all know what took place. It was nasty. Our reporters were in the thick of it, a target. Shawn weathered all that without pause.
By his second winter, Shawn had improved as a writer and had begun winning awards, including the Best Feature of the year from the Alberta Newspaper Association. He had also become a dedicated minor hockey coach with a group of kids who loved him. And his hockey team had jelled and started winning. He had carved a niche in Fort Smith. His lovely, capable and talented lady-friend Mary Carothers had joined him, she a force unto herself. They had become an integral part of the community.
Shawn also worked hard to connect to Fort Chipewyan.
Where in the past I had struggled getting reporters to delve into the complex issues that so challenge that sister community, Shawn embraced them. He went there on number of occasions, stayed for a time and joined in community events. He got to know many of the people there and, like me, came to love the place and its people.
After two years as a reporter, Shawn’s skills as a writer became honed. He surpassed my abilities as an instructor and mentor. It became more my role to refine and suggest. With rare exception, his writing was very clean, needing only a cursory polish. His skills in layout and presentation also grew and he took control of the newspaper production as the quarterback each Monday. He polished and improved it, diligent and fastidious. Out of his efforts came a national award for the Best in Its Class, a great honour.
Shawn and Mary will be missed in Fort Smith. They are wonderful people. Shawn will be missed by the kids he coached, and will be sorely missed by his hockey team, who he back-stopped to the league title. He will be missed by the people of Fort Chipewyan for his incisive way of writing about their important causes and he will be missed by the Slave River Journal.
It was an honour and pleasure working with Shawn Bell.