COMMENTARY – Keeping calm in a crisis

by Joe McWilliams

A couple of thoughts occurred last week when Wildrose Leader – and Fort McMurray resident – Brian Jean appeared on television in front of the remains of houses in his home town.

One was: ‘What is he doing there?’ When Slave Lake was evacuated, only essential personnel were allowed to stay, or return during those early days. What was so essential about Brian Jean’s presence? Maybe you just don’t say ‘no’ to the leader of the Official Opposition and the man who might be your next premier.

The second impression was how calm he was. Answering questions about how he felt, Jean’s response: ‘It’s only stuff.’

Some might say that was just a posture, Jean saying the thing he thought his position required him to. I don’t think so. Having been through a wildfire disaster and evacuation, I saw plenty of similar responses from certain people. You don’t know how you will respond to the loss of all your possession until it happens. It turns out some people become very calm, while others panic.

It would make an excellent topic for a PhD thesis, studying the varying responses to disaster. Some people are convinced the sky is falling, while others behave calmly and with a certain nobility. The latter is what you want in a leader, it seems to me.

Jean’s demeanor on television, as brief as it was (and possibly even misleading), reminded me a bit of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani after the World Trade Centre towers came down. The guy was calm, focused, reassuring – in short, very sane in an insane situation. The sky really was falling, and he was leading people through it to the light apparently he could see at the end of the tunnel (sorry about the badly mixed metaphor).

I actually chuckled seeing Jean talk about losing his house, picturing the disappointment of the interviewer. Those guys love tears, despair, anger. They don’t have much use for stoicism. It doesn’t play nearly as well on the six o’clock news.

Giuliani, it turned out, had all kinds of faults. His tenure of mayor was controversial. His personal life was messy and he was disliked by many. In normal times, he may not have been the best man for the job. But in a crisis he was brilliant. The right person at the right time.

The same goes for Winston Churchill. He was a divisive figure. Belligerent as hell. A warmonger, people said. But in an extreme crisis, he was exactly the man for the job.

Rudyard Kipling summed up this sort of character in his famous poem ‘If.’

If you can keep your head, when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…

So… is Brian Jean this type of character? I have no idea. And even if he is, it would not necessarily make him a successful premier.

In the meantime, what the heck is he doing in Fort McMurray? Hopefully helping to provide some calm focused leadership in a crazy situation. Those unfortunate people are going to need all the help they can get recovering from this disaster. It will be interesting to compare the provincial response, given what the Stelmach government did for Slave Lake after 2011.

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