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Leading a community battle

May 22, 2012

"I am a child who will never know sunshine. I will never know rain because I never had the chance to be."

When BA Professional Communication student Nicole Auser heard these words from a speaker at the recent Highway 63 rally in Fort McMurray, Alta., she broke down.

The speaker, Sherry Duncan, was telling the stories of some of the many victims of vehicle accidents on "Hell's Highway." She gave voices to the victims, including one of the most recent and the youngest: an unborn child.

"Our brave speakers solicited tears at one point or another from everyone who attended," says Auser, who helped organize the peaceful protest, which drew between 1,500 and 1,800 people. It's these stories that motivate Auser to champion citizen action to put pressure on the Alberta government to make the highway safer.

Since 2006, 46 people have died on the treacherous highway, which connects Edmonton to Fort McMurray, and hundreds have been injured. A fiery head-on collision last month claimed the lives of eight people, including a two-year-old boy, an 11-year-old girl, the aforementioned unborn baby and the baby's mother.

"When people die in crashes on the highway, the whole community mourns the victims because we all know it could have been any one of us," says Auser, who was born in Fort McMurray and has lived there for most of her life.

The day of the accident, Auser noticed a Facebook event with 60 members calling for a protest. She started sending suggestions to the organizer, who added Auser as an event administrator by the end of the same day.

"By the end of the next evening, we had 1,000 people signed up to the protest," says Auser. "It really showed that the people in Fort McMurray needed a way to express their grief and frustration about the highway, and the protest event seemed to be the right outlet."

The rally was only the beginning of a movement to put increased pressure on the Alberta government to twin the highway, a promise that was made in 2006. Auser has been managing a website, and has done several media interviews to draw attention to the issue. She has also posted video messages on her YouTube channel.

A petition already has more than 20,000 signatures and Auser and other concerned citizens are planning a protest at the legislature in Edmonton this week. Unfortunately, Auser notes, members of her community would have to drive on Highway 63 to attend.

To date, only about 19 kilometres of the highway have been twinned. The province is aiming to have a 36-kilometre section paved by fall 2013, leaving 185 kilometres to be twinned at an expected cost of at least $1 billion.

"We keep hearing from the politicians, that the twinning is a priority, they're going as fast as they can, but they're not telling us how it's a priority, or how they're going as fast as they can," Auser told CBC. "We hear that they're working towards solutions, well, our question is, 'How are you working towards solutions?' Don't tell us it's a priority, please show us that it's a priority."

Until the highway is twinned, Auser wants fellow citizens to hold people socially accountable for their actions. She explains: "If a guy comes in to the lunchroom and starts bragging about how fast he made it from Edmonton to Fort McMurray, we need to, as citizens, shame that driver for driving that way because it's unacceptable. So far enforcement and speeding tickets and public education have not gone that far and we need to hold these people socially accountable and give them social consequences."

Prof. Virginia McKendry, head of the BA Professional Communication (BAPC) program, says Auser has been doing an excellent job of using her theoretical knowledge to examine ways communicators can contribute to restoring vitality and balance to our politics, economy, environment, workplaces and communities.

"Nicole has always impressed me as a smart, resourceful woman eager to use her BA as a launch pad into a career that is aligned with her values of community prosperity at all levels," says McKendry. "She's smart, curious and open to learning and changing her mind.

"The analysis, grace and messaging skills she demonstrated in her media interviews show me that she has made the most of her BAPC coursework and that it is all coming together in future grad who embodies the BAPC values of ethically-grounded critical professionalism."