July 7, 2017 is a date etched in the memory of Jill Shepherd, the Community Relations Manager of the Town of Slave Lake. The parade to mark the beginning of Riverboat Daze was forming up along 6th Ave NE. It would take a circuitous route past the Vanderwell Heritage Place seniors’ lodge and the Slave Lake Healthcare Centre before turning on to Main Street. Representatives of the Slave Lake Kinettes Club had recruited Jill as a middle man between the Club and the Town in an attempt to re-invigorate the flagging 53 year old annual festival and boost the spirits of the people of Slave Lake. Now the question was: would anyone come out for the parade?
“Being from BC and coming here in 2014” says Jill today, “I just figured everything would be back to normal and it was definitely not back to normal.” Nothing has been normal in Slave Lake since a fire in mid May of 2011 ravaged the town and forced the evacuation of its entire population. When people got back into town, a third of it was gone. Seven year later, the rebuilding continues, and on that afternoon last July, people needed a party.
Shepherd isn’t from Slave Lake. She grew up in Duncan, British Columbia and did a degree at Malaspina University College in Tourism Management, with a major in recreation. She went on to work for the City of Nanaimo, and then joined staff at Slave Lake as the Program Coordinator. She is engaged to be married this year and wants to stay in Slave Lake and raise a family. She has both a professional and personal stake in the town and its community spirit. When the Kinettes came to her with a proposal to bring Riverboat Daze back to its pre-fire glory as a community event, she was all for it.
The Farmer’s Market in Slave Lake was also affected by the fire, so Shepherd played a role in moving it to the recreation center. She also got involved in turning the Summer Splash camp for Slave Lakes’ kids into a more interesting experience. Instead of hanging out in the arena in the morning and getting in a swim in the afternoon, she found a graduate teacher to come on board as a camp coordinator. Andrea Deas revamped the camp, adding educational elements, such as a program to save the bees in the area for the betterment of the environment, taking a plot in the community garden, and active fun, such as a live game of “Angry Birds” that involved knocking down a wall of cardboard boxes with a giant slingshot.
As the 2017 River Daze Parade made its way along 4th Avenue NE, and turned right onto Main Street, Jill started to cry. “I walked around the corner” she says, “I didn’t think that many people lived in Slave Lake! It was like the whole town was there. Everyone was happy. Everyone was out. Everyone was enjoying themselves.” The spirit of Slave Lake was back in town.