Faith, hope and love

I had heard that the Salvation Army was sprucing up the basement space where the Mat Program resides when we went on a Seeing Is Believing tour in the summer. Kate Penney, the shelter manager, shared with us that after Floyd finished the painting of the room, they would be inviting artists to come in and do some murals.

“I would be interested in contributing to that,” I said, having just recently completed a couple of large format paintings on the exterior walls of my shop, one of which was of Métis elder Elsie Yanik.

I ended up suggesting to Diane Shannon, Executive Director of the United Way, that we considering doing the mural as a Day of Caring project. I would do the large portrait of Elsie and the staff would come in near the end to add their personal touches to the piece, though I didn’t really know what that would be.

As brilliantly captured by filmmaker Tito Guillen, the video shows what happened between 8:15 am and 4:00 pm. He had set up a camera to take a picture every 20 seconds.

Creating the grid, drawing out the words and the details of the face, took a lot longer than I thought it would. I don’t think I started the painting process until 10:30 am or so. Despite the delay in really getting started, I felt pretty confident heading into the lunch hour.


It was lovely that MLA Don Scott dropped in, after doing some volunteer serving in the soup kitchen. Don is particularly passionate about the United Way and its member agencies. He served on the Board and was President in 2007. Don and I have grown into good friends, after having served together on Council for a couple of years. We also get mistaken for one another on a not infrequent basis.

As I completed the details of Elsie Yanik’s face and hands, I started painting the blue background around the words “Faith, Hope and Love”. At this point, I was becoming very aware of the time and the fact that staffers from the United Way and the Salvation Army would be coming around 3 pm to contribute. To be honest, I was losing confidence that I would finish in time.


Trust the process, I thought to myself, and everything turned out brilliantly. The blue paint was dry enough to allow my colleagues and friends to add to the mural. Some selected phrases from Elsie’s binders – prayers that she has spoken at multiple events over the years. Others wrote messages of love in their native languages.

After a quick interview, which you see at the beginning and end of the time-lapse video, I quickly gathered up my supplies and made two or three trips up the stairs to load up my vehicle. Patrons were lined up outside, probably 20 or 30, as I said goodbye to the security guard. It was 4:30 and time to let in the Mat Program guests for the evening.

I went back to photograph and sign the mural on Christmas Eve. Kate shared with me that, according to her staff, patrons were delighted with painting. Several shed some tears. One put their hands on the mural and said “She helped bring me into the world”.

Elsie Yanik was born in Fort Fitzgerald in 1917 and lived many of her years in the bush, hunting and trapping. She has grown into a revered presence in the region, participating in the Olympic Torch Run in 2010, being awarded an honourary doctor of laws degree from the University of Alberta in 2014, and offering traditional blessing at large events.

As a 97-year-old person who embodies faith, hope and love, and someone who is incredibly articulate, vibrant and inspiring, Elsie will be a welcomed presence in the Salvation Army for years to come.



Author: Russell Thomas

​Russell is a marketing and communications professional who has spent 20 years in Wood Buffalo working with the OK Radio Group, Keyano College, Arts Council Wood Buffalo, and now with The United Way of Fort McMurray. A regular blogger, Russell's writing can be seen online ( and in multiple publications. His paintings can be seen in homes and businesses throughout the community. Married to Heather and "Papa" to Dylan and Ben, Russell is a passionate spokesperson for United Way.