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Will and Kate bring encouragement to Slave Lake

July 6, 2011, Slave Lake, Alta. – Prince William and Kate made a detour to bring much-needed cheer to Slave Lake residents who face the daunting task of rebuilding their fire-scarred town.

July 6, 2011
By The Canadian Press

July 6, 2011, Slave Lake, Alta. – Prince William and Kate made a detour to bring much-needed cheer to Slave Lake residents who face the daunting task of rebuilding their fire-scarred town.

The northern Alberta community was not on the official royal itinerary, but the couple wanted to make a special stop after they left Yellowknife to show support for the many people who lost everything.

More than 400 homes and businesses – about one-third of the town – were reduced to ash and debris when a wind-whipped forest fire swept through in May.

Will and Kate's two-hour visit started with a tour by minibus of devastated neighbourhoods. After that, they were driven to Northern Lakes College to meet with residents, firefighters and rescue crews.

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The crowd waiting outside started chanting "Will and Kate" the moment they caught sight of the pair getting off the bus. The two waved briefly before heading inside.

Kate was sporting casual attire – blue pants, a ruffled cream blouse and a navy blazer.

People eager for a glimpse of the royal visitors started gathering in the early morning hours and were pressed four and five deep against  the barricades.

Sheri Smears came with her children and grandchildren. They were all wearing "I (Heart) SL" T-shirts and the youngsters carried signs thanking the prince and his wife for their visit.

"It's so nice to know that people think that this was a big deal,'' Smears said. "It's not just a little blip and I think the reason that they came here is because the people of Slave Lake have shown their spirit. Instead of whining and complaining, they are just forging ahead."

Dwayne Verschoor made a welcome sign that he hoped was big enough for the couple to see from the sky. The oil and gas operator assembled friends and family and provided cases of red spray paint to scrawl a greeting in a grassy field next to the airport.

He planned the mammoth "Welcome Will and Kate" sign when rumours started circulating days ago that the royals would be stopping in the town, about 280 kilometres north of Edmonton.

The surprise visit was announced Tuesday by officials who said the couple wanted to see the fire's aftermath and meet with residents.

Verschoor, whose own home was destroyed, has been helping others rebuild. He said he can't believe the royals made a point of coming to visit.

"It's a pretty big honour and a privilege even for them to think of us over here in a small little town."

Not everyone, however, was thrilled about the visit.

Farris Sobhani was filling up at a gas station a block away from where the crowd gathered. He said the monarchy has a history of oppressing colonies and native peoples and shouldn't be celebrated.

"It's fantastic that people are bringing attention to Slave Lake," he said. "I just think it is unfortunate that we have turned this into celebrity worship.

The fire forced 7,000 people to flee and left them wondering what – if anything – they would find upon their return. Some houses were undamaged, but others were razed and families have been forced to seek temporary accommodation. They face the challenge of rebuilding not only their houses but also the fabric of their community.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada has reported that the insured damage caused by the fire totals $700 million, making it the second costliest insured disaster in Canadian history. The ice storm that hit Quebec and Ontario in 1998 cost $1.8 billion.

Some Slave Lake residents are living in campers and mobile homes. Lucky ones, such as nursery school teacher Karen Scharf, have found rental housing. She said it's a tight squeeze with five adults, two dogs and a cat, but at least they'll have a roof over their heads for the winter.

Scharf said anticipation has spread all through Slave Lake.

"It is very, very exciting for our town and our community," added Shauna Fiddler. "It will hopefully lift the spirits of many people who have had their spirits quite dampened."

After their visit, William and Kate will spend some private time at an undisclosed location before their next official stop in Calgary late  Thursday afternoon.