WestJet has carved out a solid reputation as a company with a conscience since taking to Canada’s skies 21 years ago. But it’s also gaining notoriety for its tear-jerking videos.
The Calgary-based airline has long-touted the fact that its employees care more about their customers and put in so much extra effort than their competitors do because they’re all shareholders. But it takes caring to a whole new level every holiday season, starting with Chanukah through to the just-completed Ukrainian Christmas.
This past holiday season, for its fifth annual “Christmas Miracle,” WestJet wanted to bring a little joy into the lives of the residents of Fort McMurray, Alberta, a community of 61,000 that gained worldwide attention in May 2016 because so much of it had burned to the ground in a horrific wildfire. Many residents were forced to leave at a moment’s notice and lost everything they owned—including many pets that died in the disaster.
When cameras were allowed into the town weeks later, after officials had determined that it was finally safe, the images looked more like scenes out of The Walking Dead than from a community in the heart of Alberta’s oil sands. Once the damage was tallied up, insurance companies started writing checks totaling CAD$3.6 billion (USD$2.72 billion).
WestJet wasn’t going to be able to replace everything that was lost but it was going to do all it could to bring a little light into the lives of the people of “Fort Mac.”
The airline invited about 1,000 residents to the “Snowflake Soiree,” where it provided food, drink and entertainment as well as arts and crafts for the kids. More than 800 people attended, although many who had lost everything did not return to Fort McMurray in the fire’s aftermath.
Then, with a “Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas!” from Santa, hundreds of tiny white parachutes carrying little white boxes suddenly appeared in the sky—dropped from helium balloons. Inside were keepsakes of the evening, including family pictures on Christmas ornaments, plus every person in attendance received a free trip on a WestJet flight.
The night was brought to a close as country singer Johnny Reid took to the stage and led everybody in a sing-a-long, highlighted by a stirring rendition of Silent Night.
The entire production was pulled off by 48 WestJet volunteers who stuffed 500 stockings and doled out 300 pounds of candy.
“As we talked to our friends in Fort McMurray, one of the common themes that emerged was that many residents felt forgotten and that the approaching Christmas season wasn’t going to be the same,” the company said in a press release. “They needed a boost over the holidays so it was an easy decision for us to focus this year’s Christmas Miracle on a very deserving community.”
The evening’s story was told in a revamped version of Twas the Night Before Christmas and included lines such as:
“This story begins before Christmas was a thought
The story is happy, the beginning is not….
And it turns out these folks had lost all their things
But they never lost hope and the courage to sing.
They gathered ‘round the tree, voices raised in song.
Together they stand, Fort McMurray strong.”
WestJet interviewed a number of families affected by the fire, asked them about the irreplaceable items they had lost and posted the videos on its website. It also challenged its employees to find something among their possessions that they could give as a gift to the fire’s victims.
Michael Jesso told the story of helping his parents vacate the house he grew up in, grabbing just a few photographs in the panic to leave. “The fire took my childhood. Absolutely,” he says.
His story struck a chord with WestJet employee Jennifer—the company doesn’t use their last names in these vignettes. A friend had given her a copy of the children’s book, The Little Engine That Could, and written a personal note in it for her, all of which meant a lot to her. She decided to give the book to Jesso, writing her own note to him inside the front cover. “My friend believed in me, that’s why she gave it to me, to remind me to have hope and be encouraged and that I had support. That’s what I want Michael to feel, too,” she says.
The Hordichuk family had enough time to throw irreplaceable items—such as children’s drawings and an engagement ring given to Jason’s grandmother, which he ultimately gave to his wife, Angie—into their trailer before they evacuated. The ring had special meaning to his family because it was bought by the grandmother’s fiancée, who was a seaman in the Canadian Royal Navy in the Second World War and died at sea.
Two weeks after the Hordichuks escaped the inferno, their trailer was stolen. WestJet employee Jade felt an immediate connection because her grandmother had been given a watch from her fiancée during the same war, and it had been passed down to her. She packaged it up and presented it to the Hordichuks. “I want them to have it, not because it would ever replace that ring, because it wouldn’t,” she noted. “But it replaces the sentiment in which the ring came from, the watch came from the same place. And the love of a fiancée for his bride. I want them to have it if nothing else but to restore their faith in humanity.”
Previous Christmas Miracles included a goal of performing 12,000 “mini-miracles”—one not-so-random act of kindness for every WestJet employee and to do them across 10 time zones in 90 destinations and Santa appearing via video in an airport lounge and asking children (and their parents) by name what they wanted for Christmas while they waited for a pair of flights. Once their planes had taken off, the employees on the ground hit electronics outlets, sports retailers and toy stores to buy what they had asked for. They sped back to the airport, where other employees were ready with wrapping paper. Then, as the passengers gathered near the luggage carrousels, presents with their names on them started arriving on the conveyor belt.