Last summer, I bolted a solar panel to the roof of my grandfather’s 1978 Datsun 620 pick up truck, known in my family as the LBT, which stands for Little Baby Truck. The official color listed on the LBT’s title is, appropriately, rust. My plan was to take the LBT 7,000 miles, from Boulder, Colorado, all the way to the tar sands in Fort McMurray, Alberta, and then down the path of the Keystone XL Pipeline, camping in Walmart parking lots along the way.
I was about to embark on a university funded research project, which investigated the effects of the controversial, polarizing tar sands industry on surrounding communities of Indigenous peoples. In the last decade, the industry has grown into one of the largest, most capital- and carbon-intensive industrial projects in history. My preparatory research had troubled me, as two widely accepted and horribly polarized schools of thought pervaded the coverage of the topic, both in media and academia. The tar sands are either seen as an economic miracle with the ability to thrust Canada into the ranks of the oil producing superpowers, or an environmental and social disaster, causing many Indigenous communities to call out the industry as “genocide.”
Canada has the third largest proven oil reserve in the world of 175 billion barrels, existing in the form of sand-saturated bitumen, a heavy, thick petroleum that undergoes high levels of processing to turn it from the consistency of a hockey puck into synthetic crude oil. The tar sands currently account for 56% of global oil available for private sector investment. Yes, more than half of the oil not controlled by national governments exists in one small region, in a Western, democratic, capitalistic country, where investors from all over the world can come and benefit: Friendly Canada.
I bought a truck bed topper for the LBT and my girlfriend helped me convert the space into a covered sleeping area, complete with curtains, a surprisingly comfortable mattress, and a battery charged by the solar panel. I used the battery to power, among other devices, an electric stove, as I imagined Walmart employees would be less than pleased with me starting a campfire in the parking lot to cook hot dogs.
The odds were against the LBT with its tendency to break down, but starting on July 6, at a top speed of 55 miles per hour, fifteen books on CD from the Boulder Public Library on hand, a misconception of what exactly was going on up there engrained in my mind, I drove north.
The objective of my study was to travel throughout Alberta and the United States, conducting interviews with representatives from Indigenous groups and oil companies to try to conceptualize a general relationship between these entities, and with hope make some recommendations on ways to for the industry to proceed more sustainably. I was confident that rudimentary questions like, “Are the tar sands an important issue? Why or why not?” would help to develop an understanding of this young industry. I would come to learn I was too late.
On my way to Canada, I was stopped while crossing the U.S-Canada border after being accused by the Canadian border patrol of being an environmental terrorist. Apparently, a journal filled with rows of oil companies I wanted to interview looked like a hit list. “What the hell are you doing in Alberta?” asked one agent “Are you here to blow up one of the pipelines?” “Where’s the gun hidden?” After reading all my emails and rummaging through my clothes, they gave me a chance to explain myself and I was on my way.
My first stop was Calgary, the Canadian version of Houston, where I would interview corporate tar sands employees. Upon arriving I had the opportunity to go with a friend who had moved to Calgary from Colorado to work for an oil company and a few of his coworkers to the rodeo. It was Calgary Stampede week, the city’s western culture festival, so even the rich oil executives could be spotted on the streets with plaid shirts, cowboy hats, and big belt buckles. At this, my first rodeo, I started up a conversation with one of the coworkers about my study. “I’m here learning about the tar sands,” I said. He jolted, put his hand on my shoulder and let out a nervous and hushing “Whoa!” as two or three people within an earshot spun around to see who said it. “Oil sands,” he said. “They’re called oil sands.”
Being corrected when using the politically incorrect term “tar sands” as opposed to the promoted “oil sands” was emblematic of my adventure, as I plunged into the politically volatile arena of the oil sands. Here in Calgary, and most of Alberta for that matter, standing against the oil sands was not only seen as unjust and radical environmentalism, but unfair and arrogant neglect of those who have worked to make the oil sands the flagship of the Canadian economy.
The question remains: Are they “tar sands” or “oil sands”? According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Albertan government, “Oil sands is an accurate term because bitumen, a heavy petroleum product, is mixed with the sand. It makes sense to describe the resource as oil sands because oil is what is finally derived from the bitumen.” This logic has been argued as messy and dishonest by some, who say the term “oil sands” was created to make the industry sound cleaner. Neither term is correct, however, because bitumen is chemically identical to neither tar nor oil. “Bituminous sands,” a mouthful, is the most accurate and stigma- free term for describing the substance.
With this experience I began to realize the interview questions I had prepared were insufficient and misinformed. Led astray by the sensational coverage of the topic offered by the media and academia, the questions in my study reflected how little I knew about the reality in Alberta despite my ten months of preparatory research. The industry’s place in society was too complex, to set in momentum to be analyzed by my meager questions. I couldn’t even open my mouth to say what the study was about without being corrected. Within the first few interviews, I threw the questions out, and moved forward with a new plan: just listen. I began to ask questions about what my interviewees naturally seemed drawn to. I allowed myself to develop more personal relationships with the people I encountered, and traveled with them to cultural events seemingly unrelated to the bituminous sands. Instead of focusing on my study, my story, my questions, I listened.
I listened to individuals associated with dozens of different bituminous sands and Indigenous groups, filling the memory card of my voice recorder and the pages of my notebook. I spoke with those who loved the industry and those to hated it; those who had worked for the industry for decades and those who were just starting; Indigenous individuals who thought of the industry as evil and others who thought of it as means to survival.
In my conversations with oil company representatives: office secretaries, communications advisors, rig operators, tour coordinators, consultants, and tribal relations coordinators, I found myself speaking with pleasant and warmhearted individuals. Despite the proverbial image of the evil oil company employee, all of my oil company associated interviewees were kind, moreover friendly, and certainly eager to talk about their work. There is a real bituminous sands culture, full of history and hard work, of which my industry interviewees were excited and proud.
The most common, and most obvious, reason for this excitement and pride was the economic benefits of the industry. The bituminous sands are an economic miracle for The Great White North. The industry is expected to contribute more than $2.1 trillion to the Canadian economy over the next 25 years. Jobs will also increase. Today, there are more than 75,000 Canadian jobs associated with the bituminous sands industry. This number is expected to rise to 905,000 by 2035. The economic benefits will cross borders, as well, with an expected $42.6 billion growth in the U.S. economy.
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, the area containing Fort McMurray and much of the Athabascan bituminous sands, is one of the most economically comfortable regions in Canada. In 2012, the year of the most recent census, the average household income in Wood Buffalo was more than $189,000, the average price for a single family dwelling was $751,232, and the average rental cost for a one-bedroom apartment was $1648. In an interview with an employee of a bituminous sands development group, my interviewee recalled the common anecdote of a 18 year old Canadian who graduates high school, moves to Fort McMurray, starts driving a truck in the oil field earning more than $100,000 per year, and buys an $850,000 house just in time for his first legal beer.
The economy was by a wide margin the most discussed topic in my conversations with bituminous sands enthusiasts and employees. Aside from the economy, the other most important factor in the bituminous sands milieu, according to these individuals, was environmental performance.
The bituminous sands are commonly perceived as the most environmentally destructive way to produce oil, though my industry interviewees spoke about the environmental movement as one in which they took part. I heard a lot about the millions of dollars spent by companies on environmental projects such as reclamation and efficient technologies that use less water and energy. I heard about new policy that encourages companies to put away their capitalistic urges to compete and actually share environmental technology. Now, when one company creates a new piece of technology, others have access to the idea, and the entire industry moves forward. To date 560 environmental innovations have been shared at a cost of $900 million. Much of this environmental technology has to do with reclamation.
The reclamation process gives a bituminous sands operation the opportunity to fulfill its legal obligation to return disturbed land to a condition as close to the original as possible. Mines are filled back in with processed sand, land is recontoured, vegetation and wildlife are reintroduced, and scientists monitor the progress of the rehabilitation. Oil companies even hire local Indigenous peoples to influence the process with their traditional knowledge of the land.
Sometimes reclamation has to surmount especially ugly environmental problems: tailings. Tailings liquid is a byproduct of the process of extracting bitumen from the sand. It’s toxic, and there’s a lot of it. A typical mine will create enough tailings to fill more than eight Olympic sized swimming pools every day. Once created, tailings liquid is deposited into massive open storage pits called tailings ponds. There are currently over 70 square miles of tailings ponds around Fort McMurray. This massive amount of fluid is difficult to manage, as fine clay particles suspended in the tailings liquid can take more than 50 years to settle. New tailings management technology, however, turns the toxic sludge into essentially dirt in less than ten.
Even with these advancements in reclamation technology, there remains very little reclaimed land. When a bituminous sands company applies for full reclamation, they must be sure that the site is no longer necessary in any way for their operations. This is because when full reclamation occurs, the leased land is handed back to the Crown (public land in Canada is owned by the Crown of England) and is immediately once again available for public use. Bituminous sands companies are weary to make this commitment, as allowing the public onto land immediately adjacent to active mining operations poses safety concerns. Of the 322 square miles disturbed by bituminous sands mining over the last 40 years, only about one third of one square mile has been fully reclaimed. Gateway Hill, the one square kilometer of fully reclaimed bituminous sands operations land, is now a public park and walking area, reclaimed in 1993 after being disturbed by Syncrude, currently one of the biggest producers of bitumen.
The last, and most ironic environmental improvement boasted by my bituminous sands interviewees was steam assisted gravity drainage mining, or SAGD. Although this mining tactic is the most carbon intensive method for producing oil in the world, it was regarded as “green” based on the fact that it has a smaller surface footprint. Instead of digging up the bitumen in a massive open pit mine, the black stuff can be melted and sucked out of the ground with less tree slashing and ground disturbance. Right now, about 53% of bitumen is produced by this method, but that percentage will undoubtedly grow, as 80% of all bitumen in the region is too deep underground to be produced by surface mines. SAGD’s growth is alarming to environmentalists and climate scientists, since to produce one barrel of oil via SAGD, 1,200 cubic feet of natural gas are burned, releasing 65 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more than 15% greater than conventional oil production. This technology is improving, they assured me, as adding experimental solvents into the injected steam mixture can increase production efficiency by 15%.
On the contentious relations with Indigenous peoples, my industry interviewees were less excited to share the stats, although they were still eager to remind me that what I had heard in the news was all wrong. They said with regard to Indigenous peoples and industry, “Conversations about open communication and mutual benefit are real...Not all the good stories get published,” and “Every oil company has an Aboriginal relations coordinator, so it’s obviously important” (The word typically used to describe all Indigenous peoples in Canada is “Aboriginal”). Basically, bituminous sands companies see relations with Indigenous communities as mutually beneficial, or to-be mutually beneficial, talking about Indigenous collaboration the way a gold rush promoter talked about heading west.
“Both industry and Aboriginals are there legitimately; where’s the economic trade off?” said another industry interviewee. So far the industry’s side of this trade off is job opportunity, offered through “affirmative action”-like Indigenous hiring programs. “It’s a big competition” between oil companies to hire an Aboriginal with a college education, said one of my interviewees. As one Indigenous interview would tell later in my study, there are two ways the bituminous sands industry can help an Aboriginal: give him a job, or leave him alone.
Job placement is logistically easy, as 10% of all Indigenous people in Alberta live close to the bituminous sands. Thus, about 10% of the bituminous sands work force is Indigenous. As a result of these successful, lucrative partnerships, Indigenous contractors earned more than $5 billion in bituminous sands contracts between 1998 and 2010. The amount of oil wealth in the Indigenous communities I encountered would stagger me. The industry-Indigenous partnership looks totally prosperous, but my industry interviewees admitted that these partnerships weren’t without their frustrations. “It’s always a big challenge to work with [Aboriginals]...the CEOs of their organizations are always community members and they don’t always have business skills.” Meanwhile, bituminous sands companies were also eager to talk about the ways they are integrating Indigenous Traditional Knowledge into their work. “The corporate world could learn a lot from Traditional knowledge. Natives could learn a lot [from industry] too,” said one bituminous sands company employee. In the dozens of glossy-paged bituminous sands information booklets I accumulated on my trip, I read the same thing again and again: “We consider and incorporate traditional environmental knowledge and other Aboriginal experience and perspectives into our development.”
After about a week of meeting with oil company representatives in Calgary, I continued North, through Edmonton toward Fort McMurray on Highway 63, “The Highway of Death.” Nicknamed for its high head-on collision rate, this stretch of road is riddled with tired shift workers in a hurry to get home, and about 250,000 truck loads every year, some so big that the light poles need to be rotated to make room. “After a long weekend in the winter it is rare that everyone comes back to work on Monday without someone having been in an accident,” said one interviewee. Driving North on Highway 63, my tiny truck and I would be physically jarred from the wind created by the passing of some enormous semi truck, piled high with tree trunks or refinery equipment.
The drive gets even scarier when you realize what you are sharing the road with. On several occasions on my drive, I saw a goliath “megaload.” These giant shipments are usually Asian manufactured equipment that comes through U.S. ports in Oregon and Washington, and are far too big to be transported with normal trucks. Megaloads can be hundreds of feet long, hundreds of thousands of pounds, and employ four semi trucks linked together like train locomotives to crawl forward at less than walking speed. Over the past five years, megaloads have faced opposition in the U.S. as environmentalists, Native Americans, and anti-bituminous sands activists have stood in their paths, protesting the industry and expressing solidarity for the Indigenous peoples being affected in Canada. On several occasions trucks have had to find alternate routes to the bituminous sands. One interviewee told me of an enormous bitumen upgrader component that had to be disassembled and shipped in smaller pieces with “incredible cost to the company” due to protests and legal action against its transport.
Once megaloads get into Fort McMurray, they face another set of barriers. Before the Grant MacEwan Bridge, which crosses the mighty the Athabasca River in the middle of Fort McMurray, was rebuilt in late 2013, megaload drivers would have to exit the vehicle and allow the load to be cinched across. This was to prevent casualties in case the bridge collapsed during the crossing.
Infrastructure throughout the Fort McMurray area is buckling at or above capacity. As the population, economy, and demand for more people booms in Fort McMurray, so does the crime rate. Domestic violence and child abuse have skyrocketed along the same timeline as the industry. Despite the correlation to the bituminous sands, industry denies causality. Personally, I only had to wait five minutes from arriving to Fort McMurray to become the butt end of Fort McMurray’s petty crime.
After more than 2,000 miles, I had finally reached my destination. Pulling into the Fort McMurray Walmart parking lot, I saw that the camping ban at this particular store had done little to keep out squatters. The far half of the parking lot was completely full of trailers and campers, some suspended on cinder blocks as if to show their permanence. I found a spot amongst my new neighbors and just as I was climbing into the bed, a truck full of laughing young men peeled past, pelting the LBT with eggs, yelling, “Fucker!” I got a good laugh out of the irony of driving for a week, only to get egged. I spent that night cleaning raw egg yolks off the dry, rusted paint of the truck.
On my first full day in Fort McMurray, I decided to drive around and find what industry operations I could see from the road. I continued north into the thick of the industry. As I drove I began to see large tailings ponds, which to me looked more like tailings lakes. Upon closer inspection, I noticed plastic scarecrows suspended above the liquid to fend off curious birds. I later learned the scarecrows were a tactic conceived after a messy incident in 2008 when a flock of migratory ducks landed in a tailings pond, killing over 1,600 of them. The event was a public perception nightmare for bituminous sands companies. As an additional measure to protect animals, companies have installed propane cannons throughout operations sites, which explode at random, creating a noise that will hopefully repel wildlife. As I made my way through the area, a distant gunshot sound from one of the cannons rumbled across the landscape every few seconds.
Next, Gateway Hill came into view. As I drove past the small hill visible from Highway 63, a large sign triumphantly announced the reclamation. Just past the hill, over a desert of used sand and a sea of tailings ponds, a driver heading North can see steam billowing out of the Syncrude upgrader. From more than a mile away I could see the steam dissipate, leaving a yellow streak of sulfur oxides across the sky.
I wanted to get even closer to the action, so I decided to take the next road leading directly to a mine. These roads are private, but so many thousands of people visit a mine in a day that the road signs indicating their direction are large and prominent enough to look public. I took a turn onto a newly paved road and drove for about thirty minutes through the thick forest. There were relatively few marks of development, other than the constant flow of semi trucks with which I shared the road. Finally I saw an upgrader rise above the horizon. I continued until I approached within a few hundred meters of the facility gate. I pulled over and there it was. For almost a year I had been studying these immense and controversial mines, usually only documented by some rogue journalist with a helicopter, and now I was standing on the edge of one, separated only by a couple hundred feet and a barbed wire fence. I got out of the truck to look around and got the feeling I really was not supposed to be there. In fact, I was not.
Gazing into the massive open-pit mine, which extended past the horizon and seemingly into the sky, I became aware of the immensity of energy and power birthed from this dark and buzzing crater. The mine was huge, at least ten miles across from what I could tell, but I knew from hours of Google Maps studying that operation sites can be more than 50 miles wide. Off in the distance, I saw a white speck being approached by a row of smaller yellow specks. The white speck was a shovel, one big enough to move 100 tons of bituminous sand in one scoop, and each yellow speck was a Caterpillar 797, the biggest truck in the world. I watched in amazement as the activity that so many people have emotionally protested against was taking place right in from of me.
About an hour into my self-guided tour, I was approached by a security truck. I thought I was busted, but from the truck emerged a smiling security guard who had apparently shown up just to say hello. Instead of kicking me out, he started chatting me up. This guy must be new, I thought. Anyone else probably would have approached me with guns drawn, thinking again I was there to cause trouble. I thought I would take advantage of this poor guy’s inexperience so I played dumb and asked him if I could come inside for a tour. He obliged and went to his truck to radio the request in to his manager. Moments later, he returned from the car, this time not so friendly. “You must leave immediately!” he said in a heavy accent. “You are trespassing! Give me your I.D.” He wrote down my license plate number as I hopped in the truck and sped off. For the rest of the trip I had a slight fear of my license plate being reported to the police. It never was.
Not only was I in the heart of the industry, I was in the heart of traditional Indigenous territory for First Nations and Métis, two types of Indigenous Canadian. By law, Indigenous groups must be consulted on all new developments on traditional territory, the boundaries of which extend past those of a reserve (in Canada, “reserve” describes a sovereign Indigenous land parcel, as opposed to “reservation” in the U.S.). The Albertan guidelines outlining this legal process of Indigenous land and natural resource consultation were not finalized until July, 2014, when I was in Alberta. The youth of this process is obvious, as the whole thing seems disorganized and under the table. Consultation may as well happen over a round of golf and a steak dinner as in a court room. It puts Indigenous communities in the paradoxical position of being both ultimately powerful and “economic hostages,” at the will of the oil companies who have government backing. The next two weeks were spent in this area, meeting with Indigenous groups and staying on reserves. I found my Indigenous interviewees to be just kind, interesting, and enjoyable as my industry interviewees, though the products of the conversations were much more unexpected. For one shocking discovery, most Indigenous peoples I met with didn’t hate the bituminous sands industry. Many even saw the relationship as mutually beneficial. The Canadian government, however, was not regarded as highly. Some Indigenous interviewees expressed a deep, sometimes violent abhorrence for the government, including “George W. Harper,” the “Crime Minister.” In conversations about government I heard my Indigenous interviewees claim they were ready to go to war with the government, and that they would not “be the first to die.” In a world filled with evil oil company stereotypes, I was surprised to learn that bituminous sands companies were not the enemy, at least the biggest one. The next several weeks would prove relentlessly full of surprises, my preconceived conclusions being shattered everyday.
During my first visit to an Aboriginal reserve, I attended a cultural celebration, complete with food, music, and traditional dancing performances. The roads on reserve were muddy from all the construction. Tractors and semi trucks were scattered throughout the hamlet, mixed amongst some beautiful brand new community center building, or ice rink. As I walked up to the wooden bleachers structure housing the event’s main stage, the first words I heard were those of the MC. “Due to new oil sands contracts, every band member will be receiving an extra $1,000, for it is you that needs to be compensated for the effects of the oil sands development,” he shouted in a pep rally sort of way. (In Canada, an Indigenous group is referred to as a “band” rather than a “tribe.”) The crowd remained surprisingly calm. I heard a few people laughing across the way. Looking back I think it was because of how trivial $1,000 of oil money had come to be.
As I visited more Aboriginal reserves, and was always taken aback by how different they were from the third world image of Indigenous reserves across North America shown in the media. I found the reserves I visited to be quite comfortable, even lavish at times, though I know this is not always the case. Among the amenities were brand new sports facilities, community centers, new, big houses that “would be million dollar houses if they were in Fort McMurray,” as one interviewee described. Many people on reserve, similarly to the rest of Alberta, drove new pickup trucks and owned multiple four-wheelers.
Over the next couple weeks, I was invited to a number of similar cultural events, which I discovered to be so frequent because industry funds them as a form of compensation. Funding social events, such as holiday celebrations, is a way for industry to compensate Aboriginal groups without giving cash, a frowned upon practice. “Handing out cash to first nations is the worst thing you can do,” said one industry interviewee, citing the problems that occur when giving out cash royalties in exchange for cooperation. “Some [companies] have done it when getting close to project application deadlines and the other companies get down on them because it causes social problems. So they try to make [compensation] community based.” Industry representatives would make appearances at the events, and of course, oil company logos were plastered on everything. The amount these companies spend on occasions like this became apparent when I noticed the winners of the talent show, canoe race, and jig competition each won $1,500. Second place in each category won $1,000; third, $500. This is industry’s idea of non- cash compensation.
While at one such celebration, visitors from off reserve camped along an old landing strip adjacent to the festivities. The night I arrived to this reserve was spent listening to live music and trying to meet as many people as possible. My main contact here was the Chief’s brother, so I was hoping that would help me get integrated into the reserve, the residents of which tended to be generous and welcoming, but also unforthcoming and reserved. I found that it was easy enough to make friends as long as I remained respectful and open to listening, as I tried my hardest to not openly present my preconceived assumptions. My attitude was appreciated by the folks I met, who told me that no one had ever come to the reserve just to observe before. I got the feeling that most people like me, white researchers, come to a reserve to study its inhabitants rather than just listen to what they have to say. Eventually I was introduced to the Chief, an intimidating experience to say the least given not only his title but also his stature; however, his constant joking calmed my nerves and the two of us became friends in no time.
The next morning, I woke up to the booming sound of the Chief yelling for me, “Come eat!” I was one of only two non-Indigenous people on the whole reserve so I quickly developed a reputation of being the “intellect from the States, here studying us.” Truth was, I wasn’t really doing research anymore, I was just trying to be friendly and stay out of trouble. Meanwhile seeing what trouble I could get into. As I made my way toward the breakfast tent, the Chief welcomed me and offered me a plate of eggs, bacon, and toast. My American, individualistic instincts kicked in and I politely refused to show that I didn’t need him to buy my breakfast. “No, thank you. You don’t have to do that,” I said, as everyone in the tent watching us became silent. The Chief’s expression turned stern. “You refuse my offer, you insult me,” he said. I doubled back and ate that damn breakfast as fast as I could.
The Chief is a democratically elected political leader. He’s also a cultural leader, and maintains the traditional role of provider that Chiefs have here for hundreds of years. It’s undoubtedly known that he is the boss, and not to be questioned. “When the Chief tells you to do something, you do it,” his brother said. I should have known better than to refuse his offer, as I had knew that it was common courtesy to accept gifts from Indigenous peoples here, as well as offer gifts as a cultural expression of overarching reciprocity. I brought traditional gifts of sage and sweetgrass in exchange for interviews.
I decided I would make myself useful and offer to help cook breakfast as a way to meet more people. The ladies in the breakfast tent seamlessly put me to work flipping pancakes. About two hours and several gallons of batter later, the Chief’s sister found me and asked if I wanted to help out with another task. The weekend’s biggest event was about to begin and they needed an assistant. I took the job knowing that the more I got involved the easier it would be to make friends and get interviews. I followed her to the old landing strip on reserve. About 20 years ago, the only way to get to this area was by rail or air, so airplane infrastructure is common. Part of the landing strip had been dug away by a bulldozer and the trench was being filled with water pumped from the river. Around the perimeter of the hole were about 20 large trucks, lifted suspensions and with at least 40 inch tires. This was a mud bog, and my job was to be the time keeper. In my attempt to stay busy, I had somehow become a referee in a high stakes mud-truck race. I had no idea what to do. I was positioned at the end of the trench and one by one the trucks would punch it into the mud, sending a roaring sound across reserve and a stream of mud 50 feet into the air. As the trucks came screaming across the finish line (a construction cone sitting in front of me) the crowd of several hundred people would cheer. If a truck couldn't make it across, the bulldozer would squeak into action and pull it out.
After an afternoon of making iffy judgement calls on finish times, and having to conceal on several occasions that my stop watch didn’t go off, forcing me to fabricate a finish time, the winners of the mud bog were announced. First place was awarded $5,000, based on my ambiguous, poor timing skills. At the end of the day the Chief’s sister found me to thank me for my services. She pulled a large wad of hundred dollar bills from her bag and handed me five of them. “Is that enough?” she asked. I think I said, “Are you kidding me?” She reminded me of their tradition of reciprocity, echoing her brother’s reaction to my refusing his breakfast offer. “Nothing’s free,” she concluded. I took the money, which was of course, money birthed from the dark pit I stumbled upon days earlier.
In this way, the consultation process is a social one. It is a time for representatives from the Indigenous and industrial worlds to come together and get to know each other; it is a way for the friendly consultation process to painlessly flow by without any long and messy legal battles, so the industry hopes it is perceived. Clearly even the cultural events had a cash handout component, suggesting industry’s interactions with Indigenous peoples are centered around the idea of monetary compensation in one form or another. This is an interesting approach for industry to take as none of my industry interviewees knew how much that culture was worth. No industry interviewee could put a number, or even a formula for determination, on the value of the culture they were tasked with compensating. How can loss of culture be properly compensated for monetarily if the value is unknown? Maybe the lack of logic can be attributed to the youth of the consultation process. Maybe it’s because technically, profit is the sole reason for any action taken by the publicly traded bituminous sands industry, including environmental or social progress.
Band members are well aware of where such wealth on reserve comes from. They’re business savvy, calculating, and can easily see the big picture. Contrary to the underlying assumptions behind much of Canada’s prevalent racism, Indigenous groups are not getting rich sitting around collecting royalty checks. Although band members do collect money from land royalties, court settlements, and direct employment, the most wealthy individuals I met on reserves achieved their success through starting oil field contracting companies. As I drove through one reserve, I saw large parking lots filled with tractors, semi trucks, and front-end loaders, the property a successful entrepreneur. I interviewed the owner and founder of this company and learned that it had grown in the past decade to employ over 200 people, many of whom were friends and family of the owner.
Since 2000, more than $8 billion has been earned by Aboriginal companies through relationships with the bituminous sands industry. In 2012 alone, Aboriginal contractors in Wood Buffalo and Lac La Biche earned more than $1.8 billion. It’s important to remember how small these communities are in order to conceptualize how much wealth this booming economy is creating. As one of my industry interviewees pointed out, however, a booming economy in an area where most people have not completed higher education can cause social problems.
A stark contrast exists between the gleaming new cars and unpaved roads on reserve. Even with million dollar homes, much of a reserve might still lack infrastructure such as plumbing, electricity, gas, or health facilities. Some interviewees welcomed the benefits of more money, yet condemned the externalities of increased wealth. “You have lots of negativity in [a wealthy reserve]. There’s crack cocaine all over the place, there’s lots of people dying, but yet they’re rich. They drive brand new trucks, they have big homes... But there’s a negative side of things,” said one Indigenous interviewee, dissatisfied with the assumption that Indigenous society is somehow solved now that there is more money. “We didn’t have to lock our doors when I was growing up,” said another Indigenous interviewee.
Stories are time capsules here. They are the primary way culture is communicated between generations, the threads through time to which traditions cling. One story I heard around a campfire while staying with an Indigenous family showed just how quickly Indigenous culture has changed. An elder told me that one winter as a child he became sick, and his body grew covered with sores. The boys grandfather went hunting for a moose, and when he killed one he went back to fetch the boy and bring him to the carcass. He cut open the animal’s cecum and put the boy inside among the decomposing plant matter. After a while, the boy’s sores were gone. The moose saved the boy, grazing the land and chewing up various plants, making medicine in its gut. For me, the poetic, romantic qualities of this story contrasted to our surroundings of generators humming away in the background, producing the white lights that shined on us this night. As Indigenous cultures have become encroached by contemporary Western society, they have lost the deep and pure connection to the land of their ancestors.
Some interviewees expressed annoyance with people who refused to accept this new reality: “The elders give us a hard time... they’re always thinking way back, and we have to tell them we’re not like that anymore.” My interviewees expressed a simultaneous understanding of the negative implications of assimilation and an acceptance of its reality. “[We] have been getting assimilated for the last 1000 years. Since Columbus came over. Since the first white man went into what is now North America. Still today we’re getting assimilated,” said one interviewee, adding that even the lights around us were products of assimilation. My interviewee later said, “Oil sands is faster, stronger assimilation...Biggest assimilation in the last one hundred fifty years.”
Other Indigenous interviewees resented the fact that even if assimilation was the pragmatic alternative, the ultimatum between surviving in a Westernized society and maintaining culture was forced upon them. To these interviewees, a more environmentally sustainable alternative was necessary. “We need energy but not this much energy,” said one, citing the huge, and growing, size of homes as evidence for the current oil demand being a frivolous extravagance rather than a necessary right. I found it interesting that these perspectives were so opposing, meanwhile my Indigenous interviewees never seemed to see one another as the opposition. The opposition is reserved for the white, western ideal that everything can be bought, that everything is quantifiable and nothing is sacred.
After a couple weeks in the Fort McMurray area, it was time for me to go further north. I wanted to go to the where there existed the most blatant discrepancies between the claims of those who support the bituminous sands, and that of those who despise them. Fort Chipewyan, established in 1788, is a small hamlet of about 1,200 residents on the southwestern bank of Lake Athabasca, about 140 miles north of Fort McMurray. Here, inside the gigantic, 20 mile wide Peace-Athabasca Delta, exists an incredible landscape of shallow waters and tall grasses, which supported a robust trapping, fishing, and trading economy for 200 years. This fly-in, fly-out community is cut off from the rest of Canada during the summers, when the ice on the delta melts and the roads melt with it.
I was one of only five passengers flying from Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan this sunny afternoon, but we almost filled up the tiny propeller plane, piloted by the same man who loaded my bags onto the aircraft. As we ascended I looked eagerly out the window, hoping to see down upon any of the large open pit mines that are clustered just north of Fort McMurray. About 15 minutes into our 40 minute flight, I began to see the effects on the landscape. A network of roads converged on a large, clear-cut area in the middle of the dense forest. Soon, the clear-cut areas multiplied and grew into each other and formed even bigger, brown swaths of slashed trees. Then I saw a mine. From a cruising altitude of 14,000 feet above ground, my entire field of view out of my small airplane window was swallowed by the massive pit. Now I understood how it was possible to see the mines from space.
I arrived to Fort Chipewyan with little to no idea what I was going to do. I only had a couple of contacts and no scheduled interviews. Luckily I found it to be one of the most friendly and hospitable places I had ever been. The two hotels in town were both booked, which was fine because I had brought a few tarps to use as a tent and I had heard that there was a free camping area near the water. I had been encouraged not to camp because rain was on the forecast and up there the mosquitos will “lift you up and take you away,” at the first sign of moisture. I got even more discouraged when I realized that my camp ground was right in the middle of town, about fifty feet from the front yard of the woman who had checked me in at the airport. She sat on her porch and watched awkwardly as I fastened a travesty of a tent to a park bench. Five minutes after I finished, a tall Indigenous man on a four-wheeler approached me and said, “Well, that’s roughing it.” He was not going to let me sleep there. He insisted that I instead stay in the camper he had parked in his backyard, a huge upgrade as it rained practically my whole time in “Fort Chip.”
My luck didn’t run out there. By the end of the following day I had been lent a fishing pole, some food, and a motor scooter to get around on. I bumped into a government employee who took me for a guided tour of the town and invited me over for dinner. We ate caribou stew and drank a six pack of Budweiser, which cost $40. Everything up there is expensive. Even the essentials like have to be flown in or barged up the Athabasca all summer. During the winter, ice roads allow truckers to more easily bring goods, but the journey is long and treacherous. I lived surprisingly well and before long had a handful of interviews lined up.
On the surface, Fort Chipewyan has little to do with the bituminous sands. Although there are a handful of people in town who fly south to work in the oil fields, there are no oil company offices here, and the closest operations are too far away for anyone to see or hear. In fact, in my time in Fort Chipewyan I interviewed no current bituminous sands employees, because I did not find any. It is this lack of interaction with the industry that perhaps makes Fort Chipewyan the place it is today. “We don’t have access to all the benefits of the industry because we don’t have a road,” said one interviewee. What the town does have is a water source that flows north from the thick of the industry. Back in Fort McMurray, I took the Suncor Energy public bus tour, which gave a G-rated look at the oldest active operation site. On the tour, we crossed the river again and again to get to various points of interest within the company’s grounds. The Athabasca River, which weaves itself through the bituminous sands, is closer to industry than any person without an employee badge is allowed. Downriver, residents of Fort Chipewyan say the Athabasca is bringing toxins from the industry north and killing people.
“I don’t even fish anymore,” claimed one interviewee, noting the many sightings of deformed fish in Lake Athabasca as evidence for the contamination of the water. “We get letters in the mail saying ‘Don’t eat the eggs, only eat so much fish a week.’... I don’t eat the fish out of this lake at all anymore,” said another interviewee. Sure enough, while in the Regional Municipality office I picked up a copy of Chip Chat, the local monthly news letter, and found an advisory from Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer limiting the amount of gull and tern eggs to be consumed per week for people living in this area. But the Provincial Government’s warnings, residents say, are not keeping people from getting cancer.
“We just buried a friend yesterday from cancer,” said one interviewee, the day after I arrived to Fort Chipewyan. “In the early seventies is when we started seeing oil sheens on the river,” said another interviewee, one of the many residents who remembers growing up drinking directly from the lake, without filtration. “We never used to have sickness like this before. As soon as industry started, people started getting sick and dying.” Later, I heard an elder describe an ancient prediction, offering an explanation for sickness in Fort Chipewyan. Long ago, elders predicted that one day an animal with many legs would come from the south and kill many people. The animal with many legs, of course, is cancer.
Studies have failed to cleanly conclude that the bituminous sands industry is causing cancer in Fort Chipewyan, or even that Fort Chipewyan has higher rates of cancer than the rest of Canada. In paraphrased words of my industry interviewees, if there are higher levels of cancer in Fort Chipewyan, it probably has to do with the fact that everyone there smokes and drinks, that there is high radon gas exposure form the surrounding uranium mines, and that the number of elderly residents has grown over the last 15 years. Coming from beer-glutted Colorado, it was hard for me to imagine how anyone was getting sick from drinking when a Bud six-pack cost $40. Still, industry holds that if there is bitumen in Lake Athabasca, it is there naturally. I had heard that anyone can go to the banks of the Athabasca River and see bitumen seeping into the water, the same way it has for thousands of years. In Fort McMurray I went to see for myself. Sure enough, the black sandy banks of the river smelled like petroleum, and a shiny blue oil sheen was visible floating on the surface. When I held a handful in the sun, little black dots of softening bitumen appeared in the sand.
On the other hand, residents of Fort Chipewyan are suspicious of government or industry endorsed research: “Government scientists, nobody trusts them. ‘Cause they just say what the government tells them to say. Now, [Aboriginal bands] are doing their own research,” said one interviewee, referring to the fact that band offices have taken it upon themselves to do their own studies on water quality. In general, studies released by government or industry agree that bituminous sands have nothing to do with increased cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, while independent or university funded studies propose further research before making such confident conclusions. Despite what any research says, some members of the community speak form personal experience. One interviewee, who worked as an environmental compliance contractor, claimed to witness a tailings pond leaking into the river. “I’ve seen seepage going into the river. It’s kind of a sludge. Dark, dark green. You see it trickling out. [The oil company told] us, ‘don’t say anything, we’re gonna’ get it fixed.’”
Fort Chipewyan plays an important role in the process of examining the perceptions of the bituminous sands industry with regard to the environment. Unlike in the area surrounding Fort McMurray, where communities can be more easily compensated for environmental damages, Fort Chipewyan is located far enough from the industry to not receive compensation, but close enough to feel environmental effects. This raises interesting questions about the degree to which compensation plays into perception of the industry. Here in Fort Chipewyan, where folks truly believe the industry is murdering people and getting away with it, it is common to hear, “I wish this river flowed south.”
Before I flew back down to Fort McMurray, I had the opportunity to go for a boat ride with a local who had grown up fishing a trapping in Fort Chipewyan, and who was involved with the commercial fishery there. As we made our way around the delta, the local pointed out the ways the land had changed over the years. Even as an industry employee for many years, he described Lake Athabasca as “the last tailings pond of the oil sands,” where all the waste from industry, both literal and figurative, flows in to the large settling pond, conveniently located downstream from industry, far enough away that the 1,200 small voices of Fort Chipewyan would not be heard. “The world needs oil,” said one interviewee, “they don’t care about the 600 Indians who live there.” This interviewee was not alone in being convinced that the bituminous sands industry was the cause behind the recent action by the Provincial Government to permanently shut down commercial fishing in Alberta. Without commercial anglers in the water, there are no more sightings of deformed fish, he said.
I landed in Fort McMurray where the LBT was waiting for me in the airport parking lot. I now had a couple days to sit in a Tim Horton’s, Canada’s version of Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts, and reflect on all I had just seen. As I sat there sipping my coffee, it occurred to me that everyone, form the oil rig operators to the cashier at Tim Horton’s, to the teenaged vandals who egged my truck, was there because of the bituminous sands, and without the bituminous sands there would be no need for so many of the businesses that make up the city’s skyline: fast food restaurants, fork lift retailers, construction contractors, and of course, bituminous sands companies. They come to make money, not to be a part of the community, no matter how hard the government and industry try to change this through building a river-walk or new recreation center. In this way, my truck getting egged was the same as the horrible traffic and the booming economy. Meanwhile, the Indigenous peoples, the masters of reciprocity and diligent observers of this land, are realizing that they had better learn how to be compensated the way oil companies are offering or risk not being compensated at all.
“You may as well hunt in Edmonton!” said one Indigenous interviewee. “[The traditional] way is long gone.” To this interviewee, and several others who expressed similar sentiments, the industry was a force to be reconciled, not fought, if he and his family were going to survive. “We need [industry]...so that people can go to work...so people can feed their kids.” This interviewee’s idea of sustainability for his family, livelihood, and culture involved working for this environmentally damaging industry. “We all know there’s an impact...but the nation also wants to maximize our benefits, because if we fight and be olden way, we’re not going to get anywhere... The world economy has changed and we need to be a part of that change to make sure future generations have something to live for. And that’s oil, we have to set that standard. And at the same time we have to make sure to maintain our culture, language...” said one Indigenous interviewee.
I also heard a different Indigenous perspective that prioritized the maintenance of past traditions as a means to cultural sustainability rather than assimilation. “As an Aboriginal person it is my inherent duty to make sure everything I have my grandson will have, and my great grandson,” said one Indigenous interviewee, who thought that “the oil sands belong in the ground.” This interviewee, and other who expressed similar sentiments, saw the industry as an obstruction to sustainability of culture and life, despite the immediate monetary gain. “Industry has nothing to offer,” she said. This interviewee cited global warming and other negative environmental impacts as the reasons that “oil is death.” “We’re setting ourselves up for failure,” said another interviewee, referencing the short lifetime of the industry. Oil companies claim that there is enough oil in the form of bituminous sands in Alberta to last over 100 years, but even a century is small relative to the history of Indigenous peoples in North America, which dates back millennia. Interviewees such as these agreed that living in compliance with long term environmental sustainability was the best way to preserve culture and protect future generations, despite the fact that this meant forsaking wealth.
There seemed to be two prominent ideas of how Indigenous peoples should proceed with regard to the bituminous sands, coinciding with the two options for how a bituminous sands company can benefit an Indigenous person: give him a job or leave him alone. I found no correlation between which option a person preferred and how involved with industry he or she was. It seemed that rather than these conceptions being based on a rational, technical thought process, informed by a individual’s practical interactions with industry, they were based on a more fundamental, personal value, untouched by the costs and benefits of daily interactions with industry. It was as if getting a job, getting rich, or getting cancer played into a person’s perception less than a personal characteristic of how the individual thinks about the world. The environmental sustainability thinkers might call the immediate sustainability thinkers “sell-outs,” criticizing their acceptance of the wealth created by the destruction of the environment. Similarly, the financial sustainability thinkers might say the long-term sustainability thinkers are living “in the stone ages.”
One of the phrases I heard most from my Indigenous interviewees was “living in the bush,” meaning living simply, traditionally, and with the land. I heard a general understanding that living in the bush was no longer realistic or possible. “You can’t make a living in the bush anymore. It’s a shame,” said one elder interviewee, who remembered not long ago a person could survive off the land for sustenance and money. “We need the jobs, sure, everybody needs a job... There’s no trapping anymore...because of industry. You can’t survive off the bush anymore,” said the interviewee, pointing out that the bituminous sands industry has offered one type of job in exchange for another, more traditional career choice: trapping.
“The money my family raised from trapping ‘rats from March to May was enough for the whole year. Now, I’ll bet you there isn’t a muskrat in the [Peace-Athabasca] Delta,” said one interviewee, remembering the days when the land was the center of the economy. “If I was to try to live out there like my parents did I would not be able to be sustainable because the lack of water, animals, and that saddens me.”
One interviewee described a scenario, expressing the typical interaction between an Indigenous group and industry representative when consulting about development near a cultural site. Typically, the company will either want to build around the sensitive area or relocate it, he explained, but this defeats the purpose because the power lines and roads and workers that a nearby development will bring will disrupt the traditional experience of the land. “[There are] still those old red neck oil companies who just come in, West Texas style, and think they don’t have to consult. Some people do the bare minimum to get their permit. They don’t care about the relationship.” Oil companies often do not understand that a cultural site such as place where medicine grows or a burial site is too sensitive for any development, even indirect.
“How do you weigh the cultural impact?” I would ask. “You can’t,” responded one interviewee. “There’s no measurement... We’ll never get it back. Never. There’s no amount of money that could offset that impact.” None of my interviewees, whether an Indigenous person or industry representative, could put a numerical value on the culture that is being compensated for numerically. The Indigenous folks I talked to differed from the industry folks in that industry had no idea what the culture they were buying off was worth, Indigenous peoples at least knew that the worth could not be measured. They did not suggest that culture had zero or infinite value, but simply that is was impossible to quantify into dollars. Then how should compensation work if not with money? It seemed industry hadn’t any other idea. “Industry is willing to accept that as long as there is an elder in the woods with a young person and there’s a tipi, that’s culture.” Although dollars are currently acting as the metric of culture’s value, no one was confident that the dollar amount being prescribed reflects the value of the “good,” or even that it can be equated to any number value at all. Several Indigenous interviewees said that right now, industry is trying to compensate for loss of culture with gifts of “trinkets.” The cultures of the bituminous sands and the Indigenous peoples of Alberta are mutually unintelligible, for there are not enough dollars to compensate for the loss of a culture, nor enough stories to explain this to industry.
The long road back to Colorado gave me plenty of time to think about what I had just seen and heard. As I drove south, the direction in which bituminous sands oil ultimately flows to refineries in the U.S., I remembered the words of the Chief I met near Fort McMurray. He called the industry a “manifestation of the purely technical,” compared to the purely nontechnical and traditional, exemplified by the Indigenous way of life. I do not know what the essence of the nontechnical, traditional way is, and I have a feeling that one has to actually be an Indigenous person to understand it, but a story I heard on reserve might articulate it as well as contemporary words can attempt. As the story goes, “back in the day,” Indigenous peoples were so pure and connected with nature that they could communicate with plants and animals in ways we now can’t imagine. They had developed such deep connections with the land, that when a man needed wood for a fire, he would not walk around and fetch it himself but would instead summon it from the trees and it would collect in a pile before him. He used an ancient method of communicating his need for fire with the land based on an understanding of mutual benefit by all life in nature.
I believe this story to be true, but I still don’t understand it; I come from the world of the technical, the unsacred, the measurable.