BY: CONNOR BRIAN
The first thing I noticed was the heavy taste of sulphur on my tongue. As the twin-engine plane jerked up and down, my eyes ranged across the black vastness of the Athabasca Oil Sands, and I thought to myself that the devil must have surely been smiling. A journalist and I were covering a story on The Northern Gateway, and I could not understand how people could live among a once-thriving landscape rendered alien by environmental devastation. Even flying 1,000 metres above the tar-like bitumen, the chemical smell swallowed the cockpit.
According to the Economic and Social Research Council, oil sands operators used what amounts to the residential water use of 1.7 million Canadians in 2011, with the majority of that water being pumped from the Athabasca River.
Now comes the moment of regretful understanding. The people of Fort McKay were trading the basis of existence for the promise of wealth.
The bitumen-to-water ratio is 2.5 barrels of fresh water to one extracted and upgraded barrel of bitumen. This statistic is partially metaphorical; our priorities are out of balance.
Aaron Vincent Elkaim witnessed firsthand how a Native community, surrounded by the largest industrial operation in the world, struggles to maintain its cultural identity while living off polluted land. Though Fort Mckay has leased its land to the oil industry for over 25 years, under the mutual agreement the Moose Lake reserve was to remain untouched. Now, The Dover Project stands to sacrifice the sacred place in the name of progress.
History, culture, and land are the foundations of human identity. They are all inherently intertwined, which is why, “When they ask, ‘Who am I?’, they look to the ground.”
Sleeping With The Devil is an examination of a community economically prospering while simultaneously being environmentally exploited.
You titled this series “Sleeping With The Devil.” Does this imply that Fort Mckay First Nations sold their soul for a lucrative business deal?
One night, I was having a few beers with a community member who had worked as an electrician for Suncor and the other oil companies most of his life. He was now retired, and spoke lots about the impacts of the industry on the wildlife and land. He found himself going back and forth between stories of glory on the job site and hunting stories. Then he simply said it. “Sometimes you have to sleep with the devil,” and it just clicked for me. Before then, I didn’t really know how I was thinking about the story.
For me, it’s a powerful symbol, the Faustian bargain, and I think it applies to the world at large. We all want a strong economy; people need jobs to provide for their families, it’s always the number one priority at election time. Yet the consequences of capitalism on the global ecosystem have never been more apparent. Climate Change, ocean acidification, overfishing, clear-cutting, coal mining, hydroelectric, the list goes on and on. We know we are destroying the earth, and we love the earth, it is our home, our provider, our mother, and our future. But we continue because we need to provide for our families, the ones who will inherit the earth.
I think it’s important to recognize the devil we are dealing with, though, and see the foundations of our economy for what they truly are: material. Much of what drives the economy has little value to the human purpose; it exists to feed our egos and entertain, not to satisfy our needs or souls. The economy is based on growth, consumerism, and greed, not sustainability. I think this story hints at that reality. Something deeply human is being lost to something temporary and material.
Overall, I have struggled with this title. I can see how it comes off as judgmental, but I hope the work doesn’t come across that way; the spirit of the project honours, first and foremost.
Rather than fall into a welfare economy that plagues reserves across Canada, Fort McKay chose to work with the oil industry, and with that came economic prosperity. Yet with loss of historic values, spirituality, and culture, do the people you met say it was worth it?
It’s not a question of “worth it.” The industry exists regardless of their choices as a community. Their actions didn’t create the consequences; all they’ve done is reap the economic benefits of living within a large and prospering industry. Unfortunately, the environmental consequences of this industry clash with their historic values, spirituality, and culture. I think the question is really an individual one. Each person must deal with his or her own conscience. Some people are better at dealing with that inner conflict than others.
Though they have worked with the industry for over 25 years under the mutual agreement that the Moose Lake reserve would remain untouched, The Dover Project now stands to sacrifice the sacred site. Athabasca Oil Corp just completed its sale of the Dover Project to Petro China at the end of August. Does this represent a reality check on the priority of Oil Interests over the First Nations agenda?
I don’t think there was ever a specific agreement to leave Moose Lake untouched. The land around it has been leased for a long time. It’s just that it is far enough away that it has taken a while to get to it. Maybe some community members felt that it was protected, but I’m pretty sure that was never the case. I personally believe that the government priority is on development, not First Nations rights. Fort McKay settled out of court with Athabasca Oil Corp and Petro China and there were concessions, although the full nature of the deal has not been disclosed. But I imagine that Fort McKay felt they would maybe lose the court battle, so they decided to compromise.
When I stepped into Fort McKay, the first thing I noticed was the burning smell of tar in the air. How did you find the air quality? How does this affect the people who live there?
The air was worse on some days than it was on others, depending on the wind. But yes, it was not nice. Then there is the water issue. While I was there, the people were warned not to drink their tap water even though they had a modern treatment plant. There were high levels of dangerous chemicals resulting from the chlorination process. Apparently, they had been documented by Environment Canada for over a decade without the community ever being told. When they found out, they immediately began delivering bottled water, and were told not to shower for too long or in hot water. People had realized they had been drinking and bathing in toxic water for over a decade. People got skin rashes from the water; I even began to develop them during my time there. Scary stuff. When people are dying of cancer and women are having miscarriages, they can’t help but think there is a connection. Imagine how that would affect your mind.
The Regulatory Panel for the Dover Project concluded that Fort McKay members will be able to carry out their traditional activities in other parts of their territory, and that the project will not negate their ability to do so. After experiencing the life on the polluted land of Fort McKay, is this truthful?
Hard to say. The Dover Project is an in situ project, meaning the oil will be melted underground and pumped out. The mines surrounding Fort McKay are strip mines, so the earth and forest is cleared. They are very different. I think the consequences of in situ will become more apparent in time. If it pollutes the lakes, which Dover claims it will not, then it will pose a huge problem. But the truth of the matter is that when you’re at Moose Lake now, you are in the wilderness in every way. No sounds or sights of the modern world are around you. This will no longer be the case.
Are people scared to swim downstream from the projects? Are primary hunting species like moose being tainted?
Yes and yes. The River is no longer for swimming. I think they are allowed to eat one fish a week, maybe? The moose eat and drink from a polluted habitat and it impacts the quality of their meat. If they eat from this habitat, they are consuming toxins.
Does oil extraction affect us all?
Of course it does. Firstly, the government has invested our economy in an unbalanced way into this industry, so, economically speaking, the entire country is now tied to it. Climate change also affects us all, and the oil sands are a huge contributor to global emissions. But does environmental destruction affect us all? Not necessarily. Most of us live in cities far away from the destruction. We aren’t confronted with it. The government does a good job of hiding the destruction behind mountains and in remote places. Only when it’s on our front step do we generally react. But some people have values that encompass the world. They care about more than just their immediate surroundings or pocketbooks, and they know that what is happening isn’t good.
Does tradition have to be sacrificed in the name of progress?
When traditional values conflict with the modern reality, I don’t see how that can’t be the case. If they could be brought into balance, then maybe we could have both. That is the true issue. Things are way out of balance.
Do we need to redefine our conception of progress?
Absolutely. Our system is clearly unsustainable. The idea that the economy is based on constant growth is insane. It’s ironic to me that the world’s worst disease, cancer, is a disease of growth until death. This is like our economy. We feed it through our resources that come at the expense of the health of our planet.
Ecosystems have no economic value in our system. This is totally out of line with reality. When you look at a traditional community like Fort McKay, their entire economy was once based on a healthy ecosystem. We have completely disregarded that perception with one that is based in mathematical fantasy. We judge progress through GDP; if it grows, everything is fine. But GDP grows when terrible things happen—when we are sick and spend money on health care, when companies spend billions to clean up an oil spill, when a hurricane wipes out a city and money is spent on reconstruction, these all boost GDP. We look at things so one-dimensionally that we are walking around blind. We see progress as a line, but the world and the human experience are so much more complex than that.