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Irving Refinery Blues
Please forgive me-- this may end up seeming like a rant in places, for I simply must get some things off my chest. I hope my prediction that it will make sense by the end is true.
I am a strong proponent of the idea that hitchhiking is simply one of the greatest forms of grassroots journalism. When you enter a new place, the odds are quite high that you are traveling with a local. If this is the case, then you will become immediately armed with “insider” information to which there is little match. The sorts of things I am often lucky to learn, in any case, would certainly not be told in any tourist information booth.
I woke up today in Riviere Du Loup, in Eastern Québec. I made a cold instant coffee and ate some granola bars before wandering across the highway to seek rides further East. I managed three rides fairly easily, each of them pleasant and warm, no hassles and even interesting tangents of separate activity here and there. But what I need to rant about was the ranting of my last ride of the day, a man named Doug who picked me up when I was but one ride from here-- Saint John, New Brunswick.
I write from the inner (ie you need an event or staff pass to get here) cafe & main networking area. And I'm smoking. Inside. Because it's international territory. Actually, there are prominent no smoking signs all over the place. A large sign reads "The United Nations General Assembly has decided to implement a complete ban on smoking at United Nations Headquarters indoor premises." And yet, dozens of people - including UN staff - are smoking away, all day. Could there be an incredibly amusing parallel between the lack of implementation of the indoor smoking ban and the role of the UN in the world?
Along with a growing multitude of people, many of the 2000+ indigenous delegates are increasingly critical of the corporatization of the United Nations and its affiliate bodies. Although we all enjoyed the free wine and music.
It has been amazing to run into people from last year's Longest Walk 2, the Protecting Mother Earth conference, and to meet new people(s) attending the forum. The conversations range from Canadian Assembly of First Nations representatives traveling to Latin America to promote mining in indigenous communities to the ongoing State of Emergency in Porgera, Papua New Guinea, to the Mapuche flag, to journalism in Africa, and everything in between... There are dozens of parallel and alternative events occurring both on and offsite.
An interview with Celina Harpe, an elder in the Cree community of Fort Mackay, downstream from Suncor and Syncrude strip mines and tar sands extraction plants near Fort McMurray.
For those who prefer YouTube, there's a shorter version there.
Photos from an overflight of the tar sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Notes from the Tar Pits:
Flying Above an Open Pit Graveyard
Macdonald Stainsby // June 15, 2007
The plane cleared the tarmac and into the air we went, with a warning that the flight was going to have to go a little bit to the east of the usual, as the forest fires were too heavy. But the plume of white obfuscation that rose more than all the others was Suncor’s, with 2nd through 6th place going to Syncrude, CNRL, Albian/Shell, Total and (off in the distance) Petro Canada. It was completely impossible to spot any difference between the forest fires and the plumes of death-toxins breaking up into the atmosphere.
The giant tailings lakes are a sight to behold. The one near Syncrude, as I discovered from our pilot, is among the largest human made dams in the entire world. Though, I’m getting “biggest” fatigue; Every time I learn a new angle on how this is operating, it’s about the “biggest”. As a gentleman who drove us out of Fort MacKay said the other day: “If it’s the biggest in the world, it’s here,” and he was making zero reference to anything in particular.
Along with the largest craters in the world, deep pits of black sided land, being munched away, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and through every holiday are the highways being constructed. While people living downstream in Fort Chipewyan have unsafe running water in their homes and are a seasonal fly-in community, the roads to “projects” are as relentlessly constructed as the tar is pulled out of the earth. There are full private highways, and when it’s time to pull the tar from under the highway, they simply move it and build another one. Oil is still oil, after all (even when it is tar and synthetic/mock).
The entire day was slow-going and lazy. We had wandered around the town commenting surreptitiously on ‘Fort McMurray-isms’—that is, various opinions we’ve come to form in the last couple of days. For example, just before skipping town, we’d parked ourselves outside of Zellers, under a sign that read ‘No loitering, No Littering, No Spitting,’ and cooked ourselves some noodles on Macdonald’s camp stove. Most of the stores in that particular strip mall complex were closed, and Dru wondered aloud at how many cars there still were in the parking lot, which was close to full.
Courtesy of Google, some satellite images of the strip mining of tar sands near Fort McMurray. The large gray areas are tailing ponds.
Explore for yourself, starting here.
1. Syncrude's bitumen processing plant is not accessible, though it is visible from the highway. Apparently, there are plans to move the highway so that the road past Syncrude will be a private road.
Top: patrons at the "Oil Can". Above: not under the same roof; a clandestine camper between a fence and a highway, and a syncrude-sponsored tent where hot tubs are sold
Today, we received our first real Fort McMurray experience: after two nights, the roommates of the one person we know in town decided that they didn't want us sleeping on their floor anymore. We now face what anyone coming to town or working a job that pays less than $100k/year faces: housing. It's not so bad, as we had planned to camp anyway, but even finding a spot to pitch a tent will be challenging.
We had a brief conversation with Flex Turner, a twenty-five year resident of Fort McMurray, Syncrude employee, and soup kitchen volunteer.
Turner said that since the kitchen where he volunteers started 13 years ago, he has "seen the numbers explode" every year. In addition to the city's homeless population, which he estimates at around 500, the church-based kitchen serves the working poor--mainly those "at McDonald's," cleaning jobs and the hotel industry--and welfare recipients. Once people pay their rent, he said, "there's not a lot left over for food."
Campers in the Abasands Heights neighbourhood. A small bungalow here can sell for $400,000, it's said, and thousands of workers are living in trucks, vans, tents and corporate-run camps.
Quad tracks on a local trail.
Trucks bring in new equipment daily.
When you're traveling to Fort McMurray, Alberta--five hours north of Edmonton--people assume you're going there to work. The average income here is around $90,000/year. Presented with "we're going just to find out what's going on," people are baffled. The northern city is known for being an expensive, rough place with nothing to do, too much traffic and a lack of services.
So why are people coming up here by the thousands?
The Globe and Mail is reporting that Canadian CEOs want "to import temporary Mexican energy workers" to Alberta.
Nothing like cheap labour for a project making CEOs millions.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.