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Forts McMurray and Mackay: Tar Sands Stink

June 14, 2007

Forts McMurray and Mackay: Tar Sands Stink

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. “It’s ‘cause they run out of space in their driveways,” Macdonald said, smiling. Indeed, there is no shortage of vehicles here, where a car (a truck) is a much more considerable acquisition, than, say, an apartment, or a house, the prices of which really are hard to justify.

Strangely, it took no time at all for the three of us to get a ride out of town, to Fort McKay, at eight at night. (I can’t help expecting it to take longer in situations where three people are involved, and where the vehicles in question do not necessarily radiate the ‘hippiest’ of sensibilities). There were two men in the truck. Both had very imposing, yet somehow un-intrusive presences, probably due to the fact that they were side-splittingly funny as a pair. The one in the passenger seat was extremely intoxicated. The driver was large and burly, bald and loud. When he found out that we hailed from Montreal, he decided to love us and boasted of his Montreal upbringing. It turned out he is a dispatcher and is responsible for making sure that buses full of oil rig employees get to and from their proper destinations on time. As a result he knows a lot about the sands and pointed out for us most of what could be seen from highway 63 (a road notorious for its high level of mortality; he said it was the worst in the world due to all the drugged and drunken driving): the Syncrude and Suncor plants, a work camp consisting of row upon row of identical trailers, and ‘heavy haulers,’ giant trucks the size of which I can barely fathom, which he insisted were the ‘smallest kind.’ He was a broadcaster of information, but what marked him from others was his way of punctuating his data with brief but poignant comments about the “absolute devastation” that the project has wreaked. We would have gleaned more information from him if it hadn’t been for his counterpart’s lewd sexual remarks consistently driving him to distraction: at one point he went so far as to slam on his brakes and threatened to throw his friend from the truck. The drunk man however, failed to take him seriously. Every five minutes or so, he would declare his love for our booming host and have his declaration returned.

Finally we got to Fort McKay, a Cree community surrounded by tar sands mining. It is a no-service town, that is to say, there are no stores, just houses. All the while our driver warned that we were heading to some ridiculously isolated place, with no proper mode of return, and that there was really no reason at all to go there. When we got there, we camped not far from the road by a polluted tributary of the Athabasca. Dru wanted to stick his hand in the water but Macdonald reminded him that “there’s a reason people here are dying of cancer.” In a perfect world I would have stripped and jumped in, before you could say ‘tar baby.’ We realized we were out of water and knocked on somebody’s door to ask if they could refill our bottles. The woman inside judiciously complied, while her ten-year old talked to us outside. He pointed out his dirt bike, but when Dru asked if he rode the trails, he said he didn’t, because they were all torn up by quads. Back at our camp, it was beautiful to finally camp outside and build a fire but the mosquitoes were a force impossible to reckon with, and distracted me, no matter how I strove to be equanimous. Macdonald pointed out that at the very least, they are a sign of life and Dru jokingly called them “the last line of defense against the tar sands project.”
The following day, we explored, said ‘hi’ to some people on the road, and tried to get in touch with some people that Macdonald knows. When this didn’t pan out, we decided to pack up, hitch the 65 km or so back to Fort McMurray along the infamous 63, stopping frequently (even if this meant getting many different rides) to document the tar sands plants and the sprawling wasteland that they leave behind.

Our first ride, a serious, sun-tanned sort was obviously opposed to much about the tar sands operation, but for reasons of self-protection, refused to speak openly on the matter, let alone allow us to take his picture. He dropped us off at the gates of Syncrude (so aptly named, I continue to think), and, after stashing our bags, the three of us ‘discretely’ began to photograph and videotape our surroundings: large machinery, the Syncrude refinery behind a gate, and the smog-filled sky. The toxic, cutting smell of emissions was hard to take. I soon felt disoriented and had a headache. Thanks to subsequent rides who will remain unnamed, we managed to get to get decent footage on a couple of different sites, and briefly in a worker’s camp. Our access was very limited, however, as security becomes increasingly stringent the further you travel within the sites.

Talking to workers on another site revealed the issue of foreign labour, mostly from China, being brought in to work under horrible conditions for a fraction of the pay; many of them do not speak English. Another ride we had informed us that the portion of highway 63 that goes past Syncrude is going to be moved, so that their operation will no longer be visible to passersby. He also told us that years ago, they moved the entire highway over to get at the oil underneath it. The more time that passes, the more aware I become of the multi-faceted nature of the problem that this project has created, and continues to create. It goes beyond the land, to people, and vice versa. To separate the two is a common mistake, and I would say, the ultimate one, but people continue to invest in the hyperbole of self-interest, thus extending the breach.


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