Justice Camp: Oil/tarsands by Nathan Lodewyk
Nathan Lodewyk is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, living in Edmonton, Alberta. He studied at The King’s University College where he was a writer and editor for the student newspaper. KAIROS supported Nathan as a young adult representative to the 2014 Anglican Justice Camp: Land , which included a visit to Fort McMurray.
Visiting Fort McMurray is a powerful thing. As anyone living up there will tell you (from all sides of the debate), there’s nothing they hate more than listening to those who’ve never been to northern Alberta. The communities in northern Alberta are protective of themselves, justifiably so, as they perceive themselves to be constantly on the defensive; especially from outsiders.
This being the case, I felt very welcomed by everyone we visited “up north” (as we say here in Alberta), and there was a great amount of openness from our guides and a willingness to speak frankly with the justice camp participants. Everyone I encountered appreciated our visit and the strides justice camp took to fully immerse its participants in the issue. If nothing else, I learned that the hospitality of a northern Albertan is second to none.
We toured through the Athabasca oil/tarsands and a farm just outside of Edmonton (in the controversial “heartland” region of the province), from Sunday, August 17 to Tuesday, August 19. Despite the incredible variety of the trip, I’d like to avoid writing about the specific itinerary of the trip and instead draw broader talking points about the nature of northern development. There were several themes that wove themselves into the fabric of our Fort McMurray trip; two of which stuck out particularly for me, which I will touch upon in this reflection.
The first was the extreme interconnectedness that we all have with the oil/tarsands industry, particularly here in Canada. As our guide from Suncor was happy to point out, we drove to Fort McMurray, and had been using a rented van to travel around the city. Many of the products that we use daily are produced using the end products of oil producers. Investments, pensions, etc. are all often tied in with the oil/tarsands industry in Canada, as oil companies currently represent some of the safest investments in the country. Between the major oil producers and related contracting outfits, the oil/tarsands employ thousands in Canada. Due indirectly to development, the wealth becomes spread throughout the country (and indeed, world) as employees scatter and spend their earnings following their shifts’ end. Even those other things that we purchase and involve ourselves in are reliant upon a transportation network that is built upon fossil fuels. So it becomes impossible to be an “outside voice” on the Canadian oil/tarsands; it – and other industrial developments like it – are at the centre of our society, whether we like it or not.
It was only from the First Nations groups that this narrative was not present. In particular, our conversation with the Mikisew Cree First Nation illustrated the gulf that exists between what may be called the “development” side and theirs. The members of the First Nation, having seen the transition of northern Alberta from boreal forest to industrial site, have a longer perspective of history in northern Alberta. And it was from them that the second main theme of our trip emerged: when you take a step back and really examine development in the Athabasca oil/tarsands, it looks insane. Over the course of 50 years, Canadians have built one of the largest industrial projects in the world with no sign of slowing down. Projects are approved at a blistering pace which, as the residents of Fort McMurray and Fort MacKay will tell you, has put the local communities under a tremendous amount of social stress. And though they see themselves as under a heavy amount of stress, it only appeared to be the First Nations communities who could truly look back and examine our situation in its entirety.
We appear to be stuck in the same trap of the people of Babel; building higher and higher not because we should but because we can. We’ve become so amazed at our own ability to create jobs, to drive wages higher, to fly more and more people across the continent every week that we’ve forgotten to question whether or not we should be doing this.
How, then, can I, as a Christian, address what’s going on in my province? How can I reconcile the different view of history with the fact that my entire lifestyle is dependent on projects like the oil/tarsands? I have lived a life dependent on fossil fuel consumption; in a part of the world that has directly benefited from the Albertan industrial developments. Dependent on the oil/tarsands, do I just hop aboard the story they’re presenting? As a churchgoer, should I adhere to the story being told to us by industry and government in Canada?
These questions were the ones that kept me up the night after we returned from Fort McMurray, because I honestly do not know how to answer them. If you remove the story presented by industry, by government, then there’s no story.