By: *Margot Bergman (Theme 2 & 3: Land & Place/Re-writing Futurities )
This month marks the one year anniversary of the Fort McMurray Wildfire. Another dystopia made real. I feel for the people of Fort McMurray and the hardship they endured during the fire, and in the recovery. My love for the community and the place of Fort McMurray exists in tension with my critiques of the industrial mega projects for oil extraction that sustain this city. I write, think, and research from this place of contradiction.
Environmental movements have drawn upon the fantasy universe of J.R.R. Tolkien's Mordor to describe the landscapes of the oil extraction found north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Oil sands, bituminous sands, tar sands – this oil deposit has many names. Deep open pit mines and large tailings ponds, filled with toxic byproducts of the oil production create the visuals of Sauron's kingdom in real life.
(image credit: Alex MacLean, https://www.desmog.ca/2014/07/02/photos-famed-photographer-alex-maclean-s-new-photos-canada-s-oilsands-are-shocking)
This land is also Treaty 8 land. Home to Cree, Dene and Metis people who have taken care of this land for millenia. The 'discovery' of oil in the tarry sands of the Athabasca River banks, and the subsequent technological 'advancements' that made extracting this oil profitable have radically transformed the landscape of these territories and the ability to sustain life on them.
My family has had a hand in these transformations, both in Fort McMurray, but also in the projects to 'settle' the West more generally. As white, protestant and European my ancestors were given free land under the Homestead Act of 1862. Mirroring their migration West for economic opportunity, my own immediate family migrated to Fort McMurray for the opportunities and economic prosperity possible in the oil industry. Opportunity and prosperity that come as a result of Indigenous displacement and environmental destruction.
Yet, however industrial and destructive, this landscape is not hidden from view for those who live and work here. The summer I worked at one of the mines, the bus that dropped me off and picked me up each day drove past the tailings ponds every single day. Like any industrial space, it is dusty and utilitarian. Located in the vast boreal forests of Northern Alberta, the work site is a stark shift from the dense forests that line the highway north. Yet, it was also normal.
Even as I child I drove by these ponds with my parents for company 'take your kid to work day' events or out to site after the buses stopped running to take my Mom home after she worked late. There are also tourist attractions just outside the sites. 'Giants of Mining' features the massive machinery used to mine the oil out of the ground. As well there are walking trails in the reclaimed areas - a place where there used to be mines but have now been turned into a nature reserve, on which one oil company manages a herd of Wood Bison. School trips to these attractions and family outings with visiting relatives made these landscapes familiar. It is easy to dismiss the significance of the resistance against the tar sands when you know the place so intimately that you become desensitized to its most striking and destructive views. The normalization of the landscape proved to be the basis for this fiction.
(image credit: Alex McLean, https://www.desmog.ca/2014/07/02/photos-famed-photographer-alex-maclean-s-new-photos-canada-s-oilsands-are-shocking)
Instead of Mordor-like moonscapes, you see “overburden” being removed to access the oil. Instead of tailings ponds as threat to wildlife and groundwater, you see scientific advancement, experiments testing the latest innovations in cleaning up the ponds, and eventually a new area to be reclaimed for bison grazing land. Why all the fuss, it’s not like they're hiding it?
When I returned to Fort McMurray and the tailings ponds for the 2014 Healing Walk, led by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation to draw attention to the impacts of the oil industry in the region, I realized just how desensitized I had become. Walking the loop that passes the Syncrude and Suncor sites, elders led ceremonies in the four directions to heal the toxic waters. Walking the 16km loop took hours in the hot sun. I watched as people around me stood next to the ponds and wept. Those who didn't shed tears still fell solemn, and their unease made me question why I was calm and unaffected by the sights. Across the highway from the grassy meadow filled with wildflowers where we stopped for lunch you could hear the air cannons booming, the sound carrying across the tailings ponds to scare birds from landing on the deadly waters.
As the tailings ponds evaporate sand is left behind; leaving wide stretches of land next to the highway looking like a desert, dunes rippled by the wind where once a dense forest stood. It is these sandy stretches and the deep open pit mines that people have described this place as a moonscape, Hiroshima, and Mordor. Visiting celebrities often coin these terms. Many do the flyover tour, to lend their fame to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation or to make an example of the region in the fight against climate change.
The tar sands are at the heart of so many struggles. At the Healing Walk were land defenders, water protectors, and activists from all corners of Turtle Island. People fighting the pipelines needed to move tar sands oil, that threatened their communities. Projects named Keystone XL, and Kinder Morgan's Transmountain and the Northern Gateway pipeline. People who lived next to the refineries that processed this oil told us how their air and water was polluted with impunity. The impacts that tar sands oil had on communities far and wide connected struggles and drew me into the ways in which I had understood this place, and had normalized what the consequences actually were.
What happens to a dystopian landscape when you become used to it? What work is required to re-sensitize you? What futures can be imagined?
Re-encountering my hometown and the industry that sustains it in 2014 shaped how I understood dystopian. It wasn't a near future wasteland devastated by climate change or nuclear war of the novels and movies we all know, but the reality of what is already being destroyed, and more troubling, what is acceptable to be destroyed.
My friends and family back home, who have worked in mining and oil and gas for decades, think I'm too pessimistic. Or more accurately – too unrealistic. When I fail to produce solutions or alternate energy sources out of thin air, I am charged with not 'living in reality'. I am denying the reality of how to fill a gas tank, how to heat a home in the middle of a Northern Albertan winter, or more damning, not being real about how to pay for either of these things.
Not living in the real world is an interesting accusation. The insistence to be realistic references a reality that has a credibility, and to quote the prompt from this theme on dystopia, “credibility has a lineage. It has an epistemology. It has a historicity. And most of all, it requires power to maintain its credibility.” (Cheuk 2017). In essence, we deny some facts to maintain our own fictions. Fictions that keep oil flowing, and as a result have the power of the state and all of its violence behind it. But denying the experiences and realities of those who suffer the consequences of these industries and economies, is to live in another kind of fiction.
Dystopian fiction and films are meant to shock us, meant to forewarn us about the path we have been on for centuries and the destruction it will lead us to. But they also offer futures that can still be re-imagined, futures where the failures of our most vicious systems and structures provide the wisdom and food for building a new, just world. The Healing Walk gave us a glimpse at this future, and a fiction worth fighting for.