Exploring the Oil Sands: A Class Trip
by JeremiahÂ BaĹˇuric
Many Aboriginals criticise the Euro-Canadian system of education, saying that such a system further distances students from their environment and diminishes the form of learning through direct observation and experience. Indeed, the 2012 Fall Semesterâ€™s Special Topics Course on the Alberta Oilsands attempted to engage the complex and convoluted issue of the oilsands from an isolated classroom in the Kingâ€™s University College. In an attempt to push the bounds of the educational system (as is the habit of this little university), Professor John Hiemstra and the class organized a field trip to the very place they had been learning about. At approximately 7:00 in the morning the eight of us, layered with the necessities of an overnightâ€™s visit, boarded a 15 passenger van heading first for MEG Energy. MEG Energy is a very successful SAGD in-situ (that is, oil extraction without ugly open-pit mining) operation outside of Conklin, Alberta.
We all knew that the oilsands create employment for Albertans, Canadians and temporary foreign workers. Stepping into MEG Energy, however, exposed the individuals and families behind those jobs. After a generous helping of shepherds’ pie, a succinct PowerPoint presentation and the arduous task of gearing up, we were given a grand tour. Most impactful for me was our conversations with our guides while riding in the company trucks. These employees truly loved working here. It was like a family and they considered it to be the best place they had ever worked. Unlike what may have been expected, the company was not all about the bottom-line or hard and fast economic growth. We even criticised that line of thinking together.
Hopping back upon that infamous Highway 63, we made our way to the city of Fort McMurray. While we had heard of the traffic congestion in the city, we were still unprepared for it as we crept along to our destination at a snail-like pace. After a long haul, we finally reached our destination: the Evergreen Christian Reformed Church. Here was to be our abode for the night and, conveniently, our next learning experience would meet us there. Two graduates from Kingâ€™s came to the church to discuss the social aspects of the oilsands. One represented the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo while the other represented the Christian Labour Association of Canada. Again both of them loved to live in Fort McMurray. This was evident as the representative from Wood Buffalo unveiled a sneak peak into some of the new ideas for revitalizing the city, especially the downtown. One exciting idea was the goal of zero waste between the city and oilsands development. They were looking into ways Fort McMurray could utilize excess energy made in oilsands development. One of their challenges is the transient nature of the residents of Fort McMurray. It is their hope to make Fort McMurray a place people desire to build a home and family. The both of them did not engage with the issue of the oilsands uncritically, but were passionate about preserving the people connected to development. One piece that did seem to be lacking was initiatives and ideas for other communities in the region of Wood Buffalo.
After a quiet night at the church, we were picked up in a little shuttle bus which would take us to our next stop: the Suncor Oilsands Operation. We were entering the heart of the oilsands. Stopping at an office just outside of the city, we were entertained by our tour guide and a few unexpected guests. Together we turned east off the highway and were entranced upon the horizon which held a figure of civilization â€“ a portrait of steel and smoke â€“ a contrast to the empty white of the natural landscape. Entering upon this figure, one is first taken aback by the size of the operation. We noticed the huge towers used to process the bitumen and the intricate design of pipes which stretched even across the river. As we also crossed the river, a certain disappointment crept in as we realized that the snow veiled the vastness of the place, and we were only able to see so a glimpse of Suncorâ€™s reality. We could not see the tailings ponds and the mining operation was barley visible from the point we had stopped to overlook. The monster-size of the famous mining trucks was not noticed until regular trucks, like toy cars, drove beside and between them on the road below our lookout. We ended the tour by looking at Suncorâ€™s reclaimed area just outside the main operations. Although it was still bare and white, nothing like it once was, it was still a proud achievement for the company.
After having a sandwich, courtesy of Suncor, we just had enough time to be hosted by Mikisew Cree First Nation Government Industry Relations back in Fort McMurray. This is one of the First Nations directly affected by the oilsands. As an Environmental Studies Student, I had the privilege of doing my required Internship with the Government Industry Relations department the previous summer. Instead of a standard PowerPoint presentation and one-liners we had encountered earlier in the trip, Mikisew hosted a natural and organic conversation. We experienced their perspective and also that recurrent tension found in the oilsands, specifically between preserving their traditional way of life and economic benefits. This tension is intensified by their concern that their voices and rights are not sufficiently considered by both government and industry. We left the conversation changed as another perspective was added to our understanding of the oilsands.
Dr. Hiemstraâ€™s Oilsands course was first a fly-over the oilsands looking at all these different perspectives – economic, social, environmental, political, Aboriginal â€“ and discerning the tension and conflict each area produces within itself and between the others. Following this, was a stepping back from the issues in critical engagement and to investigate the reasons why we are so obsessed with oilsands. It has been a challenging class and our direct experience with the oilsands through this field trip has further spurred in us a desire to learn even more, to graciously engage others from different perspectives, to unveil and newly direct idolatries, to find a new vision to articulate and decide on the public good, and to draw upon our own narrative and ultimate faith commitment for guidance amidst the tensions and conflicts of competing interests. It is Christ who compels us to follow him faithfully in the context of the oilsands.