Sleeping with the Devil

Aaron Vincent Elkaim

2011 - 2013

History, land, culture, and spirituality, these are the foundations of human identity. For indigenous people their history lies beneath their feet, where evidence left by their ancestors hundreds if not thousands of years ago remains. When they ask, “who am I” they look to the ground, the waters, and the forest around them; the land is their ancestral home, and within it their creator resides.

In Northern Alberta the ecological wealth of the Athabasca River provided for Native tribes long before European Colonization. Since 1778 the Athabasca was part of the main fur trade route from the Mackenzie River to the Great Lakes employing local Natives as fur Trappers. Today, the Hudson’s Bay Company is only a memory, replaced by the likes of Syncrude, Total, Shell, Imperial Oil and Suncor, formerly the Great Canadian Oil Sands, which on June 6, 1970, spilled 19,000 barrels of oil from a ruptured pipeline

into the river. 30km downstream the Cree, Dene and Metis people of Fort McKay fished to feed their


Oil has transformed this region of the Athabasca. Fort McKay First Nation resides 65 km north of

Fort McMurray and is surrounded by Oilsands development, collectively the largest industrial operation in

the world. With the collapse of the fur trade and a growing inability to live off the polluted land Fort

McKay had a choice. Work for the oil companies, or fall into a welfare economy that plagues reserves

across Canada. They chose the jobs and with them came an economic prosperity and government independence rare for First Nations communities.

My project Sleeping with the Devil examines the impacts of this transition on the community of Fort

McKay. Prospering within a system that is destroying their land, they struggle to maintain an identity that is becoming increasingly threatened as their historic values, spirituality and culture are traded for a standard of living most Canadians take for granted.

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  • September 2013- Garnet Ahyasou stands by Buffalo lake on Fort McKay's Moose Lake reserve 50km west of Fort McKay First Nation, in Northern Alberta. Suncor Energy provides free flights to members of the band to their historic hunting grounds each summer to practice their traditional ways, but a proposed development called the Dover Project that will boarder Moose Lake is threatening the health of the land and water. McKay is fighting the government in the courts for a 20km buffer zone around the reserve which is the last place they have that remains healthy.

  • February 2012- Sled Dogs are seen before a race during the Winter Carnival in Fort Chipewyan, a First Nation community north of Fort McKay on lake Althabasca that is dealing with many downstream pollution issues from the Oil Sands. Both communities are very closely related, "Chip" is often refereed to as "Gods Country" and when the winter roads open it serves as a common weekend getaway for members of Fort McKay.

  • July 2013- Alcohol, substance abuse and mental health issues plague many First Nations communities across Canada. Although Fort McKay enjoys a high standard living rare amongst Native Reserves, they remains plagued by these issues. Irene Piqutte-Martin is among those that suffer.

  • July 2013- Mark John L'Hommecourt embraces Amanda Grandjambe while bathing in a creek off of the Athabasca River near the historic Poplar Point Reserve, where Mark spends his time in the "Bush" away from Fort McKay. Grandjambe who speaks her native Cree language has recently been diagnosed with Cancer which seem to be occurring at abnormally high levels within the community.

  • February 2012- A water truck gets stuck in a driveway in Fort McKay. Since november 2011, water has been delivered to each and every home in Fort McKay after the community realized they had been drinking water with high levels of carcinogenic chemicals since 1994. Health Canada who had been doing the testing failed to notify the community that the levels had been consistently over guidelines.

  • February 2012- Overburden, an industry term for the natural material that lies above an area of economic interest, is burned at night on the TOTAL lease near Fort McKay First Nation, Alberta. Here strip mining will take place, where they first clear the forest, then proceed to dig up the earth containing the bitumen laced sand. Four months earlier the area was boreal forest with many trails used by the First Nations of Fort McKay.

  • December 2011- A deer sits half skinned on the L'Hommecourt trapline located next to Imperial Oil's Kearl Oil Sands project. Traplines are partitions of land allocated to individuals and passed down through families for hunting and trapping. Most have cabins and often serve as family getaways into the bush. Many of the regions traplines have been excavated or disturbed by the Oil Sands industry with the title holders often receiving compensations for the use of the land.

  • February 2012- Suncor Energy, formerly the Great Canadian OilSands CO., was the first oil sands development and is the second largest operation. Situated directly next to the Athabasca River it employs strip mining, where the forest or "overburden" is cleared, then the earth is shovelled and processed with large amounts of water heated with natural gas to separate the oily bitumen from the sand.

  • James Grandjambe, the oldest elder in Fort McKay, celebrates his 92 birthday with friends and family in the Fort McKay Band Hall. One year later on his 93rd Birthday, his grandson Oren died after battling cancer for two years.

  • January 2012- 74 year old elder Wilfred Grandjambe is seen at his home in Fort McKay First Nation. As a hunter who grew up on the land, Grandjambe is very aware of the negative impacts the Oil Sands have had on the environment, animals and his culture. Yet with industry as the only employer in the area he understands the catch 22 his community is facing and has himself worked for both Sycrude and Suncor the two largest Oil Sands operations.

  • January 2012- Yvonne L'Hommecourt rests at a cabin at Poplar Point Reserve, between Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan where she spent summers as a child and her father is buried. Yvonne spends much of her free time out on the land and works hauling tar sand as a truck driver for Suncor Energy.

  • September 2013- Joely Grandjambe, 3, looks at a catch of White Fish and Pickerel that were netted at Moose Lake Reserve. Moose Lake is the only hunting ground left for the Fort McKay First Nation that is still pristine, but a proposed development called the Dover Project that will boarder Moose Lake is threatening the health of the land and water.

  • March 2013- People from all around the region come to Fort Chipewyan each year for their fishing derby on the Lake Athabasca. Fort Chipewyan is one of the oldest settlement in Western Canada and the northern most reserve in Alberta. The prizes this year were $5000, a boat and motor and an ATV donated by the oil company Suncor Energy. Many local residents who depend on fish for food complain that they can no longer eat the fish from the lake due to worries of contamination from the oil sands industry upriver.

  • March 2013- A log book with stories from visitors at Poplar Point Reserve. Poplar Point is a historic meeting place for First Nations along the Athabasca River between Fort McKay and the more northern reserve of Fort Chipewyan. Today it has a few cabins and serves as a place to practice traditional hunting and foraging away from the industrial landscape now surrounding Fort McKay.

  • July 2013- Scarecrows called "Bitumen" and propane canons are used to scare away migratory birds so they don't land in a tailings pond owned by Suncor Energy.
    The Canadian oil sands operations use 349 million cubic metres of water per year, twice the amount of water used by the city of Calgary. Most of this ends up in massive tailings ponds that constantly leach toxins into the nearby Athabasca river.