As long as the sun shines

Ian Willms

2010 - Ongoing

Alberta, Canada

Nowhere today is Canada’s settler-colonialist legacy more evident than in the relationship between industry and Indigenous leadership. In 1899, Treaty 8 was signed by the Queen of England and 39 Indigenous First Nations in northern Alberta, Canada. The signing chiefs were assured that their land, culture and traditional means of survival would be preserved and respected for “as long the sun shines.” Their traditional hunter-gatherer heritage and a deep spiritual connection to nature, means that the health of Indigenous Peoples is intrinsically linked to the health of their land.

At that time, the Canadian government was already systematically kidnapping Indigenous children and forcing them to attend Residential Schools where the goal was to “kill the Indian within the child.” Generations of youth were subjected to torture, neglect and sexual abuse. Tens of thousands perished in the sub-human conditions. That legacy has left nearly all of the Indigenous communities in Canada crippled by a long list of deep-seated social issues.

Today, the Canadian government is leasing out 141,000 square kilometres of Indigenous territory to the world's leading energy corporations in order to develop Canada's Oil Sands. The Oil Sands are the third largest proven oil deposits on Earth. Dump trucks the size of apartment buildings haul loads of blackened sand to sprawling industrial facilities that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Electric swing shovels carve away the frontier, one enormous bite at a time, leaving behind a blanched wasteland of toxic lakes and stripped Earth.

In Fort McMurray, the booming oil economy has drawn dreamers from around the world, seeking a quick fortune in the mines. The area experienced a period of unprecedented growth, which gave birth to a freewheeling period of million-dollar homes and customized pickup trucks. More recently, a crippling collapse of oil prices has left many residents of Fort McMurray reeling in a time when mass layoffs and uncertainty are the new normal. In May 2016, a devastating wildfire, exacerbated by climate change, swept through the city, burning down 2400 buildings and 90,000 people homeless.

The Indigenous communities surrounding the oil sands are no longer able to sustain themselves off the land that previously nurtured their lives for thousands of years. As recently as forty years ago, hunters would not think twice about dipping their cups directly into Lake Athabasca when they were thirsty. Today, even the treated tap water in Fort McKay has been deemed unfit for human consumption. Over the last decade, First Nations leadership have been sounding alarms about the connection between oil development and rising rates of cancer, birth defects and other health problems in their communities. The traditional economies of hunting, fishing and fur trading have been decimated by unfettered industrial development, leaving the oil industry as the only employer available to most indigenous peoples in the region. For many, this means making a bitter compromise between one’s cultural heritage and short-term survival. If you listen closely around the kitchen tables of Fort Chipewyan, you will hear the stories of old wounds compounded by something unseen, yet real: “a slow-motion, cultural genocide.”

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  • The kitchen table of a fur trapper's cabin, at Big Point, the Métis territory near Fort Chipewyan. Fur trapping used to be the primary economy of the Cree, Dene and Métis peoples of northern Alberta. Today, the oil sands industry is the main employer.

  • Joey Fraser hunts for ducks at Big Point, near Fort Chipewyan. Recent independent and industry-funded scientific studies have revealed that traditional food sources like fish and wild game are becoming contaminated by industrial pollution. Despite these findings, many still rely on hunting and fishing for survival.

  • A water intake pipeline runs from the Athabasca River in 2014. The Canadian National Resources Limited oil sands plant is seen on the horizon. The oil sands industry consumes three barrels of fresh water for every one barrel of oil produced.

  • Commercial fisherman Raymond Ladouceur throws a whitefish to his sled dogs, in Fort Chipewyan, in 2010. After decades of commercial fishing on Lake Athabasca, the fish caught there are no longer fit for human consumption due to industrial pollution.

  • An industry cut line through the Boreal Forest leads to an industrial glow on the horizon, near a Shall oil sands development, north of Fort McMurray, 2012. Cut lines like these are common and cause widespread disruptions to the natural order of the forest. The caribou herds which migrated through northern Alberta for thousands of years no longer enter the province.

  • Chelsea and Wade say goodbye to their infant daughter, during her wake, in Fort McKay, in 2012. Chelsea suffered a miscarriage five months into her pregnancy. Cancer, stillbirths, miscarriages and other serious health problems are prevalent in Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan. Healthcare professionals have been sounding alarms over pollution levels and calling for an in-depth health study for many years.

  • Seven-year-old Dez, plays in his room, in Fort McKay, in 2015. Dez was born with an underdeveloped heart and has received multiple open heart surgeries. His family and healthcare professionals in Fort McKay believe that his condition was caused by environmental pollution. The community of Fort McKay is surrounded by oil sands developments.

  • Pat and Bill hold their grandson Austin at the "Giants of Mining" tourist attraction, north of Fort McMurray, in 2014. Austin's father works in the oil sands industry to support the family.

  • Jason sorts through the burned remains of his home, in the Saprae Creek suburb of Fort McMurray, after the wildfire of 2016, which destroyed 2400 structures and forced the evacuation of over 90,000 people.

  • Sisters Makenna (L), 7, and Mia, 3, play around their parents' custom truck, in Fort McMurray, in 2014. The vehicle is custom-made by International truck company. Even the tires are custom. Their parents first came to Fort McMurray over a decade ago with hardly any money. Today, they run a successful welding and machining business.

  • The shuttered Indian Residential School, in Fort Chipewyan, in 2010. Until 1996, the Canadian government facilitated a national network of boarding schools, which were designed to "kill the Indian within the child." Generations of children were subjected to physical torture, sexual abuse and mortal neglect at the hands of the the Catholic priests and nuns who ran the schools. The scars of this legacy are still very visible within Indigenous communities across Canada.

  • Wildfire crews search for hotspots, in a burned-out forested area, north of Fort McMurray in 2016. The wildfire, exacerbated by climate change, destroyed 2400 homes in the area and forced over 90,000 to evacuate.

  • A aged family photograph on an elder fur trapper's cabin, near Fort Chipewyan, in 2011. As elders die, the traditional knowledge and culture of past generations dies with them.

  • A scarecrow is seen on a decommissioned tailings pond along highway 63, with the main Syncrude plant in the background. Scarecrows, fake birds of prey and automated propane canons are used to deter migratory birds from landing and becoming oiled in tailings ponds.

  • A security guard and a drunk man outside of the Boomtown Casino in downtown Fort McMurray, in 2014. Many residents of Fort Chipewyan and Fort McKay who fall victim to substance abuse end up living on the streets of Fort McMurray.

  • Nadia Bouchier looks out upon a swath of her peoples' traditional hunting territory, now intersected by an industry road and surrounded by lights from oil sands operations. When Nadia was a girl, her family hunted and camped in this area freely. Now she needs to ask permission from Shell oil security guards in order to even visit the place.

  • Nadia Bouchier hugs her son Dylan on a Saturday afternoon in Fort McKay. The Fort McKay First Nation's settlement is located in the middle of numerous oil sands developments. The community is plagued by various forms of pollution and unusually high incidences of certian health problems, such as cancer and miscarriages.

  • A Syncrude tailings pond is seen from the air, north of Fort McMurray, in 2015. The oil sands tailings ponds are some of the largest human-made lakes on Earth. They contain a mixture of heavy metals and hydrocarbons from the oil separation process.

  • Ashley Kowalewski smokes a cigarette after putting her daughter to bed in Fort McMurray, in 2014. Ashley left Fort McMurray in 2015 in search of new opportunities and a better future for her daughter. In 2016, her former rented apartment burned down in the Fort McMurray wildfire.

  • Burned properties in the Waterways neighbourhood of Fort McMurray. In 2016, a massive wildfire tore through Fort McMurray, overwhelming emergency responders and destroying approximately 2400 structures. The entire city was evacuated, leaving 90,000 temporarily homeless. The fire, which came unusually early in the season, I said to have been exacerbated by climate change.