23 March 2017
23 March 2017 - Written by Laurence Cornet
In 1899, Treaty 8 was signed by the Queen of England and 39 Indigenous First Nations in northern Alberta, Canada, assuring that their culture would be preserved for "as long the sun shines, as long as the river flows, as long as the grass grows." This is before industrial development came in.
© Ian Willms, from the series As Long as the Sun Shines. 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.
Today, due to the oil sand exploitation in the area, First Nations can’t live off fishing and hunting anymore, and suffer health conditions that physicians claim to be linked to industrial pollution. Since 2012, Ian Willms has embarked upon multiple trips to Alberta, documenting the consequences of such a destructive industry on the people and the environment, both intrinsically tied to each other. His description of the place gives a sense of the devastation: "Everything is grey - the sky, the sand, and the water has a pink-grey shade with different kinds of oily chemical colours in it. I was taking a walk and it felt like going to the beach after the apocalypse, as if a nuclear holocaust had happened."
© Ian Willms, from the series As Long as the Sun Shines. 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.
His words echo those of the First Nations themselves, who describe the situation as a "slow motion cultural genocide." And indeed, as Willms puts it, "they can walk to the forest and know the birds, the season; I can’t begin to explain it, it is a very powerful and valid form of biology, often discredited by euro-centric scientific views. It’s a waste of knowledge and a continuation of colonialism. Colonialism has been happening in Canada for hundreds of years, and is still happening today through the industrial development of indigenous territory. Most indigenous people have been affected by residential schooling in Canada. They were made to feel like the essence of who they are was disgusting, evil and wrong. In that context, hunting and fishing is not just cultural: it’s survival. One of the best ways that I have heard of to get past their traumatic history is for First Nations to practice traditional ways of life, which they can’t anymore."
© Ian Willms, from the series As Long as the Sun Shines. 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.
Willms' poetic photographs document people’s daily condition, but also the nearly fantasy-looking landscapes, ravaged by an industry that is out of the scale. He recounts: "You’d be driving in a car looking for a photo. You see something, you pull the car over, you get out of the car, you walk towards there and you are hiking, and hiking, and hiking. You hike as far as you can and the thing is still the same size because it’s incredibly far away. Everything is enormous - the waste lakes, the industries." And to add: "There is constant smoke; you always see trucks that have impossibly large chunks of machinery on them; you see workers going to the city, you see a lot, but to actually see the mining or the pound you have to do a lot of hiking and trespassing, or to hire a plane or helicopter because everything there is incredibly large and they keep it all hidden. It smells like diesel and dirt, and there is nothing natural about it, for sure. You can smell it all the way to the city - they call it 'the smell of money'."
Learn more about the series on Ian Willms' PHmuseum profile