The Oral History of the Oil Sands: Showcasing the Identity of Our Community
This article is part of a larger research and research creation project that aims to document the past and present of the Athabasca Oil Sands through oral histories and digital heritage projects. The project is a collaboration between Ingenium and the Energy Stories Lab (University of Calgary). Our aim is to highlight community voices and to create platforms for meaningful and nuanced conversations about energy pasts, presents, and futures. Kiersten’s generous sharing of her story is a beginning.
Growing up in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB), Alberta, I have always known that my life, and the life of my community, are inextricably linked to the oil sands. Not only are the oil sands important contributors to Canada’s economy and energy sectors, but the oil sands have also provided so much for the RMWB itself. From community centres to job opportunities (including jobs that do not directly involve oil extraction), the lives of Wood Buffalo residents have all likely been touched in some way or another by the oil industry. However, the identity of our region is too often reduced to a caricature of its relationship with the oil sands, and as Canada strives for a future with net-zero emissions, oil producing regions like the RMWB are caught up in controversy.
While oil production is an important part of our economy and our community, it is not the only thing that connects us to each other and to this place. The global perception of the oil sands often overshadows the lived experiences of the people in the region. That is why working on this project—developing a stakeholder map and list of organizations and people who could contribute to the oral history of the oil sands—has been such a wonderful opportunity. It wasn’t until I put together the stakeholder map that I could really see the extent of the oil sands’ impact on my daily life. Beyond the obvious connection to operators such as Suncor or Syncrude, the stakeholder map includes some interesting and perhaps surprising organizations and individuals. While many community members are involved with the actual oil sands operations, many others are involved in other sectors (e.g. healthcare, education, social services) as well as not for profit and cultural organizations. The Arts Council of Wood Buffalo is one non-profit organization in particular that is vital to maintaining the arts scene in Fort McMurray; its members take into account the numerous subcultures that make up the identity of our region, and support their ability to communicate their stories in unique and thoughtful ways through art. But arts and culture isn't the only way through which members of our community express our identity. The RMWB is home to several Indigenous communities. For example the McMurray Métis work very closely with the wider Métis community. Another example is the Multicultural Association which seeks to support the various cultural groups and new arrivals in the RMWB. They provide programs and cross-cultural events to help the transition for new comers and ensure that all cultural groups within the community are represented and respected.
Kiersten posing in front of the Athabasca River after filming for a dance project (2019).
Looking at the oil sands through the lens of lived experiences is so very important to obtaining a deeper understanding of the impact oil production has on communities like Fort McMurray. By offering to the residents of RMWB a chance to share their stories, people can feel that their experiences are not forgotten or are unimportant. Without its members and the personal experiences they bring to the table, the RMWB and its connection to the oil sands would be nothing more than a geographical coincidence.
As a longtime resident of the RMWB, I’m often reminded of how funding from oil companies has provided the community with recreation centres, arts and culture venues, and events. Yet, the interconnection between residents and the oil sands runs far deeper than deeper than just the economic contributions of these companies. Having lived in Fort McMurray for nineteen years, I grew accustomed to the coming and going of individuals and families as the demand for oil changed, without realizing how those fluctuations impacted my everyday life. From the friendships created with newcomers to town, to the varying class sizes and dynamics in both my education and extracurriculars, life in this region was always unpredictable in the best way. I feel that the demand for work, the offer of stability—both financially and socially—and the overall diverse and welcoming environment in this town influenced more and more families to carve out a place in this community. In a way, the constant shifting within our community is as integral to the identity of the RMWB as are the oil sands themselves, and many people have come to appreciate the diversity produced as a result. Although the nature of our region is ever-changing, I feel as if there is a place for everyone in Fort McMurray, and it is the wide range of stories from these residents who expand the significance of the community to so much more than just the oil sands. We as individuals are what make those ties to oil significant, supporting careers, hosting events, and even making lifelong connections to other members of the community.
The cover of Volume 3, Issue 3 (2015) of the Your McMurray Magazine, meant to emphasize the significance of arts in the community.
When asked by an Ingenium curator to select one object to represent what my community would like to share with a wider audience, I chose this issue of Your McMurray Magazine. As one of the ways the RMWB presents the stories of its residents, this magazine has been publishing locally since 2012, and is meant for “everyone who lives, works, and plays here” (https://yourmcmurraymagazine.com/).
Kiersten in costume before the photoshoot for the Your McMurray Magazine cover (2015).
Given the placement of this magazine around town—one can find copies in the airport, at hotels, and various popular community centers—it is clear that the magazine aims to connect local residents with visitors. Having had the opportunity to be on the cover at the young age of eleven, I can attest to this magazine’s drive for community representation and participation. In a way, I think that the YMM Magazine—and others like it—challenge the popular narrative surrounding this community. While we do have close ties to the oil sands, we offer so much more to our residents; there are a number of activities, local businesses, and cultural organizations that contribute just as profoundly to the region. Ultimately, the oral histories of RMWB residents are a reminder of the importance of community, and that the identity of a region that is tied to resource extraction is more complex than it might appear at first glance to outsiders. In taking this bottom-up approach to telling and sharing stories about the oil sands, I hope that the people of my region will feel heard, and that others will not overlook how we have contributed to the history of Canada.
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