Fort McKay: Western Canada’s boreal forest gives way to oil sands
Published: Nov 17, 2022 09:20 PM
A general view shows a Syncrude oil sands mining facility near Fort McKay, Alberta, Canada. File photo: AFP

A general view shows a Syncrude oil sands mining facility near Fort McKay, Alberta, Canada. File photo: AFP

The acrid stench of gasoline permeates the air. And the soot coats everything in sight: the trees, the bushes, even the snow in winter. And all day long, explosions send the birds soaring to safety.

At Fort McKay near Fort McMurray in western Canada, in the heart of the country's boreal forest, the pines and the people were long ago cleared out to make way for huge open-pit mines dedicated to excavation of oil sands.

It's one of the biggest industrial projects in the world: As seen from above, the zone is in stark contrast to the vast expanse of green surrounding it. Huge black holes are gouged in the brown earth - they are giant pools of water.

Then there is the network of roads on which hundreds of trucks drive every day, and the immense factories, with smoke spewing from wide chimneys.

On the ground, the noise is deafening. And it's quite a scene for the uninitiated: In the middle of the huge basins dug to capture the polluted waters stand huge metal scarecrows clad in helmets and security vests.

The ghoulish creatures are designed to scare away millions of migratory birds that arrive every year in this northern part of Alberta province. Adding to the mayhem: airhorns that are used several times a minute.

The mines have made the people left in Fort McKay - many of them Indigenous Canadians - very rich. But the installations have also profoundly altered and damaged the land on which their ancestors relied for centuries.

"Everything has changed, everything's destroyed to me now," says 74-year-old Margie Lacorde who lives in the center of town in a house full of knick knacks and framed photographs.

The talkative Lacorde, who belongs to the Metis people, is sad to see the parched, yellowing leaves due to drought, and wishes she could still swim in the rivers and gather berries in the forest like she did in her youth.

The hunting grounds are long gone - the land was sold for industrial use.

She remembers her childhood with a significant bit of nostalgia. 

Back then, families gathered snow and melted it to use as drinking and cooking water. Such a thing would be impossible today - once the snow hits the ground, it's immediately filthy, covered in the dust that filters down from the factories.

"We're First Nations and this is our territory that is all being desecrated by the oil industry for the sake of the dollar, money, prosperity," says Jean L'Hommecourt, an environmental activist who took up the fight her parents once championed.

Even if agreements were reached with Indigenous communities to create jobs and protect some natural resources, the ecological impact of mining the oil sands have been so great that the 59-year-old woman says her people are now at risk.

The area is a far cry from the picture postcard ideal of the Canadian West. There are no crystalline blue waterways or fish-filled rivers here. 

Instead, Moose Lake - sacred to L'Hommecourt's Dene people - is now only accessible by all-terrain vehicle, a five-hour drive on a road pockmarked by potholes that runs in between the mines.

When she was growing up, L'Hommecourt's family cabin was in the middle of the forest, far away from the noise and bustle. But after the first oil sands mine was built in 1967, development proceeded at a rapid pace.

Today, the active oil sands extraction sites form a chain that is more than 60 kilometers long, hugging the shores of the Athabasca River. 

Fort McKay - population, 800 or so - is a tiny speck on a map of this industrial complex.

Canada is home to 10 percent of the world's known crude oil reserves - much of that is found in the oil sands of Alberta.

Every day, nearly 3 million barrels of crude are extracted from the sands, according to official government data, helping to make Canada the world's fourth largest oil producer, and the primary exporter of crude to the US.

In all, more than 4,800 square kilometers are used for oil sands mining.

Many environmental activists say the impact of the oil industry is so great that the term "ecocide" is not too strong. Beyond the tangible destruction of the boreal forest, there is the massive amount of pollution in the air.

The oil and gas sector accounts for a quarter of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions, according to the latest official figures released in 2022. Of that total, the oil sands are responsible for 12 percent.

And traces of other toxic emissions, such as sulfur and nitrogen oxides, have been detected in the soil and the snow dozens of kilometers from the mining zone.

"There's still a lot we need to do on recognizing the harm from cleaning up existing operations," says Keith Stewart of the environmental pressure group Greenpeace.

Stewart nevertheless acknowledges a "huge shift" on protecting the environment in recent years. That reversal is not uniformly popular, as not everyone here sees the oil sands as a bad thing.