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The communities around Canada’s oil sands are being worn away by industrial expansion and toxic effluence
By Ian Willms
This photo essay is about how the world’s largest and most destructive industrial project is impacting indigenous communities. But it is also about more than that. The oil sands are just one example of how centuries of Canadian settler colonialism is now manifesting itself.
Under the banners of economic growth and progress, indigenous territory all over Canada is leased, occupied and destroyed by various resource-based industries. The United Nations recently concluded that indigenous communities in Canada are disproportionately exposed to toxic substances through industrial developments across the country.
Rare cancers, birth defects, lupus and other ailments occur in Fort Chipewyan and Fort McKay at alarmingly high rates. After decades of advocacy, the communities have yet to receive a comprehensive, public health study that is free of industry influence. Families are being irreparably wounded while the industry lobbyists continue to say: prove it.
Indigenous peoples are also seeing their communities forced into an impossible compromise; one where they must work for the very industries that are destroying the lands which have sustained their ancestors for thousands of years.
An industry “cut line” through the boreal forest near Fort McMurray. Cut lines are the result of the search for oil sands deposits which are close enough to the surface to access via surface (strip) mining. Deposits that are too deep are extracted via a steam injection process known as “in situ”.
The line cuts through the boreal forest and leads towards the horizon, which is glowing because of the lights at a Shell extraction facility. Canada’s oil sands are the largest and most environmentally destructive oil development on the planet. The industry is consuming vast swaths of forest, impacting an area that is roughly the size of England.
The removal of “overburden” before the construction of Suncor’s Fort Hills oil sands mine. The oil sands industry has cleared about one million hectares of boreal forest to make way for developments like this one.
Imperial Oil in “Chemical Valley”, where 40 per cent of Canada’s petrochemical industry sits within a 39-square-kilometre area. Dangerously high concentrations of liquid and gaseous carcinogens are routinely released. The area has the third worst air quality in the country.
Right by the Lanxess plant, youths play baseball during Solidarity Day (National Aboriginal Day). The Aamjiwnaang reserve is surrounded by 46 petrochemical plants, where oil sands crude is refined after travelling across the continent by pipeline.
A temporary water intake pipe leads from the Athabasca River to an oil sands extraction facility. The process of separating crude from raw oil sands bitumen consumes three barrels of fresh water for every single barrel of oil produced.
The Syncrude oil sands plant near Fort McMurray. Large stacks of captured green sulphur rise behind the plant, while tailings ponds and a strip mine surround the site.
The Albian Sands tailings pond, located just north of the Fort McKay indigenous reserve. At 1.5 trillion litres, the oil sands tailings ponds are the largest of their kind in the world. They house a liquid mix of toxic waste, containing dangerously high levels of mercury, arsenic, lead and benzene. Independent studies have found the the tailings ponds leak 11 million litres per day into the groundwater and Athabasca River.
An oil sands worker in the suburbs of Fort McMurray waits for a chartered bus to take him to work. The oil sands industry is a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in North America, 70 megatons annually.
An improvised scarecrow at a Syncrude oil sands site, north of Fort McMurray. It is meant to deter migratory birds from landing in tailings ponds. There have been many reports, in recent years, of large numbers of birds dying in the ponds.
Wade and Chelsea (at centre) say goodbye to their infant daughter, during her wake. 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.
Nadia Bouchier and her son Dylan share an embrace at their home in Fort McKay, just after a funeral for a fellow community member.
A Syncrude tailings pond near Fort McMurray.
The sulphur pyramids on the Syncrude oil sands site are made of solid sulphur that is trapped from the air emissions of the Syncrude “upgrader” plant, where raw bitumen is separated into oil and sand. The sulphur pyramids, which are already the largest in the world, are constantly growing.
Nadia Bouchier stands on land which used to be used for hunting and trapping by her ancestors. Today it is surrounded by oil sands developments, lighting up the night sky.
Forest near Fort McMurray, burned during a devastating wildfire in 2016. The blaze, which was driven by climate change, destroyed 2,400 buildings and led to the evacuation of 90,000 people.
Indigenous wildfire fighters comb the woods near Fort McMurray for hotspots, following a devastating wildfire in 2016.
The remnants of homes in Fort McMurray’s Timberlea suburb, burned-down during the 2016 wildfire.
After spending almost his whole life around the oil sands industry, Michael Beamish was diagnosed with advanced thyroid cancer in 2016 and given 2 to 3 years to live. He now wears a dust mask to protect himself from wildfire smoke and other pollution.
An apartment complex in Fort McMurray that was burnt down during the 2016 wildfire.
A herd of elk feed a couple hundred metres from the route of the Trans Mountain oil sands pipeline, which runs through Jasper National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Canadian government and Kinder Morgan built the Trans Mountain pipeline through the park in 2008.
Ida Manuel carries out an offering ceremony at the Tiny House Warriors’ camp. The Tiny House Warriors are a group of activists who constructed a series of homes in the path of the Trans Mountain oil sands pipeline development. If construction reaches their region, the activists plan to resist further development through direct action.
Avert walks into Lake Athabasca. The lake’s waters are fed by the Athabasca River, along which lies the oil sands industry.
Katana Schaap and Isaiah Driver have been coming to this beach on the south shore of the Burrard Inlet for years. The Westridge Marine Terminal, the terminus of the Trans Mountain oil sands pipeline, is located about 150 metres from this spot. From here, oil is shipped to markets in Asia and elsewhere.
The kitchen table of a fur trapper’s cabin. Fur trapping used to be the primary economy of the Cree, Dene and Metis peoples of Fort Chipewyan.
Kendrick Cardinal shoots a caribou while hunting in the Northwest Territories. People from Fort Chipewyan must now travel for a week by snowmobile to attempt to hunt caribou, which have been displaced due to the impacts of industry and climate change. The journey is expensive, physically exhausting and dangerous.
A rainbow rises behind Geraldine McManus and hereditary Chief of Sagkeeng, Alma Kakikepinace, as the women light a sacred fire and celebrate one year of resistance at The Spirit of the Buffalo camp. The camp was set up on the Enbridge oil and gas pipelines. This network has had numerous spills and other incidents, prompting strong public opposition.
The Syncrude upgrader plant in the oil sands.
Children draw in the dust covering the back of a bus.
Commercial fisherman Raymond “Smokey” Ladouceur throws a whitefish to his sled dogs. After decades of commercial fishing on Lake Athabasca, the fish caught there are now too polluted for human consumption.
Rusty Whitehead fills a barrel with potable water, while his sons Riley and Cole play. There are no water mains running into the community of Little Buffalo and many homes have no plumbing at all.
After being born with a heart defect, Dez had already endured two open heart surgeries by the time he was seven years old. Local doctors and family members believe that industrial pollution could be the cause of his condition.
An animatronic bird of prey sits on a floating platform that’s equipped with a strobe light, loudspeaker and a propane canon. This contraption and others like it are meant to deter migratory birds from landing in tailings ponds.
A lavish home in Fort McMurray with wrapped statues in front of it. Fort McMurray has become an oil boom town, with people coming from all over the world, seeking high-paying jobs.
Sisters Makenna and Mia play beside their family’s custom truck. Their parents first came to Fort McMurray over a decade ago to work in the oil sands industry and quickly secured well-paying jobs.
Residential homes in the suburbs of Fort McMurray.
Aamjiwnaang councillor Janelle Nahmabin (far right) with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak on his visit to Aamjiwnaang. After leaving Canada, Tuncak wrote that there is a ”pervasive trend of inaction of the Canadian Government in the face of existing health threats from decades of historical and current environmental injustices and the cumulative impacts of toxic exposures by Indigenous Peoples”.
Dorothy Whitehead with her grandchildren Trenton and Taylor, and their mother Jamie Oram, at Dorothy’s home in Fort Chipewyan. After years of working in the oil sands industry, Dorothy has been impacted by a mysterious, degenerative condition that has limited her mobility and motor skills. Unexplained health problems are common in indigenous communities around the oil sands industry, leading many to fear that sources of food and water may be contaminated.
Aamjiwnaang First Nation members participate in the annual pickerel fishing derby on the St. Clair River. The waterway is a major shipping route for oil tankers and is heavily polluted by mercury contamination from nearby chemical plants. Locals sometimes joke that if you snap a pickerel by the tail, all the mercury will run to the head, making the fish safe to eat.
Ian Willms is a founding member of Boreal Collective and NAMARA Represents.
Ian’s pacifist Mennonite ancestors fled violent persecution in Russia in 1923 before settling in Canada. As a child, he was raised by his independent, agnostic, feminist mother in a subsidised apartment building for at-risk women. These experiences shaped the empathetic and socially concerned disposition that informs his work today.
His photo essays have garnered accolades and support from the Canada Council for the Arts, The Greenpeace Photo Award, World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year International and the National Magazine Awards. Ian has shown his work in exhibitions and installations at venues around the world.