Athabasca River, south of the oil sands industry

As a non-native senior citizen,  also known as an old white woman, I have to confess that the idea of heading into both an oil field and the First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan was scary. Plus, there is no road to Fort Chip, unless you count the Ice Road, which is open only between December and March. At other times of the year you can only get there by small plane, and I've always been afraid of flying! When I was a kid, my dad's job was to investigate plane crashes, so I learned early in life that planes fell out of the sky with great regularity and for a multitude of reasons. Since then, I've forced myself to fly on big planes, but those little contraptions that resemble lawn mowers with wings ... forget it. So, I put off the trip, continuing to write Hawk with help from the internet until I just couldn't put it off any longer – the final draft of the manuscript was due on the publisher's desk within a matter of weeks. I had to face my fears.

I tried to make connections with the people of Fort Chipewyan before I left the security of my home outside Toronto, but phone calls and emails went unanswered. It was obvious that nobody was going to roll out a red carpet for this award-winning author! Desperate, I reached out to my globe-trotting daughter, Joanna. She agreed to meet me in Fort McMurray so that we could travel north together. And as with most challenges, this trip turned out to be one of the best things I ever did.

We spent four wonderful days in Fort Chipewyan, on the shore of Lake Athabasca, following the chain of personal connections,

one step at a time.

I wanted to find out if there really was a lot of cancer. There is!  I visited the cemetery.  I spoke with the people. 

Tailings pond

I left part of my heart in Fort Chipewyan. 

I can't help but wonder. . . what if Athabasca River ran the other way? What if Edmonton and Calgary were downstream of the industry? Would there have been an investigation  years ago? Would the industry have been stopped? Would John O’Connor have been a hero, instead of a trouble maker?

High prices in the only store

How could I write about such a controversial topic without verifying the facts myself?

But how could we have let this happen?

As we got closer to the Suncor Extraction Plant, the plane bucked and rolled, plummeting what felt like hundreds of feet before rising again, and Joanna was hanging her camera out the window. But I wasn't scared!  At least not for my life . . . only for the life of the planet

Watch this video to see what its like to drive a 797 through the oil sands 

(Thanks to The Oil Sands Discovery Centre)

The water in the delta filters through the muskeg into Lake Athabasca at Fort Chipewyan, seen nestling here on the north shore. The rivers leaving the lake flow north, joining the Slave and the Mackenzie on their way to the Arctic Ocean.  Take note of the islands in the lake. You’ll see them again soon.

Fort Chip arena, sponsored by oil companies

Open-pit mine

JENNIFER DANCE travels to the OIL SANDS to research HAWK

Watch the video of  my flight over the oil sands

Tailings ponds are huge and they are everywhere!  Add them up and they’d cover a third of Winnipeg.   Bitumen that escapes the extraction process rises to the top as a thick black slick. This is where White Chest lands, as many water birds do, and where he is rescued by Hawk and his grandfather.

Fort Chip medical centre


Hiding in surroundings that appear pristine

Why are the processing plants next to the river?

The Peace-Athabasca Delta,

 a wetland of international importance

and a UNESCO World Heritage Site

yet few Canadians know about it, or its ecological significance, and even fewer know that it's downstream of the oil sands industry.

Millions of water birds stop here on their migration to breeding grounds in the Arctic. Unable to recognize the danger, some, like White Chest in my story,  land instead on the near-by tailings ponds

Two Aboriginal women walking on the banks of this lonely stretch of broken river, struck up a conversation. When I told them about Hawk, they said I should speak with John O'Connor, and they recited his phone number off by heart!  It reminded me of Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade – stepping into the void and a bridge appears! My trip was like that! I started with no connections, but I stepped out in faith and a bridge formed right under my feet, a chain of personal introductions leading me effortlessly to all the people who would help me get this story right: doctors and nurses, trappers and fishermen, museum curators and clergy, oil sands workers and school teachers, and even a classroom of Grade 8/9 students.

Flying over open-pit mine

We were horrified by how close the industry is to the Athabasca River. And shocked that the bare land sloped toward the water.

Apart from the occasional curse word, we were speechless. Sure we need jobs, we need oil...

With uncanny timing, the Athabasca River broke, the very night of our arrival in Fort McMurray, throwing up huge blocks of ice the size of minivans onto the banks. Not only did this perfectly timed annual event give me a neat descriptive passage for the book, (CH.6 P.37) but the symbolism spoke volumes to me:

High over the Athabasca on the way to the Peace-Athabasca Delta

I phoned John O'Connor right away. Not only did he pick up, but when I told him about Hawk he asked me to email him the manuscript. Two hours later he called me back. He wanted to meet. I have to emphasize that John O'Connor is a fly-in, doctor who covers a vast northern territory, and yet at that very moment, he was literally 5 minutes away from me! Within seconds of meeting him, I knew he was the real deal, and that the charges laid against him were false. John admits to being just an ordinary family doctor, thrown into the public eye through no choice of his own. But despite these words, I see a man of great compassion and strength, dedicated to healing and exposing the truth about this part of the world. Others in his position would have walked away. But John is still here, still waging the war, one patient at a time. A true inspiration. And John gave me the next connection on my adventurous journey into the void…. the nurse practitioner in Fort Chipewyan.

The Athabasca River

was always part of the story, but during the trip it took on a major role. My first sight of it was from the plane as I flew from Toronto to Fort McMurray. Still partially frozen, it meandered through the boreal forest of Northern Alberta— a white ribbon waving through a beautiful sage-green mix of poplars and pines. My research had taught me that it brought crystal clear water from the Rockies to the heart of the oil sands industry, and from there it flowed northward to Lake Athabasca where fishermen caught fish with tumors, where residents had cancer, or asthma or mysterious rashes, and where my imaginary protagonist (Adam a.k.a. Hawk) spent the first eight years of his life. Thirteen months later, a devastating wild fire ripped through this area.

But before heading north, Joanna and I had two more research-packed days in Fort McMurray, the boom town of the oil industry. We toured a tailings pond reclamation site. It was supposed to show that trees had been replanted and that wild life was returning – even the shy woodland buffalo.  But the buffalo were in a fenced paddock, like they were in the zoo, the baby trees were only two species that I could tell, and the area of reclaimed land was so small compared to the total devastation.  The experience enabled me to write Chapter 8, putting most of my feelings into the mouth of Hawk’s grandfather.

"That's a tailings  pond?! "

                   Over and out"

Also in Ch. 8, Hawk’s class visits the Discovery Centre and sees how the bitumen is separated from the sand. I had written this part of the story before the trip using an online video, but now I was there, seeing it live! Hot water was added to a spoonful of black oily sand that was dug from the ground. After a quick stir, we waited and watched. The sand settled to the bottom of the beaker, the bitumen rose to the top as thick goop, and the dirty water was in the middle. The bitumen is too thick to be transported in pipe lines, or to be used in engines, so it is thinned with other  chemicals (solvents)

The river was broken and this trip, in some small way, was my attempt to mend it

Because extracting bitumen from the sand uses hot water: four barrels of water for one barrel of oil. The water comes from the river and although it is used several times over, ultimately it becomes too dirty to recycle further, so it goes into a tailings pond contained by nothing more than banks of packed clay. Yes you read that right! Packed clay.

Looking back toward the oil sands from the delta. The band  of cloud is created by steam coming from the industry's chimneys

Flying over Mac Island in Fort McMurray - where Hawk trained

Pink Granite in Fort Chip

Seismic lines

Inside the bucket of a Power Shovel

We got up close and personal with the monster trucks that are used in the industry – the 797 that Frank drives in the story. They are HUGE – the size of a 2-storey house. Check out the regular sized car-tire propped up against the wheel. And you really do have to climb a ladder to get into the cab

Until recently the people in Fort Chip lived a traditional life, drinking water from the lake, eating fish and moose, and green plants and berries from the delta, trapping muskrat and beaver. They don't do that anymore. They understand the risk. They go to the Northern Store where a jug of milk costs $12, a limp lettuce cost $9, four soft tomatoes $11, and a small turkey $92. Many heads of households work in the industry. Compared to most First Nations communities, it's rich. It has all the facilities and gadgets that the oil industry can provide, but the people have lost their lifestyle and their health and some have even lost their lives.

Irony of ironies… The fuel that the residents use for vehicles and for the town's generating station comes to town between December and March on the Ice Road. But these days, the ice is not freezing as early as in previous years. so the road is not safe for teh big trucks and the town’s supply of fuel is in jeopardy. Yet Fort Chip is right on the doorstep of Canada biggest producer of oil!

But what about cleaning up of  existing mess? Tailings ponds are still close to the river,  probably still leaching or leaking toxins. The lease agreement between the government and the oil companies included clean up and land restoration. But to me, it's like owning a house and leasing it out. The tenant signs a legal document and pays a damage deposit,  but then he hits hard times, and disappears in the night, leaving the house so badly trashed that the damage deposit doesn't make a dent in the repair bill. Even if you can track down the tenant and sue him, and even if the judge rules that the tenant's wages will be garnished, you are out of luck because there are no wages to garnish. So who has to pay for the clean up? You. . . the property owner. In the case of the oil sands that would be the Crown, a.k.a. the government, the taxpayer.

With the world waking up to climate change and the link to fossil fuels, and with thousands of jobs lost because of falling oil prices, what happens to the people of Fort Chipewyan? Jobs in the industry at least gave them the income to buy expensive imported food. Without high wages what do they eat? How do they live? What other jobs are there? The fishing industry died when word got out about fish with tumors. The traditional life calls them, but the beaver and muskrat they had trapped for furs, died when their wetland homes dried up. . . and who buys fur these days anyway? And laced with carcinogens the traditional foods on which they survived since time began will probably kill them, eventually. What choice do they have? When will it be safe to drink the water, eat the fish and the moose, and the green plants and berries that grown in the delta? Nobody knows.

Back in 2003, John O’Connor, a medical doctor working in Alberta’s remote north, saw several cases of a rare form of bile-duct cancer in the small indigenous community of Fort Chipewyan, downstream of the industry. Most doctors see only one or two cases of this cancer in their entire lives, and yet in Fort Chipewyan with a population of less than 3000, John O’Connor saw several cases.  He was alarmed, so brought it to the attention of the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons, asking them to investigate. Instead they investigated him, laying four complaints of professional misconduct against him, including false billing, creating a sense of mistrust in the government, and causing undue alarm among residents of Fort Chipewyan.

It took him three years to clear his name.

Those opposed to the oil sands industry say that the government and the industry are in bed together, that First Nations, yet again, are getting the short end of the stick, and that the environment is being irreversibly damaged. But others say that the industry is good for the Canadian economy, providing high paying jobs – even for First Nations, that we need oil because there is no workable alternative right now, and that in the end all the land will be put back together and made good as new, although admittedly never as good as the old.

But even when the layer of bitumen is removed, the remaining slurry is toxic. It is left to evaporate down until it is the consistency of yogurt. Then it's mixed with gypsum which causes the slurry to harden into 'rocks'. These rocks are dumped into the abandoned open-pit mine as the first stage of the reclamation process. Sand and salvedged topsoil are added next and then trees are planted. To me, this doesn't make sense. One of my children was in a body cast when he was still in diapers. Obviously, the cast kept getting wet and it soon crumbled and fell apart. Is it not damp at the bottom of the pit? Won't the gypsum break down and release toxic chemicals into the ground water? I couldn't get the answer. For now, at least, this is the best solution the industry is offering.

The Athabasca River, minus millions of barrels of water, and possibly contaminated with leaked petrochemicals, moves on. Joanna and I follow it from the air. Finally, we leave the devastation behind and fly over what locals call The Delta, where the Athabasca and the Peace rivers converge, and flood out over flat swampy land called muskeg. From the air it’s breathtakingly beautiful, a wetland that supports amazing biodiversity. Millions of water birds stop here on their migration to breeding grounds in the Arctic. Unable to recognize the danger, some, like White Chest, land instead on near-by tailings ponds.

Time raced by and soon we were poised to get aboard the little plane that would take us on an aerial tour of the tar sands. To my eyes, not only was this toy-sized Cessna the epitome of the lawn mower with wings, but the pilot looked like a high-school kid working part-time at the landscaping company!  "Do you get airsick?" he asked, "because it's gonna get bumpy... heat from the chimneys creates a lot of turbulence." Before I had time to back out, we were rattling down the runway and bouncing over the Athabasca River, as it led us toward the oil sands, just as in the story. In a matter of minutes the landscape changed abruptly. The only signs of life were the trucks, moving around, like ants.

Fort Chip cemetery

When I first had the idea to write Hawk, I knew I would have to go to the Oil Sands and see it with my own eyes. I'd done a lot of online research and had already decided that my protagonist would come from the remote First Nations Community of Fort Chipewyan, down-steam of the oil sands industry where according to Google there was a lot of sickness, including cancer, thought by some to be related to toxins from the industry.


Mikisew-Cree nursing home, built with help from oil companies


Separating the bitumen from the sand

797-haulage truck

Hawk,  published by Dundurn, January 2016, is Jennifer’s third novel

-  Winner of  SONWA.  Nature writing award

Other Books

Red Wolf,  2014 -  a residential school story - finalist for the 2015 Silver Birch award and MYRCA 2016.
Paint,  2015 -  the story of a mustang who lives through the historic development of the Great Plains.

 CCBC Best Book for Kids and Teens.
Photographs taken by Joanna Bowen

Fort Chipewyan school - sponsored by Shell

In the centre of Fort McMurray, we searched out other places I had already written about:  the Suncor recreational cenrtre on Mac Island -where Hawk trained, and the trails beside the river where he ran with Gemma. We scouted the residential areas looking for the neighbourhood where he lived, the school he went to, and the mall where he and Gemma ate New York fries. 

A distant tailings pond looks like a beach resort

Each of the companies in the oil sands has their own extraction and processing plant. All ofthese plants are adjacent to the river. This is Suncor

Watch the video of  the HAWK trailer

It was surreal! We were following in the footsteps of a kid I had created months before in my imagination.