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 Mr. Google there was a lot of sickness, including cancer, thought by some to be related to toxins from the industry.
We got up close and personal with the monster haulage trucks that are used in the industry, the 747 that Adam's father drives in the story. It's too big to even fit in the photo frame. A car tire is propped against the wheel to give an idea of scale .
Until recently the people in Fort Chipewyan 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 $13, a limp lettuce cost $9, four soft tomatoes cost $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 many of them are have lost their lives.
Back in 2003, John O’Connor, a medical doctor working in Alberta’s remote northern communities saw several cases of a rare form of bile-duct cancer in tiny Fort Chipewyan. He brought this 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 blocking access to files, billing irregularities, engendering 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.
The anti-oilers have always said 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 the pro-oilers insisted that the industry is good for the Canadian economy, providing jobs even for First Nations who benefit from high wages as well as handouts to their communities. And as for the environment … in the end all the land will be put back together and made good as new, although admittedly never as good as the old.
Separating the bitumen from the sand
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
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.
The simulated drive through the oil sands was pretty cool.
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 an oil sands reclamation site where young trees had been planted and bison are kept behind fences. It gave me a very jaded view of the reclamation... food for thought as well as for the novel. And we visited the Oil Sands Discovery Centre where my protagonist, Adam, went on a school trip. I had already written this part of the story using an online video that showed how the bitumen is separated from the sand, but now I was there, seeing it live.
But times are changing.
Not because the human race woke up to the tragedy of all of this, but because world oil prices have plummeted
As I write this, I realize how much of my heart I left in Fort Chipewyan. And 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 into the high rate of rare cancers years ago? Would John O’Connor have been a hero then, instead of a trouble maker?
How could I write about such a controversial topic without verifying the facts myself?
JENNIFER DANCE travels to the OIL SANDS to research HAWK
We were following in the footsteps of a kid I had created months before in my imagination.
The river was broken and this trip, in some small way, was my attempt to mend it
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. Access at other times of year is 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 airliners, but as for 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.
But even when the layer of bitumen is skimmed from the surface, the remaining slurry is toxic. It is left to evaporate down until it's the consistency of yogurt. Then it's mixed with gypsum. The 'rocks' are dumped into the abandoned open-pit mine as the first stage of the reclamation. Sand and 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. The cast kept getting wet and it soon crumbled and fell apart. I ask, "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, albeit minus millions of barrels of water, and probably contaminated with leaked petrochemicals, moves on. And Joanna and I follow it. 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 land. It’s breathtakingly beautiful.
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, but the symbolism spoke volumes to me:
Hawk, published by Dundurn, January 2016, is Jennifer’s third book.
Her first YA novel, Red Wolf, endorsed by Joseph Boyden, is a residential school story - shortlisted for the 2015 Silver Birch award and MYRCA 2016.
Paint, 2015, is the story of a mustang who lives through the historic development of the Great Plains.
Paint is a CCBC Best Book for Kids and Teens.
Photographs taken by Joanna Bowen
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 Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, crossing the gaping chasm. He stepped into the void and a bridge appeared. 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.
In the centre of Fort McMurray, we searched out other places I had already written about: the indoor track where Adam trained, and the trails beside the river where he ran. We scouted the residential areas looking for the neighbourhood where he lived and the school he went to. It was surreal!
The word pond is a misnomer. They are huge and they are everywhere! Add them up and you’d cover a third of Winnipeg. And they are coated with bitumen that escaped the extraction process. This is where White Chest, the fish hawk in my story, lands.
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, and he was five minutes down the road! Within seconds of meeting John, 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 in 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
This 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.
Surprise Number One - the boreal forest isn't all evergreens. It's a mix of mostly poplar and pine trees, so in April, from the air, it looks quite grey.
Because extracting the 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.
Why are the processing plants next to the river?
Extracting oil from the oil sands is expensive compared to pumping liquid crude directly from the ground, therefore oil prices have to be high to make it profitable. When I was at the Discovery Centre in early 2015, oil was close to $100 a barrel. I was told that $40 a barrel was the cut off point for profit. Who would ever have predicted that oil prices would go into free fall as they have. Oil sands companies have suddenly switched from rapid expansion, to closures, and lay offs. And now that the whole world is on board to fight global warming, it is possible that the oil sands era is over. For the time being at least, thousands of square miles of unexploited leased land have been reprieved, along with the countless species of dependent life.
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.
And 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.
Irony of ironies… All the fuel that the residents use for vehicles and for the town's generating station comes in between December and March on the Ice Road. Due to global warming the ice is not freezing as early as in previous years. As of December, 2015 the ice has barely started to form and the town’s supply of fuel is perilously low.
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.
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...
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.
Hiding in surroundings that appear pristine
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
I knew that the Athabasca River flowed from the Rockies into the heart of the industry and then into Lake Athabasca where fishermen caught fish with tumors, where the residents had deadly cancers and where my imaginary protagonist spent the first eight years of his life. When I saw the river for the first time, it was like meeting an old friend, a friend who was close to death. I felt sad for the fate that I knew awaited it
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.