Students search for grains of truth in the oilsands
by Catherine Szabo
Canada’s geography is easy: there are the spaces where Canadians live – mostly along the 49th parallel – and where they don’t. Albertans have 661,190 square kilometres of options. Most choose Calgary or Edmonton. Tucked away in the northeastern corner of our province, however, is an area spanning 140,800 square kilometres, roughly four times the size of Vancouver Island. These are the oilsands – an area not many people see, despite its size.
“(B.C.) sees the depletion (in forestry),” said Chelsea Pratchett, a first-year open studies student at Mount Royal University. “They drive by it and they can see what’s happening. Whereas in Alberta, we’re benefiting from all this money that’s trickling down from Fort McMurray and anywhere else up north, but we’re not seeing it – we’re not seeing it first hand.” In mid-October, however, nine Mount Royal students, including Pratchett, joined a University of Alberta-led trip to Fort McMurray. “Hardly anyone has a chance to go up there,” Keely Kidner, one of the U of A organizers, wrote in an email. “I feel we owe it to the land and to impacted communities to witness what is happening and to actually take the time to be there.”
The first trip occurred in February of this year, said Keerit Jutla, another one of the nine U of A organizers. High student interest led to another trip being organized, this time when it was warmer. “The motivation for going up (was) not only being able to see the oilsands, but also being able to foster that discussion between groups that normally wouldn’t talk to each other in oilsands development,” Jutla said. During the weekend, students participated in discussions with officials from Suncor, a Greenpeace activist, and a representative from Keepers of the Athabasca, an Aboriginal group. Students also had the chance to visit the Oilsands Discovery Centre, view the documentary H2Oil, as well as see the Albian Sands mine site and one of Syncrude’s reclamation sites, which is land that has been returned to its natural state.
Mount Royal students became involved when Alana-Dawn Eirikson, the Sustainability Centre co- ordinator, made some connections with U of A this summer through volunteer work. Offered the chance to participate, she sent an email to a few professors at Mount Royal as well as to contacts on her email list. By the next morning, the nine spaces were full, though she estimates total responses numbered about 20. Without the opportunity to extend the invitation to the whole school, however, Eirikson is unsure of how many responses she would have received in total.
“What was really inspiring was 50 people coming together to learn more about (the issue),” Eirikson said. There was also a waiting list of students at U of A wanting to participate, Jutla said. Both Jutla and Eirikson noted that the student group wasn’t comprised of just one or two programs, but that there was a wide range of interest, including students from public relations, chemistry, business and political science. “There is little room to be neutral on the debate,” Kidner wrote in her email. “The situation surrounding it has become incredibly polarized, with all provincial discourse reflecting this polarization. Both emotions and stakes run high, and I honestly feel this is one of the most important debates in Alberta’s history.”
Jutla added that the representatives from various industries and interests had been open and welcoming to this type of excursion and discussion. “The major purpose is to bring together passionate students on all sides of the spectrum,” he said. “We might as well start talking now instead of talking later.” Pratchett didn’t hesitate to answer “yes” when asked if she would like to go back to Fort McMurray, though she did note the three-hour drive to Edmonton, followed by the five- hour drive to Fort Mac was a little rough. “It’s a lot of really heavy issues that you face when you go up there,” she said. “I was prepared, but I knew a lot of students wouldn’t be, and I felt the organizers went above and beyond what they were expected to do to let people know what they might be feeling – some of the frustrations, depression, different things they might have to confront when they came back, when they start thinking about what’s going on up there and how massive it is.”
Kidner agreed she would like to see the excursion evolve into a yearly trip, with other groups possibly getting involved as well. “That was one of our goals, to show students the other side,” Jutla said. “Whatever side you’re on, to listen to the other side, and know that in the future, you’ll be in these positions in your respective fields and you need to work together.”