Breaking Down Our Alberta

A little over a week ago I had began my tale about my journey up to Northern Alberta to visit the community of Little Buffalo and to get a sense of what Northern Alberta really was/is. Even though the journey was well over two weeks ago the sense of being in the midst of something important has never left me and it only continues to be amplified as more tales are being released on the community: check out this amazing blog about Little Buffalo. Although, I too want to tell my experience of being in the community (granted we were only there for a mere couple of hours), I feel that this journey didn’t start in Little Buffalo but on the road.

We left Lethbridge, Alberta at 6 AM with the intention of stopping just outside of Edmonton, Alberta to camp in a nearby town or field. Unfortunately with my naiveté and indecision (we had decided to drive all the way to Peace River and camp near Little Buffalo) we ended up near Grand Prairie. Nineteen hours later we were back in urban territory and staying with Nat’s friends Dan and Sarah, a very lovely couple. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise since  Dan just so happened to be an oil field electrician! Bingo-bango, someone on the inside!

The juicy stories that could’ve been unleashed from this source ended up just being tales of spills in Nisku, Alberta (unnecessary tank drilling…) and a basic job descriptions. But it lead to an important component that, I am ashamed to admit, I often forget since I am so busy vilifying the Oil industry: the workers of Alberta.

There are over 60 gas companies within Alberta. Each company employs hundreds, thousands of people. Oil companies salaries range between $40, 000 to $70, 000 a year (entry to mid-level). Jobs can be acquired with education ranging from high school to post-secondary credentials. Most companies will help an individual acquire the necessary training if they so desire. We all know this of course. We are all aware that Alberta is massively dependent on the oil industry to produce that chunk of coin us Albertans are so set on gaining, right? I’m pretty sure it is safe to say that the idea of attaining that salary is never going to go away. Most of us want to be in a different financial bracket then we find ourselves today.

Let us look at the statistic provided by our trusted Provincial Government. According to the 2010 Annual Alberta Labor Market Review, 140,200 individuals are employed by Mining, oil and Gas Extraction industry, making it the fourth largest industry in Alberta. But 150,900 individuals are employed to do professional, scientific and technical services and I am guessing that a mass majority of that number are employed by Mining, oil and Gas Extraction companies to help them to teach, find and implement better ways to extract the precious black gold from the ground. Gods knows how many students that is — someone find me the stat. That’s a lot of people doing the devil’s work.

My road trip took me along many towns that as we got further and further up North it became apparent that a significant portion is fueled by gas. We passed through Calgary, Edmonton, Stony Plain, Whitecourt, Mayerthorpe, Peace River, Little Buffalo. Each one of these “little towns” holds a piece of this black gold. And in it a little old man that looks like this.

Riches of Alberta

It all Starts with a Journey

For the last couple of weeks I had been feeling major symptoms of unrest. Perhaps it was the announcement of a majority Conservative government or that I was being represented by a man that was dubbed by my local media as “The Man who wasn’t there”. Perhaps it was the never ending chill and reports of natural disasters or disasters inflicted on nature. For all I know it was most likely a combination of all of these factors and more. Regardless, unrest was among me and the feeling of being consumed by my surroundings was becoming overwhelming. So with this combination, and the lucky occurrence of finding myself without employment, I decided to go up North to visit the site of Alberta’s biggest oil spill in 35 years.  I had contacted my friend, Nat Crop Ear Wolf, who works for the Blood Tribe News, and my friend Jessica Trozzo, a local artist, to see if they wanted to join me on the expedition. Luckily enough they would and so we packed our gear, made our plans and went with the grace of God. Little did we know what would unfold.

I want to take the tale of my Northern Alberta adventure slow. We met many beautiful Albertans along the way. All with generous spirits and strength. I feel I owe it to them to best represent them in the best way possible. The hospitality that we encountered just amplified my love towards my country and province. And it is because of this love that I feel I owe it to them to tell their tales with the outmost respect.

As with most adventures we knew not what was to take place. Little did we know we would find ourselves in the midst of the Boreal Forest’s biggest danger once we arrived in Peace River on Sunday. Luckily we had arrived earlier in the day to find our campsite empty (empty it stayed) since every INN/MOTEL/HOTEL was being filled up by evacuated residents from the surrounding area (Little Buffalo, Red Earth Creek, St. Isidore, ect.) because of the outbreaks in forest fires that had started the day before (Saturday May 14th) and continue to be uncontrollable to this day. Luckily, Chief Steve Nosky was kind enough to meet with us in the midst of their evacuation on the Monday so our trip was not made in vain. We even got to tour the Woodland Cree land (we almost got taken to the oil spill but with fires 25 km East and North of the site it was deemed too dangerous) and the Indian Settlement to get a better sense of where we were.

Before I can get to those stories and experiences I feel I need to take the time to build it more. Consider this an introduction to the first chapter of this tale. My eyes have been opened but I feel I need to fill this experience with further knowledge. Instead of finding concrete answers more questions have surfaced and they need to be filled before I can speak. I thought I was setting out to develop a story on oil and nature; little did I know I would come out from fire(s) to tell the story of Alberta and its people that live within it.

Up Yours Expedition

I am going up North to Little Buffalo. Taking along a Gonzo inspired writer and nature loving artist. The three of us plan on seeing what all the fuss is all about. I’ll make sure to report back with plenty of documentation. This is all in memory of Poly Styrene and the countless of souls who dared defy whatever norm they were up against.

Expedition: Up Yours.


A Mirrorless Image

I was about to write about Adad Hannah’s work: All is Vanity (Mirrorless Version) to continue the series of artists within Ottawa but how could one consciously write about art in light of what is currently happening? The results of Ottawa’s new political residents have just been announced at the tails of one of the biggest oil spills Alberta has experienced since 1975. Right now we are all busy digesting the results of our new MPs that will make-up the government of Canada: more NDPs, a majority of Conservatives and less Liberals than anyone ever thought imaginable (who’s the Bloc Quebecois?). So I am particularly amazed that I even heard of the oil spill, five days after the fact, as we continue to focus on the age of most of our new MPs or lack of.

The oil spill has managed to leak 4.1 million liters of oil into the Peace River watershed in Northern Alberta. It has contaminated eight acres of Beaver ponds and muskeg. All this has caused Little Buffalo’s school to close down. Reports of sick children, nausea and headaches have surfaced.  The Vice-President of Plains Midstream Canada, Mike Hallaham, has issued an apology and statement that the oil spill has been contained as of May 5th 2011. Ed Stelmach, our trusted Premiere, has issued criticism towards the company but refuses to send Alberta’s Minister of Environment, Rob Renner, to the site of the spill. It seems that the oil company is alone in this one, or is it?

As Ottawa is busy reforming the Government of Canada, our neighbours have been busy, making sure that debate is kept under wraps when it concerns the Big Oil welfare tax. On el 5th of May, the US House of Representatives voted down the potential of legislation to even start debates on the Big Oil welfare tax. I am not even going to begin to questions why such a debate is being kept hush-hush, never will I speculate why such a topic was voted down. That’s the job of an American citizen. As a Canadian, I hold it my responsibility, to look at what our Government is doing regarding our oil-tax subsidies and this is what I’ve managed to uncover within the last couple of hours/days:

1. A group of lawyers, Ecojustice, have been issuing complaints against the Government of Canada in regards to oil-tax subsidies. Since 2005 they have been making a call to the Governor General to investigate oil-tax subsidies. In 2007 they issued a complaint to the House of Finances committee with the result of then Finance Minister Flaherty announcing the phasing out of the Accelerated Capital Cost Allowance (ACCA) but it was slated to happen this year. They’ve continued the call to the Governor General to further investigate on this issue and the complaint is still in progress.

2. The ACCA has allowed for oil and gas companies to claim tax-breaks on new equipment used to acquire precious black gold. But of course, all in the path of creating sustainable equipment. In the meantime Oil and Gas companies continue to invest in new pipelines, their shiny and new. This program is set to be phased between 2011 (this year) and 2015.

3. The International Institute for Sustainable Development has reported that federal subsidies and tax breaks to oil and gas companies is estimated to being 1.4 billion dollars, where 840 million of those dollars come from taxpayers. I wish I had legal documents provided by the Government of Canada to let me know which companies are claiming these tax-breaks. Think parliament will let me see them?

4. The Toronto Star has confirmed, as of May 1st, the government’s intentions of oil-tax subsidies reform. Yes, friends, they are taking a look at oil-tax subsidies.

and finally,

5. In the mean time, Plains Midstream Canada, plans on creating another pipeline, 301 km long! Lucky, since Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach has restricted the operation of the Rainbow pipeline (ya know, the one that has generated the biggest oil spill in Alberta in over 30 years), so the economy is coming back like a champ.  This one is called, Rainbow Pipeline II is exactly the sort of equipment that will benefit from a 100% tax-break, ahem, write-off. Oh, and this initiative started in 2010.

Politely, I say, thanks Government for taking a look at oil-tax subsidies. I’ll continue to be polite and issue a call to sign a petition created on the David Suzuki website, you can sign here (Jack Layton sends you a message):

The first step is to become aware, second to voice our concern and the third will be deliberated as soon as we know where this new federal government stands. But in the meantime consider this an official letter to the Member of Parliament that represents me: Jim Hillyer.