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Is There Such a Thing as 'Ethical Oil'? Canada Claims it Has Lots and the US Is Buying It

Underlying the tar sands debate is a more profound question: Is it OK for some people to suffer as long as many others benefit?

To get to the quaint village of Fort McKay in the far north of Alberta, Canada, you first have to pass through some version of hell.

Perched on the western shore of the Athabasca River, Ft. McKay is home to about 650 people, mostly Aboriginals from the Cree and Dene nations, with a smattering of Métis. The houses wind along the river bluff and spiral back toward the thick stands of fir that are shrouded in snow much of the year. A few log cabins are still around, but most of the homes are new: split level houses with all-weather siding in a few standard colors -- white with blue trim, grey with maroon trim, beige. During the first week of January, many people still had their Christmas lights up, a postcard accompaniment to the puffs of smoke rising from the chimneys.

A generation ago, the trees at the edge of Ft. McKay continued unbroken into the wilderness. Today, the woods go only a short distance before hitting the interruptions of the oil industry -- roads, power lines, smokestacks, and long lakes of hazardous waste surrounded by barbed wire. Ft. McKay sits at the center of the region’s tar sands deposits, and for dozens of miles around the town the forest has been stripped bare. At Suncor’s Steepbank/Millenium mine, humungous earthmovers chug through an arid moonscape, their loaders packed with black sand. At Syncrude’s upgrader -- an enormous complex that transforms ore into synthetic petroleum -- clouds of steam envelop a superstructure of pipes and tanks. Towers tipped with flame punctuate the pall of smoke. The scene resembles a city on fire.

For the residents of Ft. McKay, the industrial encroachment has become a background of white noise. From the front of Ft. McKay’s new daycare and elder center the great billows of a Shell upgrader can be seen to the northeast. The tip of a crane pokes out of the treeline across the river.

“We’re surrounded here, and whichever way the wind blows, we’re getting it. We’re slowly being killed,” Clara Boucher, a 62-year-old resident of Ft. McKay, said to me when I visited. “We have Suncor over there, and Syncrude, and Shell and Albian, and Total over there, and CNLR over there. We are right in the middle of all the oil companies.”

Boucher has long, straight black hair streaked silver and wears eyeglasses with a smoky tint. Her father and, later, her eldest sister were chiefs of the Ft. McKay band during the oil companies’ arrival in the area. In recent years she and another sister have become outspoken critics of the oil industry. “We used to live off the land a long time ago, and now we don’t,” Boucher said over coffee and Indian flatbread. “You have to go a long way to kill a moose, and because of the oil companies there’s hardly any trees. My husband says there’s less ducks than there used to be. He used to go out and come back with thirty ducks. Now he’s lucky if he comes back with eight. I don’t like it, but what can we do?”

That’s the question everyone in Ft. McKay worries about. Many people in the community are afraid that the oil industry is ruining their traditional way of life, making it difficult to hunt, fish, and gather foods from the bush. They fear that the industry’s relentless demand for water to separate crude oil from the deposits of bitumen has compromised the health of the Athabasca River they once got their got their water from. They are scared that the weird smells drifting on the air -- like “cat piss,” one Ft. McKay elder called it -- endanger their health. And yet there is not a person there who doesn’t understand that without the multibillion-dollar oil sands industry they likely would have no livelihood at all.

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