What Happens When an Ancient Culture Strikes Black Gold

On the land where their ancestors thrived for thousands of years, an epic oil boom brings Canada’s indigenous people unprecedented riches—and makes them fear the future.

What Happens When an Ancient Culture Strikes Black Gold

In 1899, the Queen of England and 39 indigenous Canadian groups signed the now-notorious Treaty 8 land agreement. The signing chiefs were assured that their land, culture and traditional means of livelihood — namely, hunting and trapping — would be preserved and respected “as long as the sun shines.”

Propane cannons and scarecrows are used to scare away migratory birds so they don't land in a tailings pond owned by Suncor Energy, the second-largest Canadian oil sands operation. The oil sands use 349 million cubic meters of water per year, twice the amount of water used by the city of Calgary. Most of this water ends up in massive tailings ponds that leach toxins into the nearby Athabasca River. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
Propane cannons and scarecrows are used to scare away migratory birds so they don’t land in a tailings pond owned by Suncor Energy, the second-largest Canadian oil sands operation. The oil sands use 349 million cubic meters of water per year, twice the amount of water used by the city of Calgary. Most of this water ends up in massive tailings ponds that leach toxins into the nearby Athabasca River. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
In an area that was once covered by boreal forest, a scarecrow now prevents birds from landing in the Syncrude Oil Sands tailings ponds. (Ian Willms)
In an area that was once covered by boreal forest, a scarecrow now prevents birds from landing in the Syncrude Oil Sands tailings ponds. (Ian Willms)

As recently as the 1960s, the First Nation reserve of Fort McKay, on the Athabasca River in northern Alberta’s boreal forest, had no running water, the people lived in shacks, and there were no roads connecting it to the rest of Canada. They sustained themselves through hunting and trapping, as their ancestors had for thousands of years. But as 83-year-old elder Zackary Powder says, “It’s not like it used to be. Everything has changed.”

A tar-like substance known as bitumen, which lies embedded in the earth beneath the boreal forest here, was the foundation for transformation. Once used to waterproof the canoes of the region’s aboriginal people, bitumen-laced sand, or “oil sand,” has become one of the fastest growing sources of energy in the world. Over the last twenty years, the Canadian government has leased out vast swaths of indigenous territory to the world’s largest energy corporations in order to develop the oil sands.

Smog is seen over the Athabasca River, a place where archeological remains of First Nations people date back more than 3,000 years. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
Smog is seen over the Athabasca River, a place where archeological remains of First Nations people date back more than 3,000 years. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
The Shell Jackpine Oil Sands tailings pond is seen from a helicopter. This land is part of the traditional territory of the Fort McKay First Nation and used to be covered in forest. (Ian Willms)
The Shell Jackpine Oil Sands tailings pond is seen from a helicopter. This land is part of the traditional territory of the Fort McKay First Nation and used to be covered in forest. (Ian Willms)

Developing this resource involves an energy-intensive process of strip-mining and chemical upgrading, which leaves behind lakes of toxic waste that are large enough to be visible from space. Today the Athabasca Oil Sands have grown into the world’s largest and most environmentally contentious energy project. Some indigenous communities in the region have reported abnormally high instances of cancer, miscarriages, lupus, skin abscesses and other ailments. Their traditional economies of hunting, fishing and fur trading have been decimated due to a lack of healthy wildlife in the area.

Today, the First Nations of northern Alberta are caught between the relatively new reality of doing business in a modern economy and the preservation of a way of life that many of them consider sacred. The younger generations are learning skilled trades rather than traditional means of subsistence and spiritual practices. Their parents are caught between the need to provide and feelings of grief over their fading culture. Just one generation ago, a hunter could dip a cup over the side of his boat and drink water directly from Lake Athabasca. Today, even the treated tap water in Fort McKay is unfit for human consumption. While the people of Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan, 100 miles to the north, now enjoy luxuries and modern comforts like never before, they are no longer able to sustain themselves via the land that nurtured their families for thousands of years.

Mark John L'Hommecourt embraces Amanda Grandjambe while bathing in a creek off of the Athabasca River near the historic Poplar Point Reserve. This is where L'Hommecourt spends his time in the "bush" away from Fort McKay. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
Mark John L’Hommecourt embraces Amanda Grandjambe while bathing in a creek off of the Athabasca River near the historic Poplar Point Reserve. This is where L’Hommecourt spends his time in the “bush” away from Fort McKay. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
Nadia Bouchier and her son, Dylan, of the Fort McKay First Nation, share a loving embrace one morning. (Ian Willms)
Nadia Bouchier and her son, Dylan, of the Fort McKay First Nation, share a loving embrace one morning. (Ian Willms)

A deer sits half-skinned on the L'Hommecourt trap line, located next to Imperial Oil's Kearl Oil Sands project. Trap lines are partitions of land allocated to individuals and families for trapping. Most have cabins and often serve as family getaways into the bush. Many of the region’s trap lines have been excavated by the oil sands industry, and the title holders receive compensation. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
A deer sits half-skinned on the L’Hommecourt trap line, located next to Imperial Oil’s Kearl Oil Sands project. Trap lines are partitions of land allocated to individuals and families for trapping. Most have cabins and often serve as family getaways into the bush. Many of the region’s trap lines have been excavated by the oil sands industry, and the title holders receive compensation. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
Raymond Ladouceur stands over the remains of a moose near Fort Chipewyan, on land where his ancestors have hunted for thousands of years. A 2006 study by the Suncor Oil Company found the presence of arsenic in moose meat in the region was 453 times higher than acceptable levels. (Ian Willms)
Raymond Ladouceur stands over the remains of a moose near Fort Chipewyan, on land where his ancestors have hunted for thousands of years. A 2006 study by the Suncor Oil Company found the presence of arsenic in moose meat in the region was 453 times higher than acceptable levels. (Ian Willms)

Fuel barrels rest on a clearing near an oil sands operation just outside Fort McKay First Nation territory. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
Fuel barrels rest on a clearing near an oil sands operation just outside Fort McKay First Nation territory. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
The Syncrude Oil Sands upgrader, located on Fort McKay First Nation territory. (Ian Willms)
The Syncrude Oil Sands upgrader, located on Fort McKay First Nation territory. (Ian Willms)

Garnet Ahyasou reaches for his gun while hunting at Fort McKay's Moose Lake Reserve, west of Fort McKay First Nation. Suncor provides free flights to First Nation members, transporting them to their historic hunting grounds each summer. A newly approved development called the Dover Project will soon border Moose Lake. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
Garnet Ahyasou reaches for his gun while hunting at Fort McKay’s Moose Lake Reserve, west of Fort McKay First Nation. Suncor provides free flights to First Nation members, transporting them to their historic hunting grounds each summer. A newly approved development called the Dover Project will soon border Moose Lake. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
A young Métis man hunting for ducks on his ancestors’ traditional territory near Fort Chipewyan. (Ian Willms)
A young Métis man hunting for ducks on his ancestors’ traditional territory near Fort Chipewyan. (Ian Willms)

A map of oil sands leases hangs on the wall of the sustainability department of Fort McKay First Nation. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
A map of oil sands leases hangs on the wall of the sustainability department of Fort McKay First Nation. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
A typical living room in Fort Chipewyan shows a dichotomy between modern comforts and traditional indigenous culture. (Ian Willms)
A typical living room in Fort Chipewyan shows a dichotomy between modern comforts and traditional indigenous culture. (Ian Willms)

Guests during the wedding ceremony for Crystal and Oren Boucher in the Fort McKay First Nation Church. The groom, who was a longtime employee of Suncor, had terminal colon cancer at the time of his wedding; he passed away one year later. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
Guests during the wedding ceremony for Crystal and Oren Boucher in the Fort McKay First Nation Church. The groom, who was a longtime employee of Suncor, had terminal colon cancer at the time of his wedding; he passed away one year later. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
A young couple mourns their miscarried child during her funeral in Fort McKay. Some local healthcare professionals say miscarriages, cancer and other ailments have seen a dramatic increase in recent years. (Ian Willms)
A young couple mourns their miscarried child during her funeral in Fort McKay. Some local healthcare professionals say miscarriages, cancer and other ailments have seen a dramatic increase in recent years. (Ian Willms)

Flora G randjambe, 86, stands for a portrait in her home in Fort McKay. At sixteen years old, Grandjambe impressed her father when she killed a deer with her bare hands by drowning it in the river. She and her brother James, now 94, are the oldest residents of the community. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
Flora Grandjambe, 86, stands for a portrait in her home in Fort McKay. At sixteen years old, Grandjambe impressed her father when she killed a deer with her bare hands by drowning it in the river. She and her brother James, now 94, are the oldest residents of the community. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
Louie Ladouceur performs a traditional smudge ceremony, using sage and an eagle's feather, at his home on the Mikisew Cree First Nation Reserve in Fort Chipewyan. (Ian Willms)
Louie Ladouceur performs a traditional smudge ceremony, using sage and an eagle’s feather, at his home on the Mikisew Cree First Nation Reserve in Fort Chipewyan. (Ian Willms)

Since November 2011, water has been delivered to every home in Fort McKay after the community realized they had been drinking water with high levels of the carcinogenic chemical trihalomethanes. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
Since November 2011, water has been delivered to every home in Fort McKay after the community realized they had been drinking water with high levels of the carcinogenic chemical trihalomethanes. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
Local children write messages on the back of their school bus in Fort Chipewyan. (Ian Willms)
Local children write messages on the back of their school bus in Fort Chipewyan. (Ian Willms)

The northern lights are seen over Fort McKay's Moose Lake Reserve. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
The northern lights are seen over Fort McKay’s Moose Lake Reserve. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
The northern lights over Fort Chipewyan's main cemetery. (Ian Willms)
The northern lights over Fort Chipewyan’s main cemetery. (Ian Willms)

Mark L'Hommecourt smokes a cigarette on a lookout in the Fort McKay reserve. L'Hommecourt is adamantly against the destruction of his land by industry, but works for the oil companies due to the lack of other opportunities in the region. He says this creates deep conflict within him. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
Mark L’Hommecourt smokes a cigarette on a lookout in the Fort McKay reserve. L’Hommecourt is adamantly against the destruction of his land by industry, but works for the oil companies due to the lack of other opportunities in the region. He says this creates deep conflict within him. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim)
A member of the Fort McKay First Nation looks out on the lights from oil sands industry sites that now surround her former hunting territory. (Ian Willms)
A member of the Fort McKay First Nation looks out on the lights from oil sands industry sites that now surround her former hunting territory. (Ian Willms)

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This week of Narratively stories is a collaboration with Boreal Collective, which is the common ground between ten internationally-based photographers. From August 14-16, they are presenting the 3rd “Boreal Bash” in Toronto, featuring workshops, speakers and portfolio reviews.