Review: Fort Mac Versus Hiroshima

Alberta for generations was famous for mountains, rodeos, Mormonism, football, Ukrainian culture, meatpacking and Social Credit. Say “Alberta” today and any focus group replies, “oil”. That’s no accident, writes Prof. Geo Takach of Royal Roads University. From the 1947 oil strike at Leduc Number One, “resource extraction became heroic”. Alberta’s very identity was intertwined with oil sands production, for better and worse.

Tar Wars documents this modern cultural phenomenon. Takach calls it framing: “The concept of framing has roots in the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry. When we frame something, we make meaning of it as we locate, perceive, identify and label it.”

It need not be valid or even accurate, or distinguishable from crude propaganda. Tar Wars covers all angles. “Albertans transcend what one scholar aptly capsulized as ‘the ghoulish image of Alberta that haunts the imagination of many progressive Canadians’,” writes Takach.

Yet Albertans themselves framed the oil sands as the “engine of Canada’s economy”, a self-serving slogan that asserted the wellbeing of every family was linked to the stock price of Imperial Oil. Tell that to Goderich, Ont. when they closed the Volvo road grader factory, or Charlottetown when the $1 billion lobster fishery collapsed. Canada is a $2 trillion economy. We are bigger than Encana Corp.

“Beyond Alberta, the bit sands” – short for bitumen sands – “has become an escalating magnet for international interest and controversy,” writes Takach. Tar Wars bookends the thesis with two media spectacles.

One is a chirpy 2006 episode of CBS’ 60 Minutes that depicted Fort McMurray as a “boomtown” where “there is so much money to be made”. The TV story breathlessly chronicled billions in investment “bigger than a gold rush”, with throwaway quibbles from a Sierra Club naysayer.

The other bookend is Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives On The Alberta Tar Sands, an unnerving film featuring long, agonizing bird’s-eye views of open pit mines like gaping wounds in a pristine forest, accompanied “by a haunting, tonal soundscape with a rhythm suggesting a heartbeat.”

Somewhere between Boomtown and Black Death is a depiction of reality. Tar Wars looks for it. The search is compelling and clever. It dramatizes conflicting facts and imagery of the oil sands through familiar slogans: “Alberta is energy”; “Albertans are doing their best”; “Alberta is a safer, friendlier and more democratic source of oil than petro-dictatorships.”

Prof. Takach cites a 2013 documentary Oil Sands Karaoke that profiled community life in Fort McMurray, specifically to counter the “dark, disturbed, Hiroshima-like landscapes” outside of town. “We see karaoke singers, poured cocktails, a gargantuan warehouse interior, massive haul-trucks, rowdy pub dancers, a quiet residential street” – you get the picture.

Of course Alberta is more than the smell of jobs. Oil Sands Karaoke filmmaker Charles Wilkinson is quoted, “Raising issues like the science of climate change in Alberta is walking on eggshells all the time. It feels like you’ve walked onto the set of Fox News. As an Albertan myself, I’m really troubled by that. We should be able to talk about this stuff. We shouldn’t get angry at each other and label each other.”

By Holly Doan

Tar Wars: Oil, Environment and Alberta’s Image, by Geo Takach; University of Alberta Press; 256 pages; ISBN 9781-77212-1407; $34.95

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