Sleeping With the Devil — Vantage —

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  • Sleeping With the Devil

    Aaron Vincent Elkaims photographs document a community trading its way oflife to Big Oil

    Surrounded by the Athabasca tar sands of northern Alberta, the forest town of FortMckay is far from pretty much everything. For the small First Nation communityof Cree and Dene tribes that live there though, the remove hasnt kept things fromgetting crowded.

    The oil industry has been expanding in Albertas forests for years, steadily eroding

  • the basis for centuries of tradition and ways of life. With much of their water, land,fishing and hunting already compromised, community leaders decided around 2008to quit resisting the inevitable and instead work with their new neighbors. The ar-rangement has since brought them a degree of economic advantage, but to some itsakin to a deal with the devil.

    In their identity and their culture, theyre very connected to the land, says Toronto-based photographer Aaron Vincent Elkaim, who documented the community of FortMckay from 2011 to 2013. They cant eat the fish from the river, theres no berriesgrowing anymore that they can really eat the industry is so invasive to the land-scape that its really clearing everything inch by inch, mile by mile.

    The tribal leaders in Ft. Mckay formed a local consortium to engage with Sunco, theoil and gas giant who are mining at the very edge of their reserve. The deal was to al-low operations to continue uninterrupted in exchange for work opportunities for

  • their community.

    Performing jobs like driving water trucks or providing catering and custodialservices, the tribal communities of Fort Mckay have opportunities that didnt existbefore. In the process though, theyre also supporting the very industry that is inex-orably compromising the local environment and upending their traditional way oflife.

    That money goes back to housing, to infrastructure, it goes into payments to the peo-ple in straight annual cash, payments for supporting kids, says Elkaim. It is theinevitablethey understand thisbut for them its better to benefit than just sitthere and watch and get screwed by it. And they are getting screwed, because at thesame time theyre making money but theyre losing the foundations of who they are.

    Google hasnt bothered to send a street view car to Fort Mckay, but from above you

  • can still get a good look at just how much its hemmed in by Suncos bitumen gather-ing operations. Just down river from Ft. Mckay the former city of Fort McMurray,now an urban service area, houses Suncors diaspora of employees (Google has senta car there).

    The companys upstream production is around two million barrels a year. That mightsound like a lot, but its a fraction of the nearly 174 billion barrels sitting in Canadastar sands.

    The tar sands are an absolute boon for Canadas export industry, and efforts to minethem continue to expand with the conservative governments support, leaving localcommunities with little choice but to play ball or find a new place to live.

  • They used to fight against the industry, because when it began the river was gettingpolluted, and thats where they got their fish from, and their water source was gettingpolluted so they were really getting pissed off, used road blocks and these kinds ofthings, Elkaim says.

    This community, that had their entire history going back thousands of years, wasconnected to this landscape, and they had a way of life that 30 years ago was more orless entirely traditional.

  • After hearing about the situation in Ft. Mckay, Elkaim decided to photograph the cur-rent state of the community. Without any response from local authorities to hisinquiries, he drove up in November of 2011 and parked his rented camper in a clear-ing near the center of town.

    His early days there were roughleaders were in no hurry to talk about their situa-tion with a journalist, and locals had no idea what this outsider with a camera was upto. The man that ended up being his key contact in the region at first thought he wastrouble, and followed him back to his car before he could explain his purpose.

    He told me, you dont know how lucky you areI thought you were a drug dealerand I was gonna roll you.

  • Instead of roughing him up, the man arranged for Elkaim to stay with his mother.Over the next four months, Elkaim got to know the community and gather impres-sions of how things had changed.

    While hes a firsthand witness with clear sight of the facts of the situation, hes carefulnot to make statements on locals behalf about their feelings on the issue. Some seemto be open to the change or at least indifferent, while others seem to wrestle deeplywith the cost of the deal.

  • Archaeological records indicate the Dene have lived near Fort Mckay for thousandsof years. The Cree first arrived when the fur industry found its way into Northern Al-berta a few hundred years ago. But the shift in their way of life has happened veryquickly, largely over the last 30 years.

    The elders grew up with dog sleds and they got all their food from the rivers andthe land and hunting, and it was a very traditional life, and that changed so rapidly,Elkaim says. In Canada the native situation is similar to the States in many ways, inthat most communities are very poortheyre very impoverished in Canada, housesare falling apart, theyre dependent on the government in all their money, so in thecase of Fort Mckay, theyre completely financially independent and they have goodjobs, well paying jobs, and have everything they need financially, so that is a hugebenefit in economic terms comparatively to other indigenous people.

  • The series, called Sleeping With the Devil after a phrase one of the community eldersused to describe the situation, is not a critique of industry per se, but a study of a peo-ple undergoing a radical shift in their way of life due to the incredible power of mar-ket forces.

    There is no shortage of photography documenting the sprawling reach and effects ofthe oil industry, and the sociopolitical and environmental impact is well documented.To visually portray the tension between new opportunity and lost tradition, Elkaimpointed his camera at the people who were experiencing it.

    I was always trying to find them when they were engaging the land, and their rela-tionship to it, because to me thats whats being lost, he says.

  • Elkaim is a founding member of the Boreal Collective, a group of Canadian photogra-phers interested in documenting social and environmental injustice.

    The documenting of Fort Mckay is part of a larger series of three stories that will formthe basis of a book about how native communities around the world negotiate the ar-rival of creeping industry on their land. It aims to raise awareness and lead to helpfor those in similar situations. In the case of Fort Mckay the outcome seems prettymuch sealed.

    I think it is a before it goes away kind of thing, he says. Theyre in that placewhere theyre nostalgic for it and they can still do it, its still accessible, but theyknow its kind of over in a way, its ending the lights of the industry will be rightnext to you at night, you will hear them. That sense of being in the land completelywill be gone, itll be corrupted.

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