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Tar sands

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David Nisbet

on 22 April 2010

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Transcript of Tar sands

Tar Sands Our Story, Kristin Reimer & Louis Helbig

Our Tar Sands story begins with a flight across the country in an antique aircraft - a 1946 Luscombe – a make that hasn’t existed for almost 50 years. Each flight begins not by the turn of a key, but by taking hold of the propeller and physically throwing it down. On August 3, 2008, Louis threw down that propeller and we headed west.
The boundaries of our trip were few and far between: we were due at a wedding in Calgary in mid-August, we wanted to visit Louis’ family in the interior of British Columbia, and we felt a strong call to see Fort McMurray and the Tar Sands. Beyond that, for six weeks, we were free to explore Canada.

Flying across Canada with a little airplane is a grand experience. Grand for the spectacular, unending vastness that is our country, a photographer’s dream of ever-changing terrain, patterns, weather and light. Even grander, though, are the people, at the little community airports on the outskirts of most Canadian towns.

Our journey did eventually take us to Fort McMurray, no small feat in our tiny plane. Like most Canadians we knew about the tar sands, or thought we did. It’s hard to miss their influence. Tens if not hundreds of thousands lured by the promise of good pay, a new and better reality. It is a promise with a huge footprint, oil and tar, not confined to Fort McMurray but spread across the province of Alberta, into its cities and across its borders into Saskatchewan and BC. It’s a promise extending across the entire country.

The Alberta Tar Sands are a place of superlatives, a place of awesome beauty and destruction where exaggeration of scale and proportion seems almost impossible. Leaving aside the politics that surround them or their technical specifics, the Tar Sands are simply awe-inspiring. With every twist and turn of the airplane, another incredible scene presents itself, followed by another. It’s a linear kaleidoscope of contrasts, colours, and patterns garnished by the movement of machinery below, smoke and effluent; the scene resetting, again and again, as the paint of photography – light – makes its daily changes. Morning, mid-day, evening, the passing of clouds.

Since our trip, the Tar Sands have become a bigger part of our life than we had ever expected. As Louis has developed a factual understanding of what he photographed, he’s returned full circle to the visual images as most accurately speaking truth to power in Northern Alberta. The Tar Sands and their development seem suspended in a web of misinformation, half-truths, spin and outright deceit as different parties with various points of view and vested interests attempt to manipulate public opinion. Our problem might, in the end, not be that the Tar Sands are good or bad or ugly, but that they are allowed to occur essentially without real examination or substantive debate.

Have we as Canadians abdicated our responsibility for what we are doing in our own backyard? The Tar Sands permeate almost every element of Canadian society, economy, culture, environment, our relationships with each other, and even our identity. It seems, however, that industry and environmentalists and not a few government officials & politicians are mostly content to stoke a caricature of a debate in Canada, that pivots around us vs. them: East vs. West, Toronto vs. Calgary, industry vs. environmentalists. The substantive meaningful debates are taking place in the United States or Europe, defining us – Canadians and Canadian society – in absentia. Our hope is that these images will encourage all Canadians to start talking and asking questions; engaging with the photos, each other and the issue of the Tar Sands.
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