Fort McKay Trapline, Alberta, Canada, Sleeping with the Devil, July 2012. In the 1960’s the First Nation Reserve of Fort McKay situated 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 off a traditional economy of hunting and trapping as their ancestors did for thousands of years. But as 83-year-old elder Zackary Powder says, “Its not like it used to be, everything has changed.”
Situated 63 km north of the boomtown of Fort McMurray, Fort McKay has watched as the world’s largest and most environmentally destructive energy project, the Athabasca Oil Sands, has grown to surround them. With the futility of resistance evident the people of Fort McKay eventually decided to partner with industry. Entrepreneurial endeavors, employment and industry compensations have provided economic prosperity the likes of which few Canadian First Nations have experienced.
In McKay an inner conflict exists as the community struggles to maintain their cultural values, land and traditions while simultaneously profiting off their destruction. As the land and water succumb to pollution, the health of the community suffers with high rates of cancer, miscarriage and other illnesses. The Athabasca River is polluted, and the wildlife that once supported their traditional lives is now rarely seen. In a country where the norm for Native reserves is high poverty, unemployment and dismal housing, Fort McKay is seen as an economic success story. The people here know the truth is much more complicated.