Seven Ways to Tell the Truth About Oil
Breaking the oil and gas industry's hold on the arts and my history.
This has been a year of losses, a chain of challenges and crises. I am not a fan of the “silver lining,” but since things started going wrong last summer, I can feel myself changing. I am getting harder in the places where it’s needed, and softer in the places that matter.
I came back to Brooklyn last week after two weeks in Canada. Call it spring break. I was there to help my mother through her surgery. I was also there to give a performance of Tar Sands Songbook at Carleton University. It’s my one-woman-show about my hometown of Fort McMurray, Alberta—a place that’s transformed, in my lifetime, into the largest and most destructive industrial project in human history.
It’s been seven years, this month, since I first started the Tar Sands project. In Ottawa, our host opened the after-show discussion by asking how this work has changed me.
I said, “I’m learning how to tell the truth.” Another way to say it is this: I am learning that I will always be coming to terms with my place in this disaster.
I added, “I am learning how to keep the truth.” Another way to say this: I am training to become an elder. I was born in 1970. In 17 years, I will be 70.1
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Truth: Music has everything to do with oil.
In a place like Fort McMurray, it isn’t always easy to tell the truth. When a single extraction industry controls the landscape, they can come to control the culture, too.
As a child, I could see how oil was a path of both possibility and peril. When the CBC broke the story about global warming in 1983, I was paying close attention. I saw how oil saturated everything around me. I figured there were two paths forward. One involved working, directly or indirectly, for oil. The would bring something beautiful to the world.
I decided to become a musician because I thought music had nothing to do with oil.
What I couldn’t see then was how oil was the condition of my choice. Oil money (royalties, industry donations) brought the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra to a school gymnasium in Fort McMurray, where my mother heard a symphony orchestra for the first time. Oil brought the music professor to the University of Alberta, who brought the Suzuki violin program to Alberta College, where I started to play the violin. Oil built the structures and convened the programs at the Banff Centre for the Arts, where I first learned that there was a talent development “pipeline” that could carry me out of Alberta, and all the way to New York City. A grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts — funded by oil royalties — paid for the planet ticket I needed to get to my audition.
Music, like everything else in my life, has everything to do with oil.
Truth: The Social License to Operate can be revoked
Sponsorship of the arts—and athletics, education, and recreation—is one of the ways by which extraction industries secure our consent to do harm. They tie their corporate name to things that we love in an effort to be seen as a good corporate citizen.
In the language of Corporate Social Responsibility, it’s called the “Social License to Operate.” It stands for the acceptance, trust and legitimacy a company seeks from the people closest to an extraction site—local communities, employees, the people who are the most likely to notice, and be impacted by, its harms.
When Alberta Premier Ernest Manning officially opened the Great Canadian Oil Sands project in 1967, he spelled out the contract in Disney-like terms:
Beneath and behind every worthwhile industrial project there should always be a worthwhile purpose or motivating objective. That purpose must not be merely to make money for a group of investors or provide jobs for a group of employees. The motivating objective must be to produce something that mankind needs for the enhancement of his well-being on this earth. Not merely a higher material standard of living, but the creation of social and economic conditions in which free and creative men and women can best develop their individual talents, fulfill their hopes and aspirations and make their personal dreams come true.
Who wouldn't want their personal dreams to come true? This intoxicating emulsion—oil, dreams and economic development—advanced a series of irredeemable promises. That profit and purpose could be united; that oil could meet the needs of a global market, while making the world a better place; that nobody would get hurt. If you accept these terms, then oil is a morally invigorating choice.
If you can’t accept them, then you have to keep quiet.
The Social License is not typically expressed as an affirmation of consent. Rather, it’s expressed in a general silence about negative impacts. When you gain the benefits of industry (archaic now, but for a time these included such essentials as safe and affordable housing, stable employment, pensions, good public schools, and a chance to ascend in socioeconomic status) you accept the terms of the contract. And then, the contract becomes binding.
It’s not like anyone asked you, anyhow. A small number of people hold all the power and profit. You learn to keep quiet, or you leave. If you question the moral order, someone will quickly stand in to correct you.
In this manner, oil is like an abusive partner who says, “Without me, you’re nothing. You’re no one. And no one else will have you.”
Truth: You don’t have to accept an ultimatum
In Canada, my mother had a hip replacement. It was a surgery she’d been planning to have in Florida, before Hurricane Ian hastened her departure from the home she’d made and loved.
The day before my mother’s surgery, my brother called. He was driving from Seattle to Edmonton because our father died. I knew that my father was ill, but not that his life was ending. My father was distant to me in every way. If I am to put it generously, our relationship was a casualty of the intersection of patriarchy and the working class. It’s simplest to say that when I was a child, he set the terms of our relationship in such a way that I could not both be myself and be loved.
When I was a young woman of 22, he called me to a meeting at the Calgary airport hotel. He asked me to decide, on the spot, whether or not I would be his daughter. I was already his daughter, I said. What did he mean by my “being” his daughter. How could he revoke what I already am?
He wouldn’t, or couldn’t, explain, so I ignored his ultimatum. All the same, it shocked our relationship into a thirty-year silence. Over time, this silence became a blank wall upon which others projected their own interpretations. For example, I must have done something to deserve this. Or, that I needed to accept my responsibility in this; that it was something “between” my father and me, that required a nauseating appeal to my sense of “balance” or “fairness.”
I did try to break the silence, several times. The last of these was in 2020, in an Edmonton hotel room. My father sat with me, but did not speak to me. He nudged my brother’s dog gently with his foot, and I recognized myself in his gesture.
In 1992, there were only two of us present at the airport hotel. Now I am the only one alive. So let it be said that I am, and will always be, his daughter. This is an essential truth onto which I hold fast as I move slowly through a complicated grief. This is a loss that is difficult to discuss, so it’s important to name what can be known.
Truth: Sometimes there are not “two sides” to a story
There are two lives in the story of my father and me, but there are not two sides. The idea of “two sides” is a false equivalence, a logical fallacy that suggests any given view has a legitimate opposing view.
Sometimes there is only the truth, and it is obvious. When this is the case, one can only sustain “two sides” by ignoring the truth and distorting the conversation.
Climate change reporting has been riddled with false equivalence for decades—scientists up against spokespeople for industry-funded think tanks, scientists paid for by public relations firms paid for by industry, advertorials, etc. It’s the result of a deliberate, sustained, and well-funded campaign to amplify the corporate voice above all others, and remove the possibility of public conversation.
I didn’t tell my mother the news about my father right away. I had a class to teach, and whatever her reaction, I wanted to be present to her. But when I told her she was steady. She and my father had been divorced for over 40 years. She has the habit of reading the obituaries in Edmonton, Calgary, and Thompson, Manitoba every day, and she is no stranger to death.
She said, “It’s good that he won’t suffer any longer.” She sent a respectful and loving message to his widow. She did the best and most we can do.
Truth: More lives are saved by regular people than professionals
My mother’s surgery went well. Orthopedic surgery, as I know it, is a Home Depot miracle performed with saws, screws, and drills. Once the surrounding tissues get over the insults, the outcomes are functional and deeply satisfying.
In Ontario, despite deep cuts and privatization of the public health care system, my mother has been well cared for. It wasn’t a straight path. In short, she was released on restricted mobility, without the support she needed to care for her basic needs, and the guidelines we received were not easy to understand, and sometimes conflicting.
My experience navigating the American commercial medicine system was useful as I made the rounds of social workers, nurses and case managers. What was different in Canada was that the people I spoke with shared a public memory upon which we could draw. Because they could remember a time when things were better funded, they could perceive the gap between the care my mother was ordered, and the care actually needed. They could see that this was not right, so they performed actions to make it different. They said, “It shouldn't be like this; let me see what I can do.” They returned emails and calls after hours; on weekends and evenings.
Compare this to the United States, where people seem to find a system where some people get to live longer, more healthier lives than others to be surprisingly tolerable. They agree that this is the way it is, and so there is nothing to be done.
In Canada, in short order, my mother’s room was visited by a steady stream of nurses, physical therapists, personal support workers, and new friends who checked in on, cared for, and advocated for her. I sat at the desk in the next room, working on the computer, eavesdropping as my mother and her friends ran generous, loose laps around decades of memory. Their conversations left me feeling calm. I could see a way forward, where she was cared for. Decades of research on collective behavior in crises consistently shows that more lives are saved by regular people—bystanders, fellow survivors—than by professionals.
Early in the morning and late at night, I took the dog to the park. My mother’s care home sits on a street that ends where Lake Ontario begins. I am still walking 10,000 steps a day, and Finn is always angling for more. I watched him negotiate agreements with other dogs, and when there were no others, he carved his own generous laps around the fields, charging at geese, smashing his body through puddles with obvious pleasure. We were awake and alive.
Truth: This is my real job
I have not performed much since Covid, brian surgery, etc. I was nervous when I went to Ottawa, but it was a relief to resume a familiar activity.
Performing is strenuous, but I’ve been doing it all my life. I know how to put on a show.
I know how to pick good partners: the kind of people who one can depend on completely, and trust to negotiate the sudden coming-together of a tiny tribe and its precipitous dissolution at the end of a run. I know how to cater an airbnb kitchen and stock a bar for three on a budget. I know that it doesn’t matter whether I practiced or not, because the moment I cross the threshold into performance I know that I am good enough.
A performance, when you do it right, is an invisible structure through which no destructive objects can pass. We make a room into a temporary nation; a space of sovereignty and collective action.
Everything around performance is costly and burdensome: travel, logistics, spreadsheets, packing, technological problems, payment systems, and far too many hours spent on the computer writing emails. There’s the labour of moving your body to another city; loading in, and sound check; plane delays and parking; and figuring out what to eat and where. But come downbeat, or curtain, I experience a tremendous, focused, power. I know that for the next 90 minutes, nothing bad will happen here. I have a job to do. I need to let the audience know that they have come to the right place and that they are in good hands. I need to gently open a window through which we can walk into the knowledge of how bad things truly are, and how much good remains, and how beautiful we can be if we stay in an honest relationship to ourselves, to one another, and the places we come from.
This, I know, is my real job.
Truth: We can all do this work
Look, I write this from a space of persistent disillusionment in my field, which too often serves to legitimize and decorate the durable forces of oppression. But telling the truth in our own lives is something we all can, and must, do.
The morning of my show, I was invited to the CBC studios to record an interview with Stu Mills, who was filling in on the drive-home show. He asked me about a claim I made, that I didn’t intend this piece to be performed in cities and concert halls and performing arts centers, but in living rooms and community halls along the pipeline, truck and rail routes that carry Alberta oil and its byproducts to the global market.
He asked what it would be like to perform the piece not in Ottawa city centre, but out in oil country. He threw in a couple of images; trucks idling, and worn-out steel-toed boots. I knew where he was going in his mind: for 23 days a little over a year ago, the streets around the CBC studios were forcibly occupied by the “Freedom Convoy,” a blockade of hundreds of semi trucks, pickups, and tens of thousands of right-wing protestors. They were protesting Covid restrictions, but there was a lot of overlap with populist expressions of Petro-masculinity.
I got the sense that he wanted to know if I would be afraid. I said these are my cousins, my uncles, and my nephews. They’re family. And they’re your family, too. it’s easy for the rest of the country to point the finger at Alberta, but we’re all implicated, and we’re all indivisible in our fates.
He asked me, “Is this work something we all can and should do?” This work of looking back at where we’ve come from; of understanding what happens when industry collapses.
I said it’s something we can do, and we need to do.
The opposite of extractivism is reciprocity and relationship. When we become our own historians, we remember that things have been otherwise in the past, and that things could be otherwise again. To do the work of memory is not to be mired in the past: it is to ensure that we have a future.
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Another way still. 2023 and 1970 are distant as 1970 and 1917.