In the middle of it all

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[mk_dropcaps style=”simple-style”]O[/mk_dropcaps]IL HAS BEEN TAKEN from the land around Fort McKay since 1966. Before that, the Cree, Métis and Dene of Fort McKay lived off the land. We had everything we needed — material to build houses, food — and we made money by selling fur. As a 10-year-old, I was very content with how we lived. We worked hard, and when things needed to get done, we worked together as a family. That changed when the Great Canadian Oil Sands company ­first appeared in 1966.

Compared to today’s oilsands companies, it was a small operation, but to us it was massive. At first, people were aghast at how it took up our land. Worse, in those days there weren’t exactly strict environmental regulations, so people were upset at the damage the operation caused. However, many of us still made a good living trapping until 1985 when Europe changed its laws on importing trapped furs. Our economy fell apart. People who were making decent wages as trappers suddenly had nothing. Eventually it grew hard to ignore the jobs available in the oilsands industry.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”2/3″][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]It was then that we chose to work with industry, so we could have a say about how they operated around us. We went from opposing the development of the oilsands to having a dialogue with industry in an effort to resolve the concerns of the people with respect to its operation. It was a big change, brought about partially by necessity, but it’s worked well for Fort McKay.

We have a good highway to the south, our family sizes are starting to stabilize, and people have reliable access to health care. Last fall we reached virtually no unemployment — a big change from 1986 when around 80 per cent of our people were out of work. We’re developing a long-term care facility for the elders and building a youth centre, which will include a radio station. It’s hasn’t always been easy, but now the community is very upbeat.

There are still environmental concerns, and not everybody is happy, but the reality of the situation is that any community next to valuable resources needs to either find a way to work with industry, or have no say in their development. I think what Fort McKay has done right is that we took our time. We were faced with a choice, and we chose to work with industry. The relationship with the oilsands industry has evolved over decades, which is the way it should happen when the lifestyle of your people is fundamentally changing.

It will continue to change too. The oil industry in Canada is undergoing a tumultuous time. To survive, I think the oilsands are going to have to be creative and ­figure out how to put a sustainable product on the market. But no matter what they do, the oilsands have to adapt. So will the people of Fort McKay. We’ve faced many adversaries in the past, including residential schools and unwanted development, but we’ve found solutions that work for us, and we will continue to do so. The trick is patience. It’s not about how fast you can get somewhere; it’s about how good you are when you get there.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text disable_pattern=”true” align=”left” margin_bottom=”0″]

– by Jim Boucher, chief of Fort McKay First Nation (as told to Thomas Hall)

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Fort McKay: By the numbers

1820: The year Fort McKay was established by the Hudson’s Bay Company
58: The number of kilometres it is north of Fort McMurray
562: Total population
5: The number by which men outnumber women
28.7: The median age
71.1: Percentage of the population aged 15 and over
220: Number of residents under 18
$66,110: Average income of people older than 15 with jobs
$23,739: Median income of people older than 15 with jobs
$118,228: Average household total income
35: Number of people older than 15 without an income
8.17: Area of Fort McKay in square kilometres
155: Number of detached houses

source: 2011 Census and National Household Survey[/vc_column_text][/mk_custom_box][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″]
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Read more stories from the Winter 2016 issue of Energy Exchange magazine[/mk_button][/vc_column][/vc_row]