Sad for Alberta




Tar Sands


Alberta is just one of Canada’s ten provinces, but it has always held a special place in the national mythology. I am grateful that I was among the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who escaped from drab Toronto, and eventually found my way to this great province. That’s why I’m so sad about what’s happening there today. I am speaking, of course, of the moral and environmental disaster of the Alberta tar sands.


A large map of Canada hung above the blackboard in our elementary school classroom in Ontario. Whenever our teacher rolled it down, we gazed raptly at a cartographer’s rendition of our great country “from sea to sea” (well, technically from Atlantic to Pacific oceans, or from Gander to Tofino)—sitting atop a deliberately dwarfed United States below. That big pink-colored map gave all Canadian schoolchildren of the 1950s and 60s a warm, fuzzy nationalistic feeling. We were blessed, and we knew it. But our eyes always moved up and to left, to the prairie and the Rockies, and we daydreamed of someday heading out West ourselves, to Alberta—a place that epitomized adventure, natural beauty and a fresh start.


Today, however, Alberta is the new Texas, maybe even Saudi Arabia, awash in a natural resource that the energy-hungry world demands and for which it is willing to pay top dollar. Money is pouring into the province, the standard of living is climbing, and Albertans are swaggering around as though they have really accomplished something. The sad thing is that some of the most majestic natural beauty in all of Canada is being willfully polluted and destroyed as tar—sticky, dirty oil—is clawed and scraped off vast regions of pristine landscape. Alberta, beautiful Alberta, has made a pact with Mephistopheles.


When we were schoolchildren, we memorized the lines of our First Nations poet Pauline Johnston’s ode to Alberta. In part it reads:


Foothills to the Rockies lifting
Brown, and blue, and green,
Warm Alberta sunlight drifting
Over leagues between.


That’s the country of the ranges,
Plain and prairie land,
And the God who never changes
Holds it in His hand.


There was an aesthetic vision interwoven with our deepest sense of the transcendent. And this was reinforced by other artifacts of mid-20th century Canadian culture. On Sunday mornings, as we got ready for church, we would hear the Canadian Back to the Bible hour on our radio, and the Bible teacher was none other than Ernest C. Manning, premier of Alberta. I can remember leafing through the pages of a Canadian magazine, and encountering a picture of two or three boys playing hockey on a winter lake in Alberta. The photographer had caught the exquisite purple hues of twilight coming on, when the puck was soon to become invisible. To this day that picture evokes a pang of yearning beauty in my soul. But that was what Alberta embodied for us then and even now.


In my teen years we idolized folksinger Gordon Lightfoot. From eastern Canada himself, he understood the draw of the Alberta mythology. The chorus to one of his most wistful songs still linger in my mind. After reflecting on the deficiencies of urban life in Toronto, he turned west with hope and expectation:


Alberta bound, Alberta bound.

It’s good to be Alberta bound.

Alberta bound, Alberta bound.

It’s good to be Alberta bound.


I still remember the moment, driving along the Trans-Canada highway, when for the very first time we sighted the Rockies on the western horizon. Magical. Wonder. Ecstasy. Banff, Castle Mountain, Lake Louise. The big sky, the Alberta Pool elevators and little towns and railway sidings. Driving between Edmonton and Calgary, the rich fields of grain, the well-maintained white fence-lines of prosperous ranches and horse farms. The Peace Country. The miles of forest all the way up to Great Slave Lake in the territories.


That’s why news of the ravaging of Alberta these days comes as such a deep sadness even to someone now living in Southern California. Alberta has been for Canadians what Quebec was for the 17th century French, what New England was for the Pilgrims—a fresh start for civilization, a New Jerusalem in the wilderness. And Albertans have exchanged that vision of pristine beauty and their duty of stewardship for “developing” the tar sands.


Here below is a link to a moving presentation of what is happening in Alberta by Canadian photographer Garth Lenz. The visuals are stunning, but the message is profoundly disturbing. How often do we find a presenter at a major university (in this instance, the University of Victoria), breaking down with emotion over the environmental holocaust he has chronicled?


By all economic measurements, Alberta is on a roll. Real estate values are higher than ever before. Now Albertans can drive Escalades, and take trips to Vegas and Hawaii. They can spend money in their low-ceiling indoor malls and dream of an NFL franchise for Calgary. Sometimes I feel angry about how Albertans have chosen to foul their own nest, but mostly I just feel a deep sadness–sadness for the spiritual banality of it all and for what might have been. Perhaps at a personal level I mourn the loss of my own innocence in believing for a good part of my life that Alberta really was different.

3 Responses to Sad for Alberta

  1. Dave Harvey April 17, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    In reading Glen’s lament over the plight of Alberta, my devil’s advocate mind began to question what the solution is to the problem at hand. Though we may focus on the wealth aspect, it’s also about access to fuel – fuel which is needed by nearly every person, and on which we are mostly dependent on OPEC nations to provide.

    So, rather than being held hostage (economically speaking) to Saudi princes and others, we seek to utilize the resources which are literally in our country’s own backyard. Should we not do this? What are our other options? Deep-sea drilling? Hmm, that didn’t go so well down in the Gulf last time I checked.

    Sure, we can all buy a Prius and save some gas, but we’re still dependent aren’t we? Maybe a little less so, but we still have to drive to work and fill the tank every now and then.

    Long-term, I think the solution needs to be found in alternative sources of energy. But these also come at a price: solar and wind farms take up vast amounts of land just to provide a minimal level of energy production, and nuclear reactors have a long history of going wrong in the worst way.

    The best option I’ve seen so far is biodiesel. Produced primarily from vegetable oil, biodiesel can also be made from algae, which can be grown from using waste materials such as sewage (win-win!). Some companies, like McDonalds, convert their waste vegetable oil into biodiesel and use it to fuel their fleet of cars.

    So, I’m in agreement with the gist of your article, Glen. I was always taught in the military not to gripe about a problem unless you can provide a solution. So maybe the solution here is to individually invest in companies that support or develop alternative energy solutions, and/or write, call or otherwise encourage our elected representatives to do so as well. Only when enough people change their habits and make their wishes known will the politicians and companies follow suit.

  2. John Mustol April 6, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

    In 1848, gold was discovered in California’s northern Central Valley, triggering the California gold rush. Thousands of men (virtually no women took part) scoured the valley and beyond, hoping to strike it rich. Rivers were dammed, dug, diverted, and polluted. Hills and mountains were trampled and denuded, wild life slaughtered, ecosystems and habitats overrun. Salmon runs disappeared from silt-choked rivers. The California grizzly bear that once ranged over all of California, even south to what is now San Diego County and that graces our state flag was systematically massacred by professional hunters who converted the meat into jerky and sold it to the miners. (The last known California grizzly was shot in 1922.) Indian families and settlements were displaced. The human drive to pursue wealth was powerful.

    From 1897-99, in the so-called Alaska gold rush (the gold was actually mostly in Canada), thousands of prospectors flocked to the Yukon wilderness seeking instant riches. Again, forests, rivers, and wildlife were ravaged by crazed men pursuing wealth.

    Just last month, the U.S. national lottery had a jackpot of some $500+ million. Thousands of people bought tickets, again hoping to strike it rich. If truth be told, probably a lot of Christians quietly purchased tickets with silent prayers that God would help them win big. Again, the pursuit of wealth is an enormously powerful driver of human behavior.

    And now, as Dr. Scorgie has ruefully described, his compatriots, the people of Alberta, are engaged in yet another gold rush of sorts–exploiting their tar sands in the pursuit of still more wealth. If fuel prices continue to rise and extraction technology evolves, Canada will become one of the 3 largest oil producers in the world (with Saudi Arabia and Venezuela). The tar sands cover about 54,000 square miles (~1/3 of Alberta’s land area). Extraction and processing the sand severely degrades the land and ecosystem, uses large quantities of water, and produces huge “tailing ponds” filled with a toxic mix of hydrocarbons and heavy metals like mercury and lead. Canadian law requires that the land be “restored to its original state,” but it is not clear if or how this will be enforced and, if it is, how it will ultimately be accomplished over such a large area. Restoration presents huge technical, financial, and ecological challenges.

    Beyond this, Canada is a signatory of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty aimed at reducing carbon emissions and mitigating global warming. But in the face of the enormous potential wealth presented by the Alberta tar sands, Canada has reversed itself. Whereas it previously advocated for action on climate change, it now ignores that and promotes its oil. I recently attended a lecture at UCSD by Daniel Bodansky, an expert in international climate change negotiations. He said that because of this reversal the Canadians have lost credibility in the world. People don’t trust them. Perhaps greed has its price: gains in monetary capital can result in losses in social capital. But again, the pursuit of wealth has trumped all else and seems poised to again wreak havoc on God’s lands and ecosystems.

    Jesus seems to have presented a critique of the pursuit of wealth (Matt 5:5; 6:19-34; 13:22; 19:23-24; Mark 10:17-31; 12:41-44; Luke 1:53; 6:20-21, 24-25; 8:14; 12:14; 16:13-15, 19-31; 21:1-4), supported by further commentary in the rest of the NT (1Cor 1:27-31; 2 Cor 8:2; 1Tim 3:3; 6:6-12, 17-19; 2Tim 3:2-3; Jas 1:10; 2:5-7; 4:13-17; 5:1-6). But we Christians have trouble with this–a lot of trouble. We don’t like to even talk about it. We often find ourselves unreflectively pursuing wealth about as aggresively as anyone else. The desire for wealth seems to be a primal component of the human psyche. It is a principal driver of our modern growth economy. So Jesus’ thoughts on it tend to get forgotten. The Bible also contains other principles that I cited in my response to Dr. Scorgie’s previous post on the Keystone Pipeline: the doctrine of creation, God’s ownership of the earth and its resources, stewardship, kenosis, voluntary self-limitation, generosity, moderation, contentment, and justice.

    Like all people, we Christians may legitimately respond to the ecological devastation wrought by humans seeking wealth in terms of patriotism and our connection to our homelands. As a native Californian, I have mixed feelings about my own state’s ecological history, the annihilation of the grizzly being a case in point. I have never been to Alberta, but having seen some pictures, I vicariously share Dr. Scorgie’s lament over the loss of some of its sublime beauty and diminishment of its spiritual wealth. But what I wonder about is how we can respond to these events as Christians: in terms of our theology, in terms of Jesus, the one we call our Lord. I don’t know. Maybe our theology is just too abstract, and Jesus should be confined to the personal and social realms? Maybe Christians are correct to ignore his critique of wealth? Again, I would ask others for their thoughts. How should we Christians, as Christians, respond to the human juggernaut of wealth-seeking that drives the world economy and has done so much damage to God’s good creation?

  3. Steve Dryden April 2, 2012 at 1:35 am #

    I see this materialistic consciousness taking place every where. People have totally embraced $$$ as their almighty god. Just look at the USA where the supreme court has ruled in favor of corporate power and big $$$ over the People. Most likely the next election will be bought and paid for by Karl Rowe and his Citizens United.

    As a writer, it seems to me that most people are now brain dead, with no clue about spiritual awareness or their inward divinity.

    On the plus side, could be many openings in heaven….lol….Steve Dryden

    FYI, I went to high school with Mark Turner in San Diego…now working in Nelson, BC.