Archive for the ‘Fort McMurray’ Tag

Art and Oil in Alberta   12 comments

An arty shot of downtown Calgary. The Calgary tower was originally known as the Husky Tower, emblematic of the importance of the oil and gas industry to the city.

An arty shot I took of downtown Calgary. The Calgary tower was originally known as the Husky Tower, emblematic of the importance of the oil and gas industry in the city.

Neil Young and his Honor the Treaties tour is moving west, arriving in Calgary this Sunday evening. The tour has certainly opened a conversation here in the heart of oil country, and in my own case, raises questions about the sponsorship of the arts, and in some cases of individual artists, by companies in, as it is known out here, the oil patch.

This is a topic rarely discussed by artists, other than privately, over a few beers, as it speaks to an uneasy tension that we have learned to live with – the need for funding for expensive art forms such as theatre on one hand, and on the other, an uneasy and growing awareness that this money represents some very serious devastation of the environment, especially in the Fort McMurray area in the northern part of Alberta. Not to mention the ongoing and similarly uneasy tension between oil companies and first nations people in the area.

It’s a balance that is so delicate that it is rarely “officially” spoken of by artists; nor is it often dealt with as content for artistic expression. I can attest to this. I set a play of mine, Midlife (2002) in the corporate offices of a Calgary oil company, but it was hardly critical of the industry.

Except I have to admit that the play contains this speech, made by Jack who is an oil company executive to explain (lie) to his wife why he is coming in at 5:00AM:

There was a situation . . . A crisis. Yeah. There was a crisis. In production. That sounds reasonable. A crisis in production. International implications. A corrupt dictatorship. Violations of human rights all over the place. Atrocities. They hung a poet. Same old story . . .

An oblique reference to Ken Saro-Wiwa that probably got a laugh.  Although obviously meant to be ironic, I’m not sure how I feel about that now.

I published around 250,000 words in the Calgary Herald in a column in which I could write about anything I chose, but I never chose to the write about the oil patch. My writing appears in many other publications, as well as this blog, which represents another 100,000 words or so. But I have never written about the situation. Until now.

I arrived in Calgary 20 years ago. I made a splashy entrance, having written a hit play for Alberta Theatre Projects’ playRites ’94 Festival (titled Some Assembly Required)  which at the time was sponsored by Shell Oil.  Oil company sponsorship of the arts was all new to me. I had spent my formative years in Saskatchewan, where there was very little in the way of oil production and not a lot of talk about it. It was all about wheat and potash, back in the day.

I left Regina to attend York University (MFA, 1984) in Toronto and remained there essentially throughout the ’80’s. I suppose I was a typical self-absorbed young artist in those days, more concerned about making my mark in the world than anything else. One organization I worked with at the time, Frontier College, got involved with Imperial Oil for sponsorship of one of its programs, but that certainly didn’t lead to any awareness of where oil came from or how it was produced, Imperial or otherwise.

I don’t know if I was simply naïve, but I had very little frame of reference for the political or business climates of Alberta when I arrived on these shores a few decades ago.  But make no mistake: when you live here, it’s all about oil and gas. It drives the economy and to a certain extent the entire culture of this city and the province as a whole.

Early on in my tenure as Playwright in Residence at ATP, in 1995, over in Nigeria the above-mentioned writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed and the reportage at the time and since certainly implicated Shell Oil in what has since been recognized around the world as an extreme travesty of justice. Obviously, we writers are a little sensitive when one of our fellow scribes gets strung up, and suddenly I was a little uncomfortable with my new gig.

One evening, I had the opportunity to ask an executive from Shell about the situation and he explained to me that the incident had nothing to do with his company, Shell Canada – that it was Royal Dutch Shell, or Shell International, or some such. And he agreed with me that it was a terrible situation, but there was no sense at all of culpability on behalf of the Canadian company.

Well, friends, so much for my inquiry. If I felt any moral outrage I suppressed it. Here in Calgary, I was in an extremely fortunate position, the envy of playwrights around the world, to be paid to write plays, and not only write them, but then to see them produced by a good theatre company in a beautiful theatre. After all, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

Shell gave way to PanCanadian Petroleum which doesn’t exist anymore which in turn gave way to Enbridge.  All of these companies have supported the arts in Alberta. In the case of Enbridge, no one can deny their generosity or their community spirit. They are, as they like to think of themselves, good corporate citizens.

On one occasion, I happened to be in the office of a senior VP at Enbridge, interviewing him for another publication. It was a cold morning in Calgary. From his office high above the city in one of the glass towers downtown, we could see the smoke rising from the chimneys of a thousand offices and homes, and as we looked out at the city from his office, he said to me, “Everyone loves to hate us. But no one wants to wake up in a cold house on a day like this.”

Looking back at the situation here only a few years ago, you could say there was a golden time in Alberta. Oil production was driving the economy, making it probably the strongest in Canada, and beyond, and there was sufficient support of the arts and other community endeavours so that those of us not involved in the industry could see the benefits and overlook the problems.

But lately, it’s become harder and harder to overlook the types of concerns that Neil Young and company are addressing as their Honor the Treaties tour wends its way west into the heart of oil country. Even an impartial observer would have to agree that the mega projects up in the Fort McMurray area are hardly beneficial to the environment, to put it mildly. And as the environment of the northern boreal forest is very delicate, the risk of irreversible devastation seems very great: an accident waiting to happen, if it hasn’t already.

Factor into the equation the fact that these lands are the home and habitat of first nations people, who may or may not be benefiting from this industrial activity, depending on whom you talk to.

And then, if things weren’t complicated and explosive enough, we now find that our federal government seems intent on shutting down all scientific monitoring of the situation, leading many Canadians, especially those close to the scene, to believe that the fox is now monitoring the situation in the hen house, and will be sending us impartial reports from time to time.

At times, it’s hard to believe we are talking about Canada — the true, north strong and free — and not some third world dictatorship.

Enter Neil Young. He is certainly not making any friends for himself in the oil patch, but I hardly think that was his goal. Whether you admire him or revile him, he has opened up a dialogue and done what we like to think an artist does in our society – he’s held up a mirror for us to see ourselves from a different perspective. But this could only have been done, I think, by an artist who doesn’t live in Alberta (or even in Canada) and who is in no way dependant on our economy for his own survival.

Like many of my colleagues and friends, I am not comfortable with the development of the tar sands, the way it is happening and its effect on the environment. I am deeply troubled by the war on science currently being waged by our federal government, which will make it increasingly difficult to know just what is happening up there, exactly. And I am concerned about the fate of aboriginal people in the area.

Yet at the same time, I am not prepared to be a total hypocrite about the matter either. Most playwrights I know, for example, (myself included) would find it extremely difficult to say no to a production on account of support from the oil patch of the producing company. I haven’t heard of it happening yet.

For my own part, I’ve been working on a novel this last year which to a certain extent shields me from the question of corporate sponsorship which I suppose is a blessing and a curse. And yet, I received a grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts to complete that novel last summer. I’m not so delusional to think that that money didn’t come, one way or another, from the oil patch.

At a dinner party the other evening that was attended by a number of people, none of them directly involved in oil and gas production,  I asked if any of them (if any of us) could honestly say there is no oil on our money, no smears of bitumen on the bills in our pockets. No one could.

So where does that leave us?

Well, as artists, you would have to say in admiration of Neil Young for shining a light on a dark and ugly issue. As citizens, it becomes a little more complicated. Everyone likes to have a roof over their head, everyone likes to eat, everyone likes to drive their car or truck to work. (An addiction I overcame 2 years ago, for what it’s worth.) How you can accomplish any of that in Alberta in 2014 in isolation from the oil and gas industry is a mystery to me.

Personally, I doubt that it can be done.

And so, it would seem that the uneasy tensions will persist. But at least now, thanks to Mr. Young and company, we’re talking about it.

Thanks for reading.

I wanted to share my favourite Neil Young song here (Powderfinger) but would ask you to watch this brief video on Ken Saro-Wiwa instead.

RIP, Ken. You deserved better.

The Arts and Artists Under Attack   5 comments

I am preparing for a performance this evening with Calgary Poet Laureate Chris Demeanor at the ironically named Oilman’s Review (volume 5). I mentioned this event in my last post. It’s taking place in the now defunct Indigo Store in Mount Royal Village which I wrote a post on about a month or so ago.

This promises to be a wonderful event, featuring local (one would be tempted to say “neighbourhood”) painters and songwriters and poets and other artists who have joined together in a celebration of the arts and art making in its various forms. I know that many of my friends and associates from elsewhere in Canada and further afield would be amazed at the activity that goes on and the support for it here.

I spent a number of years as playwright in residence at Alberta Theatre Projects, a company that must be responsible for birthing more new Canadian plays than any other in the entire country. Other companies such as One Yellow Rabbit, Lunchbox, Downstage, Sage, Ground Zero and others I’m forgetting (sorry) have all made a tremendous commitment and contribution to the development and production of new Canadian plays.

At the same time, there is great energy and vitality in terms of original creation in other art forms as well. Alberta Ballet, for example, is currently remounting its original work “Love Lies Bleeding,” a fortunate collaboration between artistic director Jean Grande Maitre and Sir Elton John. Earlier this season, Calgary Opera premiered a new opera, Moby Dick, the latest in a series of new operas created under the their inspired artistic director, Bob McPhee.

I became involved in the Spoken Word Movement here over the last few years, as my writing focus shifted somewhat from playwriting to poetry. There is a very strong core of Spoken Word and Poetry Slam artists at work here in Calgary. For anyone interested in this, I highly recommend The Spoken Word Workbook edited by Calgary’s own Sheri-D Wilson, published by the Banff Centre Press.

Having run a jazz night at a local bar for a few years, I can personally vouch for an amazing pool of talent in that field. But it’s not just jazz — blues, rhythm and blues, rock, folk, country, you name it, all are alive and vibrant in Calgary at a surprisingly high level.

And then there’s painting and sculpture and drawing and photography and all those other art forms that flourish here. it’s beyond the scope of this post to do them all justice.

Anyone who continues to think of this city as a prairie backwater filled with rednecks is really so out of touch as to be laughable. If you don’t believe me, hop on a plane and come on down. I’ll show you around myself.

But that’s not really why I am writing all this, at a time I should be reading over my poems and getting nervous about the reading I’m about to give. I am writing about some sad news from north in our province. the much beleaguered and maligned Fort McMurray, home of the famous or infamous oil sands, or as they might better be known as, by their old name, tar sands.

I read this bit of distressing news from artist and blogger Michelle Boyd today on her blog (As the Whorl Spins):

At 11:30 this morning, the faculty of the Visual and Performing Arts programs at our local college (Keyano College) were rounded up and given 15 minutes to clear their offices, then escorted from the premises by security.   They were not met with by the administration and gently informed that their programs and jobs had been cut.  They were not given pink slips.  They were not even notified by email that this was their last day at work.  They were escorted out.  By security.  Like common criminals.

These people had done nothing wrong.  The plain and simple truth is that the Board of Governors and the new president of the college crunched the numbers and the arts lost out to in-house training provided for the oilsands industry.  Plain and simple. Money talks, and the arts walk.  Every. Fucking. Time.

We artists in Alberta have a rather uneasy relationship with the oil and gas industry, I’m sure if  asked, most of us would admit to a great uneasiness about the entire industry, especially when we try to wrap our heads around the environmental carnage that goes on in the tar pits in the Fort McMurray area, where Keyano College is located.

And yet, many of these companies are at least in part responsible for the fact that we have such a vibrant arts scene in the province. They write the cheques, and many of the cheques have a lot of zeros on them.I myself have been the beneficiary of the corporate generosity that we see coming from the oil patch.

And then we read something like this, and the relationship becomes a little more uneasy. These days, it’s hard not to think that the arts are coming under attack, more and more. Those of us who work in the arts tend to feel vulnerable at the best of times, and events such as this one at Keyano College don’t help. Many of us supplement our incomes with teaching and every program like this that closes makes it all the more difficult.

So, where are we headed, exactly? You tell me. I honestly don’t know anymore . . .

Thanks for reading

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