The shoreline of Athabasca River is illuminated by the spotlight of a barge. Contaminants such as arsenic, mercury and other heavy metals are flowing downstream to the isolated indigenous community of Fort Chipewyan from Canada’s Oil Sands — the largest industrial project on Earth.
[ EPF 2012 FINALIST ]
If anyone would listen, the First Nations peoples in Fort Chipewyan, Canada, would tell them about an ongoing ‘slow motion cultural genocide’. The isolated indigenous reserves of Northern Alberta are watching their land become unlivable as their communities are slowly poisoned by the world’s largest and most environmentally destructive oil extraction project.
The Alberta Oil Sands are the second largest oil reserves on Earth next to Saudi Arabia and are worth an estimated $1 trillion to Canada’s GDP over the next decade. This oil extraction involves an energy-intensive process of strip-mining and chemical upgrading. The liquid waste from Oil Sands production ends up in man-made tar lakes that are large enough to be visible from space. The Oil Sands have a larger carbon footprint than any other commercial oil product on Earth.
As the world entered the era of Peak Oil in 2003, Canada saw a dramatic boom in Oil Sands production. Since then, contaminated water systems, deformed fish, oil spills and alarmingly high rates of aggressive and fatal cancers have become part of life for the indigenous peoples of Northern Alberta. Industrial activity has all but wiped out the traditional economies of First Nations communities in the area. An important part of my work is to communicate how these problems now prevent people from sustaining themselves off of the land that has nurtured their lives for generations.
An old family photo on the wall of an elder fur trapper’s home, near Fort Chipewyan.
A fisherman from Fort Chipewyan throws a whitefish to his sled dogs. The polluting of the Athabasca River and Lake Athabasca have had a devastating impact on the local fishing industry.
A young girl wades into Lake Athabasca, in Fort Chipewyan.
An abandoned fishing boat rests in a field in Fort Chipewyan.
The shoreline of a Shell tailings pond, in the Oil Sands. The process of extracting usable oil from Oil Sands deposits involves strip mining and then “upgrading”, which consists of injecting pressurized steam and a mixture of chemicals into the tar-soaked Earth. The process is extremely energy intensive and creates lakes of toxic waste that are the largest man-made structures on Earth.
Dawn Ladouceur and her granddaughter gather around at boat of Dawn’s husband Smokey to see his catch.
A young Mtis man hunts ducks in the Athabasca Delta.
A scarecrow put in place to prevent waterfowl from landing in Oil Sands tailings ponds. According to a study published by Ecologist Dr. Kevin Timoney, an average of 1973 migratory birds are killed annually from Oil Sands tailings exposure.
“Big Ray” stands over the remains of a hunted moose in the Athabasca Delta.
Photographs of priests, nuns and students decorate the walls of the rectory of Fort Chipewyan’s former Residential School. The painful legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential System is still felt in Fort Chipewyan.
This work speaks to the disturbing truth that has been lost in a climate of misinformation. As part of their ‘Ethical Oil’ campaign, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) diligently publicizes industry-funded research and statistics that downplay or negate the environmental and health impacts of Oil Sands production. Meanwhile, First Nations peoples continue to lose their land, culture and lives. The Canadian government and the CAPP have made an individual and collective life expendable in the name of energy security and economic progress.
John Rigney sits down in a fur trapper’s cabin in the Athabasca Delta.
A church is seen through a window on the site of Fort Chipewyan’s Residential School.
Two fishermen sort their catch after a day of fishing. Most of these fish will be fed to sled dogs.
Cherie Wanderingspirit waits to leave for her flight from Fort Chipewyan to the nearest city, Fort McMurray, so she can give birth to her son in a hospital.
A child plays outside his grandfather’s home in Fort Chipewyan.
Helgi stands with the head of a moose he shot while hunting in the Athabasca Delta.
An abandoned home in Fort Chipewyan.
A group of young boys swim off of a dock, on Lake Athabasca.
An elder makes dry fish at his cabin, outside of Fort Chipewyan. Many elders still live out on the land all year, coming into Fort Chipewyan periodically for supplies and to see their families.
Louie Ladouceur, referred to by some of his friends as a medicine man, carries out a traditional smudge, using sage and an eagle feather, in Fort Chipewyan.
The Northern Lights are seen over Fort Chipewyan’s main cemetery. The site is now overflowing with new graves and will soon need to be expanded.
Bones lie along the north shore of Lake Athabasca.
Joseph Cardinal in his room in Fort Chipewyan. Joseph had a softball-sized tumour removed from his stomach three years ago.
A tailings pond access road in the Oil Sands. The Oil Sands lay beneath a swath of Boreal Forest that is the size of England.
Born in 1985, in Kitchener, Canada, Ian Willms is an independent documentary photographer and a founding member of the Boreal Collective.
His curious and socially conscious nature has driven Ian to explore the fringes of our society, photographing abandoned environments and the people who inhabit them. From the depressed, post-apocalyptic suburbs of Detroit to the poisoned shorelines of Fort Chipewyan, Ian’s work is deeply rooted in the discussion of consumption, classism and social and political power struggles.
Ian’s work has been exhibited in North America and Europe, including solo exhibitions at Pikto Gallery and Gallery 44 Centre For Contemporary Photography and group exhibitions at O’Born Contemporary and Bau-Xi Photo. His work has also been supported and honoured by the Magnum Expression Photography Award, the National Press Photographers Association Best of Photojournalism competition, the Magenta Foundation and the Ontario Arts Council.