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In November 2020, my dad and I spent two days labouring away with chicken wire, cedar offcuts, and numerous staple guns to transform my little rental porch into a catio. As we cut and nailed boards and wrapped the patio in wire, my dad did one of the things he does best: He began to tell stories. He regaled me with memories ranging from months earlier to stories of my grandfather’s life long before my dad was born. At one point, my dad began talking about my grandfather’s career as a heavy machine operator, working on oil and gas projects in Alberta and the Northwest Territories. “Your granddad always swore he worked on Leduc No. 1. Hard to prove I suppose. But he always swore it to be true.”[1][2]

Leduc No. 1 was a major successful oil strike in central Alberta, shortly after World War Two in 1947. This time is mythologized in colonial imaginaries as a turning point for the province when Alberta went from hardscrabble farm province to major economic driver in Canada. My grandfather’s story places him, ostensibly, at ground zero of Alberta’s mid-twentieth century “petro-politics.”

What does this mean for me as a Métis fish scholar working to hold oil and gas and other extractive industries accountable for their impacts on various waterways in western Canada?

• • • • •

In 2020, I moved home to western Canada from Ottawa, Ontario after exactly a decade away. The return was precipitated by a life-altering, terrifying bout of COVID-19 in early 2020 that left me bed bound, alone, often gasping for air in an attic apartment in the heart of Canada’s capital. When I left my hometown in central Alberta a decade before, I had no idea how much I would miss the rolling landscapes and waters of the prairies, let alone the coal-seamed cliffs of the North Saskatchewan River and the casual fossil-strewn storyscapes that shaped my childhood; here I could see layers of my settler and Red River Métis family reflected and refracted in the concrete, stone, poplar, and spruce reliefs around me. But I had since wandered through many different homelands, landing finally in Ottawa.

Amid my umpteenth relapse from COVID-19 in late May 2020, a friend asked me, earnestly:

“Zoe, why don’t you go home?”

I sputtered at first.

“I work here. I can’t just leave,” I thought.

But as I sat on the couch and stared up at the same sloping walls of the putty renter-beige ceiling I had stared at nonstop for months, I realized I needed to go home. Though grateful for the opportunity live in the Algonquin homelands that Ottawa occupies, I felt in my body and my gut that my contract with the settler configuration of Ottawa was done. It was time to go home to my family, to the mishmash of complicated politics that animate western Canada, where generations of my settler and Indigenous families have lived and storied ourselves across present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, BC, and the Northwest Territories. I gave my two-month notice to my landlords the next day.

Through a minor miracle, I connected with another prairie person in Ottawa who was going home. We traveled with such caution. Masked the whole way. My travel companion commented that I seemed happier each day. It was clear to me as we drove along the tree-lined roads of the incredible forests of northern Ontario that I was letting something go. When we crossed into Manitoba on day three, we cheered for the homelands our families knew intimately. The rocks and conifers started to give way to deciduous trees and farmland. Familiar territory.

On day four, as we left Winnipeg (where my dad’s Métis ancestors once lived along the Assiniboine River in St. James Parish over 170 years ago), the land started to open up in ways that I could feel in my body. We were reaching the outer edges of the ancient seabed that once stretched across what is currently so-called Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.[3] With each westward kilometer, the horizon stretched out further and further as the land flattened. I felt more and more at ease. As we left Saskatoon and drove the final stretch to Edmonton on our last day, the secrets beneath the ancient ocean bed became more evident. Pump jacks and transfer stations started to dot the side of the highway as a dramatic August thunderstorm gathered, giving the sky a steely grey glint as we sailed past the increasingly dense evidence of oil and gas extraction in the final stretch home.

As we entered Edmonton, I marveled at the scope and the scale of the refineries on Refinery Row, the local name for the imposing stretch of oil and gas facilities on the eastern edge of Edmonton. I spent decades of my life with them in the background; looking toward the city’s eastern corner, lit always with a soft orange glow from the stacks on chilly winter nights. But after spending ten years away I had forgotten about their sheer scale. It is hard to explain, but I felt a mixture of relief and alarm to return to the familiarity of my hometown, the refineries and oil terminals included.

Back in settler Ottawa, Canada-as-resource-empire is managed by faceless bureaucrats and politicians who, more often than not, know very little of the landscapes and stories that shape and animate my home province. Unlike those distant administrators, moving through the ancient seabed and all of its material manifestations brings me into more immediate obligations and responsibilities to the fossil beings that Alberta and Canada extract, frack, mine, process, refine, dilute, ship, burn, and possess.[4] Against the backdrop of settler possession of lands and waters across the prairies, the urgent and intimate relationships I hold back home force me to consider what the land is asking of me now that I am back in western Canada.

While canola, alfalfa, barley, and wheat fields stretch out across these vistas today—marked by fence posts, range roads, grazing cattle, modern and historic grain elevators alongside the fossil fuel infrastructure—the unmistakable lines of ocean floors still rise and fall along the horizon of the flat, open prairie in western Canada. Today, after years working and living next to the North Sea, the Beaufort Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean, it is not hard for me to imagine the Western Interior Seaway that flooded this expanse 60 to 100 million years ago.[5] Before I left home in 2010, however, I didn’t realize how intimately our prairie locked landscapes were tied to marine pasts and oceanic consciousness. And I certainly didn’t understand how intimately this oceanic history shapes our deep relationships to fossil fuels, specifically oil and gas, in this province and beyond.

Over the last decade I have come to understand their interrelationships much more closely. When my dad shared that my grandfather worked in the very earliest stages of Alberta’s shift from a “have-not” province to fossil fuel juggernaut, I began to better understand why I feel so compelled to study the relationships between the ancient pasts Alberta claims and the environmental and political crises Alberta and Canada navigate today. My obligations sit very firmly in tending to the aftermath of Alberta’s weaponization of ancient fossil kin from the former seabed the province sits atop against all of existence today. 

My academic research concerns the complex social, economic, and political landscapes that First Nations, Inuit, and Métis navigate in Canada’s resource extractive paradigms. As a resource colony, Canada continues to pressure Indigenous peoples to participate in its extractive empire. Where it cannot persuade Indigenous peoples to enter into these activities with “diplomacy,” Canada uses genocidal force to remove Indigenous peoples from lands and waters so that it can assert its legal fictions of a sovereignty derived from the Doctrine of Discovery over forests, rivers, rocks, lakes, tundra, cliffs, coasts, and oceans. A nation-state built in such a violent manner operates through the logics of what anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli[6] calls “geontology—that is, an understanding of existence that severs “life” (so-called bios) from “not life.” In a white settler-colonial capitalist framework, “not life” encompasses those beings not considered to be animate or alive, including rocks, waters, lands, atmospheres, and, indeed, ancient fossil beings. Canada is fueled, quite explicitly, by the mining, refining, shipping, burning, and export of oil and gas—the transformed remains of ancient sea life.

As my dad shared the story of my grandfather’s claims to participating in the first oil strike at Leduc No. 1 last year, I began to think about the philosophical splits between the world my grandfather and his parents moved through as Métis on the Plains in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the geontology the nation-state and oil and gas companies were rapidly asserting over stolen Indigenous homelands.

Métis thinker Elmer Ghostkeeper writes about his experience as a young man growing up in Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement, navigating the shift from agricultural economies to oil and gas. In his 1995 MA thesis, Ghostkeeper talks about his experiences of moving from a farming life rooted in a Métis worldview, to natural gas work governed under a settler colonial worldview in the region in the 1960s. Though a generation younger than my granddad, his trajectory resonates with my understandings of my granddad’s experiences a generation earlier. Ghostkeeper differentiates between his earlier upbringing where his family made a living with the land, versus his later work in resource extraction that forced one to make a living from the land. Ghostkeeper observes:

“During my construction work, wild plants and animals were not viewed as gifts created by the Great Spirit. One had to treat them as things to be destroyed and removed, so that deposits of natural gas could be extracted by a multi-national oil company for sale as a commodity of exchange. In this mode of production it was assumed that only human beings possess consciousness and the ability to think rationally.”[7]

This work clearly demonstrates the split between how Métis labourers, working from a Métis worldview, were navigating resource industries premised through a white colonial paradigm of possession, extraction, and the disavowal of the agency of non-human beings. In approaching these diverging worldviews, I am increasingly interested in the agency of the long-ago Ancestors that became the fossilized existences that Alberta now extracts and exports and not merely the agency of the living beings in landscapes Alberta claims.

Through very complicated economic and political pressures, Indigenous people are forced to negotiate economic demands to participate in the weaponization of fossil kin through the white supremacist formations of pipelines, terminals, refineries, tanker trains, small fracking outfits, oil field service companies, and the host of service industries that rely on oil and gas money to stay afloat. And, further, as an academic at a public institution in Canada, the taxes that pay my research grants and salary are inextricably entangled with not only oil and gas extraction, but also the public moneys collected from forestry, mineral extraction, hydro developments, and ongoing refusals to honour Indigenous sovereignty across the country. Plus, every university in so-called Canada is situated on stolen Indigenous land.

Drawing inspiration from the work of my colleague Alexis Shotwell,[8] rather than position myself from a false sense of “purity” in my work to critique harmful aspects of oil and gas extraction, I’m trying to dwell in the spaces of complexity generated by living and working in a country built as a resource colony. I am trying to understand the obligations I carry as an Albertan, but also as a Métis person whose own family is deeply entangled in the early years of oil and gas exploration in the province.

My dad told me his grandparents’ world was “made up of who was related to who, and how.” This world illustrates an understanding of the Cree legal principle of wahkohtowin, which honours the inter-relatedness of all beings in existence.[9] It describes the kinship that we are held deeply responsible to. Wahkohtowin is an invocation of obligation that can carry both negative and positive reciprocity.

The responsibilities I hold require a kind of attunement and inter-relationship that insists I sit with the lands, waters, atmospheres of the places I call home in a way that strips me of any easy answers or academic ego. These ancient beings are. The ways that certain fossil kin, in their transformed configurations as oil and gas, are currently treated and used to harm other homelands and waters and atmospheres does not honour their plural iterations and existences. But they, themselves, are not evil. It is all the forces that take them from their resting places and weaponize them that are the problem.

My return to the lingering expanses of the Western Interior Seaway last year opened an invitation to dwell on Ghostkeeper’s points about making a living with the land versus making a living from the land. And the deep complexities of embodying and enacting kinship in all of its manifestations. Now that I am back, with everything I’ve learned from my time in imperial Britain and settler Ottawa, I hope to find ways of organizing my own co-constitutive responsibilities out here that uphold honest and robust relationships. And I hope I can work in ways that are capable of navigating all the realities that come from the electrifying, confounding, and sometimes quietly humbling experience of being a person, an existence, here on this immensely complicated but expansive and powerful planet.


Notes:

[1] Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, January 31). Leduc no. 1. Wikipedia. Retrieved February 23, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leduc_No._1

[2] This is an example of what social scientist Darryl Leroux calls “family lore.” I have not had the time yet to verify this claim through the usual work that I conduct in archival materials, or to triangulate it with decades of family knowledge and research. I want to make very clear here that this is not, as is sometimes claimed in current anthropological studies of Métis peoples, an example of “oral history,” because it emanates from one source in my family (although I absolutely trust my dad’s retelling) and I have not triangulated it or corroborated it in the manner I would when doing academic historical research. I want to be clear and careful in how I come to engage with a story like this, because the issue of weaponized settler “family lore” run amuck has been used to dispossess and violate Métis sovereignty repeatedly across the country. Instead, I engage this story as an interesting prompt to consider what worldviews, obligations, and meanings flow from my grandfather’s decades of work as a heavy machine operator in north/western Canada at a time during the first oil and gas booms in the region. See: Leroux, D. (2019). Aspirational descent and the creation of family lore: Race shifting in the Northeast. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 43(4), 93–114. https://doi.org/10.17953/aicrj.43.4.leroux

[3] Ancient seas of manitoba. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2022, from https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/eppp-archive/100/205/301/ic/cdc/ancientseas/uppercret.htm

[4] Moreton-Robinson, A. (2015). The white possessive: Property, power, and Indigenous sovereignty. University of Minnesota Press.

[5] Marine creatures from the age of dinosaurs. Marine Creatures-Fossil Gallery | Canadian Museum of Nature. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2022, from https://nature.ca/en/plan-your-visit/what-see-do/our-exhibitions/fossil-gallery/marine-creatures

[6] Povinelli, E. A. (2016). Geontologies: A requiem to late liberalism. Duke University Press.

[7] Ghostkeeper, 1995, p. 94 (Ghostkeeper, E. (1995). Spirit gifting: The concept of Spiritual Exchange (dissertation). Edmonton.)

[8] Shotwell, A. (2016). Against purity living ethically in compromised times. University of Minnesota Press.

[9] LaBoucane-Benson, P. (2009). Reconciliation, repatriation and reconnection: A framework for building resilience in Canadian Indigenous families (dissertation).


Special thanks to Samantha Butwell for her work on this series.

IMAGE CREDIT: PHOTOGRAPH BY ALYSSA BARDY. “In a white settler colonial capitalist framework, ‘not life’ encompasses those beings not considered to be animate or alive, including rocks, waters, lands, atmospheres, and, indeed, ancient fossil beings.” – Dr. Zoe Todd
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  • Zoe Todd

    Zoe Todd (Métis/otipemisiw) is from Amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton), Alberta, Canada. She writes about fish, art, Métis legal traditions, the Anthropocene, extinction, and decolonization in urban and prairie contexts. She also studies human-animal relations, colonialism and environmental change in north/western Canada.
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