On Feb. 16, I attended the public consultation meeting in Tagish, in regards to proposed oil and gas exploration from here to Carmacks.
The impression I was left with following the presentation by the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources was that Outside companies would be allowed to “play around” in various areas and likely they’d find nothing and simply go home. It was declared by the manager of operations for the Yukon’s oil and gas that the environment cannot be destroyed. He said a simple “no” from him if things did not measure up to Yukon standards was enough to send companies packing. I wonder how many times he’s actually done that.
These recent upsetting proposals have unearthed an old personal trauma. In the late 1990s, my partner and I worked for a Canadian oil and gas company in the jungle of Ecuador bordering Colombia. We were hired as a writer/photographer team as part of a newly formed foundation created by the oil company to appease concerns and public outcry back in Calgary that were concerned about social responsibility.
Word had gotten out that the local people were living in rudimentary shacks literally over pipelines, in dire poverty. The main health issues were chronic respiratory ones due to the steady traffic from the oil company vehicles roaring through the village, stirring up dust. The villagers had requested a water truck to pass once a day to settle the dust but it was denied.
We had spent three years prior to this working for a reputable international humanitarian organization in Ecuador and this was the worst poverty we’d witnessed. Yet the jungle was rich in resources and millions of dollars flowed literally underfoot everyday.
Shocking to us was the callous attitude from our fellow countrymen, whose managers traveled in convoys with heavily armed bodyguards. One manager laughed as he told us of their hiring practices: to hire as many local people as possible, send them out in the field with no training only to see them last a few days. The company was then able to say they tried to hire locally “but they couldn’t handle it Ã that’s not our problem anymore.”
He said he learned these hiring tactics in Inuvik, when he worked in the Beaufort in the 1980s.
The true devastation lay behind the many locked gates along the main road, with armed guards sheltered in little sheds. One day, an oil company employee took us down one of these roads on the way to the coffee farm where we lived. As far as we could see were pools of brown sludge and standing dead trees from years of dumping toxic drilling mud and oil from leaking pipelines. The local busy brothel on the outskirts of town serviced the crew. To the guy showing us this, it was all normal business and part of the two-weeks-in, two-weeks-out job.
We aren’t proud of the fact we had to save ourselves from the harsh reality, after befriending some local children and families. We could not help them. As it turned out, the foundation we were working for was all smoke and mirrors. After a while, we caught on to the illusion we were innocently part of. The last straw was the loss of the creek that got diverted by the company behind the farm, where we bathed and got water for cooking. Soon there were grumblings amongst the local people who didn’t want their photos taken anymore, who felt we’d taken enough of their stories. And for what Ã a glossy facade for the company’s stakeholders?
Then there were the intimidating roadblocks that were routinely set up by the villagers who were getting increasingly unhappy. Shortly after we left, 11 Canadian workers from the oil company were kidnapped and went missing for several months in the jungle. One of the bodyguards was dead. As horrible as this was, I could see there were no options left for the local Ecuadorians. They’d given up their health, their water, had no work and their land had been expropriated. Trapped with nowhere to go, who could blame the kidnappers?
That’s when we came here to the southern lakes. We found a beautiful place near a clean lake. The Yukon would become the place where we could lick our wounds. Pristine, just like a post card, everything we’d imagined the Yukon to be with wildlife routinely in our midst. How immensely privileged we are! But I can’t forget the sweet faces of those children, who did their best to live in the muck. Is it poetic justice that now we face the same grim prospects?
Last year, a wide-eyed visitor from Ontario, seeing the Yukon for the first time, asked us a difficult question. Mostly he had been enchanted with the Yukon but, following a hunting trip in a remote area, he was shocked to discover a huge mining camp “in the middle of nowhere.” He told us “people don’t know what’s going on out there, hundreds of guys from somewhere else, dumping $100,000 pieces of equipment in the bush and walking away from it.”
Then he asked, “What kind of plan does the Yukon government have for the future? They must know what’s going on, don’t they?”
We can only wonder about his question after last week’s oil and gas meeting. It did nothing to discuss the long-term effects on tourism, the environment or on the people who live here full time. We should all look to what we saw in Ecuador with horror. It is happening all over the world. Can regulations protect us from that kind of attitude?