Monday, January 13, 2014

we interrupt this broadcast ... an open letter to jian g at q

Every time I hear of some opposition to the oilsands, whether it be Americans against Keystone-XL or British Columbians against the Northern Gateway, I have mixed feelings. It's the same with Neil Young's campaign on behalf of Athabasca-Chipewayan First Nations: on the one hand, I believe the oilsands projects at large should be shut down for the immeasurable damage I fear they'll do; on the other, I know the consequences will be dire for me and millions of others in Alberta if the opposition is successful.

I'm a Maritimer and I came to Alberta in 2011. I live in Bonnyville, which is almost halfway between Fort Mac and Edmonton. I don't really want to be here - the winters are much too long and the cold can be devastating - but it would be foolish bordering on irresponsible to turn away from the opportunities that are available. The widespread success of the industry - we call it "the patch" - has made for an economy unlike any other in Canada.

"The patch" means that guys younger than 25 routinely earn over a hundred grand a year. "The patch" means the grocery stores and coffee shops and hotels go through staff like water through a sieve. "The patch" means that despite a minimum wage rate of $9.95, there's no need to take anything less than $12 an hour and even jobs that pay $20 an hour aren't anything to boast about. In fact, I once heard a guy swear he'd never work for less than $35 and hour again, now that he had a family. He was making $50 at the time.

For me, "the patch" has meant walking into a job as a legal assistant without a minute of experience. At home, I would need a diploma and three years experience to get work. I know, because I've been checking online. If I went home now I'd be going back to $10 an hour in a call centre.

Listening to Neil Young today on Q, so passionate and intense, so sure of his position, I felt guilty. I know I wouldn't be earning a living in Alberta if the industry here were more obviously exploitative - like whaling, maybe. Or slavery. So what makes this industry more palatable? Is it because I use the products "the patch" produces? Is it because the immeasurable damage isn't immediate, despite what Neil Young says?

I wonder if I would change my mind about being here if I were to see the oilsands up close and personal. Because even though I see evidence of their existence all around me the sands aren't really real, you know? They're an abstraction, even though I'm significantly closer to them than most Canadians.

For now, I stay. I have the job of my dreams, I'm clearing debt, and planning for a nice retirement. I don't live paycheque to paycheque anymore. I don't struggle in front of the shelves at the grocery store anymore, wondering if I can afford the lean ground beef. If I run low on gas, I can fill up my tank; I don't have to dig through the piggy bank or borrow 20 bucks from my Dad until payday.

My new lifestyle has tremendous value to me. Should it be at the expense of the natural environment or someone's culture? No, it shouldn't. I know it shouldn't. But how can I walk away from it? And how could someone else suggest I walk away from it? What should I do instead?

I don't think the answers come easily, if at all. And that's why I'll continue to feel confused and guilty, even as I do nothing differently.

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