“Fort McKay is surrounded by oil sands development. I call it ‘ground zero’,” comments Stan Laurent, long-time resident of this Indigenous community about 45 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. “There are various aspects to having such a large industry as our neighbour. Of course there are many opportunities and our community reflects the industry’s support, from schools and recreation facilities to housing and jobs. But there’s also been encroachment on our traditional land, activities and culture. Striking a balance is crucial. And that comes down to communication.”
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Stan and his son Shay have experienced those opportunities and impacts first-hand. They offer a unique perspective on the evolving relationship between Indigenous peoples in northeastern Alberta and the region’s oil sands industry.
1. Stan, what’s your oil sands experience?
I’m from the Fond du Lac First Nation in northern Saskatchewan. I left home in 1982, lived in Edmonton and various places in B.C., then Fort McMurray in 1989. In 1990 I met my wife Cheryl, who was born and raised in Fort McKay. We moved to that community where I found employment in trucking and heavy equipment operating for the oil sands – Syncrude and Suncor at that time. I also worked for the Nation, getting to know people in the community, concerns and needs, participating in decisions for things like housing, education and medical services and I served a term on Council.
I was the volunteer fire chief in Fort McKay, which led me to set up Fort McKay Enterprises Ltd., a business providing emergency medical and other services to oil sands companies. I started with one truck and now have a fleet of vehicles including ambulances, plus training and certification for my staff. It’s allowed me to grow with the industry and give back to my community but also to those in need – I’ve sent firefighting crews to many locations in Alberta and B.C. It’s also given me on-the-job learning of leadership, teamwork and resourcefulness skills that I can apply in my ways, especially with kids and community.
2. Shay, how did the industry affect your hockey career?
I think there are parallels between my experiences in hockey and the oil sands industry, in terms of making the most of opportunities and how you overcome obstacles.
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I started hockey at age six. Fort McKay only had outdoor rinks then but I loved the game and worked hard. At age 12, my team went to Europe for tournaments and came home with a bronze medal. The next year I was in Europe again, we won gold, which was a highlight of my life. At 14 my parents and I decided that I would go to live with family friends in Spruce Grove [near Edmonton] so I could pursue a higher level of play. I was drafted by the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League (WHL) then played my first year of Junior A hockey with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (AJHL). Over the next five years I was with the Chilliwack Chiefs and Nanaimo Clippers of the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL).
My parents both had employment connected to the oil sands so they could give me financial support when I lived away from home, also they sponsored my team and they were able to travel to see me play. My success in the sport wouldn’t have been possible without their financial and emotional support. I also met great role models in hockey and learned life lessons especially about leadership and teamwork.
After several years away, I returned to Fort McKay and went to work for my Dad. I committed myself to getting to know the oil sands industry, working with clients, dealing with situations, and applying the leadership and team skills I learned from hockey.
I set up my own business but another opportunity came up in October 2021 – I’m involved in organized sports again, as facility program supervisor at Fort McKay’s indoor arena and sports facility. As part of that job I’m coaching young players, which gives me a chance to mentor them, teach the same skills I learned and hopefully be a strong role model.
3. And what about the flip side – industry impacts?
As the industry grew around Fort McKay, traditional activities like hunting, fishing and keeping our culture and connection to the land became more difficult. Instead of traveling a short distance to find undisturbed land, we have to go much farther now.
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There’s an untouched area about 100 kilometres from Fort McKay where Indigenous people from the northeast region still find that connection. Our Nation has several cabins at Moose Lake, plus traplines and summer camps, it’s a home away from home and an opportunity to influence kids, teach them about traditions. When an oil sands company proposed drilling and development there, as a Nation we said: ‘No, we’ve sacrificed enough land, enough of our culture. We want to keep this place wild.’
Striking a balance is crucial to any ongoing strong relationship and it comes down to honest communication. Perhaps the companies were surprised but we stood by our needs and perspectives as a community and we prevailed. To their credit, oil sands companies are now helping our elders to visit Moose Lake – it’s a long, hard trip overland so the companies provide financial support for flights.
It’s very important as we move forward that our kids can experience and learn their culture and traditional values, get away from screens and phones and other influences. Youth from Fort McKay enjoy getting out to Moose Lake – you can see it in their faces when they catch that first fish or light that first campfire.
4. Overall, what’s your perspective on the oil sand industry and its relationships with your community?
The industry has enabled a good living for us, our families and community. Like any community, the people of Fort McKay have a range of perspectives. Not everyone is in favour of resource development but it’s here, it’s in our back yard – so let’s work together, learn to give and take and create mutual respect.
Keeping communication open and honest on both sides is the key to building trust and respecting each other’s point of view even when we don’t agree. Fort McKay is fortunate to have so many economic opportunities because of this major industry. But it’s no different from a family discussion. Sometimes ‘no’ means ‘no.’
5. What should Canadians know about the relationships between the resource industry and Indigenous communities?
The industry supports Canadians’ lives, not just in Alberta. People don’t appreciate how much their lives depend on oil and natural gas.
Yes there are disagreements and protests. In our experience, the industry is open to communication, negotiation, making things work. Resource development provides employment and funding for Indigenous communities to build facilities, housing, roads, education, you name it. Development will always be part of northeastern Alberta and the Fort McKay community. But it’s not one-sided. Keep talking.