Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Back to Bitumount: How the Oilsands Changed Alberta and Canada Forever

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Back to Bitumount: How the Oilsands Changed Alberta and Canada Forever

Article excerpt

How oilsands changed Alberta and Canada forever


FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - David O'Laney unlocks the gate to the historic site he is charged with protecting and swings it wide, allowing entrance to what is arguably the birthplace of modern Alberta and all that has meant to the rest of Canada.

Appropriately, the road in is paved with bitumen.

"This is where the first experimental oilsands processing took place," says O'Laney, who monitors and maintains the site for Alberta Culture.

"This" - a stretch of Athabasca River bank north of Fort McMurray - is Bitumount.

It's where almost a century ago, men and money laboured mightily to turn the black, gooey, sandy gunk into something - anything - that people would pay for.

Eventually, an industry was founded. The result changed Alberta - and Canada - forever.

"It really did change the economy and the political landscape of the country," says University of Toronto political scientist Chris Cochrane. "It's still changing them."

Half homestead, half abandoned industrial yard, Bitumount doesn't look like a birthplace.

It was started in the mid-1920s when Robert Fitzsimmons, a career oilman, decided the tarry goo along the riverbank was his ticket to riches.

For more than a decade, he did everything he could to make the oilsands pay. He advertised 38 different ways to use bitumen, including road paving, home roofing and even as a therapeutic bath.

His cabin and those of his workers, the gaps in the walls chinked with bitumen, still stand.

Some of today's mines have their own airstrips, but in those days the only way in and out was Fitzsimmon's boat. The Golden Slipper still moulders on the riverbank.

Fitzsimmons was bought out in 1942 by Lloyd Champion, a serial entrepreneur who thought bitumen just the thing to pave the Alaska Highway, then under construction. Champion later partnered with the provincial government, which ultimately ran the site until it closed in 1955.

Touring Bitumount today, it's impossible not to be struck by the parallels between past and present.

Despite their rusty patina, many of the structures from Fitzsimmons' time would look familiar to today's oilsands workers - the dormitories, the power plant, the refinery, the pipelines.

There's an old rail car on site once used as a travelling road show to sell the oilsands - a harbinger of the two-storey dump truck Alberta brought to Washington D.C. in 2006 for the same purpose.

Fitzsimmons' old operation even presaged the modern method of using hot water to separate the oil from the sand it's mixed with. Except his workers stirred a huge open-air cauldron and raked off the oily slurry off by hand.

"Imagine the smell," says O'Laney.

Those old crews produced about 60 barrels a day. Now, 2.3 million barrels are piped out each day.

That's the result of decades of innovative engineering - and a pipeline of money.

"The perfect metaphor is someone spiking the punch bowl," says Todd Hirsch, chief economist for Alberta Treasury Branches, a provincially owned bank.

In 2014 alone, the oilsands attracted $34 billion in investment.

Alberta, a jurisdiction of just over four million people, knocked back years of that.

It was quite a party.

Corporate shindigs featured caviar and filet at the Calgary Stampede, where $100 hot dogs loaded with cognac and lobster sold out. Mobile homes in Fort McMurray sold for $400,000.

A 17-year-old could make $80 an hour driving a truck. Retail sales staff in Alberta could expect to earn $5,000 a year more than elsewhere in the country.

Every year from 2000 to 2015, Alberta gained about 23,000 people at the expense of the other provinces. The Alberta economy grew by a fifth between 2010 and 2014.

That's not necessarily good, Hirsch says.

"When you have one dominant industry that pulls so much capital, it turns into a bit of a black hole that has its own gravitational force and it pulls in everything around it including labour, capital, everything from office space to building materials to all kinds of talent. …

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