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

By Weber, Bob | The Canadian Press, June 28, 2017 | Go to article overview

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


Weber, Bob, The Canadian Press


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.