Finding voices in Cold Lake, Alberta

In late July, news of a secret, unstoppable oil leak in Northern Alberta broke into the national media. More accurately, the black sludge was bitumen, and it was welling up uncontrollably on the wilds of Primrose Air Weapons Firing Range north of Cold Lake. Reports suggested that over 1 million liters had seeped up in the bush and muskeg.

Unravelling the mystery around this story was hard work. Reports published by independent investigators in the Toronto Star used leaked documents from government scientists afraid that the disaster was been hushed up. Because the leak was on military land, no journalists could visit. Statements from Alberta’s energy regulator and drilling company Canadian Natural Resources Limited were confusing, but every week brought more alarming admissions.

Finally, on August 8, 2013, CNRL allowed media to visit the affected areas. We were unable to join the delegation, but Chris Chang-yen Phillips, Nicole Wiart and myself decided to visit the town of Cold Lake on August 9.

We wanted to hear how this leak had affected the lives of residents in town and on the First Nations reserve. We had no idea what we were doing as we drove the three hours north-east. We knew that it was a major story, that we had no hope of seeing the actual spill, but that the voices of Cold Lake residents had been missing from most mainstream news reports.

We decided to head to the First Nations reserve and just start asking around for people who wanted to shoot the breeze. We learned some tough lessons that day. We heard powerful stories that we weren’t allowed to tape. I got into arguments with defensive townspeople, and I made mistakes. We stuck to it, and with a little serendipity, we found our story.

This story originally aired on Terra Informa in August, 2013.