In the summer of 2014, Emily Eaton and I embarked on a 3,200-kilometre road trip to booming oil towns across Saskatchewan, meeting with oil workers, regulators, farmers and ranchers, Indigenous land defenders, municipal politicians, environmental consultants, temporary foreign workers, and social service providers.
The resulting research and photographs gave rise to Fault Lines: Life and Landscape in Saskatchewan’s Oil Economy.
The following text is excerpted from my travel notes.
In Arcola, $35 gets you one night in a gravel lot in the yard of a broken-down motel. It’s populated by fifth wheels with frontier motifs like “Open Range, “Freedom Express,” or just plain “Columbus”.
There’s not so much as a picnic table, to say nothing of a shower, so we set up the BBQ on the tailgate of the Silverado and eat bratwurst sitting cross-legged in the box.
I wander into Buddy’s Pub a few blocks south of the RV park on Main Street. Originally built as a Queen Anne opera house in 1906, it used to also serve as the town office, council chambers, fire hall, and town jail.
In the 1990s it was bought by the Williston Wildcatters oil company and repurposed as a bar.
It’s late and Eric Church’s “Give Me Back My Hometown” is playing low on the radio. There’s a lone man in a John Deere ball cap and apart from that the place is empty.
Buddy’s Pub, Arcola.
We’ve been told that there are three stages in the life cycle of a boom.
The first is marked by spectators and head-hunters of high-level executives. This is the land rush.
Next comes the professional class—the entrepreneurs and engineers. In the third and final stage, the sundown days of a boomtown, it’s the destination of people caught between dreams and desperation with nowhere else to go—the unskilled, unwanted, or unattached.
As Tyson, a field supervisor we met in Stoughton, said, “Resumes mean nothing here. I could drive into town and get you a job right now.”
People come to make money and get out, but it’s seldom so simple.
Tower Cafe and Tap House, Estevan.
The last two days have been spent in the company of Bill Dillabaugh (affectionately known as Wild Bill by some, Bill Pickle by others), a by turns jovial and hot tempered fellow of 78 who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
He comes from the empire-building school of ranching specific to children of the Depression who are almost pathologically devoted to frugality and acquisition and share an inscrutable contempt for magpies. He’s also among the most artful storytellers I’ve encountered (most involve a lawman of some description getting a “licking,” and end with “It was real Western.”).
When Bill offers to take us to see some of the well sites around Coleville, we toss our rubber boots in the box of his new pearl brown Dodge pickup (the Laramie Longhorn edition) and climb in. Pulling onto the rain-soaked grid road, Bill’s lead foot settles into position as he dials his grandson Austin on the handsfree to boast over a thunder of mud hitting the undercarriage that he’s driving around with two “young girls.”
Coffee Row, Coleville.
In the morning he invites us to coffee row at the Colville Hotel, where the old-timers convene each Sunday morning to gamble over who picks up the bill for the lot of them (turns out this time it’s me).
As Bill stands to introduce us and explains that we’re looking at the effects of oil on rural communities, one of the younger men around the table mumbles impassively, “If there were no oil, there would be no Coleville.” It’s an irrefutable fact. As Bill leans in to tell us a moment later, “There probably isn’t a one of us at this table that hasn’t seen a cheque from oil.”
We leave the hotel and tour the coulees of the pasture where Bill found one of his calves tangled up in a pumpjack last winter.
I ask if he might let me take his portrait. After some banter about waiving his usual fee, he replies with “Where do you want me?” and I direct him to stand next to a lone aspen in the prairie. He looks at it curiously. “That tree looks like me! That’s what you want, I’ll bet. A bent old tree and a bent old farmer.” He had my number.
Bill’s Pasture, RM of Oakdale.
We stop for lunch at the hotel before hitting the road. Dry ribs and caesar salad. Bill has chicken noodle soup with Premium Plus crackers. The conversation turns to our state of childlessness, which Bill is unsettled by. “Have babies,” he implores us with sudden seriousness. “The older you get, the more you appreciate that life is precious. It gets harder and harder to shoot things. Cows. Even magpies.”
When we meet Stef at the Overtime lounge and mention that we’ve been wanting to get to know more women who work in the oil patch she picks up the phone and calls Mandy.
Mandy has five half-sisters and a tattoo behind her ear with the Dutch word for thirteen.
She got a job cleaning hotel rooms at fourteen, and by fifteen she was on her own, supporting herself by working at the pig barn and selling Mary Kay door-to-door. She’s twenty-one now and drives a vac truck and it’s the first time she’s only had to work one job at a time.
She has soft eyes and and light, melodic laughter, and she’s tough as nails.
Marilyn tells us that when the Sundance was banned under the Indian Act, Thunderchild was one of the few places people could continue the ceremony. It’s hidden in a valley.
Last summer, Tonare Energy began seismic exploration on the Sundance grounds, detonating over 160 explosives and mowing pathways in the forest of the sacred grounds, mulching prayer cloths knotted to aspen limbs. Marilyn established a camp with her sister to protect the site, which soon grew to over forty people. In August she was arrested for defying a court injunction to evacuate it.
She greeted us warmly today, radiating energy after completing a three-day fast as part of this summer’s ceremony.
“Oil is the earth’s blood,” she says. “Sacred sites tend to be ‘resource rich.’”
After the Sundance, Thunderchild First Nation.
Valerie Zink and Emily Eaton will launch Fault Lines: Life and Landscape in Saskatchewan’s Oil Economy tomorrow at Regina’s Artful Dodger and next Monday at Saskatoon’s Turning the Tide.
Raised on a farm in the foothills of Alberta, Valerie Zink received her bachelor’s in History from Dalhousie University before studying at the International Centre of Photography in New York. Her work focuses on metabolisms between people and nature, issues of economic migration and displacement, and the intersection of landscape and memory. Through photography, she seeks to reveal the ordinary ways that people struggle to live right and defend their attachment to home. She currently lives and works in Fort Qu’Appelle, SK. View books by Valerie Zink.