Jennifer Dance's Oil Sands Research Trip

Jennifer Dance's Oil Sands Research Trip

Posted on February 8 by Jennifer Dance in Kids, Recent Releases, Teens
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When I first had the idea to write Hawk, I knew I would have to go to the Oil Sands and see it with my own eyes. I'd done a lot of online research and had already decided that my protagonist would come from the remote First Nations Community of Fort Chipewyan, down-steam of the oil sands industry where according to Mr. Google there was a lot of sickness, including cancer, thought by some to be related to toxins from the industry.

As a non-native senior citizen, also known as an old white woman, I have to confess that the idea of heading into both an oil field and the First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan was scary. Plus there is no road to Fort Chip, unless you count the Ice Road, which is open only between December and March. Access at other times of year is by small plane, and I've always been afraid of flying! […] So I put off the trip, continuing to write Hawk with help from the internet until I just couldn't put it off any longer – the final draft of the manuscript was due on the publisher’s desk within a matter of weeks. I had to face my fears.

Interesting facts from the trip:

Dr. John O’Connor

John O’Connor, a medical doctor working in Alberta’s remote northern communities saw several cases of a rare form of bile-duct cancer in tiny Fort Chipewyan.  He brought this to the attention of the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons, asking them to investigate. Instead they investigated him, laying four complaints of professional misconduct against him, including blocking access to files, billing irregularities, engendering a sense of mistrust in the government, and causing undue alarm among residents of Fort Chipewyan. It took him three years to clear his name. 


[…]Within seconds of meeting John, I knew he was the real deal, and that the charges laid against him were false. John admits to being just an ordinary family doctor, thrown into the public eye through no choice of his own. But despite these words, I see a man of great compassion and strength, dedicated to healing and exposing the truth in this part of the world. Others in his position would have walked away. But John is still here, still waging the war, one patient at a time. A true inspiration.


The Athabasca River 

This river was always part of the story, but during the trip it took on a major role. My first sight of it was from the plane as I flew from Toronto to Fort McMurray. Still partially frozen, it meandered through the boreal forest of Northern Alberta. 

Surprise Number One - the boreal forest isn't all evergreens. It's a mix of mostly poplar and pine trees, so in April, from the air, it looks quite grey.


The Tar Sands

Time raced by and soon we were poised to get aboard the little plane that would take us on an aerial tour of the tar sands. […]In a matter of minutes the landscape changed abruptly. The only signs of life were the trucks, moving around, like ants. We were horrified by how close the industry is to the Athabasca River. And shocked that the bare land sloped toward the water.


The Peace-Athabasca Delta, a wetland of international importance & UNESCO World Heritage Site

[F]ew Canadians know about it, or its ecological significance, and even fewer know that it's downstream of the oil sands industry. Millions of water birds stop here on their migration to breeding grounds in the Arctic. Unable to recognize the danger, some, like White Chest in my story, land instead on the near-by tailings ponds.


To see the full piece on Jennifer Dance’s oil sands research trip, visit

Jennifer Dance

Posted by Dundurn Guest on October 30, 2014
Jennifer Dance photo

Jennifer Dance

Jennifer Dance was born in England and holds a B.Sc. in Agriculture and Animal Science from the University of the West Indies. She migrated to Canada in 1979. With family in the Native community, Jennifer has a passion for equality and justice for all people. Her first novel, Red Wolf, was endorsed by Giller Prize–winning author Joseph Boyden. An avid environmentalist, Jennifer lives on a small farm in Stouffville, Ontario.