Violet Clarke’s home sits virtually in the center of the vast Athabasca tar sands, a colossal deposit of extremely heavy crude oil in the western Canadian province of Alberta.
She vaguely recalls seeing the gooey black stuff, which seeped naturally from the banks of the Athabasca River, during her childhood. Her father, a Cree Indian, slathered handfuls of the foul-smelling heavy oil, known as bitumen, over his birch canoe to seal it. He hunted bear, moose and elk, butchered them and smoked their flesh. In the summer Clarke picked and dried berries.
“We lived clean, healthy lives,” says Clarke, 86, sitting by a window in her battered mobile home. But over the past four decades, bitumen and the economy it has birthed have dramatically changed her life. A snarling complex of mines, pipelines, waste ponds and processing plants now lives atop the tar sands, one of the largest concentrated industrial activities on earth. Giant earth movers claw into black seams of the bitumen around the clock. Forests of factory stacks reach to the sky, lighting the land with smoky flares at night.
Clarke says today the moose are gone, scared away by nearby tar sands activities. She says the berries are not safe to eat. Mercury contamination has made Willow lake’s fish inedible. See a video clip of Violet Clarke.