The Keystone XL pipeline has brought into sharp relief some of the most pressing economic, political and social issues facing the continent. As a U.S. review on a presidential permit for the project nears its conclusion, reporter Nathan VanderKlippe hopped in a car and drove the pipeline’s route to sketch the people and places that stand in its way. This is the second part of a week-long series.
Part one: What I found on my trip along the Keystone route
Part three: 'Praise God! Let the oil flow'
Part four: 'Great white father... we do not want this pipeline'
Part five: Nebraska pipeline fighter: 'I wouldn't take $5-million'
Part six: Keystone builder's view: 'We take great pride in our work'
View a map of Nathan's journey
Explore more on our Keystone XL pipeline page.
'IT'S DIRTY OIL. THERE'S NO QUESTION.'
The table is set at Laureen Marchand’s house with Guinness cheddar, apricot wensleydale, aged Irish monastery cheese – and an equally compelling selection of southern Saskatchewan’s finest residents.
Val Marie, Sask., is tiny and isolated. Its nearest gas station is 55 kilometres away. The nearest police officer is 75 kilometres distant. Only 100 people live here. What’s remarkable is how many are artists and authors, perched in a tiny town near the line on the map that marks Keystone XL’s route. On a pipeline path jammed with people raising cattle and wheat, it’s an enclave with a distinctly different bent on the broad energy questions elicited by the project.
“It looks like a scruffy little village, but it’s got interesting people in it,” Ms. Marchand says.
To prove the point, Ms. Marchand has invited a few people over for dinner on a Monday night. They are two couples. Pam Woodland, a graphic designer and photographer, and Bob Harwood, an author, run Harland Press. They call it “publishing for the love of it.” Wes Olson is a long-time national park warden. He is one of the world’s top bison experts; he helped populate Alberta bison in Russia and in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park. Johane Janelle, an accomplished horse photographer, has long been by his side, her photographs of bison and flowers illustrating the books he has written.
Around this table, there isn’t much love for a government that has amended Canada’s environmental regime while working to promote new export pipelines. There’s not much love, either, for the oil that would flow through Keystone XL. Mr. Olson once spent three days in the oil sands region. He was horrified. “I’ve seen the devastation. It’s mind-blowing to me what us piddly little humans can do to the landscape,” he says. “It’s dirty oil. There’s no question.”
In Val Marie, the pipeline also travels past a place struggling against recent changes wrought by the Conservative government. The scrapping of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration has ended the nationally-mandated protection of large swaths of grazing pastures, and cast the shadow of private ownership over areas long vital to local ranchers whose livelihood has been staked on public land. Parks Canada cuts have also prompted two families to leave Val Marie.
“That’s huge when you only have 100 people living here,” Ms. Janelle says.
Through Mr. Olson’s eyes, the landscape is different. Two centuries ago, so many bison roamed what is now Western Canada that one exploration party was “trapped for 10 days in their camp while one herd of bison walked by. Tens of thousands of animals, for days on end.” I had always thought of the bison as being primarily exterminated by sport hunters. They were, instead, largely harvested to support North America’s industrial revolution, Mr. Olson says, their skins used to make leather belts to turn machinery. “Probably 80 per cent of the decimation was related to the hide trade,” he says.
It’s a reminder that Keystone XL, if it’s built, will dig into a landscape already undeniably altered by the forces of development. In Alberta, the first few hundred kilometres of the route parallel Highway 41, the Buffalo Trail.
Other things are changing, too – including the makeup of the population. In Val Marie, some “11 or 12 per cent of the population are artists,” Ms. Marchand says. “It’s a community of ranchers and artists and science professionals. And that’s unusual.”