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The problem with the Alberta oil sands is that they have become as much symbol as reality. Whatever you say is true about them, well, as far as others are concerned, the opposite is also true. And, equally they can be used to represent a utopian and dystopian vision of the near future.

The oil-sands industry is a huge endeavour and it spooks us as a country. The scale of it is monumental, the wealth it does and can provide is staggering. And yet, it makes so many people uneasy. Look at large-scale photographs or film footage and you are simultaneously awed by the terrible beauty and frightened by the savage destruction of the natural landscape.

Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands (CBC, 8 p.m. on The Nature if Things) is a two-hour documentary that sets out to undermine all our loose assumptions. It seeks to tighten and focus the issues. And it does. It will bring equal amounts of righteous anger and smug dismissal.

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The core of the documentary is this - over the years, people in the northern Alberta community of Fort Chipewyan have suffered rare forms of cancer. The obvious concern is that toxins from the production process in the oil sands are to blame. The Athabasca River and its role both in sustaining the local community and in oil production are at the heart of the matter. The Alberta government and the oil industry have flaunted studies saying the oil sands have contributed no pollution to the Athabasca River.

This program takes the view that new and independent research says the government and oil industry positions are dubious: The river is heavily polluted. There are connections between the pollution and the cancer. Thus, our loose assumption that everything is peachy is wrong. That's the "tipping point" in the title.

The science of it can be bewildering, no matter how much host David Suzuki tries to make it clear and understandable. One gets the sense that for every point made by an expert there's an opposite view, equally forceful and claiming to be equally backed by scientific facts. At the same time, every point being made is drenched in low-grade ideology. Not every point of view gets equal amount of time because the documentary says it is about scientific facts.

Mind you, plenty of specific points of view are aired. Mainly the views are of those who see Canada's stand on the oil sands as an international disgrace. The following statements from various academics and activists are made: "If the whole world followed Canada, down that route ... we would cook the Earth." Then this, in relation to the Copenhagen climate-change summit in 2009: "Canada has, in the run-up to Copenhagen, done a great deal to sabotage the efforts of other nations. And it did more damage than any other nation on Earth." And inevitably, this: "We have lost credibility internationally. There's no question that Canada is viewed as an obstruction and a laggard on the international scene."

The narrative has a familiar feel to it. We see the oil sands and the spectacular weirdness of it all, the vastness of its scope. We see Alberta politicians going to meetings in Washington to talk up the potential of the oil sands and emphasize that any belief that it delivers "dirty oil" is wrong. That's the big development/big business-and-politics side of the narrative. Then along come the little guys, the ones trying to overcome all that power.

Their representative is Dene elder François Paulette, who has a long history of battling Ottawa on modern land claims. The doc, made by Edmonton filmmakers Tom Radford and Niobe Thompson, chronicles Paulette's relentless work to find allies and press the view that the indigenous people of Northern Alberta have indeed suffered terribly from the side-effects of the oil-sands industry.

We see too much of street protests at the Copenhagen summit and too many fatuous speeches at those protests. And in the end, the climax is less than effective. Science seems to triumph over dogma, and the upshot is the discovery that "environmental monitoring standards in the oil sands were seriously flawed." There will be "new steps" to improve pollution monitoring.

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But that's not really enough. Canada's relationship with the Alberta oil sands remains as complex as ever, an illustration of the truth of historian David E. Nye's remark that "one person's sublime may be another's abomination." Add in the obfuscation that comes from the oil industry, the power that accumulates from oil wealth and the rage of environmental polemicists, and you've got a mixture that is as toxic psychologically as the oil sands are environmentally. We still haven't come to grips with what the oil sands are and represent. Here we only get a partial look at the human consequences of what exists in Alberta.

Check local listings.

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