Almamy Barry is standing on the southern edge of Lac des Arcs, holding his toddler in his arms. His partner, Mariama Sow, is beside them with her right arm stretched in front, smiling at her cellphone camera.
They are at one of the busiest attractions in Canada’s Rocky Mountains: a highway pullover with a view of the country’s largest cement plant. And just behind that, a strip mine wearing down Grotto Mountain.
“It is a nice view,” says Mr. Barry, who is from Edmonton by way of Guinea. “I just stopped to take a picture of the lake.”
The family takes selfies. Thousands of tourists do the same each year. There are about two dozen parking spots at the roadside attraction and on this Canada Day long weekend – any summer weekend, really – it is so busy that incoming vehicles have to wait for spaces to open. It is on the eastern edge of the mountains, about 100 kilometres west of Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway. That is what makes it so popular: It is the first place drivers coming from Calgary realize they are truly in the Rockies. They’ve arrived.
But heavy industry beat them by more than a century. Three industrial plants hug Lac des Arcs’ north shore: Baymag Inc. processes magnesium oxide here; Graymont Ltd. mines limestone and makes cement; and Lafarge Canada Inc., a division of France’s LafargeHolcim, does the same as Graymont, just on a larger scale. Lafarge gets the most attention because Baymag and Graymont have smaller operations and are largely hidden by trees.
Tourists at the roadside hotspot are directly across from Lafarge’s two photobomb stars. One is its EcoDome, a shiny unit that is 110 metres in diameter, holds 53,000 tonnes of material and could be mistaken for a UFO that landed lakeside. The other is a concrete tower that could double as a supersized Soviet ski jump. On that tower, there’s a Lafarge sign that can be read from across the lake. And this is just a slice of Lafarge’s operation in Exshaw, Alta., the hamlet that hosts these multibillion-dollar industrial operations.
Most tourists stop, snap pics, move on. Others call Dene Cooper, the reeve for the Municipal District of Bighorn No. 8, Exshaw’s resident historian, and the industry’s de facto defender.
He’s fielded calls from North America, Europe, Australia, and, well, the roadside pullover.
“Now that we’ve got cellphones, they are literally standing there, looking across at me on this side of the lake,” Mr. Cooper says in his home in Exshaw. “They usually are asking me: ‘Why is industry here?’ ”
Indeed, blue haze can hang over the valley when the plants run poorly. Sometimes, ammonium is visible, mostly at dusk and dawn. Chimneys are a giveaway. Expansion projects especially upset tourists who expected to find wilderness.
Mr. Cooper gets it. He loves the area’s natural beauty, too. But the environment and emissions, he says, can exist in harmony.
“It looks to me like shoes on feet, food on tables and kids able to go through school. It looks to me like employment,” he says, noting the air quality is closely monitored and deemed safe. “It looks to me like foundations on houses, cement sidewalks and cement overpasses. I see myself building the infrastructures for towns and cities distant from where I live. And I’m proud of it.”
He also sees cash. Baymag, Graymont and Lafarge collectively run six kilns of various sizes. The newest kiln, Lafarge notes and Mr. Cooper echoes, contributes $1.2-billion a year to Alberta’s economy. Bighorn has an annual budget of about $6-million, Mr. Cooper says, and about $4-million of that comes from natural resources such as limestone, natural gas and trees. About 1,300 people live in the municipal district.
Dani O’Neill is from Scotland, landed in Calgary Friday and reached the roadside pullover Saturday.
“I quite like the ugly plant,” she says at the lake’s edge. “It doesn’t set in with the scenery, but is a contrast against it.”
Her friend Karen Savage, who has been in Canada since January, also lets it slide. “You have to have industry. Everyone needs cement,” she says. “And as soon as you get into the national park, it is completely preserved.”
Banff National Park’s gates are about 25 kilometres west. At least they are now. Its predecessor’s gates used to be about 15 kilometres east of here, which meant the Bow Valley’s industrial activity was inside the park. At the time, industry and parks were simpatico. Big business paid for necessary infrastructure such as roads. But, over time, attitudes changed and people considered industry and parks at odds with each other. Officials addressed the situation by moving the park gates westward in 1930 and again in 1936.
And that has been enough to pacify most tourists. Mr. Barry, for example, could do without the unexpected attraction but he’s far from calling for an environmental rebellion.
“It definitely would be better if the plant weren’t here,” Mr. Barry says of the Lafarge operation. “I’m definitely willing to pitch in $100 tomorrow to move the plant.”