Fort McKay First Nation, a reservation in northern Canada, is home to nearly 400 Cree, Dene and other indigenous people. It began as a trading post for fur trappers, and the land continued to be used that way until the mid-20th century. In the 1950s and ‘60s, trapping became less profitable, as petroleum operations started to surround the community, extracting oil from the nearby tar sands.
Initially, Fort McKay’s tribal leaders resisted the encroachment, but in the 1980s, they changed direction and decided to go into business with oil companies. Fort McKay’s chief, Dorothy McDonald-Hyde, helped create the first tribe-owned company to service the oil industry. Since 2011, the nation has earned more than $2 billion from its work.
But these profits are not without costs. Elders such as 96-year-old Flora Grandjambe have not forgotten what their land used to look like. When she was raising her children, her family lived off the land – trapping fur for trade, hunting moose to eat and drinking water from the nearby Athabasca River. Today, she says no one can drink or fish out of the river because of pollution from the tar sands.