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My life as the son of an Alberta oil man

Posted March 14, 2014 by Common Sense Canadian in Economics

Alex (right) and father (left) riding dirt bikes. (Photo: Matt Sutton’s Facebook)

by Matt Sutton

In November, 2013, I drove to Lacombe, Alberta, to visit my Dad and his family, accompanied by my best friend Alex – a chemical engineer technologist at Imperial Oil, responsible for conducting research on how to clean up tailing ponds.

Both Alex and myself have been shaped by this multi-billion dollar industry, Alex working in it and me having grown up in a household financially supported by it.

I was aware of northern Alberta and Fort McMurray before I knew what the oil and gas industry was.

David ‘Vivuki’ is an idiot

After a day of dirt biking on my father’s acreage, we sat down for dinner and within minutes discussion about the oil sands, Neil Young and David Suzuki  joined us at the table.

“David ‘Vivuki’ is an idiot,” stated the eight-year-old at the table.

“It’s Suzuki, sweetie,” corrected her Mother, “but that’s right, he’s an idiot.”

At the time it was hilarious hearing her numerous attempts at saying the name ‘Suzuki’, but as I look back now the meaning of this dinner table discussion scares me.

Growing up in an oil and gas family, I have first-hand experience of the benefits the industry offers. My Dad always had a job, and subsequently, I always had new toys and my family always had a meal for dinner.

But for me – and I suspect many like me – it has also created a lot of confusion about how we should respond to the debate over an economy that has clothed us, but is also controversial in many other ways.

Alberta’s economic promise

My Dad left his home in England at 18 and joined the British Military. He spent the following decade fixing England’s tanks internationally. Then, at some point, he met my Mom, had me and my sister, left the army and settled in Calgary, Alberta.

Being a heavy-duty mechanic, he began work with a drilling company and moved up the ladder of the oil and gas industry. Today, he is a maintenance manager for a coil tubing company which conducts drilling internationally.

As a kid, I didn’t understand the ins and outs of what my Dad did, nor did I really care – similar to the way his fiancé’s eight-year-old daughter doesn’t understand who David Suzuki is – she only understands what she hears.

I knew my Dad worked on drilling rigs up north and that meant he was gone all the time. I remember him being in a place described to me as ‘up north’, or sometimes it was ‘Fort Mac’.

I was aware of northern Alberta and Fort McMurray before I knew what the oil and gas industry was.

Trading family time for toys

But my Dad missed a lot – hockey games, skateboard contests, birthdays and school concerts – and the reasoning for it was always, “Your Dad has to work.”

A oil sands operation in Fort McMurray, Alberta (Photo: Chris Krüg)

Looking back now, I still wish he could have been there, but without that work I never could have played hockey, I never would have had skateboards and I would not have gotten Gameboys, CD players, or new skates for my birthday.

Now that I am older and attempting to find my place in the world, having become more aware of the public debate surrounding the oil and gas industry, I face a great deal of confusion.

On one side, I am being shown the horrific damage to the environment caused by these companies taking oil from the ground, the ecosystems they have destroyed and the way they are jeopardizing the future of our planet.

On the other side, I see an industry responsible for my Dad always having work and for my life’s privileges.

Does opposing the oil and gas industry’s actions make me ungrateful?

Does agreeing with the oil and gas industry’s actions make me ignorant?

I am constantly unsure. In Alberta, it feels like I’m not supposed to question what’s going on. I’m supposed to be appreciative of the ways it makes my life and my cities economy better.

Same old corporate oil answers

At some points, I have asked my Dad questions about the oil sands, what he thinks and what it all means to him, but it always seems to be the same corporate oil answers:

We need oil, there’s not much you can touch in a day that doesn’t come from oil.

How come there’s a big fuss about Alberta but nobody cares about drilling in Saudi Arabia? Is it different because it’s not in Canada?

Yeah there’s pollution but nowhere near as much as they’re emitting in China.

motorcycle Suzuki AH

These are just some of the answers I’ve received from my Dad in the past, and although these things are true and I appreciate the conversations we have, they do not provide answers. They are all responses that simply divert my attention away from the topic I originally brought up.

Matt Sutton (Photo: Jon Peters)

Most of the time I feel like I will never find truth.  Most who provide an argument on the situation seem to be making money off of it one way or another, and that makes it difficult to discover the truth.

Both sides overreaching

Every time I look into the left side of the conversation I find the same frustrations as I have on the right. Everything seems blown out of proportion with both perspectives.

For example, Neil Young’s private jet and tour buses are enormous consumers of the same fuel his lyrics stand against.  I don’t blame him though – if I had the money I’d probably have a private jet too, and I’m not saying that I think the message of his songs are wrong. My problem is I don’t know how I’m supposed to believe his conviction when his actions do not align with his words.

The same kind of things can be said about David Suzuki, another spokesman against the oil sands.  Suzuki writes frequently against the oil sands, describing them as ‘scary’ and relating the suits behind the oil companies to the mythical ‘bogeyman’ his children used to ask him about.  Suzuki then says, “or maybe there’s something more frightening to consider.  Perhaps the bogeyman is us – the public that places short-term economic value of the tar sands above the priceless value of our environment and our earth.”

To be honest, I don’t very much appreciate Mr. Suzuki saying that I, or any other hard working citizen is any kind of bogeyman who values money over the environment.  Especially when money is not something he has to worry about.

If being frustrated because another millionaire is making me feel bad for appreciating the money generated from the oil sands wasn’t enough, I found it even harder to listen to David Suzuki’s arguments after hearing the accusations that he made up some information in an opinion piece saying cyclones were an environmental threat to the great barrier reef.  When asked about this claim, Suzuki’s response was “that one, I have to admit, was suggested to me by an Australian and it may be true that it might be a mistake, I don’t know.”  Is it just me, or does saying that an idea was suggested to him by an Australian make it any less frightening that he wrote it in his article without double checking first?

The trial of David Suzuki (Photo: The Royal Ontario Museum)

If David Suzuki had such an easy time putting false information into an article about climate change in Australia, how do I know he’s not doing the same thing here?  This is why I have a hard time believing either side of the oil sands argument.

It is examples  such as these that frustrate me about the environmental side of the argument. They take things out of context or exaggerate them beyond reason to belittle the oil industry, the same way that the oil industry will downplay issues to make them seem better in the public eye.  It is equally frustrating on both sides and makes me feel like neither are being honest.

That said, it is not just the battle between the oil and gas industry and environmentalists that exists this way – nearly every conversation has two different parts from each side that aren’t necessarily honest, and that’s why I got into journalism in the first place, to discover the truth.

I believe the truth is balanced somewhere between the environmentalists comparing the oil sands to Hiroshima  and the oil companies calling their reclaimed lands ‘lush’.

My job now, and everybody’s job for that matter, is to listen. Listen to everything said and try understand that although those comments may be exaggerated and both sides may be wrong sometimes, if everybody listens to each other then there is hope for a truth.  A truth that I will be willing to accept from both sides.

It is important now more than ever to pay attention to what is going on and listen to everything being said about the oil sands regardless of what you believe and regardless of which side the information is coming from because neither side holds the full truth.

It is going to take a lot of time, patience and cooperation but I do believe the truth is out there to be found.

Matt Sutton is studying journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary, AB.  


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