HOW WAS THE PETROCULTURES CONFERENCE?

Having been in the news, many people have been asking me how the Petrocultures conference went that was in Montreal February 6-7, 2014. Rather than repeating my random responses of: “it was unique in that it wasn’t just academics speaking” or “I was terrified to present but met lots of interesting people” or student protestors locked us out!,” I would rather just tell people to “read my new blog on it,” so I’ve written one.

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Each talk from the conference is available online. I hope this blog helps you wade through and find the black nuggets that appeal to you. You know, the Texas tea.

      1. My biases: I am a Warren Fellow at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada so I was a (minor) part of the advisory committee and I know and like all of the people who worked hard to put the conference together. Criticizing a conference is like criticizing a university class: it’s easy to do when you are a participant and not the one doing the work. People always put in more time than you can imagine on planning these kinds of events and they deserve our gratitude. My other bias is that I am an Albertan who has spent years working for First Nations in the oil sands region. Although the conference theme was on petrocultures in all of Canada, there was an inevitable focus on Alberta’s oil sands. Useful insights were shared, but I wondered how many people have actually been to northern Alberta?
      2. I presented on the second day of the conference and the lineup was as follows: Philip D. Moeller (US Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner), Steven Guilbeault (co-founder of Équiterre), Ezra Levant, Tzeporah Berman, then me. What humble PhD student wouldn’t find that line-up intimidating?  So I stumbled through my speech on the good, the bad, and the ugly of traditional land use studies that are being used as consultation with First Nations in Alberta. I hope the wild west reference is obvious. Apart from the lawyer, Katherine Koostachin, and journalist, Trish Audette the other speakers at the conference didn’t really address the impacts of petroleum on Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Sadly Eriel Deranger from Athabasca Chipwyan First Nation was unable to attend, and I’m sure her presence would have shone at the conference.
      3. The Big Guns:  The more famous people were well spoken, polished and did what was expected of them. Ezra Levant waved his arms and insulted everyone, Tzeporah Berman was impassioned and compelling, and Petrocultures co-director Imre Szeman was articulate, brilliant and heuristic. Check the schedule for other heavy hitters that might interest you.
      4. Puke in my Mouth: Liz Hannah the Vice President of Communications at Cenovus Energy gave a half hour commercial on how SAGD is a clean technology and that it brings wealth to people who would otherwise be pathetic and lost. It reminded me of a Rick Mercer skit. It made me laugh, shake my head, and puke in my mouth a little. What bothered me the most, is that no one mentioned the ten-month and counting four sites where oil is seeping out of the ground from the CNRL Primrose in-situ project blow-outs near Cold Lake, Alberta. CNRL has now DRAINED 2/3 of a lake to attempt to resolve the problem. I worked with an Elder from Saddle Lake First Nation last summer who used to fish in that lake. This situation needs way more attention.
      5. Divest McGill and the student protests: I met a lot of the students involved in Divest McGill and perhaps some from the protest. They are a brave and brilliant bunch of students and I wish I was more like them when I was their age.  They were at the microphones asking the tough questions and revealed the weaknesses of people in positions of power. I call on them to keep learning and do more research about the issues that move them.
      6. Memorable and inspiring: Talks by Sheena Wilson, Ruth Beer, Jennifer Gabrys and Brenda Longfellow. These people all blew my hair back. Their projects were useful, fascinating, and precise. Do yourself a favour and spend some time with Longfellow’s Offshore Interactive Blog and keep an eye on Beer’s Trading Routes project. Also play the online interactive game and film Fort McMoney. I can’t get enough of it.
      7. Cultural night: Ending the first night of a conference with art, snacks, and booze is ideal. Each of the featured writers or artists are worth checking out. Warren Cariou told a story that will stay with me. My significant other, Tim Hus, sang his songs that chronicle the history of oil  and oil workers in Alberta.
      8. Open up the valves and let the pipelines flow: I made lots of new friends, the kind that make me smile and give me hope, and I got to spend time with two of the only four other social scientists I know of doing research in the oil sands region, Tara Joly and Hereward Longley. I’m so glad to have these hilarious and ingenious individuals as colleagues, future co-authors, collaborators, and co-conspirators. Please check out their work.