In the 1960’s the Cree and Dene First Nation Reserve of Fort McKay situated on the Athabasca River in Northern Alberta’s Boreal forest had no running water, the people lived in shacks and there were no roads connecting it to the rest of Canada. They sustained themselves off a traditional economy of hunting and trapping as their ancestors practiced in the region for thousands of years. But as community elder Zackary Powder says, “Its not like it used to be, everything has changed.”
Since 1778 the Athabasca was part of the main fur trade route from the Mackenzie River to the Great Lakes employing local Natives as fur Trappers. Fur from the region helped fuel the Canadian colonialist economy. Today, the Canadian economy remains supported by the regions resources, but the fur fueled Hudson’s Bay Company is only a memory here, replaced by the likes of Syncrude, Total, Shell, Imperial Oil and Suncor, formerly the Great Canadian Oil Sands, which on June 6, 1970, spilled 19,000 barrels of oil from a ruptured pipeline into the river. 30km downstream the Cree, Dene and Metis people of Fort McKay fished to feed their families.
Along the riverbanks and beneath the trees lays the third largest oil deposit in the world. Know as the Oil Sands, an unconventional oil that is deposited in 140,000 sq kilometers of sand and earth beneath the regions Boreal forest. The extraction of this oil has devastated the ecology of this once pristine region, clearing the forests, poisoning the rivers and creative massive toxic tailings ponds held back from the river by the largest earthen dams in the world.
Fort McKay First Nation is surrounded by Oilsands development, what has become the largest industrial operation in the world. With the collapse of the fur trade and a growing inability to live off the polluted land Fort McKay was faced with a choice. Work for the oil companies, or fall into the poverty that plagues reserves across Canada. In 1986 they created the Fort McKay Group of Companies, which today grosses over $700 million annually providing services to industry. Without access to healthy land, the community struggles to maintain their cultural activities. The animals they hunt are rarely seen, they can no longer eat the fish from the river or drink their water and many believe the health of the community is being impacted by high rates of cancer, asthma and miscarriage.
Sleeping with the Devil examines the transitory state of the community of Fort McKay. Prospering within an economy that is destroying their land they must negotiate an inner conflict and an uncertain future as their values, health and culture are traded for a standard of living most Canadians take for granted.