When Slocan Valley fly fisherman Chris Dawson first set out to write a book about Alberta’s oil sands, he didn’t realize it was going to be a satire.
“Let’s face it: the oil patch can be dry, dry subject matter. At first I was writing a much more serious book, but then I started setting aside my own reservations,” Dawson told the Star, describing the process he went through in writing his recently released tragicomic novel Oily Business. “It was really difficult figuring out how far to go.”
Dawson has had an eclectic career as a environmental writer and sports journalist for the Calgary Herald and National Post, but also spent a stint as a senior communications strategist for Petro-Canada, where he helped lead their oil sands PR campaign. It was his experiences there that he’s now mining for creative inspiration to tell the story of two men stranded together in a helicopter crash.
“Basically you’ve got this spin doctor for a major oil sands producer trapped with an environmentalist, and in the course of waiting for their rescue party to arrive, through a series of flashbacks, they recount the events that led them to that point.”
But his intention isn’t to preach to the reader, or to necessarily take sides.
“It pokes fun at windmills, lampoons everyone and everything, but at the same time it deals with some important subject matter: climate change, environmental degradation, bottom line corporate thinking and naïve environmental thinking.”
These weren’t topics he was encouraged to explore while working in the oil sands.
“I’ve won nature writing awards, I’ve worked as an environmental feature writer, and I always had to wear that stigma when I was in the oil patch. Whenever I suggested we put out something with a green flavour they’d say ‘remember, we’re in a business and it’s the bottom line’.”
He originally thought he could help improve the industry from within, and he’s proud of some of his “little victories” — such as a documentary he worked on showcasing some of their sustainability initiatives — “but at the end of the day you work for a business with shareholders and profit drives everything.”
Now that he’s found a new career, leading fly fishing trips “from Calgary to Castlegar,” he feels like he’s finally free to speak his mind. He’s been touring with the book, and so far has received both positive and negative feedback.
One journalist asked him straight out: “do you feel like a shill for the oil patch?”
“I struggled with that while I was writing, but eventually I figured I was being fair. I set out to be honest and I didn’t whitewash anything.”
Dawson compares his work to the speculative fiction of Margaret Atwood, because there’s nothing in the book that couldn’t happen or hasn’t happened already.
“Many of the things in this book I witnessed firsthand. There’s so much obfuscation going on, the wool being pulled over our eyes,” Dawson said, citing as an example a spill he worked on in Ontario years ago where an oil byproduct was released into a lake.
He was on the team struggling to figure out the appropriate response.
“We huddled and the spin doctor masterminds locked heads, got everyone in a room and said ‘what do we have here?’”
The description of the oil changed from “mineral oil” to “white oil” to finally being compared to “Johnson’s baby oil” over the course of their conversation.
“When we heard that all our eyebrows went up. We said this isn’t a spill! This is a free fluff and shine for all the little duckies! That’s where we landed. That’s what went out. Was I proud of myself that day? Yes. But once you start to think about those things, it weighs on you. That incident compounded with others like it finally wore me out.”
Dawson’s own brother would call him “Darth Vader” on the phone.
“I really encourage anyone trying to make up their minds about the oil sands to go up there. It’s making a wasteland of Northern Alberta. I had to speak out of the textbook, saying we’re doing all the right things. But you know what? It’s not enough. Development needs to slow down.”
Put another way: “Neil Young got it right.”
And now that the industry’s going through a depression, Dawson believes it’s finally catching up to them.
“Something had to happen. Parts of my book deal with the materialism and sheer grandiose spending that goes on in Fort McMurray,” he said. “I had my very first newspaper job at Fort McMurray, and I got to see it right at the advent of the production boom. Then I went back 20 years later.”
What he saw horrified him.
“It’s growth happening too fast. I moved to the Kootenays for a reason. I’ve lived a faster life, a much more profitable life, but now I’m living the good life. Here we have this right wing-thinking person coming into this leftist part of Canada and I couldn’t be happier.”
One positive outcome of living in the Kootenays was that Dawson teamed up with New Denver graphic artist Tisha Becker, who designed the cover.
“We have so much talent in this community,” he said.
Dawson’s hopeful the climate talks in Paris will be productive, but he’s concerned we still aren’t doing enough to address climate disruption.
“We reach some agreement in Rio or in Copenhagen, but we never follow through because politicians only think in electoral time frames. We have to abandon that short-sightedness and think long-term, because serious consequences await if we don’t.”
There will be a book launch for Oily Business at the Nelson Public Library on Jan. 19 at 7 p.m.