Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Tackling the Tarsands

As a writer I find words fascinating. Words can inspire, provoke and incite. As a writer I enjoy playing with them, making them dance across a page and, on occasion, letting them flow like a river. Words, however, can be controversial things.

A few months ago during the entire Neil Young debacle I began posting photos of Fort McMurray on Twitter. As opposed to images often seen of our region, that of industrial sites and barren-looking landscapes, I posted photos of our community, boreal forest and rivers. I tagged them with the words "my Hiroshima", and, occasionally, with "tarsands". And what was most interesting is that it was the latter word that proved the more controversial.

I was almost immediately confronted about the use of the word "tarsands". It is outdated terminology, some said, and inaccurate. Some took great offense to the use of this word, as if it has the power to harm us. For me, though, it is just a word, and one that instead of fearing we can, and should, utilize as a tool.

If we are to be very frank the word "tarsands" has been used in relation to our region for decades. It has historical context and meaning, and as such it has appeared in scholarly documents from the not-so-distant past. And while technically speaking it is incorrect, as bitumen is not tar, I suspect for most the technical inaccuracy is not what troubles us about the word. I suspect it is that the word has been co-opted by those who oppose the industry, and who reject the word we prefer: oil sands.

Oil sands is undoubtedly the more accurate term, as it clearly reflects that it is oil, and not tar, found in the sands native to this region. It is also undoubtedly cleaner terminology, with far less negative connotation than the word "tar" (which brings to mind places like the La Brea tar pits, full of sticky black goo and corpses of sabre tooth tigers). It is a far more palatable word for industry, as it is a word that flows better in terms of communication and in publications regarding our industry. It is, however, a word that those who oppose the industry almost categorically refuse to use, and that is perhaps exactly why we should use the word tarsands on occasion and reclaim it.

As a writer I believe you  must write in the language your audience speaks. If I am trying to connect with those who oppose the oilsands industry and show them that another aspect of life exists in this region - such as our community - I will if necessary use the word tarsands to ensure we establish a common frame of reference. If I find myself stuck on that basic point - one word - I have lost all hope of communicating effectively with them because I have started the dialogue from a point of difference as opposed to one of commonality.

And, quite frankly, I am not ashamed of the word tarsands.

The word has a long and rich history, stretching back to the 19th century. It was used for decades, and never with any intent of negative meaning. Over time we stopped using it and allowed it to fall prey to those who oppose the industry and to infuse the word with their own meaning, implying some sort of dark and sinister connotation on a word that is, after all, just a word.

So, there it is, readers. I am not afraid to use the word tarsands, and I am not going to shy away from it as if it is some sort of cobra waiting to strike. Instead I use the word when the context demands it, and when I am trying to reach those who may use that word in a negative way, because by building some common ground based on our similarities as people and communities I may be able to sway them to see that Fort McMurray is far, far more than just...the tarsands.

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