A Stranded Nation looks to add clarity to Canada's divisive oil and gas debate

On June 17, the Canadian government declared a national climate emergency. The next day, on June 18, it re-affirmed its decision to expand the Trans Mountain oil pipeline from landlocked Edmonton to tidewater in Burnaby on the west coast.

Three days later, on June 21, Heidi McKillop, a young filmmaker from Calgary, released her debut documentary called A Stranded Nation, a 68-minute look at just how much oil and gas resources are integrated into Canadian society, and how divisive debate has pitted the nation's economic interests against its environmental interests.

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Canadians can be forgiven for being confused by the doublespeak coming from its government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, McKillop says.

"The leader is confused," McKillop said before a screening of her film in Fort St. John on June 27. "I'd love to have a conversation with him because I don't know what he's being fed. He's obviously got a lot of people helping feed him information and support. But I definitely think, as a leader, he tries to please everybody, and in the end doesn't please anyone."

Trudeau isn't a feature subject in McKillop's documentary, but industry leaders, former premiers, current MPs, financial analysts, and pro-resource activists are.

Combined, they form a narrative that tries to counterbalance the political hyperbole with some reasoned perspectives about Canada's energy mix and regulatory practices, and how wealth generated by resource development is redistributed across the country for the benefit of all. 

"The one thing about politics in this conversation is that it has been very divisive in the media. When you put your boots on the ground, it's not as divisive as what people think," McKillop said.

Watch: A Stranded Nation

It's taken McKillop two years to produce her self-financed film, with support from assistant producer Arden Shibley. It was born out of a shift in her attitude towards the oil and gas industry. McKillop went from growing up in New Brunswick, studying social work, and opposing hydraulic fracturing, to making her way west and eventually working in a surface land department for an oil firm in Calgary.

"It took me a couple of years to get out of that dirty oil mentality," McKillop said.

"I was doing reception, I wasn't fully integrated into the day-to-day regulatory process of what people would be looking at as the land man. It was really then when I started working with Directive 56 (Alberta's regulation for energy development applications) that I was like, oh my gosh, this is so intense."

So, McKillop began doing some more homework, highlighting some key facts she wanted to raise public awareness about, drafting storyboards, and identifying interview subjects.

"I wanted to make sure I understood the topics, what were the major trending issues," McKillop said. 

"I broke it down like I was writing a university thesis: what is my thesis, what is my background, what am I trying to say, what are people trying to say? And I had these storyboards of random facts and things I thought were really important."

Some of those facts were a-ha moments for McKillop, such as learning her home province of New Brunswick received $1.76 billion in federal transfer payments in 2017. Those payments, largely supported by natural resource revenues, made up practically one-fifth of New Brunswick's economy.

"That, in itself, should just shock people. It's like having a massive industry," McKillop said.

"I look at my province, they're really struggling. As a New Brunswicker, I go back home a lot, at least twice a year, and small businesses go under all the time, the tax rate is absolutely ridiculous, most of the young people move away because there are no opportunities. It's really hard to keep that retention and those opportunities in house.

"We have an aging population, we have a lot of problems with our health care system because of that, and there's just no money. There's no economy, there's no private sector. So, I think oil and gas and the (Energy East) pipeline, when that was really cancelled, would have been a huge benefit to my fellow New Brunswickers."

McKillop plans to take her film across Canada in the lead-up to the federal election this October, and spark some serious face-to-face conversation with communities.

"I'm hitting up places I know are prominently oil and gas resource based areas to get that viewership and support going for the film," McKillop said.

"But ultimately the goal is not to preach to the converted. It's going to be to get it outside of Alberta and in the areas of Canada where there's a lot more disagreement over the issues."

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca. 

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