In twenty-first-century Saskatchewan, oil “looks like freedom, but feels like death” (p. 98). These lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s 1992 song “Closing Time,” sprawled across an oil tanker railcar in Stoughton, Saskatchewan, serve as both a fitting description of our society’s troubled relationship with oil and a rather succinct conclusion for Emily Eaton’s and Valerie Zink’s book, Fault Lines: Life and Landscape in Saskatchewan’s Oil Economy. The image of the tanker is one of 77 photos by Zink that accompany 29 pages of text by Eaton, which together attempt to capture the contradictions and complexities of oil development in rural Saskatchewan between 2011 and 2015. Despite its short length, Fault Lines provides a compelling and insightful overview of the difficult choices, short-and long-term consequences, and myriad injustices that oil development has introduced to Saskatchewan.
Eaton and Zink are careful not to reduce the issue of oil development to simplistic arguments for or against, but rather weave together alternative, conflicting, and overlapping perspectives that serve to illustrate the complexities. The oil economy has brought jobs and prosperity, while at the same time introducing new health risks, causing environmental damage, and increasing social inequalities. Through interviews with oil workers, landowners, politicians, Indigenous protestors, temporary foreign workers, and social service providers, Eaton conveys the illusion of choice that permeates the oil economy. In the broadest sense, people living in rural Saskatchewan made (and continue to make) choices about oil development in their communities and on their land. But within the context of factors out of their control, such as unstable agricultural commodity prices and rural out-migration, people’s choices are largely constrained by a need “to make the most of their situation” (p. 35). The benefits of oil development—regardless of its potential negative consequences—therefore present themselves as opportunities that communities and individuals cannot afford to miss. In this more narrow sense, not developing oil resources is really no choice at all.
As Eaton’s text and Zink’s photos make clear, these choices almost always result in a tension between short-term and long-term consequences. Farmers are enticed by short-term royalties or lease incomes, but are confronted with long-term health or environmental costs; oil workers are vulnerable to short-term seasonal or economic cycles in the industry, but desire and behave as though they have the long-term stability necessary for expensive lifestyles or families; communities experience short-term economic growth and high employment, but are left with the long-term burdens of infrastructure and populations unable to support themselves when the wells run dry. Western Canada’s culture of “the self-made man” (p. 51) contributes to a pattern of consumption in which, as one faith leader told Eaton, “everybody’s got to drive a $60,000 truck” (p. 65). When “It is either feast of famine in the oil industry,” long-term choices often lose out to short-term choices (p. 51). [End Page 197]
Zink’s photographs comprise nearly three-quarters of the book and beautifully illustrate the juxtaposition between the vulnerability and nostalgia felt for a “traditional” rural way of life and the disruptive material realities of rapid economic growth. While the photos provide a tangible sense of the places and people in this story, they do not always align with Eaton’s narrative, and most of the images are not explained at all. Eaton refers to just 18 of the 77 photos, and the images referenced are often placed in a different section of the book. Instead of serving as a documentary companion to Eaton’s text, Zink’s photos function almost as a separate artistic testimony to the changes wrought by oil development.
Eaton does a nice job of articulating the injustices that oil development imposes on many different social groups who are largely powerless to oppose the industry. For example, approximately one-quarter of the province’s mineral rights are privately owned. The remaining three-quarters are leased by the Crown to oil...