Bitumen Exploration and the Southern Re-Inscription of Northeastern Alberta: 1875–1967


Political debates about the oil sands industry and its environmental impacts in the Athabasca region of northeastern Alberta, Canada, are rooted in competing claims to environmental knowledge. In this article, Longley traces how colonial knowledge of the Athabasca region had shaped southern understandings of the region as a source of profitable mineral deposits long before commercial extraction of synthetic oil began in the 1960s. Through practices of exploration, surveying, and visual and narrative documentation, the southern geographic and cartographic colonization of the Athabasca region—in particular the work of Sydney C. Ells at the federal Department of Mines—mapped it for its rich bitumen deposits, obscuring the histories of Indigenous people in the region. Longley shows how the south gained political and economic control of the region, but also notes that this process is incomplete and contested.