APTN National News
Clifton Cross used to volunteer at the Frog Lake First Nation recreational centre.
The centre boasts basketball and volleyball courts, a weight room and recording studio.
Next door is the 1,000-seat arena and home to the Frog Lake T-Birds hockey team.
All of this was built a year ago with money from the oil industry.
“Back before oil and gas we did have a lot of depression and addictions problems,” said Cross. “More so than now. The light at the end of the tunnel is closer now.”
Cross said before these facilities were available, community members were not as active. Diabetes rates were high and so was the suicide rate.
Frog Lake, a community in northern Alberta of about 3,300 people, has been producing oil since the 1980s.
For this First Nation, oil and gas are here to stay, and many people here think that’s a good thing.
People like carpentry student Owen Stanley.
Students at the college learn by doing. They are building homes throughout the community – for families that would otherwise live in overcrowded homes.
A large portion of the funding for this program comes from the oil industry.
“It feels good to accomplish something. To know that you’re going to build something for someone to live in,” said Stanley.
Over the years the number of students going to school has tripled.
Aside from these houses, another 150 houses are popping up throughout Frog Lake.
New rodeo and pow wow grounds are also available to community members.
Before they were built, it wasn’t often that Frog Lake would host pow wows. Now up to 1,000 dancers come here every summer.
For the past 15 years, Frog Lake has produced as many at 10,000 barrels a day.
While drilling has slowed down in the last few years due to low oil prices, Joe Dion, CEO of Frog Lake energy resource corporation, said it’s picking up again.
“There’s been an excessive of $300 million in royalty payments just through the nation itself because of this activity,” said Dion. “Not counting the revenues that we’ve generated as a company which is which is in the $50 million-plus. But as I said there’s been a slow down in the activity but it’s benefiting a lot for the nation”
Saliwonczyk’s Oilfield Lease and Maintenance is the only Indigenous-owned clean-up crew in Frog Lake.
The company is on call during any operation.
“This is how I survive,” said owner Connie Saliwonczyk. “This is how I feed my little family. There isn’t really any other source of income.”
For the community, dealing with oil and gas is like walking a tightrope – how to be successful without destroying the land.
Band councillor William Quinney said industry has done many great things for Frog Lake – but it comes with a cost.
He said many people living in boom conditions get used to the lifestyle – and when oil economy goes bust – there can be a lot of suffering.
“When things are flourishing, the oil is at $120 barrel, everyone in the oil industry had the big trucks and the Ski-Doos and quads and trailers…there’s always a downturn. and nobody plans for that,” said Quinney.
Another downside, there aren’t many other options.
“Not everyone wants to put coveralls on,” said Quinney. “Not everyone wants to get their hands dirty with oil and drive a big truck.”
Connie Saliwonczyk started her business 16 years ago.
She says she wanted to make sure her land is maintained.
“We fed off the wildlife, we picked our own berries and because I see hands on what happens in our land, we are the cleanup crew,” she said.
Spills happen roughly once every two months.
Saliwonczyk said the majority happen while transporting oil on trucks or trains – and they are mostly caused by human error.
She said it isn’t very often that her company gets called for a pipeline spill.
“I realize in the news there’s a lot of pipelines breaking…but how often is that? Tt’s a lot safer,” said Saliwonczyk.
“As an elder, I’ve had to ask for forgiveness from Mother Earth for a long time now for some of the practices that we do.”
Melvin Abraham is an oilfield liaison for Frog Lake Energy Resources. He is also a respected elder born and raised in the community.
“There is really no safe way to move oil…to transport oil,” said Abraham.
Quinney said oil has done great things for Frog Lake – but oil wells throughout the community prevent hunting and gathering.
“We’re First Nations people. We’re stewards of the land. We’re the first environmentalists. If you look at a topographical map of Frog Lake … oil wells everywhere and it’s not a pretty sight. It’s become part of our landscape,” he said.
But Alexander Saliwonczyk, manager of Connie’s Oilfield Lease and Maintenance, said the the environment is top priority.
“I think there is a lot of negativity toward the oil industry and all the damage and affect it’s having,” he said. “But in all honesty I see people out there going the extra mile to repair it beyond then how it was. Planting trees (and) more grass.”
Abraham said when companies propose oil exploration on Frog Lake, elders are invited to assess the sites.
The process can only go ahead with an elder’s approval.
“Some of these elders are historians from this area,” said Abraham. “A lot of these elders know about herbs and plants for medicinal purposes.”
Back at the recreation centre, Clifton Cross is planning more activities for youth to get involved in.
He said by mid-2017, a new radio station will be up and running to broadcast T-Bird hockey games.
“And that’s just from dreaming – dreaming big. We try each year to get further along in that dream.”