Title: Making Productive Land: Utility, encounter, and oil sands reclamation in northeastern Alberta, Canada
Abstract: This thesis is a landscape ethnography examining conflicting epistemologies and land use values in the Athabasca region of subarctic Canada. Based on 18 months of fieldwork in Fort McMurray, Alberta with the Fort McMurray Métis community and peatland scientists, I analyse oil sands reclamation as a site of encounter between Indigenous and settler peoples. I show how reclamation, a process of reconstructing ecological integrity of a post-extractive landscape for future use, is a historically contingent activity that centres on settler colonial ideologies of productivity. I argue that this ideology spurred a process that I call ‘making productive land’ which seeks to ‘improve’ upon or transform the Athabasca region from Indigenous homeland into settler territory or ‘useful’ land. Weaving archival documents with experiential material from ethnographic fieldwork, I analyse the Athabasca region as a multilocal and multivocal place to demonstrate that Indigenous communities such as the McMurray Métis hold their own definitions of land use that exist alongside, beyond, against, and entangled with settler notions of productivity. I conclude that, for Métis community members, reclaimed areas in fact represent a diminished experience of place or an unproductive landscape. For reclamation to be successful for Métis community members, I contend that reclamation policy and practice must expand beyond purely scientific and resource-based utility narratives to involve a relational element of healing and Métis notions of use that transcend settler colonial ideals of ‘productive’ land.