Fort Mac’s Alto-native History

Tanya Kalmanovitch returns to her home to write the Tar Sands Songbook


“When I was 14, I made up my mind that I wanted to become a professional musician, and it was precisely because it had nothing to do with oil.”

It was January 24, 1984 and the CBC’s Peter Kent was wrapping up a full length documentary on global warming with the words: “the greenhouse effect must be considered as the world’s greatest environmental concern.”

Tanya Kalmanovitch, born in Fort McMurray, step-daughter to a petroleum engineer, looked around and knew then that she had to get out of Alberta. The closest tool at hand was a violin, the instrument her mother hoped would make her “literate in beauty.” It became her ticket out.

I would be inviolable. Nobody could come for me

At 17, Kalmanovitch left Alberta for the bright lights of New York City, to take up a spot at the world-famous Juilliard School. She switched to viola. She won important prizes and placements in competitive programs. She was making it as a musician, and thought she would never have to think about oil again.

She spent her 20s doing exactly that (not thinking about oil), instead discovering a love of history and science at the University of Calgary, hiking through Banff and Nepal, discovering her improvisational voice, how to be a working musician. By 2004 she was back in New York’s jazz scene, making a name and releasing well-reviewed albums.

She also started a PhD at the University of Alberta in ethnomusicology, with field work in Chennai, India, studying the interplay between jazz and Karnatak music. All the while she was performing and traveling — her dissertation says it was completed in “six cities on four continents, and on the road.” By 2008, not only was she an accomplished musician, she had the prestige of a doctorate as well.

But it wasn’t enough

“I thought that if I did all the things right, I got good enough on the violin, I could get into a major university in New York City, that I would be set. I would be inviolable. Nobody could come for me,” says Kalmanovitch. “I didn’t account for the fact that success does not happen in that way.”

The problem was that she had been trying to live up to a standard of success that, rather than centering her own needs and wellbeing, was modeling the needs of the capitalist, colonial economy. She pursued an unqualified idea of progress that didn’t speak to who she really was. As a result, despite her professional success, she “felt a lot of intense ambivalence and confusion.”

She now identifies those feelings as the result of internalized shame. “It’s taken me a long time to realize the degree to which I carried a set of internalized shaming beliefs around what it means to be working class Ukrainian,” Kalmanovitch says.

When I was growing up there’s certainly this idea that no one or nothing of any value could come out of Alberta.

Kalmanovitch’s mother grew up in a Ukrainian immigrant family, on a subsistence farm. She had eight brothers and sisters. She didn’t have running water or electricity until she was thirteen. She was an ambitious, young woman, but her horizon was limited. When she became a mother, she determined that her own children would have the makings of a better life: an education and culture.

Kalmanovitch would make good on her mother’s dreams, but it would mean erasing core things about herself. As early as kindergarten, she recognized that being Ukrainian made her “ethnic — and I knew that I had to conceal that.” She would work hard to leave her working class life behind: move to a big city (the biggest city), master high culture (at Juilliard), get an education (multiple degrees).

“I didn’t see how that kind of internalized system of shame was operating in me. And part of the work of doing this piece, and having to perform my relationship to it, is the work of untangling that so that other people can do that work themselves.”

Writing the Tar Sands Songbook

It has been a slow process of reckoning with her “internalized settler–colonial-capitalist” thinking. But a big part of the process was understanding that she needed to return her professional and academic gaze to her home of Alberta.

Here, she could begin to understand how running away from the oilpatch was denying her family’s personal investments in oil. “It was oil money that fueled my family’s move from agricultural working class families to middle class. And my mother’s second marriage to an engineer that made it possible for me to think about being something like a professional musican or a university professor.”

But oil wealth also implicates her in the dispossession of Indigenous land, the rapidly advancing climate crisis, and shapes her ideas of self-worth. “My identity is completely wrapped up in oil so tightly that I couldn’t see it.”

Since 2016, she has been laying the ground for a new project that tells the story of Fort McMurray through the voices of engineers, oil patch workers, First Nations elders, activists and members of her own family. A piece of documentary theatre, the project is anything but polemical. Instead, Kalmanovitch is focused on her own changing relationship to oil over the years, and how the people at closest to the industry’s benefits and impacts are renegotiating their relationships to oil.

To accomplish this, the project will evolve in response to its audience. Over the next 10 years, Kalmanovitch will perform the piece for communities all along the pipelines, railways and shipping lines that bring oil from Alberta to the world, incorporating her audience’s stories and post-show conversations into an ever-evolving script.

She calls this project the Tar Sands Songbook, a name that is both accidentally and purposefully provocative. When she named the project, she didn’t know that “tar sands” had become a politicized term. “As a kid, you know, we always called Fort McMurray and the work up there the work in the tar sands,” she says. But at some point, the industry decided to rebrand as oil sands. “Like post-2004, you wouldn’t know that there was a time when tar and oil were used interchangeably, even affectionately.”

The “tar sands” lacuna brings us back to the man who first made Kalmanovitch aware of climate change. No longer a journalist, in 2011 Peter Kent was a Conservative Party politician responsible for defending Stephen Harper’s paltry climate record, a task that put him at the centre of a series of misdirections and denials. Kalmanovitch wondered how a man whose job had been reporting the truth had abandoned his principles, placing the interests of the oil industry above those of the land and the people.

“It’s why I keep the name [tar sands],” she says. Remembering what really happened is key if we are going to be able to come together — with empathy and understanding — in order to move forward together on climate action.

“Doing this kind of memory work is probably, I might argue, the most critical work we can do in the 21st century.”

Tanya Kalmanovitch performs the Tar Sands Songbook live, online for the University of Alberta community on Dec. 2, 2020, 5–7 p.m.

Register for free on Eventbrite



University of Alberta — Sustainability

Meet the students and academics who are discovering solutions to our climate and sustainability challenges. Writing from Edmonton-Amiskwacîwâskahikan, Canada.