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The Tar Sands Patrick McCur­dy

Excavating CBC’s Docudrama The Tar Sands

Patrick McCur­dy
This arti­cle exam­ines the polit­i­cal con­tro­ver­sy around the banned 1977 CBC docu­d­ra­ma The Tar Sands, which por­trays the per­son­al and polit­i­cal strug­gle of Alber­ta Pre­mier Peter Lougheed to secure the Syn­crude agree­ment to devel­op Alberta’s bitu­men sands. Imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing the docudrama’s broad­cast, Lougheed launched a law­suit which ulti­mate­ly result­ed in the show’s expul­sion from CBC archives. While the CBC docu­d­ra­ma sought to dra­ma­tize and ele­vate polit­i­cal cri­tiques of the tar sands, Lougheed’s liti­gious reac­tion quick­ly buried them, obfus­cat­ing the real pos­si­bil­i­ty that The Tar Sands—while a work of fiction—portrays the gen­e­sis of Alberta’s cor­po­rate cap­ture by for­eign oil.
Cet arti­cle exam­ine la con­tro­verse poli­tique entourant le docu­d­rame ban­ni de 1977 pro­duit par la CBC: _The Tar Sands_. Le docu­d­rame dépeint la lutte per­son­nelle et poli­tique du pre­mier min­istre de l’Alberta, Peter Lougheed, pour obtenir l’accord de Syn­crude pour l’exploitation des sables bitu­mineux de l’Alberta. Immé­di­ate­ment après la dif­fu­sion du docu­d­rame, Lougheed a inten­té un procès con­tre la CBC, qui a abouti à le retrait de l’émission des archives de la CBC. Alors que le docu­d­rame de la CBC cher­chait à drama­tis­er et à soulever des cri­tiques poli­tiques à pro­pos des sables bitu­mineux, la réac­tion litigieuse de Lougheed les a rapi­de­ment enter­rées, occul­tant toute pos­si­bil­ité de per­me­t­tre à The Tar Sands—bien qu’étant une œuvre de fiction—à dépein­dre la genèse de la cap­ture de l’Alberta par des sociétés pétrolières étrangères.

On Sep­tem­ber 12, 1977, after sev­en months of inter­nal debate and mul­ti­ple sched­ul­ing delays, CBC aired its 58-minute docu­d­ra­ma The Tar Sands to an eager­ly await­ing nation-wide audi­ence of 1.1 mil­lion Cana­di­ans. Inspired by the aca­d­e­m­ic book The Tar Sands (1976) by Uni­ver­si­ty of Alber­ta polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Lar­ry Pratt, CBC’s loose adap­ta­tion pre­sent­ed a dra­ma­tized re-enact­ment of the polit­i­cal strug­gles sur­round­ing Alberta’s then Pre­mier, Peter Lougheed, in nego­ti­at­ing and secur­ing the Syn­crude Cana­da Ltd. agree­ment to devel­op Alberta’s Athabas­ca bitu­men sands. The docu­d­ra­ma, which com­bined actors play­ing real-life fig­ures with com­pos­ite char­ac­ters, was part of CBC’s For the Record series, a col­lec­tion of what CBC labelled “jour­nal­is­tic dra­mas” with an objec­tive of “mak­ing com­plex news sto­ries and polit­i­cal issues acces­si­ble to a mass audi­ence” (Mar­tin 60). For The Record pro­mo­tion­al mate­r­i­al described The Tar Sands as:

Explo­sive, polit­i­cal dra­ma, zero­ing in on power­broke-ing [sic] by the inter­na­tion­al petro­le­um indus­try. The dra­mat­ic sto­ry of nego­ti­a­tions and con­fronta­tions between major oil indus­tries and the gov­ern­ments of Cana­da, Alber­ta and Ontario, that cli­max with the Cana­di­an tax­pay­er putting up near­ly two bil­lion dol­lars to ensure devel­op­ment of the Athabas­ca Tar Sands. Provoca­tive, con­tem­po­rary drama!”

Figure 1: Page from For the Record promotional pamphlet produced by CBC, 1977.

Explo­sive and provoca­tive it was. Less than twen­ty-four hours after the show aired an indig­nant Peter Lougheed held court in his Edmon­ton leg­is­la­ture office to a throng of eager­ly await­ing jour­nal­ists where he dis­closed his inten­tion to sue the CBC for defama­tion. The Premier’s pro­nounce­ment made nation­al news. It also marked the start of a near­ly five-year legal bat­tle. Lougheed orig­i­nal­ly launched a $2.75 mil­lion law­suit (equiv­a­lent to $11.6 mil­lion in 2021), which end­ed in May 1982 in an out-of-court set­tle­ment, with CBC pay­ing the Pre­mier $50,000 in dam­ages and $32,500 in costs (respec­tive­ly $128,000 and $83,400 in 2021). CBC also agreed to tele­vise a nation­wide apol­o­gy and nev­er again “pub­lish” The Tar Sands docudrama.

The set­tle­ment helped to bury the docu­d­ra­ma deep in pub­lic mem­o­ry, as it was removed from CBC’s inter­nal archive and made unavail­able to staff, and remains so to this day.1 Yet the show’s 1977 broad­cast and Lougheed’s ensu­ing law­suit and pub­lic con­tro­ver­sy stands as a crit­i­cal, though most­ly for­got­ten, moment in the medi­at­ed his­to­ry of Canada’s bitu­men sands.2 Indeed, it is only recent­ly that schol­ars such as Lon­g­ley (2021) have begun cri­tiquing Lougheed’s lega­cy and—much like Pratt (1976)—questioning the cor­ner Lougheed and his gov­ern­ment backed them­selves into. Exca­vat­ing The Tar Sands affords a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to fur­ther expose fos­sil fuel’s long-stand­ing dom­i­nant posi­tion in the Cana­di­an polit­i­cal and social imag­i­na­tion. This arti­cle, as part of a larg­er research project, is an ini­tial attempt to extract The Tar Sands and its sur­round­ing con­tro­ver­sy from the tar­ry mem­o­ry hole into which it was cast. It argues that while CBC’s docu­d­ra­ma sought to dra­ma­tize and ele­vate Pratt’s (1976) polit­i­cal cri­tiques, Lougheed’s liti­gious reac­tion quick­ly buried them, obfus­cat­ing the real pos­si­bil­i­ty that The Tar Sands—while a work of fiction—portrays the gen­e­sis of Alberta’s cor­po­rate cap­ture by for­eign oil inter­ests.3

Seeing The Tar Sands: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Schol­ars Debra David­son and Mike Gis­mon­di have traced the evo­lu­tion of the tar sands’ visu­al con­ven­tions, which tell a sto­ry of tam­ing rugged fron­tiers, con­quest, as well as sci­en­tif­ic and tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion (Davi­son and Gis­mon­di 2011; Gis­mon­di and David­son 2012). The authors con­clude their Imag­i­na­tions arti­cle with an analy­sis of the Great Cana­di­an Oil Sands Com­pa­ny (GCOS, now Sun­cor) and the “legit­i­ma­cy work” of images show­cas­ing the immense machinery—from draglines to bucketwheels—involved in min­ing bitu­men. Such images, they argue, “became sell­ing fea­tures to the pub­lic, sym­bol­iz­ing the enor­mi­ty of chal­lenges over­come” (Gis­mon­di and David­son 2012). Author Chris Turn­er, in his well-researched his­to­ry of Alberta’s oil patch, iden­ti­fies the start of what he calls the “High Mod­ern” era as GCOS’s 1967 bitu­men plant open­ing cer­e­mo­ny (Turn­er 24). What Turn­er labels the begin­ning of oil’s “High Mod­ern” peri­od also rep­re­sents the thick­en­ing of petro­cul­ture marked by a steady rise in glob­al oil con­sump­tion, grow­ing West­ern efforts to devel­op domes­tic syn­thet­ic plays, and the fur­ther mate­r­i­al and cul­tur­al enmesh­ing of oil in every­day life (Wil­son, Carl­son, and Sze­man 2017). And while Stephanie LeMe­nag­er (2014) right­ly traces back the gen­e­sis of oil-dri­ven con­sumer cul­ture decades ear­li­er, the late 1960s and ear­ly 1970s were a peri­od of sig­nif­i­cant social, eco­nom­ic, and polit­i­cal change for Alber­ta and its tar sands (Chastko 2004; Elton and God­dard 1979).

Figure 2: For the Record Advertisement, 1977

Ulti­mate­ly, what Gis­mon­di and David­son map is not just the tar sands’ con­struc­tion, but the con­struc­tion of its myth; a myth cre­at­ed, in part, from images which remain in pub­lic circulation—from adver­tise­ments and books to muse­um exhi­bi­tions and edu­ca­tion centres—which rep­re­sent and recon­struct the tar sands’ past. Cul­tur­al myths, Roland Barthes reminds us, make his­to­ry seem nat­ur­al, yet their cre­ation “is con­sti­tut­ed by the loss of the his­tor­i­cal qual­i­ty of things: in it, things lose the mem­o­ry that they once were made of” (1972, 142). Myths are the selec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tions of his­to­ry sed­i­ment­ed into unques­tioned fact. Myths are anchored in ide­ol­o­gy and rest upon silences and absences. As Michel-Rolph Trouil­lot in Silenc­ing the Past sug­gests, silences occur at “the moment of fact cre­ation (the mak­ing of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the mak­ing of nar­ra­tive); the moment of ret­ro­spec­tive sig­nif­i­cance (the mak­ing of his­to­ry in the final instance)” (1995, 26). The task at present is to bring back into focus one such absence from the hege­mon­ic myth of Alberta’s bitu­men sands: CBC’s docu­d­ra­ma The Tar Sands. Acknowl­edg­ing this “silence”—and the polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions behind it—affords an oppor­tu­ni­ty to unset­tle the sed­i­ment of his­to­ry by revis­it­ing the docu­d­ra­ma and its accom­pa­ny­ing con­tro­ver­sy and ques­tion­ing the polit­i­cal forces and dri­ving ide­ol­o­gy under­writ­ing its era­sure. As such, while schol­ar­ship on Cana­di­an oil films tra­di­tion­al­ly focus­es on tex­tu­al analy­sis, this arti­cle focus­es on the show’s broad­cast as an inflec­tion point in the myth of the tar sands.

Traces of The Tar Sands

Histo­ry sed­i­ments in books, and while there is men­tion of The Tar Sands, ref­er­ences are spo­radic, dis­joint­ed, and often made in pass­ing. For exam­ple, the docu­d­ra­ma lands just two sen­tences in Peter Foster’s 1980 The Blue-Eyed Sheiks not­ing, “The CBC sub­se­quent­ly pro­duced a ‘docu­d­ra­ma’ based on the Syn­crude cri­sis. Lougheed sub­se­quent­ly sued the CBC for a total of $2.75 mil­lion” (99). Mean­while, Syncrude’s self-pub­lished book Syn­crude Sto­ry: In our own words briefly acknowl­edges the pro­gram (but not the broad­cast­er) not­ing: “While [Syn­crude Pres­i­dent] Frank Spra­gins was amused to find his name mis­spelled and pro­nounced incor­rect­ly in the tele­vi­sion show, then Pre­mier Peter Lougheed did not find his por­tray­al a laugh­ing mat­ter. He launched a $2.75 mil­lion law­suit against the offend­ing sta­tion for defama­tion of char­ac­ter” (1990, 51). Paul Eich­horn, in an essay on the his­to­ry of CBC’s For The Record series, gives a suc­cinct nod to The Tar Sands and writes that Welsh’s por­tray­al was “wide­ly known to be an unflat­ter­ing por­trait of Peter Lougheed” (1998, 40). More recent­ly Peter McKen­zie-Brown notes that while Lar­ry Pratt’s book was “cer­tain­ly a rea­son­able study. How­ev­er, the docu­d­ra­ma was not. It went beyond the facts to por­tray the per­son­al­i­ties involved—including Frank Spra­gins and Peter Lougheed—as foul-mouthed, cig­ar-chomp­ing and con­niv­ing” (2017, 145). While these char­ac­ter­i­za­tions cer­tain­ly align with how Lougheed viewed the docu­d­ra­ma, they clash with oth­er inter­pre­ta­tions in the his­tor­i­cal record.

Per­haps the most detailed doc­u­men­ta­tion of The Tar Sands comes from film schol­ar Seth Feld­man, whose pub­li­ca­tions (1978, 1986, 1987) and CBC Ideas episode (Feld­man 1982) skill­ful­ly explore the his­to­ry, ten­sions, and pol­i­tics of the docu­d­ra­ma genre. Feld­man viewed Lougheed’s por­tray­al by actor Ken­neth Welsh as “entire­ly sym­pa­thet­ic” (1978, 73), and some years lat­er reflect­ed, “The Tar Sands was, if not tame, a fair­ly straight­for­ward pro­duc­tion […] There was noth­ing flam­boy­ant about Ken­neth Welsh’s per­for­mance […] Pearson’s style was sim­i­lar­ly pro­fes­sion­al and well to the right of glitz” (Feld­man 1987, 16). Beyond Feld­man, most aca­d­e­m­ic ref­er­ences to The Tar Sands are in pass­ing. It has been briefly men­tioned in stud­ies of CBC pro­gram­ming and poli­cies (Miller 1987; Mac­Don­ald 2019). Epp (1984), in his analy­sis of Lougheed’s media strat­e­gy, described The Tar Sands as a docu­d­ra­ma “based loose­ly on a book by Lar­ry Pratt—which por­trayed Lougheed as a foul-mouthed dupe of the oil com­pa­nies dur­ing the Syn­crude nego­ti­a­tions” (53). David Hogarth’s (2002) study of doc­u­men­tary tele­vi­sion in Cana­da affords The Tar Sands a mid-sen­tence ref­er­ence in paren­the­ses. The show has also received some brief atten­tion from schol­ars study­ing the rela­tion­ship between Alber­ta and its ener­gy indus­try such as Geo Takach (2017) who suc­cinct­ly pin­points The Tar Sands as a sem­i­nal moment in the medi­at­ed his­to­ry of Alberta’s bitu­men sands. Mean­while, Debra David­son and Mike Gis­mon­di (2011) ded­i­cate a para­graph to the show and include an acknowl­edg­ment of the program’s era­sure from CBC archives. These pub­lished and con­flict­ing accounts, togeth­er with oth­er frag­ments such as news clip­pings and gov­ern­ment and insti­tu­tion­al archival records, con­struct The Tar Sands’ cur­rent lega­cy; a legacy—to use a phrase from Michel-Rolph Trouillot—built on a “silence” (Trouil­lot 1995).

Myth and Rediscovery of The Tar Sands

In 1977, when CBC aired The Tar Sands, Impe­r­i­al Oil—a Cana­di­an oil com­pa­ny con­trolled by Exxon and por­trayed in The Tar Sands—was inten­si­fy­ing its oil sands play in Cold Lake, Alber­ta. Mean­while, Exxon’s Dr. James Black, Sci­en­tif­ic Advi­sor in the Prod­ucts Research Divi­sion of Exxon Research & Engi­neer­ing, had already told com­pa­ny man­age­ment that sum­mer “that the most like­ly man­ner in which mankind is influ­enc­ing the glob­al cli­mate is through car­bon diox­ide release from the burn­ing of fos­sil fuels” (Hall 2015). Yet broad pub­lic aware­ness as to the link between burn­ing fos­sil fuels and cli­mate change would not hap­pen for more than a decade. The now uni­ver­sal sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus of anthro­pogenic cli­mate change and its explic­it link with burn­ing fos­sil fuels has an unde­ni­able impact upon our rela­tion­ship with media texts about petro­le­um and its atten­dant socio-polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic struc­tures. In the case of The Tar Sands, its redis­cov­ery in the con­text of this arti­cle and my wider research project allows us to con­sid­er how the docudrama—and the ener­getic polit­i­cal reac­tion which lead to its quashing—make vis­i­ble the pow­er and grip of “petro-hege­mo­ny” in Alber­ta both in the 1970s and today. Draw­ing from Theo Lequesne (2019), petro-hege­mo­ny is the pub­lic inter­nal­i­sa­tion of a Gram­s­cian com­mon sense and phi­los­o­phy root­ed in three rela­tions of power—consent, coer­cion, and compliance—which, togeth­er, serve to fur­ther fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies’ mate­r­i­al and dis­cur­sive objec­tives. Of par­tic­u­lar inter­est for the case at hand is Alberta’s polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al cli­mate where­by crit­ics who dare ques­tion the pow­er and reach of for­eign-owned oil com­pa­nies are silenced, mar­gin­al­ized, and/or vil­i­fied. Also rel­e­vant is the province’s eco­nom­ic reliance upon the for­eign-dom­i­nat­ed fos­sil fuel indus­try which forces com­pli­ance through a struc­tured depen­den­cy and addic­tion thus serv­ing to main­tain hegemony.

Figure 3: Peter Lougheed (Kenneth Welsh) and Willard Alexander (Ken Pogue) in The Tar Sands, 1977.

Under­stand­ing the reac­tion to The Tar Sands requires us to first con­sid­er Alberta’s dom­i­nant ide­ol­o­gy and the myth sur­round­ing Lougheed. R. W. Wright (1984) sug­gests that Alber­ta has come to oper­ate pri­mar­i­ly under a “hybrid” cor­po­ratist ide­ol­o­gy of “man­age­r­i­al cap­i­tal­ism,” a per­spec­tive which is “entrenched and vir­tu­al­ly unop­posed” in the province (105). Relat­ed, and almost three decades lat­er, David­son and Gis­mon­di (2011) suggest:

In many ways, it was ide­ol­o­gy, not eco­nom­ics, which ensured the tar sands’ even­tu­al devel­op­ment. A west­ern­ized world­view of fron­tier indi­vid­u­al­ism, a util­i­tar­i­an view of ecosys­tems, and con­fi­dence in con­tin­ued progress sup­port­ed decades of invest­ment in research and mar­ket­ing by the provin­cial state, pub­lic invest­ments that were cru­cial to even­tu­al­ly attract­ing the inter­est of pri­vate cap­i­tal.” (170)

Thus, it was Con­ser­v­a­tive ideology—under Lougheed’s Premiership—which ensured the tar sands were devel­oped and nev­er nation­al­ized (Doern and Ton­er 35; Pratt 1976). Lougheed’s Con­ser­vatism was ground­ed on a com­mit­ment to extract the max­i­mum ben­e­fit out of the provinces’ nat­ur­al resources for its peo­ple by pri­vate indus­try. Stew­ard sum­maris­es Lougheed’s approach as follows:

Lougheed saw gov­ern­ment as a coun­ter­weight to the eco­nom­ic pow­er and influ­ence of the petro­le­um indus­try. He believed that since gov­ern­ment man­aged nat­ur­al resources on behalf of Alber­tans it had a respon­si­bil­i­ty to obtain as much rev­enue and oth­er ben­e­fits as pos­si­ble from those resources.” (1)

Kevin Taft (2017), in his sting­ing cri­tique of oil’s “deep state” pres­ence in Alber­ta, eulo­gis­es Lougheed as a Pre­mier who fierce­ly fought for Alberta’s inter­ests and would bend the knee to no one. This por­tray­al is par­tic­u­lar­ly note­wor­thy as Taft’s book advances a “deep state” the­sis that Alber­ta gov­ern­ment has since been cap­tured by the oil indus­try and an assem­blage of inter­est­ed polit­i­cal and bureau­crat­ic boost­ers. How­ev­er, for Taft, Lougheed’s gov­ern­ment was unmo­lest­ed by cor­po­rate or polit­i­cal pres­sures which swayed sub­se­quent Pre­miers. Taft’s divine fram­ing of Lougheed is con­sis­tent with his myth­ic posi­tion in Alber­ta lore as “King Peter” (Lewis 27) of Camelot West. It is then per­haps under­stand­able why The Tar Sands—both Pratt’s and CBC’s version—was viewed with­in Alber­ta as an act of lèse-majesté.

Lougheed’s myth­ic sta­tus rests, at least part­ly, on the era­sure of The Tar Sands from pub­lic mem­o­ry. The CBC’s docu­d­ra­ma direct­ly chal­lenged the dou­bly artic­u­lat­ed myths of Syncrude’s found­ing and Lougheed’s Pre­mier­ship. To this end, The Tar Sands presents a dra­ma­tized inter­pre­ta­tion of events depict­ing a proud and deter­mined Pre­mier Lougheed becom­ing boxed in over the course of the Syn­crude nego­ti­a­tions by world events and pres­sure applied by the for­eign-con­trolled Syn­crude con­sor­tium. Here, it is per­haps pru­dent to offer more infor­ma­tion on the TV show itself, begin­ning with the show’s two-minute dis­claimer, aired at the start and read by jour­nal­ist and CBC icon Bar­bara Frum. The dis­claimer informs the audi­ence that The Tar Sands is, “a work of fic­tion con­struct­ed around cer­tain known events” based on “an imag­ined recre­ation of nego­ti­a­tions lead­ing up to an agree­ment reached on Feb­ru­ary 3, 1975” (Feld­man 1978, 71). “Since most of the agree­ment was worked out behind closed doors,” Frum tells view­ers: “Much of the film’s dia­logue and many of its scenes and char­ac­ters are, of neces­si­ty, fic­tion” (ibid).

Figure 4: Production still from The Tar Sands featuring director Peter Pearson (crouching in foreground), Mavor Moore (with glasses and his back to the camera) in character as Frank Spragins, President of Syncrude Canada Ltd., and George Touliatos as oil company representative David Bromley.

Frum also briefly dis­cuss­es the show’s four main char­ac­ters, dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing between two char­ac­ters with real-world coun­ter­parts and two com­pos­ite char­ac­ters. The two real-world char­ac­ters were the show’s lead, Pre­mier Peter Lougheed, expert­ly por­trayed by Cana­di­an actor Ken­neth Welsh and, sec­ond, Frank Spra­gins, Pres­i­dent of Syn­crude Cana­da (Mavor Moore) who is por­trayed as the spokesper­son and chief nego­tia­tor for Syncrude’s inter­ests (Fig­ure 4). The Tar Sands also fea­tured two main com­pos­ite char­ac­ters, the most promi­nent of which was Willard Alexan­der (Ken Pogue). Alexan­der was a per­pet­u­al­ly crit­i­cal, cig­a­rette-smok­ing, alco­hol-drink­ing con­fi­dant of Pre­mier Lougheed whose func­tion was to rep­re­sent “the Alber­ta civ­il ser­vants who argued against pro­ceed­ing with the Athabas­ca tar sands devel­op­ment in the man­ner final­ly cho­sen” (Pear­son, 1977). The sec­ond main com­pos­ite char­ac­ter was the sleek and smart­ly dressed David Brom­ley, played by George Tou­liatos (Fig­ure 4). In the dis­claimer Frum iden­ti­fies Brom­ley as an “oil com­pa­ny rep­re­sen­ta­tive” who is “a com­pos­ite of the many oil men involved in the real nego­ti­a­tions,” how­ev­er he is iden­ti­fied in the show itself as being from Impe­r­i­al Oil (Pear­son, 1977). Brom­ley, with his dis­dain­ful and impa­tient atti­tude towards pub­lic ser­vice and relent­less focus on prof­it, per­fect­ly per­son­i­fies Pratt’s (1976) crit­i­cal view of for­eign inter­est squeez­ing the Alber­tan and Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment to their advantage.

The “real life” char­ac­ters in The Tar Sands are also car­i­ca­tures. Both the on-screen Lougheed and Spra­gins are dra­mat­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the inter­pre­ta­tion of cer­tain his­tor­i­cal events based on Pratt’s book and sup­ple­men­tal research con­duct­ed by the show’s two main writ­ers, Peter Pear­son and Ralph Thomas. As will be dis­cussed in the next sec­tion, Pre­mier Lougheed took excep­tion to his por­tray­al and that of the Syn­crude nego­ti­a­tions. How­ev­er, there were also pub­lic mis­giv­ings about Frank Spra­gins’ rep­re­sen­ta­tion. For some in the indus­try such as John Barr, Head of Syncrude’s Pub­lic Rela­tions depart­ment, and Harold Mil­li­can, for­mer Lougheed Chief of Staff and promi­nent oil­man, Spra­gins was a “gen­tle­man” and Moore’s por­tray­al was unfair. Cal­gary-based petro­le­um indus­try his­to­ri­an Peter McKen­zie Brown summed up the on-screen Frank Spra­gins as a “foul mouthed […] cig­ar chomp­ing, Amer­i­can oil­man” (Spra­gins 2012, 22). In a 2012 inter­view con­duct­ed by McKen­zie Brown for The Oil Sands Oral His­to­ry Project, Nell Spra­gins described her hus­band Frank’s por­tray­al as, “unbe­liev­able, you know. Just how they could make it up like that and not even try to come close to what kind of man he was, unbe­liev­able, real­ly” (ibid). Yet com­pared to Impe­r­i­al Oil’s fic­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive David Brom­ley, Frank Spra­gins’ screen per­sona was not unlike­able. Lar­ry Pratt, who was not involved in mak­ing CBC’s adap­ta­tion of his book, said in a Sep­tem­ber 13, 1977 Cana­da-wide live radio inter­view on CBC Morn­ing Side: “I didn’t think that the por­tray­al of Mr. Spra­gins was that unfair. But it is the case that they had to personify—they had to per­son­i­fy the oil indus­try in one indi­vid­ual and, if it’s unfair to Mr. Spra­gins, that’s unfor­tu­nate” (CBC Morn­ing Side, 1977).

Frank Spra­gins appears for the first time in The Tar Sands about four min­utes into the broad­cast when “top exec­u­tives” from the Amer­i­can-con­trolled oil com­pa­nies behind Syn­crude Cana­da Ltd. have been asked to meet with Pre­mier Lougheed (Welsh). The scene takes place in a screen­ing room where Pre­mier Lougheed is about to be shown a Syn­crude adver­tise­ment intend­ed to help sell the infra­struc­ture project to Cana­di­ans. As this scene unfolds the show’s narrator—famed NFB direc­tor and pro­duc­er Don­ald Brittain—provides con­text for the gath­er­ing and intro­duces the audi­ence to the “Amer­i­can-con­trolled” oil com­pa­nies in the room and “Syncrude’s Pres­i­dent Frank Spra­gins, a Mis­sis­sip­pi­an by birth and in his words, ‘A Cana­di­an by choice’” (Pear­son, 1977). Spra­gins, por­trayed by cel­e­brat­ed actor Mavor Moore, deliv­ers his tar sands pitch in an exag­ger­at­ed raspy round­ed south­ern drawl which serves as a per­sis­tent reminder of Spra­gins’ for­eign ori­gin and pre­sumed for­eign allegiance.

Frank Spra­gins nev­er offi­cial­ly com­ment­ed on the CBC broad­cast, how­ev­er Syncrude’s head of Pub­lic Rela­tions John Barr spoke to the media. Barr defend­ed Lougheed’s bar­gain­ing skills, called the show “inac­cu­rate,” and said The Tar Sands “is best treat­ed as a work of imag­i­na­tion, or, bet­ter, as a work of fan­ta­sy” (Cal­gary Her­ald, 1977). As for why Syn­crude did not react to The Tar Sands in an offi­cial capac­i­ty, Barr said Syn­crude “decid­ed not to make any com­ment […] It would be like try­ing to refute Mein Kampf —you wouldn’t know where to start” (ibid). While Syn­crude didn’t know where to start, Pre­mier Lougheed did: by call­ing his lawyer.

Defamation and the Drama of Docudrama

As Peter Lougheed pub­licly expressed his dis­plea­sure about The Tar Sands dur­ing a news con­fer­ence the morn­ing after its Sep­tem­ber 12th broad­cast, the wheels were already in motion for a defama­tion law­suit. Lougheed’s lawyers had sent a pre­emp­tive telex to CBC on Sep­tem­ber 11, 1977 warn­ing of pos­si­ble legal action and then fol­lowed up two days lat­er with a hand-deliv­ered reg­is­tered let­ter sent to CBC Edmon­ton request­ing “the name and address of the oper­a­tor of your sta­tion” (CBC ATIP A0062824_1-000759). Although the let­ter was deliv­ered to CBC Edmon­ton, the Premier’s real tar­get was fur­ther east: the Cana­di­an Broad­cast­ing Corporation’s nation­al head­quar­ters in Toron­to, Ontario.

The Tar Sands had been delayed mul­ti­ple times since its first antic­i­pat­ed air date in Feb­ru­ary 1977 due to CBC man­age­ment con­cerns. The Bar­bara Frum dis­claimer was added in what Feld­man, post-broad­cast, called “a futile attempt to avoid legal reper­cus­sions” (1978, 72). Nonethe­less, the dis­claimer helped the pro­gram get to air. But, pub­licly, the specifics of The Tar Sands’ path to being broad­cast by the CBC were kept a mys­tery. Indeed, even one of CBC’s top brass seemed sur­prised about the show’s air­ing as report­ed in The Cal­gary Her­ald: John Hirsch, head of CBC-TV dra­ma, told reporters and crit­ics who saw a pre­view of the work Wednes­day that God alone knows “who let it go on the air” (Nel­son 1977, C3). Pub­licly, the CBC was con­fi­dent about The Tar Sands with pro­duc­er Ralph Thomas quot­ed at the pre-screen­ing as say­ing “no legal com­pli­ca­tions are expect­ed” (Zanger 1977, 26). How­ev­er, Mel Hur­tig, staunch Cana­di­an nation­al­ist and pub­lish­er of Lar­ry Pratt’s The Tar Sands, thought dif­fer­ent­ly. When Hur­tig was asked how he thought Lougheed and Spra­gins would react to the show, he replied “I sus­pect both of them are going to go through the roof” (Waters 1977, A23). Per­haps unsur­pris­ing­ly, with his polit­i­cal lean­ings, Hur­tig stood behind the show, com­ment­ing “It is a very accu­rate reflec­tion of the process of bar­gain­ing that occurred over the Syn­crude plant” (Cal­gary Her­ald 1977, A1) and went as far to say that the CBC had “per­formed a remark­able pub­lic ser­vice and has, in fact, been very coura­geous. It (the show) was unique, one of a kind. They’ll nev­er put on any­thing as tough” (Toron­to Star 1977, A69).

Figure 5: Kenneth Welsh as Peter Lougheed in The Tar Sands, 1977.

Hur­tig, it should be not­ed, also had a cameo in The Tar Sands. The brief scene shows Hur­tig re-enact­ing a 1973 news con­fer­ence where he revealed a leaked civ­il ser­vice report to the press. The report—which plays a vital role in Pratt’s 1976 book—was authored by a col­lec­tion of top Alber­ta gov­ern­ment senior civ­il ser­vants and took a crit­i­cal posi­tion towards what it described as the creep of for­eign own­er­ship of the province’s tar sands (Pratt 1976, 22; also see Lon­g­ley 2021). Hur­tig was sup­pos­ed­ly giv­en the con­fi­den­tial report—titled “The Fort McMur­ray Tar Sands Strategy”—by an unnamed civ­il ser­vant who had become frus­trat­ed with the Lougheed gov­ern­ment for ignor­ing the report’s rec­om­men­da­tions (ibid).

Figure 6: “Them’s fightin’ words, Mister.’” An editorial cartoon by Tom Innes, published in the Calgary Herald September 16, 1977.

Hur­tig was cor­rect: Lougheed went through the roof. Vis­i­bly angry at a Sep­tem­ber 13th press con­fer­ence, Lougheed used a pre­pared state­ment to describe The Tar Sands as “immoral,” “out­ra­geous,” and “unfair,” commenting:

If the CBC is allowed to get away with­out a fight with this approach of char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of real peo­ple involved in pub­lic events in the guise of a dra­ma to suit the CBC’s inter­pre­ta­tion of such events then, they no doubt will not hes­i­tate to use this vehi­cle to esca­late their dis­tor­tions of pub­lic affairs and in so doing, to destroy or dam­age rep­u­ta­tions.” (Alber­tan Edmon­ton Bureau 1977, A33)

Mem­bers of Lougheed’s cab­i­net were equal­ly dis­turbed by The Tar Sands. Lougheed’s Busi­ness Devel­op­ment Min­is­ter Bob Dowl­ing said, “It was a bunch of garbage […] The writer has no regard for 5,000 peo­ple who have jobs up there (on the Syn­crude project)” (Gilchrist 1977, A1). Alberta’s Solic­i­tor-Gen­er­al Roy Far­ran told the Edmon­ton Jour­nal the pro­gram was “a com­plete dis­tor­tion of fact,” and went on to make flip­pant com­par­isons with Nazi pro­pa­gan­da com­ment­ing, “I think it was sim­i­lar to Dr. Goebbels at his worst” (Hume 1977, P1). Min­is­ter of the Envi­ron­ment Dave Rus­sel was more con­cise, sim­ply call­ing it “a load of crap” (ITV News 1977). While there was Con­ser­v­a­tive con­sen­sus about the pro­gram, NDP leader Grant Not­ley believed Lougheed over­re­act­ed to the broad­cast say­ing, “Quite sim­ply if one reads the Syn­crude papers that is the sto­ry that was there” (Thorne 1977, A6).

The docudrama’s nation­al broad­cast was an act of counter-hege­mo­ny; it open­ly chal­lenged the near sed­i­ment­ed view of the Syn­crude nego­ti­a­tions as a pub­lic win, not a cor­po­rate oil coup. Con­sis­tent with Pratt’s (1976) book, The Tar Sands offered a dra­ma­tized inter­pre­ta­tion crit­i­cal of the sway and pow­er of for­eign cor­po­rate oil inter­ests in Cana­da. How­ev­er, as argued above, this dis­sent­ing per­spec­tive was dis­cur­sive­ly dis­missed by rul­ing politi­cians and coer­cive­ly quashed via the court sys­tem. Togeth­er these actions worked towards achiev­ing hege­mo­ny over Syncrude’s found­ing and the pres­ence and impli­ca­tions of for­eign oil cor­po­ra­tions in the tar sands. Nonethe­less, and as Feld­man notes, the fact that CBC made a docu­d­ra­ma about Alberta’s “tar sands” was a tes­ta­ment to its stand­ing and the accom­pa­ny­ing pol­i­tics it had attained. Feld­man (1985) suggests:

The act of see­ing the recre­ation after being taught the his­to­ry, read­ing the news or liv­ing through the peri­od is essen­tial­ly nar­cis­sis­tic; we are look­ing at some­thing that is already part of our­selves. Fur­ther sat­is­fac­tion is derived from the com­mu­nal shar­ing of an event and the mass cathar­sis inher­ent in joint­ly expos­ing social anx­i­eties expe­ri­enc­ing the retelling of a famil­iar hor­ror.” (349)

If, as Feld­man argues, watch­ing a docu­d­ra­ma is a “nar­cis­sis­tic” expe­ri­ence, for Lougheed it was like­ly clos­er to “nar­cis­sis­tic mor­ti­fi­ca­tion” (Eidel­berg 1957). A clin­i­cal term pop­u­larised by psy­chi­a­try pro­fes­sor Lud­wig Eidel­berg in the late 1950s, nar­cis­sis­tic mor­ti­fi­ca­tion refers to feel­ings of anger and ter­ror over the loss of con­trol over a sit­u­a­tion. “If the unplea­sure caused by a nar­cis­sis­tic mor­ti­fi­ca­tion is too great,” Eidel­berg warns, “the indi­vid­ual elim­i­nates it from his con­scious­ness by repres­sion or denial” (1957, 596). While it is not pos­si­ble to know how Lougheed’s con­scious­ness han­dled The Tar Sands, Lougheed cer­tain­ly ensured it was repressed from the Cana­di­an consciousness.

Lougheed’s actions in the media and courts are con­sis­tent with his over­all media strat­e­gy as pre­mier, which was char­ac­terised by image con­trol and par­ty-wide mes­sage dis­ci­pline (Epp 1984). Yet not only was the CBC docu­d­ra­ma firm­ly out­side of Lougheed’s com­mand, its dra­ma­tized depic­tion of events—shown to a nation-wide audience—directly dis­put­ed Lougheed’s own care­ful­ly con­struct­ed media image. As one of Canada’s first media savvy politi­cians, a case could be made that Lougheed had lit­tle choice but to sue the CBC; per­for­ma­tive pol­i­tics demand­ed it. Mar­shall McLuhan once said of Peter Lougheed, “on TV Lougheed strives for a role rather than a goal” (Hus­tak 1979, 191). In this case, Lougheed’s role was one of an indig­nant west­ern Pre­mier eager for jus­tice (and keen to be seen seek­ing it) after being slight­ed one too many times by feck­less Easterners.

At the time, those seen crit­i­ciz­ing the province’s Con­ser­v­a­tive estab­lish­ment were large­ly treat­ed with con­tempt as Pratt him­self acknowl­edges in The Tar Sands: “The present polit­i­cal atmos­phere in Alber­ta is such that crit­i­cism tends to be regard­ed as trea­so­nous (‘alien forces,’ to quote Pre­mier Lougheed) and unpleas­ant facts are dis­missed as ide­o­log­i­cal heresy” (1976, 10). Pratt’s quo­ta­tion is sig­nif­i­cant as it acknowl­edges the inhos­pitable polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment for nar­ra­tives which sought to chal­lenge the dom­i­nant gov­ern­ment dis­course. As an eco­nom­ic nation­al­ist, Pratt sought to cau­tion against the grow­ing pow­ers and polit­i­cal sway of for­eign-owned oil cor­po­ra­tions whose inter­ests, from his per­spec­tive, didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly align with the province. How­ev­er, Pratt’s con­cerns were dis­missed and shelved while his pres­ence was met with hos­til­i­ty; the CBC docu­d­ra­ma based on Pratt’s book would meet the same fate.

Imme­di­ate­ly after the show aired, Lougheed, his cab­i­net, and indeed most crit­ics direct­ed their crit­i­cism towards The Tar Sands docu­d­ra­ma for­mat, describ­ing it as “unfair” and “unjust”; as a medi­um to explore con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics it was decried as hereti­cal. Yet as Feld­man right­ly notes, “the images that result from both The Tar Sands and The Nation­al are sim­ply two inter­pre­ta­tions of the same role, a role that may loose­ly be described as “the pub­lic image of Peter Lougheed” (Feld­man 1978, 72). Both rep­re­sen­ta­tions—The Tar Sands and The Nation­al—are syn­thet­ic, processed for pub­lic con­sump­tion. Inter­est­ing­ly, Lougheed and his cab­i­net react­ed pri­mar­i­ly to the medi­um and not the mes­sage, thus direct­ing pub­lic atten­tion towards the drama­ti­za­tion of cur­rent events and not the cri­tiques it con­tained. To be sure, the docu­d­ra­ma for­mat could have eas­i­ly been deployed as a medi­at­ed mis­tri­al to memo­ri­al­ize the con­quests of King Peter of Camelot West. Yet the major­i­ty of pub­lic dis­course around The Tar Sands—includ­ing news articles—centred on the ethics and use of docu­d­ra­ma to explore the Syn­crude Agree­ment. Con­se­quent­ly, dis­cus­sions around the creep­ing pow­er of for­eign oil inter­ests over Alberta’s resources were large­ly side­lined in favour of debate around the docudrama’s scan­dalous for­mat and pro­pa­gan­dist nature; petro-hege­mo­ny pre­vailed. While the docu­d­ra­ma may have sought to tell a cau­tion­ary tale about the poten­tial con­se­quences of for­eign oil’s sway over Alber­ta, Lougheed and his sup­port­ers drew upon dis­cur­sive and legal means to quick­ly quash this hereti­cal chal­lenge to the dom­i­nant orthodoxy.

Conclusion: Repression and Rediscovery

The ini­ti­a­tion of a defama­tion law­suit against CBC for The Tar Sands sealed the show’s fate as a media event des­tined to become repressed in the Cana­di­an con­scious­ness. Lar­ry Pratt’s 1976 book, on the oth­er hand, remains pub­licly avail­able, though it has become increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to find despite hav­ing sold 13,000 copies (Macken­zie-Brown 2017). Yet The Tar Sands—both Pratt’s book and the banned CBC docudrama—are impor­tant texts for their con­tra­pun­tal nar­ra­tives chal­leng­ing the dom­i­nant myths around Syncrude’s found­ing, con­ces­sions won and lost, and the influ­ence of cor­po­rate pow­er. Reflect­ing on Lougheed’s lega­cy, Fos­ter (1980) suggests:

It remains uncer­tain just how much of Alberta’s mod­ern-day wealth can be attrib­uted to Lougheed’s tren­chant bar­gain­ing stance. The OPEC cri­sis, by qua­dru­pling oil prices, would have made the province much rich­er who­ev­er was in pow­er, but his intran­si­gence has led to him being insep­a­ra­bly linked to the province’s for­tune. In the eyes of many Alber­tans, it is Lougheed who has made the province the wealth­i­est and fastest grow­ing in Cana­da.” (43)

Forty years lat­er, Foster’s state­ment would undoubt­ed­ly be tak­en as hereti­cal by many, espe­cial­ly when com­pared to the lega­cy of many sub­se­quent Alber­tan pre­miers. More­over, Alber­tans and Cana­di­ans have unques­tion­ably ben­e­fit­ed from the tar sands extrac­tion which Lougheed kick­start­ed. Yet if Taft’s (2017) “deep state” the­sis is cor­rect and demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions provin­cial­ly in Alber­ta and fed­er­al­ly have indeed been “cap­tured” by the oil indus­try, who let them in and under what terms? Taft, as argued above, puts the blame square­ly beyond Lougheed’s pre­mier­ship. But what if CBC’s docu­d­ra­ma The Tar Sands cap­tures the ori­gin sto­ry of the cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion and exploita­tion of the Athabas­ca tar sands?

Ours is a polit­i­cal moment when the tar sands’ future is open­ly and active­ly chal­lenged, and so too is the ide­o­log­i­cal grip of fos­sil fuels. Despite decades of cor­po­rate obfus­ca­tion and obstruc­tion, the link between burn­ing fos­sil fuels and cli­mate change is unde­ni­able. Spurred by an ever-inten­si­fy­ing cli­mate emer­gency, there is near uni­ver­sal con­sen­sus on the need to rapid­ly tran­si­tion away from soci­eties and economies built on oil, espe­cial­ly resource inten­sive oil such as the tar sands; how­ev­er, some polit­i­cal and cor­po­rate actors con­tin­ue to active­ly chal­lenge the pace and urgency of this tran­si­tion in pur­suit of their own inter­ests (Car­roll 2021). To be clear, nei­ther the docu­d­ra­ma nor Pratt’s book addressed the issue of cli­mate change, while the envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns expressed, though present, were minor. Yet Pratt’s (1976) con­cerns about the influ­ence of cor­po­rate pow­er over gov­ern­ment formed the docudrama’s core: con­cerns about petro-hegemony’s creep. Indeed, while works such as Taft (2017) are right­ly crit­i­cal of Alberta’s cur­rent deep state oil links, the reac­tion to a now forty-four-year-old docu­d­ra­ma reveals con­cerns ear­ly in Alberta’s syn­thet­ic ener­gy his­to­ry as to the con­se­quences of a polit­i­cal cul­ture and com­mon sense under­writ­ten by and inter­twined with cor­po­rate oil interests.

In con­clu­sion, if docu­d­ra­ma pro­vides the build­ing blocks for “self recog­ni­tion” (Feld­man 1985, 354), Pre­mier Lougheed did not like what he saw, so much so that he had it metaphor­i­cal­ly thrown into a tar pit. Com­mon sense at the time—particularly in Alberta—accepted this dog­ma; the docu­d­ra­ma was hereti­cal. Yet, The Tar Sands was not an indict­ment of Lougheed, despite him see­ing it that way. It was and remains a skill­ful­ly dra­mat­ic and damn­ing cri­tique of fos­sil-cap­i­tal­ism; a cri­tique which remains as com­pelling today as when The Tar Sands aired forty-five years ago, for its first and only time.


This research was sup­port­ed by an Insight Grant from the Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties Research Coun­cil of Cana­da under Grant 430-2018-1019.

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Image Notes

Fig­ure 1: CBC, For the Record. Pam­phlet, 1977. Library and Archives Cana­da, Peter Pear­son Fonds, R-899, VOL 12; File: For the Record “Tar Sands” Cor­re­spon­dence and Mem­o­ran­da 1976-1978-12-14.

Fig­ure 2: CBC, For the Record. Adver­tise­ment, 1977. Source: Peter Pear­son, Per­son­al Collection.

Fig­ure 3: Peter Lougheed (Ken­neth Welsh) and Willard Alexan­der (Ken Pogue) in The Tar Sands, 1977. Source: Peter Pear­son, Per­son­al Col­lec­tion. Repro­duced with the per­mis­sion of Peter Pearson.

Fig­ure 4: Pro­duc­tion still from The Tar Sands fea­tur­ing direc­tor Peter Pear­son (crouch­ing in fore­ground), Mavor Moore (with glass­es and his back to the cam­era) in char­ac­ter as Frank Spra­gins, Pres­i­dent of Syn­crude Cana­da Ltd., and George Tou­liatos as oil com­pa­ny rep­re­sen­ta­tive David Brom­ley, 1977. Source: Peter Pear­son, Per­son­al Col­lec­tion. Repro­duced with the per­mis­sion of Peter Pearson.

Fig­ure 5: Ken­neth Welsh as Peter Lougheed in The Tar Sands, 1977. Source: Peter Pear­son, Per­son­al Col­lec­tion. Repro­duced with the per­mis­sion of Peter Pearson.

Fig­ure 6: “Them’s fight­in’ words, Mis­ter.’” (CU12608121) by Tom Innes. Cour­tesy of Libraries and Cul­tur­al Resources Dig­i­tal Col­lec­tions, Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­gary. Repro­duced with the per­mis­sion of Glen­bow Archives.


  1. The film is not avail­able from CBC, how­ev­er the author has viewed a copy. This arti­cle is based on an ongo­ing research project that has involved mul­ti­ple archive vis­its, gov­ern­ment Access to Infor­ma­tion and Pri­va­cy requests, as well as inter­views with indi­vid­u­als involved in mak­ing The Tar Sands, report­ing on the con­tro­ver­sy, and the court case itself. The film’s source can­not be named at present giv­en the nature of the project and effort to locate it.

  2. While rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle atten­tion has been giv­en to The Tar Sands, there is an estab­lished body of aca­d­e­m­ic research on Cana­di­an films about oil as well as the cul­tur­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Alberta’s tar sands includ­ing, but not lim­it­ed to Jekanows­ki (2018), Sze­man (2012) and Takach (2017).

  3. My use of “cap­ture” draws from Miller and Harkins (2010) who pro­pose “cor­po­rate cap­ture” to con­cep­tu­alise cor­po­ra­tions’ abil­i­ty to obtain and main­tain pow­er and self-serv­ing influ­ence across mul­ti­ple social, polit­i­cal, ide­o­log­i­cal, and com­mu­nica­tive domains. Taft (2017) in his writ­ing also uses the idea of cap­ture to describe the industry’s role and influ­ence in Alberta’s “deep state.”