Winner of Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award “Captures the human relationship with the natural world and has lasting, universal appeal”

"Jennifer Dance is to be congratulated on this courageous, radical novel.  4 out of 4 stars.  Highly recommended" — Canadian Materials Magazine  


While Hawk is a work of fiction, it is a true portrayal of real-life issues for too many Aboriginal communities in Canada. It is also, importantly, an indictment of our country ... I am very familiar with this region, living and practicing family medicine here since 1993. Hawk paints a picture of the harsh realities of life suffered by Aboriginal residents that call this area home. The conflicts and struggles created and perpetuated by the oil-sands industry are laid bare very accurately. The stark daily decision of having to choose between preserving life and way-of-life versus accepting Big Oil, with its impact on health and environment, is our reality and our nightmare .... a story that young people need to hear, and it gives me hope — Dr. John O'Connor. 


Back cover blurb for HAWK

As a cross-country runner, Adam aims to win gold in the upcoming provincial championship. But when he is diagnosed with leukemia, he  finds himself in a different race, one that he can’t afford to lose. He reclaims the name Hawk, given to him by his grandfather, and begins to fight, for his life and for the land of his ancestors and the creatures that inhabit it. With a little help from his grandfather and his  friends, he might just succeed.


When a teenage boy rescues a fish hawk from a toxic tailings pond in Northern Alberta's oil sands,  he has no idea that soon they will both be  fighting for their lives. 

HAWK is available at your favourite bookseller or Amazon



In the spring of 2015, I travelled to Northern Alberta to research HAWK. I spent time in Fort McMurray, flew over the oil sands in a small plane, and then on up to the community of Fort Chipewyan where my imaginary protagonist grew up. I saw first-hand the scale of the environmental and human impact of the oil sands industry on the boreal forest and its people. As a scientist, I had hoped to find a balance between the industry and opposing views, but I discovered families, just like Hawk’s, trapped between earning a living and losing their health and traditional lifestyle. 


As a non-native senior citizen, also known as an old white woman, I have to confess that the idea of heading into both an oil field and the remote First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan was scary. Plus, you can only get to Fort Chip by small plane, and I've always been afraid of flying! When I was a kid, my dad's job was to investigate plane crashes, so I learned early in life that planes fell out of the sky with great regularity and for a multitude of reasons. So I put off the trip, continuing to write Hawk with help from the internet until I just couldn't put it off any longer – I had to face my fears. And as with most challenges, this trip turned out to be one of the best things I ever did.


I knew from the beginning that the Athabasca River was going to be part of the story, but during the trip it took on a major role.  My online research had told me that the Athabasca brought crystal clear water from the Rockies to the heart of the oil sands industry, and from there it flowed north to Lake Athabasca where fishermen caught fish with tumors, where residents had cancer, or asthma or mysterious rashes, and where my imaginary protagonist (Adam a.k.a. Hawk) spent the first eight years of his life.  
I saw the Athabasca River for the first time from the seat of my Air Canada jet just before landing in the oil sands boom-town of Fort McMurray. I felt sad for the fate that I knew awaited it.  


 With uncanny timing, the Athabasca River “broke”, the very night of my arrival in Fort McMurray, throwing up huge blocks of ice the size of cars. Not only did this perfectly timed annual event give me a neat descriptive passage for the book, but the symbolism spoke volumes to me:

The Athabasca River was broken and this trip, in some small way, was my attempt to mend it. 


In Fort McMurray, I visited the Discovery Centre to learn everything the oil sands industry was prepared to tell me. A young man demonstrated how hot water was used to separate the thick black bitumen from the sand. I used this demonstration in the story when Adam meets Chrissy on the school trip.  


Everything is super-sized in the oil sands

I got up close and personal with the earth moving equipment that is used in the industry. Here I am in the bucket of the power shovel. It takes only two of these scoops to fill the 797 haulage truck.    


The 797 haulage truck that Frank drives in the story is the biggest in the world – the  size of a 2-storey house. I climbed the ladder to get to the driver's cab. See the windshield at the top of the ladder to the right. From there you can go on a simulated drive through the oil sands.  

Watch this video to see what its like to drive a 797 through the oil sands.

Join me as I fly over the oil sands industry in this little plane. It was difficult to take video because hot air from the chimneys created a lot to turbulence which made for a very bumpy ride. 


Within just a few minutes of leaving Fort McMurray, we got our first glimpse of a tailings pond, places where the industry stores the toxic waste from the processing plants. It looked nothing like I expected. In fact, with the blue sky reflecting on the surface and the white sand beach, it looked more like a holiday resort. I thought at first that people were water skiing!  But when we get closer I saw tug boats pulling booms across the surface, dragging bitumen to the edges so it could be skimmed off.  

Then we saw our first processing plant. Steam from the chimneys made the little plane rise and fall in the sky in a rather terrifying manner


The Suncor processing plant on the banks of the Athabasca River

The Athabasca River flows under the bridge and heads north toward Fort Chipewyan. Every other body of water seen in this photo is a tailings pond.  

All of the processing plants are adjacent to the river. Why?  Because just as in the separation demonstration in the Discovery Centre, the industry uses hot water to separate the bitumen from the sand. But they don't just use a few kettles of water. Each day the industry uses more water than the entire city of Toronto. The Athabasca River provides that water and it provides it for free.   The water is used several times over, but ultimately it becomes too dirty to recycle  further, so it goes into a tailings pond contained by nothing more than  banks of packed clay. Yes you read that right! Packed clay.  


Migrating water birds have always stopped in this area to fish in the ponds and rivers, and to regain strength for the their journey. Recently their traditional fishing spots have vanished. Exhausted and hungry some of them land instead on tailings ponds like this.

Seeing this tar-coated beach was the inspiration for the scene when White Chest is rescued by Adam and his grandfather 


Tailings  ponds are huge and they are everywhere!  Add them up and they’d cover a  third of Winnipeg.   Bitumen that escapes the extraction process rises  to the top as a thick black slick.  


The Athabasca River is never far away, running through the lowest land. The mined land slopes toward the river.  Water runs downhill, so if anything leaks from a tailings pond where does it go? 


As far as the eye can see the land is devastatingly dead

From the air, the only sign of life is the 797 haulage trucks moving around like ants.  

This is called surface mining but the land is mined several hundred feet down. 


Eventually the mining stops and the Athabasca River continues on its way, meandering north through boreal forest until it joins the Peace river and floods out over the flat land of the Peace-Athabasca Delta, 


The Peace-Athabasca Delta is an environmentally significant wetland recognized by the United Nations, yet it is downstream of an industry which robs it of water and contaminates it with petro-chemicals


Fort Chipewyan on the shore of Lake Athabasca

From the Delta, water trickles through the muskeg into Lake Athabasca where Adam spends his early childhood. The rivers in this photo are leaving the lake and heading on toward the Arctic Ocean. See the islands in the lake.... here they are again viewed from the beach.

  We stayed in a little house on this beach. I imagined that Adam grew up here, living with his grandfather, eating fish from the lake, and drinking its water. Nobody does that anymore.  


Until recently the people in Fort Chipewyan lived a traditional life, drinking water from the lake, eating fish and moose, green plants and berries from the delta, trapping muskrat and beaver. They don't do that anymore. They understand the risk. They go to the Northern Store where a  jug of milk costs $12, a limp lettuce cost $9, four soft tomatoes $11,  and a small turkey $92. (2015 prices) 

Many heads of households work in the industry.  They are the only ones ones who can afford imported groceries,. But for all the residents of this community, there is an even bigger price to pay . The people have lost their lifestyle, many have lost their health and some have even lost their lives. But what  other jobs are there? The fishing industry died when word got out about fish with tumors. The beaver and muskrat they had trapped for furs, died when their wetland homes dried up. . . and who buys fur these days anyway?  So what choice do they have? When will it be safe to  drink the water, eat the fish, the moose, and the green plants and  berries that grown in the delta? Nobody knows.

Irony  of ironies… the fuel that the residents use for vehicles and for the town's generating station comes to town between December and March on  the Ice Road. But these days, the ice is not freezing as early as in previous years, making the road unsafe for the big trucks. The town’s supply of fuel is in jeopardy. Yet Fort Chip is right on the doorstep of Canada biggest producer of oil!

And what about cleaning up the existing mess? Tailings ponds are still close to the river,  probably still leaking toxins. The  lease agreement between the government and the oil companies included clean up and land restoration. but to me, it's like owning a house and  leasing it out. The tenant signs a legal document and pays a damage  deposit,  but then he hits hard times, and disappears into the night,  leaving the house so badly trashed that the damage deposit doesn't make a dent in the repair bill. Even if you track down the tenant and sue  him, and even if the judge rules that the tenant's wages will be garnished, you are out of luck because he has no wages to garnish. So who has to pay for the clean up? The property owner. In the  case of the oil sands that would be the Crown, a.k.a. the government,  the taxpayer.


"I left part of my heart in Fort Chipewyan " - Jennifer Dance