Feels Like Coming Home:
Life In Small Town Northern Alberta

I grew up in northern Alberta. Something about this place keeps pulling me back even after I left many years ago. 

Distinctively not the “South” but not the “North” in Canadian terms, northern Alberta is not a place that people go out of their way to visit. Like all rural areas, there is a sense of place that is transmissible, or oddly familiar—but also strangely unique.

I was raised in the hamlets dotting the old railway bed along the Tawatinaw Valley. I went to high school in Athabasca, a town of 3000 people a thirty-minute drive north along the new highway. My experience growing up is more firmly rooted in landscape than it is in any urban structure. Yet, even in these natural spaces, there are few places left unaltered. 

The Athabasca River, which runs from its source glacier in the Rocky Mountains through our town, reaches its final destination on the shores of Lake Athabasca, where the Cree, Dene, and Metis community of Fort Chipewyan lies. The fur trade, then the Treaty boundaries, and now our towns and roads follow these natural water routes and patterns of old time travels. 

When people think about northern Alberta, they think of the oil sands. While oil and gas are certainly a big part of the area’s recent history, farming and forestry also feature heavily in the area’s landscape and lifestyles. Athabasca, whose name stems from the Cree word for an open or reedy area, was once considered the “gateway to the North” – an early economic hub of what eventually became the province of Alberta – because of its location along the river.

The boys having a swim in the dugout. East of Athabasca, July, 2017.

In the late 1700s the Athabasca River became the main source of transportation for the fur trade, then the Klondike Gold Rush, and eventually the first settlers and homesteaders. It’s one of the few areas of the province established prior to the railway, and it sits at the very bottom tip of Treaty 8 territory, which extends outwards into Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, and northern British Columbia.

This photographic diary started out as an exploration of the way this migration has altered the natural landscape, but it eventually evolved into an ethnography of my home and what it means to me: where I grew up, what life is like there, and the people who inhabit environments and economies that are increasingly polarized.

My sense of home exists in the tension between these natural and altered landscapes, shaped by a culture and economy based on primary resource development. It’s an evening walk truncated by a pipeline crossing, an ice road over a river, a forest of poplar planted for logging. Small towns webbed together by hundreds of miles of roads. The resources we rely on to be here. The reason we are here to begin with.

Rochester Fair Parade – August, 2017.
A canola field down the road from my mom’s house in Rochester. July, 2017.
My sister, Vanessa, at the horse races. June, 2017.
Barn Burner at Trish and Andrew Dennis’s place. Old farm buildings are sometime burnt in place as opposed to torn down to prevent them from collapsing on people as they degrade. It’s also an excuse for a party – hence the term “barn-burner”. June, 2018.
Kid’s slip-n-slide – June, 2018.
Roy Ladoceur, a friend and a Dene-Metis trapper, taking a smoke break on our way up the Athabasca River. Treaty 8 Territory, July, 2017.
The Howlowski Boys in the old Jimmy. July, 2017.
Friends at the Annual ‘Smatty Cup’ street hockey tournament. Smatty Cup started in loving memory of Tyler Smith, a fellow-classmate from that year’s graduating class who was killed in a workplace accident a few years after high school. Procceds from team registration go towards a bursary in his name at the local high school. Athabasca, July, 2017.
Dawn in the pines. Rochester, November, 2016.
Kids trying to mutton-bust in the corral at the Smith Fall Fair. Smith, September, 2018.
Travelling vendor, Athabasca, Treaty 8 Territory. November, 2016.
Cody Bishop after taking a stick to the eye at the Smatty Cup tournament. July 2017.
Logging truck going north on Highway 2. Athabasca County, November, 2016.
Canadian Rangers in Fort Chipewyan, waiting to bring Keith home. Keith Martin was one of the four hunters from Fort Chipewyan who died tragically in a boating accident in the spring of 2017. Treaty 8 Territory, July, 2017.
Fuel storage tanks in Hardisty. November, 2016.
Caleb with his water gun. Tawatinaw Valley, June, 2018.
My sister Shaylah at Karl’s camper van. July, 2017.
Caleb and Luke on the porch. Tawatinaw Valley, July, 2018.
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Written By
Amanda Annand

Amanda Annand

Amanda is a Canadian-born visual ethnographer. Having grown up in a town of less than 200 people in northern Alberta, she's comfortable in small and unusual places. Amanda’s documentary work focuses on themes relating to culture and connection to place. She has also worked for Indigenous groups, government, and industry within the context of resource development and community engagement. After completing a Masters in Intercultural and International Relations, Amanda began to cultivate her passion documentary photography. In 2018, she was named one of the 100 Top Emerging Photographers in the Flash Forward competition by the Magenta Foundation. She currently resides in Yellowknife, NWT, where she hopes to add more regional diversity to Canadian documentary-voice. She is also producer and co-founder of the Yellowknife-based Far North Photo Festival.