“It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness,” wrote Seneca the Younger, a Roman philosopher. Roughly 2,000 years later, Diana Naca-Rowsell can relate to the Stoic philosopher’s advice after spending more than 13 years operating heavy equipment on the haul roads at Syncrude.

“There are all kinds of different conditions you must look for while driving a haul truck,” says Diana. “You will get spillage from the back of other trucks. Rutted roads are tough on the tires, the equipment and even your body. You might not realize it at the time but driving too fast or too aggressively will eventually lead to aches, whether it’s sore muscles or bones. And you have to watch for roads that are too narrow for two-way traffic as it forces your equipment into the berm, which are very rough on the tires on your blindside.”

“There are all kinds of different conditions you must look for while driving a haul truck,” says Diana. “You will get spillage from the back of other trucks. Rutted roads are tough on the tires, the equipment and even your body. You might not realize it at the time but driving too fast or too aggressively will eventually lead to aches, whether it’s sore muscles or bones. And you have to watch for roads that are too narrow for two-way traffic as it forces your equipment into the berm, which are very rough on the tires on your blindside.”

“Our tire vendor reported a 39 per cent increase in average rolling hours and 46 per cent increase in distance since the beginning of 2019, which is incredible,” says Scott Saunders, Business Team Leader, Mildred Lake Trucks & Productivity.

Haul tires are now lasting more than 5,000 operating hours and more than 100,000 kilometres on a rolling average.

– Scott Saunders

“Given that these tires cost about $60,000 each and there’s six on every truck, this is a significant savings that really demonstrates Syncrude’s commitment to operate safely, responsibly, reliably and profitably,” he says.

Mildred Lake Mining adopted the tire champion program from its counterparts at Aurora Mining, where the program had already demonstrated its value.

“Aurora’s Keith Tremblett helped set up the program at Mildred Lake. Every shift has a tire champion, who look at the roads and conditions and potential damage to tires and we correct them. We found it very helpful in the spring, when the roads get muddier in the mine due to the thawing and rain,” Scott says. “Wet tires cut much easier than a dry tire – if there are rocks in the mud and a truck drives through, it will cut up a tire – that’s the main cause of our tire failures. One of our frontline leaders, Thomas Dowson, actually dug out a rock and created a poster that we put in the Mildred Lake Mine dry (gathering area for operators) so everybody could see the potential hidden dangers. It’s an example of everybody buying into the idea, from operators to leader to planners to maintenance crews.”

Diana, for her part, feels proud to have been part of the wider effort that has lengthened the life and mileage on haul tires.

To know you’re able to make a difference really feels really good.

– Diana Naca-Roswell

When Dustin Stuyt and his team sought solutions to extend the life of tertiary sizer teeth in Syncrude’s ore crushing units, they looked internally to the Research and Development department for ideas.

The collaboration resulted in new technologies that could see oil sands mining and extraction equipment of all kinds running for years before they need maintenance.

Syncrude has been tackling material wear issues since production began in 1978. The abrasive nature of oil sand combined with the extreme temperatures throughout the year in Northern Alberta have played havoc on shovel teeth, grader blades, and tertiary sizer teeth in particular. As equipment and technology have changed, so have the solutions to these issues. The ultimate goal is to extend equipment performance as long as possible before replacement is required.

The company’s Leading Edge Advanced Performance (LEAP) project was created five years ago to look at extending the life of equipment in direct contact with oil sand and rock materials. Dan Wolfe, senior associate, Mechanical with R&D, leads the project and their work on tertiary sizer teeth has revealed viable solutions including friction welding technology adapted from the aerospace industry.

Tertiary sizers are the final step in wet crushing technology used at Syncrude’s North Mine operation to process oil sand and prepare it for hydrotransport. After oil sand is broken down by crushers in the field to about the size of a beach ball, the material has water added to it while it passes through two sets of sizers before being sent to Extraction. In secondary sizing, those beach ball pieces become the size of a volleyball, and after tertiary sizing the pieces are softball size or smaller.

Syncrude’s North Mine uses a wet crushing technology that mixes crushed oil sands with water through secondary and tertiary sizers to produce a slurry for bitumen extraction. New technology developed for the sizer teeth has the potential to extend unit run life 10 times longer than is currently achieved.

The magic happens in the tertiary sizers.

– Dustin Stuyt

“It’s the last step where oil sand is mixed with water and chemicals to convert it to a slurry of finer particles that can be easily transported to Extraction,” says Dustin Stuyt, a senior engineer with Equipment & Reliability Engineering.

Unlike other extraction technologies on site where screens reject materials larger than a specified maximum before the remainder enters the hydrotransport system, the use of sizers allows everything to be fed into the system allowing for greater bitumen recovery and fewer maintenance issues along the way to Extraction. There are four of these systems operating in parallel at North Mine.

The sizers consist of four rotating shafts about five metres long with fist-sized teeth. There are 432 teeth on each of the shafts on the tertiary sizers for a total of 1,728 in a machine. Over a typical run of 2,000 hours, more than 10 million tonnes of oil sand will pass through the system before the teeth will need maintenance, with the tertiary sizers taking the brunt of the wear.

The wear issue is significant in the sizers, because if you lose one inch off the teeth, larger materials get through and you’ll start damaging equipment downstream.

– Dan Wolfe

Dustin’s Extraction team and R&D tested a number of options for the tertiary sizer teeth with various degrees of success – including a test that both he and Dan referred to as a horrific failure – until they discovered two tungsten carbide options with serious potential.

Tungsten carbide is a dense, metal-like substance about two times heavier than steel and up to 10 times harder. It’s the hardest material commercially available to Syncrude and wears extremely well, but it is prone to cracking when attached to steel with traditional joining processes.

The first option to the team was teeth sourced from a US-based company specializing in tungsten carbide products. They developed a sizer tooth with broken bits of tungsten carbide recycled from hard rock drills embedded in the first centimetre of the tooth.
“These teeth cost less than what we’re currently using and so far the results have shown they can last about twice as long,” says Dustin.

Tertiary sizer teeth ready for action. The teeth are made from solid blocks of 25-millimetre thick tungsten carbide clad with a Kovar coating and attached to the segments using a friction welding technique.

The new teeth are being attached to the sizer segments as maintenance rebuilds take place. Using the previous teeth, the team budgeted for nine rebuilds per year but the new, lower-cost sizer teeth could reduce rebuilds to as few as three per year – meaning millions of dollars in annual savings.

“We think the teeth could process up to 30 million tonnes of ore before they need replacement,” says Dustin. “With the addition of small tungsten carbide studs between the teeth, we are seeing better product for hydrotransport and our wear rates have dropped off by 50 per cent since the wet crusher was commissioned.”

A second option, while more complex, is showing even greater potential. It involves cladding solid blocks of 25-millimetre thick tungsten carbide with a Kovar coating, and attaching them to the segments using a friction welding technique. Kovar is a unique iron-nickel-cobalt alloy that expands and contracts like the tungsten carbide material. When Kovar cools from the cladding operation it doesn’t create residual stress at the bond line. Without the Kovar coating, a crack forms when the tungsten carbide is welded to the steel and it doesn’t take long for the block to break off.

Hugh Roth is a senior associate, Metallurgy at R&D, who tested this new technology and introduced the Kovar coating/friction welding solution. “With friction welding the weld takes seconds to make. It is only hot at the interface and the carbide doesn’t know it’s being welded,” he says.

Syncrude is the first company to evaluate this technology and we anticipate it having benefits for a wide range of earth engaging equipment.

– Hugh Roth

Syncrude is analyzing results as they come in and is looking to evaluate the technology for other applications. R&D tested friction welding on grader blades and tertiary sizers this winter with extremely positive results. While regular grader blade edges last about two weeks before they need to be replaced, the test showed potential for them to last an entire season. Additionally, 66 of the friction welded sizer teeth were put into service and all of them showed little to no wear after two months. It’s possible the teeth could last 10 times longer than current teeth, or 20,000 hours.

“It’s a totally different level of capability,” said Hugh. “We can design and operate equipment in a completely different way now that we know materials can last 20,000 hours or more and we can rely on the metal keeping its shape. Outage schedules don’t have to be what they were, and we may not have to build redundancy into our operating equipment.”

While there is excitement for the results to come from this collaboration, Dan believes more can be done to improve wear rates in the future. Developing two parallel solutions for a big problem and applying those ideas to other leading edge issues, means there is more testing to do. And with that, more innovations to come for R&D and Bitumen Production to extend wear life on machinery and equipment.

Warren Zubot is leading the team behind an exciting innovation that’s targeting faster, more effective reclamation of tailings areas.

Syncrude takes its environmental responsibilities seriously. That’s why we’re always looking for new and better ways to improve our sustainability and environmental performance. Take Warren, a Senior Engineering Associate who is on a mission to find a way to treat tailings water for safe release.

Tailings, a byproduct of extracting bitumen from oil sand, are stored in tailings ponds and are a mixture of water, sand, clay, fine solids, residual hydrocarbons and salts. Although these ponds are the source of water that is recycled and used in our production processes, their growth is something we want to avoid. Having the ability to treat and safely release tailings water will eliminate the need for long-term storage and allow faster and more effective return of land to a natural state.

That’s where Warren’s innovation comes in.

Applying principles that are similar to a home water filter using activated carbon, Warren’s technology uses petroleum coke from Syncrude’s upgrader to remove the unwanted compounds from tailings water, transforming it so that it can safely support aquatic life and other downstream uses. Once tailings water becomes safe for release, tailings areas can be returned back to a productive natural state, making this water treatment innovation a huge step in solving a major reclamation challenge.

After a successful small-scale pilot in 2012, Syncrude contracted one of the region’s leading Indigenous businesses to design and construct a full-scale pilot treatment facility, as well as manage the ongoing monitoring of treated water. The facility began operation in June 2019.

It takes a lot of outside-the-box thinking to create something that’s never been done before. It took a lot of collaboration across Syncrude teams, along with the skills of a local Indigenous business to make it possible.

– Warren zubot

Syncrude has engaged Indigenous communities and other regional stakeholders to educate them about the project, seek feedback and ensure we work with our neighbours to mitigate their concerns.

As always, Syncrude will share insights with our industry partners through COSIA, as well as with academic institutions to advance knowledge and ensure results are transparent and publicly available in peer-reviewed scientific literature.

When Rochelle Young first started working at Syncrude 20 years ago, she heard about plans to turn the west in-pit tailings pond into a lake.

“I remember wondering, ‘How is that actually possible? I was working as an environmental scientist and it was hard to imagine.”

Today, Rochelle works as a Regulatory Affairs Advisor and that tailings pond is now Base Mine Lake, an eight-square-kilometre pit lake that borders Highway 63 to the west as you travel south from the Mildred Lake site.

Syncrude stopped using it as a tailings facility close to 10 years ago – on Dec. 31, 2012. The lake now plays a critical role in Syncrude’s reclaimed landscape as the first commercial-scale demonstration of water-capped tailings technology and the oil sands industry’s first pit lake.

But, why pit lakes? Surface mining results in large pits that must be reclaimed. Some mine pits are filled with mine materials such as overburden or tailings to form a solid surface, which is then reclaimed to forests and wetlands. Other mine pits are reclaimed to lakes.

Due to the nature and timing of mine material movement and use, the overburden that was removed to initiate the pit is reclaimed as soon as practical on Syncrude’s site. This is part of our commitment to progressive reclamation and meeting our goal of minimizing the effect of disturbance.

However, this leaves insufficient material available to fill one or more of the mine pits at the completion of mining. These pits may be partially or fully filled with water (mine and/or fresh water) and reclaimed as a lake (pit lake). Pit lakes reduce the need for material re-handling, which would result in increased emissions from material transportation (such as greenhouse gases or nitrogen oxides), lengthen reclamation timelines and success, and increased costs.

Pit lakes are used at open-pit mine sites around the world, and are a global mining industry best practice for reclamation and closure. Pit lakes support a variety of plants and animals typical of aquatic ecosystems and are integrated into the reclaimed landscape.

“Syncrude has included water-capped fluid tailings in pit lakes since its earliest closure plan designs,” says Rochelle. “The Alberta regulator gave our company approval to have Base Mine Lake as a demonstration to prove that pit lakes are viable.”

Developing a successful pit lake requires planning, monitoring and research to learn and guide lake management.

Pit lake designs and plans have changed over time to reflect the state of knowledge of oil sands mine waters and tailings, technology advances, changing regulations and inputs from local stakeholders and Indigenous communities.

Base Mine Lake’s water capping technology includes filling the empty mine pit with fluid tailings (a mixture of clay, fine solids, water and residual bitumen), and then capping it with water to form a lake. The demonstration intends to show that the water quality will improve over time while the tailings solids remain isolated at the bottom of the lake.

Rochelle, who is working on several tailings projects, explains pit lakes are just one of a suite of reclamation methods that are used today and that like with any reclamation project, there are challenges. However, she believes that this is a challenge that Syncrude will meet.

“Results of the water-capped tailings technology are very positive so far. Syncrude is demonstrating we have physically sequestered the tailings from the water body,” says Rochelle. “We are also showing the water quality is improving over time, which is supporting natural biological communities to develop.”

With roughly 40 years of rigorous research on pit lakes among Canadian oil sands producers, Rochelle is confident and optimistic about Syncrude’s reclamation that includes Base Mine Lake and future pit lakes to come.

It is amazing to see the progress over the past 20 years. The Base Lake Mine project demonstrates what can be achieved with research, experience and hard work. It shows what seems impossible is within your reach.

– Rochelle Young

Kerri Cutler and Craig Keeping work on two separate but interdependent teams that helped each other achieve big things in 2020.

At Syncrude, our workforce is made up of about 5,000 employees. We use the term workforce because when we work together as One Team, we are just that—a force. Due to the sequential, just-in-time nature of our production process, we all rely on each other to keep operations running smoothly.

Take Kerri and Craig’s story, for instance. They may not work directly together, but thanks to extraordinary teamwork and cross-discipline collaboration both of their teams achieved remarkable milestones in 2020.

As a heavy duty mechanic on Team 506, Craig’s team achieved an almost unimaginable milestone with one of the trucks from the 17-100 series, which were introduced into service in 1999 making them the oldest trucks in Syncrude’s fleet. Under the care of many, haul truck 100 surpassed 150,000 hours in service—more than doubling its original life expectancy of 72,000 hours!

Craig has been tuning up 100 series haulers for nearly a decade. Over the years he’s developed a real passion for keeping them running at their best and performing in line with the new models. He’s also the first to point out that a milestone like this doesn’t happen in isolation.

“No one person made 150,000 hours happen. It took a complete group effort to make it possible, from our leaders to our coordinators to the planning department to all the mechanics in the shop.

It’s a whole Aurora Mine Maintenance Team effort really.

– Craig Keeping

It’s that kind of teamwork that keeps our haul trucks running reliably and delivering a steady stream of oil sands to Extraction. It was also a major contributor in helping another set of our colleagues achieve an outstanding outcome of their own.

The Bitumen Production team set not one but two outstanding production records in 2020: best month ever in December with 13,383 kilobarrels (KBBL), breaking the previous record of 13,074 KBBL set in August 2016, and best week ever with 3,272 KBBL in the week of December 15, breaking the record of 3,251 KBBL set the week of December 22, 2018.

Panel Operator Kerri Cutler remarks that this amazing achievement is the result of cooperation and alignment across the organization. After working 13 years as a field operator, Kerri now puts her field experience to work in the control room.

“Being on the panel gives you a different perspective of the importance of equipment reliability, availability and working closely with other teams—upstream and downstream,” observed Kerri.

Collaboration is key. Everybody always comes together to figure out the most efficient, most effective way to get things done.

– Kerri Cutler

“This team spirit not only played a big role in achieving the record bitumen production, it also makes Syncrude a great place to work.”

From clear blue summer skies to darkened, snowy winter days, Glen Noseworthy has made the same daily commute on Highway 63 between Fort McMurray to Syncrude’s Mildred Lake site for the past 17 years.

And while the decal on Glen’s company truck has changed during that time, his commitment has remained consistent. “You work safely and effectively to deliver real value as a contractor,” says Glen, who now oversees about roughly 450 workers as BrandSafway Infinity’s site manager. “That value hasn’t changed even though the name on the door is new.”

BrandSafway Infinity – a partnership between the multinational industrial services provider and Infinity Métis Corporation, the business arm of the McMurray Métis Local 1935 – signed a five-year agreement with Syncrude last month to provide scaffolding, insulation, sandblasting, coatings, fireproofing, rope access and refractory largely in the Mildred Lake upgrading complex.

The new partners share common values. “We came together with Infinity Métis because it was a great fit,” says Ken Sandmoen, BrandSafway Infinity’s director and general manager. “BrandSafway, which used to operate under other names, most notably as Aluma Systems and Safway Services, has had a presence on Syncrude’s sites for more than 20 years.

Outside the plant gate, we are committed to the Wood Buffalo region and the community of Fort McMurray. We sponsor a lot of minor sports teams and school trips.

– Ken sandmoen

“You’ll see our staging and fencing so the public have safe access for different events around the region. Our employees volunteer in the community because they live and work here. And both Infinity Métis and Syncrude share those values.”

The contract will also see benefits for members of McMurray Métis Local 1935. “When we partner with a corporation such as BrandSafway, they help our community by providing training, education and other opportunities, such as summer employment for students so they can be exposed to the opportunities provided by industry,” says Shawn Myers, CEO for Infinity Métis Corporation, which has partnerships with eight other corporations.

It’s not just about making money. It’s about helping the Métis communities in this region prosper and grow. We want to be leaders in building this region and industry.

– Shawn Myers

And while our primary focus is always going to be here, having a partner with a large presence across the country can help us provide opportunities for Indigenous people outside the region as well.”

The new contract is part of Syncrude’s increased focus in seeking opportunities with Indigenous-owned businesses, including partnerships such as BrandSafway Infinity.

“It fits into our larger goal of ensuring Indigenous people in Wood Buffalo share in the opportunities created by oil sands development, which includes developing businesses that can supply goods and services,” says Doug Webb, Syncrude’s Business Liaison. “Syncrude has invested significantly in the growth and success of many Indigenous companies in the Wood Buffalo region. We now do business with more than 50 such suppliers.

We are committed to working with our suppliers to improve their competitiveness so we all have a sustainable future.

– Doug Webb

Syncrude has spent nearly $5 billion with Indigenous vendors since 1992, including a record $672 million in 2020. “We also recognize the importance of local suppliers to the region as we’re based here, too,” Doug says. “And it’s good to work with local companies who understand the industry.”

BrandSafway Infinity also recognizes it’s important to deliver value. “We share Syncrude’s commitments on operating safely, responsibly, reliably and profitably,” Ken says. “Delivering on that will ensure both Syncrude and BrandSafway Infinity continue to succeed for the next five years and beyond.”
And that’s something that remains uppermost in Glen’s mind as he drives down the highway to work every day. “Every one of us brings that value by working safely and effectively on every task on every shift,” he says. “When you do that, you can feel very good when you leave through the plant gate at the end of the day.”

Proactive thinking and relentless efforts by Syncrude’s Health Services team have been pivotal in keeping our workforce safe and community protected during the pandemic.

For Syncrude’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Ahmed Elmezughi, and Health Services Leader, Gladys Hokanson ensuring the reliable delivery of medical, health, and wellness services to everyone in the organization is a full-time responsibility. Then COVID-19 happened. And suddenly those responsibilities—along with their workloads—took a whole new turn.

As an occupational health and safety professional you try to forecast potential threats to your staff’s wellbeing. You don’t anticipate having to deal with a pandemic.

– gladys hokanson

When it became apparent early in 2020 that the spread of COVID-19 to Alberta was imminent, protecting the health of Syncrude’s workforce—and the community as a whole— from the virus became their most urgent priority. Ahmed and Gladys and their teams immediately got to work developing a plan, educating people, and outlining procedures and practices within Syncrude to help keep operations running safely under unprecedented circumstances.

“In those early days, there were many inconsistencies in the information. Dealing with ever-evolving information was a big challenge. Our nurses and health team members were running off their feet, doing all they could to stay on top of it,” Ahmed added.

But as both will proudly attest, everyone continues to step up to the challenge and contribute to what have been largely successful outcomes in the continuing battle to protect people from the virus.

Their willingness to put in that 120%, to follow the Operational Discipline principles of asking questions, seeking to understand, collaborating with one another—it has truly been remarkable.

– Dr. Ahmed Elmezughi

“The whole Syncrude family is pulling together. They’re supporting each other. They’re intervening to keep each other safe. We definitely have had a ‘One Team’ mentality throughout the whole organization,” continued Gladys, a Registered Nurse.

Although the pair realize that the pandemic is far from over—it’s now into its third wave, with the majority of cases being highly contagious variants of the COVID-19 virus—they are optimistic about Syncrude’s workforce remaining committed to protecting one another’s safety until it is. When asked what they’re looking to most once COVID is behind us, there wasn’t a moment of hesitation from either one.

“We have a real family attitude at Syncrude. I think that social distancing and lack of personal interaction has been really difficult for a lot of people. I know it has been for me, so I look forward to being able to give people a hug again,” shared Gladys.

“Not having to worry about anyone in Syncrude contracting COVID ever again, that will be a high-five moment for me,” said Ahmed.

When Liebherr’s new T 282 truck 17-139 first started rumbling down the haul roads in the Syncrude’s North Mine on March 24, 2005, 50 Cent topped the charts while moviegoers in Fort McMurray were flocking downtown to see the animated hit Robots at the Landmark Cinema.

Sixteen years later, the movie theatre is shuttered and 50 Cent is making television shows rather than music but truck 17-139 continues to roll on, reaching the milestone of 100,000 operating hours on March 28.

Syncrude Site Reliability Engineer Paul Wohlgemuth sees achieving that milestone as a success story with several authors.

“The oil sands are the toughest proving ground in the world. The operating conditions challenged this truck, just as they do with any equipment,” says Paul, who joined Syncrude in 1989. “Syncrude purchased the Liebherr truck based on its strong performance in hard-rock mines. The softer underfoot conditions in the oil sands initially posed difficulties.

Thanks to hard work and collaboration between many people in different business units and the manufacturer, we found solutions that led to this accomplishment.

– Paul Wohlgemuth

The work we’ve undertaken means today’s Liebherr haul truck is not the same truck we purchased in 2005.”

An 11-point upgrade program identified and addressed issues to improve the reliability and longevity of the 26 trucks, which are unique in the oil sands. The truck has linkage systems on the front suspensions and hoist undercarriage. It also has an electric drive train. The 11-point program targeted the truck’s structural issues.

“Liebherr has an advanced engineering arm and they are great to work with. They were very open about sharing technical information with us, which was crucial in helping us understand and address the challenges with the suspension and structures,” he says.

Syncrude also identified issues caused by the diesel fuel produced by Plant 14 and the high-pressure fuel system that created challenges with the injectors. “We needed to address the diesel fuel mix so it wouldn’t coke in the high-pressure fuel system and damage the injectors. We changed the specifications on the diesel fuel mix and added a stabilizer to prevent coke particles from damaging the fuel injectors,” Paul says. “Detroit Diesel, who produces the engines for the Liebherr trucks, was very helpful in working with us on that issue.”

During 17-139’s lengthy run, more than just pop music and movies changed. Syncrude’s commitments to managing tailings led to $3 billion in investment into developing new technologies, including the new centrifuge plant at Mildred Lake. With the increased volume of treated tailings by the plant, Syncrude repurposed 17-139 and six other Liebherr trucks to carry tailings treated by the centrifuge plant – material called cake – to placement areas in the Mildred Lake.

“Carrying tailings cake required a different box and tailgate for the truck than hauling oil sands ore,” says Sherill Stevens, Business Team Leader – Trucks & Productivity for the past four years at Mildred Lake Mining. “The Mildred Lake Mobile Maintenance shop led by Keith Singer helped fabricate new boxes and tailgates for the repurposed trucks as well as keeping them on the road.”

Sherill also praised the operators for playing a crucial role in setting a reliability milestone.

Our operators are highly skilled and responsible in how they handle the equipment entrusted to them.

– Sherill stevens

They have done a great job managing the nuances of the cake fleet and cake run in particular,” says Sherill, who was recently appointed Value Stream Leader for Mining, Extraction and Tailings.

Craig Coolen, Manager – Mine Mobile Maintenance, also praised the nearly 140 employees and contractors who maintain the fleet at Mildred Lake shop.

“Our maintenance technicians have demonstrated world-class performance in ensuring we meet our goals of being reliable, responsible, safe and profitable,” Craig says. “In our shop, that means keeping our fleet available to move the ore and overburden necessary to meet our production goals and the tailings cake to meet our commitments of being a responsible operator. Reaching this kind of milestone demonstrates how well they do their work shift after shift with the support of their peers in Operations and our Technical organization.”

And given 17-139 had an expected life of 72,000 operating hours, Paul sees another lesson imparted by the truck.

This truck has operated for far longer than anybody ever anticipated when we purchased it.

– Craig Coolen

“It challenges people’s thinking about equipment. It doesn’t have to get old and die within its expected shelf life. It demonstrates what you can do with a good maintenance program and collaboration between our operating, maintenance and technical organizations.”

There are many pathways to success.

It can come from reconnecting ourselves with traditions through song and dance, from building outreach programs that connect students with communities, or from reflecting on the legacy of our parents and celebrating their impact on an entire community.

Inspiring stories like these can be found in Syncrude’s Pathways 2021 magazine. It captures the journeys, achievements, connections, contributions and efforts of First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples — and brings light to Indigenous culture, history and traditions.

Take, for example, Mitch Mercredi. Growing up in Fort Chipewyan, traditions like the powwow were not part of his life. As a teenager, Mitch attended a cultural rediscovery event that sparked his imagination and inspired him to learn more about his people’s traditional ways of life. As a young adult, Mitch’s fascination led him to join his first drum group. From there, he explored further aspects of his culture and soon found his calling in powwow.

Mitch is a father now and shares his traditions and way of life with his three children. All three dance in the powwow and he and his wife, Crystal, are raising their next generation to be proud and embrace the traditions and values of their culture.

“Providing a platform to share Indigenous perspectives and lived experiences is a vital part of Syncrude’s commitment to our Indigenous communities,” says Kara Flynn, VP, Government and Public Affairs

Indigenous people contribute in a major way to our company’s success. The relationships we have built have created more resilience in our business, in our region’s communities, and in our ongoing reclamation efforts.

– Kara flynn

Syncrude operates on the traditional lands of five First Nations and six Metis Locals, and it’s important to provide our neighbours with opportunities to take part in all aspects of the operation. Our connections with Indigenous communities have been fostered since Syncrude’s beginnings over 50 years ago. Being one of the nation’s largest employers of Indigenous people is an outcome of those relationships and is something Syncrude is proud to accomplish.
“One of the ways we continue this effort is to provide a platform to help tell their stories and experiences,” says Kara.

You can read Pathways magazine here.

Growing up in Fort McMurray, Rochelle Young never celebrated her Indigenous roots, largely because her family didn’t talk about their heritage.

“I always knew I was Indigenous but there was no cultural practices in our home when I was growing up,” she says. “We just didn’t really talk about it very much.”

Rochelle’s role at Syncrude working with First Nations and Métis communities as an environment advisor triggered a curiosity to learn more about her roots. And that search caused her to learn some of her qualities were shared by her forefathers.

“When I started working at Syncrude, it was my role at work that caused me to learn about my history. I was working as an environmental advisor and talking with community members in Fort McKay about their odour concerns.” says Rochelle.

She began tracing her family history and learned about her great-great-great grandfather, an Iroquois man from Quebec named Louis Kwarkwante and how he arrived in Alberta.

“He ended up travelling across the west as a voyageur, helping fur traders get to Alberta,” Rochelle says. “He ended up marrying a Cree woman. The interesting thing is the Iroquois were known for their skill in agriculture according to the reports of the Indian agents I’ve read. Farming was natural for him.”

Syncrude proved to be a similarly good fit for Rochelle, who grew up in Fort McMurray with both of her parents working for the oil sands developer.

“My father Ron MacDonald worked as a process operator in Extraction. And most people will remember my mom Carol MacDonald as the office manager at Club 63 North, the social club for employees. So I am a ‘Syncrude kid’ from both parents,” she says. “I always had an interest in the environment from an early age. My dad and I would always be outside looking to catch bugs.”

After graduating from Father Mercredi High School, Rochelle attended Lakeland College, where she received a diploma in conservation and reclamation studies and later earned an applied degree in environmental management.

“I worked as a summer student at Syncrude while going to school and loved it. My final year of school was an eight-month practicum in Environmental Services, where I worked on everything from wildlife management to waste management to water management. I was hired as a full-time employee from there.”

At the start of her career, Rochelle’s main focus was reporting on air quality concerns as Syncrude brought units built during the UE-1 expansion. “It was a challenging job as we were experiencing some problems and my job was having to explain why things went wrong,” she says. “I realized I wanted to make things better, not just report what was wrong.”

That epiphany led her to move to land reclamation, working on regulatory plans.

I want to feel like I’m making a difference. That’s core to who I am as a person. That’s why Choose to Challenge – this year’s theme for International Women’s Day – really speaks to me and my values.

– Rochelle Young

Rochelle has discovered she came by that attitude honestly. Her great-great-grandfather Michel Callihoo was the first Chief of the Michel First Nation, a band northwest of Edmonton which signed Treaty 6 in 1878. Its 100-square-kilometre reserve was located on some of the richest agricultural land in the province and members came under heavy pressure to surrender it by the government. The band was “enfranchised” in 1958, which stripped members of their Indian status in exchange to vote in Canadian elections. It was only First Nation to be enfranchised under the Indian Act.

“A lot of members fought in the Second World War, wanted the same rights and privileges as their counterparts whom they fought beside so they gave up their Treaty rights in order to have the same rights,” Rochelle says.

My great-grand-uncle Felix Callihoo was one founders of the Métis Nation of Alberta.

– Rochelle Young

“Another one of my great-grand-uncles, John Callihoo, founded the Indian Association of Alberta. Many of my ancestors fought for change and equal rights for Indigenous people. It’s a piece of my history where I feel a close connection.”

And now she is sharing that link with her three sons.

Syncrude’s Rochelle Young has made it a point to share stories about her Indigenous roots and celebrate the culture with her sons Jesse (left), Dylan (centre) and Cameron (right)

“It’s very important to me that they understand the history and culture as Indigenous people,” she says. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, I had some free time and attended a course put on by the University of Alberta about Indigenous history in Canada. I want to have those conversations with my children that I didn’t have with my parents while I was growing up. But it’s also important to note that today, the schools have events such as Orange Shirt Day to discuss the legacy of residential schools, which are great. And for my sons, it’s important for them to know because their grandmother and great-grandmother went to residential schools.”

For Rochelle, history is not just something to be remembered.

“I know a lot more about myself because of what I’ve learned in studying my family’s history,” she says.

She also brings that view to her current role at Syncrude as Regulatory Affairs Advisor working on several tailings projects, including Base Mine Lake, a former mine pit and tailings pond being reclaimed as a pit lake that sequesters tailings underneath the water layer.

“My new role has allowed me to reconnect with the First Nations and Métis communities in the region, which is something I really appreciate. It’s vital we engage with local communities on reclamation and land closure because there is a shared vision to have the land reclaimed in the best possible way,” she says. “When the land is returned, the communities can resume traditional uses. That’s something I understand and that’s a challenge I embrace.”