Thursday night in Ft. Mac. Bailey's Bar. There's a karaoke contest about to begin. We're here making a feature documentary movie about it. Not about how the "tar" sands is the worst thing since the black plague. Not about how the "Oil" Sands is a technological and economic marvel of responsible energy production. We're here for the karaoke.

My partner & producer Tina Schliessler and I accidentally visited a karaoke bar in the oil patch late one night last year while making our last film -- Peace Out -- about the aggressive energy extraction in the Peace watershed. By the time we realized what the bar was the drinks were already on the way. Argggh.

Stumbling drunks destroying the songs we all love. But then this guy gets up, muddy boots, oily coveralls, early 20s, an obviously Southern college kid (paying off his student loan he tells me later). In a fragile voice he begins singing the Boy George hit "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me" and I'm like, in a bar full of roughnecks -- this guy is dead. But as his voice gains strength the tattoo boys start cheering. Seriously. Okay, he can really sing, but Boy George, here? Note to self: There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear.

We pitched the idea at Hot Docs last May (where the now finished film -- Oil Sands Karaoke is having its world premiere this month), got greenlit by the awesome team at Knowledge Network, and here we are in the bar with 5D cameras in hand.

First up in the contest, Brandy. Brandy is a lot of things. Status 1st Nations Cree, a haul truck driver in the mines, a beautiful, confident, articulate young woman, a gentle soul and a really good singer. Her story is typical of many of the Ft. Mac oil workers we got to know.

Brandy was born on a Northern reserve, had what sounds like a pretty perfect childhood but after losing her dad at an early age struggled to adapt to life off the reserve and ended up a teen rebel in a string of foster homes. Far too often places like Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is where people with the kind of hand Brandy was dealt end up.

But by chance Brandy signed up for a heavy equipment operator's course. Fast forward a few years and incredibly, she's driving one of those ginormous haul trucks in the Sands. You know the machine -- that iconic yellow monster three stories high, costs 6 million dollars and can carry the equivalent of 7 fully loaded semi-trailer trucks.

Today Brandy is an irrepressible, self-assured, self-sufficient young woman everyone adores. And like most of the oil workers we met she also has serious misgivings about the sands. Brandy spends scarce time off wandering mountain paths in the truly magical Jasper National Park. Which seems like a pretty weird thing for an oil patch worker to do.

But that's one of the contradictions that make this place hard to figure out.

Like many of us, people here are caught between the economy-first side who charge that Greens are naive hypocrites who just don't get what needs to be done to keep people warm and fed, while the environmentalists counter charge that the business guys value the science in their jets and Bentleys, but willfully ignore the same science when it clearly proves what the true cost of flying and driving is. Many Canadians are both knowledgeable and deeply concerned about the environment. But the argument cuts a lot deeper here -- people's livelihoods are directly at stake.

When I raised the issue of climate change with Brandy her first reaction was: "My company is doing their best to produce oil cleanly and reclaim the land." But that wasn't the question I asked. And this happens a lot up here -- this answering a different question thing. Even if we could produce oil without disturbing a single blueberry bush, or emitting a puff of greenhouse gas, it's the burning of the product that our best brains are positive is bringing our species to the brink of mass extinction.

For sure, how these companies extract the oil is something we should be holding their feet to the fire over. But how the rest of us use their product is a much bigger question that is unlikely to be solved by individual action alone.

As we probe deeper, most of the people we've gotten to know here express frustration. Frustration at the looks and comments they get from strangers, relatives, friends down South when the sands comes up in conversation. You'll often hear comments like: "Stop burning it, we'll stop producing it." But what I hear when we finally get real is often a kind of helpless: "I have a family. I have debts. People depend on me."

Personally, I'm convinced we've got to stop dumping our garbage in the air now. But without some clear, responsible leadership Brandy and the other friends we made up here are going to lose their jobs and it's hard to celebrate that. So the beat goes on. Every shift a million more barrels. More sniping back and forth. No action.

Ben the enormously entertaining karaoke DJ calls the first contestant onto the stage -- Brandy's nervous. Getting up in front of this many people, this kind of crowd takes a LOT of guts. Try it. Familiar strains of music play. Oh Jeez, she's singing that?! The crowd, as they say, goes wild. Huge, tattooed guys who lumbered in on Harleys start dancing with skinny college kids, high fiving. And for the moment both sides are united in one small, trivial thing like karaoke. Maybe that's a start. How does Brandy do in the contest? What about the four other singing oil workers we follow? Stay tuned for more & check charleswilkinson.com

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