"Tar Sands" or "Oil Sands"?

When I was a kid, the "tar sands" were just the "tar sands". It's what I remember everybody calling them: industry, government, media, and ordinary people alike. 

It was only after I started this project that I learned that the terms "tar sands" and "oil sands" carry specific political gravity. Industry, research and government favors the term "oil sands", while those who are openly opposed to industry tend to use the term "tar sands". 

According to this report by the Pembina Institute, the term "oil sands" came into use in the mid-1990s, as part of a deliberate strategy to improve public perception of Alberta's oil operations. I can see why the change came about: "tar" sounds dangerous: black, sticky, heavy. "Oil" sounds neutral: useful, natural.

When I started this project, I thought these two three-letter words were interchangeable: but I'm learning that one's choice (tar, or oil) can serve to communicate one's location in a complex array of issues, interests and communities. 

Words have weight, and memories have meaning. It's not without some discomfort that I've decided to keep the "Tar Sands" in my project name. It's partly out of fidelity to the location of my childhood memory: it's a clue to a story that I'm trying to hear.  It's partly out of my stubborn conviction that we must keep trying to learn and tell our stories, even when all we have to go on is a three-letter word.