Monolith meant to encourage public political participation, creator says

·4 min read

The last thing Elizabeth Williams considers herself to be is an artist. Being called an environmentalist is likewise something she doesn’t fully identify with.

When you create a 10-foot reflective pillar to draw attention to coal mining in the Rocky Mountains, however, it’s natural that people will make some assumptions.

Located on windswept prairie a stone’s throw from Maycroft campground, Elizabeth’s stainless steel monolith is an attempt to piggyback on some of the public interest in similar structures that were mysteriously being erected around the world.

“I thought this would be just a nice thing for people to go and investigate during Covid while we’re kind of in dark times,” Elizabeth says.

Garnering public attention, she explains, fits into a larger plan. The southern Alberta monolith’s purpose is to draw attention to the provincial government’s decision back in May to rescind its 1976 coal policy.

The policy imposed varying degrees of restrictions on coal development in the Alberta Rockies. Cancelling the policy has resulted in a flurry of mining companies purchasing exploratory leases and beginning the regulatory process to investigate potential coal mines.

With the monolith, Elizabeth seeks to bring awareness to this industrial change.

“It’s my attempt to create a beautiful, uplifting curiosity that just draws people’s attention to the threats facing the landscape it reflects,” she says.

While emphasizing she is neither pro-coal nor anti-industry (“Clearly, metallurgical coal is needed to make steel,” she says, pointing to the monolith), the massage therapist does describe herself as “pro due process.”

“When they made that decision and quietly announced it on a Friday before a long weekend, that’s pretty sneaky,” Elizabeth says. “It doesn’t look so good. And what was making me crazy was that people didn’t know about it — so few people were aware that this was happening.”

Raising awareness of the change became her personal mission.

“If most people want this to happen and responsible public engagement takes place, then that’s fair. That’s democracy in action, and that’s what I want to see happen.”

Unable to work due to the pandemic, Elizabeth decided to use her time to bring awareness to the policy change. Although having no previous experience, she learned some basic welding skills and contacted a friend who has a shop, borrowing their tools and expertise to create the monolith.

With landowners’ permission, she has been placing the steel structure in various locations around southern Alberta that could be adversely affected by widespread mining in the Rockies.

“If you sacrifice these mountains, there’s no snowpack, and if there’s no snowpack, there’s no water,” Elizabeth says.

“And if there’s no water then you don’t get water to the irrigators who rely on this for crop growing, you don’t get any municipality having any water downstream from here, and any livelihoods like ranchers [and] tour operators who do hunting and guiding in this area — all those jobs are sacrificed to gain jobs for mining.”

Sacrificing stable livelihoods for jobs in an industry subject to boom and bust cycles is bad math, she says. “It’s not an economic growth platform.”

Elizabeth hopes the monolith’s story will encourage people to follow her lead and step outside their comfort zones.

“I just want people to speak up. Often there’s an attitude of hopelessness about politics,” she says, but adds it doesn’t have to be that way. “If I can do this, people can write a letter. Write to your elected; speak up for what you value.”

So far, the monolith has been successful at attracting attention — good and bad.

“Don’t lick it, you’ll freeze!” Elizabeth shouts during the interview at a group of teenage boys taking selfies next to the tower. Soon, a group of women come over with their cameras just as a pickup truck rolls up.

“Taking lots of pictures?” the driver calls over to the group.

After answering in the affirmative, the driver laughs and yells back before driving away, “Good, ’cause we’re tearing it down tonight!”

Such animosity was anticipated, Elizabeth says, which is why she already has plans for a backup monolith — just in case.

The masseuse turned monolith-maker is also filming a video, which she says will feature narration in Blackfoot, given the significance mining will have on the traditional ancestral lands of the Blackfoot people.

Overall, Elizabeth hopes the monolith’s message isn’t lost in the media coverage.

“The focus isn’t the monolith itself, nor the builder,” she emphasizes. “It’s again to draw attention to the threats on these landscapes so that the public can speak to their elected about their concerns and about what they value.”

Whether that involves conservation or responsible resource extraction, she concludes, should be determined by the voice of Albertans.

More information is available on the monolith project’s Instagram account, wildstonestories, or by visiting http://bit.ly/wsStories.

Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze