A healing walk around the tar sands dead zone

Organized and led by Indigenous people and welcome to everyone, roughly a 100 walkers trekked through a 13-kilometre loop that could be called the Ground Zero of Alberta's dirty oil industry. Photo: Jason Franson.

I had the honour of participating in a healing walk through the Alberta tar sands on Sunday, Aug. 14. Organized and led by Indigenous people and welcome to everyone, roughly a 100 walkers trekked through a 13-kilometre loop that could be called the Ground Zero of Alberta's dirty oil industry. We witnessed the images you are probably familiar with by now: the industrial plants spewing smoke into the air, the enormous tailings ponds that are deadly to all life, the moonscape denuded of trees or anything green.

Seeing the devastation to the land triggered a sick feeling in my stomach, as I experienced something so immensely terrible I wondered how the land could ever heal. On my own, I think I would have shrunk down into despair or numbed myself because I felt incapable of addressing the huge, overwhelming scale of the destruction. Yet, on this walk, the sick feeling co-existed with a quietly hopeful one, invoked by the efforts of my co-walkers, as well as the many people we each knew who could not make the long journey to Fort McMurray, but who asked us to carry their wishes and prayers for the healing of the land with us. Perhaps you are one of the thousands, or millions, who would have walked with us through the tar sands if you had the means and the time to make that journey.

If you had come, you would have smelled the sulfur and tar, the toxic pollution that lingers the next day on skin and hair. You would have heard the propane-powered cannons that pop to scare off the ducks from landing in the enormous pools of poisonous water. It smelled like I was farting tar -- inhaling it, ingesting it, and eventually excreting it, while immersed in the gaseous fumes that hovered over the tar sands basin. Even now, as I write this, I feel a tightness in my lungs, and a tar residue on my palate, as though I had smoked far too much suddenly.

But I move too far ahead. Back to the walk, which began with a pipe ceremony conducted by elder Jerry Saddleback from the Hobbema Nation. I was struck by how the observers of the ceremony were also honoured and brought into community by the simple, gracious gesture of sharing a large tub of blueberries. Guided to first feed the youngest members of the assembled crowd, we were subtly reminded of our responsibility to care for future generations.

The tub of blueberries circulated once, with everyone careful not to take too much, so there would be enough for everyone. After the first round, the elder instructed us to eat more, because we had to finish the tub of blueberries. The second round, most people grabbed generous handfuls of berries, and even so, there was enough to feed some of us a third time. Because of the ceremonial context, I would say that these were the most delicious blueberries I had ever tasted -- tart ones sharpened my senses, sweet ones reaffirmed my joy in being alive, at this moment, with these people.

The healing walk started auspiciously, with a black bear sighted walking across a path in Crane Lake Park and an eagle flying wondrously overhead. There were a number of short speeches, some of which I couldn't catch completely because the speaker was quiet, or see because I was standing behind a large banner that read "Stop the destruction. Start the healing."

But I did hear testaments of the cancers that have killed family members, caused by the tar sands. George Poitras of the Mikisew Cree reminded us that, just 40 years ago, these lands were forests that provided food for many people, who hunted, fished, and picked berries on it. Now it is a toxic wasteland. Filmmaker Cleo Reese spoke movingly and tearfully of the urgent need to heal the earth. By the time actor Tantoo Cardinal spoke, I had moved into a better position to see and hear her. She invoked the importance of listening, which resonated strongly with me, and of the fact that each of us represented so many more people who wanted to be there but weren't able to make it.

And then we were steadily walking, walking, walking, for five hours or so, through the toxic smog hanging over the highway and tar sands, stopping in each of the four directions to make a prayer, an offering to the spirits of the land. As a volunteer marshal, I tried to keep people on the shoulder of the road, for we had been instructed not to block even a single lane of traffic. With heavy RCMP presence to both "protect" us from the occasional hostile passersby as well as to ensure our compliance, we moved slowly, with children, elders, able-bodied adults, a pert little dog, baby strollers, three banners buffeted by the strong Alberta winds, tired feet, sore knees, camera crews lugging tripods, media circus, grandchildren, grandparents, environmentalists, activists, and more.

We moved through the desecration, trying to reconnect to the spirit of the land, to assert that we had not given up our love for it, even when it had been exploited beyond human recognition, and, equally important perhaps, asking the land not to give up on us, in the face of the terrible violence, ignorance, and arrogance that spawned the tar sands. I do not know if we were heard by the land, but I know I carry an immense and sharp grief for what has been inflicted upon it. As walkers, it also felt like we were carrying one another, helping each other when tired or weak, encouraging each other to be as strong and clear as we could. Every so often, trucks or cars passing by would also honk in support, revealing that even in the middle of the tar sands there are people who realize the urgency of healing.

Healing is needed. This is indisputable. Healing of people, of communities, of land, of water, all of which are related and interdependent. Even Suncor and Syncrude, who are inflicting this horror on northern Alberta in close collusion with the provincial and federal governments, would acknowledge that damage has been done to the land, though they would respond with greenwashing and inadequate "reclamation" projects that will take thousands of years, if ever, to evolve into the complex biodiversity and drinkable water that has already been destroyed.

The walk was a courageous affirmation of the need to respect the land, to heal the decimation that has been inflicted on it, on the people, animals and plants living there, and on us as witnesses, reluctant "benefactors" or implicated consumers in an oil-dependent economy. The will to heal is humble and tenacious, inviting creative responses, ideas, and more actions.

It's worth considering the walk in the context of recent films that have been made such as To the Tar Sands, H2Oil, Petropolis, Land of Oil and Water, and books like Andrew Nikiforuk's Tar Sands. There is a growing awareness that the scale of devastation that is occurring in northern Alberta affects us all, through global warming, through violent destruction of indigenous people's ways of living, through pollution of the water that circles our planet in perpetual motion. This spreading knowledge is why the Bellingham, Washington, city council voted unanimously in June to avoid fuel from the Alberta tar sands. I hope more cities will follow this example.

As we walked, the wind blew fierce and constant, and the sun peeked through the clouds and smog now and then, reminding us that other forms of energy exist right there, in Alberta, that are cleaner and equally powerful to the dirty tar. I want a society that lives by respecting wind and sun and water and earth, not a society that exploits, mines, and kills the earth.

It is not lost on me that I live in the belly of the bitumen beast, that by driving and flying, I am also implicated in the very oil addiction that I am critiquing. My hands are also reluctantly dirty, black with oil and tar. But this is the first step to recovery for an addict: to acknowledge that the addiction exists. I observed various signs of addiction around Fort McMurray -- evidence of alcoholism, drugs, all the crutches that people use to bear the unbearable pain. And I realize that I am also in the ranks of the oil addicted, when I drive a car, get on an airplane, and so forth.

They say that people in glass houses shouldn't throw rocks, but what we, led by the organizers of the healing walk, are doing, is steadily chipping away at the glassy skyscraper fortresses of the petro state, refusing to accept the imperial delirium, and remembering that we are a vibrant part of the green house called Mother Earth. As Andrew Nikiforuk has observed, "The real work of transforming Canada's fossil fuel-dependent economy will not be big and glamorous. It will be humbling, yet rewarding." This work took a huge step forward with the healing walk on August 14, 2010, and I would like to voice my gratitude to the walk's organizers for their courage, foresight, and perseverance.

Rita Wong is a poet and the author of monkeypuzzle (Press Gang, 1998), forage (Nightwood, 2007) and sybil unrest (Line Books, 2009,co-written with Larissa Lai). She is currently researching the poetics of water.

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