Hope and Heart on the Tar Sands Healing Walk

Hope and Heart on the Tar Sands Healing Walk

As we began the Healing Walk on July 6th outside of Fort McMurray, Alberta, that would take us around the Mordor loop otherwise known as the Highway 63 Syncrude loop through their tailings ponds, we heard of two shocking news events that punctuated the need for healing on this issue. The first was news of the rail cars exploding with crude oil downtown in Lac-Mégantic, and the reports by Fort Chipewyan First Nations raising concerns after a sheen was spotted on the Athabasca River Saturday morning.

If we were not already sober and reflective upon entering the massive area around us dominated by the tailings ponds, then these events did it. There was a collective sense in the column of walkers of great purpose to our work that day. The day started with a pipe ceremony, and continued over the 14km as a ceremonial procession that honored the four directions and in so doing offered prayers from First Nations elders on healing, reconciliation, love and loss for their people and this land.

The tar sands (referred to by the industry as the oil sands) has become symbolic of the climate fight. This is ground zero for many people that were in last weekend’s Healing Walk, and many thousands more who could not attend.

What struck me the most by the Healing Walk was the alignment in purpose and emotion by everyone there. Everyone recognized that the First Nations people surrounding, as well as in the tar sands region, were on the front lines of both the impacts of climate change as well as the health impacts of the tar sands. The most poignant and painful stories shared over the weekend were the first-hand accounts from Lionel Lepine from Fort Chipewyan of the young people in his community dying of cancer. (While First Nations first concern is the devastation on their people and future generations through the polluted air and food supply, they recognize that the tar sands, and their communities surrounding, are ground zero of the climate fight and linking their fight with climate change groups, like tarsandssolution.org and 350.org and others, amplifies the message of protest globally.)

We also spoke with residents of Fort McMurray and I got a sense that there was recognition of the negative impacts of the tar sands and a clear need to develop more sustainably. At the same time, there was also an overriding feeling that this industry gave themselves and their families a good life in Fort McMurray, and they were grateful for that. When the organizers of the Healing Walk were asked what they would say to workers, they answered that there was no question that the tar sands created needed jobs, but that Canada could do better. As Tzeporah Berman commented: “We need good, clean, jobs that support the renewable energy sector, not jobs like this. And, we need better economic policy. Policy needs to be made in Ottawa not the oil patch.”

This is a very difficult situation; it is not black and white. I have been a tar sands activist for more than three years and I had to make this trip because it was a ceremonial healing walk; I feel desperately sad and hurt at this scar on the surface of the Earth and humanity. This walk represented exactly what we need more of, healing by witnessing, and carrying back the stories to all who will listen.

Actress and activist Tantoo Cardinal summed it up the best for me; “People need to know the truth, everything is being poisoned here. It is pure greed and there will be nothing left for my grandchildren. It does create a good lifestyle for some, who can leave, but what about the people that are from here?“

The primary lesson for me, and I think for Climate Access members, is that the emotional connection on this issue will get the most attention, not an event coordinated for the media. We will get way, way more attention by doing what we need to do, by acting from the heart. This event, a healing walk, didn’t need to be a protest march with slogans and signs; it was successful and will probably double in size next year because it was just expressing the truth of the situation.

Tzeporah Berman’s statements left us with hope though, as we ended our procession Saturday. She told us that we having an impact, things are slowing down. A turning point isn’t coming; we are living the turning point.

Margery Moore is an environmental policy writer for Bloomberg BNA (as well as executive director at the Institute for Sustainability Education & Action), she is also producing a film on climate change called ‘Wakan Tanka: Great Sprit’.

Photo by Margery Moore