Back row: Jon, Lina, Taylor, Shodo. Front: Laura, Aneeta
“The tar sands are growing out of control, destroying the climate for all and poisoning the water of everyone living downstream.” From the Healing Walk website.
On the evening of July 5, over 500 people gathered to camp at Indian Beach of the Fort McMurray First Nation. After an evening of rousing speeches by Bill McKibbon, Winona LaDuke and others, a huge feast of moose, venison, lentils and rice,and hours of drumming and dancing around a large central fire, we were all awoken early, piled onto school buses and driven about 40 kilometers to the Suncorp and Syncrude industrial projects of the tar sands, or “oil sands,” as it is called by the industry and government.At first we entered a “Crane Lake Reclamation Area,” developed by Suncorp as a lame facade to the devastation. Sitting down right there in the middle of the trail, one of the ceremonial leaders offered a pipe ceremony to a small circle of elders, both native and non-native. After a press event down by the main road, the 14 kilometer walk began with 4-5 elder First Nations women leading the way.
Many of us wore masks to filter the dust and fumes. A line of drummers and singers continued uninterrupted throughout the walk, alternating throughout the day. Every quarter of the way, the elders stopped to make prayers and offerings to each direction. The pace was slow and deliberate. The sky was overcast giving respite from the July sun. Despite the solemnity of the occasion and the gravity of the issues, many seemed in good spirits and the occasional passing trucker would pull his horn in support, egging on the walkers.
The most disturbing sites were the toxic tailing ponds, the biproduct of extracting the oil from the sand and the root source of much of the devastation to aqua firs, river ways and lakes in the region. Before the walk, we learned of the great tragic losses of the First Nations of the Athabasca watershed, including suspiciously high cancer rates and warnings to not drink from or hunt or fish near any of the traditional water sources on their territories. These noxious “ponds” are scattered with bright orange plastic “scarecrows” to keep the birds from landing on the surface. The continual sound of canon shots rings through the air, further effort to keep the birds and other creatures away from the deadly effluent. We also walked passed billowing smoke stacks, massive earthmoving equipment and farcical “returning to nature” areas covered with grass— a mere band-aid to the ruined earth and water below. Moving at a the slow amble to accommodate all levels, it took over eight hours to walk the full loop. While my hips and knees were killing me, several grandmothers, each in their late eighties walked the entire route, the strength of their resolve inspiring all of us.