A walk for healing in the Tar Sands


by Rita Wong

Recently, I had the honour of participating in a healing walk through the Alberta tar sands. Organized and led by indigenous people – and open to everyone – roughly 100 walkers trekked through a 13-kilometre loop that could be called the ground zero of Alberta’s dirty oil industry. The healing walk started auspiciously, with a black bear walking across a path in Crane Lake Park and an eagle flying overhead.

I heard testaments of the cancers that have killed family members, caused by the tar sands. George Poitras of the Mikisew Cree reminded us that, only 40 years ago, these lands were forests that provided food for many people who hunted, fished and picked berries and now it is a toxic wasteland. Filmmaker Cleo Reese spoke movingly of the urgent need to heal the Earth. Tantoo Cardinal 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.

Healing is needed. This is indisputable. Healing of people, of communities, of land and of water, all of which are related and interdependent. Even Suncor and Syncrude, which 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 and to heal the destruction of the people, animals and plants living there, and to also heal us, the witnesses and 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 occurring in northern Alberta affects us all, through global warming, the violent destruction of indigenous peoples’ way of life and the pollution of the water. This spreading knowledge is why the Bellingham 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 fiercely and constantly and the sun peeked through the clouds and smog now and then, reminding us that other forms of energy exist right there, cleaner than and equally as powerful as the dirty tar. I want a society that lives by respecting the wind, the sun, the water and the Earth.

It is not lost on me that I live in the belly of the bitumen beast and 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 and drugs, all the crutches that people use to bear the unbearable pain.

They say that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks, but led by the organizers of the healing walk, we were 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 and I would like to voice my gratitude to the walk’s organizers for their courage, foresight and perseverance.

This event was initiated by the “Keepers of the Athabasca,” who partnered with First Nations, Metis, Inuit, environmental NGOs and Watershed citizens working to the protect the Athabasca River Watershed (www.keepersofthewater.ca/athabasca). Rita Wong is a poet and the author of Monkeypuzzle and Sybil Unrest. She is currently researching the poetics of water.

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