The 2012 Tar Sands Healing Walk. (Photo: Jesse Cardinal)

In the face of enormous destruction and intimidation, it is crucial to assert what one values, and why. The third annual Tar Sands Healing Walk met this challenge head on with courage and wisdom, as Indigenous communities asserted that it is a human responsibility to protect clean and healthy water, air and land for future generations.

Walking together on August 4 through the 14-km epicenter of the Alberta tar sands, roughly 250 people witnessed the immense industrial devastation and conducted ceremonies for the healing of the land and waters.

This year’s walk brought together community members living in Fort McMurray, many First Nations delegations and concerned citizens from as far away as the United Kingdom and the United States, and as nearby as B.C. and Alberta. Elder Nancy Scannie from Cold Lake started the walk by singing a song in honour of the four directions, and all four directions were honoured during the walk itself. Elders moved slowly with dignity and the assistance of canes. Children scampered along the route, pointing out what they called “Avatar trucks.” Support came from all four directions and converged on the traditional territories of the Fort McMurray First Nation.

Pipelines oppositon results in more walkers this year 

Solidarity came from the west in the form of eloquent speakers like Art Sterritt of the Coastal First Nations, Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Jessie Housty from the Heiltsuk First Nation and Chief Jackie Thomas of the Saik’uz First Nation. With widespread public opposition to proposed pipelines to the Pacific coast, this year saw an increase in the number of walkers, including steadfast members of the Yinka Dene Alliance who had embarked on the 2012 cross-country Freedom Train to enforce their ban on pipeline proposals in their home territories.

Solidarity came from the north in the voices of leaders like Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus, who pointed out that there are many Dene communities downstream from the Tar Sands after Fort Chipewyan, where a high number of alarming cancers and deaths have already occurred. Indigenous communities up in the Northwest Territories who share the same watershed — as the Athabasca River eventually flows into the Mackenzie River and the Arctic Ocean — are also seeing a worrisome increase in illnesses and cancers that are associated with petroleum waste and by-products.

Solidarity came from the east in the delegations from Six Nations (Ontario) and Aamijiwnaang (Ontario), who are impacted by pipeline proposals to oil refineries in Sarnia. Four proposed pipelines for tar sands bitumen pose dangers to Canada’s watersheds: the infamous Enbridge Northern Gateway, the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain (which already has a pipe running near the Fraser River’s headwaters), the Trans Canada Keystone XL (which saw the largest mass civil disobedience outside the White House in 2011) and the Enbridge Line 9 reversal (which impacts watersheds from northern Alberta all the way down to Sarnia and Hamilton).

Global solidarity 

Organizers from the Keepers of the Athabasca and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation made space for global perspectives. Solidarity came from the south in concerned citizens from places like Idaho and Kentucky, as well as from folks with Amazon Watch, who are holding Canadian oil companies like Talisman Energy accountable for the threats they pose to Indigenous communities/lands in the Amazon, where the Achuar have asked Talisman to leave.

Local speakers were peaceful, humble and focused on the purpose of the gathering. George Poitras with the Mikisew Cree asked for a moment of silence to pay respect to community members in Fort Chipewyan and Fort McMurray who had recently died. Elder Roland Woodward conducted a water ceremony that reminded walkers of why we were walking together: our shared love for and reliance upon water.

As one First Nations elder said, “We always had running water. We always had light.” She meant that what existed before the rapid expansion of industrial oil mining was a sustainable balance, a way of life that included fresh, clean running water in the rivers, as well as use of energy from the sun. Another speaker pointed out that “tough on crime” rhetoric on the part of politicians is selective and that Canada’s 1999 Environmental Protection Act is not being adequately enforced.

A look at which laws are violated and which ones respected shows a flagrant disregard for First Nations communities by neo-colonial interests in Alberta and Canada. For instance, after Alberta sold tar sands leases on reserve land belonging to the Athabascan Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), the ACFN challenged Alberta’s right to grant leases without their consent. Given that these Dene people have lived in their homelands for thousands of years before colonial invasion, it is more than reasonable for them to require substantive consultation. Yet provincial and federal courts have upheld unjust practices that do not require formal notice sent directly to the Indigenous communities whose homes are being destroyed by tar sands exploitation. Auctions of leases are merely put online and bidders can use names or number to hide their identities.

Nonetheless, the ACFN has proactively released a plan to protect seriously endangered caribou populations. They state, “We rely on these species [thunzea (woodland caribou), et’thén (barren ground caribou) and dechen yághe ejere (wood bison)] for our continued existence.” This plan includes a substantial increase in protected areas, which is economically viable and ethically necessary.

Walkers were concerned that industry and government’s plans to expand tar sands production from 1.8 million barrels of oil per day to six million barrels per day will harm not only local communities, but global communities by increasing ocean acidification, climate destabilization and toxic carcinogenic pollution carried around the earth by wind, water, tankers and pipelines.

Indigenous communities pay the price of globalization

While globalization has led to financial prosperity for the time being for some, this has too often been at the unacceptable expense of many Indigenous communities, who are paying the price with the loss of traditional homelands and the destruction of once-thriving ecosystems. The presence of over 100 companies from around the world staking claims in the Alberta Tar Sands, all wanting a piece of bitumen-fueled wealth, is one of the largest examples of global capitalism’s seductions and its dangerous traps.

What people forget, however, is that Indigenous communities protect the lands and waters not only for themselves, but for everyone’s common good. In an era of global warming, Indigenous communities are on the forefront of protecting the forests and ecosystems that are necessary to absorb, combat and balance the heated excesses of industrial emissions.

That the tar sands can bring people from around the world together, not only for short-term profit/exploitation, but also in commitment to the long-term protection of watersheds, is cause for hope. Such determination is born from necessity. As Jesse Cardinal of the Keepers of the Athabasca points out, “As long as there are tar sands, we will struggle to exist, and will need healing along with the land.”

Ethical water actions such as the healing walk invite everyone to find better ways to respect the interdependent flows of water and air that make our lives possible. In the midst of ground zero of the tar sands dead zone, the Healing Walkers remind us that the paradigm shift urgently needed to cool down the planet’s industrially-induced fever is already here — humble, honest, and strong in spirit.


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.

Photo courtesy of Jesse Cardinal.

Photo of Rita Wong

Rita Wong

Rita Wong is a poet-scholar who has written several books of poetry. She understands natural ecosystems as critical infrastructure that must be protected and cared for in order to survive climate crisis....