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Taking a Healing Walk in the Tar Sands

July 15, 2013

Getting there

I recently had the privilege of attending the fourth annual Healing Walk for the tar sands, which was held at Fort McMurray from July 4 to 6. 

It was a long drive from Vancouver, 1,600 kilometres, first up the Yellowhead Highway, following the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline route along the Thompson River, through some of the most beautiful country imaginable, and then across the northern boreal forests of Alberta. I was glad for the drive, because it was a good on-the-ground reminder of all the land put at risk by proposed pipeline projects and all the waterways that are impacted by ongoing tar sands extraction.

Mountain goats crossed the highway at Jasper; sleepy looking moose stood in the ditches watching trucks hauling heavy equipment that lumbered up the road to Fort McMurray that Edmonton locals call the “Highway of Death.” Like so much of the next three days, the road trip was a study in contrasts.

While there were few signs of the floods that had torn through Alberta in the weeks before, the recent extreme weather events were frequently referenced throughout the coming days. Less known was the fact that Enbridge’s Line 37 had leaked an estimated 1,300 barrels of oil (200,000 litres) of synthetic crude oil not far from where we camped. A hitchhiker I picked up on the way into Ft. McMurray told us he was missing the Walk to work on the clean-up. “It’s still up to my knees,” he explained.

I arrived on the sunny afternoon of July 4th, at the campsite that had been set up for the walk on the banks of Gregoire Lake in the traditional territories of the Fort McMurray First Nation. The field had been cleared earlier that day with weed-whackers and scythes wielded by volunteers from the Compassionate Earth Walk who had traveled up from San Francisco. They were just a few of the many volunteers who made this amazing event happen.

Over the course of the afternoon, the campers grew in numbers, eventually reaching close to 500, with somewhere from 600 to 1000 people walking the 14-kilometre route on Saturday. Given the massive organizing effort required to supply us all with food, fresh water and porta-potties, and shelters from the intermittent (and sometimes driving) rain, it was extraordinary that the coordination seemed so seamless and the mood so consistently buoyant.

We were a diverse group: members of First Nations from Ontario’s Six Nations to the Tsleil-Waututh Nation and the Yinka Dene Alliance from BC; seasoned environmental activists from across the continent; high profile speakers like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein; individuals who came because of their own personal commitments to oppose tar sands expansion and learn more about the effects of the tar sands right at ground zero.

On that Thursday night we arrived, just around midnight, a baby was born in the teepee that had been set up on the south side of the camp, an extraordinary omen by all accounts.

2013 Healing Walk - The Walk
Photo Credit: Ben Powless

We came together to share, listen and learn from each other, and there was a constant buzz and sense of purpose that carried through the conversations, workshops, speeches and the walk itself, which happened on Saturday. As Sue Deranger of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation explained, the decision to focus on healing rather than overt protest was made because all of us have so many connections to the tar sands, whether through our reliance on tar sands oil or community members’ reliance on tar sands jobs. And we all have a role in the work to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and establish an economy that is based on sustainable energy production.

Sharing legal strategies to fight the tar sands

On July 5, the day before the walk, the Keepers of the Athabasca, who had spearheaded the organizing, planned workshops on topics like the impacts of the tar sands, pipelines and First Nations litigation, to allow for more organized discussion of the issues.

I took part in a panel on legal strategies to combat tar sands projects along with Eriel Deranger and Crystal Lameman. Eriel and Crystal described their nations’ ongoing litigation against tar sands companies, and I discussed the efforts of First Nations in BC to stop tar sands pipelines.

Eriel, who is a community member and spokesperson for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), as well as one of the key organizers of the Healing Walk, introduced the workshop and spoke about her nation’s struggle against Shell.

A key message from both Eriel and Crystal was that the meaningful exercise of treaty rights requires protection of sufficient natural habitat for the animals and fish, and the people who depend upon them, to thrive. Like other treaty nations, including the Beaver Lake Cree, ACFN was promised the right to hunt, fish and trap in perpetuity. The ACFN, which resides downstream from tar sands operations, is currently suing Shell for violating past agreements that have threatened their treaty rights.

The community is also actively opposing two new proposed Shell tar sands mines on their land. Eriel spoke eloquently of the Crown’s failure to abide by its treaty obligations to the ACFN by inadequately monitoring and enforcing existing laws governing the tar sands activities. Now community members are finding that their water has been poisoned. The animals they depend on for sustenance are developing tumors, and community members have cancers and respiratory diseases that were formerly unknown there. Eriel spoke of the importance of guaranteeing that resources are protected and available in the future:  “resources” like food, water, medicines, clean air and the things that communities need for life – not oil.

(On July 9, 2013, after the Walk, the Joint Review Panel on the tar sands Jackpine Mine recommended that the proposed expansion be approved with conditions.)

2013 Healing Walk - Day Two - The Talk
Photo Credit: Ben Powless

Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation (BLCN) also described her nation’s David-and-Goliath constitutional struggle in the Canadian Courts.  The traditional territories of the BLCN comprise 80% of the in situ tar sands exploitation at the Athabasca and Cold Lake deposits.

Like the ACFN, BLCN is a treaty nation whose members now find they are unable to practice their constitutionally guaranteed treaty rights because of the devastating cumulative effects of extraction on their lands. BLCN launched a lawsuit attacking Canada and Alberta’s issuance of 19,000 permits for 300 projects granted to BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and Statoil without adequate consultation, aiming to stop further new industrial developments in the tar sands. The BLCN claim damages related to the degradation and destruction of their culture, the health of the boreal forest on which they depend, and the habitat that has sustained their people for generations.

For five long years, they have fought to have their case heard while the governments have countered that each of the permits would need to be challenged individually.  When the Alberta Queen’s Bench gave the BLCN’s case the go-ahead in March 2012, the federal and provincial governments appealed.  On April 30, 2013, the Alberta Court of Appeal upheld the judgment issued by Madam Justice Browne of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, rejecting the governments’ arguments and instructing them both to prepare for trial. The ACFN and the BLCN have a long and expensive road ahead, but it is hoped that these cases will establish powerful precedents to that will put the brakes on tar sands expansion.

For my part, I talked about how First Nations have been fighting to sever the tentacles of the tar sands threatening to stretch out through BC. Many of these nations in BC are relying on Indigenous law strategies – standing on their own laws and the declarations they have made banning tar sands pipelines and tankers from their territories, like the Save the Fraser Declaration. Like the treaty nations, they rely on the Canadian constitutional guarantee provided by under s. 35 that their existing Aboriginal rights are affirmed and must be protected by the Canadian government. Unlike the Alberta nations, most BC First Nations have never signed treaties with the Crown and continue to assert title to their unceded territories.

The Yinka Dene Alliance from northern BC have been at the forefront of opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and tankers project. With a quarter of the proposed pipeline route passing through their territories, they have said no to a proposed project that would contravene their Indigenous laws by putting their rivers and streams permanently at risk, and they have demanded a government-to-government project that would respect their decision-making in their territories.

The Joint Review Panel (JRP) regulatory process did not provide that opportunity, and there is no indication that the process can adequately address constitutional consultation requirements regarding Aboriginal title and rights.

Even though the JRP’s report assessing the Enbridge Northern Gateway project is not expected until the end of 2013, Enbridge is already applying for provincial permits on First Nations’ lands in BC to conduct investigative activities. The Yinka Dene Alliance have called on the BC government to do the right thing and refuse to issue any permits while First Nations’ concerns remain unaddressed. 

In addition, the Alliance have erected anti-trespassing signs and notices and vowed to treat incursions onto their lands as trespass. As a result of the actions taken by the Yinka Dene Alliance, the Enbridge Northern Gateway project is increasingly described as one that has attracted too much legal, reputational and financial risk to be built.

Walking through Mordor

On July 6, we loaded up after breakfast to travel to the walk site north of Fort McMurray. As the school buses pulled into the place where we would start, we started hearing the first news of the Lac-Mégantic derailment and explosion, as well as reports that there had been an unidentified spill in the Athabasca River resulting in a five kilometer long oily slick (this was later reported to be a blue-green algae bloom brought on by recent extreme weather events, although there remain lingering doubts among residents about its source).

In the midst of this worrying information, the elders began the day’s journey with a pipe ceremony, which was followed by a press conference where Chief Allan Adam, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Melina Laboucan-Massimo and Chief Bill Erasmus spoke.  And then we walked. By this time, the crowd had swelled to between 600 and 1,000, and at times during the walk, twenty or more trucks and buses carrying workers were stopped on the opposite side of the road to let us pass.

The land outside Fort McMurray along the highway preserves a cosmetic strip of forest that gives some idea of what the country must have looked like before it was taken over by the oil patch. Tar sands “development” requires peeling off the “overburden” – the forests and other vegetation and the top layers of soil. The result is akin to an open wound. No matter how many pictures you have seen, it’s hard to appreciate what the tar sands are really like until you’re there. The impact is visceral. The air is foul. The landscape is grey and eerily quiet, except for the constant rumbling of large trucks, the recorded faux screeching of hawks issuing from starkly rendered oversized statues and irregular reports of the air cannons designed to scare the birds from the tailings ponds that stretched in all directions. “Mordor” (the smoking wasteland from the Lord of the Rings) seemed a fitting comparator and was invoked by Michael Hale of the PipeUp Network and others as we snaked along the road.

We walked around the Syncrude project site for hours, the route punctuated by regular stops for prayer ceremonies and blessings led by elders at significant sites for each of the cardinal points.

It was a long afternoon, and an emotional one. It’s difficult to conceive of what it must be like for the people who live near these sites and work at them. If you see them every day, is it possible to forget how depressing they are? Or does that grey just become something that you internalize till it dwells in you? Hard to say.

We returned to the campsite for a feast, more speeches and more music, including Dene drumming and dancing around the fire. That night it poured with rain, and by morning the makeshift camp was an elaborate network of muddy puddles. We awoke to a new island of reeds that had appeared near the lakeshore overnight, like something out of the Life of Pi.

Home again

And then, within a matter of hours, everything was gone. By noon, the tents were packed up and the cars had vanished. For me, it took the ride back to BC to wash away the heaviness of seeing the tar sands, up close and personal. But I’m very glad for the experience. It is certainly something I won’t forget, and something I’m going to carry forward with me in my work at West Coast to oppose tar sands pipelines.

By Brenda Belak
Staff Lawyer, West Coast Environmental Law

2013 Healing Walk - Day Two - The Talk
Photo Credit: Ben Powless