Can we afford the cost of the tar sands? Reflections on participating in the Healing Walk

Jul 11, 2013

Can we afford the cost of the tar sands? Reflections on participating in the Healing Walk

On July 5th and 6th, I traveled from Montreal to Fort McMurray to participate in the fourth annual Healing Walk in the heart of tar sands country, on the rolling, hilly territory of the Fort McMurray First Nation. The Healing Walk isn't a protest. It is a ceremony, a ceremony led by Indigenous Elders to pray for the healing of the land, as hundreds of us walk the path through just a small section of the tar sands.

I've been an editor with The Dominion magazine for about five years now. The first article I wrote for the paper was for our special issue on the tar sands, published in 2007. Since then I've read dozens of pages and thousands of words about the tar sands, and pored over hundreds of images of strip mines and tailings ponds. But nothing could prepare me for the magnitude of what we saw.

The morning before we we hit the loop road we would follow around Syncrude's facilities, two pieces of news stunned the hundreds gathered for the walk: The overnight explosion of a freight train carrying crude oil, destroying the heart of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec; and the discovery of a five kilometre-long shiny slick in the Athabasca river, on Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation territory, that appeared to be a new oil spill.

The news haunted me as we walked through the barren landscape, dust and fumes stinging our eyes and accumulating on our skin and clothes. Groves of dying poplars and stunted pines dot the landscape as you approach the area. Rounding the corner, you see tailings ponds that aren't ponds at all, they are lakes: huge expanses of liquid that normally would be bursting with life. There is no movement though; these bodies of water are dead. Cannons pop, fake hawks screech and neon orange scarecrows stand guard to keep unsuspecting birds from landing on the toxic tailings ponds, full of the chemical remainders of the tar sand extraction process. Sand, dirt and clay extend around the ponds, interrupted only by highway and the massive metal complexes and stacked portable trailers that serve as the processing plants and barracks of the hundreds of workers on shift.

Four times, the walk came to a stop on the loop, once to face each cardinal point where we were led in prayer by the Elders. These ceremonies were for the land and the people, prayers for a healthier planet for future generations. If there was a wish that came up most often throughout the two days, it was that we could heal the world for the future of our children and grandchildren. As if to drive that point home, a boy was born on a buffalo robe in a teepee at our campsite at midnight as the two day gathering officially began.

In the moment of the walk, I feel overwhelmed.

It’s a feeling that hasn’t left me since returning to Montreal. It’s also a feeling of urgency, born of seeing first hand the line that we have crossed in the tar sands. It’s an urgency that many others have felt for years, especially in First Nations communities that have seen cancer rates soar and food and water sources become contaminated, from Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Ontario's Chemical Valley to the Athabasca Chipewyan in northern Alberta.

The challenge is that most Canadians are constantly being told to ignore this urgency--by oil companies, by politicians and government agencies, by the corporate media. This week alone, three particular cases come to mind.

First, as coverage has continued of the possible oil spill in the Athabasca River, we are told by government officials that the oily sleek and dead fish could be from natural causes, with "natural" pollutants having leaked into the water. Many are still skeptical of this official story, but even if we do believe it is natural, we must ask whether it would be happening without the heavy machinery moving nearby and constant shifting of the land?

Second, on July 9, news broke that Shell’s proposal to expand its Jackpine tar sands mine, allowing it to produce another 100,000 barrels of oil per day, got a green light from the Joint Review Panel analyzing the project. The recommendation will now be passed on to the federal and Alberta governments for final approval. The expansion of this mine in northern Alberta has been hotly contested by First Nations and environmental organizations because of the impact it will have on both Indigenous land use and on local wildlife and ecosystems. In its approval of the Jackpine mine, the review board recognizes that the project will have massive environmental costs that even they describe as irreparable. But, they say, that is the cost we must pay for our economic well-being.

Finally, in the case of Lac-Mégantic, we are asked to ignore the question of why there is so much oil being shipped and instead, as explained by an editorial in the Globe and Mail, to focus on how much safer pipelines are than trains, ignoring this fact: Pipelines leak less often, but when they do they leak more; trains leak more often, but usually leak less. They are different variations on the same problem; neither is better.

In all three cases--the oil spill in Fort Chipewyan, the approval of the Jackpine mine expansion, and the explosion in Lac-Mégantic--we are being told that we need to ignore the underlying issue: that we are transporting too much, extracting too much, burning too much.

It’s becoming harder to ignore, though, and it shouldn't take another Lac-Mégantic to make this clear. This is no longer a situation of inventing more regulation to allow for more production. Now it is a societal choice: do we live with the future consequences of our oil addiction, or do we put a stop to it by cutting the flow?