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

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Syncrude's tar sands plant in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Photo: Tim McSorley
Syncrude's tar sands plant in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Photo: Tim McSorley

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?

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thanks for this, tim.

thanks for this, tim.


Thanks for this Tim. What an amazing read.


Responsible Reporting

I would like to encourage the author of this article to do their best to present more informed reporting. There were a lot of inaccuracies in the report but I will present two as an example:

1. An independent study was conducted by the Fort Chippewan First Nations showing that the slick look to the water was caused by algae over production due to an increased amount of oxygen in the water. This was caused by recent flooding.

2. The tailings ponds your referring to never would have "been normally filled with life" because they wouldn't have existed. These holes were dug by the oil companies and and earth dams built around them to contain the tailings being poured in. After the tailings is poured it is slowly filtered through sand and the tailings water is reused in the plant.

I support your effort to reduce our dependency on oil and our emissions but I wish that you would get information before presenting it to the public as fact when you simply don't understand it.

I would also encourage you to present alternative options. No doubt when you want on this adventure, 90% of your gear and clothing was made from synthetics. What do you think these are made from? It was one thing to complain and insight fear in others. It is another to present alternatives and a path to solutions.

Good luck with your future endeavors,


Thanks for your comments

Thanks for your comments everyone. Sharmeen & Nat, I'm happy you liked the piece.

And thanks for the feedback Chris. When I wrote the piece, the news that the oily slick on the Athabasca River wasn't petrochemical still hadn't been announced. I just looked it up, and folks can read more about it here. I think what Cheif Allan Adam has to say about it sums up my thoughts on "getting it wrong" too: 

Leadership for the ACFN and the Mikisew Cree First Nation also asked several senior citizens and elders in Fort Chipewyan if they had ever seen an oil sheen this large. As of Thursday, ACFN spokesperson Eriel Deranger says none could recall seeing a natural oil slick that large.

“Our people have never seen algae blooms like this in the region and it caused great alarm to our members who rely on the lands and river systems for food, water and sustenance,” said Adam.

“Given the numerous oil spills, leaks, bursts and breaches seen in the province in recent pasts, it becomes easy to understand our concern when situations like this arise," he continues. "All appropriate precautions were taken including the shutting off of the water intake system in the community of Fort Chipewyan until conclusive results were available.”

Although the sheen was created naturally and not by an industrial accident, the ACFN says the incident is a visual reminder of climate change.

“It has become hard to ignore that the flooding and record temperatures seen here in the Athabasca, in southern Alberta and globally is an indication that things are changing and climate change is becoming a reality,” says Adam. “Now more than ever is it time that governments begin the process to work with our nations."

As for the tailings ponds, I never said that they were ever natural lakes (although there are actual occasions when natural lakes are turned into tailings ponds, and recent high-profil fights against it too).  Rather, I feel like the image that the label "ponds" gives people is that they are small in size--not the size of what we normally consider lakes (natural or human-made). And I also meant to convey that I've never seen an expanse of water that size--whether natural or human-made--without sign of life, which I found chilling. And while maybe there was no lake there before, there was certainly life on those lands.

As for the impact of tailings ponds, I'm aware of how they operate, but the poing of this piece wasn't to explain that in technical detail. But recent studies have corroborated what's been said since 2008: tailings ponds are leaking into grounwater:

And while there has been work on how to clean these ponds up, eventually, we're still a long way off from an answer and it doesn't seem like industry is very interested in coming up with something too fast, according to here and here. and even if they are cleaned up, as industry reps are admitting, they probably won't be able to turn it back into what was once there (ie, a boreal forest section cleared to make a tailings pond could be turned into a lake, but may never be returned to what it once was).

And while I'm not sure you meant to be condescening, I'm perfectly aware that I have an ecological impact: that I flew to Alberta and rode in a car to the tar sands, that I slept in a nylon tent and was wearing synthetic-blend clothes that were made in factories probably powered by coal or hydro and transported by trucks running on diesel to the store where I bought them with money made out of plastic that I took out of a bank that invests in the tar sands. I agree that it's important that we're aware of these contradictions, cut down on our ecological footprint, and propose alternatives. But not every article--including this one--is about that. 

Hey Tim, thank you for your

Hey Tim, thank you for your response. My intention was not to be condescending but I agree it read that way. My intention is to encourage journalists to present some potential theories on how to improve things. Awareness does help, I think, but I feel like we can do better. I also hate to see untrue items like the oil spill thing go uncorrected but I see where you're coming from on that one.

We can come out with all of the studies we want, true or untrue, if they don't propose solutions they aren't really going to be anything new and we shouldn't expect new results.

Do you agree with that pov?

Hi Chris. I definitely agree

Hi Chris. I definitely agree that it's important to keep journalists on their tows. Sorry I misread your tone in your comment. 

And yeah, i definitely agree that we need more solutions versus only criticizing. Like I said, it wasn't the point of my piece (I think we still need to remind ourselves how bad things are getting, in order to accentuate the urgency of what's happening), but I can see how one more piece saying "the tar sands are bad" isn't really showing us a way out. If you have thoughts on what we should be writing more about or at least looking into, solutions-wise, it would be great to get your input.

great piece

Thank you so much for this equally moving and informative article.  It's timeliness is critical to bring attention to projects such as the Line 9 coming through Montreal and to consider its inevitable future consequences.  

Thanks so much Jadis!

Thanks so much Jadis!

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