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What I Learned at the Tar Sands

Healing Walk was a chance to connect with other activists, and industry workers too.

Ethan Cox 10 Jul

Ethan Cox is a journalist based in Montreal who works in print and radio, with a focus on Quebec politics and social movements. He has worked on various campaigns for the NDP in Quebec and was senior communications advisor for Brian Topp's federal leadership bid. Cox writes regularly for and Postmedia's and has freelanced for Vice Magazine and the National Post.

[Editor's note: Writer Ethan Cox participated in the fourth annual Healing Walk in Alberta July 4 – 6. The event drew more than a thousand activists who camped-out and participated in a day of workshops and ceremonies before the walk itself: an eight-hour tour across Syncrude's project site. Here is his account.]

A rental van slides off the muddy track running through the middle of our campsite, and sits at a comical 45 degree angle in the ditch. Its driver, who shall remain nameless, good-naturedly takes a ribbing for his driving skills from the assembled rubberneckers.

I hop down into the ditch, and quickly draw the conclusion that there is nothing to do but call a tow truck. But then something strange happens. Without coordination or command, the onlookers organize themselves to get the vehicle out of the ditch, and do so in less than 60 seconds flat.

Bill Erasmus, the legendary national chief of the Dene Nation, puts a foot on the raised rear-wheel and shouts "put your back into it!" as a crew of people jump into the ditch and push. At the back of the van, Tzeporah Berman, who had just come off the stage as one of the weekend's keynote speakers, hops onto the rear bumper and within moments the rear of the van is back on the road, its chagrined driver on his way. All this before a friend and I could stop laughing and taking pictures long enough to get in on the action.

I thought it was a good example of how the weekend went. The well-known and the unsung alike, shoulder to shoulder in the rain with mud to their knees, surrounded by the tragedy and devastation of the tar sands, but with spirits unbowed. Capable of accomplishing extraordinary things together.

I had this same thought on Saturday, as somewhere between 800 and a thousand of us wove our way through the tar sands in the fourth annual healing walk. My cell phone pried from my cold, clammy, Twitter-obsessed fingers by the necessity of charging its anemic battery, I stopped recounting the experience and instead just lived it. I allowed myself to fall into the rhythm of the drums and the chanting, and there, in the midst of an apocalyptic scene the likes of which I have never witnessed, I felt more at peace than I had in a long time.

"I'm here because we cannot allow the tar sands to expand, we cannot allow all the oil here to be taken out of the ground, and the best way to stop the reckless greed driving their expansion is to block off the ability of these companies to export the oil. If we block the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipelines to the West, the Keystone XL pipeline to the South and the Line 9 reversal, which we will be fighting in Quebec, we can force them to keep the oil in the soil." -- Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, former spokesperson for CLASSE.

This year's healing walk was of particular significance given the importance of the number four in indigenous culture, and because it was widely viewed as the launching pad for a summer of indigenous solidarity and resistance known as the sovereignty summer. As a result, it brought hundreds of activists from all across Canada together to stand against the rapacious greed of oil companies and short-sighted governments.

After two days of camping, speeches, workshops and camaraderie in a muddy and water-logged place outside of Fort McMurray -- known as Wood Buffalo, Alberta -- the day of the healing walk dawned with a wake-up call from Clayton Thomas-Muller, co-director of the Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign. He strode in between the tents carrying a megaphone and mischievously declaring "Get up! There's a fire. . . and it's inside your hearts!"

We boarded buses at the campsite, which quickly overflowed as attendance had far outstripped the expectations of organizers. Sitting three to a seat in the cozy confines of a school bus, we got our first sense of the tar sands as the scent of sulphur wafting through the open windows, long before we could see the tar sands themselves.

On arrival we climbed a short hill and watched as a pipe ceremony took place in the woods, serving up an all-you-can-eat buffet for the thickest swarms of mosquitos I have ever seen.

"To me the tar sands are really the epitome of this way of looking at the world which is all about compartmentalization, and telling ourselves that we can treat the earth like a machine, our bodies like a machine and just dismantling the natural world, and pretending we can put it back together again, when we obviously can't. This event is also about respecting our teachers in this fight, who have been the First Nations peoples most affected by the tar sands. It's not just that they're saying 'no', they're also offering us a 'yes', another way of seeing the world that is far less violent, that is much more respectful. To me, this event is important because it is embodying that other way of being." -- Naomi Klein, author and activist

Before departing, Clay announced over the megaphone that masks were available "to protect you from -- well, to protect you from the tar sands."

As the walk began, a persistent banging sound, reminiscent to some of tear gas canisters exploding, caught our attention. We soon learned that the noise is made by propane cannons used to scare birds away from landing on the toxic tailings ponds that dot the landscape.

We could smell it and we could hear it, but nothing prepared us for what it was like to see the tar sands. The sweeping, dystopian vistas as far as the eye could see. The tailings ponds, so innocent-looking and yet so deadly and devoid of life. The massive machines, the smokestacks bellowing clouds of poison into the atmosphere, the constant stream of heavy trucks and machinery sweeping by us on the other lane of the road we walked down. And this part of the tar sands, closest to the road and accessible, is also least damaged. We were told that as bad as what we saw was, it was nothing compared to the devastation in parts of the tar sands not accessible by public road and hidden from prying eyes.

What First Nations wisdom says is that there is a disease. We are like drug addicts. We are sick of petroleum and we need some healing. I'm not against petroleum, I am against the fact that we are compromising the future." -- Dominic Champagne, playwright and director

At one point Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the former spokesperson for the Quebec student movement, fell into step with Clayton, who guided our walk. Sensing something special, one of the many documentary crews on hand started filming the interaction, a boom mic hovering over their heads and a camerawoman slowly walking backwards in front of the two men.

Neither so much as raised an eyebrow, having clearly grown accustomed to the odd sensation of being filmed over their years in the spotlight, and they carried on with a heartfelt and genuine conversation. "I'm so impressed with the work you do Clay, you are really a tremendous natural leader," said Nadeau-Dubois. Well Gabriel, it takes one to know one, doesn't it?

Watching them discuss opportunities to bring Quebec and indigenous communities together in opposition to environmental destruction, I had an odd sense that I was witnessing a historic intersection, like watching Mackenzie meet Papineau. These two will be leaders and role models to their movements for many years to come, precisely because they have no desire to lead, only to get the job done. For both, nothing less than success is acceptable. The same goes for the planet.

"This weekend is a reaction to all that's wrong in the system. So much of Idle No More has been a reaction to what's wrong. We also need to ask how do we rebuild? How do we heal?" -- Sheelah McLean, co-founder of Idle No More

I may not have been prepared for the open and pulsing wound upon the land that is the tar sands, but I at least expected it. The thing I found most shocking, and fascinating, was the level of support for the walk expressed by the drivers of the heavy transport trucks and pick-ups passing us. These men and women work in the tar sands, and in calling for it to be shut down we are threatening their very livelihood. You'd expect them to hate us. But you'd be wrong.

Time after time, so often it became more routine than novelty, a passing truck would honk out its support, drivers leaning out of windows to wave, wide open smiles on the faces of these hardened roughnecks.

It was a fascinating lesson in the economic imperative that forces these young men and women into this dirty industry. Many of the workers in the tar sands are indigenous. The brothers and sisters and fathers and uncles of the people marching with me this day. They mourn the desecration of their lands as much as anyone, but are forced to participate in it in order to put food on their children's table.

During the Vietnam War activists recall a critical mistake was made in vilifying the soldiers, who were as much victims as the Vietnamese people they were forced to fight. Let us not make the same mistake here. The tar sands workers are as much victims of this culture of runaway petro-greed as any of us, and are our potential allies in fighting to hold off their expansion.

"This event is incredibly important to the tar sands campaigns, the pipelines campaigns, the movement as a whole, because we are connecting here to the real community impacts and learning from the grace and the courage of First Nations here who are experiencing the impacts of the tar sands in their daily lives. This land deserves to live, and not be destroyed." -- Winona LaDuke, environmental activist and U.S. vice-presidential candidate.

The walk went on, along one lane of the winding road through the Syncrude facility, for over eight hours. We stopped four times, as elders offered prayers in the four directions for the healing of the land, and aside from those five minute pauses we never broke stride.

From heavy machinery, to belching smokestacks, to sprawling tailings ponds, to vistas that appeared to have been pulled straight from the Mordor of J.R.R. Tolkien's imagination, we got only the slightest glimpse of what the tar sands is about, but it was enough.

The devastation moved at least one young woman to tears, great gasping sobs for the tragedy before us. Others took strength from each other, from the tremendous spirit of resistance which coursed through our veins.

No matter how many photos you have seen, how many videos you have watched, nothing can prepare you for what we saw. For the stark reality of an earth used up and ready to be thrown away. Dead birds dotted the roadside, a child reached for a raspberry tantalizingly hanging from a bush, only to be yanked away.

Nothing here is safe. Nothing here is clean. Not the air, not the water, and not the animals. If you set out to poison the very land itself, to leave the earth scorched, and ensure that no one could ever live upon it again, you would use the tar sands as your model.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Energy, Environment

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