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Beyond Protest: First Nations Community Seeks Alternatives to Tar Sands Destruction

If the destruction isn't stopped in Alberta, we will be locked into a never-ending series of pipeline and refinery fights across the continent.

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Yeah, you heard right. Some executive from Syncrude got it into their head that having live buffalo, living under the stacks of their tar sands upgrader would be a good thing for the image of the tar sands industry.  A herd of the most symbolic animals of our native heritage is subject to a slow poisonous death, its members grazing in toxic fields with an apocalyptic backdrop of tailings ponds and smoke stacks billowing white clouds of toxic death overhead. 

But the absurdity doesn’t end there. The 15km loop end around this tarmageddon ends with the buffalo demonstration site, connected by a short access road to where our walk began. A few years back, some of these poor beasts were culled and distributed to elders in local First Nations. The communities were rightfully paranoid about the toxicity of the meat. Instead of eating it, they had it sent away and tested. The tests came back showing  that the meat was poisoned with heavy metals and other toxic compounds, which was present in concentrations hundreds of times above what is deemed acceptable for human consumption. 

During our preparations for the walk there were many fears discussed about the risks involved in exposing our community to the highly contaminated and dangerous environment.   Walkers were also scared that police would arrest our small group for conducting the walk and the associated ceremony. Another fear was of the tar sands workers whizzing past us at 100 km an houror more , driving dozens of semis & pick-up trucks, as well as the infamous tar sands dump trucks, which are so large they look like a Canadian three story suburban home on wheels. Before we departed, we asked ourselves “are we were putting ourselves in danger?” 

With these very real fears in our minds, we chose to listen instead to our hearts and to allow ourselves to be lead by local First Nations elders into the tar sands Highway 63 loop. What I saw on the walk generated a sick feeling in my heart that was so twisted I feel like I cannot articulate it. But I can try.

The landscape was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Taking the time to walk through what I have described was life changing. I walked past a tailings pond so big you that it covers the horizon for miles to see a 24 inch pipe coming from Syncrude spewing a meters high flow of liquid hydro-carbon waste so toxic that water fowl who land in it die within minutes. We saw from ground level and up close, the hellfires of the Suncor/Petro-Canada stacks with their 50 foot flames shooting up into the sky, day and night. Their proximity to the Athabasca river made me wonder what madness allowed Suncor to build them 500 meters away from the precious river that so many First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities depend on for water?

As we walked that first time, I pondered all of the battlefields that the emerging international movement to stop the tar sands its associated infrastructure of pipelines, refineries and shipping lanes is engaged with. I was overcome by the magnitude of our undertaking, picking a fight with the most inhumane and most richest richest corporations on the planet, big oil and their lobby. Over that day, as I put one foot in front of the other, I came to realize that if we did not focus our best efforts on stopping the emergence of the era of extreme energy that this wasteland represented here in Athabasca, we would be locked into a series of never ending pipelines shipping lane and refinery fights across the continent.

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