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

A couple years ago I was asked by the Keepers of the Athabasca to be the Master of Ceremonies for a very different kind of event. It took place in the region of the most controversial energy project on earth, the Canadian tar sands. The idea was not to have a protest, but instead to engage in a meaningful ceremonial action to pray for the healing of Mother Earth, which has been so damaged by the tar sands industry. Community members of the five First Nations of the Athabasca region and the town of Fort McMurray, tired of the consistent negativity and never ending fight with big oil and government, had made a conscientious choice to find another source of power in the struggle to protect their way of life. This was done by turning to ceremony and asking through prayer and the physical act of walking on the earth so that the hearts of those harming her (Mother Earth) through extreme energy extraction could be healed.

My journey started in to Fort McMurray, Alberta, also known as tar sands boom town. Many have described this place as the land of milk and honey, a place were you can trade five years of your life (and soul) and be financially “set up.” I met with a motley crew of activists, sovereigntists, elders and youth from Fort Chipewyan, Fort McKay, Anzac and the metro-areas of Calgary and Edmonton, as well as some allies who had traveled from as far as British Columbia, and beyond. 

The plan was to take vehicles to the beginning of the infamous Highway 63 ring through the tar sands. This 60km stretch of road has gained a notorious reputation of being the highway of death, due to the tremendous amount of people who have died in horrific auto accidents inrecent years. It is always busy with peak traffic rivalling that of downtown New York, the traffic gets especially heavy during two daily  shift changes. Then, our plan was to pray, make offerings to the four directions and walk through the heart of tar sands development as concerned Elders, parents, youth and grandchildren.


Healing Walk PSA: First Nations communities are being poisoned by the out of control growth of the tar sands. Please stand with these communities - ask Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver & Premier Alison Redford to accept the invitation to the tar sands Healing Walk. This video is made of scenes from the film "Occupy Love" directed by Velcrow Ripper. Music in these scenes by Christen Lien and Zoe Keating. Learn more at  

Highway 63 is the only road to Fort McKay Cree Nation, one of Canada's most polluted, yet richest First Nations, where water needs to be trucked in daily to meet the communities needs. The 63 loops past vast human made deserts in the form of tailings ponds wet and dry, and then past an archaic Suncor/Petro-Canada facility with black carbon stained cracking towers, belching hellfire into the morning sky. The highway finally meets the junction to get to Fort McKay and continues onward past the industrial metropolis that is Syncrude, Canada's largest tar sands operator, operated laregly by Exxon Oil .The Syncrude site is like something straight out of a science fiction movie. 

From the road, you can see glimmering stainless steel cracking towers,  which separate bitumen into synthetic oil, a massive tank farm, lego-like worker sleeping facilities stacked upon one another, and half-built pyramids of sulfur (a waste by-product of the bitumen upgrading process) being built toward the sky like two biblical towers of Babel. Then comes the last major and probably most absurd element of insanity on the Highway 63 loop: the buffalo demonstration project and reclamation site. 

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.

No, I thought, that cannot work. This beast must be smothered to death at the source.

At the beginning of the day, before the walk started, there was an argument about the right way to do the ceremony. What I know is that a bear showed itself to us at the start of our walk and that it carried with it the teachings of courage and protection. Later, an eagle flew over us and it represented the teaching of truth and unconditional love. While we walked, we made offerings of tobacco and water on four strategic points along Highway 63. 

Those offerings were to pray to each of the four directions and to call upon spirit, creator, mother earth and all of the sacred elements to both heal the land and to touch the hearts, minds and spirits of those responsible for her desecration. This was done so that the people destroying her could truly understand what they were doing... and wake up. 

After we finished that first walk, we did not get a huge global media sweep. As a matter of fact, many of us got sick with what would become known in subsequent healing walks as the tar sands healing walk flu. We also found that our biggest supporters during that first walk were the tar sands workers and Fort McKay community members honking their horns boosting our spirits with every honk. (It was a game of the children on the walk to get the drivers to honk.)

The tar sands healing walk was one of the most powerful ceremonies I have ever been to, comparable to our most sacred ceremony back home: the Sundance. Something happened when we all decided to take a break from the battle with big oil, national and provincial governments and the banks that finance them. When we decided to focus instead all of our intentions, all of our power and all of our love to heal our most sacred Mother and those that depend on her health through prayer, ceremony and the physical act of walking together, we lead with our hearts.

This year is the fourth Annual Healing Walk, which in many Native circles is a very significant number: four directions, four nations of the earth. This walk marks, the end of a cycle and perhaps the beginning of a new era in the battle against big oil. 

The Walk will take place in Fort McMurray, Alberta from the 4th to the 6th of July, 2013. The former Chief of Smith’s Landing Treaty 8 First Nation and respected Dene Elder, Francios Paulette and Athabasca Chipewyan Dene Nation Chief, Allan Adam will be speaking at a pre-conference on July 5th in the Metis settlement of Anzac. They will be joined by author, activist and founder of, Bill Mckibben, author and board member Naomi Klein, former US Vice Presidential Candidate, author, and Native American activist Winona LaDuke, and First Nations Hip Hop artist and activist, Wabanakwut (Wab) Kinew. 

The walk and ceremony for Mother Earth and her Peoples will take place on July 6th. We invite you to join us in this historic occasion by either traveling to Alberta's tar sands in person and walking side by side with us, or by holding an event or ceremony in your home territory in solidarity. 

This story also appeared on Yes! Magazine.


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