If the goal of the 2012 Healing Walk through the tar sands was to educate the progressive movement that human rights issues are a critical element of the tar sands problem, largely borne by First Nations communities in the region who are poisoned every day, then the organizers should be confident they were more than successful.
More than a thousand people turned out for the 2013 in early July for the 2013 Healing Walk to gather together and pray for healing of the land, water, air, and the people themselves from the dangerous effects out of control tar sands expansion.
At the heart of the event were indigenous people, who came from all over North America to join Alberta First Nations to see for themselves the destruction and degradation they have been forced to endure. Hundreds of environmental and social advocates, and well-known public figures too, also came out in droves to accompany hundreds of local people from the Fort McMurray area.
Even those who earn their living in the tar sands voiced their concern and support. “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,” wrote Ethan Cox in The Tyee. “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.”
Those who couldn’t attend in person used the Internet and social media channels to voice their support for the Healing Walk. More than 25,000 peoplevisited the Healing Walk website, 14,000 people signed a petition asking Alberta Premier Alison Redford and federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver to join the walk (they did not), six thousand people watched an emotionally powerful video of the event, and people shared the event on social media more than 80,000 times.
The media response, too, was unprecedented. Dozens of mainstream media outlets and blogs covered the event, including international papers such as the United Kingdom’s The Guardian.
In all, the Healing Walk reached some 1.5 million people who shared Aboriginal people’s concern about the social and environmental impacts of tar sands development in Alberta.
The evening of Friday, July 5, saw powerful speeches by Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Winona LaDuke, Tzeporah Berman, and Clayton Thomas-Muller. The 14-kilometre walk through the heart of the tar sands started on Saturday, July 6, after a private sweat lodge ceremony. Hundreds walked alongside the infamous “Highway of Death,” passing the largest and most noxious tar sands mines.
“I am on the #Tarsands #HealingWalk & walking by Syncrude,” tweeted Janice Makokis, a Cree woman and indigenous scholar. “The smell in the air is AWFUL. Honestly don’t know how people can tolerate this.”
“Wanting to be able to drink clean water does not make you a terrorist,” addedChief Bob Chamberlin, the elected Chief Councilor of the Kwicksutaineuk Ah-kwa-mish First Nation and vice-president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
As if the giant mines and massive tailings ponds along the route weren’t evidence enough of the destruction being imposed on aboriginal people in the region, members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (AFCN) spotted an oily sheen on the Athabasca River that stretched for 100 kilometres on the day of the Healing Walk.
“We could see the oil residue from a plane up above on that stretch over 100 kilometres long,” AFCN Chief Allan Adam told CTV News. “Along the stretch there was oil residue that covered the whole river. The oil was about five kilometres in length.”
The same day, on the other side of the country, a train carry tar sands crude derailed and exploded in the middle of Lac Megantic, Quebec, 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Montreal. Witnesses said the accident created a giant fireball, destroying 30 blocks of this quiet little town and incinerating at least 50 people.
“This is a sacred walk because it invites us all to begin a process of healing – healing the land from violence, healing ourselves from our dependence on an economy based on that violence, and healing our deeply imperilled democracy,” Klein, writer and author of bestselling The Shock Doctrine, told The Guardian, adding that the tar sands boom is “poisoning” Canada’s politics through “escalating attacks on First Nations rights, by the dismantling of crucial environmental protections, and by the gagging of scientists.”
It is clear something must change. Let the healing continue.