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A Healing Journey in the Tar Sands of Alberta

Blog by Anna Gerrard

The Fourth Annual Tar Sands Healing Walk was an event that impacted me in many ways, particularly in my personal relationship with the land and the ongoing struggle to protect it. I felt this year that I had to be there no matter what, and so I flew from Victoria, B.C. to Edmonton, Alberta where I met three unique and kind women to carpool with up to Fort McMurray. Along the way, one of these women, Patti, shared a story with us about a retreat she had been on where she learned about listening to her body’s intuition. She explained that before you can heal the land you have to heal yourself first. Janine, another woman in our convoy was very interested in water and the relationship that people have with it. These ideas that we discussed on the drive up became an echoing theme throughout the weekend.

We pitched our tents right beside Gregoine Lake, on Treaty 8 territory near Fort McMurray. The next morning, standing under tarps in the rain we listened to some excellent speakers who travelled from far and wide, including Winona Laduke, Tzeporah Berman and Bill Mckibbon. There were also workshops, including one called ‘How to Be an Ally to First Nations’. I learned that it was important to remember to not assume that I knew anything, and that reconciliation was an important part of this journey that we are on. We need to speak with each other in an honesty way, learn from one another and realize that all struggles are ultimately connected. To heal the land, we have to heal ourselves and this includes our relationships with First Nations people. That night I was lucky enough to join others who were dancing in a drum circle around the fire. I felt that we were all united somehow by the sound of the drumming and that even though a lot of us were strangers, we were connected together along this journey.

The walk in the Tar Sands was fourteen kilometers, and we walked for most of the day. Before we began, we listened to Melina Laboucan-Massimo, Crystal Lameman, Naomi Klien and others speak about the Tar Sands and about what was happening in Lac-Megantic regarding the derailment of a train carrying crude oil. We prayed for the healing of everyone involved in these ongoing, and heart breaking oil-related disasters.

At the beginning of the walk, I had multiple conversations with people concerning whether or not it would be appropriate to wear a mask during the walk. Someone said that they didn’t want to, in solidarity with those who live up here and breath in the fumes every day. Others were concerned and all too aware of the contents of the air they were breathing in, and decided on wearing one. I chose not to, a decision I regretted half way in when my chest became heavy from the thick cocktail of toxins in the air. At this year’s healing walk, I was very happy and honored to meet Osprey Orielle Lake from the Women of the Land delegation, someone who I had only known previously through online correspondence.  It was a walk alongside new friends, familiar faces and many others who have been involved in Tar Sands issues for a long time.

We stopped to pray in silence with the elders along the way, once in each cardinal direction. I prayed to the Mother Earth for forgiveness, and for all of the people who did not understand what were doing to the land and to it’s people. At one point, we stopped and stood facing a tailings lake where scarecrows in orange jump suits stood awkwardly on floating barrels. If you didn’t know better, it could have been just a lake in a valley because it was so large. It doesn’t necessarily make sense right away, because it’s hard to fathom that there was no life there, aside from the man who sat in a speedboat that was cutting across the ‘lake’. I sat in the dry and sandy dirt as air cannons popped dully in the distance, designed to scare away birds and wildlife from the tailings site. Watching that orange boat cut through the ‘water’, the reality truly hit me that this was nothing like the lakes I know and love. No children and their parents would ever swim or ride in a boat through it; there were no animals there, no plants, not a single living thing. It was a wasteland, and it was enormous. I felt my heart sink into my stomach, as my lungs felt heavy and I cried for the Earth.

I walked alongside local First Nations and talked to many people who I hadn’t met before. Tar Sands workers drove by slowly in their big trucks, and a lot of them honked to show support. I found it interesting how some of the other walkers were filming the workers, while the people in the trucks had their cameras out, aimed back at us. It was not a negative experience, and I felt like some of the people driving by were grateful for what we were doing. It would be nice if there were more Tar Sands workers walking with us, perhaps next year.

I was very moved by the conversations that I had with the people who I met along the journey, and the things that they taught me were healing on a personal level. Although I felt this healing in an individual way, the experience also reminded me of how small I was, and that my responsibility to this struggle greatly outweighed my ego’s involvement in the grand scale of these emotional, raw and incredible issues. We are connected with the land, and in order to heal on a deeper level we have a responsibility to heal each other, our connections and ourselves. About 400 people travelled to the Tar Sands not only to heal the land, but also to symbolically walk together and unite them selves along this difficult journey. As Winona Laduke said on the previous day, we need to pace ourselves because this struggle is ‘not like finishing a term paper’, there will always be more to learn and more to do. Walking to heal the land isn’t just a reaction to the wounds that have been inflicted on our Earth. It is also about forming new, healthy and valuable relationships with each other so that we can continue this journey and move towards reconciliation.

Perhaps one of the most spectacular things that happened at this year’s healing walk was the birth of a baby boy, who was born in a teepee by the lake the night before people began arriving for the walk. I met a girl named Antje and together we asked if we could enter the teepee, where we spoke to the baby’s mother. The inside of the teepee smelt strongly of pine, and she was very beautiful and calm. Many people agreed that the birth of a new baby was a great blessing, and a symbol of hope for the future.

Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation told us that the rain that weekend was a blessing, and that it was our mother cleansing herself. The presence of water was very important that weekend, but by the third night, everything in my tent was cold and damp. As much as I appreciated the healing aspects of water, I also worried that I was going to catch a cold if I didn’t find a ride into town to sleep somewhere warm. Admittedly feeling a bit ashamed to be bowing out this way, I was generously offered a ride into town by a woman named Laurita Roberts. She was so wonderful and easy to talk to, and we ended up carpooling together all the way down to Edmonton the next day. I was able to see a side of Fort McMurray that I would not have otherwise seen, and I met some of the people living there that were very kind and friendly. Laurita taught me about the high living expenses there, and showed me where some of the flooding had happened. She drove me to the greyhound station, where I caught the airport shuttle, caught my flight to Calgary, almost missed my connecting flight and finally made it back home to Vancouver Island.

On the way, I stopped and stared in awe at “Got Oil?” T-shirts and baby clothes that were on display in an airport gift shop. I could hardly believe it, and I found them rather embarrassing as a representation of Alberta for international travelers. Alberta is much, much more than it’s oil industry, just like the oil workers and people living in fort McMurray aren’t all that bad. The people living in Northern Alberta are some of the kindest, most heart-warming, wise and courageous people that I will ever meet and I am proud to be on this journey of healing with them.


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