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Now’s the Time to Walk the Walk

By July 12, 2013February 24th, 2018No Comments

The Fourth Annual Tar Sands Healing Walk was held on July 6, 2013, on the site of tar sands development by Syncrude and Suncor near Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, Canada. At least 500 people from across North America took part in the Walk, which was not a protest march but a ceremony of spiritual resistance on behalf of Mother Earth. I drove 24 hours from my home in South Dakota to participate as a representative of Fast for the Earth. What follows are just some of my reflections on the event, which brought me as close to the Arctic Circle as I’m ever apt to get. “Masi cho” to the First Nations people who were my hosts. My photo diary can be seen here. 

In the early morning before the Tar Sands Healing Walk, I’m torn from sleep in my tent by a leg cramp. Grabbing for my calf, I choke back a howl of pain, not wanting to waken my fellow walkers in the crowded camp, which is still quiet but for drizzling rain.

That cramp, and my urge to howl, turn out to be fitting starts to a grueling, emotional day.

Emotions among us walkers are running strong even as school buses shuttle us from camp to the Walk’s starting point, around 9 am. During our ride, word starts to spread about the horrific oil tanker train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec; at least 50 people are missing, the town’s center destroyed. Soon after that comes more bad news: what appears to be a petrochemical sheen, two and a half miles long, has been spotted by native people on the nearby Athabasca River, the major waterway in the area. By the time our nearly nine-mile walk ends around seven hours later, that sheen will be 25 miles long, and still growing.

In the days after the Walk, authorities will determine that the reported sheen, which eventually extended more than 60 miles and killed many fish, was not a chemical spill after all but a sudden, blue-green algae bloom of unprecedented size, most likely caused by a combination of record-breaking rainfall and unusually warm temperatures. In other words, some observers will say, it was caused by extreme weather caused by climate change. But on the morning of the Walk, all we hear is “petrochemical sheen on the Athabasca.” That grim news sickens us all, especially those of us from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, who so depend on that river and are so desperately trying to protect it. The Athabasca is already a sick river because of tar sands development. It doesn’t need another spill.

The procession on the “Syncrude Loop.”

After a lengthy press conference, the Healing Walk begins. First Nations elders lead, followed by drummers, and now the crowd. Our pace is deliberate, and heavy. We walk for the sake of the Athabasca and so many other rivers made sick by tar sands operations. We walk for the sake of the air, so full of hydrocarbons that many of us gag and wheeze through our masks, though we’re told the air quality is much better than usual on this strangely cool, rainy day. We walk for the sake of the land that the oil companies are thoroughly despoiling but promising to “reclaim”—as if anyone believes that to be possible. We walk for the sake of the disappearing boreal forest, trees cut down in the service of oil and piled like billions of matchsticks. We walk for the sake of the animal life—the poisoned ducks; the caribou herds, now decimated and nearly extinct; the buffalo herd that Syncrude is pasturing on some of its “reclaimed” acreage but whose meat is inedible due to ingestion of toxic plants and water….

We walk for the sake of tar sands workers honking their horns in apparent sympathy with our procession—they live and work in cramped and disagreeable conditions, often separated by great distances from their loved ones, forced to work for an industry they despise because they are desperate to make a living. We walk for the sake of the First Nations, who are plainly the victims of environmental genocide, their treaty rights being violated, their strong legal claims being dismissed without consideration, their members being poisoned and sent to early graves, their ways of life being wiped away. We walk for the sake of human life around the globe, at risk because of climate change stemming from our heavy use of fossil fuels over the last couple of centuries. Of those fuels, the tar sands oil now being extracted, in this place, is the dirtiest….

A “scarecrow” meant to scare ducks.

We walk the Walk for the sake of so many, and so much. It feels like the world. We walk on.

Four times during the nearly nine-mile Walk around the Syncrude Loop the procession stops for prayer. A throng of hundreds, we turn together as one body to face one of the cardinal directions and stand together in profound silence as First Nations elders do ceremony for the healing of Mother Earth. The first time we do this, we are facing south, toward “reclaimed land.” I flinch in the stillness at the boom of a propane cannon, firing to scare ducks away from a nearby tailings pond, lest they land on the wastewater and die. A cannon sounds somewhere on the immense “pond” every five seconds. It feels like war. One of the elders doing ceremony, overcome by emotion, collapses into sobs, and is surrounded, and held, and comforted.

The longer we walk, the more I withdraw. At one point I ask my companions to forgive me but I need to be alone with my thoughts, and not to talk. They understand, and leave me to my space.

Now I find myself walking Numbers: Eventually these tar sands operations are to cover 142,000 square kilometers, or 20% of this massive province, operations roughly the size of Florida, the biggest industrial project on Earth. To produce a single barrel of tar sands oil, 4 tons of earth must be dug up and moved. Getting that one barrel of oil also requires 2-5 barrels of water. Tar sands operations consume 5 million barrels of water every single day, and 80-90% of that water ends up as toxic waste, unreclaimable, stored in tailings ponds that are already leaching into surrounding soil and waterways. Extracting and producing tar sands oil is 3-5% dirtier in terms of greenhouse gases than regular crude oil. If we allow tar sands “development” to go forward, we doom the climate and ensure that the Earth will soon become largely uninhabitable….

Sometimes I find myself walking Words, feeling in my feet so many things I’ve heard since arriving at camp, a couple of days ago:

“Pace yourself.” (Winona LaDuke, Anishinaabe Nation)

“We’re making history right now. We’re in a very humble place.” (Clayton Thomas Muller, Mathias Colomb Cree First Nation)

“`Reclamation’ is about taking back what I am, taking back my voice, taking back my heritage, my way of life, and saying no more.” (Crystal Lameman, Beaver Lake Cree First Nation)

“All places on Earth are sacred, but some are more sacred than others. All battles for the Earth are important, but some battles are more important than others. And this is one of those.” (Bill McKibben, United States)

“`Overburden’ is what industry calls whatever’s in the way of extraction and must be removed. It’s the life that gets in the way of money. To these companies, we are all overburden.” (Naomi Klein, Canada)

“We are going to fight for what we have left.” (Allan Adam, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation)

“The oil companies are disconnected from the land, from what it means to be spiritual. To be compassionate for people who have a low spiritual IQ takes a lot of work.” (Francois Paulette, Dene First Nation)

Sometimes too I walk Stories: the native man whose job every day it is to pick up dead ducks…the 18-year-old native boy who has just taken HazMat training and is now, according to his mother, using “giant tampons” to clean up yet another tar sands oil spill for Enbridge, just 17 miles from camp….

Sometimes I walk Pain—the pain of tired legs, the pain of grief over losses both private and shared, the pain of Mother Earth….

Sometimes I walk Skin: How can I, a non-native, be of greater service to native people? How can I better walk alongside them, and work with them? How can I be a more respectful, intentional ally?….

But most of all, perhaps, I walk Hope. We all walk Hope. We walk the Hope that all this rain brings, when we are wise enough to remember (at the urging of the elders) that rain is cleansing, and a reminder of where we all come from: the waters of the womb. We mustn’t resent having the rain come down on us but receive it as a blessing.

The tipi of the birth.

And then, yes, we all walk the Hope that a child brings, when born at the stroke of midnight on the eve of the Walk; born on a buffalo robe in a tipi on the shore of the lake where we walkers have camped—the happy event clearly the fulfillment of a 15-year-old prophecy, the elders say, that such would indeed happen, as a sign that “now is the time to act….”

Now is the time to act.

And what is the sign that we are ready to act?

 It is simply and wonderfully this: Together, we’re walking the Walk. And finally, in the end, together we are the Walk.

The Walk goes on, and on, and on. Feel the drumbeat, feel the rhythm, feel the steps to be taken in your body, and howl.

Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.

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