The Root Word: ForestEthics Blog

The Tar Sands Healing Walk: An Important Turning Point

Jul 9, 2013

Tar Sands Healing Walk in Alberta, Canada - Photo: Clayton Thomas-Muller

On Saturday morning I was walking through the slippery mud towards a row of school buses headed from our campsite in Alberta to the Tar Sands Healing Walk. The Healing Walk is a daylong trek around a massive tar sands processing facility, where the tarry gunk from beneath Canadian Boreal forest is squeezed into something closer to oil before transport. The journey is taken in support of First Nations being impacted by tar sands.

As I walked through the mud I was stopped by a First Nations activist named Clayton Thomas-Mueller who said, "have you heard about the train incident in Quebec?" I didn't know what he was talking about and he showed me a video on his phone with a huge fireball coming from a truly terrifying scene. I felt as if I had been transported in my mind from the beautiful waterfront campsite on a reserve south of Fort McMurray, Alberta, which was filled with hundreds of passionate local people and visitors, to a sad and dangerous place. It seemed surreal that this was happening at the same time as the Healing Walk.

As we sat on the bus, my coworker Sven Biggs and I did our best to learn more about what was happening with the limited Internet connectivity we had. Sven leaned out the window of the bus with his phone in an attempt to get better reception.

I shared what little I knew with others on the bus and, next thing you know, there we were in a place hard to describe in words. We walked for about seven hours, moving slowly behind Native elders. We stopped in each of the four directions for the elders to pray and make offerings. I took pictures of the walk and our unreal surroundings with my phone, and posted them on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook until my batteries ran out. These pictures do a better job than I could in describing the billowing plumes of smoke from the upgrader facility and the toxic tailings "ponds."
Tar Sands Healing Walk 2013
Ben West at the Tar Sands Healing Walk
What I can tell you was it smelled awful...really awful. Even with a mask on my face my throat hurt and I got a headache. I can't imagine living in this area or working in this environment. The calm, forgiving and hopeful perspective from our First Nations hosts was amazing. It felt like it gave us all strength.

The event felt like a turning point. It was an honour to be there at this historic moment in what I believe is one of most important social movements of this era—the movement to stop dirty tar sands oil. Why? Because it posions the land, the water and our communities, and spews global warning pollution into our atmosphere.

When the Healing Walk was over, my travel companions and I stayed an extra day in Fort McMurray. I’m with Zack Embree, the incredible photographer and videographer, and he is currently working on a video from the event.

While Zack worked we drove back to the scene of the Healing Walk for another look at some of the things we saw.

Later on Sunday, I spoke with reporters who wanted to know what the implications would be for British Columbia if there was a similar incident to Quebec's train disaster. I shared my concerns regarding the new dangers associated with transporting unconventional fuels like tar sands oil, which is highly corrosive and especially difficult to clean up. Later that night, I had the weird experience of watching myself on TV in a restaurant far from home while we ate dinner in town. I wasn’t sure that the days I were experiencing could have gotten any more surreal than they were.

I am writing this now as we travel back towards Edmonton in our cute little Prius. Zack's video should be done soon and we look forward to sharing it with you as soon as it is.

For the next couple days we will try to get pictures and video along the existing Kinder Morgan pipeline route and I will continue to blog about what we see. Please help spread the word and share this content. We need everyone on board against Big Oils plans—those plans don’t have the people or the planet in mind, just profit. The World Social Forum motto is “another world is possible” and it’s true. If we continue to build this movement for change anything is possible.

Ben West of ForestEthics Advocacy

By Ben West, Tar Sands Campaign Director, ForestEthics Advocacy

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