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Denée Reaves’s Blog

Embarking on a Healing Walk

Denée Reaves

Posted June 25, 2014

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Tomorrow I am traveling to northern Alberta to see with my own eyes tar sands development and to meet with local First Nations communities who are impacted.   Preparing for this Healing Walk has revealed to me the ongoing battle for rights that First Nations face in Canada today.  While we have learned that both the development of tar sands and the subsequent shipping of tar sands to and through the United States would have massive impacts on US citizens, few know how tar sands development is harming the lives of First Nations communities in Canada now.

This is where the Healing Walk comes in. This walk, which is in its fifth and final year, was started by First Nation communities in Alberta to highlight the healing that needs to take place in the area. The people in northern Alberta and environment are suffering due to the erosive effects tar sands development has had on their lands and on their health. From the first walk in 2010 until now, the number of First Nations, grassroots, environmental organizations, and volunteers that have attended the walk has grown.  The Facebook page on the Healing Walk says it best: “The Healing Walk was born out of a need to heal. The Healing walk is not a rally, march or protest, but an acknowledgement of the people and other living beings, the water, the land and the air, that is suffering due to our unhealthy energy addictions.”

Why are First Nations holding this event?  The answer is obvious to anyone who cares to take a look. Tar sands development has fundamentally changed the traditional way of life for First Nations communities by endangering animals they hold as sacred and discharging chemicals into waterways making it unsafe to drink.  There has been a concerning trend of health issues, including a rise in rare and unusual cancers. In addition to these health and environmental impacts, First Nations have also had long-term battles with the federal and provincial governments about land claims, land use, and Aboriginal rights. Unfortunately, First Nations have been diligently fighting for their rights since the 17th century and it continues today with tar sands development.

I wanted to learn more about First Nations and their concerns about tar sands development, including how tar sands development has impacted their legal and constitutional rights. So I decided to take a closer look.  The laws that help explain aboriginal rights and treaties are steeped in history.  From the Royal Proclamation in 1763 which acknowledged Aboriginal rights and land claims, to treaties which helped form First Nations governing bodies, to the Indian Act of 1867 which originally made it illegal for indigenous people to fight for land claims in court (later amended in 1951), there is a complex and complicated path to understanding these rights today.

There have been ongoing conflicts and disputes between First Nations communities and the Canadian governments who have encroached upon their lands and lives. But while it might appear at first that there are very few resources available to First Nations to fight for something that was already theirs in the first place, they have found different ways to assert their rights. And the prohibitive factors, such as major time commitments and lack of finances, have not stopped these communities from fighting.

Today, more and more First Nations are taking their concerns to court. Here are a few of the cases currently in the works:

  1. Tsleil-Waututh Nation in North Vancouver against Canadian government over Kinder Morgan pipeline review process
  2. Sucerk Creek Frist Nation, Ermineskin Cree Nation, Kainai Nation (Blood Tribe) and the Tsuu T’ina Nation against Canadian government over unsafe drinking water
  3. Beaver Lake Cree against Alberta over in situ tar sands extraction in the Cold Lake region
  4. First Nations Fighting Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline in British Columbia: The Northern Gateway pipeline was recently approved with 209 conditions, but the First Nations will continue to fight its development.

The Healing Walk will be even more poignant to me now that I understand the current situation in a little more depth. This fight is not only a fight for health and land, but also one to be recognized as a people, whose ways and traditions deserve to be respected. As a member of a people who have been similarly systematically mistreated, I commiserate with the need to be recognized and respected as I am, and not seen as a second class citizen whose health is less important than profit. I am excited and honored to walk this weekend with people who have stood strong for their rights and beliefs for time immemorial, and I cannot wait to share that experience with all of you. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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