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Denée Reaves’s Blog

Journal Entries From a Healing Walk Participator

Denée Reaves

Posted July 3, 2014 in Moving Beyond Oil, Saving Wildlife and WIld Places

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I had the honor of attending the Healing Walk in Fort McMurray Alberta this past week. 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 because of the harmful effects tar sands development has had on the land and the people. Tar sands development has been very invasive of the environment, contributing to the deforestation of the Boreal Forest, one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, using excessive amounts of water and emitting large volumes of carbon pollution into our atmosphere. The people and environment in northern Alberta are suffering due to the erosive effects tar sands development has had on their lands and on their health. While I was up there, I kept a record of my thoughts and experiences of the Healing Walk at the end of each day so that I could provide you all, my avid readers, with a firsthand account of this amazing journey.

June 26th, 2014: Day 1 of Healing Walk Trip

                Arrived safe and sound (and with all my luggage!) to Fort McMurray. Fort McMurray is a little known place, at least to most Americans, that is in far northern Alberta.  It is a classic oil boom town whose population was low in the 1970’s (about 10,000) until tar sands development drove it up to more than 60,000 residents. We flew into the town’s three-week old airport. Brand-spanking-new. Danielle Droitsch, NRDC’s Canada Project Director, and I hopped into our rental car and headed to the Sawridge Inn where we stayed. First impressions of Fort McMurray: probably the most industrialized city I’ve ever been in. Reminded me of visiting Lowell Mills in Massachusetts when I was in school. It was amazing to see the contrast between the beautiful forests and ugly cleared out sections of land from tar sands development. Made me think of scars, where there shouldn’t be any. There was dirt and dust everywhere. I saw no cars that were completely clean, and there were massive trucks with wide load signs all around us on the highway. I love my hotel room though!

We stopped by the Athabasca River where Rocky Kitsner, an NRDC reporter with OnEarth magazine, joined local experts for a tour of the river which is being impacted by tar sands development. Rocky is working on a series of videos around tar sands development and related issues such as health. That is why filming interviews on the Athabasca are so important. This river flows directly through the center of tar sands development and is a major resource for both the development and the local communities. Industry uses this water in their extraction and treating processes and the local communities use it for drinking water. Both entities using this water source have raised some very relevant concerns that the water is being polluted by tar sands development and contributing to some major health concerns in the area. The Athabasca River has also served as a transportation method for First Nations communities for thousands of years.  The river was mud colored, which was not what I was expecting and there were bugs everywhere! As bugs are unusually attracted to my blood, I am glad I’m not going on this boat ride. Well, early rise tomorrow for aerial tour of the tar sands. Off to bed!

June 27th, 2014: Day 2 of Healing Walk trip

           We went to McMurray Aviation for our 9:00 AM aerial tour. This is what we flew in:

JE 1.jpg

And I got to wear these:

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Besides all the cool equipment, the tour was very sobering. It is one thing to hear about tar sands development, but it is something totally different to be surrounded by the effects this development has caused. I felt as though all my senses were assaulted. I was shocked to see the devastation in the land that resulted from mining and drilling for tar sands. As we flew over the land I saw large tailings ponds which glistened in the sunlight due to the oil in them. In the ponds you could also see man-made scarecrows as part of the tactic to keep birds away from the deadly waters. There were also bursts of periodic cannons that helped in this effort as well. They were loud enough to give you a headache. Piles of sulfur rivaled the foundations seen at the bottom of Egyptian pyramids.  It was really galling to see the factories themselves, with pipes that released huge plumes of white smoke; smoke you could see travel all the way up to touch the clouds. The worst was the smell. It was subtle yet extremely invasive. Half way through the flight my stomach started to hurt because of it. I cannot imagine living daily in these horrible conditions. I took tons of photos which I’ve posted here.

At the Indian Beach Campsite

               Later in the day, we arrived at the Indian Beach Campsite which is where most of the Healing Walk activities took place. The road to get to this campsite is barely noticeable as it is almost completely surrounded by trees. Once you turn onto the dirt road all you see are tents and the river. This river is blue and beautiful, just as it should be. Being in such an idyllic spot really brings home what we are fighting for. There were so many people willing to help and learn and share and support the First Nations and other surrounding communities in the area that are dealing with unacceptable living conditions. Here are some emotional takeaways from the day:

  1. One woman, who was the welcoming representative from the Fort McKay First Nation, could barely speak through the tears she was choking down. She talked about how many people see the nice houses that her people are living in and assume they are prospering from tar sands development. But behind those doors, her family cannot even use tap water for basic necessities. They cannot bathe in tap water, cook with tap water, and they certainly cannot drink it. She has to bathe her children in bottled water.
  2. Jesse Cardinal, one of the amazing organizers of this event and representative from Keepers of the Athabasca, made an announcement to the camp concerning the drinking water they were providing for the campers. Apparently people were commenting on the smell and the off-taste of the water. She informed everyone that this was water trucked in from the local communities and that this was the only water they were able to drink on a daily basis.
  3. In one of the workshops, a woman from a First Nations community from the northernmost part of Canada, almost to Alaska spoke about the tragedies her people were facing from a number of issues, including off-shore drilling. If her words were not enough to move you, her passion and her tears would have certainly done the job. She told a story emphasizing the importance of uniting together for a better environment and a better life: One arrow on its own will snap, but if you combine an entire quiver, no one can break them.

The day was an amazing experience from the welcoming speeches and drumming, to the two amazing workshops I attended that were expertly led by Danielle, to the health panel featuring Dr. John O’Connor, who works as a family physician in Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan, Chief Alan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and George Poitras, CEO and former Chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation. The health panel discussed their experiences in discovering there was a serious health issue and how they were treated once they asked local and federal government for help. Dr. O’Connor especially was very instrumental in this panel as he was one of the first the one who raised the alarm about the rise in rare cancers that were affecting Fort Chipewyan residents. The Canada team at NRDC has brought him down to Washington, DC to spread the word about his efforts to address these serious health concerns.

It was the perfect day to get everyone pumped and ready for the Healing Walk tomorrow. I cannot wait!

June 28th, 2014: Day 3 of Healing Walk Trip:

                While we were on the way to Crane Lake – the start of the Healing Walk -Danielle pointed out to me the buses driving past us into Fort McMurray. There had to be at least a hundred buses. As I watched them drive past, Danielle explained to me what they were doing. Many of the people that work in Fort McMurray are not from there. They come in for the work the tar sands industry has created. A lot of these workers work shifts such as 10 days on 4 days off or 20 days on 6 days off and anywhere in between. While they are on, they live in these sad-looking barracks. My college dormitories definitely looked better than what they have to stay in. The buses ship tar sands workers in and out of town at the beginning and ends of their shifts. Unfortunately, the transient nature of these workers has contributed to less of a sense of community in the area according to some of the residents.

The Healing Walk started with a pipe ceremony and press conference. After that we were on our way. The walk completes a nine mile loop including passing by Syncrude and Suncor operations, and serves to show all those walking what tar sands development has done to the land and its people. The walk is also about showing  solidarity and support to the people who live and work and breathe right in the heart of tar sands development. Hundreds of people came from all across Canada and from many places in the United States to show that these communities are not alone in their fight.

 During the walk, I had the pleasure of talking with and meeting a number of people. One guy had driven 15 hours from British Columbia to attend the walk. He and his dog Shadow represented an organization there that supported clean water. I spent most of my time talking and walking with Dr. O’Connor’s wife, a lovely woman whom I am always happy to see. She grew up in Fort McMurray, as did her children. She was able to describe how vastly the area had changed from when she was young until now.

Along the walk route, many industry workers drove by in trucks. Many of them honked in support of our walk. The truth is, a lot of them know how treacherous this industry is, but are presented with very few choices in which to support their families.

Danielle and I had prepared for rainy and cold weather. We did not prepare for the heat we would face during this walk. Despite the temperature, I learned a lot on this journey and would not trade it for the world. The emotional impact this journey has had on me is surreal. Hearing how First Nations communities live and interact with the land really made me contemplate my relationship with nature and all that it offers us. The common victories and struggles that the local communities and those that came to support them face on a regular basis in each of our individual fights created a sense of connectivity across all boundaries that I am not sure would have existed without this experience. It drove home for me why the work that I do is so important and why people standing up for their rights are necessary no matter the difficulties associated. This trip gave me a new sense of hope and determination to continue on in this work that is so invaluable.

I can certainly say, after walking nine miles in six hours, and being sunburnt and sore, this walk and this experience was definitely worth it!

JE 3.jpgJE 4.jpg         Photo Credit: Healing Walk Flickr

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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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