Salesforce connection failure
Some of the features of the website may not work. Please try again later.

Field Notes From the Fifth (and Final) Tar Sands Healing Walk


This post originally appeared on West Coast Environmental Law’s Environmental Law Alert

Getting to the Tar Sands

June 28, 2014 marked the 5th and final Tar Sands Healing Walk, a grassroots event organized by local Indigenous communities in the heart of the tar sands development. This was not a protest or a march, nor was it about disrupting the work of the energy companies; it was about the people and their land and maintaining the ecological and spiritual connection to it. As Cleo Reece of Fort McMurray First Nation explained, “this walk is not just for the people, it is also for the eagles, and the bears, and the water.”

(photo: Eugene Kung)


Our hosts were the five local First Nations comprising the Athabasca Tribal Council (Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Fort McKay First Nation, Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, Fort McMurray First Nation and Mikisew First Nation) and the Metis Nation. I was grateful for the opportunity to attend along with West Coast Environmental Law staff lawyer Eugene Kung. The trip was filled with inspiring, transformative, sometimes disturbing and always thought-provoking experiences.

The Healing Walk base camp is an 18 hour drive from Vancouver, so getting there was an adventure in itself. Inspired by Winona LaDuke’s stories of riding her horses up the proposed routes of the Alberta Clipper, Keystone XL and Enbridge Sandpiper pipelinesthat we heard at the Stommish Sacred Summit, we followed the Kinder Morgan TransMountain pipeline route, from the Lower Mainland through Meritt, and Kamloops, through Jasper to Edmonton, and then on to Fort McMurray. On the way we passed at least a dozen trucks carrying giant pipes, all converging on northern Alberta.

(photo: Eugene Kung)

The lakes and cliffs of the Rockies were majestic in their beauty. The wildlife also made an appearance, with mountain goats, grizzly bears and the rare caribou gracefully ignoring gawking motorists. I was all the more disappointed to later learn that Kinder Morgan has already quietly completed the expansion of a section of its Trans Mountain pipeline going through Jasper as a separate project, so that its impacts on this precious ecosystem would not be scrutinized at the current National Energy Board (NEB) hearing. Jasper is also where news of the Tsilhqot’in decision reached us. We knew to expect this landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision regarding Aboriginal title in BC, so we hurried to get within cell reception, tethered Eugene’s laptop to his phone, and got reading. I sat in the front and read it aloud as Eugene drove, and we paused several times to excitedly discuss its implications for energy project developments. The decision certainly set a celebratory tone for the trip.

Integrated View of the Energy Industry

We arrived on site in the early morning of June 28 and were kept busy with the opening ceremony, workshops, presentations, and keynote speeches. Eugene led two workshops: one on First Nations Litigation and a second on Honouring the Treaties along with Healing Walk organizer Crystal Lameman. He also shared his legal perspective on the Tsilhqot’in decision on the main stage with the attendees, which was met with the sounds of cheers applause and laugher as we began to understand the significance of the decision.

The time between the scheduled events was filled with informal conversations, meeting new people and catching up with old friends. What quickly emerged out of this convergence of experiences for me was a more integrated view of the energy industry across North America and beyond.

As a Vancouverite, my main exposure to fossil fuels is as a transit user and occasional driver. Having lived in Burnaby during my high school years, I also had a vague awareness of the local Chevron refinery at the base of Burnaby Mountain. With the proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline and its seven-fold increase in tankers carrying diluted bitumen through the Burrard Inlet, and with the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline stopping abruptly at the treacherous Douglas Channel, people have rightly been focusing on the dangers of tanker traffic in ocean waters. Further downstream, we can consider what happens to the bitumen once it leaves the West Coast, what refining processes it has to go through and how the eventual burning of fossil fuels contributes to climate change.

The pipelines are another piece in the environmental puzzle, as they are too often sources of oil spills. Northern Gateway in particular has served as a lightning rod of environmental activism in British Columbia, because it is set to go through previously undeveloped pristine lands and by federal government’s own admission would “cause significant adverse environmental effects … for certain populations of woodland caribou and grizzly bear.” The existing Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline has spilled over 35,000 barrels of oil in 80 spills since 1961.

And all these tankers and the pipelines have a common source: the Alberta tar sands. I talked to people from as far away as Houston, Texas, who are on the receiving end of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. They told me that Houston, the busiest international port in US, already has the largest petrochemical refinery complex in the western hemisphere. A direct line from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf Coast would bring even more pollution to their hometown. We were just outside of Fort McMurray, far from our respective homes, but united in opposition to this creeping web of pipes set on exporting climate change for short term profit.

Then there are projects that are upstream of the tar sands themselves: I met a woman from the Cold Lake First Nation in northern Saskatchewan who told me of a proposal to build a nuclear reactor to power the tar sands production.

(Source: Zoltan Grossman,

Unfortunately, the National Energy Board, tasked with reviewing pipeline proposals, refuses to consider upstream and downstream effects of pipelines. The following statement in the Kinder Morgan TransMountain expansion Hearing Order is representative:

“The board does not intend to consider the environmental and socio-economic effects associated with upstream activities, the development of oil sands, or the downstream use of the oil transported by the pipeline.”

Notably, the NEB does look at the “need for [and] economic feasibility of the proposal”. A lot of evidence has been led by energy companies and accepted by the NEB on the imminent increase in the (upstream) tar sands development and on the growing (downstream) demand for Canadian bitumen overseas. This is to say, the upstream and downstream activities are indeed considered by the NEB but only insofar as they demonstrate the need for the pipeline. Meanwhile, the negative upstream and downstream effects on the environment and society are ignored. As long the NEB insists on picking and choosing which issues are relevant in such a skewed manner, the approval process will remain problematic.

Facing the Tar Sands

The Healing Walk gave us an opportunity to witness firsthand some of the devastating effects of tar sands development on the environment and people’s health. The distinction between the environment and health blurs quickly when you meet the people who rely on the land for their diet and livelihood.

Community members told stories of only being able to shower for two-minutes, for fear of developing rashes; of having to bathe children in bottled water; of pneumonia being as common as colds; of dead fish washing up on lakeshore; and of having second thoughts about sharing moose meat with family members for fear of poisoning them. These claims have been made publicly and largely ignored to date, but a new report released on July 7th affirms the link  between the tar sands, elevated levels of contaminants in the environment, and people’s health. The 3.5 year study was conducted by University of Manitoba scientists in cooperation with the affected communities and was peer reviewed by Health Canada.

The walk itself was 14km and lasted 7 hours in blazing heat. Before we set out, Chief Allen Adam of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation joked that “People here say this is the smell of money, so enjoy what you smell today.” The noxious fumes rising off the tailing ponds and wafting from the processing facilities were not enjoyable after all. People with asthma and other respiratory conditions were provided with face masks in advance. I at times resorted to covering my face with a bandana. A couple of people succumbed to the heat and the exhaustion and had to be whisked away in an ambulance. Thankfully, the organizers were well prepared with medics and first aid attendants throughout and plenty of bottled water and snacks. Organizer Jesse Cardinal suggested that we could use the physical challenge of the walk as a way to gain insight into the daily suffering of the local people.

(Photo: Eugene Kung)

The sights were also disturbing. In particular Eugene was struck by how the dried tailing ponds,  where boreal forest once stood now resembled a desert with no life. It was as if every form of life was stripped away, leaving behind a sandy scar. For me, the most haunting visual was the array of decoys around the tailing ponds. Their purpose is to scare away birds and avoid a repeat of the 2008 incident when 1,600 ducks landed on a Syncrude tailings pond and perished. The eerie decoys were reminiscent of the infamous Guantanamo Bay detainees, when in reality their job is to be industrial scarecrows hovering above a lake of poison.

(photo: Eugene Kung)

Importance of Ceremony

The procession made four stops, and the elders gave their prayers to the four directions. For some, the stops were just welcome respites from the heat, but for most, they were sites of healing. As Clayton Thomas-Muller explains:

“Making prayers to the four directions woke up the spirit of the land, the water and the people. It has awoken a creative force within the people that will suffocate the destructive force that is the tar sands. That is a pretty powerful warrior to deal with.”

I did not always understand all of the protocols or the significance of ceremony, and I have learned a lot from listening to, observing and following indigenous leadership at these events, especially of those who are most directly affected by the tar sands expansion. As Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said, that “we do have the same goal – a good future for our kids.” But environmental NGO’s have to be very careful not to recreate the dynamics of “benign colonialism.” If we are truly committed to environmental justice, letting Indigenous communities take the lead may do us good.


Both days ended with a feast, music and dancing, as it should be.

This was the last Healing Walk in the Athabasca region. The slogan all along has been “Stop the Destruction, Start the Healing,” and, as founding organizeres Eriel Deranger and Melina Laboucan-Massimo explain, the original goal of the event has been achieved. The Healing Walk has helped start a dialogue between communities that have long been isolated and pitted against each other by the industry. It has been a safe space for people to come together, and the solidarity is stronger than ever. It’s not a coincidence that on the morning of the Healing Walk, members of the Athabasca Tribal Council were flanked by Grand Chiefs of both Manitoba and British Columbia. As another organizer Jesse Cardinal reflects:

“Our work will continue in the territory, with the people and communities, but, will look different, so I wouldn’t really call it an end, as a new beginning.”

AMC Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, ACFN Chief Allen Adams & UBCIC Grand Chief Stewart Phillip at the opening of the walk. (photo: Eugene Kung)

There are also things we can do to carry on solidarity work in our own communities. Seeing the tar sands for myself has certainly motivated me to do so. The most basic step, as Cleo Reece suggested, is to “start walking on [our] own land.” We may not be directly affected by in-situ mining of the tar sands, but the energy industry reaches far. Look around yourselves, remember the 2007 spill in Burnaby; imagine a spill in your own community if there are proposals for pipelines or tankers to go past it; prepare for the sea level rise due to climate change; look for renewable energy alternatives and ways to wean ourselves off the energy addiction. Fall in love with the place you live in.

(photo: Eugene Kung)

By Ana Chamgoulova, Summer Law Student Volunteer at West Coast Environmental Law

Leave A Comment