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A Healing Walk through Canada’s Tar Sands Dystopia

Cree organizer Clayton Thomas-Muller provides a deeply personal account of a ceremonial healing walk through the broken landscape of Canada’s tar sands. This year’s walk begins July 4.

Walk to Heal the Tar Sands

The author and others participate in the Walk to Heal the Tar Sands in 2009. Photo courtesy Occupy Love / Velcrow Ripper.

A couple years ago I was asked by the Keepers of the Athabasca to be Master of Ceremonies for a unique event: the first annual walk to heal the Canadian tar sands.

It took place in the region of the most controversial energy project on earth. The idea was not to have a protest, but instead to engage in a meaningful ceremonial action to pray for the healing of Mother Earth, which has been so damaged by the tar sands industry. Members of the five First Nations of the Athabasca region and residents of the nearby town of Fort McMurray, Alberta, tired of the never-ending fight with big oil and its supporters in the Canadian government, had made a conscious choice to protect their way of life. This was done by turning to ceremony and asking through prayer and the physical act of walking on the earth for the hearts of those harming Mother Earth through extreme energy extraction to be healed.

Clayton Thomas-MullerBy extreme energy extraction, I’m talking about practices like tars sands mining and fracking, which the oil and gas industry has had to resort to now that most of the easy-to-find liquid crude is gone. By scraping the earth for fossil fuels that are mixed with sand and rock, these techniques do tremendous damage to the places where they occur.

My journey started in Fort McMurray, also know as tar sands boom town. Many have described this place as the land of milk and honey, a place were you can trade five years of your life (and soul) and be financially “set up.” I met with a motley crew of activists, elders, and youth from Fort Chipewyan, Fort McKay, Anzac, and the metro areas of Calgary and Edmonton, as well as some allies who had traveled from as far as British Columbia and beyond.

The plan was to take vehicles to the beginning of the infamous stretch of road that branches off of Highway 63 to form a ring through the tar sands. This road has gained a notorious reputation due to the many people killed in accidents there—including 46 between 2007 and 2012. Its traffic rivals that of downtown New York City, and gets especially heavy during two daily shift changes.

Our plan was to pray, make offerings to the four directions, and walk through the heart of tar sands development as concerned elders, parents, and youth.

Footage and music courtesy of the film Occupy Love, edited by Velcrow Ripper.

Highway 63 is the only road to Fort McKay Cree Nation, one of Canada's wealthiest yet most polluted First Nations, where water needs to be trucked in daily to meet the community’s needs. The highway loops past vast human-made deserts in the form of tailings ponds wet and dry, and then past an archaic Suncor/Petro-Canada facility with black carbon-stained cracking towers that belch hellfire into the morning sky. The highway finally meets the junction that leads to Fort McKay and continues onward past the industrial metropolis that is Syncrude, Canada's largest tar sands operator, operated largely by ExxonMobil.

The Syncrude site is like something straight out of a science fiction movie. From the road, you can see glimmering stainless steel cracking towers that separate bitumen into synthetic oil, a massive tank farm, lego-like worker sleeping facilities stacked upon one another, and two half-built pyramids of sulfur (a by-product of the bitumen upgrading process) being built toward the sky like modern Towers of Babel.

Then comes what is probably the most absurd element of insanity on the Highway 63 loop: the buffalo demonstration project and reclamation site.

Yeah, you heard right. Some executive from Syncrude got it into their head that having live buffalo living under the stacks of their tar sands upgrader would be a good thing for the image of the tar sands industry. A herd of the most symbolic animals of our native heritage is subject to a slow poisonous death, its members grazing in toxic fields with an apocalyptic backdrop of tailings ponds and smoke stacks billowing white clouds of toxic death overhead.

But the absurdity doesn’t end there. A few years back, some of these poor beasts were culled and distributed to elders in local First Nations. Instead of eating it, they had it sent away and tested. The tests came back showing that the meat was poisoned with heavy metals and other toxic compounds, which was present in concentrations hundreds of times above what is deemed acceptable for human consumption.

Shattered landscapes

During our preparations for the walk we discussed many fears about the risks involved in exposing our community to the contaminated and dangerous environment. Walkers were also scared that police would arrest them. Another fear was of the tar sands workers whizzing past us at 60 miles an hour or more in their semis and pickup trucks, as well as the infamous tar sands dump trucks, which are so large they look like a three story suburban home on wheels.

With these fears in our minds, we chose to listen instead to our hearts and to allow ourselves to be led by local First Nations elders into the tar sands Highway 63 loop. What I saw on the walk generated such a twisted feeling in my heart that I feel like I cannot articulate it. But I can try.

The landscape was unlike anything I had ever seen before. I walked past a tailings pond so big that it covered the horizon for miles, fed by a 24 inch wide pipe spewing a yards-high flow of liquid hydro-carbon waste so toxic that water fowl who land in it die within minutes. We saw from up close the hellfires of the Suncor/Petro-Canada stacks, with their 50-foot flames shooting up into the sky. I wondered what madness allowed Suncor to build them 500 meters away from the precious Athabasca River, which so many First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities depend on for water.

As we walked, I pondered all of the battlefields that the emerging international movement to stop the tar sands and its associated infrastructure of pipelines, refineries, and shipping lanes is engaged with. I was overcome by the magnitude of our undertaking, picking a fight with the most inhumane and wealthiest corporations on the planet. As I put one foot in front of the other, I realized that if we did not focus our best efforts on stopping the era of extreme energy that this wasteland represented, we would be locked into a series of never-ending fights against pipelines, shipping lanes, and refineries across the continent.

No, I thought, that cannot work. This beast must be smothered to death at the source.

A powerful ceremony

At the beginning of the day, before the walk started, we argued about the right way to do the ceremony. What I know is that a bear showed itself to us at the start of our walk and that it carried with it the teachings of courage and protection. Later, an eagle flew over us and it represented the teaching of truth and unconditional love.

While we walked, we made offerings of tobacco and water on four strategic points along Highway 63. We prayed to each of the four directions and to called upon spirit, creator, mother earth, and all of the sacred elements to both heal the land and to touch the hearts, minds, and spirits of those responsible for her desecration. This was done so that the people destroying her could truly understand what they were doing. And wake up.

We did not get a huge global media sweep when our walk was finished. As a matter of fact, many of us got sick with what would become known in subsequent healing walks as the tar sands healing walk flu. We also found that our biggest supporters during that first walk were the tar sands workers and Fort McKay community members honking their horns and boosting our spirits with every honk. (The children on the walk made it a game to get the drivers to honk).

The tar sands healing walk was one of the most powerful ceremonies I have ever been a part of, comparable to our most sacred ceremony back home: the Sundance.

Something happened when we all decided to take a break from the battle with big oil, national and provincial governments, and the banks that finance them. When we decided to instead focus all of our intentions, our power and our love on healing our most sacred Mother and those that depend on her health through prayer, ceremony, and the physical act of walking together, we led with our hearts.

Next healing walk is in July

This year’s Healing Walk will be number four, which in many native circles is a very significant number: four directions, four nations of the earth. This walk marks the end of one cycle and perhaps the beginning of a new one in the battle against big oil.

Healing Walk by Keepers of the AthabascaA Walk to Heal the Tar Sands
Take an 8-mile trek with indigenous groups through one of the world's largest ecological dead zones, and you might find something life-giving.

This year’s walk and associated events will take place in Fort McMurray from July 4 to 6. The former Chief of Smith’s Landing Treaty 8 First Nation and respected Dene Elder Francois Paulette and the Athabasca Chipewyan Dene Nation Chief Allan Adam will both be speaking at a pre-conference on July 5 in the Metis settlement of Anzac.

They will be joined by author, activist, and founder of 350.org Bill McKibben; author and 350.org board member Naomi Klein; former U.S. vice presidential candidate, author, and Native American activist Winona LaDuke; and First Nations hip hop artist and activist Wabanakwut (Wab) Kinew.

The walk and ceremony for Mother Earth and her Peoples will take place on July 6. We invite you to join us in this historic occasion by either traveling to Alberta's tar sands in person and walking side by side with us, or by holding an event or ceremony in your home territory in solidarity.


Clayton Thomas-Muller is a member of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, also known as Pukatawagan, in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Based out of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Clayton is the National Campaigner with the Defenders of the Land-Idle No More campaign known as Sovereignty Summer and the co-director of the Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign of the Polaris Institute. Follow him on Twitter @CreeClayton.

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