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Walking in the 'Tar Sands'

Healing the wounded earth requires many steps

By Carolyn Pogue

It looked a little like a refugee camp, with small tents pitched cheek by jowl along a narrow strip of land by Lake Gregoire. It was in a way, considering what brought hundreds of us together was a flight toward sanity in a world hell bent on using fossil fuels.

We were welcomed to Treaty Six land from all around North America: the Northwest Territories, Victoria, B.C., Texas and Vermont. We were all ages: senior to babies at the breast. We were First Nation Elders and chiefs, artists, religious people, lawyers, actors, environmentalists, university professors and grandparents — simply citizens. This was the fifth and final Healing Walk organized by The Athabasca River Keepers. My husband, former United Church Moderator Bill Phipps, noted: “This was not about stopping a pipeline, it was about the healing of the land. People came great distances because they care.” To me, the weekend felt like a living, breathing prayer."

On the first day, we listened to actor Tantoo Cardinal, activist Crystal Lameman, Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak and other speakers whose passion and tenderness for Earth were inspiring. Annette Campre from Fort McKay First Nation told a silent crowd that she hasn’t used her tap water for 10 years. It is unsafe. “In my community we bathe babies in bottled water," Campre said. I thought about donations I’ve made to Ryan’s Well, an organization that digs water wells in Africa. In Canada, we have an abundance of safe drinking water, but when there is oil in the ground, it may be poisoned, like in Fort McKay, Fort Chipewyan and other places downstream. Fracking poisons water, too. At the school on the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta, you can light the tap water on fire. Dr. John O’Connor, who was removed by the federal government from Fort Chipewyan after he spoke about detecting an abundance of cancers, also addressed us. Others spoke of skin rashes and persistent pneumonia, as well as fish with bulging eyes and skin diseases.

Healing Walk: Crystal Lameman explains protocol at the Healing Walk. Photo by Carolyn Pogue
Healing Walk: Crystal Lameman explains protocol at the Healing Walk. Photo by Carolyn Pogue
But we also heard of the unanimous and heartening Supreme Court decision that traditional Aboriginal lands can be protected under law. We ended this day dancing to the beat of Dene drummers around the sacred fire.

The next morning, we walked 13 kilometres along a highway to see the wounded Earth, tailings ponds, scarecrows, relentless canons and extraction plants. The drums kept our spirits up, but some could not help but weep. Seared in my memory is an image of 13-year-old Ta’Kaiya Blaney, a Sliammon First Nation actor, songwriter and singer. We stopped to rest, sitting in the grass by the roadside while Ta’Kaiya sat apart. For a long time, I watched her look out over the poisoned water at the belching smoke stacks. I imagined she was looking into her own future.

Ta’Kaiya, like many others, wore a mask during the walk; the air is foul. The grass was, too. The next morning, we saw angry red rashes on some people who sat on the grass wearing shorts.

At the end of the walk, Bill thanked the RCMP officers who had accompanied us. One said: “You guys are great. You’re doing a good thing.” And so we were. After a feast, the dancing went on half the night, sending our prayers out to the world.

Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a longtime Observer contributor. New posts of The Pogue Blog will appear on the first and third Thursday of the month. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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