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Inside the Tar Sands' Last Healing Walk

We sent VICE Canada's Michael Toledano to visit the final Tar Sands Healing Walk in Alberta, where Indigenous residents on the front lines of bitumen extraction in Alberta came together to pray and protest the massive continental oil projects in their...
July 8, 2014, 3:54pm

Marchers are followed by police down a highway through Syncrude's tar sands complex. All photos via the author.
At the fifth and final Tar Sands Healing Walk, indigenous communities living on the frontlines of bitumen extraction in Alberta came together to pray, and to lead a march through the grotesque epicentre of a continental oil project.

It may seem defeatist to pray in the face of an industrial behemoth like Alberta’s tar sands, but it is actually an incredible show of strength. As millennia old traditions, these prayers have survived smallpox epidemics, policies of starvation, religious bans, torture in state sanctioned residential schools, and massive environmental degradation at the hands of mining, oil, and gas industries. Praying in the heart of Alberta’s tar sands is a palpable act of defiance—a clear refusal to go extinct after centuries of attempted genocide.

Marching for hours, the Healing Walk passed by open-pit mines, fields of dead earth, lakes of poison called ‘tailings ponds,’ soviet-style worker villages, and hydrocarbon refineries. The air reeked of sulphur and diesel, and many participants complained about burning eyes, sore throats, metallic tastes, headaches, and nausea.

Dene drummers propel the march forward.
Nonetheless, we encountered only a miniscule fraction of a development that exists on an almost incomprehensible scale. Over bitumen rich areas about the size of England, communities like Peace River and First Nations like Lubicon Lake, Beaver Lake Cree, Mikisew Cree, Fort McKay, and Athabasca Chipewyan all live on the frontlines of tar sands extraction.

“You destroy the people by destroying the land,” one attendee, Amanda Lickers, summarized.

An Elder named Peter Deranger from Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), a community downstream from the tar sands, positioned Syncrude’s bitumen operations as an extension of the colonial policies that began with the arrival of the first white settlers to the Athabasca region. At first, Deranger said, settlers introduced smallpox to clear the land of natives and to enable its exploitation by the British. Now, corporations like Syncrude and Suncor flow poison into the Athabasca watershed, clearing the land for the profits of international investors.

Symbolizing their affinity, Syncrude and Canada’s flags fly side-by-side in a roadside monument, while Canada’s iconic maple leaf is embedded in Syncrude’s logo. Syncrude, Peter Deranger argued, is attempting to finish what Canada began.

From the ground, the tar sands are well hidden. In contrast to the site that the Healing Walk encircled, most mines and complexes are tucked away on private roads or obscured from view by trees and mounds of dirt, with open-pit mines and tailings ponds poking through periodically. From far away, the tailings pond reflect the sky, deceptively appearing as ordinary lakes. A number of pine forests north of Fort McMurray would be beautiful, if only the smell of tar didn’t escape through their trees.

The surface of a Syncrude tailings pond in one of their "reclamation" areas.
Accordingly, in the boomtown of Fort McMurray, a delusional ideology of greenwashing thrives. Businesses advertise environmentally conscious dry-cleaning and hairdressing services, while the municipality has proudly banned single-use plastic bags. Near city hall, a billboard celebrates the town for being “alive with sustainability.” A construction company, tasked with building a Shell-sponsored sports stadium, notes that they are “helping to make Fort McMurray the greenest city in Canada.”

At its most damaging, this greenwashing myth is propagated through the “reclamation in progress” and “reclamation area” signs that line Syncrude’s toxic waste sites, delivering an impossible promise to appease the guilt of those who facilitate the destruction of these lands.

A roadside museum display explains how Syncrude is “returning the land to a natural state.” It inaccurately defines their tailings as “a mixture of water, sand, silt, and fine clay particles,” failing to mention the millions of kilograms of arsenic, benzene, lead, mercury, toluene, and poly aromatic hydrocarbons that are dumped continuously into these ponds.

A woman stops and prays at another of Syncrude's tailings ponds.
Syncrude’s reclamation plan entails dumping gypsum, a component of plaster, into these landscapes to dry up their liquids, covering the areas with imported, non-toxic soil, and installing grass, trees, and wetland features over the buried deserts of toxic waste.

A seemingly endless procession of bottled and potable water trucks drove down the highway, as we marched through a landscape of poisonous seas. With 2.5 to four barrels of water consumed for each barrel of bitumen produced, and millions of litres of poison leaking daily into the Athabasca watershed, the tar sands are sacrificing water for petroleum. Now, petroleum is used to haul water from unpolluted sources.

More than 200 kilometres downstream from Fort McMurray, the community of Fort Chipewyan “can’t drink the water.” As former chief of the Mikisew Cree, George Poitras explained, “many Elders, hunters, fishermen, and trappers talk about how 20 years ago you could scoop water from your boat or Canoe driving on the rivers, on the lakes, without any concern… Nobody does that anymore.”

Hideously mutated fish, appearing for years in Fort Chipewyan’s waterways, may account for this change in attitude. To the Healing Walk crowd, Poitras described a recent fish kill: “Their eyes were bulging, their skin was hanging, and you could see the bones. Some of them were still alive.”

At a press conference, Poitras sat with Chief Allan Adam of ACFN and Dr. John O’Connor, a

whistleblower who first associated tar sands development with the unusual prevalence of rare cancers in Fort Chipewyan. With five new cases of cancer recently diagnosed by the town’s physician in a single day, O’Connor reiterated what he’s been saying for years: “There’s a huge burden of cancer in the community.”

Dr. John O'Connor and ACFN Chief Allan Adam speak to the press.
The governments of Canada and Alberta, he said, “have done everything they can to ignore reports that have come out” and “to minimize or explain away in a completely false way some of the studies,” attacking those who speak out with professional threats—like charges of misconduct. “It’s open season on anyone who doesn’t raise the banner of support for ongoing, unmitigated, and unfettered development,” he said, reflecting on how doctors are afraid to diagnose patients for oil related symptoms in Alberta.

“The only regulation and monitoring that’s going on right now is of people that are against development,” O’Connor said. “What they’re calling regulation and monitoring is lip service. It’s meant to look and sound good but it amounts to nothing.”

In fact, oil sands regulation is the sole responsibility of the Alberta Energy Regulator, a corporation that is “100 percent funded by industry” and chaired by a registered oil lobbyist. Under similarly relaxed public policy, Alberta’s laboratories are enabled by government to invent their own findings according to the needs of their industrial clients.

Yet, the tar sands affect communities far beyond Alberta’s jurisdiction: A network of pipelines, ports, refineries, and trains stretch across the continent to service this industry.

“That smell of refining—of tar sands mining—is something that reminds me of home,” said a Haudenosaunee activist, Amanda Lickers, referring to the stench of the Suncor refinery in Montreal. Others came from Aamjiwnaang, a First Nation surrounded by refineries and petro-chemical facilities in Ontario’s aptly named “Chemical Valley,” while others travelled from Houston, Texas, where Valera operates North America’s largest tar sands refinery.

“We have acid rain from the tar sands and it’s affecting the plant life already. It’s affecting the water,” said Candyce Paul, who travelled to the tar sands from her home in northern Saskatchewan. “You can see that the snow is no longer white in the winter; we don’t have sparkly snow anymore. There is a brown film in the springtime, not just dirty snow. I actually put out some houseplants to get washed off in the rain and they burned. That is ridiculous.”

Uniting at the Healing Walk’s campground, activists from these communities discussed strategies of tar sands resistance. One workshop highlighted anti-pipeline action, which has already played a role in stopping specific tar sands projects from being developed. Another focused on indigenous lawsuits against the tar sands, which, over the long term, threaten thousands of tar sands permits.

There was, among some, a celebratory atmosphere, and many spoke joyfully about the

Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling on Tsilhqot'in First Nation’s land claims. From the sidelines of a round dance, a woman from Fort Chipewyan watched with a long face. “We’re all going to have to move,” she told me.

Retired tar sands mining equipment, at a tourist monument to Syncrude.
In return for so much destruction, government and industry have repeatedly pledged economic development and jobs for Aboriginal communities. Yet, to Peter Deranger, an ACFN Elder, monetary wealth is little consolation for the environmental poverty that development has inflicted upon his community.

He recalled a kind of wealth, in non-capitalist terms, which the Cree, Dene, and Chipewyan people of Alberta enjoyed for thousands of years prior to the white economy. Up until the 1960s, when local industrialization began, his community could survive off of traditional foods like “moose, muskrats, buffalo, beaver, bear, caribou,” and water from the Athabasca watershed. Under these circumstances, Deranger said, “we were living in a paradise, in a state of utopia. We had no government: We were free. We had no money and nobody was poor… We were living in a state where there was no hunger. Nobody was sick.”

“There are some people who say we are not against development, but I am against development,” he concluded. “Development is only destruction, no matter which way you look at it, it’s all destruction. And jobs—jobs are slavery. They come into our country here and they make us go through residential schools, and then they want us to work for them: To destroy our land and make them rich.”

Additional reporting by Nicky Young.