I am proud and honoured to have been dispatched to Fort McMurray, Alberta to stand in solidarity on behalf of the Heiltsuk with all those participating in the 3rdannual Tar Sands Healing Walk. I flew from Bella Bella, BC to Fort McMurray, AB to join allies from across Canada and the USA who were walking to heal our sacred lands and waters.
On Friday afternoon, I traveled straight from the Fort McMurray airport to the Gregoire Park campground for the opening event. With just a few details tweaked – trade the lake for an ocean – the scene could have been home: elders in camp chairs around a fire, children weaving in and out of the crowd, laughter everywhere.
I don’t think I’d even set my bag down before people were reaching their hands out to shake mine, then reconsidering and greeting me with a hug instead. The usual conversations ensued: where are you from, who is your family, what is the web of possible connections we can identify from the earliest point of our meeting so that we part as friends – as family.
Slowly, speakers trickled onto the stage set near the edge of the trees. Crackling over the sound system, we heard from dozens of leaders – first from the Alberta First Nations who hosted us on their land, then from the visitors who had gathered from BC, eastern Canada, and the United States.
The real truth
I sat at the edge of a makeshift tent, rubbing yarrow between my fingers and listening to the speeches. People would come and go, stopping to greet me on their way to refill their coffee or as they descended the stage after speaking. One man settled beside me in the grass and started telling me stories.
“I grew up here”, he said. “I swam in the Athabasca sometimes. My mother always knew, and she scolded me. That residue in the river would just stick to you. Now I wouldn’t even feed fish from that river to my dogs.”
A native of Fort McMurray, he’d grown up at the edge of the Tar Sands and worked in the industry early in his adult life. “The companies tell all sorts of lies”, he insisted, “and the only reason we know is because we’ve seen different for ourselves. How many birds do they say die every year after they land in the tailing ponds? A couple hundred? I used to fish more than that out of the water every month.”
“Nobody ever contradicts those lies,” he said. “That’s all they do, they tell us lies. The real truth is these people right in front of you. What we’ve got in us is truth.”
When I was called up to speak, I hardly knew what to say. Sometimes you catch yourself in a moment and you realize all the people around you are part of the same moment as you. At times like that, what’s most beautiful is all that’s left unspoken that’s understood in spite.
Smoke and water
We all gathered on Saturday morning at Crane Lake Park, where two huge metal crane sculptures flanked the drive. As someone who has lain with the dampness of the meadow creeping into my bones while I watch Sandhill Cranes swaying in the sedges, I hope those metal birds are never all that remains as a link to my beloved living dinosaurs.
A hundred people gathered around a knot of local elders who sat on the ground in a clearing. They conducted a pipe ceremony to bless each of the participants. The smoke in my lungs made me feel strong. But the voices of those elders were drowned out, through most of the ceremony, by the constant screech of industrial noise. Their lips moved in prayer that was carried on the smoke, but their words were lost to me.
Sitting next to me was a man with his young daughter. When the pipe was passed in our direction, he looked her in the eyes and said to her, “Watch me”. He touched the pipe to the earth, and then to his heart, and then he took the smoke. Her eyes never left him, and when he handed the pipe to her, she mimicked his movements precisely. Our teachings are alive and they are passed down in the same way they’ve always been passed down.
Many of those gathered brought forward water from their homelands, and the elders mingled it all together – the collective power and purity of it was carried before us at the head of the march.
Sacred water, sacred song
We began our walk with the sacred water carried before us, led by the elders and by the drummers and singers who called our ancestors down to walk beside us. The cool morning was quickly becoming warm and bright. As we passed through the thin screen of trees alongside the highway, I walked beside an elder from Fort Chip.
“They want us to see the beauty of it”, she said. The trees passed behind us, and the first premonitions of industrial wreckage began to appear ahead. “They plant some trees, they cover it up. The beauty is just on the surface. But they already broke the heart of the land and they can’t undo that.”
As we crawled along the incredible length of a tailing pond, irregular shots interrupted the rhythm of the singers. Meant to keep the birds from landing on the sickened water, it kept me on edge as well. But the erratic shocks did nothing to shake the strides of the elders or the steady drumbeat.
The deeper we walked, the harder it became. I hardly noticed it at first, but gradually the dust clouds became as thick as the morning fog on the coast. Organizers circulated through the crowd handing out masks and water. The heat became unbearable when the wind dropped, and the billowing smokestacks in the distance made my stomach turn. What I thought were huge buildings on the horizon became, on closer look, unbelievably vast machines at rest on the side of the road. Taller than old growth, tall as the hills, and frighteningly inorganic.
As I walked, I wove in and out of crowds and they wove around me. Conversations begun in the first kilometre would pick up again halfway through the walk. As we paced our loop, the elders stopped us periodically to smudge and pray in the four directions.
The smell of sage and sweetgrass pulled me away from chemical despair at each prayer point, and the smoke the elders waved over me anchored me in spiritual space as blessed as the physical landscape was damaged. As we stopped to pray to the north, I knelt in front of an elder from Fort McKay. Her words went straight to my bones: “Pray for the strength that will someday make you one of the grandmothers who blesses the children of your people with sacred smoke”.
I drifted in and out of conversations as I walked. At one point, someone behind me said to another, “This moment that we’re in is so important”. It’s true, and what’s more, it felt true right then. The spirit of the walk is a critical reminder to seek balance. It is not enough to spot enemies; we must build alliances. It is not enough to fight battles; we must seek healing.
Traffic in both directions
We took up one side of a two-lane road. Two hundred or more marched together with banners and signs, in regalia, in Healing Walk shirts. We followed elders swinging their smoking braids of sweetgrass, behind drummers who beat out a pace for us against the heat of the day. And as we walked, a constant stream of traffic rumbled by in the opposite direction.
Most vehicles passed us in silence, without turning their heads. But a good many found small ways to honour the walk. With their arms raised in solidarity, laying on their horns, shouting encouragements out the window, the drivers of those industrial machines were a reminder that corporations might not have a conscience – but we should never forget that their employees might.
As the walk wore on, the dust and the heat deepened. My water slithered thickly down my throat and I could feel the dull ache in my back that comes from long walks on concrete when you’re normally blessed to step on earth that springs back under your feet. I realized, gradually, that my eyes were burning and my lungs felt bruised. When I understood that the grit in my teeth came from breathing the air around me, I’ve never felt so grateful as when someone handed me a mask to slip over my face.
One of the things that I’ve come to understand throughout my participation in this fight is that community doesn’t just come from the people who immediately surround you. I’ve had a privileged vantage point as I’ve watched my own community wake up to the incredible threat that Tar Sands development poses to our traditional values and ways.
I’ve watched them become strong in that knowledge together, and reach that strength out to our brothers and sisters from other Nations on the coast. I’ve watched that strength begin in the youngest generation and stretch to our elders, springing from the most locally-driven conversations to alliances that happen across huge regions.
I’ve also been blessed to build a network of support through social media, in all those who have followed along on Facebook and Twitter and other corners of the internet to make these moments communal even when you’re sending me messages of solidarity from Uganda or Japan.
The community of people walking the Healing Walk today was not confined to those of us who physically traced that path through the Syncrude oil sands. With the pipe and the water, we also mapped a spiritual path. Those of us who walked carried our own communities with us, and with the sacred drum we called down our ancestors to walk beside us too.
In Heiltsuk culture, to bear witness to good work being done is a critical role to be filled. To bear witness is to validate what’s happening before you – to commit to standing as a living record of what is carried out. I walked with the spirit of my Nation behind me. I walked with my whole huge community behind me, in the broadest sense – the sense that includes you, as the reader of this journal, and everyone who followed along through traditional and social media and kept in touch via email and text. And when I took the smoke at the beginning of the journey, I asked my grandmothers and all those who have gone on ahead to guide me. I know they were all with me today, and I know that’s why I kept walking against the ache and the heat and the dust.
In the last stretch of the walk, I was behind a pair of elders. They walked with the invincible, untouchable rhythm and grace of those who have traveled more miles than someone of my youth can comprehend. They rarely rested throughout the day, and walked at the head of our procession to guide us all.
One turned to the other and said slowly and precisely, “Change isn’t coming. It’s happening right now.” They both laughed, then joined hands to walk the last stretch together.
I know better than to question whether they’re right. You trust your grandmothers implicitly. Besides, I can feel the change in the marrow of my bones. And though I’m going home with dust in my lungs and damaged earth on the soles of my feet, I’ll hold my head high when I stand where the river meets the ocean to bless the end of my journey and wash it all away. The only part I’ll keep is that message of my hope, tied in a little knot in my heart, from the beautiful grandmothers of northern Alberta to the grandmother I must pray for the strength to someday become.
I remain deeply grateful to Melina and the Keepers of the Athabasca for inviting our Nation to stand with them – to the Alberta First Nations who welcomed me into their territory – to my Chief for entrusting me with this trip – and to my Nation for committing their messages of strength and solidarity to me. I carried them with me and I gave them freely. And I bring nothing home but love and hope.