Autumn is upon us.
I spent this past weekend in the mountains hiking through the fallen leaves, making the most of my last kayak adventure of the year, and cutting wood for the winter. Winter is coming, but before I settle into the chill of the months ahead, I wish to recall one of the days that made this summer so memorable.
On June 28 I attended the fifth and final Healing Walk. The 16 km hike was spearheaded by the Friends of the Athabasca and took us past the Syncrude and Suncor sites, sites that rest on Fort McMurray First Nations traditional territories.
It has been many years since I was last in Fort McMurray, when I first saw the vast open-pit mines. That was in more amiable days when a friend took us proudly and without difficulty onto his worksite to show my family and me the massiveness of the operation. The site was so vast that even though we drove our cars onto the service road that ran alongside the pit, we still felt like we were miles from the giant CATs and power haulers. That was nearly twenty years ago, but I never forgot.
This was my first Healing Walk, so I didn’t know what to expect. I had come off yet another hectic teaching term, and when I headed north with a car full of Greenpeace activists, I was distracted and unprepared. The term was over. I’d given my last final exam the evening before, but I still had papers and exams to mark. I arrived at Anzac First Nation without expectation or preparation. Being there was enough.
We set up our tents along the shore of Gregoire Lake, and that night as I fell asleep, I dozed to the rhythmic beat of the Dene drummers and the call of loons.
The summer heat chased me out of my tent early the next morning. It seemed as though night had not come, just a dwindling of light followed by intense morning sunshine.
The early part of the day ambled along. I took a few pictures of the lake. I grabbed a donut for breakfast. I brushed my teeth. I waited for the buses.
The Anishinaabe, Dene, Athabasca Fort Chipewyan, Beaver Lake Cree — First Nations from all over North America — were there to speak, pray, sing and walk. Volunteers and representatives from the Friends of the Athabasca, the Council of Canadians, and Greenpeace were there to show solidarity. A large contingent of activists had travelled from BC: people who had spent the past few years fighting the Northern Gateway Pipeline and now wanted to learn more about the origin of their woes. There were reporters and freelancers, like me, who were working on a plethora of book, multimedia, and film projects. There was a large contingent from Texas that had driven up en masse to see what all the fuss was about. But I wasn’t attending the walk with a group. I knew a few people, but not many. I was alone, and I have difficulty introducing myself to strangers, so I felt awkward and out of place. I waited alone for the buses that would take us to site of the Healing Walk.
The buses were lost. But there were updates: “They are on their way now.” “They’ll be here soon.”
We were all waiting, and finally I was able to push myself to mingle. I met some of the BC contingent: Sarah recognized the Thich Nhat Hanh calligraphy tattooed on my calf. She belongs to a Buddhist sangha in Vancouver. Stephen is a poet and teaches writing at SFU. Jan is also a poet and has just had her latest book of poetry released. Writers, poets, Buddhists — no wonder we all found our way to this place. We are all searching for answers.
Eventually a tired, bumping formation of yellow school buses plodded around the corner. They pulled up next to us and with military precision we found our seats. The yellow convoy reached the Crane Lake Nature Trail forty minutes later, and we were deposited next to our police escort. The sky above our heads was clear and blue, but on the Northwestern horizon a funnel of smog emerged from a distant smokestack. It rose to form a cloud that settled and stretched out along the curve of the Earth. This is what I had come to see.
When you are walking with a group of several hundred people, there is an ebb and flow to the experience — some push ahead, others lag behind. At times I found myself with one group, then another, but mostly I walked alone. We began our march in a place of peace and beauty. This was not a protest or a demonstration; it was a pilgrimage. It was a way to connect with oneself, with others and with the land. There was a sense of purpose but there was also a sense of exploration. I think each of us brought our own unique questions and complex motivations to the walk. For me it represented one small step in a journey to uncover meaning and create understanding.
Our walk began on a typical highway: hot asphalt and a steep shoulder leading to grasses and trees. As we walked the trees thinned, opening onto desert: hot white hillocks and dunes appearing through the green. Soon the trees were gone, and the desert seemed immeasurable. On the horizon rose that mushroom of smoke. It was surreal in an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world sort of way.
We stopped for prayers and the First Nations women gave water offerings to the land. Now that the Anishinaabe drums were silent, I heard the distant thunder of the air cannons meant to frighten the birds from landing in the tailings. In that moment, I knew this was a terrible place, and I recognized I was witness to a monstrous horror. Tears seeped from my eyes and I thought, “I don’t want to be the one weeping at the side of the road.” So I closed my heart…because that, I’ve learned, is the way to endure.
The problem with closing oneself off to tragedy is that it becomes habit. The thing that appears abhorrent and protest worthy one day becomes banal and commonplace the next. And I don’t want my heart to be wary, hard and cautious of hurt. I want it to be open and passionate.
But I did choose to shut away the sadness that day. Instead of allowing myself to be overcome with sorrow, I focused on my work. I was at the walk to do a job. I was there to observe, record, understand. To do that, my own emotions needed to be stored away — at least for now.
There is more to the story of the Healing Walk, but as I unpack the events of that weekend, this moment stands out. It seems to typify the enormity of my task. How can I ever reconcile my own dependence on fossil fuels with the profound sadness I feel when I’m confronted by their capacity for destruction? And more importantly, how can I encourage empathy and understanding between people who hold such vastly different worldviews and perspectives? How can I encourage dialogue between those who oppose oil sands development and those who depend on it for a living? It seems impossible.
Yet I belong to both of these groups: I belong to the group who depends upon the oil sands and I belong to the group who opposes their long-term development. I’m not blind to the dichotomy of my existence: I drive a car. My shoes are made from oil, and although my shorts are made of cotton, I know they didn’t teleport to MEC. As much as anyone, I depend on the oilsands for survival. These are truths that I acknowledge. But I also recognize that in spite of the convenience and plenty the oil sands bring to my life at this moment, there are other strategies to live and other ways to thrive.
Ultimately we must strive for a sustainable future. Climate change is no longer up for debate; we must negotiate a movement to renewables. I think this is at the crux of the problem: it’s still difficult to see how we will get there. People fear job loss. They fear loss of their homes and their lifestyles. Yet in spite of our fears, it’s a move we must make, and I think we all know it. But up until now, the people of this province have been voiceless onlookers in the push to draw bitumen from the Earth. We have not been consulted in any meaningful way. We have given our land and our resources to a select few to do with as they see fit. This is not the way forward. This does not serve Albertans in the long run.
As I prepare for the long winter to come, I reflect on the cognitive dissonance I experience with each choice I make throughout the day: each time I start my car, each time I turn up the thermostat and hear the furnace come to life. I depend upon the oil and gas industry, but I’m not content in this relationship. With its wealth, Alberta should be leading R&D in sustainable energy solutions. Our province has the potential to be a leader in the production of sustainable energy, but it isn’t. Instead we’re pouring money and effort into a tired resource that exists on borrowed time. We have the ingenuity, the intellect and the opportunity to be leaders in sustainable energy. All we lack are the will and foresight to do so.