To Walk; To Move

3215616This weekend marks the fifth and final Tar Sands Healing Walk in Fort McMurray, Alberta.  From across Canada, the States, and beyond, hundreds of people will band together on a spiritual passage along the Syncrude Loop, an open pit mine that is just one of several bitumen extraction facilities that are wreaking havoc on the soil, water, and air of Alberta.  Members of First Nations, environmental activists, and all kinds of concerned folks will reflect and pray together for the healing of a wounded land.  And I will be among them.

I think about the 4000 kilometer journey that has brought me, a first generation South Asian woman from New Jersey, here–and I ask myself what my role is supposed to be, in this land that isn’t mine.  To put it generously, my career as a change-maker, as a die-hard for social and environmental justice, is just getting started. I can’t really keep a cilantro plant alive, I have taken more than one long shower this week, and my only act of civil disobedience to date (an infraction pre-negotiated with park police) was absolved by thirty seconds spent in a holding cell and a $50 fine. (Need I mention that my travel and food expenses to the protest were covered by the University’s bottomless pit of alumni funds?)

I have little doubt that I want to spend my life trying to figure out how humans and the planet can once again be healthy and flourish–how to be a “steward of the land”; that’s something I’ve known since I was a kid.  But sometimes, despite my young age and fiery spirit, I feel like a washed-up activist.

I think it’s because my instinct is to demand answers.  I have this ideal of picking only battles that can be won–I want to see change overnight.  I want to subscribe only to efforts that are straight-forward and unproblematized.  This attitude deters me–and I think, many of my peers–from deep involvement in the struggle for justice in the tar sands; environmental groups seem powerful outright, but on a closer look I write them off because I decided they’re alienating people who aren’t on the left or they leave out people of color or they’re losing the “big picture” or their website is too sexy and not substantive enough.

Criticism is healthy.  But the idea that we must drive constantly forward, that every single minute must be spent in a fight for justice–that is not so healthy.

The Healing Walk is something different.  It is not a protest nor a rally; the Walk does not offer solutions or demand results.  There are no wins nor losses.  It is a reminder that things simply do not change overnight–but if we take small steps we will eventually cover ground.  We take time to be together, in the flesh, as to connect and learn from each other.  Guided by Native elders, the Healing Walk is a collective moment of reflection and prayer on the destruction that has taken place and the healing that will one day come.

For so long, I’ve wanted to do something, to be part of the movement.  I’ve read so many articles and written so many term papers, cited so many sources, and shared so many links on the tar sands and the rights of indigenous peoples.  So many words; it’s easy to let them take over reality.  But in order to be part of a movement, I need to move.

At the Healing Walk, I will take an example from those who already know that our bodies are our instruments. Hashtags do not move.  Bodies move.

Together. At the Healing Walk, hundreds of bodies will come together, and move together.  When we can feel the harm and meditate on healing in our spirits–as First Nations communities have been all along–we will know, together, what we are fighting for.  It’s not about figuring out what our individual credentials are or what we’ve contributed and achieved.  Of course, there are battles to win–in court, on the picket line, on Facebook–but we will walk because we do have the time and because it does matter.  We’ll tweet about it and Instagram it and blog about it, yes.  But most importantly, at the Healing Walk we are bodies across the land: indigenous and non, change-makers and washed-up activists.  We will feel the soil beneath our feet and the air–however noxious–in our lungs.  We will be stewards of the land together, because the struggle means nothing unless the movement is in our bones.

The Last Healing Walk to occur in Fort McMurray

Jesse Cardinal, Organizer of Healing Walk and Coordinator with Keepers of the Athabasca.

‘not abandoning spirituality, healing central to the event’

It has been decided that this will be the last healing walk that Keepers of the Athabasca and its allies will host in Fort McMurray.   The first healing walk occurred in 2010, when everything was moving fast, open pit mining was big, companies were continuing to move into the territory, in a way that proved too fast for anyone to keep up.  It was the ‘gold rush’ of the north.

The communities that have lived in this land long before a mine had ever been dug, or bitumen had even been discovered, were not prepared for what would become one of the largest industrial projects on the planet.

Many environmental groups were learning about the irreversible damage and massive environmental destruction that was occurring in the Fort Mc Murray area. They’d been rallying governments and companies, staging protests and marches, to raise awareness and slow down what was taking place.  After years of development and destruction, an idea was gifted – to take time, slow down and pray.

The organizers and environmental groups involved in the first healing walk were looking for a different way to connect the issues and mass environmental destruction to the people, land, air and living beings, and in a way that others might hear and understand, so as to create positive change.

Each year, the healing has grown, in numbers, in strength, in meaning and in hope.  Every year, there are more organizers involved who are focused on providing a healing walk that will speak to everyone who attends.  It is an event that has created a space where it is safe to share thoughts, tears, laughter, culture, prayer and hope.

From 2010 to today, we have witnessed the rapid expansion of Insitu/SAGD/CSS that now occupies much of the traditional territory in Northeast Alberta.  We have seen an oil spill occur in Cold Lake and still no one knows how to stop it.

As organizers, we realized our roles and responsibilities extend beyond Fort McMurray.  Others need our help.

In much discussion, prayer and guidance, the organizing team has decided to lend our time, energy and resources to other communities that are also in need.   This is not to forget, or move on from the issues in the Fort McMurray tar sands, but to reach out and connect with other impacted communities like Cold Lake, Beaver Lake, Peace River, Lubicon and more.

If some of you wonder, ‘are we being abandoned’ or ‘what next,’ the answer is no.

We are not abandoning the people who have become like family, people who look forward to the healing walk every year, who come to pray, cry, share, laugh and heal.

What we have been learning is that spirituality and healing are central to everything in life.  And for those of us working so hard, every day and night, we will continue honoring the need to create a peaceful way to express all of the emotions we are experiencing. As we see waters polluted, air polluted, land destroyed, living beings dying and people dying, we will continue to work and hope for a better future.  A future where we will have clean water, where there is harmony and Natural law is followed and respected.

So please come and join us at the 5th Tarsands Healing walk and share your ideas for the next part of this healing journey. It is not only ours, but yours too.

Hiy Hiy,

Jesse Cardinal

Coordinator Keepers of the Athabasca