I was arrested on the front lines of Clayoquot Sound, I have marched in climate protests in Ottawa, Washington, Copenhagen and Durban, South Africa. I have sat in the board rooms of major corporations arguing the merits of taking action to protect the planet. But now I find myself on the precipice of what feels like a new experience. On July 5 and 6 I will be walking a 14-kilometer road through the tar sands, supporting the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, Keepers of the Athabasca, and the people who live in the region as they take time to heal from the devastation caused by reckless tar sands development.
Unlike other times that I have toured the oil sands, this time I will not be there to do research, to do media interviews or get new photos or videos of the devastation. I will just be there. Quietly walking with my teenage niece.
Unlike many of the other things I have done in my life, this is not a protest. This is a spiritual event where elders will lead us through traditional ceremonies designed to heal the people and the land that is in peril.
The communities in Northern Alberta are caught between protecting their way of life and earning a living. The water in the rivers is contaminated and causing lesions on the fish they eat. Loss of habitat is putting the caribou, another important part of their traditional diet, at risk. The air smells toxic and there are records of increased rates of cancer. At the same time these communities need employment and many community members work in the mines or for companies that support the oil companies (cleaning, catering, etc). It is wrong for these communities, or for any communities, to have to choose between a clean and healthy place to live and employment. We should be able to have both.
The First Nations I have spoken to want to find a way to have economic development in their communities and to protect the land and water that sustains them. To open the dialogue on how to do this, the Keepers of the Athabasca and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations have invited Minister Joe Oliver and Premier Alison Redford to come to the tar sands and walk the land, breath the air, and drink the water that the local people deal with every day. So far over 7000 people across Canada have also sent invitations.
I urge Minister Oliver and Premier Redford and MPs and MLAs of all parties to join the Healing Walk and walk a mile on the shoes of the First Nations and Metis of Northern Alberta. Maybe then we will be able to stop falling into the perpetual trap of the jobs-versus-environment argument that has plagued this country for far too long, and we can start working on creating good jobs and a healthy environment.
In order to truly heal, we need to respect the rights of First Nations, we need slow down the pace and scale of development and commit to cleaning up the mess. We need our governments to stop spending millions on advertising to convince us that everything is okay and instead… to make everything okay.
This can be done by freezing the footprint of the tar sands so no more critical caribou habitat is lost. This can be done by capping the emissions that are generated by tar sands extraction. This can be done by stopping the pollution that goes into the air and the water. This can be done by working for the health of the people not the wealth of the companies.
On July 6 I am leaving my placards at home and instead packing my best walking shoes and making my way to Fort McMurray where I will stand in solidarity and walk in step with the First Nations and the Metis of northern Alberta and be part of the healing. Minister Oliver and Premier Redford: Will you join me?
Tzeporah Berman, a former head of Greenpeace International’s worldwide climate campaign and a co-founder of ForestEthics, has been leading environmental campaigns in Canada and internationally for over 20 years. She will be participating in the July 5-6 Tar Sands Healing Walk.