Walking through the oilsands is nothing like flying over the oilsands, or driving past them.

Starting today, June 27, hundreds of First Nations people from across Alberta, Canada and the rest of the world will meet in Fort McMurray, Alberta and walk for the last time past a Syncrude upgrader, past tailings ponds and heavy haul trucks.

For the fifth year straight, we will smell the crude oil and toxic plumes, especially if the wind pushes back south. Some walkers, as in past years, will be forced to stop walking due to breathing difficulties or bloody noses.  We will walk at ground zero of the oilands, surrounded by vast oilsands mines.

Just to the north of our walk, one of the newest mines, Imperial Oil’s Kearl mine, will be the size of Washington DC when it’s completed. 


Hundreds of people marched 13 kilometres in the third annual Tar Sands Healing Walk, 2012. (Laura Osman/CBC)

On foot it starts to hit you, the size and the smell grabs at your core and leaves an indelible impact. The walk is 14 kilometres and coming around the corner at the start of the walk, seeing the massive tailings pond, the trucks lined up along the road, tears start streaming as you realize just how massive and unsustainable oilsands really are. It happens to a lot of us, this shared experience.

This year is the last healing walk, not because the oilsands will stop expanding tomorrow, but because our original goal has been achieved. First Nation communities, once isolated and at times fearful to talk about oilsands and their impacts, are no longer alone.

The Tar Sands Healing Walk — a space and place for communities to come and share their concerns about oilsands development — has been crucial to creating First Nations solidarity in communities throughout Alberta, and also the rest of Canada and the United States, where First Nations are uniting because of their shared experiences living near oilsands extraction, pipelines and refineries.

Five years ago, environmental groups, and others outside our communities, who were concerned about the oilsands, wanted protests in Fort McMurray, the heart of oilsands destruction. But, our elders said no. They wanted to ensure all walks of life could join in the event, including people who worked in the oilsands.

'The healing walk is not a protest, it is a walk to heal the land and ourselves.' - Melina Laboucan-Massimo and Eriel Deranger

First, it was just people from a few communities who walked, then more communities joined in. In the third year, First Nations people from British Columbia, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Quebec and Manitoba took part. Then more still, indigenous people from chiefs to newborns, from all over Canada and the United States, sharing their stories and listening to each other.

The Healing Walk has meant that today First Nations routinely share advice, resources and knowledge about the impacts of oilsands on communities, rivers, fish, air and drinking water. It has meant three First Nations in the region joined forces in 2010 to take the federal government to court to protect caribou herds.

It has meant five nations in that Athabasca region have unanimously criticized Alberta’s Joint Oil Sands Monitoring, demanding more accountability for First Nation’s rights and culture. And, just a few weeks ago, First Nations from across Canada dominated the presence at a conference in Fort McMurray hosted by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation where Archbishop Desmond Tutu was keynote speaker.  

'When we first started the healing walk five years ago, many First Nations didn’t think people outside of their individual communities cared, much less understood what it was like to live at ground zero.' - Melina Laboucan-Massimo and Eriel Deranger

A new unity has emerged in the fight to slow oilsands, to demand answers for the health problems we suffer and to reclaim our rights.

When we first started the healing walk five years ago, many First Nations didn’t think people outside of their individual communities cared, much less understood what it was like to live at ground zero.  “We’re just a downstream community. We’re expendable,” was a common sentiment.

But little did we know. We had yet to discover, then, the power of a walk.

Eriel Deranger of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Melina Laboucan-Massimo of the Lubicon Cree First Nation are two of the founding organizers of the Healing Walk.