Walkers in a Dangerous Time

It doesn’t smell as bad as I thought it would (though it does smell bad). It is surrounded by canons and clearly owns the police. Its money is heaped in deep black banks. It has broken every treaty with life. Its ceremony is a poison of ill-wishes. It seems to have eaten the ducks and buffalo. Its clime is coming and difficult to resist.

The first thing is how much is green. Flying in from the south and west, all I can see from the air is boreal—forest, bogs, large and small chocolate brown rivers winding—no devastation as the plane descends towards Fort Mac. Almost pristine. They dare not fly over the Tar Sands, of course. They don’t want you to think you’ve arrived on the moon.

Once we did make it onto the mining footprint, this is what sunk in: all that boreal beauty they had to scrape away to make this fabricated desert. And it was a desert—bleached white sand dunes stretching into the distance, a lifeless moonscape from which the “overburden” of every organic thing that naturally exists had been removed in its entirety.

The second thing is the water. This is a water world—rivers, lakes, bogs, everywhere you look. “Water is life.” We camped on the shores of Gregoire (or Willow) Lake. We followed the Athabasca River north to the mines. And there—despite the astonishing amount of water used in the extraction process—a desert of dry and drying tailings ponds, become a waterless white chemical sea of sand.

The Athabasca flows on—close by the mines and their poisonous tailings ponds—on into Lake Athabasca and to Fort Chip, where the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) can no longer safely drink the water that surrounds them—where their bodies are being ravaged by disease.

The third thing is the scale. We walked for 14 kilometers around the circumference of one former—now largely dry—tailings pond. This is apparently an older section of the Tar Sands, already part of a “reclamation” project. The furthest we travelled into the mining footprint—where Syncrude’s refinery stands, from a distance across the desert (that once was a boreal forest) looking every bit the Tower of Doom deep in Mordor—even then we could only imagine the scale of the active mining out there beyond Syncrude, where we weren’t allowed to go. Only 5% of the bitumen deposits have been developed to this point. What we saw was just one corner of that 5%. And still it was vast, disorienting. And lifeless.

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The fourth thing is that this is the part of the Tar Sands that they want you to see. A show room. To one side of the desert we circled, a “lake” with green replanted banks and small sparse trees and the occasional wildflower. A sign offering a scenic “view point.” But the give-away—dead waters. Air canons regularly sound, and floating orange scarecrows (looking like zombie miners), try to ward birds away from their deaths in the toxic ponds. Because the oil companies care. They actually think this makes them look good.

The fifth thing is the people. The people of this land. The people who came to this land from far away—from Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and many other places. The people who came from Idaho, Oregon, California, New York, Alabama and Texas. The indigenous land defenders from across Turtle Island—come to walk, come to pray, come to resist, come to bear witness, come to heal—and especially those whose territories these have long been. Their resilience. Their resolve. We lived in their words for three days. And when we walked, we walked to their drumming and singing—we kept going, despite the seven hours circling a scorching desert, because their drumming entered our bodies, lifting our feet and our hearts.

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The sixth thing is the future. ACFN Chief Allan Adam invoked the future anterior—a verb tense I think our efforts now depend upon—when he offered us the vision of our children and grand children one day asking, “what did you do…when all this was happening?” What will we have done, to stop the destruction, is a question we must imagine ourselves one day having to answer.

Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak invoked the future too: we must think in terms of seven generations, he advised, of which we are the fourth—behind us our parents, grandparents and great grandparents—ahead of us our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. These seven generations we carry with us all our lives—whether they are physically present or not. We walk for those who brought us here, and for “all those who are waiting to come into the world.” They are our abiding responsibility—to tend the world for them, in memory and anticipation.

The seventh thing is that healing is resistance. I say this because I think, for some settlers, “healing” sounds apolitical, the way sometimes we pathologize instead of politicize, or the way psychological analysis can take the place of material/structural analysis of capital and inequality. What I want to suggest is that, for frontline communities that have born the brunt of colonization and genocide, as well as for the lands upon which they have traditionally lived, and which have been expropriated and destroyed in the process of extraction, healing is absolutely the necessary first step in beginning the process of decolonization. Healing is part of the process of ongoing and reinvigorated resistance because, as Howard Caygill has written, resistance “assumes a capacity to resist,” and that capacity is in part dependent upon “the invention of resistant subjectivity.” Amidst renewed colonization driven by resources extraction, we are witnessing a resurgence of the warrior, the elder, and resolute female leadership that indicates the re-emergence of such a “resistant subjectivity.” Healing is crucial in this process—part of the “metamorphosis” of the volatility of trauma into the affirmation of resistance:

“The moment of reactive resistance is volatile and vulnerable and needs in some way to metamorphose into an affirmative, inventive resistance that does not just react to an intolerable predicament but transforms itself and its condition through the work of resistance, the actualizing of its capacity to resist.”

The eighth thing is bearing witness. In many ways a personal question—living and working at the endpoint of a bitumen pipeline, I needed to see its source. The Tar Sands was thumbnail pictures online and a dragon that haunted dreams. It’s good to see the reality—a desert in the north, where boreal forest once spread—the complete removal of everything that we might call “life”—a sore throat, irritated eyes, and a rash on my legs, likely from the chemical filled dust that swirled around our feet on the long, hot walk around the crumbling land.

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The ninth thing is the walking. We are the species that walked out of Africa, walked all over the planet. We are natural walkers. Now, some work hard to curtail further walking, to enclose and exclude, to reserve certain spaces for profitable private use—and destruction. You can’t walk off line in the Tar Sands—security and police are quickly on you. It is a highly regimented space—high fences, air canons, and prison block barracks. Huge trucks rumble in every direction. But we managed to beat the bounds of one firey ring of the Tar Sands.

We were walkers in a dangerous time.

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