Walking Backwards up a Mountain

Yesterday, I walked up a mountain backwards.

This could be a useful metaphor. It is also literally true: on one of the most moving days of this moving movement to protect the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area and to protect our global environment from the tar sands and more fossil fuel development, First Nations elders and chiefs—including Grand Chief Stewart Philip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Ian Campbell of the Skowmesh nation, and Amy and Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation—gathered with hundreds of supporters.

They spoke of their passionate commitment to their land, their communities, and the natural environment generally. They spoke of their determination to stop this pipeline and protect the oceans, animals, and trees. And then they marched, with the gathered throng behind them—up the mountain, into the forest, and towards the police lines.

I was the marker they were to follow, their guide to the forest frontline. I walked backwards in front of them, holding a sign high above my head for them to follow. In some ways it felt like these incredible elders were pushing me, backwards, up the hill, into the path of this pipeline. They were the driving force, the magnets around which we—settler allies and committed pipeline opponents, land defenders and grandmothers, Burnaby residents, university faculty and students—were arrayed.

Backing uphill, it seemed to me, was also indicative of our slow realization and maybe even reluctant awareness of what we need to do and where we need to go. It’s difficult—walking up slope towards an uncertain future. We can’t see it—but we slowly edge towards it. We have to have a little trust—that we won’t fall off a precipice or down a bottomless hole. We worry—but we go on, because we must go on. Really, we need to go a lot faster than this—but this is how we approach the changes we must make—we fear rushing right into their midst—so we edge slowly, backwards, towards them. It’s not perfect. But we are far from perfect. We go on.

An alternative, renewable energy system is feasible and achievable (as long as we get our consumerist, artificial wants under control). Meanwhile, oil and gas companies are running our government and ruining our environment. We have lost our sense of the common—of common responsibility to a common land for a common future on a common planet. We are relearning this—to the extent that we are—through the leadership of indigenous teachers and teachings.

When I think about this pipeline running under our feet, my mind runs up to its source. I think of the tar sands and the utter destruction being wreaked upon the land and indigenous communities there. I think of the desert we have made in the boreal forest, depriving it of water and life and leaving only poison behind. I think of the Athabasca Fort Chipewyan First Nation, their illnesses and the fact that they may have to abandon Fort Chip. I think of the tailings ponds, the diseased moose, the scale of deforestation.

We are directly connected to that here, at the other end of the pipeline. We are standing, right here in Coast Salish Territory, on one corner of the tar sands, on the edge of the destruction we have wrought. We are walking, backwards, up a mountain—to stop this devastation, and to fashion a new future we can as yet barely see, but which we must trust will be there, the other side of fossil fuels.

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