by Arij Riahi
In early July I traveled to Fort McMurray, Alberta. The booming oil town– sometimes renamed Fort McMoney– is located 400 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. It is also the very centre of the country’s largest industrial project.
As we drive deep into tar sands territory the trees on each side of Highway 63 get dark and flimsy. Only their skinny trunks are visible; their boreal foliage is blackened. Whatever the cause of their sickliness, the sight was an apt prelude.
I traveled to participate in the Healing Walk, a yearly event organized by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Keepers of the Athabasca, a group of First Nations, Metis, Inuit, and settler allies working for the protection of land, water, and air along the Athabasca River, which flows through the tar sands. The walk, based in ceremony and led by elders, lasted over six hours. Participants circled the petrochemical facilities of the Canadian oil producer Syncrude and witnessed the destructive impact of tar sands development.
The visuals are overwhelming. The landscape’s desolation scrolls as the environmental destruction speeds up. During the 14 kilometres of the Healing Walk, we must wear masks. Less than an hour after we begin marching, several people complain of headaches. At one moment, I took off my mask to lick my lips. A sulfurous taste greeted my tongue. I felt like I was soaking in the fumes of hydrocarbons. In the distance, a vertical tower spits into the sky smoke so thick and white that it mixes with the clouds to the point where it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.
The sight is undeniably shocking. However, the fact that indigenous nations are directly bearing the burden of this environmental destruction is downright offensive. Oil sands development has a disproportionate negative impact on First Nations, which are usually located in the vicinity of polluting facilities.
With the movement against tar sands growing and raising concerns about our oil dependence, it is time to open a frank conversation about environmental racism. It is time to talk about how environmental policy in Canada might be resting on colonial premises. Read more