07/12/2013 09:07 EDT | Updated 09/11/2013 05:12 EDT

Heartbreak at the Edge of Canada's Tar Sands

"Here," said a Heiltsuk friend as we began the walk, "put this in your pocket, it will help protect you." She handed me a piece of dried Devil's club bark, medicine from the B.C. coastal rainforest to carry with me as we walked by Alberta's tar sands facilities for the 4th annual Healing Walk.

Strong medicine was definitely in order as my lungs hurt, heart ached, and eyes welled up with tears with all that I witnessed.

I've seen photos of the tar sands, but it's another thing altogether to walk the ground and smell the air. "That's not just dust," I was told by someone who works in the industry as the wind crossed the tailings pond. The "dust" swirled all around us. I put my mask on.

I've heard stories from First Nations who live surrounded by the tar sands, about how they can't drink the water or eat the fish, but it's another thing to walk behind elders, the sound of drums like heartbeats, as they offer prayers of healing to this devastated land, land they call home.

We walked steadily for eight hours, stopping only to offer prayers in each of the four directions.

Standing silently with hundreds of people, gazing out over a large tailings pond (more accurately, a massive toxic lake), I am comforted by the knowledge that nature is resilient but I am overwhelmed by the scale of what we are facing.

How do we heal the changes to our atmosphere? How do we heal a toxic landscape?

Around the tailings pond, bird-deterring canons go off constantly but unsuccessfully if the dead birds along the side of the road are any indication. These places will likely be contaminated for much longer than my lifetime. The healing feels hard.

Stop the destruction, start the healing

Part of the healing is to contain these toxic sites so they don't spill into rivers, and remediate them with the best earth-repair knowledge we can muster.

Part of the healing is to stop adding insult to injury. Mining bitumen from the tar sands is polluting drinking water, destroying wildlife habitats, infringing treaty rights, and changing our climate. Instead of approving more tar sands mines, as what happened this week, we need to recognize the true costs of our addiction to oil and find ways to transition off of fossil fuels.

Here's what I realized as the healing walk brought heart and hope to this bleak landscape: it's not just about offering our solidarity and support to the First Nation communities most impacted by the tar sands. The healing required goes much deeper than that.

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The Oil Sands and Canada's Environment

We are all in this together

Trees can grow back. Nature is amazingly resilient, given thousands of years. But the real question is, how do we heal ourselves, and our relationship to the world around us, so that we stop inflicting such devastation in the first place? We are all in this together.

Many of the tar sands workers seem to know this. So many workers honked their support as they drove past, smiling and waving out their windows. That nearly continual honking became another background noise as we walked along.

I wonder, what will be the tipping point for these workers to get out of their trucks and join us on the healing walk? For one man who shared his story with me over dinner, it was the death of too many of his friends from drugs and fast cars on the roads around Fort McMurray.

I suspect if we shifted government subsidies away from oil and gas, if we found creative ways to support a just transition for workers, and if we invest in energy efficiency and building retrofits, then these workers would bring their skills and expertise to help build a green future. We are all, whether we like it or not, in this together.

We have normalized digging into the Earth for tar sands and have recorded changes to our atmosphere. When do we start to pay attention to the consequences? Is it when 50 people die in an oil-related train explosion in Quebec? Is it when Calgary and Toronto are underwater? Is it when 19 firefighters die because wildfires are acting differently these days? How close to home do climate impacts have to hit before we take notice?

We have to all start walking in the same direction together.

The healing starts here

The healing starts by standing on the road, facing the devastation of what used to be Boreal forest. It starts by bearing witness to the people who are seeing their culture, their land, and their family members taken away by industry, oil spills, and cancer. It starts by feeling grief and sadness about what we have done to each other, and to the Earth we all call home.

The healing starts by noticing how the tar sands are eroding our democracy, infringing on treaty rights, violating human rights, changing our climate, eroding our environmental protection laws, and bringing the threat of pipelines and tankers to the B.C. coast, and all for a quick profit.

It starts by noticing our own role in all this, and taking steps towards a different future. We make the road by walking, as the old saying goes.

Courage and compassion

Returning home, I had barely arrived on Vancouver Island and I was already in the ocean, washing away the grit and fumes from the tar sands with salt water and seaweed.

Returning to the clean air and swimmable waters of the B.C. coast, I felt so much gratitude, but also such a sense of injustice. How can some of us live in this beautiful, healthy place while making choices that condemns other regions to inhabitable dust? Why should anyone have to live without drinking water, just so we can keep our cars on the road?

We are all in this together.

I am deeply humbled by the strength of the First Nation elders and organizers who led the healing walk and offered their prayers with such courage and compassion.

And while my heart is heavy with all I witnessed, it is also lighter, inspired by the community of people who are coming together with common purpose. Non-Aboriginal people walking together with First Nations, young and old, tar sands workers and environmentalists side by side. We may have a long and difficult path ahead of us, but we are learning to walk together. And if the healing walk is anything to go by, there will be dancing, friendships, beautiful moments and laughter along the way.

healing walk

Protecting the Sacred One Step at a Time - Tar Sands Healing Walk 2013 from Zack Embree on Vimeo.