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Healing walk raises awareness of environmental concerns

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By Michelle Willcott Sweetgrass Writer FORT McMURRAY







A 13-kilometre walk along Highway 63 past the oil sand operations in Fort McMurray raised awareness of issues centred around oil development.

Over 100 community leaders, Elders, activists and youth participated in the walk organized by the Keepers of the Athabasca, on Aug. 14. The healing walk was a peaceful way for community members to express their concerns regarding the pace of development and the environmental impact of oil sand operations in northern Alberta.

The three-hour long walk featured guest speakers, a prayer ceremony by local First Nations Elders and was followed by a feast.

“I think it turned out great,” said Cleo Reece, one of the organizers of the first-ever walk. “The healing aspect was embraced—it was a way for people to show that they really cared.”

Community concerns related to oil sands development and its associated impacts were the impetus for the healing walk.

“A lot of people, especially Native people, see what is happening with all the negative effects that come with rapid growth,” said Reece. “There are so many effects that go on with oil development – contributing greenhouse gases, global warming, destroying forests, poisoning wildlife, and water contamination.”

In spite of environmental concerns, Reece acknowledges that development also plays an important role in economic growth within the north.

“I think people know the harmful effects, yet we have to make a living. It creates a lot of problems that people don’t know how to deal with,” she said. “We could see the need for starting a healing process. There’s a lot of damage and grief.”

Although Reece is frustrated with the pace of development in northern Alberta, she is focused on finding solutions and taking positive action.

“Rather than dwelling on the sadness of it all, let’s do something about it,” she said, “Everybody had a positive feeling even though we walked through some terrible sights.”

The healing walk was an alternative form of protest for the Keepers of the Athabasca, part of the Keepers of the Water, an alliance formed in 2006 in response to increased turbidity and toxicity in the northern Mackenzie River basin. The Keepers of the Athabasca is made up of First Nations, Métis, Inuit, environmental groups, and watershed citizens united for a common purpose of protecting the water, land and air in the Athabasca River watershed.

Aside from organizing the healing walk, the Keepers of the Athabasca encourages area residents to monitor the watershed; report any changes or actions to the watershed; and participate in letter-writing campaigns regarding the impacts of development.

Based on the success of this year’s healing walk, Reece is optimistic that more healing walks will be planned in the future.

 “Healing connects people. Healing gets more support than a protest,” said Reece.