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Why the Canadian Government Should Walk the Tar Sands Healing Walk

There's nothing like getting out of your car and going for a walk to see things as they really are. How often do you walk a neighbourhood that you've otherwise always driven through, and notice the details that you've been whizzing by for years? The colours in a flowerbed, the carriage house tucked in the back, the hopscotch chalk on the sidewalk.

Mining trucks carry loads of oil-laden sand in Alberta, Canada. (Photo: Jeff Mcintosh/AP)In 2005 I did a walking tour with my band mates along a long stretch of rocky ridge in Southern Ontario known as the Niagara Escarpment. We walked the Bruce Trail in the stretches of land between gigs at community halls and theatres. It was an immediate way to appreciate an ancient landscape and inhale the cool moist air of thousand-year-old white cedar trees along this mossy shelf.

The 4th Annual Tar Sands Healing Walk taking place in Fort McMurray, Alberta this July 5-6, is an important opportunity for Canadians, and people from all over the world, to get a sense of the land at the heart of the largest unsustainable development project on the planet. The walk, led by Keepers of the Athabasca, will draw attention to the need to heal a territory that has been grossly scarred by the tar sands. Over 500 participants from Canada and the U.S. will participate, walking 14 kilometres along what is now called "the sacrifice zone."

The big question is why the Alberta Premier Alison Redford has not responded to multiple invitations to attend the healing walk? The invitations were sent long ago, and a public call for their attendance has been met with silence.

Political leaders, especially those that have a direct responsibility to the wellbeing of these communities, must address First Nations' rising cries of concern. These cries speak to a larger truth -- with the tar sands industry operating as it is, the reality of a safe and sustainable future slips further and further away for all of us.

Last October, as a member of the Nobel Women's Initiative's Breaking Ground: Women, Oil and Climate Change delegation to Alberta and British Columbia, I listened to over 200 women from 13 communities. These women live in communities directly impacted by oil sands extraction in Alberta, and also along the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline route.

The women came to our meetings with stories of health problems and the loss of clean drinking water, and shared with us their deep concerns about the irreversible destruction of their land and the world's climate. Some worried about the growing socio-economic disparity as a result of massive oil extraction projects in their backyards, and the increases in domestic violence that accompany boom and bust economies. Along the proposed pipeline route they are also very worried about what would happen when the diluted bitumen spilled.

Can you imagine the water coming out of your tap contaminated to the point where you and your family must live on bottled water for five months? Once-healthy children are now experiencing breathing problems because of the pollution coming out of the smoke stacks. People are unable to fish from the rivers that they've always fished, because oil extraction processes have poisoned the waters.

These are the realities that some First Nations communities in Alberta experience daily, and which our Canadian government ignores.

At times during our trip I could barley handle the smell of heavy oil and chemicals, my sinuses reeling. The extreme industrialization of this place, with over a billion tons of the living world removed and replaced with burning smokestacks and round the clock digging, made me long for the paradise of my home in the Ontario countryside. However, we were given the privilege of listening to these stories -- shared sometimes with great difficulty and pain -- and I knew I had a responsibility to these people and to the natural world to share these stories.

Now it's time for Minister Oliver and Premier Redford to recognize their own responsibility, and meet some of the people most directly impacted by the decisions made in Ottawa and Edmonton. It is time for them to get out of their cars and walk like regular folks through an area they aren't shy about selling on a global stage. I'm sure they have toured the oil sands with oil companies. Now Minister Oliver and Premier Redford should accept this invitation and walk with the people who live on this land.

Alison Redford, Joe Oliver, I add my voice to this call. You are our elected representatives. Join the Keepers of the Athabasca and participate in the Tar Sands Healing Walk in Fort McMurray this July.