How my grandfather taught me how to be an ally in the fight against the tar sands

Emma Pullman is writing stories from impacted communities on the front lines of the tar sands in the lead up to the 4th Annual Healing Walk, a spiritual gathering and 14km walk to pray for the healing of the land and people at the front lines of tar sands expansion. The Healing Walk is July 5-6, 2013 in Fort McMurray, Alberta. You can follow her work here and on

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Photo by Emma Pullman 

I've heard others say this before me, but the magnitude and expansiveness of the project is simply unimaginable.
You have to see it with your own eyes to comprehend it -- and even then it's incomprehensible. The land is beautiful.
There's much more water than I imagined. In the places where the boreal forest and muskeg have been cleared, the plants look like bruises and scars on the land. 
Along the winding Athabasca River, dark tailings ponds sit literally on the banks of the river. As you fly past one site, you immediately fly over another.
Tears pricked my eyes. I was overcome with emotion.


On July 5th, about two weeks from now, hundreds of people will gather in Fort McMurray for the 4th Annual Healing Walk. In the words of Roland Woodward, an elder from Anzac, a community 36 kilometres southeast of Fort McMurray, the Healing Walk is “an opportunity to heal the land, heal the people.”  

Clayton Thomas-Muller, a prominent First Nations activist and coordinator of the Sovereignty Summer, says of the Healing Walk:

“The idea was not to have a protest, but instead to engage in a meaningful ceremonial action to pray for the healing of Mother Earth, which has been so damaged by the tar sands industry.

"Members of the five First Nations of the Athabasca region and residents of the nearby town of Fort McMurray, Alberta, tired of the never-ending fight with big oil and its supporters in the Canadian government, had made a conscious choice to protect their way of life.

"This was done by turning to ceremony and asking through prayer and the physical act of walking on the earth for the hearts of those harming Mother Earth through extreme energy extraction to be healed.”

It has been two generations since my family was in this territory. Two generations later, this land is still being colonized for profits that are shipped away while the cost is borne most heavily by the people who have lived here all along. My job is to spend the next two weeks listening, learning and sharing stories from people on the front lines of tar sands expansion.

I feel grateful that my grandfather’s journal arrived when it did. The book made me realize that I only have a superficial and academic understanding of the histories that connect this country. Now that I have been confronted by my own family’s role in the colonial project, there’s a big part of me that just wants to hide.

As I sit on the banks of Lake Athabasca, I have been grappling with what it means to have personally benefited from the colonization of this stolen land. As I try to capture in words how it feels, I am stuck at the first feeling: shame.

I wondered if I should hide his story because it implicates my family. I feared that my family connection to this history meant that I was a bad person, or that my grandfather was a bad person.

But I’m learning that it is not as simple as that.

I’m learning that allyship is difficult, messy, and complex. An ally is “a member of the 'dominant' or 'majority' group who questions or rejects the dominant ideology and works against oppression through support of, and as an advocate, with or for, the oppressed population.”

Right now, working as an ally means leveraging my privileged access to media to share stories from impacted communities downstream from the tar sands. Becoming an ally is a continuous process, not an identity that we can pick up and claim, and it’s okay to feel overwhelmed.

I believe that I am like many Canadians who know on a deep gut level that they are implicated in the broken promises of the Treaties, that they and their society has become rich off stolen native land. I believe that we all need to know our true history, and to understand what it means to be Treaty Peoples.

And, I’m learning that a starting place is to just listen.

Learn more about the Healing Walk, and how you can help from home.

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