Overburden In Northern Alberta
It’s been two days since I returned from Fort McMurray Alberta, ground zero for the Canadian tar sands extraction industry. I spent the weekend there, participating in the 4th Annual Tar Sands Healing Walk. I’m still searching for words to articulate the impact of this experience which was both profoundly disturbing and deeply uplifting. As Kaaren, my companion, wrote after we returned home,
It was all so emotional, it ravaged my soul, it uplifted me and inspired me, I was enraged and afraid but it was the people there who made it all so beautiful. All of you, all of us. I am still overwhelmed.
To see the ravaged land, and hear the stories of the people whose bodies – and children – are being poisoned was heart-breaking. How is it possible that this is happening in right here, right now, in Canada, known for its decent and law-abiding citizens?! Canadians do not know these stories. We are being lied to by industry and by our own government, just as the First Nations people of Northern Alberta have been lied to. Industry assured them that they, too, would share in the economic prosperity, and government assured them that the impacts of growing tar sands development on the water, air, and people’s health would be monitored. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) is fond of advertising in Canadian newspapers and on television, showing pictures of a thriving forest on “reclaimed” land post-extraction, with healthy and smiling workers extolling the virtues and responsibility of the industry. But when you walk past the Suncor and Syncrude extraction sites, as I did this past weekend, and bear witness to the barren moonscape where once stood boreal forest, it’s not so easy to be fooled by shiny pictures any more. And if you, too, had your nostrils filled, not with the sweet smell of boreal pine but stung by the toxic stench of bitumen, you would not be so easily fooled by the happy squirrels running through the reclaimed forest of a CAPP advertisement.
I returned from Fort McMurray with a sense of obligation to the people I met. They have been carrying the burden of our addiction to dirty energy, and our economy’s focus on profits before people. Their burden has been made greater because of Canada’s neglect of its treaty obligations. As a Canadian I now have an obligation to share their stories, and also share the courage and strength that I witnessed.
Before we walked, Naomi Klein spoke to the crowd of 500 of “overburden”, which has two meanings. In the extraction industry, overburden refers to that which gets in the way of extracting. In the case of the Alberta tar sands, this would include the people whose ties to the land go back since time before memory. The second definition of overburden is to put too much burden on something or someone. The tar sands are putting too much of a burden on people’s bodies, on the water, on the fish and the animals, and on our climate. As Ms. Klein stated
“That is the kind of overburden we need to talk about.”