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Aug 08.6

Participating in the 4th Annual Healing Walk

Posted In: Charity Pot

Zen Lee from our Sunridge Shop in Calgary rejoins the LUSH Blog with her recent journey participating in the 4th Annual Healing Walk, a gathering of communities affected by the Alberta tar sands, which produce three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventionally produced oil due to the energy required to extract and process the heavy crude mixed with sand, clay and bitumen. LUSH Fresh Handmade Cosmetics supports various grassroots organizations which work to protect human, animal and environmental rights as well as promote safe and clean energy alternatives. 

If you want to breathe fresh air and drink clean water than this is about you…

Those were the words I heard on the eve of the 4th annual Healing Walk in Fort McMurray, Alberta. When LUSH donated $15,000 dollars from our Charity Pot program to help with enhancing the walk’s media and provide vegan food at the event and asked if I wanted to attend, I immediately requested time off work in order to participate. I knew this would be a chance to learn more about my home province’s dominant industry. The Alberta oil sands stir up strong emotions from all sides of the debate and from all sides of the borders. When something is fraught with such controversy and impacts so many lives here at home and abroad, you know it’s a conversation worth having.

Protests against the tar sands are nothing new but on July 5-6 I, along with 4 other staff from Calgary area stores, attended a different kind of event altogether in the heart of the world’s largest industrial project. The Healing Walk was the joining of people from all over North America from as far away as Ontario and Texas to gather with Metis and First Nations for the spiritual healing of the earth, the people and the divisions of families and communities affected by the tar sands.  As sessions took place the first day, I heard from speakers from international, national, and local charities; some of whom LUSH supports through Charity Pot such as and Keepers of the Athabasca.  But it was the representatives and elders from various First Nations communities that opened my eyes to how personal the tar sands debate is not just to people who make their livelihood from it but those living next to it. 

The Athabasca Chipewyan is a First Nations community living downstream of the Athabasca river; a river that sees 11 million liters of oil leaking into it per day from the tailing ponds.  To put this into perspective, the tar sands is home to two of three of the world’s largest dams and those unlined damcollect tailing pond sludge that seeps out into its surrounding environment. The Athabasca Chipewyan has seen death too often in the last 40 years since industry moved in.  Among many diseases that have plague their small community and environment in recent years, none was more disturbing to me than the cancer that statistically affects 1 in 10,000 people but which has already claimed the lives of 2 people in a community of just 1,100.  When Health Canada was asked to explain why there was such a high incidence within their community, there was no explanation.   The culture and livelihood of the Chipewyan people remains very much tied to the land. In recent years the fish from the mighty Athabasca river have turned up with tumors, the water is no longer fit for human consumption, the population of moose has dwindled to half its original size with those remaining often discolored; the last of the woodland caribou are on their way to disappearing altogether.  The Athabasca Chipewyan and the Mikisew Cree have seen an 80% reduction in access to their ancestral hunting lands and it is no longer that unusual to have to travel all the way to Manitoba to find a moose. And yet the industry continues to aggressively press for expansion and the First Nations in Northern Alberta battle 42 companies vying to set up shop.  The Athabasca Chipewyan is just one community, but the impact of the tar sands is far reaching as evidenced by a young woman speaking on behalf of her community from southwestern Ontario, otherwise known as chemical valley where Alberta heavy crude oil is refined. They have increased incidences of skin disease, asthma and a 49% higher rate of miscarriage than the greater population.

The discussion with non-profits was no less disconcerting. In the last 38 years the tar sands has averaged 2.2 oil spills per day. Enough sludge is produced to submerged New York’s Central Park in toxic waste every month. Recently the federal government has gutted 30 years of environmental regulations; razing 70 environmental laws that would have helped safeguard things like fish habitat and clean water, thereby rendering the environmental assessments of major industrial projects a moot point. Yet ironically we still have laws to protect shipping routes. There are no laws to govern the amount otoxins entering the Athabasca River but the oil sands are allowed to divert water from the river equivalent to seven times the annual water use by the city of Edmonton. To date none of the toxic ponds and a pathetic 0.1 per cent of land has been successfully reclaimed. To add to this sad statistic is the distinction that reclamation does not even mean that the natural landscape has been returned to its original ecological state. Our federal government has been systematically dismantling the funding of research stations that conduct research in areas of water and air quality and has put in place legislation that muzzles scientists. So much so that one of the most prestigious international scientific journals, Nature, called on the Canadian government to set their scientists free. The public should have the right to hear from scientists and not just from the oil industry’s million dollar public relations team.

The next morning under grey skies, as 650 marchers were to begin the 14km tar sands loop” at the Syncrude site, we received word of a fresh oil spill in the Athabasca just near the community of the Athabasca Chipewyan. By midday it was confirmed that the spill had stretched the width of the river and spanned 40 km. The news was sobering as we walked for 7 hours, stopping at 4 different sites to pray with First Nations elders for the healing of the land and its people.  Many walk veterans donned breathing masks and it quickly became apparent why as the effects of petrol wafting in the air were felt by some within the first hour.  One woman with pre-existing respiratory issues had to be evacuated when she started vomiting. My colleague suffered from a pounding headache for much of her walk and I had moments of nausea despite the scent not having really bothered me. At the 4th prayer site, Chipewyan elder Peter, described to me the forest that used to stand where we stood. It was hard to picture as I gazed upon what would more aptly be called a tailing lake with the poof, poof, poof of cannons going off every few minutes, like distant fireworks, to scare away the waterfowl. Peter told me how traditionally his people would dream of the medicinal plants when they were sick. They still have those dreams he told me, but those plants used to grow where the oil fields are now. The irony of the sickness and strange cancers” within his community was not lost me.


We are living the turning point, we can re-envision industry,” said Bill Mckibbon, founder of A greener tar sands is already possible and industry has the technology to dry out their tailing ponds and do better remediation.   But they won’t unless government puts in place regulations that would require all companies to do so, keeping a level playing field. For an industry taxpayers subsidize with 1.2 billiodollars, and whose companies rank among the top ten most profitable in the world, shouldn’t they do better?  Shouldn’t we require them to do better? With tar sands leases covering about 20% of the Alberta’s land area and industry on target to triple in size within the next few decades, the public process of discussion and participation on what these organizations have the social license to do is long overdue; and more pressingly, whether such scale and pace is warranted in the first place.  

The Alberta tar sands is not a them versus us” debate as evidenced by so many industry trucks honking their support along the walk. Everyone’s lives are touched by oil in one way or another with costs and benefits to all. Despite tensions in social forums and divisions on all fronts, the time is now to agree in principle to come together to weigh those costs and benefits.  A discussion with all stake holders is needed so that doing well doesn’t mean we cant do good as well.  So read articles and reports on the tar sands.  Talk about it with everyone. Pressure industry to do their best not just for their shareholders because their activities affect us allStrongly encourage Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Alberta Premier Alison Redford to meet with the communities impacted by tar sands development and not just oil industry executives; the people deserve to be heard by their government.  Make sustainable choices in your personal life where you can. Get involved and join the discussion because at the end of the day it’s more than just about livelihood, land treaties, culture and ecological sustainability. Its about life.

About Zen Lee

Initially intrigued with LUSH’s stance on animal testing, Zen entered Sunridge LUSH in Calgary and walked out with a smile, a pot of Gorgeous and a job offer.  In 2010 she joined the Sunridge team as a key holder before adding Eco Warrior and Regional Charity Star to her roles.  With a BSc in Zoology under her belt she is currently completing her MSc in infectious diseases at the University of Calgary and intends to pursue a third degree in wildlife veterinary medicine.  Her passion for animals has made her a lifer in animal welfare work.

Special thanks to the people of Treaty 8 for their generosity and for hosting us, Annie Banks and Jesse Cardinal for all their help in getting us organized for the event, Pearl Gottschalk at LUSH for her guidance and encouragement, Sylvan Sanchez and Dr. Carla Coffin for giving me time off to attend the event, and my awesome fellow staff members Jessica MacRury, Erine Potter, Meghan Tavares and Sabrina Sbarzella for taking this journey with me. Lots of love.