By Terry Dance-Bennink

I came back a changed woman after my river pilgrimage to the tar-sands in September 2013, determined to take action.

I shared the story of my pilgrimage at my local church, Esquimalt United, and to my delight, our minister, Leanne Benoit, suggested we hold a solidarity healing walk next spring in Victoria, at the same time as the annual walk in Fort McMurray, sponsored by First Nations and the Keepers of the Athabasca.

Over the winter and early spring, we reached out directly to other congregations and other faith traditions. Team members spoke to church members at local services, explaining the purpose and urgency of this act of solidarity.  We reached out to the Songhees First Nation, on whose territory the walk would be taking place. The Keepers of the Athabasca – the organizers of the Tar Sands Healing Walk in Fort McMurray – blessed our initiative.

Soon we had an interfaith team up and running, mapping out the route, liaising with Victoria PD, putting up posters and promoting the walk on every media and social media platform we could think of.

Although coming from diverse faith traditions, we were deeply united in our intention: this was to be a spiritual walk, not a protest march. We would do more  than simply apologize to First Nations for the actions of our ancestors. We would walk and pray with them in solidarity, at the same moment as hundreds of First Nations walked through the toxic tailing lakes in Fort McMurray.   

And then the day came. I  was nervous. Our planning team had never done something like this before. Would people respect the spiritual nature of this walk? Would the 2 ½ hour walk be too much for our elders? Would the rain hold off?  Would our sound system work?

“Breathe in peace….breathe out love,” we chanted and I calmed down. Buddhists, Catholics, United Church members, Quakers, Unitarians, Esquimalt Baha’i, Anglicans, members of Sierra Club BC, Dogwood Initiative, and many other “non-affiliated” folks walked slowly and meditatively, despite the periodic drizzle.

We began our walk on the traditional lands of the Lekwungen People. A group of young meditators from UVIC welcomed us as they sat peacefully by the water’s edge, reminding us that we heal ourselves by healing the earth and vice versa.

To our delight, a group of people from many nations walked all the way from Mill Bay to join us, carrying water from Shawnigan Lake, the Malahat, Highlands and Thetis Lake.  And young people from Tofino, organizers of a weekly silent sit around Vancouver’s Stanley Park, also took part.

The four elements – water, air, fire and earth – inspired our rituals, which were framed by Ojibway writer, Richard Wagamese’s teachings.  United Church minister, Leanne Benoit, blessed the water at the start of our walk and a child poured the water back into the ocean. Unitarian chaplain, Kjerstin Mackie, celebrated air and our interconnectedness at the Legislature as we breathed in and out in respectful silence.

Ted Mousseau, a Buddhist teacher, ignited fire at Pioneer Park and led us in a chant of atonement. And Linda Mulhall helped us meditate on the healing energy of earth at our closing ceremony.  

Cars honked their horns as we carried the beautiful banner and signs created by artist Diane White, sang our chants, drummed to a heartbeat, and handed out flyers to interested pedestrians.

We streamed into First Met at 3:30 pm, without a single traffic incident, and gratefully drank cold water and ate the fresh fruit prepared by walk organizers.

Two First Nations elders and the Mill Bay group led our closing ceremony with a haunting song, and reminded us that Vancouver Island has its own polluted water in need of healing.

The tar sands are out of sight, out of mind for many people, but not those in the church that day, who responded generously in support of RAVEN’s campaign in support of Beaver Lake Cree, whose territory in northern Alberta is tar sands ground zero.

It’s an exciting time to be alive, as Joanna Macy says, because we CAN make a difference. We can…

 

Terry Dance-Bennink is a member of Esquimalt United Church and a Buddhist sangha. She is a board member of PRBC, a retired vice-president academic of an Ontario college and a breast cancer survivor.

 

  • Artwork by Evan Cardinal, Beaver Lake Cree Nation, and Lianne Charlie, Na-cho Nyak Dun and Beadwork by Violet Cardinal, Beaver Lake Cree Nation Photography by Ian Jackson and Serena Anderson, Beaver Lake Cree Nation Vidoegraphy by Avi Lewis
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