RAVEN is pleased to introduce a four-part blog series from supporter Terry Dance-Bennink following her recent trip to the Alberta tar sands.  We will post the remaining three entries over the course of this week.

by Terry Dance-Bennink, M.Ed.
Victoria, B.C.

October 16, 2013


Part One:   First encounters

R.A.V.E.N. supporter, Terry Dance-Bennink, reflects on her Athabasca River pilgrimage to the tar sands and visits with First Nations families and whistle-blower, Dr. John O’Connor.

Six of us set off on a pilgrimage along the Athabasca River this fall, starting at its headlands in Alberta’s ice fields and culminating in “Hiroshima” as singer, Neil Young, so rightly describes the tar sands. It’s the largest energy extraction project on the planet and yet it’s out of sight, out of mind for most of us.

I’m a R.A.V.E.N. supporter and active volunteer with the Sierra Club and Dogwood Initiative. I support “no tankers off our coast.”  But I’ve never seen the tar sands. I joined this trip because I wanted to see the source of the threat, as well as nature untouched by our greed. This is my testimony to what I learned on a journey through a healthy natural wilderness, a man-made hell, and my own emotional wilderness.

Our trip was organized by Maureen Wild, a retreat guide and Sister of Charity, who focuses on sacred ecology (see her website, www.paxgaia.ca). Five women and one man (my 77 year-old husband, Theo) met each other for the first time at a peaceful Franciscan retreat house with a beautiful view of the Rockies on September 3, 2013.

We were to spend two weeks accompanying the river whenever we could, travelling in two cars. We roughed it at times and did our own cooking as much as possible. We soaked up the beauty of nature and spent time with a Metis family in Brule, Alberta and a First Nations family and whistle-blower, Dr. John O’Connor, in Fort McKay. We explored Fort McMurray and saw and smelt the tarsands

It was good to start off in a quiet place as each of us was excited but a bit nervous. I’m a breast cancer survivor with digestive issues, so I was anxious about our accommodation and venturing into “Mordor”. A Franciscan brother joked as we left, “don’t get killed up there.”

We met “the river” the next day and marvelled at its power and milky sheen as we soaked up the spray from Athabasca Falls. I couldn’t get over the vast swaths of green velvet forest, untouched by clear-cutting. Further along the Ice fields Parkway, we hiked up to the foot of a glacier but returned somewhat sad as evidence of global warming was all around us. I’d visited this glacier 10 years ago and it’s noticeably smaller.

We spend the first night in a river-side hostel with a gorgeous view but no running water or electricity, smelly pit toilets, and a group of male cyclists drinking hard liquor at the end of a long ride! The six of us shared a tiny cabin with bunk beds. After a restless night, I thanked all my ancestors who’d survived far worse and acknowledged my own dependency on oil-based comforts.

A Metis perspective

A surprise awaited us outside Jasper in the tiny hamlet of Brule, Alberta. Fellow-traveller Maureen had booked a B & B which turned out to be just beautiful, complete with mountain and river views, flush toilets, running water, and electricity! But more importantly, the owners, Laura Vinson and David Martineau are a Metis couple and musicians (www.thespiritsings.com),

We spent the first night listening to the DVD of their European tour celebrating Metis culture and its diverse roots, and talked about the fracking operations for natural gas which encircle their community. We also heard about ancestors who were pushed off their land when Jasper National Park was born.

We gathered around the fire pit the next night and met Laura’s sister, Lavone, who works for the Athabasca Watershed Planning & Advisory Council (WPAC). She told us that water is being pumped out of local creeks for natural gas operations, leaving them dry. Their WPAC is working well, however, and will soon move into developing a management strategy. As we drove off the next day, we could see small fracking operations on farmers’ lands – a reminder of what B.C’s Liberal government has embraced in a big way in northeast BC.

We sensed friction between the Metis and treaty native people when Lavone told us that “treaty natives in Fort McKay are considered rich in comparison with the Metis who have no treaty rights.”

The next day, we rested close to the town of Athabasca as we prepared ourselves mentally and physically for highway 63, known as the highway to hell, enroute to Fort McMurray. We enjoyed a dip in a small lake, an encounter with a black bear, quiet reading on the cabin porch, and communal meals. My husband Theo gave each woman a huge big chocolate bar which definitely helped seal their approval of the only man in an estrogen-laden circle!

Next in this blog series:

Part Two:   Black gold fever

In part two of her tar sands blog, Terry Dance-Bennink writes about the highway to hell, black gold fever in Fort McMurray, and the toxic tailings lakes.

Terry Dance is a breast cancer survivor who volunteers with the Canadian Cancer Society and local environmental groups. She’s a former vice-president academic of an Ontario college and a writer/personal historian.

Take Action