beauty, pain and invisibility of people and place

It’s dawn over the Athabasca and I awake to the constant drone of trucks and big engine vehicles on their way to day shift in what is locally called ‘the mine.’

It’s a strip mine to be sure, as the boreal leaves the area in stacked up logs – load after load after load moving southward on Hwy 63.  That’s a first step.  It’s called removing the ‘overburden’ which includes forest and muskeg.  Quite the name for the habitat of so many wild plants and animals.  And its a place I know well from my childhood in the Peace country of northwestern Alberta.  It was my playground as a child and place of nourishment with its wild berries of so many kinds, and the animals that fed us too – partridge, deer, moose.  And there is a certain deep familiarity and rapport one receives in relationship to ones earliest landscape – it shaped my soul-scape.

Twenty-three years ago (1990), when I made my life-time commitment as a Sister of Charity, I chose as my ‘cathedral’ a beautiful boreal place near enough to where family and relatives lived.  And here it is clear-cut and scraped away to make way for the extraction of the oh so prized bitumen!  I sense my own rage welling up as I write.  [I try not to imagine what it would feel like making a life-time commitment standing in the midst of such a lunar landscape as this boreal place has become.]

People come from all over the world here, lured by the money or sought out by the industries for their skills.  There is no prior relationship to the land, to the river, to the original people of this place.  And calling IT ‘the mine’ seems to trick the conscience, to mask the pain that we are in fact eliminating and displacing subjects here (i.e. living beings that have life and spirit – winged ones, four-legged, swimming ones, human!) – not ‘objects.’  We do the same in war, don’t we? … giving the ‘enemy’ a degrading, derogatory name, objectifying so it’s easier to wound or maim or kill.

We walked in a remnant of it yesterday afternoon as our dear Cree-Chipewyan ‘Sister friend’ from Ft McKay wanted to proudly show us a lookout of the Red River that flows through McKay.  She reminisces,‘We used to pick all kinds of cranberries and blueberries here.’  The toxic air changes everything now and what remains is not safe to eat.  I bend down and pick a cranberry, and eat it.  There is no taste.

The First Nation peoples of this place must fly about 70kms north (as the crow flies) to a sacred-to-them boreal and lake area called Moose Lake.  Ten of them shared a flight last week, and several days together to pick cranberries.  It was good to hear about their time there, picking berries, catching and eating fish from the lake.  Moose Lake area is now within the ‘sight’ of industry.  They say the crude is even better there.  So much pain in the hearts of our Cree, Chipewyan and Metis friends whose voices are next to ignored in this process of public consultation.  On this deep concern, my elder friend waited in the courtroom for her name to be called, for days, long hours.  They didn’t call her name.  She wanted to speak for the protection and preservation of Moose Lake.  She’s the one who has also said to me, and to us, ‘You can’t replace the muskeg … only God can create muskeg.  You can’t drink oil.  Water is Life!  If you don’t have water, you can’t live.’ 

‘She speaks like a mother who wants to protect ALL the children of creation,’ my friend says.  This pilgrim-friend, a Medical Mission Sister (also from the bioregion of the Alberta boreal), says she feels she is holding two contradictions within her – the beauty and the pain.  She is one who chose not to blog so as to better remain in the contemplative, listening mode.  Last night her pain was expressed in waves of nausea and vomiting.  I ‘hear’ the sickness.  She commented moments ago that what she experiences reflects the paschal mystery.  She said what keeps coming up for her is ‘the invisibility of the people.’  She is referring to the First Nation people.


About the author: Maureen Wild, SC, M.Ed. is an international speaker, educator and retreat guide. Her focus is on Sacred Ecology – the weaving of spirituality, justice, ethics and Christianity with insights from new cosmology, ecology and contemporary theology.

3 comments… add one
  • Mary Aitken

    Thank you Maureen and all of you for this awesome and heartbreaking pilgrimage on behalf of us all. So much gratitude for enabling us to experience the beauty and destruction, through your eyes and hearts.

  • Miriam

    Many of us are following with you all. We can only imagine the horror of the destruction that goes on and seeks to expand in the name of jobs, money, and a security that is very short-sighted, and ultimately murderous.

  • Eileen

    Thank you – to each of you – for making this witness pilgrimage. To take in, visually and with all the other senses, what is happening there, and to share it here is an act of courage. I cringe with horror imagining what you must be witnessing.
    I can’t even begin to imagine what the daily reality is for the people who live there – the First Nations whose land and health has been so devastated, and also those who are working there – both those who chose to, and those who feel they have no choice.

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