“If you don’t mind my asking, what’s one piece of advice you would offer a person in their thirties?” I asked an elderly man walking beside me along a service road in northeastern Alberta.

“It’s the land not the money. The value and the wealth is the land. That’s what I would say. I mean just think about the water. You know they drain it from the lands in these parts, no limits, truck it out and take it places it doesn’t belong,” he replied.

This was my first time at the Tar Sands Healing Walk. The event has taken place for the last five years just north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. I joined hundreds of others who came together to walk a 12 km loop alongside pipes, refineries and tailings ponds. Before and after the walk there were meals shared and gatherings to talk about the issues. I experienced acts of overwhelming generosity shown by those indigenous to the land who hosted. They shared songs and prayers about their communities that have been affected so dearly.

The day of the walk, I woke up next to a lake, surrounded by trees. Once we had entered the gates of the Syncrude loop the scene changed dramatically. Where I imagined caribou and lakes should be I saw deserts, lifeless ponds with orange-clad scarecrows and cannons blasting to startle away wildlife. There were times when I did not know if my feet were planted on earth. As I began the walk, my face was only covered by a scarf. But as the smell of burning rubber increased and a caustic chemical soup filled the air, I found myself using many layers of scarf and finally a proper mask to protect my lungs.

It was a welcome sight when I joined Paul on the walk, a monthly donor who has left a gift to Ecojustice in his will. Just a year after his wife passed away from cancer, he nearly died of a heart attack. We affably agreed that he is most certainly living his bonus round of life. As we walked he said, “This is a watershed moment, and I’m going to use what time I have to take action to prevent the destruction of our children’s future.”

Also on the walk was my colleague, lawyer Fraser Thomson who works in our Calgary office, as well as Ecojustice supporter Linda, from Erin, Ontario. She and her companions from Toronto and Slave Lake had come to bear witness to the destruction and brought open hearts, drums and songs.

In such a lifeless place I felt a great deal of connection as I walked on those service roads.

Near the end of the walk I found my friend Devyn. He had been running around shooting footage for a film for hours, but now he was slumped against a cement guardrail with his head in his hands. He told me that he had been doing pretty well emotionally until a truck driver drove by and stuck out his hand with a peace symbol. Devyn said that he had been so sure that everyone working in the tar sands was either ignorant or cold-hearted, or both, that this one gesture had shattered his certainty and left him grief-stricken.

At Ecojustice, we are working on multiple fronts to keep the environmental impacts of energy projects like the tar sands in check. Every morning when I come into the office, I know that I am a part of something important. But it is different to see what is really occurring with your own eyes, to feel it on your skin, to smell it in the air. I returned humbled, with a renewed and deepened commitment to my work and gratitude for the fact that every day I get the opportunity to speak to folks like you about what you value and what we can do together to take action on issues that are impacting the health of our communities and the environment.