What is the Price of Progress? – Reflection from the Tar Sands

September 4, 2015

By Sister Mary Pendergast

In July, Sister Mary Pendergast went on a pilgrimage to the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, which are natural deposits containing small amounts of crude bitumen, which can be refined into oil. The area, home to the largest unspoiled forest in North America, is being destroyed in a quest for oil that harms not only the natural surroundings but the indigenous people there as well.

Mary at the Athabasca River

Mary at the Athabasca River

A meaningful journey to a sacred place for inner change and transformation, for a greater sense of one’s purpose, for an appreciation of life, for healing—these are the words associated with pilgrimage.

Sister Maureen Wild, SC, and I began our sacred time at Lac Ste Anne, a large lake in central Alberta, Canada, which is a site holy to First Nations people.  We waded into the water asking for healing and for blessing on our journey.  By coincidence it was near the feast of St. Ann, and thousands of native people were there to pray. We joined in the celebration of Eucharist and sang to the heartbeat of the sacred drum.  

The next day we made our way to Jasper National Park, to the Columbia ice fields, where the story of three rivers begins. The Columbia River flows to the Pacific Ocean. The second, North Saskatchewan, flows to the Atlantic Ocean. And the third, Athabasca, the river we would follow, flows north through the Alberta tar sands industry and out into the Arctic Ocean. We see the glacier where the river begins, where pure and pristine glacial water gathers strength, width and power as she cascades into falls and torrents, blessing all life in her path. We follow her through the many cities and towns on the way to Fort McMurray and Fort McKay.  In one town we stop for our lunch and pick saskatoons (berry-like fruits) growing in huge bushes by her banks. In another we see and smell a paper pulp mill.  We must have crossed Athabasca six times as we made our way north. How many thousands of beings has she nourished on the path she carved?

We arrived in Fort McMurray, a boom town with all the problems of a transient, young male population. The homeless are likely to be those whose subsistence lifestyle has been traded for a mine. Hundreds of logging trucks, buses, SUVs, semis and tankers fill the one highway in what has been described as a parade to and from the tar sands. We can already smell the industry. The first day, we took a tour of Suncor, one of the largest of over 40 companies that excavate bitumen from the sands under the Boreal forest. I am shocked to learn that every major multinational and Canadian nationally owned oil company has staked a claim here: PetroChina, BP, Shell, Exxon, Koch, Chevron, Cenovus and Total, to name a few. Many others have permits but are waiting for “the price is right” moment. The five mines at Suncor alone produce more than 1,500,000 barrels of bitumen a day. It takes 2 metric tons of oil sand to produce one barrel of bitumen.  It takes 3.1 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of bitumen.  The recycled water ends up in the world’s largest ponds of toxic waste, the tailings ponds, some of which have leaked or seeped into groundwater. In the early days, hundreds of ducks landed on a pond and were killed. Now there are small cannons booming 24/7 and little scarecrows to keep birds from landing.

Celina, left, talks about life at Fort McKay with Sister Maureen Wild.

Celina, left, talks about life at Fort McKay with Sister Maureen Wild.

The next day we were able to arrange a flyover of the Suncor and Syncrude mines. The expanse of destruction takes your breath away.  On one side of the river there is the boreal, the largest forest biome on Earth. On the other is the industry. Such dread arises in my body that it is hard to breathe.  Below me is Athabasca meeting the Clearwater River and flowing right through the center of hell. It is sickening between the smell and the smoke and the visuals. Sister Maureen felt a headache, and I felt that fear in the stomach when shock subsides and reality surfaces. This is what it looks like to keep the United States economy supplied with oil.

For the next two days, we visit with some elders in Fort McKay, Celina and Ed Harpe. Celina is an outspoken critic of the industry. She told us stories of the past when the Cree, Metis and Chipewyan tribes would go down to the Athabasca with five gallon pails for their drinking water, catch their fish, trap the beaver and hunt the moose and bear. She told stories of her grandfather who saw the current crisis years ago when Celina was only a child:  “There will come a time when you must not drink the water.”

She tells me of rare cancers on the reservation and fish with tumors and lesions; of berries that go uneaten for fear of the pollution; of a way of life traded for bottled water and a job in the industry. If ever there were places that reek of impossibility, Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan are it. How will we ever make a way out of no way? How will we face our complicity?

Read a reflection written by Sister Mary before her pilgrimage which explains more about the tar sands industry and what is at stake in the boreal forest. Sister Mary and Sister Maureen also kept a blog, “River Pilgrims,” throughout their experience.

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  1. Patty Cook,RSM

    Thanks so much, dear Mary and Maureen, for sharing this fascinating slice of your pilgrimage.

    I am so grateful, even though it truly sickened me to read it. God, help us!

    Prayers fly north to accompany you.

    Patty Cook, RSM


  2. Chris Kavanagh

    Mary, thank you for sharing this profound experience of the pilgrimage with us. It is frightening.


  3. Patricia Otillio

    Mary, thanks so much for sharing. It is such a painful story. Such profound questions: How will we ever make a way out of no way? How will we face our own complicity in all this? It makes me reflect even more on the pain of Mother Earth and my moral responsibility to care for the Earth. No small effort will go unnoticed by Mother Earth. We are the co-creators. I am really grateful for your deep sharing of your experience. It calls us to be missionaries to bring new life in God’s Creation.


  4. Margaret Quinn

    Thank you so much for sharing that with us. What a terrible destruction of Western Canada, which I remember as breathtakingly beautiful – all in the name of profit and ‘progress’. When will we ever learn?
    Margaret Quinn, RSM