FORT MCMURRAY, AB (NEWS1130) – First Nations leaders from BC have joined their counterparts in Alberta for a trek through the Alberta oil sands.

They’re calling it a healing walk, rather than a protest. But walkers can’t help but get political as they stroll the 13-kilometre route north of Fort McMurray.

It’s Chief Stewart Phillip’s first time at the oil sands.

“It’s really difficult to breathe,” says the president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. “It hurts your lungs and your nose.”

“It’s really about drawing public attention to the massively destructive effects that the tar sands development has on the land,” he adds. “There are an unprecedented number of cancer cases up here.”

He believes the project’s environmental and health impacts should drive governments to look for alternatives “as opposed to this gold rush mentality where the Harper government is obsessed with bootlegging Canada’s natural resources, in this case tar sands oil.”

The demand for the crude from the area is behind the major pipeline proposals in BC, projects BC First Nations are fighting against.