By Charlie Clark & Priscilla Settee
“We recognize that Water is a sacred gift from the Creator that gives, sustains and nurtures all life on earth. We recognize the need to share our understanding that Water is sacred and essential for the survival of all life on earth.”
—from the Indigenous Declaration on Water, 2002
The North Battleford and Walkerton water disasters hit Canadians as a mighty shock. The water systems that most urban Canadians had simply taken for granted were suddenly at risk. But just outside of our larger urban centers, hundreds of small communities across the country—particularly First Nations—live in daily uncertainty about their water. Yellowquill First Nation in East-Central Saskatchewan has been under a “boil water advisory” for almost 10 years. Can you imagine not being able to trust your tap water for 10 years? Yellowquill is not alone; a recent study by Indian and Northern Affairs concluded that almost one-third of First Nations Water systems are considered “high risk.”
Water has great significance for First Nations and Aboriginal peoples. Our first nine months of life are spent surrounded by water in our mother’s womb. Water also has a central role in many of our ceremonies. But today, water in First Nations communities locally and globally is in critical condition, and the concerns go beyond just issues of water quality.
In early June of this year, the Indigenous People’s Program at the University of Saskatchewan organized a Public Forum on the State of Water to highlight the connection between the struggles over water in local First Nations and the global fight to ensure the universal right to access to safe water. A number of speakers spoke on the state of water in Saskatchewan from the perspective of First Nations Communities, including Debbie Roper, a Waterkeeper at Yellowquill First Nation.
Yellowquill has recently transformed the state of their water, by taking the situation into their own hands. This year, for the first time in 10 years, Yellowquill residents can drink straight from the tap thanks to the introduction of an innovative biological filtration/reverse osmosis system developed in partnership with Hans Peterson of the Safe Drinking Water Foundation. Roper described Yellowquill’s story of over a decade of contaminated source water, jurisdictional squabbling, and woefully inadequate water treatment facilities that led to Yellowquill having among the worst water in the country. She also described how the Federal Government tried repeatedly to solve the problem with band-aid solutions. “It was by not accepting the status quo that we were able to achieve what we did,” claims Roper. She also talked about how, by using a bacterial filtration system, the new plant mimics the earth’s natural processes, rather than introducing foreign chemicals into the system.
Bill Marion, water quality technician from James Smith Cree Nation, has been working to improve water quality systems for First Nation people for almost 20 years. Marion described how the need for these technical water treatment plants is a new phenomenon. “I remember 30 years ago we never had any kind of treatment plant in our community; people dug their wells by shovel and drank straight from the ground. Today no one ever thinks of drinking from private wells. These concerns weren’t here 30 years ago because Mother Earth did her job cleansing the water.” In 30 years we have transformed our watersheds, introducing a cocktail of foreign chemicals, pesticides and pollutants that have immobilized the Earth’s ability to do its job. Marion is working today to help heal our systems, both locally and nationally, and to ensure that First Nations People have control over and input into the enhancement of water systems.
The local struggles outlined by Debbie Roper and Bill Marion are closely linked to a global water crisis. It is estimated that by 2050 at least 25 percent of the world’s population will live with water insecurity. Our waters which were recently the collective commons are now being viewed as a commodity which can be privately owned and sold. For First Nations and Aboriginal peoples this is tantamount to selling our mother.
Access to fresh water is becoming endangered. The irrigation systems required by large scale farms are destroying water tables throughout North America. Dams are responsible for destroying lands, biodiversity and communities. The USA is now helping itself to Canada’s fresh water through the North American Free Trade Agreement and other powerful international trade agreements. Transnational water companies such as Suez and Vivendi have contracts around the world, privatizing water delivery solely to make profits.
The water crisis has been met head on by Indigenous groups as well as other civil society groups. In March 2003 Indigenous peoples met in Kyoto, Japan to better understand the situation, and to develop strategies to educate the broader public and address the crisis. At that meeting the Indigenous Peoples Kyoto Water Declaration was drafted, laying out a comprehensive set of concerns and strategies. Coalitions of Indigenous people are fighting community by community, and trade deal by trade deal to ensure that the lifeblood water of our planet is preserved.
Most recently in Saskatchewan, the Safe Drinking Water Foundation hosted an International Water Conference called “The Future for Water Treatment” in Saskatoon in September. The conference featured David Suzuki, as well as Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, among many other speakers working actively on water issues.
Water is life. In order to protect the integrity of our water systems into the future, we need to ensure that people and communities maintain control over the water systems they rely on for life. The stories from Yellowquill, James Smith, and the international Indigenous struggles tell us that we need leadership, partnership, and local control to ensure the protection of the right to water for future generations. This is not just an issue for developing nations but for all people, including right here in Canada.
Charlie Clark is a community activist and educator currently working on a variety of projects in Saskatoon. Priscilla Settee is director of the Indigenous Peoples Program at the University of Saskatchewan and a global activist on water issues. See the website at www.safewater.org for more information.