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Water is All of Us

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Issue: 79 Section: Opinion Geography: Prairies Manitoba Topics: Dene, water

August 24, 2011

Water is All of Us

Report from the fifth annual Keepers of the Water gathering

by Rita Wong

Canoes on the lake at Keepers of the Water V. Photo: Janice Pitman

LAC BROCHET, MANITOBA—Words flowed like water from Indigenous Elders gathered at the fifth annual Keepers of the Water gathering in Lac Brochet, Manitoba, this August.

The gathering of the Keepers—an organization made up of of First Nations, environmentalists, and concerned people who want to protect the Arctic Ocean drainage basin—was hosted by the Northlands Denesuline First Nation. It stressed the importance of unity and action to protect waters from being polluted and poisoned.

With a population of fewer than a thousand people, Lac Brochet can be reached only by airplane or by water, and a delegation from Hatchet Lake, SK, took four days to canoe to the gathering. There were also various scholars, representatives, and leaders, including MLA Gerard Jennissen, who said “Water is a horrible enemy but a great friend.” Throughout the gathering, participants shared their thoughts and knowledge about the preciousness of water and how it might be better protected from human destructiveness.

Sam Gargan, who is Grand Chief of the Dehcho in the Northwest Territories and a co-founder of the first Keepers of the Water gathering in 2006, explained how De means river, and Ne means land, together making the word Dene, which signifies how the Dene people are defined by their reciprocal relationship with land and water.

Gargan also described how “western” concepts of democracy are historically derived from Indigenous cultures, and discussed how a holistic relationship with the earth can lead to the protection of both the land’s surface and subsurface. At a time when mining threatens the long-term well-being of future generations in many places, Nahanni Park stands as an example to emulate. Part of the Dehcho people's traditional lands, Nahanni Park began as 4766 square kilometers in 1972, and has since expanded to roughly 28,000 square kilometers through the efforts of the Dehcho people in the NWT. The park draws its name from the South Nahanni River, which feeds Canada's longest river, called the Deh Cho by the Dene and also known as the Mackenzie River.

Dene drummers at Keepers of the Water V in Lac Brochet, Manitoba. Photo: Janice Pitman

The defining question for the gathering was centred around asking what this generation wants to pass on to future generations.

The history of industrial mining has shown over and over again—from Uranium City in northern Saskatchewan to Navajo homelands in the US—that mining jobs are temporary but that pollution remains long after the mines have closed.

For this reason, sustainable economic models are urgently needed. These may range from solar and wind projects to the protection of caribou habitat, which is crucial for the survival of Indigenous communities. Caribou are a traditional and essential food source for these communities. The well-being of the caribou depends on clean, healthy watersheds and lands.

It is challenging to think of water not merely as an external object in need of protection, but as that which literally constitutes our bodies and also lives, as it constantly moves within and through us, linking us to the watersheds that we are part of. This kind of thinking is key to water stewardship. It is demonstrated by Cree Elder D’Arcy Linklater's comment that when he refers to the water, he does not merely mean rivers and lakes, but women themselves.

The passionate words of First Nations elders were complemented by visitors like Dr. Radha D’Souza, who drew connections between Indigenous peoples in Canada and the struggles of India’s 67 million Indigenous people. D'Souza gave an overview of shifts that have been happening at the United Nations, and asked a critical question: are we serving the economy or is the economy serving us?

She also noted that there is a serious tension between the language that exists in declarations and the way they are actually implemented, which can undermine or even nullify the goals and values of the declarations.

Robert Patrick from the University of Saskatchewan noted the inequities that continue for First Nations communities. For instance, they have a boil water advisory rate that is two-and-a-half times higher than in non-First Nations communities. Patrick observed that a number of reserves have the wrong technologies for the water issues they face, such as infrastructure that is often too high-energy or high-maintenance for the community’s needs.

Patrick noted that building small can lead to better living. He suggested that considering a community's proper scale in conjunction with a long-term view that anticipates the effects of climate change (such as drastic weather extremes, and more unpredictability in the amount and timing of rains) will more deeply connect human societies to mindful watershed protection.

When the Keepers first met in 2006, they drafted a declaration that continues to resonate strongly. It reads:

“Water is a sacred gift, an essential element that sustains and connects all life. It is not a commodity to be bought or sold. All people share an obligation to cooperate to ensure that water in all of its forms is protected and conserved with regard to the needs of all living things today and for future generations tomorrow.”

It was heartening to witness that the Keepers are staying on track, guided by the waterways themselves, navigating the many dangers that face us today.

Rita Wong is a poet who lives on the unceded Coast Salish lands also known as Vancouver.

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