Sustainable Water: Coming to a Theatre Near You


By Merrell-Ann Phare and Robert Sandford

Because they have been so staunchly opposed, central elements of the founding water ethic in Canada as established by the First Peoples have over a period of the last three centuries been heavily eroded by the practices of others. Indigenous Peoples continue to face huge challenges in trying to protect their lands and waters from environmental degradation. They find themselves in the midst of a process of decolonizing, and, in many situations face serious economic, health, social, cultural and legal challenges in restoring their communities to their pre-contract vibrancy and level of self-sufficiency.

Canadian Indigenous scholar Leanne Simpson has written about an Elder who told her that it took 500 years to get into this situation and it will likely take 500 years to get out of it. Many First Nations assert that patience, determination, and long-term, unwavering focus are needed in the face of the complexity of today’s challenges. Non-Indigenous Canadians with concerns about the state and fate of the global environment are now reluctantly beginning to accept that the same expanded timeframes and unwavering intergenerational commitment that First Nations accept are what the rest of the world will have to commit if broader societal change is to result in any meaningful form of sustainability.

Many Indigenous Nations in Canada are in negotiations with other governments to restore legal recognition of title to their territorial lands and waters, the connection to which they never relinquished. Others are directing suing for recognition of their water rights.

The core of the opposition to First Nations legal challenges regarding water is, in many circles, an incorrect belief that Indigenous Peoples no longer have legal rights to the waters in and on their territories. This belief is manifested through regular exclusion of Indigenous Peoples from water-related decision-making processes of federal and provincial governments. Although Indigenous Peoples are sometimes involved in ‘consultation’-type processes where they are presented with the opportunity to provide their perspectives and thoughts this type of involvement does not constitute a decision-making role. Alberta’s Water for Life process and Ontario’s Source Water Protection Planning Framework process are two such consultation-type processes that do not constitute consultation to the extent now required by federal law, nor do they represent the kinds of partnership-oriented processes that are required to both allow for Indigenous water rights to be equitably realized and to meaningfully address the serious water issues we already face.

More and more Canadians are beginning to realize that they are in the same boat as Indigenous Peoples in that they never consciously chose to relinquish their relationships with water nor, were they, or are they adequately consulted on water issues. They did not consciously agree to let others divert or pollute their water. Nor was it their idea to turn water into a market commodity or to deny water to ecosystems that need it, yet because they are a product of their own industrialised society, of choices made before and for them, many non-Aboriginal Canadians are finding themselves in the same struggle to reconnect, restore, recognise and feel their relationship to the world around them as First Nations. It is not just the water belonging to the Indigenous Peoples that is being compromised; it is everyone’s water.

The issues related to water in Canada are much worse and of greater persistence than most Canadians imagine. The alarming state of our groundwater systems was put into relief in 2009 in a report by the Council of Canadian Academies. This report evidences the fact that contamination of groundwater aquifers is widespread all over the country. We are even contaminating aquifers we share with our American neighbours.

The problems associated with First Nations water security are increasingly being seen as symbolic. Despite billions spent on water security on First Nations reserves the problem is not going away. People on First Nations reserves are still 90 times more likely than the rest of us to not have piped water. Some reserves have been subject to boil water advisories for as long as eighteen years. This means that there are children on those reserves who have grown knowing no other way of securing safe water other than boiling it. But these problems are not likely to remain confined to remote reserves. Now matter where you live in Canada issues related to water quality and quantity are coming to a theatre near you.

Agricultural water use is becoming an issue all across Canada. This is because contemporary industrial-scale food production practices inevitably result in reduced return flows to nature of water of poor quality which diminished and often water-starved natural systems no longer have the capacity to purify. As a result thousands of Canadian lakes and watercourses are now suffering from varying degrees of eutrophication. We are not adequately maintaining of our urban and rural water infrastructure and so it is increasingly vulnerable to more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as floods, storms and tornadoes. Growing amounts of endocrine-altering substances are finding their way into our water supplies. The management of water systems in the context of continued oil sands development in the Athabasca River Basin is already in dispute and represents an area of elevated conflict that casts Canada in a poor light on the international stage. It has been observed that what previously threatened only First Nations will ultimately threaten all of us.

Indifference to such concerns is increasingly held to be economically and environmentally unacceptable. Now we sense that the choices we are making are morally unacceptable as well. It has been argued that water is our most misgoverned, inefficiently and inequitably allocated and most profligately wasted natural bounty. Clearly, there is no small measure of necessity and perhaps even great opportunity in changing that.

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Merrell-Ann Phare and Robert Sandford

Merrell-Ann Phare is a lawyer and executive director of the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources. She is co-author, with Robert Sandford, of Ethical Water, to be released in fall 2011, and also author of Denying the Source: The Crisis of First Nations Water Rights (2010). Robert Sandford is EPCOR Chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of the United Nations “Water for Life” decade.