Over the years I have been giving thought to the manner in which we have allowed our water systems to be exploited. So long as the leaders of our peoples regard our water systems as a resource to be directly and indirectly exploited, colonization of our lands will continue to persist. Diversions that are constructed impede upon the surrounding water systems and land. Wastewater systems introduce on mass, chemicals and pollutants that impact the delicate ecosystems around them. Entire communities continue to go without clean water to drink, while colonization practices allow corporations to cheaply remove millions of litres of potable water from our watershed for sale to those who suffer without and in doing so, have no contribution to the corrective actions required to solve the root of the problem. I intend to demonstrate that systems of oppression and colonization still exist within the attitudes of those who claim ownership over one of our most precious resources, water.
As a child, I would go camping in various areas of Manitoba with my parents and grandparents. Manual water pumps were used in many of these areas to access water for washing and drinking that we would pump into containers and carry back to our camp. My grandfather explained to me how underground rivers ran for miles beneath us carrying water to and from the many areas around us in order to make sure the land continued to thrive. He explained to me the importance of caring for the land so that it would not impact the water that runs through it much like the blood that runs through our veins.
I was born in Winnipeg, Treaty #1 territory and home of the Metis, and while I am a decedent of those who have colonized these lands, through my life I have always maintained a strong connection to the land from which I came. I was raised to respect the natural world around us, and see the beauty and glory it possess, but also the dire consequences that will be and currently we are facing should we forego our responsibility as caregivers to the earth. More specifically for the purpose of this paper I will focus on the many ways we are damaging the systems that ensure the blood of our earth continue to provide life to us all.
Colonization brought with it a shift in the cultural landscape of Turtle Island. Foreigners would arrive from distant lands for a number of reasons, but mainly the attitude was to escape dire consequences in their homeland or to exploit the resources and strive for economic gain. The majority of those who arrived did so for the purposes of the latter as described by Mackintosh (2012):
“The first viable commercial railroads appeared in the early 1830’s, but they were mostly short –and medium-range carriers until large corporations, wielding impressive amounts of capital, began to consolidate the shorter lines.”
The attitudes capitalism brought with it are described well by Weeks (2016), “Americans, coveting this region, for some time had complained bitterly that there was far more land in the Indian Territory than the Indians could ever use productively. Increasingly, they demanded the following actions from Washington: concentrate the tribes, then convert the forfeited land into organized federal territory; permit white people to settle there; and finally allow those settlers to craft new states for the American Union.”
Increasingly the attitudes that threatened the custodianship of life giving resources on Turtle Island would permeate the land and spread like a disease. Similar to smallpox the spread would continue and blemishes on the land would continue their travel westward with attitudes from the highest levels of leadership adding strength to the epidemic as described by Hukill (2006):
“Tribes and nations were stripped of culture, religion, and language. Individuals were not only stripped on Indian names and given “Christian” names, but Native children were also punished in boarding schools for using Native language. Native parents were not notified of a child’s death in boarding school, and the view of the dominant government at the time was reflected in President Andrew Jackson’s statement, “What is one more dead Indian?””
While not as flagrantly dismissive of those who care for the conservation of the life giving ecosystems that we live within, the current government and corporate attitudes reflect the same message when it becomes clear that the interests of oil and beverage companies take priority over the ability for our nations to drink clean water, and eat food not born or cooked within countless contaminants that permeate the natural habitats from which they came. The water crisis in Attawapiskat as demonstrated through the story covered by D’Amore (2019) is a clear demonstration of this vile disregard for the health and safety of us all. This high profile case is among many that impact our water systems. In fact as reported by The Council of Canadians, in May of 2018, there were 174 water advisories in over 100 First Nation territories alone. Furthermore it is clarified by Palmater (2019) that the numbers available to us don’t actually describe the entirety of this monstrous issue:
“The federal website counts advisories only for First Nations south of 60, and it doesn’t track First Nations in BC and parts of Saskatchewan. Ottawa also doesn’t track homes and community buildings that are not connected to a public water system: in other words, communities or homes that don’t have access to running water don’t get included in the advisory counts. So the water safety issues of a community that gets water shipped into contaminated cisterns and not through a so-called public system don’t get counted. We don’t get the full picture.”
Another example that clearly demonstrates the unfairness of the circumstances surrounding clean water is within the community of Shoal Lake #40 reserve. The very lake that produces the drinking water for the city of Winnipeg houses a community that has been under a boil water advisory since 1997 according to The City of Winnipeg’s website. This demonstrates that leaders in our communities have been aware of such circumstances for over 20 years, with little to no investment in resolving the matter, even though hundreds of thousands of others reap the benefits from this situation every day.
To this end, the many areas where I recall drinking water from the water systems that my grandfather once told me about would not even be listed in the advisories made available to the public. It is uncertain if these wells and underground rivers have even been tested at all. This is a scary concept when we take into account the level of disfranchisement that is being perpetuated by our existing leadership in open forums that are more transparent to public scrutiny. It is clear to me that areas that go unobserved may be at greater risk and still the network of underground water systems would simply carry these contaminants much like cancer spreads through a human’s body until it dies. The proliferation of contaminants throughout the watershed is articulated well by Sprague (2018) with regards to the study that was conducted in Ontario, Canada:
“This study has provided new and important data from lakes in the Cobalt and Silver Center mining areas. Not surprisingly, this resulted in the identification of many lakes that, prior to this study, were thought to be in a pristine state but are now known to be contaminated from the nearby mining activity. This study has shown that arsenic contamination throughout the region in areas influenced by early mining activity is severe and widespread throughout the water network.”
To add further insult to injury, the modern day solution currently being used by many people is simply to buy bottled water. Again, the capitalistic colonial view of this being a suitable solution is deplorable. Not only have leaders of our people allowed industry to pollute our water, but now they allow industry to profit from the ongoing ailments that propagate through the once life giving water systems we all rely on. This profit is achieved by bottling the water from areas where contamination is void or re-mediated and then sold in such volume to others impacted by trauma or fear based tactical marketing. An example of such exploitation is Nestle, a diverse company that has a product line of bottled water. In an article through media giant The Globe and Mail (2018) we learn that Nestle has numerous permits to collect, bottle and sell nearly 20 million litres of water it removes from our water systems for a mere “$3.71 per million litres”. Nestle is not alone however, there are others who also profit in a similar manner:
“Other bottled water companies with large water-taking permits in Ontario include Gold Mountain Springs at 6.1 million litres a day, Gott Enterprises at 5.8 million litres and St. Joseph Natural Spring Water at 5.5 million litres.”
Without providing viable alternatives and by allowing companies to profit through the exploitation of those who are suffering it becomes clear that the ethical standards applied by community leaders to these situations is lacking. It should also be viewed that consumers with alternatives available to them who choose to support the product distribution from the organizations that profit from these circumstances, lack the strength of character to dis-empower such practices. If you consider the level of mark up on each bottle of water that is sold for anywhere between two and three dollars a bottle, you could also imagine the billions of dollars that are being made from the companies selling them. Clearly, the ratio of wholesale pricing provided by our leaders compared to the level of profit derived through the exploitation of resources should be viewed as inequitable, and further to this, there is additional environmental levies attached to products sold in plastic bottles. The plastic bottles themselves are additional environmental threats through their disposal and also as a product of the oil industry which in modern day is responsible for various levels of contamination throughout the land and water systems. The whole system is poised to damage our ecosystems, poison those within proximity, and profit from the contamination.
The solution I present to you is simple. Become an activist. Do not remain silent. Resign from being apathetic. If you have an alternative means of obtaining clean water, stop buying bottled water. If need be, install an additional filter in your home, but stop providing gross amounts of profit to organizations that are capitalizing on the detriment of others. Furthermore, take a moment to speak or write to our leaders in the community about our disappointment in the lack of response by them, and the lack of investment for communities in need made by corporations who profit from the extraction of the resource they need so badly. With the extraction of 20 million litres of day, an additional five cents per litre could contribute one million dollars a day or $365 million a year to a fund for building sustainable water systems for communities in need. Let us band together to insist that every community has access to clean water as a human right, not a product or service.
Weeks, P (2016) “Farewell, My Nation” : American Indians and the United States in the Nineteenth Century. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley and Sons Inc
Mackintosh, W (2012) . “Ticketed Through”: The Commodification of Travel in the Nineteenth Century. Journal of the Early Republic, 32, 61-89.
Hukill, S (2006) . Violence in Native America: A Historical Perspective. Journal of Transcultural Nursing. Vol. 17, 3, 246 – 250.
D’Amore, R. (2019, July 10). Water quality concerns spur state of emergency in Attawapiskat. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/5479392/water-quality-state-of-emergency-attawapiskat/
Safe Water for First Nations. (2019, June 26). Retrieved from https://canadians.org/fn-water
First Nations water problems a crisis of Canada’s own making. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/february-2019/first-nations-water-problems-crisis-canadas-making/
Sprague, D. D., & Vermaire, J. C. (2018). Legacy Arsenic Pollution of Lakes Near Cobalt, Ontario, Canada: Arsenic in Lake Water and Sediment Remains Elevated Nearly a Century After Mining Activity Has Ceased. Water, Air, & Soil Pollution, 229(3).
Nestlé continues to extract water from Ontario town despite drought: Activists. (2018, May 17). Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/nestle-continues-to-extract-water-from-ontario-town-despite-severe-drought-activists/article31480345/
Winnipeg, C. O. (n.d.). Related Links. Retrieved from https://winnipeg.ca/waterandwaste/water/shoalLake.stm