Water Protectors

From 2013 to 2015, I served as a member of my city’s Advisory Committee on the Environment. Read the word ‘served’ with healthy skepticism: I am far from an expert on matters of ecology. There is no doubt that I learned far more than I contributed to the committee. However, one lesson continues to haunt me: I discovered that urban water systems are expensive and complicated. As easy as it is to turn on a tap and pour a glass of water, the “end user experience” of a civil engineering masterpiece is deceivingly simple.

Our water, harvested from Lake Huron and Lake Erie, undergoes “chemically assisted flocculation and sedimentation systems, dual-media filtration, and gaseous chlorine as the primary disinfectant”. In compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, we test municipal water thoroughly within the local system, too. We monitor “112 different organic, inorganic, microbiological, and chemical parameters”, including constant chlorine residual checks at 10 different points in the city. All this happens across a system that includes “8 pumping stations, 4 reservoirs, 7 standby wells, over 1,570 km of water mains, 12,800 valves, 9,000 hydrants, as well as approximately 115,000 water services and meters”.

Compared to scooping a bucket of water from a nearby creek, well, or spring, urban water systems are more complicated by orders of magnitude. Furthermore, nothing about them is permanent: “lifecycle infrastructure renewal” demands that cities start budgeting to replace the pipes they bury, just about as soon as the ground has settled on new infrastructure. Everything has a lifespan. As a result, modern water systems require administrative bureaucracies: it takes significant time and human resources to strategize, develop, monitor, and maintain a comprehensive urban water system.

Collectively, we pay significant operating costs (including a number of professional salaries) to keep this whole operation running year after year. But individually this does not seem onerous because all of us taxpayers contribute to the cause. What is important to realize is that the “tax assessment base” that funds our water system is inseparable from the economy itself. Ultimately, we enjoy this water system because can afford to pay for it.

Municipal water treatment and distribution systems like ours are amazing testimonies to the brilliance of civil engineering. Far be it from me to complain! But such systems do have one major systemic drawback: they work so well that most of us who have the privilege to access them eventually tend to take them for granted. We turn a tap and out comes clean water — a substance required for sustaining life itself! It is precisely because water is so vital that we have invested all these capital resources and technological innovations in securing it. But as we give our attention to other concerns in life — mindlessly confident in the responsiveness of our faucets, showers, and sprinklers — we grow evermore blind and, frankly, ignorant, to the value of what we have at our immediate disposal.

Given the above, I am beginning to suspect that maybe my municipal water treatment system is, in a sense, one of the biggest impediments to meaningful and lasting reconciliation with my aboriginal and First Nations neighbors. This is a working hypothesis. What if, among the array of historical, political, economic, and power variables that we inherited today, one of the systemic roadblocks in the way of reconciliation between colonial settlers and indigenous communities comes down to two radically different assumptions about water? On one side, we typically assume that water miraculously originates at a treatment plant. On the other side, people can barely mention water without acknowledging its centrality to life and its dependence, in turn, on the hydrological cycle of the planet. Just think about it: for some people, water is something that comes out of a tap because they pay their taxes. For others, water is sacred because it is essentially the ground of life itself. We cannot understate how comprehensively these two mindsets affect everything that follows.

At present, the Standing Rock Sioux standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline is receiving significant media attention. But take a brief scan of the continent as a whole. In British Columbia, recent conflicts include the headwaters of the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass rivers, and the Site C dam. Just this Tuesday, the Canadian government announced support for the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline and Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline, carrying tar sand oil from Alberta. In Nunavut, the Clyde River case against seismic testing also made headlines.

Closer to home, in Ontario, there is a mercury poisoning endemic in Grassy Narrows; a natural gas line controversy at Walpole Island; Toxic Tours of Chemically Valley by the Aamjiwnaang First Nation (near Sarnia); and a Supreme Court appeal heard on Wednesday from the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation (alleging the government failed to adequately execute their duty to consult the community regarding Enbridge Line 9). The very same day, in Calgary, Natural Resource Minister Jim Carr said the Liberal government supports the Keystone XL pipeline. (Canada has a long history of clashes between First Nations communities, the resource extraction industry, and the government. Today, despite having a Prime Minister who claims “No relationship is more important…than the one with Indigenous Peoples,” I dare say the inertia of ‘business-as-usual’ seems mostly uninterrupted when it comes to on-the-ground policy.)

Nearly every dispute mentioned above is about water — a point that is easy to miss in all the headlines about pipelines, tar sands, and protest camps. All across the continent, two profoundly different stories collide: a myth that says clean water comes from professional civil engineering departments and another myth that says water is inseparable from being in harmonious equilibrium with the Earth and all other living things. (While these myths are not necessarily mutually exclusive, I think it is self-evident that they can easily lead to vastly differing sets of priorities when it comes to one’s views on energy and the economy as a whole.)

There seems to be an underlying principle systemically entwined in the worldview of many indigenous people I know: if you pollute the water, you pollute everything. It rings true to me. I was living less than 30km away from Walkerton at the time of the E. coli outbreak in 2000. As someone who has never experienced water vulnerability personally, Walkerton was my first glimpse into the reality that water is the ground of every community. The current situation in Flint, Michigan is an important parallel. I’m no psychologist, but I have a theory. Unless I come to the realization that water is wholly inseparable from the vitality, health, and sustainability of my family, I am unlikely to instinctively appreciate the mindsets of today’s water protectors — people who are compelled to engage in direct action for the sake of their water. If I take my own water for granted, how can I understand people who fight for theirs?

Chippewas of the Thames is only about 30km downstream from my house but relies on its own ground source water harvesting and treatment infrastructure. Sure, nobody wants a pipeline running through their backyard — especially when someone else comes along and builds the thing without asking your permission. What could even more devastating? The well for your drinking water is your backyard, too! How could you not be resentful, let alone angry?

If water is, in fact, a basic human right — which seems logical, as it is a prerequisite for life itself — are we willing to accept that threatening the water of others is to threaten their human rights, too?

If we say ‘no’ to the above question, then how exactly would we describe our reaction if someone poured mercury or crude oil down the intake lines of our water source? The only real difference between the water sourcing for my municipality and the water sourcing for Chippewas of the Thames is the size and scales of the systems… and the racial distinctiveness of the communities who consume the water.

We talk a lot about reconciliation in Canada these days. But I suspect that ‘talking’ is all we are going to do until we somehow get it through our privileged heads that there is no such thing as ‘peace’ and ‘mutual understanding’ while you are jeopardizing someone else’s water source.

As a footnote to everything above, I would like to reiterate that I do not have a comprehensive understanding of these issues. Especially when it comes to reconciliation: I am a woefully ignorant student whose lack of knowledge is in excess. I would like to thank Chief Leslee White-Eye (Chippewas of the Thames), Sheri Doxtator (Oneida Nation of the Thames), and Jan Longboat (Six Nations of the Grand River), who have all spoken words this year that have provoked me to rethink and critique my understanding of water, equality, and human rights. While their insights have been formative and influential, I take personal responsibility for the thoughts expressed in this post and do not purport to speak on behalf of anyone but myself. This post is meant to represent a chapter in a journey, not a destination. I’m still trying to figure this out. Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “Water Protectors

  1. Hi James,
    Am spending the morning in silence and reading and in came your blog. The stark image of someone pouring mercury into into our municipal pipelines puts Grassy Narrows into perspective. I do not understand why it seems so impossible to have clean drinking water for every person in Canada…at some level in my limited understanding, it seems relatively easy and do-able. Thanks for this…reminds me of our visit with Jan.

  2. Thanks so much James for this commentary. I’m away on retreat and this caught my eye this morn and shall become both my day’s lament – as I listen to the silent cry of water, reflect on Canadian colonialism & consider attitudes/perspectives that mitigate against true reconciliation and my day’s gratitude focus – as I turn on the tap to supply my cleanse and my sustainance – and my day’s confession – I use & abuse without thought to both our interconnectedness and water’s sacredness.
    As I’ve followed Standing Rock I’ve been wondering – what are our Canadian equivalents and how might we stand in solidarity with our near neighbor communities? Thanks for your research and putting thoughts out for my/our pondering ?

  3. I stumbled across this post as it was shared by a friend on Facebook… What an incredible piece of commentary! I’m in awe of how well presented this information and humble opinion drew me in to think! Thank-you James for sharing. I hope to hear and see more from you.


  4. James,
    Thank you for your always insightful observations. I believe you’ve framed exceedingly well the fundamental issue that water is a basic human right. I would hope the perspective outlined becomes a seed thought of influence to lead everyone to make much better choices/decisions in a modern society that seemingly becomes more and further detached from Mother Earth. Your article reminded me of Carl Sagan’s comment years ago “Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand.” We collectively must truly dearly embrace the obvious: we (humanity) simply have no other viable alternative to this single remarkably unique “goldilox zone” small marble upon which we miraculously live and are supported by. May we not foul it up!! Thank you for your thought provoking writings!!

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