“If we are doing it to the Earth, what do you think is going to happen to us?” David Suzuki asks the crowd after describing how humanity has polluted land, air, and water around the world. Beautiful banners reading “Water is Sacred” fluttered everywhere as one by one, speakers expressed the importance of water and the need to bear down on a transition away from oil. The large gathering in Saskatoon came together on Sunday under the Kisaskatchewan Water Alliance Network, a group that formed in response to the oil spill that oozed into the North Saskatchewan river from a Husky pipeline on July 20, 2016.
September 20th marked two months since the disaster began.
Much has happened since technicians at Husky noticed the readings on one of their pipelines wasn’t normal. We know that over 14 hours elapsed between that moment and any definitive action being taken by the company. We know that a foamy substance began floating down the river, collecting at docks and piling up against the carcasses of river animals that died from chemical exposure. We know that dark oily crude began to stick the the edges of the river. We know that water was diverted for thousands of people who began to fear for their health and the natural place they lived by and loved. We know that some leaders spoke out, and that some said nothing or very little. We know that there were songs, gatherings, and coming-togethers of those who wanted to take action for their communities. We know that many people’s concerns, especially of those who live in First Nation communities, were not attended to or were indeed ignored. We know an assessment was done by a company whose only gain would be had in a result that showed everything was fine. We know the river water is quietly coming back into circulation for affected cities. We know the government and the media don’t really want to talk about this any more. We know the community still wants to talk about it.
Several events in Saskatchewan are bringing the conversation back to the forefront. Ricardo Segovia, of environmental consulting group E-Tech International (that works primarily with land defenders who would otherwise not have access to technical services), was part of a team commissioned by a group of active citizens to do an independent assessment of the health of the river. At the Saskatoon event, Ricardo conveyed the findings:
“We came on August 16 and 17, and there was still crude oil on the banks of the river. We took some samples downstream of Prince Albert and found some very nasty chemicals in the sediments. The [testing from the] water might be coming back clean – that’s not surprising because the stuff that’s on the surface, through evaporation, might disappear pretty quickly, and then also a lot of it is going to start to submerge. So even though the cities are going to use the water again for use, it doesn’t mean the problem is over. This spill is not over. There is a lot of oil submerged under the surface, and there is a lot of oil that’s going to be in the sediments for years to come. Part of the reason is the late reaction from Husky. In the 14.5 hours between the spill being released and the time Husky reacted, that oil made it a long way. It had a long time to go down the river and become submerged. That was a huge failure on the part of Husky – their reaction was completely inadequate.”
Ricardo is spent the week in Saskatchewan, travelling to meet with communities along the river and explaining the findings of the testing done by the independently commissioned team. Along with the Saskatoon event, he also had stops planned in North Battleford, James Smith Cree Nation, the Saskatchewan Polytechnic Indigenous Students’ Centre, and Prince Albert.
“We need a revolution for the water”
Christi Belcourt’s assertion to the crowd was met with cheers and applause: “We need a revolution for the water. Water is sacred. Water is life.” The prolific Metis artist proceeded to read an ethereal poem about humanity’s dependence and interconnectedness with water, her strong voice lifting the words to the listeners. Her allusion to the waters of the Earth as the birthwaters of life were built on by others who spoke of women as leaders and keepers of the waters – acknowledging the efforts and sacrifice of women activists, especially Indigenous land defenders, who have been at the frontlines of these kinds of fights for years. Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak opened by affirming that “it is women who are speaking on our behalf on water. It’s important that we recognize that as we move forward in this revolution that is is our women leading the way in these discussions, leading the revolution for us.”
Chief Nepinak also spoke about the difficult situation First Nations find themselves in as whole communities have been prescribed to poverty through generations of dispossession and government sanctioned oppression. He explained that sometimes leadership of First Nations feel forced to make deals for their communities to survive – such as after the funding cuts of the Harper government, which lead private companies to descend during a time of vulnerability. Applause broke out as Nepinak stated that the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs has not accepted a dime from Enbridge, TransCanada, or any other pipeline company, even under pressure.
Many speakers emphasized how it is foolish to risk water by entrenching fossil fuel industry and driving our society in a direction we don’t want: global climate change and an economy that doesn’t value people or nature. David Suzuki asserted that “the Husky spill is just one of the latest opportunities that we have to say ‘this is crazy’ – we are undermining the very things that keep us alive and healthy. This Husky spill should be the moment that we say ‘we cannot go on this way’ that we have to change the way that we are living.”
Photo from James Smith Cree Nation
Links and actions:
Join the Kisaskatchewan Water Alliance
Read the Independent Assessment by E-Tech International
Get involved with the Energy East campaign to stop risking waterways with pipelines
Get involved with the Water campaign to reinstate legislative protections for water
Look in your community to support local renewable energy organizations