Skip to content

My trip on the Canadian water convoy to Detroit

Detroit’s water crisis has drawn international attention in recent weeks putting a spotlight on the water cut-off program being pursued by the city. Organizations on the ground have been calling for an end to the cut-offs since March when the city announced it would begin shutting off water services to 1,500 to 3,000 households every week. Following a report  to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation submitted by the Blue Planet Project/Council of Canadians and Detroit groups, Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque warned that the mass water shut-offs were a violation of human rights.

After mounting pressure the city announced a 15-day suspension on new shut-offs yet groups continue to call for the shut offs to end permanently.

Canadian water convoy

It was within this context that Council of Canadians national chairperson Maude Barlow and I joined Windsor chapter members Randy Emerson, Doug Hayes and others to set out on a water convoy to deliver fifty 5-gallon jugs of water to our friends in Detroit. Canadian Union of Public Employees national president Paul Moist and Dennis Burke also joined to show their solidarity.

The purpose of the convoy was to draw attention to the human rights violations happening in Detroit, call on President Obama to declare a public health crisis and express solidarity to those in Detroit whose taps had run dry.

On Thursday afternoon, we met chapter members, other groups, media and people simply interested in the issue wanting to lend a hand. Teacher Mary-Ellen Kavanaugh brought along her three children. There was a filmmaker and photographer wanting to document the cross-border action.

Under sunny skies, we loaded nearly a dozen cars, most marked with a blue and Canadian flag, and proceeded towards the Windsor-Detroit tunnel.

The day before our action, Ken Hammond, chief officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told the Detroit Free Press, “Any water carried across the border that exceeds what is needed for personal use requires approval from the U.S. government to help ensure it is safe, and a number of laws, such as those in the U.S. Bioterrorism Act of 2002, would apply.” After hearing differing information, we were asked to fill out a U.S. Food and Drug Administration form but wouldn’t know whether we received approval until we reached the border.

Doug and I were the first vehicle to go through the border and we did so without a hitch. We met at a church down the street and were welcomed by cheers from Lila Cabbil from the Rosa Parks Institute, Alice Jennings, one of the lawyers from the class action suit filed last Monday, and others who were awaiting us to take us to the rally. We then received a call from Randy and Maude saying that they had been held back with others. So we waited and began devising a plan in case two of the speakers for the rally – Maude and Paul Moist – weren’t allowed through. Finally, we saw the blue flags approaching us and we all let out big cheers as the rest of the convoy joined us. 

Weaving through rush hour traffic, we arrived at the rally at the Spirit of Detroit to a crowd who’d been awaiting our arrival. I met up with Priscilla Dziubek, one of the lead organizers of the rally and a spokesperson for the Detroit People’s Water Board. Paul jumped right into his speech and as quoted in USA Today  said “America is better than this. If the richest country in the world can bail out banks and bail out Wall Street with public money, then public money from the state level and national level can be used to help the people of Detroit who are in harm’s way health-wise without water.” (Photo above: Paul Moist shakes Lila Cabbil’s hand with Maude Barlow in the middle)

Next the excited crowd listened to Maude who expressed solidarity to the people of Detroit, warned of the global water crisis and stressed the importance of upholding the human right to water and sanitation.  


Special delivery to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church

 After the rally, the water convoy and people from the rally headed to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church at Michigan Avenue and Trumbull, a designated emergency water station, where we dropped the water jugs off.

Thursday was 313 day in Detroit marking its 313th birthday which is celebrated because the city’s area code is 313. So on our way to the church we passed people celebrating downtown.

Reverend Bill Wylie-Kellermann welcomed the convoy and thanked us for the water and our spiritual solidarity. He reminded us water everywhere is a gift and belongs to everyone. Maude spoke again and said, “Your struggle is our struggle.” She talked about the water war in Cochabamba where companies tried to privatize water –  even the rain – which prompted people to shut the city down for four days in protest. Maude told the cheering crowd: we are going to win this fight. Lila Cabbil spoke next about bottled water and the broader issue of water privatization. Like the privatization of water services, bottled water is the commodification of water. Bottled water companies take water from local communities in order to transport and sell it to communities outside of the watershed. She spoke of Charity Hicks’ Wage Love campaign and stressed the importance of it. Lila said, ‘Love is an action word.’ She urged people to help their neighbours whose water has been cut off and to refrain from buying bottled water.

Inside the church, Monica Lewis-Patrick of We the People brought tears to many people’s eyes by singing a beautiful song to the circle of people.

People at the rally and church were so grateful for the gesture of their neighbours bringing jugs of water. It was an incredibly powerful and moving day. Four days later, I’m inspired, humbled and eager to continue working with our Detroit friends to ensure water services are restored.

In the spirit of Charity Hicks

Charity Hicks, a strong and inspiring Detroit activist and a leader in the fight against the water shutoffs, was mentioned by many speakers and on the mind of many on Thursday.

The movement galvanized when her water was cut off and she was arrested for warning her neighbours to fill their tubs in May. She was hit by a car in New York at the end of May and remained in a coma until July 8 when she passed away. It was a huge loss to all the organizations and movements she worked with. But her spirit lives on in the work we do.

Her husband of 10 years, Louis Houngbo, attended the rally.

Charity is known for her ‘wage love’ campaign. She once said at a rally: “We love ourselves. We love our children. We love the earth. We love all of life. This is not a protest this is an act of waging love.” To learn more about the Wage Love campaign and to make a donation, click here.

Background on Detroit’s water crisis

Detroit began cutting water services to households in the spring despite being situated on the Great Lakes, the world’s largest body of freshwater, and the U.S. being one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

The city cut off water to thousands of residents in recent months, part of a program launched last fall to go after unpaid bills after years of lax enforcement, leaky pipes and deteriorating infrastructure.  The city plans to turn off water in all households that owe money by the end of the summer.

Even though 40% of the population is unemployed, water rates are twice the national average in the bankrupt city. Water rates have increased 119% in the last decade. An increase of 8.7% was approved in June. The bankruptcy plan proposed recently would increase water rates another 34%.

A exploding movement

Opposition has been mounting through the summer. Residents organized direct actions outside of Homrich, the company contracted to shut households’ water off. Hollywood stars like Mark Ruffalo and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morella have added their voices to the chorus of calls for an end to the shutoffs. On July 18, the National Nurses United along with the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions organized a mass rally that drew thousands of people including actor Ruffalo to the city. (Photo above: Maude Barlow with former Detroit Public Schools teacher Baxter Jones who was arrested July 18 for blocking the Homrich shutoff trucks from leaving the East Grand Blvd.)

The city buckled to the pressure and suspended new cut offs until August 5. However, this does not include the shut-offs that occurred before the suspension was announced. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) also said it was going to inform “shutoff crews to more aggressively turn off illegal use” during the temporary suspension. The DWSD said it would fine people $250 the first time, $500 the second time and $650 the third time. It is important to remember that UN Special Rapporteur Catarina De Albuquerque said, “”When there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”

Privatization of water services

The water shut-offs put a spotlight on the larger dynamics at play in Detroit: the deep racial and economic divides, globalization and the hollowing out of a once almighty industry and the push to privatize one of our most basic resources.

The Detroit People’s Water Board, a local coalition promoting the human right to water, warn that officials see the unpaid accounts as a “bad debt” and want to entice private companies to bid on the city’s water system. In June, Detroit News reported that Emergency Manager Kevin Orr was reviewing several bids for the water system. Privatization cases around the world have resulted in rate increases, job losses and deterioration in water. The privatization of Detroit’s water system will exacerbate human rights violations we are only beginning to see.

What next?

President Obama has remained shockingly silent on Detroit’s water war and the human rights violation in the largest city along the US-Canada border.

Detroit is a cross roads and the choice it makes will have grave impacts on the ability of all to have water and whether it drives a larger wedge into existing racial and economic divides. It can go down the path of looking to the market for solutions to its water troubles which see water as a commodity, people as consumers, and health issues as externalities. Private companies are not accountable to the public. Or Obama can hold true to his word when he endorsed the UN’s resolution recognizing the human right to water and sanitation and ensure that people in Detroit have water to live. Community groups in Detroit are calling for the shutoffs to end permanently and for the city to go back to the table with community groups to implement the original water affordability program.

If this summer’s protests show anything, it’s that Obama and Governor Snyder will continue to have quite a fight on their hands if they don’t restore water to Detroiters.

To tell President Obama and Governor Snyder to stop the shutoffs, click here.

To see photos from the water convoy, click here.