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Sharing Gratitude for Niigaani-gichigami/Lake Ontario


I was invited to speak on behalf of the Council of Canadians at the Niigaani-gichigami Gratitude Walk on June 8th. The event included a Water Ceremony, prayers of gratitude and for the health of Niigaani-gichigami/Lake Ontario and all the waterways connected to it, a prayer walk led by drummers, and finally a festival and barbecue in celebration of water and community.

While unforseen circumstances unfortunately prevented me from speaking at the event, I am sharing here what I had planned to say: 

My name is Rachel Small and I work with the Council of Canadians, a social and environmental justice organization that has been working with communities across Canada to protext water for over 30 years. I also organize with the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network, a grassroots collective that advocates, agitates, and educates in solidarity with communities around the world harmed by Canadian mining companies, most of which are based just a km or so away from here over on Bay Street.

I am the grandaughter of settlers who fled persecution across Europe and ultimately landed in the 1930s and 40s on traditional Mohawk territory on the island of Montreal. I have only lived here in Tkaronto by the shore of Niigaani-gichigami, or Lake Ontario, for a few years, so this water is new to me.

Some of what I have learned is that this lake’s modern English name is not actually named after the province, but the opposite. The province’s name, Ontario, comes from a Haudenosaunee word referring to sparkling waters.  

More than one-quarter of Canada’s population lives within this lake’s watersheds. But before there was “Canada” this watershed was of course home to Indigenous peoples for many thousands of years.  

And, perhaps to put yesterday’s election results in perspective, let’s remember that these same peoples have been resisting and fighting for liberation for hundreds of years against the colonial governments that have claimed power here, that we know are simply different sides of the same coin, whether they now dress in red, blue, or orange. Some of these governments of course cut us deeper, faster, harder. but these are all colonial governments and all of us who are settlers here have a lot to learn from those who have been resisting these governments’ violence since French colonizers first arrived here, resisting the violence exacted on Indigenous people’s land, cultures and of course bodies. 

These governments have never respected and followed the laws of this land, laws that predate them. This territory where we stand now was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Anishinabek and Haudensaunee Confederacies and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the land around the Great Lakes. We know our supposed governments have acted with violence instead of with peace, and have willfully and meticulously destroyed this land instead of caring for it as the covenant demands.   

Just one result of that is that at least 10 fish species in this lake have gone extinct. Meanwhile Lake Ontario at various points became what I think can be best described as a chemical soup, containing toxins like DDT, lead, mercury and PCBs. 

The lake is in a bit of a better place now than it was a few decades ago, and that is largely due to the tireless activism and organizing of so many people over many years, a tradition which we are part of today. 

As part of my work I am priveleged to work alongside communities nearby, in the Grand River Watershed who are fighting Nestlé, and the company’s evergrowing greed for water. Meanwhile, First Nations across the country have been deprived of access to clean water with 174 current drinking water advisories on First Nations reserves. Just around the corner of this lake from us, 11,000 people on the Six Nations reserve lack access to clean water. Trudeau of course has just promised to buy a leaky pipeline from the Texan company Kinder Morgan for over $4.5 billion instead of spending the money to end these drinking water advisories on First Nations, as he has promised many times to do. We also work alongside communities fighting the big oil giant BP, the company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, who is now trying to begin drilling offshore of Nova Scotia. At the G7 this weekend in Quebec, Trudeau will actually be hosting a meetings focused on ocean protection, and my colleagues will be confronting the leaders there with the signatures of thousands who want offshore drilling to stop. And a new bill is being rushed through the House of Commons right now, Bill C-69, which is a 400-page piece of legislation that makes sweeping changes to Canada’s water, energy and environmental laws, and fails to protect waterways from massive pipelines like the Kinder Morgan pipeline that I mentioned earlier. 

I could go on and on – there are so many battles that people across Turtle Island are fighting to protect water. But I was also asked today to offer a song or a prayer, and while I come from a rich Jewish tradition of prayer, and of ritual involving water, the water prayer that resonated most with me in this moment is actually a contemporary poem, one that is about both water and grieving. One that I suspect many will be familiar with. So I’ll leave you all with these words from the poem “what they did yesterday afternoon” by Warsan Shire. 

what they did yesterday afternoon 

by Warsan Shire

they set my aunts house on fire

i cried the way women on tv do

folding at the middle

like a five pound note.

i called the boy who use to love me 

tried to ‘okay’ my voice

i said hello

he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

i’ve been praying,

and these are what my prayers look like;

dear god

i come from two countries

one is thirsty

the other is on fire

both need water.

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

it answered