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Thirst for Justice challenges G8 agenda in Halifax

Last night a public meeting was held in Halifax on the eve of the G8 Development Ministers meeting (April 26-28). At ‘Thirst for Justice’. Barbara Clow from the Atlantic Centre of Excellent for Women’s Health, myself from the Council of Canadians and Jada Voyager from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation made the links between how the Canadian government is failing women, children and First Nation communities through policies that lead to the contamination of water resources, deny access to clean drinking water and by failing to recognize water as a human right in Canada and internationally.

Providing an overview of the G8/G20, its processes and Canada’s role in the development of the agenda of the G8 and G20 Summits in Toronto this June, I talked about the focus Prime Minister Harper has put on the G8 agenda to address women’s and children’s health in the global south, including access to clean water. Questioning Harper’s statement that the “cost of clean water is within the reach of any country in the G8”, I expressed our concerns about the legitimacy, neoliberal agendas and failed legacy of the G8 and G20 to date.

Barbara Clow spoke to her research which highlights “contaminants in water and poor water quality is a direct threat to everyone, but especially to women and children who are more vulnerable” and the additional exposure that aboriginal women in Canada face, as locations of First Nations and indigenous communities are often downstream of industrial sites which have higher levels of environmental contaminants. Additionally she commented on the cultural and spiritual impact that unsafe and unclear water has on aboriginal women who are keepers of water ceremonies.

Jada Voyager spoke of Fort Chipewyan’s crisis with the downstream impacts of the tar sands in Alberta. She spoke to noticeable pollution to the fresh water in Lake Athabasca including the discovery of deformed fish, increased toxins in the environment and increased levels of rare forms of cancer in her community. She thanked Dr. John O’Connor, a Nova Scotia resident and Council of Canadians board member), for speaking out about the links between these cancer rates and the increased tar sands production.

Hundreds will challenge the G8 development ministers meeting in Halifax at a mass rally and march today

Hundreds will challenge the G8 development ministers meeting in Halifax at a mass rally and march today

Comments from the audience included recognition of the high rates of boiled water advisories in African Canadian communities in Nova Scotia, and similar parallels of health impacts from lack of access to clean water in these communities; linking the work in Fort Chipewyan to other active aboriginal struggles to resist development of tar sands export – the Lubicon Cree and First Nation communities in BC resisting the building of the Enbridge pipeline to the coast; and a discussion about what communities in Atlantic Canada will do to continue to highlight disagreement with the G8 and G20 agendas after the large march and rally scheduled for April 25. Ideas included joining the events in Toronto and organizing solidarity events through the province.

At the beginning of the event – audience and presenters sang the following alphabet soup – to the tune of ‘Now I Know My ABC’s…”. Highly recommended!


Now I know my enemy … Won’t you come challenge the G8 with me? (Thanks to regional organizer Scott Harris for inspiration!)

The panel and discussion provided a concise counterpoint to the letter below, which had appeared that day in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, by Bev Oda, Minister of International Co-operation.


Mother and child key
Sat. Apr 24 – 4:54 AM

Next week, I welcome the development ministers of other G8 nations to Halifax and to the historic Pier 21, where one and a half million immigrants, displaced people and refugees first set foot in Canada.

Canada has always stood for providing the opportunity for a better life to people from other parts of the world.

As this year’s G8 president, Canada is in a position to take action that will help millions of people around the world.

We know that improving the health of mothers and young children is fundamental to achieving a better future for developing countries — especially those in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, where most of these losses occur. Such losses — to preventable causes like diarrhea in young children or hemorrhaging during childbirth — would be inconceivable here in Canada. Developing countries do not have the means and the resources to prevent these deaths.

A child born in a developing country is 13 times more likely to die within the first five years of life than a child born in an industrialized country. Every year, nine million children in the developing world die before their fifth birthday of causes that are largely preventable: pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, severe acute malnutrition, measles and HIV. Health experts believe that many newborn deaths can be prevented if skilled health workers are present during childbirth and to provide care for babies during their first crucial week of life. By making health systems stronger, we can help make basic health care accessible to the most vulnerable among us. It is tragic to think that simple measures like bed nets to prevent malaria, vaccinations, better nutrition and food, and dependable health care close to home could prevent these deaths, but are not available to those who need them most.

Of all the Millennium Development goals put forward a decade ago, maternal health is the one that lags farthest behind. The G8 pre-summit meeting of development ministers will be a significant step toward improving the health of mothers and children under the age of five.

The UN secretary general perhaps best captured the impact this could have when he noted, “Women are the drivers of progress: In the poorest societies of the world, it is women who care for the children. They grow the crops, hold societies together. Women deliver — and not just babies. And if we deliver for women, we can change the world for the better.”

No one has ever questioned the urgent need to address this issue.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will continue to champion this G8 effort that will help save the lives of millions of mothers and young children in the developing world. We are working with our G8 colleagues on the specifics of a combined and co-ordinated effort to reach a consensus that will allow us to move forward. Those final decisions will be made by the G8 leaders when they meet in Muskoka in June.

Next week’s development meeting will also be an opportunity to review progress on other important G8 development issues, such as food security and aid effectiveness. We will focus on common goals because millions of lives are in the balance.

Beverley J. Oda is Canada’s minister of international co-operation.