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What we can learn from First Nations about water

I returned yesterday from participating in the Honouring the Waters Indigenous Water Forum which is being held in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario from July 18th to 21st, 2011. The conference will be live-streamed online by both Nationtalk.ca and Indiancountrytv.com. As the Chiefs of Ontario’s media advisory notes, “this will be the first time that Indigenous organizations, on both sides of the Canada/US border, will be partnering to broadcast an important event directly affecting the lives of North American Indigenous Peoples.”

In its third year, the forum brought together over 100 chiefs (current/former) and members from First Nations. The communities were from all around the Great Lakes Basin on both sides of the border as well as communities from other parts of Canada.

The forum topics included:
• History of the Great Lakes
• Jurisdiction & Rights
• Wampum Teachings
• Our Relationship to the Water
• Healthy Waters and a Path Forward
• Treaties
• Progress Plan

A number of issues were discussed including Bruce Power’s shipment of nuclear waste across the Great Lakes, hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ and the commodification of water.

A refreshing feature of the forum was how well integrated the youth were in the forum and water issues generally. An elder led a small group of boys through drumming to open Tuesday’s session. There were several youth panels with one panel opening the floor to youth to share their work in water issues. The youth were extremely involved in water issues with their projects including developing a tool kit for youth to learn about water teachings and teaching communities how to clean their wells.

In a conversation with Frank Ettawageshik, Executive Director of the United Tribes of Michigan and Co-Chair of the Forum, I commented on the high level of youth involvement. He stressed the importance of encouraging youth to be involved and said, “Well, we talk about seven generations, we have to make sure we reach the first generation.” Simple, yet wise words.

On the morning of July 19, I presented on the issues we work on at the Council of Canadians including the Great Lakes Commons, the UN resolutions on the right to water and sanitation, the Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement, our Blue Communities project and Bill S-11. For more information on our water campaign, click here.

A youth panel held a break out session for participants with a number of issues including Bill S-11,  protecting ecological diversity and ways forward. Many people in the group that I was in recognized the importance of educating people within First Nation communities as well as outside of these communities. There is a general lack of awareness of the colonization of North America, residential schools and the abhorrent conditions on First Nations reserves among the Canadian public. The group also discussed the importance of communities understanding their Treaties and holding the Canadian government to account on them.

While the Council of Canadians is working to implement the Great Lakes Commons and while this may appear to be a ‘new’ concept to some Western societies, the idea of the commons is a very old one among indigenous cultures. It was very clear to me that many First Nations ‘live’ the commons – in the way they view the world, relate to one another and cherish water and the natural environment.

What struck me as so heartening was how seriously these First Nations take their responsibility to care for and protect the waters, the air and other parts of the natural environment. This responsibility was outlined articulately in the recent Watershed Declaration passed by the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation in Northern Ontario:

“The Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug were put here by Keeshaymanitou (the Creator) who gave us the four sacred elements of fire, earth, air and water, along with the right to use them and the responsibility to care for them always in order to maintain the sacred balance of life.  This right and responsibility has its spiritual foundation from the beginning of time, it continues now, and will exist in what is yet to come.”

In contrast to societies that are deepening market mechanisms to commodify many corners of our lives, one leader at this conference highlighted the lack of foresight in current policies when he said, “We need water to drink; we can’t drink money.”

We are reaching a critical mass in North America and around the world where people see that unbridled economic development is having alarming consequences all over the earth. We are at a crossroads and there is not only an opening but a pressing need for First Nations to take the lead on how to live in harmony with nature. The name of the conference – Honouring the Waters – truly reflects how many First Nations view  water; that it is something that is truly sacred and to be honoured. At a time when we need to rethink choosing material wealth over values, the rest of Canada would benefit to pay heed and learn about how First Nations have lived in harmony of nature for thousands of years, whether or not our governments do.