Water is sacred to Indigenous people. They have been fighting to protect it for decades | CBC Radio

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By Rhiannon Johnson | CBC Radio

For Indigenous people water is more than just hydration: It’s alive and holds a spirit. Water is life

For Pamela Palmater, making sure that people are aware of the threats facing water is an urgent matter.

“When we tend to look at dangers to water, you might just look at one small thing and say, OK, well, just don’t run the water when you brush your teeth,” Palmater, a lawyer, professor, activist and author, told Unreserved’s Rosanna Deerchild.

But Palmater, a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick, said the issue is so much bigger than that.

Earlier this year, she produced the short documentary film Samqwan, which translates to water in the Mi’kmaq language, to raise awareness about these concerns.

Indigenous people have been standing up to protect water for decades — because to them, is more than just hydration. Water is alive and holds a spirit. Water is sacred.

It’s the lifeblood that flows through lakes, rivers and oceans, fosters important ecosystems and has been used for transportation since time immemorial.

Palmater said that in the old days of environmental conservation, the biggest concern was making sure we weren’t contaminating the water. But now, whether people even have access to water needs urgent attention.

She said humans are the biggest threat to the health of water because overfishing, clearcutting forests and pollution from industry all have a compounding effect.

The documentary initially began as a podcast that was commissioned by ImagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival for the 2022 FLOW audio works exhibit. She then turned the podcast into a short documentary to help reach as many people as possible.

In 2003, Anishnaabe Elder Josephine Mandamin took her first ceremonial water walk around Lake Superior. She wanted to share a message: the water is sick and people need to speak, love and fight for it.

Shirley Williams, an Anishinaabe elder from Wikwemikong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island, along with her niece Elizabeth Osawamick, have since followed in Mandamin’s footsteps. They’ve been organizing annual water walks around the Kawartha region of Ontario since 2010.

“Water is the first thing that the Creator made, and it’s the water where we were born,” said Williams.

“We pray for that water because water is a living thing. It’s not a commodity. We look at it as a spiritual element.”

Williams said that when she was a child, her father would take her out in their boat and tell her stories.

“I was looking at the water and naming all of these things I saw at the bottom of the lake,” said Williams.

She said her father said that in her lifetime, she might not be able to see anything in the water anymore because it’s becoming polluted.

“When he said that there was a boat that come by with some big motor and then he said, see what I mean? He said, ‘look at on top of the water.’ And I looked on top of the water and I saw oil.”

He then said that people might eventually have to buy water — a reality that plagues many First Nations across Canada.

St. Croix (Skutik) River

Connection to the land

In December 2021, a settlement worth $8 billion was approved between Canada and certain First Nations, whose members who were subject to a drinking water advisory that lasted at least one year between Nov. 20, 1995, and June 20, 2021.

The settlement includes $1.5 billion in compensation for individuals deprived of clean drinking water; $6 billion to upgrade water infrastructure to help settle ongoing water issues; and the creation of a $400-million First Nation Economic and Cultural Restoration Fund.

Some sources of water, however, remain untouched by human development — and Indigenous people are still fighting to protect them for future generations.

Stephanie Thorassie is an advocate for the Seal River Watershed, a pristine region in northern Manitoba, about 200 km west of Churchill. It is a vast area central to the Sayisi Dene people, who have served as its guardians for thousands of years.

“The connection to the land and the caribou is very strong for us spiritually. Our souls are connected to the land and the waters that are there,” she said.

“For us it’s a part of the life that we’ve been living forever: being stewards, being caretakers, existing alongside with nature, as a part of nature, in this very area.”

The Seal River Watershed spans over 50,000 square kilometres in northwestern Manitoba, an area of untouched wilderness roughly the size of Nova Scotia that contains 22 known at-risk species including polar bears, orcas and wolverines.

Thorassie is the executive director of the Seal River Watershed Alliance, a partnership between four First Nations pushing to have the area designated an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA).

ICPAs are lands and waters where Indigenous governments have the primary role in protecting and conserving ecosystems through Indigenous laws, governance, and knowledge systems.

Thorassie said that preserving the land is integral to the health and survival of her people.

“We understand first hand what happens when you have a disconnect with the land and you have a disconnect with the Caribou and the water,” she said.

In 1954, 250 members of the Sayisi Dene were forcibly removed from their traditional territory and relocated to Churchill, where Thorassie said there was no source of freshwater and no way to harvest food and medicine from the land as they had done before.

“Our community members really suffered,” said Thorassie. “A third of our community members died because of the despair and the loss of hope and the loss of connection to the land.”

By the time the government agreed to relocate the people to Tadoule Lake in 1973, the damage was done — of the more than 250 members who were originally moved, 117 had died.

In August 2016, Carolyn Bennett, then Canada’s Indigenous and northern affairs minister, delivered the government’s formal apology to survivors of the 1956 relocation.

For Thorassie protecting the land and water with the IPCA of the Seal River Watershed means that future generations will not only exist, but thrive.

“The young people are how we sustain ourselves, how our communities hope to exist in the future,” she said.

“Making sure they have a connection with the land ensures they have a good connection and understanding of themselves.”

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