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Addressing Water Challenges in Indigenous Communities
Water First is a grassroots non-profit working with Indigenous communities in Canada to tackle some of the water challenges they face through education, training, and meaningful collaboration. 

To date, this new decade has proved to be life-changing and, for many, deeply traumatic: the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic has reshaped our daily lives, environmental crises are creating deep strains on communities and their resources, the US Presidential election garnered global attention like never before, and continuing systemic racism and police violence has worsened the impact of all of these events for BIPOC communities,. However, through the haze of these lows, new and existing platforms have emerged with emboldened voices in an attempt to create positive change. 


It might now feel like a distant memory, but perhaps some of the most significant organizing at the start of this new decade involved the climate marches and the Black Lives Matter protests happening around the world. The climate marches, stoked by impassioned youth like Greta Thunberg and Isra Hirsi, brought some much-required attention to the environmental justice movement. The organization of these protests showed that youth from around the globe might perhaps provide the wisest solutions to the climate crisis. We’ve also seen numerous organizations sprout in the rubble of the destruction over the past years. From addressing rising ocean temperatures and coral bleaching to creating a more inclusive conversation regarding climate change and the outdoors, grass roots organizations are stepping up to the challenge of moving the conversation forward from the bottom up.


Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, and countless other people of color murdered at the hands of the police, racial injustice was placed at the forefront of the public eye. Though systemic racism and police brutality have always existed in the U.S., Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 left these issues unavoidable for those who previously denied their existence.  These highly publicized murders opened the floor for more discussion regarding the cascading issues caused by racial inequality and the absence of diverse voices in the climate conversation.


The combination of these major events and pandemic lockdowns have provided the time for new and long standing grass roots organizations to focus their efforts against environmental racism. In the United States and Canada, this deeply rooted issue is becoming more and more destructive with the worsening of climate change and current government policies.


Both Canada and the US have violent histories of colonization, dislocation, and forced removals of Indigenous peoples. These histories combine with present-day systemic racism to worsen the impacts of issues like climate change on Indigenous communities. In Canada specifically, some of the recurrent topics that shed light on the depth and breadth of environmental racism affecting Indigenous communities are oil sands, pipelines, an ongoing drinking water crisis, and expanding food insecurity due to climate change. Indigenous peoples in Canada, however, have shown time and again their determination to protect their lands and the requirement for more consultation by the Canadian Government if there is any hope of reconciliation. 


Indigenous communities in Canada have been combining western sciences with their local ecological and traditional knowledge in an effort to protect their lands. Through the education and training of Indigenous young adults, Water First--a non-profit based out of Creemore, Ontario, Canada-- collaborates with Indigenous communities to address some of the water challenges they face. To date, Water First has partnered with over 50 Indigenous communities in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Labrador and Manitoba. The scope of their environmental work in partnership with Indigenous communities includes delivering science education workshops in schools and training community members in water quality monitoring, climate studies, and fish habitat restoration.


DAYBREAK Editor-in-Chief Tommy Moore sat down with Dr. Carli Lang, Scientific Director at Water First, to get a better grasp on how Water First partners with Indigenous communities to help test, monitor, and manage their water resources.


What is driving the need to strengthen the capacity of Indigenous communities in Canada to monitor and improve their environmental water quality?


The reality is that industrial activities like mining, hydroelectric dams, forestry, oil and gas occur disproportionately on Indigenous territories. These activities have, and continue to, lead to contamination of watersheds, changes to water flow through valuable fish habitat, and the fragmentation of fish spawning areas. Changes to the amount of snow and the timing of spring run off, as well as ice flow, also affect these communities’ waterways and augment the effects of man-made activities. Unfortunately, these communities haven’t had a voice in the negotiations related to these activities, nor have their concerns of the effects been heard. As a result, communities want to better understand industrial and environmental reporting, and have the ability to monitor the effects of industry and climate change on their waters in a way that will be heard by industry and government.   


How can poor environmental water quality impact environmental and community health?


To Indigenous Peoples, water is life. Therefore, changes to the quality and quantity of water on their territory affects the plants and animals that these communities rely on for sustenance. The ability to hunt, fish and gather not only feeds these communities, it connects them culturally and spiritually to the land. Without clean water, a way of life is being lost.  


What do you teach in your education and training programs? 


At Water First, we focus on aspects of environmental water that will help communities monitor the condition and the effect of industry and/or climate change on their water resources and local fish populations. Importantly, we not only work with communities to collect data, but also support in the design of their monitoring plans, how to manage their data and to communicate their findings. Since many communities rely on fish for sustenance, we also help communities assess and restore fish habitat that has been affected. 


Could you describe your approach when working with Indigenous communities in Canada?


Our approach is to first consult with our Indigenous partners regarding their long term environmental water goals and help to identify their technical capacity needs. From this, we design a training program to address these goals and needs, which includes a project of priority to the community. We travel to the community to deliver the training and support the project, which provides an opportunity for hands-on practice and to gain confidence with new knowledge and technical skills.


How is Water First’s approach to collaborating with Indigenous communities different and successful?


That’s a great question. Building trust and nurturing meaningful relationships is at the heart of our work. Our approach of consultation, collaboration and alignment to long term goals and capacity needs is unique compared to other environmental training. It is also more challenging to deliver. Needs-based learning and the applied experience that comes out of our program, helps to strengthen communities’ capacity in a meaningful way with sustainable outcomes. This puts them well on their way toward a more active role in managing and stewarding their water resources.  


Can you talk us through an experience that  demonstrated to you the value of blending western science and local ecological knowledge?


In our fish habitat restoration project with Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach, we spoke to harvesters and knowledge keepers about identifying key Lake Trout habitat. We were taken to one location that had been passed down in the family as a place where you “were guaranteed to catch Lake Trout in September”. Later in the project, using a sonar to do bathymetry, the interns discovered that the area had many underwater islands and ridges, connected by deep channels.  Lake trout spawn in the fall over boulder and rubble substrate and the fish were using these deep channels to travel between open water and the spawning shoals. Through reciprocal learning grounded in a deep understanding of the value of both local ecological knowledge and western science, together local capacity is strengthened. 


The consequences of climate change and environmental racism are often felt first and strongest by Indigenous Peoples. These effects disproportionately impact Indigenous communities in part because of the lack of government regulations and oversight on the surrounding lands. Industries continually abuse the soft enforcement of these lands, dumping contaminates into the water, land, and air, which eventually all end up in the water table. Contaminated waters not only affect a community’s drinking water, but impede on cultural activities that are integral for these communities and their ways of life.  


Water First’s efforts to partner with Indigenous communities to empower them to champion their water supply is a step in the right direction. In the search for climate and environmental justice, leaders from these communities must be given a seat at the table and engaged with. Like with many instances of environmental racism, the voices that often go unheard are the voices that need to be heard the most.

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