Only after the last tree has been cut down,
Only after the last river has been poisoned,
Only after the last fish has been caught,
Only then will you find money cannot be eaten.
“If you want a piece of the river, you better get running ‘cuz its moving fast”
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These words were spoken by an Anishnabe woman at a forum I attended a few weeks ago on the privatization of BC Hydro and its effect on Indigenous communities and citizens in this province. At this event, speakers from different backgrounds presented on what is happening with the process of selling off of the rivers and waterways in British Columbia (BC) and what kind of economic, social and cultural impact this will have on people in the area.
BC Hydro, a provincial crown corporation, is being gutted by the BC Liberal government and gradually sold off to what are called Independent Power Producers (IPP), who will be able to dam the rivers and sell power to the highest bidder. 535 rivers across the province have already been sold off and more are planned. 28 rivers are already making power for private owners, 30 rivers have been dynamited as of April and 200 more have been given the green light.
Chief Stewart Phillip from the Union of BC Indian Chiefs attended the event and spoke specifically about what the privatization of water will do to the many First Nations communities spread around the province. We live in a province where the majority of land has never been surrendered by Indigenous people through treaties or a war. 97% of the land has no written agreement between the federal government and the Indigenous nations whose territory BC claims as its own. This means that, according to the Royal Proclamation signed in 1763, the land legally belongs to Indigenous people. So, in dealing with any issue around land or resources, there is an unspoken and cruel contradiction that exists in this province. They are selling what is not theirs to sell. Chief Stewart Phillip touched on this issue, when explaining what kind of changes will come about with the acceleration of privately owned rivers.
The most important issue is the effect that this sale has on Indigenous sovereignty. First Nations in BC have been engaged in a long battle with the provincial and federal governments for recognition of their inherent rights to their land and resources. Indigenous people have been going to jail repeatedly for simply exercising their rights to fish, to hunt, and to use their land. Selling off a portion of a river to a private company is an attack on Indigenous people’s sovereignty because it is privatizing their river and, in many cases, their livelihood. The fine print in these agreements notes that the sale of rivers includes the land that the riverbed sits on. This is a very big deal when Indigenous people are fighting to retain what little they have left and will deeply impact the land claims that are filed with the provincial and federal governments.
When they began their second term in office, the BC Liberal government adopted a ‘New Relationship’ with Aboriginal people in BC, which was a big public relations campaign they used to cover their sordid record of dealing with Indigenous people by announcing a ‘fresh start.’ This new relationship is still based on colonial foundations of stealing from Native people, and throwing activists and people who resist in jail. But hey, they can throw a few parties, and put on some moccasins to show that at least they’re trying. Their plan for privatizing the rivers in BC violates the three basic principles that they set as the foundation for this new relationship. First, that Aboriginal rights and title exist. Second, that First Nations have the ability and authority to make decisions with respect to territories. And third, that there be shared decision-making between government and First Nations. Not only has the government denied Indigenous people’s inherent right to their rivers and are making their claim over the land more difficult by selling it to a private company, but they have not consulted or really involved Indigenous people in the process.
Not just a BC problem
The issue of clean running water goes beyond the sell-off of rivers currently happening in BC. Look at any statistic related to water in Indigenous communities all across Canada and you’ll see the problem. In 2002, a study by the First Nations Regional Longitudinal Health Survey (RHS) found serious concerns among Indigenous communities of low water quality and found 21 communities to be at high risk. It also found that about one third of First Nations adults consider their household water unsafe to drink and that 7 out of 10 resorted to alternate sources for drinking water. Bottled water was the most common alternative.
The crisis of water in Indigenous communities was brought to TV screens all around the world when the Cree community of Kashechewan in Northern Ontario was evacuated in October 2005 because they were being poisoned by the water they were drinking. Over 800 people crammed into dorm rooms and friends houses throughout the province because the conditions in their own community were so bad. The water problem there began when E. Coli was discovered in the water system, as a result of the Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) building a water treatment plant just downstream from a sewage treatment plant. When this was discovered, the community was put on a boil-water advisory and encouraged to add more chlorine to the water. This resulted in not only E. Coli poisoning, but also severe burns and lacerations from chlorine poisoning and a medical emergency in the community.
The example of Kashechewan is important because it shows what happens to a community when their water, their resources, are not in their own hands. It was Canada who poisoned their water and didn’t bother to fix the problem because the government of Canada’s interests do not include the well-being of Indigenous people. Another study by the Assembly of First Nations has found that over 100 Indigenous communities in Canada are on a permanent boil-water advisory.
Water is life
“From the teachings of the Elders we learn that: Water is life; and Water is sacred; Water is the life breath of the Creator. Water is no ordinary element—water is power. Water is important to us emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally. Water connects all living things. Understanding the meaning of water helps us to understand our interconnectedness.”
- Darlene Sanderson, Cree
Fresh water is a source of life. It flows through the veins and enriches every square inch of the land we live on. For the environment, for humans, it is a necessity. There is no question about this. It is inconceivable a resource that should be available to everyone be held and controlled privately for profit. Unfortunately it is the nature of capitalism to turn everything into a commodity to be bought and sold, even those necessities of life.
The private ventures on the rivers around the province will undoubtedly leave a huge mark on the environment as these companies only have their revenue in mind, and it is an issue that affects not only Indigenous people, but all people in BC. This is why it is important to stand together to demand that the government not only stop the privatization of water in the province, but acknowledge and respect the inherent rights that Indigenous people have to their land and resources in order for us all to maintain this land for future generations.