Living

Water Is Life: Indigenous Women Are Fighting For Rivers, Lakes and Oceans

Our most precious resource faces endless threats, including pollution, resource extraction and for-profit bottling. Across Canada, these women are trying to protect it.

Michif artist Christi Belcourt designed these now-iconic posters with Isaac Murdoch.

This is part of a series: read more profiles of water advocates here.

Makaśa Looking Horse, Six Nations of the Grand River (near Brantford, Ont.)

A photograph of Makaśa Looking Horse

Makaśa Looking Horse. (Photo: Dakota Brant for Sapling and Flint Gallery)

“Knowing that my community doesn’t have clean drinking water, and then a large corporation like Nestlé is making billions off of our water is maddening,” says Makaśa Looking Horse. The 23-year-old lives in Six Nations of the Grand River in southern Ontario, the most populated First Nation in Canada. As of early 2018, only nine percent of those 12,892 people had safe, potable water flowing out of taps in their homes.

Yet Six Nations is located in the Grand River watershed, the largest inland river system in southern Ontario. In 1784, British general Frederick Haldimand promised the community a “safe and comfortable retreat” encompassing six miles on either side of the Grand River, from its mouth to its source. If that promise had been upheld, Six Nations would be in control of the entire watershed, which supplies the community and 16 municipalities with household water.

Instead, the water is controlled by Ontario. For two decades, the province has allowed Nestlé Waters Canada to withdraw 3.6 million litres of it per day, at a cost of only $503.71 per million litres. And as the multinational corporation profits, it costs thousands to connect a Six Nations home to the community’s water treatment system, which only opened in 2014. Inadequate infrastructure means that option isn’t available to everyone: Some families have wells, filled every week or so by a water truck, which costs about $150 for a family of six. Others collect rainwater in cisterns. Some homes have no running water whatsoever. For drinking, many have to buy single-use plastic water bottles—often from Nestlé.

All of this is unacceptable to Looking Horse, who has been advocating for Indigenous rights since she was little: At age 10, she opened the United Nations International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples with a sacred pipe ceremony. Her Nestlé-focused actions began in 2018, when she led a run around the area, then demonstrated outside the company’s bottling plant in Aberfoyle, Ont.

She’s not the only one in her community unhappy with the commodification of water. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council—a traditional form of government, dating back to “time immemorial”—is pursuing legal options against Nestlé. Last summer, the council drew up a cease-and-desist letter. Along with a clan mother, Looking Horse served it directly to the company’s president.

With a Mohawk mother and Lakota father, Looking Horse is able to draw from two different Indigenous traditions. Their traditions around water are different, she says, but both see it as a female entity. “Water protects our babies when they’re inside of us, so we have that relationship with water, of bringing life into the world,” she says. “And water has the same responsibility, because without water, there’s no life at all.”

The Cayuga translation of that call to action—“water is life”—is the name of a Six Nations research project, Ohneganos Ohnegahdę:gyo. Looking Horse is youth lead and works on community engagement, from organizing educational events to teaching locals how to conduct stream water quality tests. The project is also helping a Cree nation in northern Alberta, creating a sense of solidarity around Indigenous people’s water-quality issues across Canada.

“It’s more of a way of life for me than labelling myself as a water protector,” says Looking Horse. “I’m just fulfilling my duties as a Haudenosaunee and Lakota woman—everything that we’re taught from when we’re little, that we need to take care of the earth.”—Kelly Boutsalis

Christi Belcourt, Nimkii Aazhibikong (near Elliot Lake, Ont.)

A photograph of Christi Belcourt

Christi Belcourt. (Photo: Isaac Murdoch)

Christi Belcourt’s bright, floral, woodland-style paintings hang in many prestigious places, including the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. But the Michif artist’s most iconic work is available online, for free. That’s a set of black-and-white (and sometimes red) prints created with fellow Indigenous artist Isaac Murdoch, many featuring the maxim “water is life” in forceful, yet reverent, black typography.

The two began making the images in 2016, at the same time that the protests at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Midwestern United States were picking up steam. That fight was against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was eventually approved by the Trump administration and now transports up to 570,000 barrels of crude oil daily—right under the Missouri River, the main source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Belcourt and Murdoch’s images were emblazoned on posters all over the camp and have since become synonymous with resistance to resource extraction projects. And so, the duo offer the images for free online, for other activists to use for fundraising, banners or “anything at all that’s going to help people in other places do what they need to do, to stand up and protect the waters where they are, or the lands,” says Belcourt.

“Every good revolution has good revolutionary art,” she says. “What we really need for this earth is a revolution.”

Born in Scarborough, Ont., in 1966 to Métis rights leader Tony Belcourt and Judith Pierce Martin, Belcourt grew up in Ottawa. Despite her family’s activist background, Belcourt herself never got into politics—partly because one of her mentors made Belcourt promise that she wouldn’t: “She said . . . ‘There’s much more power in art,’ ” Belcourt recalls.

Then, in her 20s, Belcourt began receiving teachings from Anishinaabe and Métis elders that sparked her interest in environmental protection. “We are merely one small part in this big, beautiful universe, and our place is really just to walk softly and not leave any harm behind us,” Belcourt says quietly, about what she learned. “Because we’re beholden to everything else to live, and nothing needs us to live.”

Images of posters designed by Christi Belcourt and Isaac Murdoch

Belcourt designed these now-iconic images with fellow Indigenous artist Isaac Murdoch.

Central to these teachings is the importance of respecting water as a living being. “We believe that the water is alive, and we believe that the water has rights, and that it holds life,” says Belcourt. These teachings come through in her art—like Goodland, an acrylic rendition of a map made by a land surveyor in 1856, but with Indigenous place names—as well as her daily life. One of her current concerns is Enbridge Line 5, a 67-year-old crude oil pipeline that extends under the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet. She’s one of many who are worried that a leak in the aging pipeline could devastate the Great Lakes.

Addressing these issues from a grassroots level can be challenging. “It feels like an uphill battle,” Belcourt says. “Corporations have no regard for the actual people living in these places where they’re ruining the water.” She admits that it sometimes feels like David versus Goliath.

One way the 53-year-old stays grounded is by spending time at home, which is Nimkii Aazhibikong, an Indigenous language camp on the shores of Lake Huron in northern Ontario. In 2017, Belcourt, Murdoch and others established the camp as a place for youth and elders to gather, connect and learn from one another.

Nimkii Aazhibikong is a place of reclamation. There’s a strong focus on revitalizing cultural practices and ceremonies, some of which were historically outlawed by oppressive legislation like the Indian Act. There are lessons in Anishinaabemowin, or Ojibwe, and Indigenous ways of knowing and doing are promoted through traditional activities like storytelling and hide tanning. T-shirts and prints sold online through Belcourt and Murdoch’s Onaman Collective help fund these efforts.

“The best thing that I’ve seen is when children and young people are standing at the water’s edge, making their offerings to the water and praying to the water,” says Belcourt. “There was a time where [ceremonies] were practically outlawed, so to see now, children and young people finding that this is normal for them, it’s really, really a beautiful thing.”—Charnel Anderson

Dorene Bernard, Sipekne’katik First Nation (Indian Brook, N.S.)

A photo of Dorene Bernard with Ellen Page, whose documentary There's Something in the Water is about environmental racism in Nova Scotia.

Dorene Bernard with Ellen Page, whose documentary There’s Something in the Water is about environmental racism in Nova Scotia. (Photo: courtesy Dorene Bernard)

Dorene Bernard is many things, including a residential school survivor and a social worker. She’s an elder, whose role in ceremonial rituals, such as smudging, includes carrying the sacred pipe. The 63-year-old also has many names, including one in Mi’kmaq—Kesatum tan teli lnu’wey—which means “I love my Indian ways.”

Another name is “Grassroots Grandmother,” which the member of Sipekne’katik First Nation in Indian Brook, N.S., gave herself. An actual grandmother to nine, Bernard believes that her calling is to take part in a resurgence of Indigenous women reclaiming their place in their communities and helping their people heal from colonial trauma.

Since her teens, Bernard has also been an Indigenous rights activist. Her current focus is the Shubenacadie River, which winds 72 km from central Nova Scotia up to the Minas Basin and the Bay of Fundy. Bernard is on the front lines of the opposition against Alton Natural Gas Storage, an energy company proposing to use river water to dig into an underground salt formation, creating deposit caverns for natural gas on unceded Mi’kmaq territory.

A subsidiary of Calgary-based AltaGas, the company says that pumping used, briny water back into the Shubenacadie water system will not affect the Atlantic salmon, brook trout, striped bass and blueback herring that live in the river. But despite its environmental studies and river monitoring, Bernard feels differently.

“It doesn’t make any sense to us, and I don’t think it should make any sense to anybody, that [the process] would not have an impact on the life in that river,” says Bernard. For six years, she’s been a regular visitor to a resistance camp blocking access to the construction site, praying for the water every week.

Between the camp and various legal challenges, Sipekne’katik has been successful in slowing the project down. Bernard’s ultimate goal is to stop it altogether. “I don’t know what the future will be, but we know that we will not allow them to pollute our river and our water,” she says.

The “Grassroots Grandmothers Circle” Facebook group has 571 members, connecting Bernard to like-minded women across Canada. Some of them are water walkers, carrying on the teachings of the late Anishinaabe elder Josephine Mandamin, who walked thousands of kilometres around global waterways.

Inspired, Bernard and her women’s drum group began doing water walks in 2007, starting at Point Pleasant Park, a peninsula around the Atlantic Ocean in Halifax. Last year, a group of seven women completed a three-month, 850-km walk through the traditional territory of the Wabanaki Confederacy, along the Bay of Fundy from Nova Scotia down to Maine.

In late March, Netflix premiered There’s Something in the Water, a documentary about environmental racism affecting Black and Indigenous communities in Nova Scotia. co-directed by Ellen Page, it features a number of female activists, including Bernard. She’s happy that the urge to protect water has spread beyond Indigenous communities. “More and more people, water allies, are awakened to the relationship with the water,” she says. “They have a realization that everything needs water to live and how precious it is.”—Kelly Boutsalis

Ta’Kaiya Blaney, Vancouver, B.C.

Ta’Kaiya Blaney. (Photo: Getty Images)

In many ways, this young activist from the Tla’amin Nation has a connection to the water that almost seems destined. Her name—Ta’Kaiya—is a reference to sacred fresh waters in the Sliammon language. And she grew up alongside the Salish Sea on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast.

At 19, Ta’Kaiya Blaney is very busy, wrapping up her final year of high school and working as a professional singer and actor. But she considers her most important work to be defending water and land. It’s a responsibility instilled by her (“kookpa,” which means grandfather) and (“chi chia,” which means grandmother), who she credits for sharing oral stories that conveyed her duty to honour and protect her culture, something she’s been doing publicly since she was eight years old.

In 2011, at the age of 10, Blaney wrote a prescient open letter to Canadian MPs, encouraging them and everyone in B.C. to “realize the dangers of oil pollution” and phase out resource extraction jobs. “I ask government and corporate officials such as yourselves to change your plans and stop oil tanker traffic on B.C.’s coast and in waters around the world,” she wrote. Along with the letter, she shared a song she’d written with her music teacher, called “Shallow Waters.”

Her imploring requests went unmet, and since then, there have actually been proposals for increasing tanker traffic. So, as she’s gotten older, her advocacy has taken a more active form. That includes bringing international awareness to how environmental issues intertwine with the rights of Indigenous people, at events like the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City and the Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil.

Earlier this year, she and several other youth were arrested during an 18-hour peaceful occupation of the Victoria office of the provincial Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources. They were there supporting the hereditary leadership of the Wet’suwet’en First Nations who are fighting the construction of a natural gas pipeline through their territory in northern B.C., and concerned about the effect it could have on the watershed and endangered caribou.

“There were only four of us originally but toward the end there were so many youth who stood their ground and refused to leave,” says Blaney. Fittingly, she does this interview while on a ferry crossing the Salish Sea to Vancouver Island. “Their strength is really inspiring and really crucial for this work.”

There’s power in numbers, and Blaney isn’t planning on going it alone any time soon. As regional youth coordinator for the national group Indigenous Climate Action, she aims to mobilize and empower other Indigenous youth to stand up for the land, water and climate alongside her.

“We have this gigantic inheritance of Canada’s colonial legacy of genocide and the intergenerational trauma that accompanies that,” says Blaney. “But we also inherit a really profound strength of survival and resilience. I think it’s important that our youth know . . . and do what it takes to protect themselves and our lands.”

With that, the ferry announce­ments blared, and she went about her work.—Kelly Boutsalis

Marjorie Flowers, Rigolet, N.L.

Marjorie Flowers. (Photo: Wanda Andersen)

Marjorie Flowers doesn’t remember how many times she has been arrested. “Six. Seven, maybe,” says the 53-year-old, tallying up her visits to jail for protesting the Lower Churchill hydroelectric megaproject. At one 2017 court appearance, a judge asked her to sign an order not to go within a kilometre of the construction site.

“And I said, ‘No, I’m sorry. I can’t promise that,’ ” says the mother of two, who instead spent the next 10 days in custody at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s, N.L.

Flowers grew up in Rigolet, a community of about 300 Inuit near the Churchill River on the central coast of Labrador. It’s less than 200 km downstream from what used to be Muskrat Falls, until it was dammed to create a reservoir for the Lower Churchill project. Built by the provincial corporation Nalcor Energy, the facility is set to power Newfoundland, the Maritimes and beyond when it’s finished, likely within a year. But many Labradorians remain worried that the project will wreak havoc on the waterways and wildlife in its vicinity.

When Flowers first heard about Lower Churchill, her initial concern was that it provide jobs for Indigenous people. That was before she learned that generating hydroelectricity required damming the falls, and creating and flooding the reservoir. Doing so meant potentially increasing the river’s level of a potent neurotoxin called methyl­mercury. It occurs when microbes in aquatic systems convert inorganic mercury found in soil into a form that can accumulate in fish and other marine life. Those, in turn, can poison humans that rely on them for sustenance, causing cardiovascular problems in adults and brain impairment in children.

Nalcor monitors methyl­mercury levels in the river and has stated that its studies “do not predict that creation of the Muskrat Falls reservoir will heighten risk to people” downstream. But Flowers doesn’t feel that the government or Nalcor has truly listened to the concerns raised by her community and outside experts.

She’s part of a group of Inuit and other local environmentalists called the Labrador Land Protectors. In October 2016, fed up with the lack of response to its meetings and rallies, the group occupied the dam site for four days.

That’s one of the times she was arrested. “We’ve been hauled through a series of court appearances . . . just because we have said we want to be safe,” says Flowers. “We just want to do what is necessary to protect our food and our way of life.” According to a 2016 Harvard University study, those who rely on locally harvested fish and waterfowl are already at increased risk of mercury exposure, even before industrial pollution heightens levels of the toxin. Inuit have been catching and eating fish in what’s now Labrador for thousands of years.

“My whole world view is that of an Inuit woman. An Inuit girl growing up in an Inuit community, eating wild food, watching my grandmother clean sealskins and make sealskin boots,” says Flowers.

While the battle against the Lower Churchill project seems to have been lost, Flowers remains undefeated. She and other Labrador Land Protectors have joined the North American Megadam Resistance Alliance, a coalition determined to stop a proposed hydroelectric corridor running from Labrador and Quebec to the northeastern United States.

“We have to protect what little we have left,” says Flowers. And she’s willing to get arrested again to do it.—Charnel Anderson

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Dorene Bernard’s Mi’kmaq name.


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