Water Is Life: The Indigenous Women Who Uncovered A Massive Sewage Spill

Kristen Villebrun spent three days floating in Hamilton's harbour to get the city to notice how polluted it was. Then, she and Danielle Boissoneau spent three years pushing to get it cleaned up.

A photo of Danielle Boissoneau and Kristen Villebrun in Hamilton, Ont., where Chedoke Creek flows into the Cootes Paradise marsh.

Danielle Boissoneau and Kristen Villebrun in Hamilton, Ont., where Chedoke Creek flows into the Cootes Paradise marsh. (Photo: Erik Putz)

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

On a brisk, overcast afternoon at the Bayfront Park boat launch on Lake Ontario in Hamilton, Ont., Kristen Villebrun points to a dead muskrat that has washed up against a retaining wall separating the bay from walking trails. It’s the kind of thing most people don’t want to look at, says Villebrun, but it’s important that we do.

Most days, Villebrun, a petite, middle-aged Anishinaabe woman with flowing, chestnut brown hair, can be found walking the lengths of Hamilton’s waterways—from the Cootes Paradise marsh in the city’s west end over to Chedoke Creek, then on to Lake Ontario—pointing out things others would prefer to ignore. Like in the fall of 2015, when Villebrun and her friend Wendy Bush noticed scores of tampon applicators, needles and sewage washed ashore.

That day, Villebrun and Bush were building inuksuks—stone sculptures traditionally constructed by the Inuit, sometimes for navigation, sometimes as a warning—along Hamilton’s walking trails, near the harbour. Their goal was to spotlight Canada’s crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which the newly elected federal Liberal government had promised an inquiry into. That’s when they noticed the pollution.

Initially, Bush wasn’t sure what they were looking at. “It was like a big mat. It coated the top of the water, inches thick. It looked like clay almost,” recalls Bush, who is non-Indigenous. The more the women looked, the more debris and sewage they saw.

Villebrun and Bush say they alerted the city in late October, and that officials assured them there would be a sewage cleanup, but that weeks passed without one. City of Hamilton officials say the two got in touch in early November, and that a small cleanup was done within days.

What’s undisputed is that the women escalated their efforts to have pollution in the harbour taken seriously, and kept at it for years. Their activism would help uncover a sewage spill large enough to fill 10,000 Olympic swimming pools, an enormous amount that the City of Hamilton kept quiet for months.

In many Indigenous nations across Canada, women have a sacred relationship with the water—or nibi, as it’s called in Anishinaabemowin. In 2010, two provincial health centres commissioned Métis researcher Kim Anderson to explore this connection. To do so, she interviewed nearly a dozen First Nation, Inuit and Métis grandmothers, all of whom pointed out that water is essential not only to human survival, but the survival of all living things.

The phrase “water is life” has become a popular rallying cry at environmental demonstrations, but for many Indigenous women, it’s not a pithy metaphor—they see water as a sentient being with its own spirit. “Water is Mother Earth’s blood; her lakes, rivers and inlets are her veins, and all life needs water to sustain it,” Jean Aquash O’Chiese, an Ojibwe grandmother, told Anderson. Interviewees mentioned “Grandmother Moon,” as some Indigenous cultures call that astronomical body, which regulates the tides, while menstrual cycles, or “moon time,” roughly follow the moon’s 28-day cycle. Water features prominently throughout pregnancy and birth—it’s largely what cradles a growing baby, whose time to come into the world is signalled when the fluid-filled amniotic sac ruptures, known as when the water breaks.

As water plays such an essential role in women’s lives, says Anderson, many feel a sense of kinship with it. It’s a reciprocal relationship that requires giving thanks to the water for what it offers and accepting a responsibility to keep “the spirit of that water alive by ceremony,” as Cree grandmother Pauline Shirt told Anderson. One type of ceremony is a water walk, which is what it sounds like: mindfully walking around a body of water. Water walks are “education, they’re advocacy, they’re raising awareness about water,” explains Anderson. “It’s about developing a relationship with the water . . . reinforcing that relationship and the responsibilities we have to it.”

Perhaps the most celebrated water walker in Canada was the late Josephine Mandamin, an Anishinaabe grandmother from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island in Ontario. In 2000, Mandamin heard a prophecy that, by the year 2030, an ounce of water would cost the same as an ounce of gold. Three years later, at age 61, she co-founded the Mother Earth Water Walk, walking thousands of kilometres around gitchigami, or Lake Superior, to highlight Great Lakes pollution. Mandamin walked at least 17,000 km around waterways on Turtle Island, or North America, before her 2019 death. The many women who Mandamin inspired include her own great-niece Autumn Peltier, who has become an internationally recognized water protector. Still a teenager, Peltier is a regular speaker at the United Nations and has succeeded Mandamin as chief water commissioner of the Anishinabek Nation.

“There’s a teaching that grandmother Josephine used to give,” says Villebrun affectionately. “When you’re sick, and you go to the doctor, and you cough… when you see green, or yellow, you’ve got an infection, and you get medication for that. Well, the water is sick, it’s green, it’s yellow. It’s sick, and it’s showing us that.”

Back in 2015, she and Bush were fed up with what they saw as the City of Hamilton’s inaction on its sick water. Weeks after the women first noticed the pollution, they happened upon a piece of a dock floating freely. The two went home, collected warm clothes, charged their phones and returned to the harbour. They stepped out on the dock and floated into the harbour, staying there for the better part of three days. It was unseasonably warm for the middle of November. The women remember what Villebrun simply calls “death”: dead, bloated beavers, dead turtles, decomposed birds. “It was hard,” she recalls, holding back emotions.

But their bid to bring awareness to Hamilton’s waterways worked. Reporters showed up from CBC, CHCH News and the Hamilton Spectator. On the third day of their demonstration, Villebrun met with city officials, who agreed to close part of the waterfront trail. In mid-November, a cleanup crew protected by biohazard gear collected bags of waste filled with needles and tampons.

Wet weather can cause untreated waste water to be discharged into Hamilton’s waterways, says Dan McKinnon, the general manager of the city’s Public Works department. Heavy rain or melting snow can overwhelm the city’s infrastructure, causing underground tanks that are designed to trap and hold excess untreated waste water and stormwater to “bypass” and overflow. McKinnon says that in 2015, the city didn’t usually do cleanups after such discharges, because “we didn’t typically find a lot of [debris] on the shoreline.” He says a heavy October rainstorm that overwhelmed two of the city’s underground tanks may be to blame for the sewage Villebrun and Bush found in the harbour, but he can’t be certain. And even after the cleanup, debris continued to accumulate.

Villebrun shared her concerns with a friend, Danielle Boissoneau, who in turn organized the inaugural Hamilton Harbour Water Walk in 2016. Dozens turned out for the first of what is now an annual event. Water walks are “a beautiful thing,” says Boissoneau, an Anishinaabe mother of five, who finds the walks an invigorating way to connect with the water.

“Colonialism has done a really good job and not just on Indigenous people, but everyone,” says Boissoneau, who wants people to think of water as more than a resource or something to exploit. She considers water a living relative that enables human lives and therefore requires our protection. That most people don’t value it that way can be taxing on walkers. Many have fallen ill on the walks, including Boissoneau, who one year developed an upper respiratory infection and suffered sunstroke. “I think because we’re walking in such close connection to the water, we’re taking on some of the sicknesses and sadness that the water carries,” she says.

Two years after the water walks began, and almost three since Villebrun and Bush’s floating protest, city and provincial officials finally became alarmed enough about the water’s smell and high bacteria levels to warn its 537,000 residents about contamination in Chedoke Creek. An investigation was launched into the source of the sewage and, in July 2018, the city put out a release stating that a bypass gate on an underground overflow tank had been left cracked open, for unknown reasons. It had been found discharging untreated water into the creek. The release said that the city had immediately stopped the discharge and began the cleanup.

Six months later, according to the Hamilton Spectator, city councillors learned the shocking extent of the spill: 24 billion litres of stormwater runoff and sewage had been released into Chedoke Creek and the surrounding waters. The bypass gate had been open for four entire years. Yet neither the city nor the province informed the public of the amount or duration of the spill for months. In November 2019, prompted in part by the Spectator’s digging, Hamilton released formerly confidential reports about the open gate, the size of the spill, environmental assessments and possible cleanup options. Today, McKinnon from Public Works says it’s possible that the sewage and debris the women noticed in the fall of 2015 had flowed from the underground tank that was left cracked open in 2014. But again, there’s no way to be certain.

After news of the spill became public, Villebrun, Boissoneau and others came together as Nibi Awan Bimaadiziwin, a water advocacy collective of Indigenous women and two-spirit people. At a town hall meeting, the group urged city councillors to apologize for the sewage spill—not to them, but to the water itself. Boissoneau says it was a way of asking politicians to humble themselves and “learn about other ways of doing things.”

Three councillors agreed and, on the December 2019 winter solstice, accompanied Villebrun, Boissoneau and others on a trip to the waterfront. Boissoneau encouraged the politicians to take the opportunity to develop their own relationship with the water and showed them how to offer tobacco, a sacred Anishinaabe medicine given as a gift, to the water.

Nrinder Nann, councillor for a downtown ward, was there. She says the apology was a “deeply moving” experience. During hers, she made a commitment to “do right by the water.” She says the challenge for politicians facing public outcry was to avoid getting caught up in shame, and instead take responsibility. “It just felt like an opportunity to walk forward from that moment, instead of being in this place of defensiveness,” says Nann.

Since the spill, Hamilton has begun putting out a media release when the wastewater system bypasses and discharges sewage into Chedoke Creek. It also plans to hire more staff to monitor the system. The city is advising the province to simply monitor the creek, too, rather than dredge the bed, as recommended by an expert report from before the spill became public. (A more recent environmental consultant report, from this past February, suggested that dredging would only release more contaminants. That same report found that contaminants levels are now comparable to what they were before the spill.) In an emailed statement, the province said its investigation is in its final stages.

The city’s acknowledgement of the spill should have been a vindication for Villebrun. But it wasn’t, she says, because “the water is still sick.”

On one of her almost daily visits to the harbour, Villebrun steps out onto a boat launch. With one hand, she steadies herself against a railing. With the other, she sprinkles a pinch of tobacco. The shreds land on a thin sheet of ice covering the water. The dock shifts under her weight and water washes the tobacco away—as if to say miigwech, or thank you.

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Maureen Halushak, editor-in-chief, Chatelaine

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