Water is Life

Art by Shianne Gould
"Water is the most life sustaining gift on Mother Earth and is the interconnection among all living things."
Assembly of First Nations
Declaration on Water

The core of who we are

An Indigenous world-view places water at the centre

By Sayda Momtaha Habib, Alicia Morrow, Paige Reimer, Kaitlyn Schropp and Jasper Watrich

Indigenous Peoples throughout Canada hold a common understanding that water is interconnected within all aspects of life and the world. It is integral to all life and in Indigenous culture, water is animate and sacred. Just as everything has a spirit, so does water, serving an important purpose on Mother Earth. Without water, Mother Earth would not be able to sustain us.

The Pasikow Muskwa (Rising Bear) Healing Centre lies in the heart of the Qu’Appelle Valley, home to a chain of lakes fed by creeks, underground aquifers and the Qu’Appelle River. It’s a fitting location for a healing centre that focuses on kidney wellness care augmented with traditional medicines and spiritual support.

Water is “the core of who we are” and essential to all aspects of life, teaches Rick Favel, a Traditional Knowledge Keeper at the Centre.

“I need it for prayer. I need it to drink. If we didn’t have that, we would, we’d dry right up. you know …  there’s nothing else in this whole universe that’ll compare to the sacredness of that water,” he says.

Indigenous culture is about respecting all of creation because everything has a spirit, he explained.

“There is no way in the world any human being can exist without water,” says Brenda Dubois, a Kokum at the ta-tawâw Student Centre at the University of Regina. “We need it within our bodies, we need it within our surroundings and mother earth needs it in order for us to have that relationship to interact with one another.”

“It’s an essential part of life. It’s an essential part of mother earth,” says Dubois.

Video: Kokum Brenda Dubois

defending water rights

Flash points erupt over the future of waterways

“Many First Nations seek to restore our traditional ways of protecting the health of water and to share these ways with the world,” states the Assembly of First Nations Water Declaration, brought forward in 2013.

The Declaration further notes that Indigenous people successfully managed water resources for millennia and asserts, “First Nations Peoples have Inherent rights and title to the waters located in their traditional lands.”

While the Assembly works toward legislative options for greater First Nations control of water resources and infrastructure, flash points continue to erupt over the question of who decides the future of waterways.

One example is the Unist’ot’en camp in central British Columbia, established in 2010 to protect unceded Wet’suwet’en land and water from developments such as the Coastal Gas Link pipeline.

The camp, which has existed since 2010, aims to protect this water as well as their traditional lands. This has incurred both widespread support and anger as the Unist’ot’en continue to hold the position that no pipelines should come through their territory in order to maintain their environment.

According to the camp’s website, “Unist’ot’en traditional territory remains relatively intact. The forests are still there, wildlife prospers, and the water is still pure.” Their stand captured the imagination of others across Canada, including supporters who gathered at the University of Regina on March 4, 2020 (pictured above). 

"you've got to take pride"

Treatment plant operators work overtime to keep water clean and safe

By Ethan Butterfield, Brittany Boschman, Morgan Esperance, Theresa Kleim and Kehinde Olalafe

Treatment plant operators on First Nations play a role in securing clean water at the community level, working long hours to provide safe drinking water. 

One water operator working on a rural Saskatchewan First Nation, who asked not to be named, does not remember the last time she had a day off. 

“Some communities only have the one or the two operators and I did work like that when I first started working here. I was the only operator and I didn’t really have any time off for a whole year. It was crazy,” she says.

Nathan Martell, who works as the primary water operator for Moosomin First Nation and the City of North Battleford, had to take a pay cut when a third operator joined the Moosomin First Nation plant. 

“For us to have a third operator, we had to take a big cut. We pay him out of our wages, so we all split. Every two weeks it’s $700 per operator,” he says.

Martell says the wage he makes at the city plant and on-reserve plant don’t compare. “I’m a head supervisor at the Wastewater Department, and that’s not even close to what I get with the city.”

David Swift, who is and indepent contractor Level 1 Relief Operator for Thunderchild First Nation, makes $18.50 an hour. 

Swift, who says he does not speak for the band, believes Thunderchild is doing the best they can with the resources they have. “I think that’s what the band can afford, right? If I was working off reserve, it would be $25 an hour,” he says.

After suffering a heart attack, Perry Mcleod, who is a water operator for Peepeekisis First Nation, has been back to work every day for four years with no breaks. 

“We’re really underpaid, for 30 years experience I’m at $20 an hour. I could leave my reserve and probably get $30 to $40 an hour, but this is my home so I stay here,” he says.

McLeod takes pride in providing water for his relatives. “(T)hat’s the most (important) thing that we can do, as a water plant operator is make potable water so everyone’s health is safe,” he says. 

“You’ve got to take pride in your career because I got grandchildren that need good water on the reserve.”

Alfred Iron, a 68-year-old operator from Canoe Lake Cree Nation, is inspired by his mother-in-law’s dying words. 

“That’s what she said to me on her last two days,” he recalls. “Water is good, it’s the best thing in the world, she said, we’d never be short, we’ve got lakes everywhere. That was her last words to me – water is good.”

Video: Rick Favel
"That sacred water, it's the core of who we are. And we need that water ... we can't go without it. That's how sacred it is."
Rick Favel
Traditional knowledge keeper
'Grandmother Water' by Leah Dorian

Eight Water Principles

  1. Water has a spirit (with four types of the spirit: fog, salt, fresh, and water the babies grow in.)
  2. Water is not owned by us (everyone should have access to clean water.) 
  3. Water is life – it is a reflection of life 
  4. Water can heal 
  5. Women are responsible for water (referring to birth water women carry) 
  6. We must respect water (safe water) 
  7. Water can suffer (the Elders spoke of places where water is suffering, from pollution, interruptions in the flow, spills and contamination.) 
  8. Water needs a voice
"We've had the opportunity to think about the Western concepts of who owns the water, who controls it and who can make money from it. Those are the factors the Anishinaabe need to contest. We need to speak on behalf of the water."
Anishinaabe Elders Gathering on Water Law, Roseau River, MB 2013
Art by Christi Belcourt
"You need to hear our way of life, our laws. Canadian law is imposed and never really did any good."
Elder Peter Atkinson
Anishinaabe Elder's Gathering Report, 2013