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Water Today Title May 30, 2024

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Update 2020/2/25
First Nations


By Gillian Ward

Vice Chief Bear holds the portfolio of Lands and Resources for the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), with 74 member First Nations in Saskatchewan. We asked her to speak to the issues of greatest concern in her leadership role, which turned out to be very much about water, population and environmental health and our collective future.

“When we talk about responsibility and how we value water, and of course the stewardship needed in order to keep our water safe and clean and healthy, we know that the water is not being properly protected under the laws of the colonial government”, says Bear.

Throughout all time, my worry is with industry. We are in a critical state of affairs when it comes to water, people need to open their eyes and see what’s going on here. - Vice Chief Heather Bear, FSIN

“Whether its oil and gas, whether its potash, whether it’s the pesticides that the farmers use, the sewage that contaminates the water, getting into our watershed, I have grave concerns, “ says Bear, about not only the environment, but our population that depends on clean water for health.

“The potash mines…oil and gas, it's not about if there’s going to be a spill, it's when there’s going to be a spill. Look at the Husky Oil spill a few years ago, we are still dealing with, we are also dealing with railroads, derailing, chemicals getting into our watersheds again”, says Bear.

“They say they clean things up, but to what degree? It's going to be the test of time; ten, twenty, thirty years down the road when we start seeing diseases we have never had.”

Bear says she knows the people living all along the river of her home territory, the Qu’Appelle. Now the Vice Chief is calling for population health studies. “There was a time when (the people along Qu’Appelle) were very healthy. I would like to see research commissioned to look at the diseases that are there now, and I believe it's because of the contamination of the water.”

Vice Chief Bear goes on, “My concern is, from what I have learned, not only in our region but throughout Canada, throughout North America, water is a resource that is so at risk right now because of industry. The thing is, as time went on, and industry, without consultation, without free, prior and informed consent, the perspective of the colonial government, you know, they just took it upon themselves that everything was ceded”, says Bear. Speaking of water, land and resources, she explains, “We never ceded, we never surrendered, we agreed to share.”

“When we talk about sharing, I believe it is the view that joint stewardship is something that I think would be a concern of all parties, First Nations and non-First Nations”, says Bear.

“What got ahead of us (all) was industry. The world of money, the world of fortune. When you look at the condition of government now, federally, provincially they are looking toward engaging our Elders, trying to understand our values, our customs and our traditions, because it’s a mess, climate change is real.”

When it comes to consultation, Bear explains that people are skeptical of the intent of industry developers, “You know it seems there is a fear or a worry from First Nations peoples that whenever industry comes in to consult, they just look at it as a green light to go ahead and do whatever they want. We have not had proper consultation in the past and there isn’t a lot of trust based on the condition of our environment.”

Bear goes on, “when you look at boil water advisories, when you look at an epidemic of cancer and diabetes…when you look at Qu’Appelle Valley, Regina, the sewage that’s going into the Qu’Appelle Valley…the contamination that has existed for decades, and you are finding now, there are people with diseases we have never had before.”

Bear describes her own battle with cancer, “Even for myself, stage four cancer, I have had to turn to our traditional Elders, I had to go and buy the healthy water, the distilled water to get me better. By the way I’ve got a clean bill of health now. I validate the Elders, the water and the medicine. My medicine came from the Cumberland House delta, where it’s the purest water, one of our greatest deltas in the world.

I always ask the question, why aren’t there special policies to protect that delta? And my worry is there again, more industry going in and destroying our beautiful, pristine rivers where scientists or biologists have come out, there are species that are practically extinct, that still exist there. It's so important that people need to know and understand the importance of water: good water, bad water.”

“As leaders, when we do our work, even at the time of Treaty, the old Chiefs that negotiated Treaty, they didn’t think about “today”, they thought about tomorrow, the future. I think if we took a peaceful chapter out of that time, it's about the generations unborn, the children unborn, what are we leaving for our children if we continue to operate in the manner that we are? “, says Bear.

“Why do we have to struggle to validate that our Elders, you know the wisdom, the knowledge they have is worth something? I think engaging the Elders in our region now, let's have a serious discussion on what we can do to protect the water, and what are some of the other solutions?

I know there are many solutions out there. Ochapowace (First Nation) for example, is moving toward a more environmentally friendly way of dealing with sewage… in lieu of lagoons. I would decommission every lagoon in this country, if I had that power, I would do so.“

Bear concludes, “I like the idea of joint stewardship with the water”, that all Canadians can work together to balance the interests of industry and economics with the need to protect our critical resources.

Presently however, responsibility for management of the water resource in Saskatchewan lies with the Water Security Agency (WSA), organized under the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment. WSA is tasked with protection of water quality, overseeing safety of drinking water and treatment of wastewater. The agency also owns and manages the province’s dams and canals.

Vice Chief Bear and the prairie First Nations she represents are not the only ones concerned with water management on the prairies. Canada has been a party to global nature conservation “Ramsar Convention”, officially titled “Convention on Wetlands of International Importance” since 1981. As posted on Environment and Climate Change Canada website, “the mission of the Ramsar Convention is the wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions, and international cooperation, as a contribution to achieving sustainable development throughout the world.” Thirty-seven (37) sites are designated in Canada under this convention.

Taking a closer look at just one industry that has enjoyed unfettered access to water and land resources with very little scrutiny, a group of stakeholders gathered to discuss issues related to water quality and environment due to the unmitigated draining of Saskatchewan wetlands.

In June 2018, 36 participants from across Saskatchewan and Manitoba, coming from a broad range of backgrounds and interest in water matters and environmental stewardship, gathered to discuss issues resulting from drainage of wetlands by agricultural producers.

Insightrix Research Group in Saskatoon facilitated the Round Table sessions and authored the report, “CALL TO ACTION: Findings from Farmland Drainage Initiative, summarizing think tank discussions and issues raised for consideration.

The 2018 “Call to Action” report notes that a break exists between law and practice when it comes to draining water from agricultural lands. From the report, “Since the time when government approval (for farmland drainage) was first required, only the smallest of percentage of farmers applied for and received approval. It has been estimated that over 95% of all drainage is unlicensed and is therefore illegal.”

The report describes a lack of enforcement to protect the wetlands that recharge our shared ground water resource and filter agricultural and other contaminants before they enter the rivers and lakes of our watersheds. “Despite legislation prohibiting farmland drainage without a licence, prosecutions are very rare. Despite legislation that requires all drainage to have an approval…, no penalties typically result if the legislation is ignored and drainage is done illegally.”

Key findings of the report, as collected from research and participant contributions, describes the prevailing attitude associated with land ownership. “Participants note a common mentality among producers is, “it’s my land, I can do what I want with it.” A general lack of responsibility for the impacts of farmland drainage and loss of community were also noted as detrimental outcomes of this mentality.”

While there is no doubt that many agricultural producers are excellent environmental stewards, the situation in Saskatchewan is that the agriculture industry, via many private land owners has been passively permitted to denigrate a vitally important resource of our shared environment, without penalty.

Saskatchewan’s strategy of management for water resources via Water Security Agency (WSA) on a complaint-based process was seen by participants of the round table initiative as “ineffective in controlling illegal drainage”. The Agricultural Water Management Strategy comes up short in the analysis, in that it “has not demonstrated that it addresses the overall impacts that drainage has on water quality, quantity, loss of habitat or other environmental impacts.”

With the summary report of the 2018 Farmland Drainage Initiative echoing the concerns of Vice Chief Bear, it is noted by Insightrix that “Existing policies are not adequately protecting the environment nor wildlife and aquatic habitats. Among other things, Aquatic Habitat Protection aims to prevent temporary and

permanent habitat alteration and drainage applications are in direct conflict with such efforts.” “Farmland drainage has been continuing and accelerating over time. Concerns are often raised about the long-term changes that may occur not only as a result of a single action but the cumulative effects of nutrient loading, pesticide deposits, and siltation. Assessing for cumulative effects in general has been recognized since the 1980’s…however, under the Environmental Assessment Act, drainage development projects are on a project by project basis and their cumulative effects are not included.”

A last word from the 2018 “Call to Action: Round Table Report on Farmland Drainage”, as it pertains to the Agriculture industry:
    “Despite the findings of the Upper Assiniboine River Basin study..., the Drainage and Flood Control Committee stopped short of identifying any negative environmental effects of agricultural drainage because the topic was deemed to be too controversial for the scope of the study. Government agencies have been hesitant to engage interest groups in any debate around farmland drainage whether or not research has proven the resulting negative effects. “

Returning to our conversation with Vice Chief Bear, we were encouraged to consider the long-term impact of allowing industry to set its own course, and keep its own scorecard. “When we continue to make decisions in the name of revenue and not fix and protect what we need that is vital to life and the future, I don’t think there is going to be much of a future for our children yet to come.”

Vice Chief Bear actively performs her role by speaking up and advocating for change in the way we deal with water and the environment.

“The creator has bestowed a sacred responsibility upon the Indigenous women, and that is to protect the water. Women carry the unborn children. When the water breaks, there is life. This is part of our oral tradition.” - Vice Chief Heather Bear, FSIN

Indigenous leaders’ concerns about management of shared resources is neither isolated nor marginal. When Canadians come together to jointly steward shared resources, all forms of environmental degradation across all industries go under the microscope to be critically examined. Just as oil and gas and mining industries have been held accountable on matters of environmental stewardship, developing alternative technologies and management practices to minimize detrimental impacts, agriculture can certainly do the same.

Vice Chief Bear makes her own call to action, inviting responsible and effective joint management of water. As the laws of nature levy charges and fines measured in escalating impacts of climate change, we can think of our future benefit and prosperity another way. “When we think of our Great Mother Earth, our perspective is, how can you own your Mother? Your Mother takes care of you and you take care of your mother, and that’s reciprocal.”

WaterToday continues to reflect myriad perspectives impacting water resources in Canada.

First Nations of the Lower Qu’Appelle Watershed include Kawacatoose, Gordon, Muskowekan, Piapot, Muscowpetung, Pasqua, Standing Buffalo, Peekeekisis, Okanese, Star Blanket, Little Black Bear, Sakimay, Cowessess, Kahkewistahaw, Ochapowace, and Carry the Kettle. Economic activities in the watershed include agriculture, tourism, potash, and oil and gas development.



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