The Day After: Water

21st November, 2022.      //   pandemics  // 

Water marks the seventh installment in an ongoing curated series that asks contributors to imagine the perils and possibilities that will ground our collective response to or emergence from the COVID-19 crisis. The first installment was about animals, the second was about food, the third was about energy, the fourth was about infrastructure, the fifth was about extraction, and the sixth was about the Arctic.

This series asks Canada’s leading scholars to respond to questions of “human-environment” relations to consider our post-COVID future: What opportunities make you hopeful and what risks do you see at the “human-nature” interface? How can we build an ethic of care for socioecological systems?

These scholars of critical environmental studies have dedicated their professional lives to grappling with questions of environmental conflict, governance and justice—here, we have asked them to turn their reflections toward the public. Together, we hope this contributes to a broad and ongoing discussion on how the COVID-19 crisis can produce visions of the future of “human-environment relations,” for better or worse.

What are the practices and relations that will sustain us now and in the post-COVID world?

Plains Cree artist Ruth Cuthand explores the relation between colonialism, water, disease, and Indigenous survival in her artwork. In her work “Don’t Breathe Don’t Drink,” Cuthand creates beaded representations of water borne pathogens. Responding to the crises of contaminated water and decades-long boil water advisories on dozens of First Nations, this work highlights the impacts of colonialism on Indigenous peoples and waters and draws attention to the necessity of clean water to sustain health and life. Similarly, in her “Trading” series, she creates beaded representations of the diseases—including bubonic plague, measles, and smallpox—that Europeans brought to Indigenous communities. Recently, she has also beaded the COVID-19 virus, as yet another ailment which Indigenous peoples must endure.

Cuthand explains that beads are a metaphor for colonization. Glass beads were traded for more valuable furs. But beyond this metaphor, the intricate work of beading also points towards practices of resistance and regeneration. In the face of colonization, confronting ecological and colonial violence through beading can also be understood as a form of resistance. Beading is quiet and contemplative work. While it may be less visible than other forms of resistance, it draws attention to the need for radical systemic change in order to secure relations to land and water upon which life depends. Beadwork also points to the practices that might aid in regeneration. Métis scholar Sherry Farrell Racette explains that beadwork is a means of reactivating traditions and ancestral knowledge. Thus, Cuthand’s work is a reminder of the ethics of care required to sustain relations with human and more-than-human kin upon which we all depend for survival.

Talk of a ‘green recovery’ has been afoot for weeks, but is front and centre again after Chrystia Freeland’s swearing in as the new Minister of Finance in mid-August. In her words: “I think all Canadians understand that the restart of our economy needs to be green. It also needs to be equitable. It needs to be inclusive. And we need to focus very much on jobs and growth.” Who can argue with that? Her language points to the need to address crises at the confluence of COVID-19, record-low oil prices, and a fast-spiraling climate crisis. Yet her statement doesn’t immediately call to mind the question of water, which is surprising, given the centrality of water to the extraction of fossil fuels and, on the flip side, to the water-specific ways that the climate crisis will be felt: floods, droughts, and sea level rise. But it is water that offers one of the greatest channels for an equitable and inclusive green recovery. This is the case for two reasons.

The first reason is that any investment in water will almost certainly include long-overdue investment in water infrastructure. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates that it would cost $50 billion to address poor and aging infrastructure in municipally-controlled water and wastewater facilities. That figure continues to rise as infrastructure is damaged by climate-driven phenomena like flooding, hurricanes, and storm surges. Addressing water infrastructure creates green jobs; it also can create more resilient water delivery and treatment systems to minimize the impacts of climate change, especially in vulnerable communities.

The second reason is that water quality across the country is highly uneven and often unmonitored. Although millions of Canadians have ready access to clean drinking water, many Indigenous communities do not. Some of that inequity is a nuts and bolts infrastructure question, but of course it is far more complex than that, based in historic, structural and ongoing modes of dispossession at the heart of the Canadian state.

One organization taking the lead here is the Indigenous Guardians Program (IGP), whose goal is to “empower communities to manage ancestral lands according to traditional laws and values.” The 2017-18 federal budget included an investment of $25 million over five years in the IGP as a pilot model, and initial findings suggest that “for every $1 invested, approximately $2.5 of social, economic, cultural, and environmental value has been created for stakeholders.” Continued investment in a program that addresses water quality and begins to address the enormous environmental injustices on which Canada was founded makes economic and social sense.

Outside of the IGP, Community Based Water Monitoring (CBWM)—that is, community members going out and testing the bodies of water where they live, work, and play—has filled many of the gaps left by funding cuts to water monitoring programs. But these programs are supported by patchy funding lasting on average just one to three years, leading to data gaps and overlaps, and significant time spent on grant-writing rather than monitoring. Despite these challenges, CBWM is a thriving and growing component of the water governance landscape, and is central to support in any green recovery.

Indeed, any green recovery efforts need to recognize and support the ongoing stewardship of such a critical resource.

For years, the International Joint Commission (IJC) and Lake of the Woods Control Board (LWCB), two federally financed organizations responsible for regulating water levels on Lake of the Woods, defined First Nations as a “Specific Interest Group.” Canada categorized First Nations like cottagers’ associations: groups with an interest in water levels. This label disregarded Aboriginal Title generally. It also ignored the English written version of Treaty 3 as published by Canada in which watersheds and waterways provide boundary lines and the arrival of settlers to share the land is contemplated. It was not until the 1980s that Canada, Ontario, and Manitoba sought an alternative position (and label) for First Nations as an “affirmation of Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in the Canadian Constitution (1982, section 35).”

Freed of the “Specific Interest Group” label, First Nations were invited to consult with colonial regulators about water levels. This was (and is) an imperfect solution. Consultation does not challenge the power dynamics coded into the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. With this treaty, Canada and the United States decided how to manage international boundary water issues. They laid out the structure and mandate of the IJC. They affirmed each other’s governing power. Together, Canada and the United States dismissed their treaty partners. First Nations negotiators were not invited to the table in 1909 and so there is no legal requirement to invite them now. It is a moral imperative that drives contemporary dialogue.

In summer 2019, representatives from the IJC and LWCB visited with Elders from Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation. They travelled the river with us. Despite these limited interactions (and their promise), inclement weather in September led to “exceptionally high inflow into Lake of the Woods,” which meant the LWCB “directed further additional flow increases” into the Winnipeg River. In fall 2019, water levels increased around 1.5 metres or five feet near the reserve. Families at NAN feared for their homes and their livelihoods. We did not anticipate the almost complete destruction of a nearby pictograph site (even though artificial water fluctuations had caused damage in years past).

It is no secret that water fluctuations can damage (and have damaged) sacred sites in addition to reserve lands. As early as 1959, ethnographer Selwyn Dewdney started recording the date and water level when creating pictograph etchings in the upper Winnipeg River drainage basin. Dewdney noted that some of the ancestors’ writing was below the water line.

At NAN, cultural protocol prevents individuals like me from photographing such sacred spaces and, by extension, from creating a documentary record of damages to them. The coronavirus prevents the Elders and I from taking colonial regulators onto the Winnipeg River to show these damages, from substituting a shared record with shared experience. Fear inhabits these limited options. You see, Aboriginal Title (as recognized under Canadian common law) requires evidence of occupation and use of ancestral lands prior to colonization. Colonial regulators have washed away markers of ancestral presence. They have erased writings left by First Nations in red ochre and sturgeon grease thousands of years ago. What happens in the days after this erasure? If artificial water fluctuations erode ancient writings and disease prevents us from proving contemporary damages, what future is Canada positioned to steal under colonial law?

COVID-19 has likewise made water newly visible in rather old ways. In recent years, water as a vector of diseases like the Zika virus, chikungunya and dengue has been a problem for many people in poor communities without proper drainage. Services have not been widely provided in response. COVID-19 is something else. Limiting its spread depends on handwashing and general cleaning. Suddenly, individual access to water is an issue for the health of entire communities. Hygiene is back. In Colombia, the government is reconnecting all households disconnected for non-payment. And while no household can be disconnected for non-payment during the pandemic, they will be charged for the services consumed. Poor households need to be reconnected for the health of the broader community, for which they will accumulate debt and most certainly suffer disconnection when the epidemic subsides. So, in many ways, the rush to reconnect is new, but the plight of the reconnected is old.

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