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Great Lakes groups band together to challenge Nestlé and water crises in Flint and beyond

Image: Flickr/Ben Gordon

"My grandson that's not here tonight, that's twelve years old, he was to be an academic ambassador to go to Washington in the year 2014 and 2015. Well he was an A-B student but by the time the lead began to corrode his brain, he was no longer an A-B student. He was a D-E-F student," said Bishop Bernadel Jefferson of her grandson, one of the thousands of children affected by the lead poisoning of Flint’s drinking water. Bishop Jefferson, who is with the local group CAUTION, was one of the speakers on the Friday night panel of the Water is Life: Strengthening our Great Lakes Commons held on September 29-30,2017 in Flint, Michigan.

Bishop Jefferson has been a pastor for 27 years and an activist for 25 years. She is married with ten children and ten grandchildren. She was one of the first signers of the emergency manager lawsuit against Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in 2013. Her passionate talk brought tears to many eyes of the 200 people gathered at Woodside Church for the summit. At the same time her talk energized the audience. Her message of doing this work for all children and the importance of coming together reverberated among the crowd. Bishop Jefferson said of the gathering, "Tonight we make history. We did something they didn't want us to do and that was to come together."

Water justice for Great Lakes communities

Maude Barlow gave an important keynote speech on Friday night on water justice struggles around the world and her work with other water warriors to have the UN recognize the human rights to water and sanitation. Jim Olson from FLOW gave an impassioned talk about Nestlé in Michigan and the importance of the public trust. Indigenous lawyer Holly Bird talked about her work with the legal team for Standing Rock, water law from an Indigenous perspective, that governments need to honor the relationships that Indigenous people have with the water and how that can be done without someone controlling or owning water.

Lila Cabbil from the Detroit People's Water Board, who many affectionately call Mama Lila, talked about how the water fights are racialized in Michigan. "The fight we have in Michigan is very much racialized. We need to understand that truth and we need to speak that truth. Because what is happening even as we speak in terms of how Flint and Detroit is being treated would not happen if it was a white community." She pointed out how the crises are being condoned by the silence of white people. She took a moment to remember late activist Charity Hicks who was a leader in the fight against the shutoffs and who encouraged people to "wage love."

In Canada, the lack of clean water is also often racialized. There are routinely more than 100 drinking water advisories in First Nations, some of which have been in place for nearly two decades. At the start of her talk on Saturday, Sylvia Plain from Aamjiwnaang First Nation taught the audience how to say "aanii" which is "hello" in Anishinaabe. The Great Lakes region is predominantly Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatami). She talked about how Aamjiwnaang First Nation has had methylmercury in the sediments in their river for a couple of decades. Plain also talked about how the Anishinaabe have cared for the waters and land for thousands of years.

Wearing a Flint Lives Matter t-shirt, Saturday's keynote speaker [starts at 23:00] Claire McClinton from Flint Democracy Defense League, further described the water crisis in Flint. She pointed out, "In Flint Michigan, you can buy a gallon of lead free gas, or a gallon of lead free paint, but you can't get a gallon of lead free water from your own tap."

Marian Kramer of Highland Park Human Rights Coalition and Michigan Welfare Rights Organizationtold Saturday's audience about her work to fight the shutoffs in Highland Park, a city within Metro Detroit where at one point half of the homes had their water shut off.

Nestlé's bottled water takings

Rob Case from Wellington Water Watchers of Ontario and Peggy Case of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation both talked about their grassroots organizations and the local resistance to Nestlé's bottling operations. Peggy Case pointed to the larger issue of the privatization and the commodification of water. "The dots have to be connected. We can't just look at bottled water. The right to water is being challenged everywhere. The privatization of water is a key piece of what's going on in Flint," she explained. The state of Michigan is suing the city of Flint for refusing to sign a 30-year agreement that requires the city to pay for a private pipeline to Detroit that will not be used by residents. 

In Evart, Michigan, two hours northwest from Flint, Nestlé pumps more than 130 million gallons (492 million litres) of water a year from the town to bottle and sell to consumers across the state and country. Last year, the corporation applied to increase its pumping by 60 per cent. Nestlé's current pumping and proposed expansion threatens surrounding wetlands and wildlife in the region, which at the same time violates an 181-year-old treaty that requires Michigan state to protect the habitat for the Grand Traverse Band and Saginaw Chippewa tribal use.

Nestlé continues pumping up to 4.7 million litres (1.2 million gallons) a day in southern Ontario despite the fact that both of its permits have expired -- one permit expired in August and the other expired more than a year ago. The Ontario government is required to consult with communities on Nestlé’s bottled water applications but still has not done so. The Ontario government recently made some changes to the bottled water permitting system including a two-year moratorium on bottled water takings and increased bottled water taking fees (from $3.71 to 503.71 per million litres) but local groups and residents want more. They are calling for a phase out of bottled water takings to protect drinking water. The Council of Canadians is calling Nestlé's and other bottled water takings to be an election issue in next year's Ontario election.

Summit speakers and participants were outraged that governments allow Nestlé and other water companies to take, control and sell water for a profit while failing to secure clean water for residents in Flint, Detroit, and many Indigenous nations.

Days before the summit, The Guardian reported that Nestlé only pays an administrative fee of $200 in Michigan while Detroit resident Nicole Hill, a mother of three, has her water shut off every few months and has to pay "more than $200 a month" for water.

During the summit, participants took a pledge to boycott Nestlé and single-use bottles of water. Immediately after the summit, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation announced the organization was joining the boycott. To join the boycott, click here.

NAFTA and the commodification of water

Trade agreements like NAFTA perpetuate and entrench the commodification and privatization of water. Water is defined as a "tradeable good," "service" and "investment" in NAFTA. Water must be removed as a tradeable good, service or investment in any renegotiated NAFTA deal.

As a tradeable good, NAFTA dramatically limits a government's ability to stop provinces and states from selling water and renders government powerless to turn off the tap. Removing water as a "service" would help protect water as an essential public service. When services are provided by private corporations, NAFTA provisions limit the involvement of the public sector. Removing water as an "investment" and excluding NAFTA's Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions would make it much harder for foreign corporations to use trade treaties to sue governments for laws or policies that protect water. Canada has already been sued for millions of dollars for laws protecting water.

A vow to end to Nestlé water takings

Over the weekend, participants of the summit listened to these moving and inspiring presentations and participated in workshops on Blue Communities, challenging the corporate control of water, the colonial enclosure of water and more. The gathering included local and Great Lakes residents as well as water justice, Great Lakes and grassroots organizations including our Guelph and Centre-Wellington Chapters of the Council of Canadians.

One thing was clear at the end of the summit: participants were ready to take action to end to Nestlé's bottled water takings in Great Lakes, work to have the human right to water implemented and bring water justice to all who live around the lakes.

To watch the videos from the summit, visit FLOW's Facebook page.

Image: Flickr/Ben Gordon

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