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How the water justice movement is challenging extractivism in Canada

Photo: Pixabay/modified by Emma Lui

I recently gave a keynote presentation about the water justice movement's fight against commodification and extractivism at the Perspectives of Power conference organized by the Institute of Political Economy at Carleton University.

This blog is part two of a three-part blog series based on my presentation (read part one here). It gives an overview of some water justice issues and how grassroots groups, Indigenous nations, communities and organizations are working to protect water. 

In Wellington County, Nestlé has been pumping up to 4.7 million litres on two expired permits. When Nestlé purchased a third well in Elora, Ontario, there was public outcry because the local township of Centre Wellington needs the well for its drinking water.

Nestlé's water takings also raise questions about water justice because Six Nations of the Grand River is downstream from Nestlé and 90 per cent of the population does not have access to clean water. Last fall, Makasa Lookinghorse and other Six Nations youth organized a day of action to put a stop to Nestle and to draw attention to water rights of Six Nations of the Grand River. 

Wellington Water Watchers, Save Our Water and the Guelph Chapter of the Council of Canadians continue to work to contest Nestlé's corporate takeover of water in the region by organizing rallies and events and mobilizing people in the region and beyond. Council of Canadians supporters have challenged Nestlé and the Ontario government's messaging by sending 20,000 submissions that called for a phase-out of bottled water takings.

Along with the lack of clean drinking water in Six Nations, there are more than 100 drinking water advisories (DWAs) in First Nations at any given time, some of which have been in place for more than five, 10, even 20 years. 

In 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to ending the advisories within five years. With the federal election in October, all eyes are on the Trudeau government to see if his government has been effective in addressing this longstanding black mark on Canada's human rights record. 

Since Trudeau's promise, the Liberal government has split the DWAs into two categories: "long-term" DWAs which have been in place for more than a year and "short-term" advisories which are supposedly "temporary" water issues. But this categorization hides water issues in some First Nations. Read more here

Another one of Trudeau's 2015 election promises was to restore protections that the Harper government gutted from water and environmental legislation like the Navigable Waters Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in 2012.

Bill C-69, a 400-page bill that is supposed to restore water and environmental protections, does not go far enough to challenge "business as usual." Bill C-69 reinforces a neoliberal capitalist economy and its power structures that allow the fossil fuel industry to grow at the expense of Indigenous rights, clean water, public health and a stable climate. 

Challenging these power structures has long happened on the ground and this remains true with the sustained resistance to the TransMountain pipeline, fracking, LNG and other extractivist projects.

Power dynamics are kept in place through the use of language, messaging and framing to not only gain support but to also shut down or hide solutions or other possibilities. 

Corporations often play a role in crafting language in trade agreements that, as Maude Barlow has noted, "pave the way for companies' easy entrance to markets around the world." 

Governments and the fossil fuel industry talk about how pipelines and fracking are good for the economy. They often pit climate change, environmental or water concerns against the economy, which shuts down debate and creative solutions for a different type of economy that not only creates jobs but also protects water, the climate, Indigenous rights and public health.

In the fight against shale gas in New Brunswick, a coalition of 29 community organized the Voice of the People tour which included 30 town halls. The tour organizers transformed and embodied power -- power that normally rested with the government -- by creating truly democratic spaces to discuss shale gas, clean jobs, and clean energy. 

There are many other examples of how power is constructed, reinforced and contested in relation to water justice such as the Wetsu'wet'en people occupying and using their traditional territory in the face of LNG Canada and pipeline projects and how governments' assertion of Crown ownership over water denies Indigenous nations rights to water and watersheds. 

Watch my keynote presentation here and stay tuned for the last part of this three-part blog series where I will write about how we move forward towards water, social and economic justice. 

Emma Lui is an activist, a writer and a contributor to the book, Corporatizing Canada: Making Business out of Public Service.

Photo: Pixabay and text added by Emma Lui

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