On Sunday, I had the honour of speaking at the Earth Day Every Day event organized by the Earth Mothers and the Foundation for the Great Earth Peace. Despite the chilly weather, up to 50 people gathered on Petrie Island just outside of Ottawa to hear a variety of speakers and participate in workshops on permaculture, food sustainability and solar energy.
Francine Payer, Madeleine Vézina and other Earth Mothers lead the water ceremony at 9 a.m. with over 20 people participating. The Earth Mothers then opened the event with drumming and singing.
Bob Monette, Orleans' Councillor spoke about the importance of taking personal responsibility to protect the earth giving the example of small steps such as picking up litter from the Petrie Island trails. Marie-Pierre Daigle, the National Director of We Canada, gave a passionate and inspiring talk. She highlighted that people often shy away from talking about political or environmental issues and stressed the need for us to really talk to each other about these important issues.
Tito Medina, a Mayan Elder, spoke about Mayan culture, mother earth and demonstrated how he taught his children about how the earth orbits the sun with the spinning toy that Mayans use.
Tricia Enns from the Otesha Project started her talk with a Shake Down exercise to re-energize and warm up the audience. She told her personal story about how she left a life as an engineer to learn about local food production and to share information on environmental issues. Brian Sarwer-Foner, one of the founders of Foundation for the Great Earth Peace and the ERA Project, focused on our responsibility to protect the earth noting the word is made up of ‘response' and ‘ability' inspiring the audience to use their abilities to take action.
Julie Comber, Alister Akira Ógui Augé and Josh Myles sang heartwarming songs about their fight with the South March Highlands.
I was thrilled to speak about the Council of Canadians work on water issues. I opened my talk with our concern about the recent budget cuts and the impacts they are going to have on water. The cuts to research and monitoring at Environment Canada and cuts to responses to oil spills and other environmental emergencies will have a significant impact on water protection in Canada. In the March budget, there was insufficient funding in a number of water areas such as drinking water for First Nation communities, Great Lakes protection and public water and wastewater infrastructure. We are at a critical time when we need to work together to protect our water and hold the federal government to account.
Canada's obligation to uphold the human right to water and sanitation
In July 2010, the majority of countries in the UN General Assembly (GA) voted in favour of a resolution recognizing the human right to water and sanitation. There were 122 countries that supported the resolution and 41 countries abstained. Canada abstained and even worse has consistently taken the position that water is not a human right. Since the GA vote, the UN Human Rights Council has passed two resolutions recognizing that the right to water is entrenched in international law making it legally binding. The Human Rights Council has set out very clear obligations for governments such as developing plans of action, monitoring the implementation of these plans, ensuring adequate funding and providing legal remedies for violations.
The federal government also has obligations under the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) that are specific to First Nations water rights and requires free, prior and informed consent in decisions affecting indigenous people. Canada endorsed the UNDRIP in November 2010 but the Canadian government is failing in its obligations to uphold these rights.
Safe drinking water in First Nations communities
The federal government has introduced Bill S-8, Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act (which was formerly Bill S-11.) The purpose of the bill is to improve the safety of drinking water in First Nation communities. While we support the purpose, without proper funding, very little is going to change in First Nation communities. The federal government failed in their duty to obtain free, prior and informed consent in the drafting of this bill.
The bill also does not require consultation with First Nations when developing additional regulations. As of March 31st, there were 121 communities under water advisories. Some of these communities have been under water advisories for over 10 years.
Since 2008, the federal government has been putting $165 million per year to First Nations water and wastewater. Just to give some context, that is the approximate cost of two of the F-35 fighter jets. The recent budget failed to increase funding for water and wastewater in First Nation communities and again only allocated about $165 million each year, for the next two years. The Assembly of First Nations has called for $6.6 billion to address the water situation in 417 communities that are at risk. The funding also falls short of the $1.2 billion that is needed to meet the federal government's own protocols for safe water and wastewater. So clearly the funding does not meet the pressing needs in First Nation communities.
The new legislation will set high standards but without the proper funding First Nations may be forced to privatize their water. Water privatization cases around the world have resulted in price increases, decreases in water quality and job losses.
This raises the question of whether water is a commodity or a human right. We strongly believe water is a human right. This is something that people all around the world are fighting including against bottled water companies.
One thing people can do is to get a bottled water ban in their school, workplace or community. Or better yet, people can help their community become a ‘Blue Community.' A Blue Community is a municipality that has passed 3 resolutions:
- Banning bottled water (sale in public facilities and at municipal events)
- Recognizing the right to water
- Promoting public water and wastewater services
Burnaby, Victoria, Tiny, Ajax and North Vancouver are currently Blue Communities. Robyn Hamelin, a young girl from Kingston has done amazing work on this project. She helped get the right to water resolution passed in her hometown and helped Ajax become a Blue Community. She has arranged meetings with 50 mayors and city councillors and has really taken the project and run with it. Her story is an inspiring example of how anyone can make a difference.
Our Great Lakes Commons
We are currently organizing a Great Lakes tour featuring Maude Barlow. The tour is called Great Lakes Need Great Friends and kicks off May 15.
While there has been progress and improvements in some areas, the Great Lakes are still under threat including water withdrawals, industrial pollution, climate change and invasive species. Maude will be speaking along with people from First Nation communities, local activists and experts. Josephine Mandamin - one of the water walkers - will be joining Maude in Thunderbay.
Maude wrote a report last year called Our Great Lakes Commons: A People's plan to protect the Great Lakes Forever that highlights some key principles that need to be reflected in the way the Great Lakes are governed and managed. Some of the principles are:
- Community rights take precedence over private interests.
- Water is a human right.
- Governments are obligated to protect the waters of the Great Lakes in the interest of the current and future generations.
- We need to recognize the ecological rights of the watershed.
- Indigenous people need to be included in the decision making process.
- Public participation is key to the Great Lakes and water protection.
These principles are similar to the principles outlined in some First Nations water declarations and can be applied to water in general at any location. As a resource, we will have a draft resolution that municipalities can pass promoting these principles. We also hope to create a Great Lakes Learning Passport to teach young people about different water issues in schools. Keep checking our website for more!
I ended my talk by highlighting the critical time that we are in and the need to work hard together to protect our water. We need to create a vision of how we want our water managed, governed and protected. And this begins with us seeing that we all have a personal responsibility to protect our water.
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