Despite nearly a decade of environmental deregulation under the Harper government and recurring boil-water advisories across the country, many Canadians continue to believe that Canada is immune to issues of water scarcity. On September 23, I met with Maude Barlow and Sarah Harmer before their public talk at Toronto’s Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church to briefly discuss Canada’s water crisis and debunk the “myth of abundance.”
Phillip Dwight Morgan: For many people, the language of “crisis” doesn’t land. They access water on a daily basis and don’t really see the severity of it. Can you paint a picture of what this “water crisis” looks like on the ground?
Sarah Harmer: Well, I can paint it for you how looked to me this summer when I was living in Eastern Ontario in the middle of a severe drought, living on a well and not knowing how much water was left in the well; it was the driest four months ever recorded in Eastern Ontario. And, you know, I’ve taken water for granted — it’s always there in the tap — but then day after day of no rain and trees wilting, deciding what you’re going to prioritize between watering the trees or the flowers and the vegetables, leaving bath water in the tub to flush the toilet and then watching the rain barrels empty and you think “Man, I’ve seen people on television with buckets of water and I’ve known water was precious to them but now I’m in that picture myself.”
I think we’re all pretty ignorant about how water systems work, whether it’s groundwater or municipal services. In the city, even if you’ve got a lot of water, it can be contaminated. There’s a boil-water advisory in Hamilton today, on the mountain. They’re not even sure why but one area of the city was contaminated and people starting noticing bad smelling water coming from their taps. Boil water advisories are a real thing; it’s a real crisis to people. We have just been some of the lucky ones that haven’t necessarily had to face it yet. But it seems like a perfect storm of climate change and corporate neglect.
Maude Barlow: Well there’s a global water crisis, of course, and all of the projections on supply and demand show the demand going straight up and the supply going straight down. I start my book [Boiling Point, ECW 2016] by saying that, in my travels in the global south, I would see so much and deal with people fighting for water justice and then I’d come home and people wouldn’t have any consciousness.
It’s not that they wouldn’t feel but it would be feeling for somebody far away as opposed to saying well maybe that’s here. So, the book is basically geared to explaining that the crisis is here in Canada. All the crises that are happening out in the world are either happening in Canada now or will, at some point, unless we take certain actions.
But the crisis is already here in that we have receding Great Lakes, and melting glaciers, and forests and wetlands being razed. We’re already doing many bad things. One of the most shocking things for me in researching the book was the lack of control over what chemicals we’re putting on our land — herbicides, pesticides, toxins — and in our water, or in the land and then in the water, and how far behind Europe we are in terms of protecting our water, in terms of what chemicals we allow.
Canada allows atrazine and glyphosate, which is the Round-Up ready herbicide that Europe doesn’t allow, and so on. People never believe me when I say this but we have sewage systems and sewage standards for human sewage but none for animal sewage. So there are 246 lakes in Canada that contain microcystins, which are the toxin in the blue-green algae from eutrophication, from nutrient overloads on factory farms generally.
We’ve been really careless and we’re going to slam into reality. Add to that climate change and the drought that we had here in this region and the terrible drought they had out west in 2015. I’m hoping that people will see this as a wake-up call.
PDM: What is the best battlefront for activists and concerned citizens to direct their energy?
Harmer: Maude is the expert on that but, for me, I have probably gotten involved with things that just came cross my radar. It wasn’t necessarily stuff that I sought out. It was just “Oh! They want to put a massive quarry here where I grew up” or, you know, the Line 9 pipeline: “Oh! It goes right through where I grew up.” So those kinds of immediate connections made it a compelling thing that I couldn’t really ignore.
In this book, Maude really talks about great grassroots victories like Tiny Township getting them to reverse the decision of where to put this huge dump on pristine aquifer land just north of here, or the Northern Gateway Pipeline, or Elsipogtog in New Brunswick and really pushing to keep a moratorium on fracking in New Brunswick.
There are a lot of great case studies of citizen engagement; a lot of Indigenous-led engagement, too, that has really led the way and had success. It’s really like pick a place…[chuckles]. Roll up your sleeves and pick a place.
Barlow: Well, right now, the most important one is the fact that the federal government is holding consultations for the three laws that the Harper government gutted, the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. The Liberals, when they were running for government, said they would reinstate them but now they’re not reinstating them, they’re having consultations because that includes industry, some of whom don’t want them to go back to the original.
So we’re really asking Canadians to get involved if only going to our website canadians.org and seeing the demands and information that’s all there, going to their members of parliament and saying this is an absolute priority for us, we care, this matters to us a great deal. That is the most immediate thing that people can do.
In the whole last chapter of the book, it outlines what has to be done at a federal level. The federal government has to have a plan and it has to take leadership. We need strong drinking water laws and groundwater protection and strong laws reinstating the Canadian Environment Protection Act; the return of scientists that were fired and research institutes that were shut down. I mean [the Harper Government] really basically shut down the critical voice around water in this country. So, we need to reinstate a lot of that and we need to have a real consciousness together around not taking our water for granted.
PDM: Do you have any comments or reflections on First Nations struggles around water issues? It’s often First Nations that bear the brunt of water struggles.
Harmer: So many First Nations are in the “sacrifice zone” of the Tar Sands. I mean, a lot of people are in the sacrifice zone where pipelines go through but it’s First Nations that are generally living closer to the land and have more intimate connection with the fish, with the moose, with the landscape and then are the ones who rely on that stuff more than others and speak up. They’re the ones with the cultural fortitude, I find.
I got to go to Alberta and British Columbia in 2012 with the Nobel Women’s Initiative and travel along the proposed route of Northern Gateway. So, from the Tar Sands out to Kitimat, we met with Native communities and non-Native communities. Our mandate was to meet with women and amplify what they were telling us. It was First Nations that had the cultural backbone, I think, to really empower me to admit “these people are strong.” Even if they may not have a lot of means financially or whatever, they are culturally strong; I was inspired.
Barlow: Yes, of course. Over the last 10 years, two-thirds of all First Nations have has a drinking water advisory. This is Canada’s shame; this is Canada’s major issue when we come to human rights — the human right to water which the United Nations recognized in 2010. We work very closely with a number of First Nations, including Grassy Narrows, but many of them, on the issue of justice. So, the issue is water as a human right, as defined by the Charter, as defined by the UN. But also, I would argue, as defined by inherent rights and the whole notion of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent.
And, I will say one very good thing about the Trudeau Government: in their budget they allocated quite a lot of money to implementing water and sanitation services for First Nations. I have other criticisms but, that, I think, is something that we have to recognize they did.
PDM: For many Canadians, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is shrouded in mystery. They get glimpses of it through the news but there’s no cogent narrative. How does the TPP relate to water? What are the implications for water justice?
Barlow: That’s the government’s intent. All of the trade agreements have Investor-State rights — so the right of corporations from other countries to sue if you try to change your laws or if they don’t like the way you’ve interpreted the current laws. If they can demonstrate that your regulation has caused them to lose profit, they could sue you.
So, we have a whole bunch of environment challenges already under NAFTA from just American companies. If you add CETA and TPP, you’re adding huge numbers of new corporations that have the right to do what’s already happening. For example, there’s a challenge on Quebec’s moratorium on fracking; there will be many more of those with TPP and with CETA.
The other thing in these agreements, they all have something called “ratchet and stand still” and this says that as you liberalize, or privatize, or commoditize what’s been in the public service — in this case, for instance, water services — and you make it private or semi-private, then you can’t go back. You can only move in one direction.
So these trade agreements threaten the right to regulate and also the right to maintain water in the public sphere. Or, if a municipality tries privatization and decides it was a mistake, they can’t go back. And many, many municipalities around the world — 235 since the year 2000 — tried privatization and went back. If these companies are protected by an Investor-State trade agreement, then it’s much more difficult to be able to do that.
Phillip Dwight Morgan is a published author of poetry and short essays. He views writing as an opportunity for self-discovery, emancipation and nourishment.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
For more information on what you can do to help forestall Canada’s water crisis, visit canadians.org.
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