Keepers of the Water come together for annual gathering

Keepers of the Water come together for annual gathering
The Beaver and Dene Tha’ First Nations hosted this year’s Keepers of the Water gathering, only a few days after a pipeline broke in the region. Photo courtesy of Jesse Cardinal.

Keepers of the Water started off its ninth annual gathering with some disappointing news.

On its second day, the morning of Aug. 28, the Supreme Court of British Columbia dismissed an application for an injunction submitted by the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations, which would have halted construction work on the $8-billion Site C dam project set for the Peace Valley.

At the same time, the Federal Court dismissed a request for a judicial review by the Peace Valley Landowners Association to quash the project’s provincial environmental certificate.

“That’s an issue that the Keepers will engage with,” said Caleb Behn, executive director of Keepers of the Water. “The intention is to not be an organization that is strictly reactive. We’re a solutions-based organization and at our gatherings, we have had a lot of outputs over the last decade, declarations and those kinds of things. It’s important to really share the positives and remind people that there are victories, there is good work to be done. We assist in really building that nexus of people who care about water and the people who are doing good work and developing new technology, new environmental management information systems.”

This year’s gathering was held in Bushe, Alta. and was hosted by Beaver First Nation and Dene Tha’ First Nation from Aug. 27 to 30.

“We’re talking about oil spills and cleanup, we’re talking about fracking, we’re talking about food programming and climate change and touching on renewable energy,” said Jesse Cardinal, coordinator for Keepers of the Athabasca.

Shortly before the event, a Nuvista Energy pipeline broke on the latter hosts’ traditional territory, spilling 100 cubic metres of emulsion over a 13,200 square metre area and further driving home the message of the necessity of water protection in the region.

A main theme throughout the event was the decolonizing of water systems, giving more power over resources to regional indigenous groups.

“The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) says they do one thing and the communities are saying they don’t,” Cardinal said, noting that several AER employees showed up for the event. “People are recounting some first hand experiences with AER so that’s been interesting, and to have them stick around, that is not usual. They’re willing to engage people but, I mean, we’ve respectfully agreed to disagree on a lot of things.”

Leaders from across the Western provinces and territories attended the gathering, as well.

“I think the most important thing here was to talk about every individual’s responsibility,” Dehcho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian said. “We keep talking about the oil companies and the people that are out there that are polluting the waters. At the same time, we have a responsibility to make sure that the political people are on track and making sure that they’re doing everything that they can to protect waters throughout the water basin and it’s our responsibility to make sure that, when election time comes, we get people in that are going to stand firm. Water is probably the most sacred thing to us right now.”

Simultaneous and connected water protection activities

This year’s gathering follows an experimental bush camp hosted by the Keepers earlier this summer, which drew attention to decolonizing water governance.

“I hosted some of North America’s leading water scientists and a bunch of values-aligned artists, technicians, community members, up in my territory,” Behn said, referring to northern B.C. “It was a pilot project in postcolonial engagement methodology, essentially taking the privileged southerners out of their place of comfort and putting them into the North where they are reliant upon elders and community members for their safety, for their food. Then, we had a discourse on water protection.”

Healing gathering in the oilsands

Additionally, while the gathering was ongoing in Bushe, a healing gathering for the land and water was also taking place a little farther south in Gregoire Lake.

“Last year we had the healing walk, which ended after five years,” said organizer Cleo Reece, a councillor with the Fort Murray #468 First Nation.

“We want to continue on with the awareness and the message, so we’ve decided to just have another gathering. We will go out to the affected areas that people do want to know about, which is the tailing pond, stuff that’s out there that’s visible. It sends a message that we want to continue on what we started, to raise awareness and let people know that we are using our land.”

In the past, Keepers have attended the event in solidarity with those whose lives have been impacted by contaminated waters.

Looking down the river

Keepers of the Water ended this year’s gathering by hammering out a new declaration, the details of which were unavailable before press time.

However, Behn noted the direction of the Keepers might just shift looking into future initiatives.

“It is getting really difficult, for First Nations especially, but for people who care about water issues to be satisfied with existing regulatory processes and that’s really challenging us as an organization,” Behn said. “I think our declarations will reflect some of that frustration, some of that concern. When traditional knowledge and cutting edge scientific analysis both say we are in new and dangerous times for water, what does an organization that’s dedicated to protecting the water do?”

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