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Our Sacred Duty to Water
AFN Water Rights Conference
Enoch Cree Territory – Edmonton, AB
National Chief Atleo – Opening Remarks
March 5, 2012
As I just said in my language, I thank our host Nation – Enoch Cree and our Co-Host – the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations for allowing us to gather on their territory to do this important work.
This is who we are – deeply connected to our lands, territories through our sacred laws, our culture and our tradition. We begin this way and this creates the overall theme for our work here today.
I want to also acknowledge the presence of the First Nations leadership, the Elders, and all distinguished speakers. On behalf of AFN, I welcome you to the AFN Water Rights Conference, and thank you for being here. Your presence here means a great deal – it is a testament to the determination of our nations to persevere against incredible odds, to maintain a constant link to our ancestors grounded in our sacred rights and responsibilities.
This Forum is designed to provide you with the opportunity to bring forward your ideas and to profile your strategies. This is critical so that we can determine the best possible ways to support one another. You see our greatest strength and a critical requirement is our unity.
Indigenous peoples the world over face similar pressures.
I submit to you that our ability to stand together from coast-to-coast-to-coast within Canada and across the Americas and beyond is essential to our ability to fulfill our scared duties – upholding our rights and our responsibilities to water – the very blood of our Mother Earth.
In South America-our brothers and sisters say ‘l’aqua es vida’ – water is life. Our peoples know this … our elders and our ceremonies reflect this fundamental understanding
Leaders that have gone before us have consistently held firm. In 2001 – our leaders began the work of the indigenous declaration on water – we stood together and said:
The creator placed us on this earth, each in our own sacred and traditional lands to care for all of creation. We stand united to follow and implement our knowledge, laws and self-determination to preserve water, to preserve life.
Across the world we share cultural, customary and legal rights and responsibilities to fresh water and to the oceans. There have been many important efforts.
In 2008, a group of Indigenous peoples met in northern Australia – and this work led to the development of the International Indigenous Water Declaration.
It recognizes and reaffirms the sovereignty of indigenous peoples to our lands and waters and that indigenous peoples obtain our spiritual and cultural identity, life and livelihood from our lands and waters. This Declaration has been tabled and linked through key UN mechanisms and instruments and of course specifically reinforces and references the provisions of the UN DRIP and other key conventions.
The Navajo and the Hopi of the Mesa region of the United States have led the charge under incredible pressure. They have said to the world – “our aquifers breathe. They breathe in the rain and breathe out in the form of springs. The springs are breathing holes – passageways to the water world.”
Last summer the AFN was proud to host the Ottawa event for the Mother Earth Water Walk as it passed through Algonquin Territory. The extraordinary feat of this walk from the four directions, led by grandmother Josephine Mandamin, shows us the importance of the role and responsibility of women in the protection of our waters.
This dedication, which Josephine and others will repeat this year, serves to give notice to all that we must not ignore the impact of human activities on this precious element. Last year at our Annual meeting, through resolution 34/2011 the Chiefs-in-Assembly formally recognized Josephine Mandamin’s dedication to protecting our waters.
We collectively and intrinsically know that water is directly linked to all survival.
Water, the first living spirit on this earth, gave life to all Creation.
As we all know, the Earth’s surface is covered by water – over 70%. Equally important is the statistic that 97.5% of this water is salt water leaving only a fraction that is fresh and half of that is locked in ice and perma frost.
Fresh water for drinking is an incredibly precious element – an element essential to our life and all life.
Our Forum here today carries forward this most important work. Throughout, I encourage and implore all of you to engage fully in this work. We need all of our effort and collective energy.
We stand firm in rejecting those that try to suggest water is a mere commodity, an interest to be bought, sold or traded. The exploitation of water is all around us – through dams, mineral exploitation, energy development, road construction, agriculture and pollution from all industries – our waters are fragile and they need us as we need them.
Over the next few days, together we will develop, a strategic action plan aimed at the recognition of First Nation jurisdiction and responsibilities. We must consider all aspects from the spiritual, to the economic to the legal – we must clarify and we must affirm our actions needed to uphold our sacred responsibilities.
We will be looking for your expertise, your advice; as you are the experts on water. You know the problems but you also see the solutions.
Our rights and Treaty must lead the way in all of our work.
We must uphold our rights through every venue and against attempts through licensing or federal or provincial laws and policies.
We all know that Canada has re-introduced legislation on First Nation drinking water- Bill S-8 last week. I had the opportunity to spend much of last week with all of your leaders last week at the Alberta Treaty Chiefs assembly in Calgary.
I recognize the tremendous leadership shown by this region in engaging directly with the federal government and driving changes that are suitable to your interests. This is the way forward and every region must have the opportunity to shape regulatory approaches that reflect their rights, interests and needs.
Every First Nation and every region must undertake a full analysis and must be fully engaged.
At the national level, our mandate and direction has been very clear. We must ensure respect for our rights, and recognition for First Nations to drive regulatory development and importantly – there must be investment that ensures the infrastructure and resources are in place to ensure systems that can succeed.
We will not accept a situation where First Nations are set up to fail.
We will not accept any negative impact on our rights and responsibilities.
And we will demand that First Nations peoples all have access to safe drinking water. This is our priority.
As Treaty 7 Grand Chief Charles Weaselhead cautioned last week: and I quote “without funding for infrastructure and staff training, the act may prove impotent against the challenge of raising water standards on reserves. Regulations without capacity and financial resources to support them will only set up First Nations to fail. We must address the capacity gap as well as the regulatory gap. The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act alone cannot and will not ensure the safety of First Nations drinking water.”
Canada still needs to address this gap in capital funding to provide the funds necessary to bring First Nation to a level playing field. The national water assessment released last summer identified a need of $4.7 billion over the next ten years.
We must continue to insist that substantial progress be made to remedy the First Nation communities that have compromised water systems and lack proper sanitation or treatment of their wastewater. We have made it clear that we want to see and fully participate in a business plan with the Ministry on how to address this gap in a very timely manner.
Resolution of our basic infrastructure needs for water and sanitation has been neglected for too long.
Canada must respect the provisions contained in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with respect to water as set out in Articles 10 and 32 and most importantly we emphasize the standard of free, prior and informed consent.
This is a new standard that speaks above else to the need for relationship building at the earliest possible stage – relationship that respects our traditional knowledge, honours our spiritual connection and respects our rights. This is the only path forward to mutually beneficial outcomes.
This Water Rights Conference is part of the continued leadership, advocacy and action by AFN and First Nations to improve the safety and health of our communities.
We are inundated with unprecedented convergence of a multitude of issues concerning water, sanitation, and assaults on our source water and watersheds.
We only have to think about the oil sands, mining and tailings ponds, clear cutting of our forests, and depletion of aquifers, threats to our ground and surface waters from existing and new pipeline construction.
Industry and resource development vies for access to water; agriculture and forestry, mining all are heavy users of our precious element.
An element that is threatened and dwindling due to drought conditions and the intensifying impacts of climate change. Our people are living the impacts and seeing them first hand.
We see this already from the flooding, severe wind storms, and devastating forest fires – fires that are occurring earlier and earlier – so much that attempts to quench the fires have been hampered by ice still present on the lakes that would supply the water.
We are confronted from all sides, from industry, provincial and territorial incursions into our jurisdiction and our RIGHTS.
Mother Earth’s water ways know no boundaries. This underlines the importance of our shared work together. There are examples in every region and nowhere has this been made clearer than the challenges faced today by the Halath First Nation in British Columbia.
We also have many Alberta First Nations, who have their challenges regarding allocation and licensing and provincial interactions.
And Chief Mandamin from ISKATEWIZAAGEGAN INDEPENDENT FIRST NATION and their water rights fight over the taking of Shoal Lake water for 100 years.
The practice of rock fracturing or ‘fracking” is yet another significant concern. Its impact on ground water and even of suspected resulting in setting off an earthquake as was determined to have happened in a community in Ohio last December.
Others across this country have gone forward and developed their own WATER DECLARATIONS, such as the Chiefs of Ontario and the K.I. (Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninwug) Water Declaration.
As we look at this ambitious agenda we see the breadth of the issues relating to water – quality and quantity, access to capital to build new and upgrade facilities, access and allocation of this precious resource, licensing, jurisdictional incursions, legislation, and most important – an assertion of our rights to water. A right that was never relinquished through any treaty process or agreement.
And so it is, from Coast to Coast to Coast, we must continue to resist and fight for our rights and to uphold our responsibilities to this precious element.
Now is a truly important time for First Nations in this country. I believe we are at a tipping point, a true moment of reckoning, where we will see a fundamental transformation.
I look forward to your important contributions, discussions and deliberations and your continued input as we advance strategies that will have positive and lasting impacts at the community level.
As we do this work we need all of your voices and we need new partners to support our efforts. I want to acknowledge our major sponsor, the Canadian Union of Public Employees for their generous support. CUPE members deliver water and wastewater services in communities across the country, and the union advocates for safe drinking water and sewage treatment systems as human rights.
Together we can do this important work together. We can and must say to the world – the indigenous peoples of Canada and around the world have sacred responsibilities and duties to our Mother Earth. And we will uphold them … our survival depends on it!
Thank you once again for being here and supporting this most important work – I look forward to hearing from all of you throughout the course of the day and through the technical conference. I have every confidence that we can do this work together and we can support one another to deliver and to ensure safe drinking water for our all of our peoples and protect it for generations to come.
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