Photo of the Fraser River  © sbgoodwin \ Fotolia.com

The example of the Siska watershed highlights important differences between the philosophies and worldviews that guide decision making in indigenous and Canadian societies. When discussing the BC government's decision to allow the logging of the Siska watershed (then the last untouched watershed in the Nlaka'pamux territory on the eastern side of the Fraser River and a place of tremendous spiritual and cultural importance), a Nlaka'pamux elder once told me that the problem with the newcomers was that they were famished. She explained that newcomers never stop eating away at the waters, at the land, at the trees, at the fish. Newcomers would log, mine, build subdivisions and highways, and fish to the point of extinction and still never feel full or satisfied.

This observation is key to understanding both the problem and a way to chart a new course in our relationship with water - a way to end the famine, to end the incessant hunger for land and water, and to find a way to be full and to live on the land in peace. Instead of newcomer notions of predictability and control, of wealth based on accumulation and exclusion, what is needed is a greater appreciation of indigenous peoples' ecological knowledge and laws. Currently, decision making regarding water and land is impoverished and constrained, taking into account only a limited number of people and measuring impacts over an infinitesimal period of time.

We need to shift the way we view water and our relationship with the world. It is not better and improved water management that is needed but, rather, a real and lasting commitment to managing our own actions in a way that respects all life forms that share the water and depend upon it for survival. Preserving water into the future will require a fundamental shift in how Canadians live upon the land and assess the impacts of their actions. The development of an ethic of hope and responsibility - an ethic that recognizes that change is both possible and necessary. Recognition (meaningful and not merely superficial) of indigenous laws provides hope for the future survival not only of indigenous peoples and cultures but also of the water and everything that depends upon it. Indigenous peoples' laws have taught us how to live in a way that sustains the water for future generations of all life forms.

Awe and reverence

Indigenous cultures recognize the spiritual nature of water and have developed complex traditions to remind people to honour it:

  • There are stories that tell of Supernatural beings that live beneath the oceans, and beneath the seemingly calm surfaces of mountain lakes.
  • There are dances that celebrate the coming of Water to the dry and parched desert lands, bringing sustenance yet again for the people.
  • There are prayers that recognize Water as the first living thing on this Earth, calling forth all other life.
  • There are songs that celebrate the sharing of the wealth of the Water to bring life for the people.
  • There are stories that remind us that our ancestors live in, and through, Water and that Water connects us with our past and our futures, flowing through time, sustaining us today as it sustained our great-great grandmothers.

Honouring water as a separate being means honouring the fact that water has a life of its own, that it flows at particular places and for particular purposes. Decisions relating to water must treat it with awe and reverence rather than as merely one more resource to be managed, controlled, exploited, and used. Recovering respect for the sacred nature of water could fundamentally transform the ways in which Canadian society makes decisions regarding it. Similarly, a commitment to reversing the deliberate suppression of indigenous laws and territorial rights offers hope of restoring environmental justice and of returning water to the land for all peoples.  

Ardith Walkem is an Aboriginal lawyer and a member of the Nlaka'pamux Nation in BC. Her areas of practice include Aboriginal title and rights, public legal education, legislative policy analysis, and hunting and water rights.

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