Sunset over the Mackenzie River

A sunset over the Mackenzie River.
Photo by Sarah Bradfield. Used under a CC Attribution 2.0 Generic license from Fort Simpson Chamber of Commerce.


Reading Chris Wood’s The Last Great Water Fight, in 2010 in The Walrus, was truthfully a life-altering experience. His hauntingly evocative portrayal of the Deh Cho, the Mackenzie River, and all the complex linked relationships, human and otherwise, that depend on its continued well-being was inspired and inspiring. His essay is a shining example of environmental journalism at its very best.

It reads almost like an epic poem in parts – “If the conflict between predatory industrial technocracy and a living web of spirit and biology … is being played out anywhere on planet earth, it is here.” The depth of Chris’s understanding of the layered and contradictory political and economic forces at work in the North is rivaled only by his understanding of the ecology of this globally vital ecosystem. There are also, of course, his sensitive but never sentimental portraits of the First Peoples who have lived in harmony with the Deh Cho for centuries and are working tirelessly to ensure its continued existence.

The piece is dense with insight, such as the often-overlooked fact that water powers the 21st century as surely as it did the 19th, and that water from the Mackenzie is required to realize Prime Minister Harper’s aspirations for Canada as an energy superpower. It is also lyrical with Chris’s musings: “For a moment, I shared the breath of a land that was fully alive long before our species strode upon it, and not yet indelibly scarred by humanity’s heavy footfall.”

The fundamental question Chris poses in the story is “when do we say ‘when’?” When does science know that a critical ecological threshold is about to be breached, and does it have the ability to stop the slide to environmental collapse? Do we have a clue when to say “when”?

Chris has now written part two of his story on the Deh Cho, released by the Walrus to the public today along with a short documentary film, Cold Amazon. The film brings to life the landscape and the people who live there. It details the struggles of residents of the Northwest Territories to ensure the protection of their river in the face of a massive escalation in resource extraction in the watershed.

The NWT Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Michael Miltenberger, tells us how the legislative assembly there has passed a resolution that water is a universal human right – the only jurisdiction in Canada to have done so. We also learn that the community-based water-monitoring program is without parallel in the rest of the country.

Chris’s second story revisits his question of when we say “when” using new political and scientific developments since the first story ran. Scientific understanding of the Deh Cho’s global significance has increased in the last few years, as has an awareness of tipping points in the planet’s climate systems. Unfortunately for the river, the resource rush in the Mackenzie Basin has also heated up and Chris finds that all of the threats he identified in 2010 have increased.

Less epic poem and more dense with political and economic information, Part Two is written with urgency. Some of Canada’s oldest laws are being amended to the point of toothlessness. Ottawa is devolving powers to the territories that seem more like chimeras – powers with no constitutional authority that may be rescinded at any time for purposes deemed in the national interest: largely transportation and energy.

The pivotal question remains mostly unanswered as the issue becomes more complex. Indeed, the very definition of “resources” and the rights to access them have become more contested.

This ebook and the accompanying film will be of great utility and interest to anyone concerned about “the last big river on the entire planet where we can still get things right.” 

Download the free ebook from The Walrus.
Watch Cold Amazon online free.

Janet Kimantas is associate editor at A\J with degrees in studio art and environmental studies. She is currently pursuing an MES at UWaterloo. She splits her spare time between walking in the forest and painting Renaissance-inspired portraits of birds.

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