Northern Voices-Northern Waters

With temperatures in the mid-minus 30’s and with the water underneath a blanket of snow and ice, the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) provided a warm and welcoming reception as they hosted members of the Forum for Leadership on Water (FLOW) on water management issues. FLOW members, a group of Canadian independent water experts who encourage government action to protect and steward the most precious natural resource – water, had amongst its delegation: the Executive Directors of the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER) and Simon Fraser University’s Adaptation to Climate Change Team (ACT), Academia, ENGO’s, First Peoples and funding institutions involved in water protection and who are concerned with the changing environment.

Canada’s North with its abundant land and water resources are at risk as changing temperatures impact water quality and ecosystems that uphold the fragile balance from which all life exists and flourishes. Changing weather patterns throughout the world are evident as the drivers of climate change continue to stoke the fires of the economic engine often without proper mitigation measures on the horizon. Rivers, lakes and water systems are impacted affecting the lives of people, animals, fish, birds and plants alike that depend on these systems. People living in the north who depend on the land and water for drink, food, transportation, culture and recreation are noticing the rapid changes to which they have to make adaptations to their lifestyle.

The Government of the Northwest Territories, both present and former leaders continues to champion water protection and security by providing leadership for the development of the Northwest Territories (NWT) Water Stewardship Strategy- Northern Voices, Northern Waters.

Deputy Premier, the Honorable J. Michael Miltenberger, who is also the Finance Minister and the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) in the GNWT, says that someone had to take on this challenge – as the global warming train has left the station without a driver. “The federal government has said that they will not take the lead (and) climate change is on the tracks and nobody seems to be driving the train!”

Premier Floyd Roland says that northerners have always talked about taking control of northern waters and lands. “The land and water are key issues Northerners hold dear to our heart….It might be Canada’s backyard but it is our front yard.”

In 2007, the NWT Legislative Assembly declared that, “All peoples have a fundamental human right to water that must be recognized nationally and internationally, including the development of appropriate institutional mechanisms to ensure that these rights are implemented.”

The NWT Water Stewardship Strategy, Northern Voices, Northern Waters states as its vision that “The waters of the Northwest Territories will remain clean, abundant and productive for all time.” While the strategy only addresses freshwater ecosystems, it also states that it is the collective desire of NWT residents “to safeguard our water resources for current and future generations.”

This strategic goal is not without its challenges as the NWT residents live downstream from Alberta and British Columbia (B.C.) who operate major hydroelectric, oil and gas development, forestry and mining industries.

B.C. is building a third dam on the Peace River, a controversial 6.6 billion dollar hydroelectric project known at Site C. The reservoir is expected to flood over 5,300 hectares of land in the Treaty 8 territory. The First Nations in the area say that “it will cause irrevocable damage to the fish, wildlife and agriculture.”

Northern Alberta has the oil or tar sands project on the Athabasca River, the world’s largest deposit of crude bitumen and also the largest of the 3 major oil sands deposits in Alberta along with the Cold Lake and Peace River deposits.

On a tour of the Tar Sands project a few years back, I was astounded at the sheer magnitude of the equipment used to extract the bitumen – shovels several stories high and several 5 million dollar trucks transporting the bitumen to an oil extraction site. You can only imagine the huge quantities of water used daily to extract the oil from the sand and the resulting highly toxic waste material in the tailing ponds. Then there are the impacts to the quality of surface and groundwater and especially the impacts to the Mackenzie River Basin’s (MRB) freshwater deltas – the Slave and the Athabasca-Peace rivers.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-Canada website, “the Mackenzie River Basin drains 20% of Canada’s land mass, gathering waters from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories. The river provides 11% of the freshwater that flows into the Arctic Ocean, playing a critical role in regulating ocean circulation and Arctic climate systems.”

The governments of Canada, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon and NWT signed a Trans-boundary Waters Master Agreement in 1997 agreeing to 4 guiding principles for cooperative management as they exercise their legislative responsibilities in the Mackenzie River Basin. These principles include:

.           Equitable Utilization

.           Prior Consultation –“that provides for early and effective consultation, notification and sharing of information on developments and activities that might affect the ecological integrity of the aquatic ecosystem in another jurisdiction.”

.           Sustainable Development – “managing the use of water resources in a sustainable manner for present and future generations.”

.           Maintenance of Ecological Integrity – “managing the water resources in a manner consistent with the maintenance of the ecological integrity of the aquatic ecosystem.”

The Master Agreement produced a 13-member Board for the Mackenzie River Basin, which has no authority to regulate water resources either at the legal or policy level. The board’s role has been limited with very few resources and no real commitment from the signatories.

There is a lot of work ahead to ensure the implementation of the NWT strategy plus there are various on-going processes in the Mackenzie River Basin that will have an impact on how the NWT Water Stewardship strategy evolves.

Devolution is expected in the near future where the NWT will soon have the legal authority to deal with lands and waters which will “create a new sense of ownership for Northerners.”

There are also lands claims with the Aboriginal governments in the Deh Cho (Big River) region. Deh Cho is the Aboriginal name for the Mackenzie River. An Aboriginal Steering Committee (ASC) played a key role in the development process and in the shaping of the final strategy.

Then there are the trans-boundary negotiations that need to occur with respect to upstream resource development activities in B.C. and Alberta. The NWT would like binding agreements with those provinces that will recognize the values and principles of the NWT strategy.

An action plan to implement the strategy with a corresponding budget will be required to ensure that “all competitive interests are given equal weight and fair consideration.”

The balancing of these complex issues and interests in the NWT through this proactive approach to natural resource development and protection is like a breath of fresh air…The NWT Water Stewardship Strategy indicates the caliber of leadership, both current and former, that is required to have a vision for the future that provides hope to the present and future generations that the life-giving waters of the Deh Cho will continue to flow.

Former Premier of GNWT, Stephen Kakfwi says that we have to change our ways of thinking on a global scale, “Surely we are coming to a time where we have to agree to protect water as we are the ones who have to drink it. It’s finite! We have to work together in a way that the world can sustain itself. Water has always been central, inseparable from the land, animals and humans. It is your soul!” Kakfwi continues, “The Dehcho is our life and we need to protect it. We are fighting for our lives and we need to let everybody know how important it is….”

The development of the NWT Water Stewardship Strategy should serve as a model of water-source protection on a national and international scale. Claiming ownership to water should not mean that we have a right to contaminate but to keep it as pure as possible even in its altered state. If we continue to go with the flow we will eventually end up on dry ground… or we can support and implement a strategy that will hold water.

We cannot continue to deliberately forget who, by command, brought the earth up from water and surrounded it with water so that all creation can take the water of life freely….

Let us hope that this wonderful opportunity in the Northwest Territories becomes the living legacy we can all aspire too.

Closer to home on the sacred living lands throughout Noopemig in the Far North, the voices of the land continue to echo as they wait patiently… waiting for the implementation of an agreement committed to last “as long as the rivers flow.”

Share on Facebook