Keepers of the Water: Day 2

The second day of the Keepers of the Water VI picked up where day 1 left off. Literally, an extra time slot was made before the official program to pick up on the debate I referenced yesterday. That debate is essentially about whose numbers to trust (and why) when it comes to the links of groundwater, surface water, and hydraulic fracking. Unfortunately, this debate wasn’t followed through to its conclusion, but it did end up being between two hydrologists, which was highly informative.

Once the program kicked in, Jon Waterhouse, executive director of the Yukon River Inter-tribal Watershed Council gave introductory remarks to a superb video explaining the collaboration between many nations that rely on the Yukon River in Northern Canada and Alaska. There are numerous links to videos and other multi-media projects from these efforts here. The main principle of success that Jon built his remarks around was: include everyone on their own terms.

The video itself gave a history of the Yukon river and its peoples; a river that is the 4th largest North American watershed and which discharges (at times) more water than the Mississippi. The result of abandoned gold mines, cold war military installations and environmental neglect have seriously damaged this once pristine river within the time of immediate recollection for those living there. My favorite line from the movie was spoken by a First Nations elder: “I haven’t really heard anybody hollering, ‘Hey! I want dirty water over here!’ Haven’t heard that from anybody.”

A very interesting theme that emerged in the video was that of social ecology – the idea that ecological problems are social problems. And the solution was a vast network of partnerships, engaged citizen-driven science, and a commitment to future generations. As one participant in the video put it, what is at play is a clash of systems between an industrial (i.e. fossil) economy and alternate (i.e. traditional) systems connecting law, land and people.

The next presentation was entitled “Thinking like a watershed” and in it, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip offered remarks on the truly different ways of ordering ourselves with respect to the world. Many of his reflections were interwoven with his own stories in B.C.’s water planning processes and I was so interested in what he was saying I failed to take notes.

After a quick break, we had four sessions that essentially primed us for breakout groups that followed. Ted White, who is working on B.C.’s new Water Sustainability Act provided an overview of the policy reform processes currently underway. He’s got a number of videos and further information here. I had the chance to sit with Ted most of the day and he has a great perspective on the challenges of getting on-the-ground dynamics into broad and far reaching policy reforms.

My talk was next. I tried to offer a history of western water norms and their initial roots in a conception of community. I traced that history, showing how the idea that water serves a community excluded those who didn’t count within the moral sphere of that community (i.e. First Nations and the natural world) and how that idea of community ultimately fell away in Canada by the 1980s. I offered the point that if we want to lead in water policy reform across Canadian nations we need to recover a commitment to community and then extend that commitment to an inclusive group. I based a fair amount of my talk in Luna and Aldo Leopold and my own work on the important ways that issues of territory evoke dimensions of land (and what counts as “land”) and power.

After lunch there were talks on the on-going sub-mission of this conference to develop an accord for water stewardship in the Arctic Ocean Basin. The Yukon model provided a shared basis for what can be done, and the talk focused on how to develop a shared vision for something similar here in Canada’s north.

A final talk touched on environmental monitoring; but I was less impressed with this talk. Only because it worked on too easily setting up science as a neutral arbiter and this, in my view, does not reflect what we know or our relation to complex systems.

The day concluded with break-out sessions along the four talks, with a great spirit of collaboration infusing discussions regarding how to go forward. I was thrilled to be a part of one on water governance, ethics and leadership, which drew a large audience and really needed much more time! But that is also what today is for.

I met Maude Barlow and others for supper here at the hotel, which was really nice. I had not met Maude previously, but of course know her work and we had a nice talk about our engagements with Jamie Linton’s work, What is water? The history of a modern abstraction.

While we were eating a group arrived from one of the blockades currently standing up against the Northern Gateway Pipeline (the pipeline is proposed to run from Northern Alberta to Kitimat, B.C. but is really just the most symbolic piece of 8 pipelines currently proposed to form a northern energy corridor across the land). Quite frankly, these guys were inspiring! I listened for several hours as their conversations with the local nations here ranged over how to recover their own concepts of territory, many of which were undermined by a government program of assigning trap-lines in the 1930s and people coming to use these external markers for their own imaginings. The conversation also brainstormed ideas of new ways to connect people to their land and to persist, so that after this iteration of western civilization runs its course, future generations will have a connection to their ancient roots. A powerful vision.

In addition to strong personal commitments to preserving their ways of life, there was an exceptional sense of solidarity between this group and indigenous peoples in Chile and New Zealand, made all the more poignant by many of their struggles being against the same companies. They have a great blog site to help get their message out to the world.

And I will leave the last words to what it says on the back of their business cards:

“Stop all proposed pipelines, LNG [Liquified Natural Gas] and Oil Pipelines. Stop the Tar sands and hydrofracturing shale natural gas. No unwanted mining, open pit or strip mining. Decolonize and free your mind, body, and spirit. Time to stand up and assert our laws and responsibilities.”


  1. Kia ora Jeremy, I was delighted to attend your talk in Edmonton last night. Beautiful presentation. Nga mihi nui ki a koe. Would be glad to follow up with you re some of the legislative changes mentioned re Bill C-38 as a wonderful grad student spent several hours in the night searching for it, to no avail. Can I contact you re this please? Many thanks, Makere

  2. David Garen says:


    This line caught my eye:

    “A final talk touched on environmental monitoring; but I was less impressed with this talk. Only because it worked on too easily setting up science as a neutral arbiter and this, in my view, does not reflect what we know or our relation to complex systems.”

    Are there any specific books or papers you have in mind when you say “what we know”? I am a scientist and work a lot with environmental monitoring data. I am currently trying to read on environmental ethics / water ethics and find the connections with scientific hydrology (I wrote to you once previously about this). I just returned from a hydrology conference in Vienna which was devoted primarily to technical analyses. I tried asking some “why” questions (e.g., why should we expect to be protected from floods, why would we even consider large interventions into the hydrologic system any more, etc.), and while I think there were a few people who understood what I was getting at, there was no discussion, as this was not really the forum for such ideas. Still, I hope to continue thinking about how ideas such as what you report on here can cross over into the kinds of nuts-and-bolts issues scientists and (especially) engineers deal with.

    So, if you have any reading suggestions for me that underlie your sentence in your blog post, I would like to follow up on them.

    David Garen

    • Hi David,
      Sure thing, I’ll get back to you on this with a few references. The first one that comes to mind is by Carl Folke titled “Freshwater for resilience: a shift in thinking” – a 2003 article that you can get at Google Scholar for free if you search (in quotes) “Freshwater for resilience”. But I’ll make a better list as I think through your comments more closely.

      • David Garen says:

        I found this article — thanks. It looks perhaps like a precursor to Chapter 23 in your Water Ethics book.
        I think what I’m struggling with is how to engage my engineer colleagues to think beyond their rather “straightforward” approach to water problems, e.g., we need water, we get water; we get flooded, we make dam to stop water; etc. etc. Their entire professions have developed to take such a direct, head-on approach. I guess maybe there is a natural separation between the decision-making process to develop a solution (which is where values and ethics can come in) and the practical / technical issues of implementing the solution chosen (which is where engineers come in). Nevertheless, I would hope that values / ethics can also be considered by engineers, otherwise they become just like obedient soldiers who do not question their orders.
        Anyway, interesting stuff …


  1. […] pdfs in my earlier posts about the Keepers of the Water VI last month in Ft. Nelson B.C. (here, here and […]

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