Grade Twelve Thematic Unit: Introduction and Case Studies

Subject: Social Studies/ Indian Studies/Science/Sociology

Topic: First Nation Water Issues

Time Frame: Four One Hour Lessons

Objectives: Students will be able to review various case studies regarding water issues of First Nation People. Students will be able to identify water issues within the media and provide classroom with current events and facts regarding water in their area. Students will monitor media outlets for current events regarding water. Students will make a bulletin board to post water issues that they have found in the media and within libraries and through internet searches.

Methodology: Teacher instruction and lecture, brainstorming, media and internet search, small group brainstorming, and interaction.

Materials: Chart paper, Teacher’ s Information or Handouts photocopied, Internet access, Media access to print, audio and video.

Background Information: Throughout the history of Canada, water has played an important role in not only establishing settlements but influencing trading and traveling routes. It was the Hudson Bay Company and Great West Trading Company that provided aboriginal people with trading goods. It was the Métis people who were often the interpreters and the traders for the companies that introduced Euro Canadians to the original highways; our waterways. Many of the explorers came through various waterways to discover the beauty and the vastness of North America. It was within the last century that waterways began to be blocked with the construction of hydroelectric damns, many of the great waters flooded over aboriginal hunting and sacred sites. With recent changes in the constitution and the duty to consult aboriginal people this would not have been done. There is a famous historical and sacred rock (Mistasini) that was blown to bits in the Diefenbaker Damn area. The James Bay Cree have been fighting with the Quebec and federal governments regarding land claims by the James Bay I and II Damn projects. Yellow Quill First Nation was on a boil water advisory for nine years. Many aboriginal communities have just recently been hooked up to water and sewage lines. Water is one of our greatest resources but it is not as protected as aboriginal people would like to see. At one time there was talk about diverting Canadian water ways to the United States of America, but many aboriginal people opposed this. We should not be messing with Mother Earth’s veins, our rivers and streams. Water is a sacred spirit in which it holds our life force, a person can live months without food, but can only live for a few short weeks or less without water. It is important for people to realize the importance of water and that it is something that needs to be respected and honoured. Water conservation is an important part of respecting our water.

Case Studies

Case Study I: As long As the Rivers Flows Tour 1991

In 1991, a year after some major upraising in “Indian Country” (Mount Currie, James Bay, Lonefighters, Oka Crisis), Milton BornWith-A-Tooth of the Peigan First Nation of Alberta organized an event to draw attention to the “illegal and immoral damming of waterways”. The tour began in Mount Currie, British Columbia and ended in Kanesatake, Quebec, yet other people on the tour also went to James Bay Cree settlement in Northern Quebec.

Throughout this thousands of miles journey, participants would choose to fast (go without food or water or both) and pay homage (offer tobacco, prayers and songs) to the water spirits. The participants of the journey were housed and fed by various First Nations and church organizations across the country. They would stop at various dams along the way and would march across the structure and then have Elders and the medicine man and pipe carrier from Peigan First Nation bless the waterways. The participants believed that they needed to bring awareness to the issues regarding the protection of Mother Earth and her water ways. Today’s rivers are no longer controlled by Mother Earth rather they are controlled by human choices. Humans determine how much water the rivers will contain and where these waters will go. Damming the veins of Mother Earth is akin to blocking major arteries of a human being, nothing good can come out of it. Damming rivers has effects such as mercury poisoning and flooding threats. The As the River Flows Tour 1991 provided an opportunity for aboriginal people to come from all over Canada to go to Kanesatake on its one year anniversary and reflect upon uniting all aboriginal people in the cause of protecting the environment.

In 1990 in Mount Currie, British Columbia the Lil’Wat Nation had a stand off with the logging companies; they put a barricade up in support of the Mohawk at Kanesatake. They were also bringing to attention their solidarity as a nation that would not allow Mother Earth to be raped. On May 20, 1911 “We claim that we are the rightful owners of our tribal territory, and everything pertaining thereto. We have always lived in our country; at no time have we ever deserted it, or left it to others. We have retained it from the invasion of other tribes at the cost of our blood. Our ancestors were in possession of our country centuries before the whites came. It is the same as yesterday when the latter came, and like the day before when the first fur trader came." Stl’atl’imx Nation Chiefs, 1911 (Declaration of the Lillooet Tribe). In the 1920’s the headmen of Lil’Wat traveled to Ottawa to the parliament to make their concerns known.

The traditionalists of the Lil’Wat Nation ascertain that as a sovereign nation they have never given up that sovereignty. Furthermore the Canadian and B.C authorities were forcibly occupying their lands. Lil'Wat Elder Lahalus (Loretta Pascal) testified with great dignity at the Ts'peten (Gustafsen Lake) trial April 9, 1997. "I am Lil'Wat, one of the people of the land. Canada came after us. We have our own laws... the people are our constitution," Lahalus said. "We are spiritually, emotionally, and physically connected to Mother Earth -- one of our laws is to protect Mother Earth and all her children... It isn't just an environmental issue; the survival of our nation is in jeopardy. We are connected to the land in all ways.” Participants of the 1990 standoff joined “As The River Flows Tour” to bring their message to other aboriginal participants on the tour, everyone learned from each other. The tour began in Mount Currie, and then went to the Peigan Nation.

In 1990 the Peigan Nation through the Lonefighters society opposed two issues: the illegal logging on traditional territory and the damming of the Old Man River. Active resistance on the Oldman River Dam came from a group of Peigan men, the Peigan Lonefighters Society, who in August 1990 began to divert the river using an excavator to render the multi-million dollar dam useless.

The claim was simple, the government of Canada was intruding on sacred Native land, land owned by the Blackfoot Nations. According to Milton Born with a Tooth, "the Oldman River is located in Blackfoot Nation's territory, something we have always taken as being within our own domain. We all grew up by the river, and that's how the river has a personal attachment to myself and the people. So that's what drove us to do what we did on August 3, to let the people know we still had this connection to the river." In August 1990, resistance turned violent when Peigan Lonefighters shot at the dam construction workers. Milton Born with a Tooth was later arrested for trespassing, and endangering lives, he spent three years in jail. Many of the men and women who protested against the destruction of Mother Earth on First Nation Lands were sent to jail for their alleged crimes against Canada. Many of these First Nations people believe that Canada’s laws do not apply to them because they are Nations within a Nation. Some First Nations will not even claim to be Canadian rather they pledge citizenship and allegiance to their Nation first whether that is Mohawk, Dene, Cree, Lakota, or Lil’Wat.

Born with a Tooth arranged this tour to draw attention to the blatant enforcement of environmental disasters that could have been averted. Canadians must realize that our water cannot be forgotten, protection must happen so our water remains pure and drinkable.

Case Study II: James Bay I & II

The James Bay Cree hold traditional territory in Northern Quebec and much of their traditional territory has been flooded due to the Quebec government’s hydro projects. The Inuk (Inuit) also have substantial territory in the James Bay I & II dam sites and they, (particularly the women) are very concerned about the impacts. A study was done by Suzanne Hawkes entitled “Unheard Voices of the James Bay II and the women of Kuujjuarapik.” This hydro project was the largest in North American history.

The traditional ways of life and territories have been changed forever, while the James Bay Cree and Inuk have been monetarily compensated, that compensation does not make good the damage that the northern environment has been subjected too. This project was developed without environmental impact assessment studies. If it had been developed according to today’s standards it would have never been authorized to proceed.

Quebec launched their hydro development with James Bay I in 1971 and within four years the James Bay Cree were uprooted from their traditional land base, they were provided with modern houses, a hospital, a hockey arena and other such material advantages. With those advantages came a cost that future generations of James Bay Cree would pay dearly for, the mercury in the waters which is caused by flooding forests, and alcoholism plagued the people.

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and is especially abundant within the Canadian Shield. Mercury contamination has turned the water undrinkable and the fish inedible. When the rivers were dammed, the greatest impact was the mercury contamination. Vast forest tracts were flooded and the byproduct of this was the subsequent biodegradation of a massive quantity of organic matter, this resulted in methyl’s and release of dangerously high levels of mercury into the ecosystems.

The microbe of methyl mercury accumulates in the food and becomes concentrated in the flesh of predators, including humans. Mercury has a number of effects on humans, they can be simplified into the following symptoms: disruption of the nervous system, damage to brain functions, DNA damage and chromosomal damage, allergic reactions: resulting in skin rashes, tiredness and headaches, negative reproductive effects, such as: birth defects and miscarriages. In the years between 1982 and 1987, mercury levels doubled among the Cree who continue to practice traditional fishing for consumption. Methyl mercury contamination can accumulate in fish and in the food chains that they are part of.

The effects that mercury has on animals are kidneys damage, stomach disruption, damage to intestines, reproductive failure and DNA alteration. We probably will not know the full effects of the true damage of mercury poisoning in the James Bay area for a few more years. Internet searches reveal that mercury may be harmless or very deadly; it is up to everyone to educate themselves on the affects of mercury.

In the 1990’s the James Bay II project was beginning, one inhabitant of Fort George, Margaret Cromarty commented “God promised He wouldn’t flood the Earth again, but Hydro Quebec went ahead and did it anyway…” The transplanted inhabitants of Chisasibi struggle with their traditional value systems while Euro Canadian and non-aboriginal philosophies encroach.

In 1991, the James Bay Cree took their protest to New York which was to have a contract with Hydro Quebec, (Quebec was making more power than it needed and was exporting it to the various northern states). Environmental protection groups placed a full page add in the New York Times with a picture of 10, 000 drowned caribou that died because of the James Bay project. With pressure mounting from environmental groups both internally and internationally, Quebec opted out of the Great Whale or Phase II James Bay project. Hydro Quebec is exploring other options and damming in a smaller level, giving some consideration to environment.

The effects on the northern environment will never be reversed. Though we can look at the advantages brought to us by electricity, we must remember what has happened and how we can prevent future environmental disruption; we are the caretakers of the land.

Mother Earth deserves respect. It is only when one recognizes the impacts and the environmental effects of the Hydro projects that one is able to make a sound decision and that decision should not be made based on monetary benefits. Rather decisions should be made regarding our environment and what we need in order to protect it for future generations.

When waters become contaminated then what can do we do to replace this precious natural resource? Throughout the industrial age there have been immense developments and it would be thought that we could find ways to utilize what we have without destroying Mother Earth. Only when one looks at the impacts that have been made within the last century, can we go forward as human beings to look at ways to utilize sources without destroying Mother Earth.

Case Study III:

Yellow Quill First Nation A year before the Walkerton incident in July of 1999, an Environmental Health Officer (EHO) from the Saskatoon Tribal Council began investigating the large number of serious health issues in the community and she was concerned it was attributed to the water. The EHO learned that Yellow Quill got its water from pumping water into a reservoir from a stream that only ran for a few days every spring. The EHO also learned that in that same stream, a town upstream dumped its sewage lagoon into the water each spring when the Yellow Quill reservoir was filling. “You could turn the tap on before and you could smell the sewer. That’s how bad it was. Our houses smelled like that, sometimes the inside, it smelt like that for days because of the water. Even when we didn’t turn on the taps you could smell it” said Chief Whitehead in an interview with Saskatchewan Sage Magazine. Water quality on this First Nation was so bad that the residents were under “boil water advisory” from 1995 until 2004.

Unfortunately this is not unusual; in fact it is the “norm” in many First Nation communities, yet for Yellow Quill it was something that had to be changed. Yellow Quill citizens banded together, they were concerned and they were also motivated to affect change. Their persistence, combined with that of the EHO and the help of scientists from the Safe Drinking Water Foundation slowly impacted the decision of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) representatives to endorse the first water treatment project of its kind.

On April 11, 2005, the UN declared that Canada's high ranking (Ranked 7th) on the United Nations' human development scale would dramatically drop if the country were judged solely on the economic and social well-being of its First Nations people.

According to 2005 UN report, Canada would be placed 48th out of 174 countries if judged on those criteria. "Economic, social and human indicators of well-being, quality of life and development are completely lower among aboriginal people than other Canadians," said Rodolfo Stavenhagen a United Nations representative. 20 percent of British Columbian aboriginal people reported having inadequate water and sewer systems. There are no clear numbers regarding the condition of water services on aboriginal communities and while there are guidelines regarding water treatment, these are not enforced by government departments. This would be the same as having a guideline of 100 km/hr on the highway but people drive at their own speed and are never fined. Imagine how dangerous a highway would be if people drove at their own speed from 20km/hr to 180 km/hr.

Canada is the only developed country that does not have regulations governing drinking water. In 2004 Canada was the only country to vote “No”, declaring that water is “NOT” a basic human right. Canada voted against all other countries on this issue at the United Nations.

There are often problems because First Nation reserves are under federal jurisdiction whereas environmental concerns are under provincial jurisdiction. Yellow Quill should not have happened. Yet within many First Nation communities this is a reality every day of their lives, often they have complained, but those complaints are not dealt with appropriately! Yellow Quill had to wait nine years before their boil water advisory was rescinded. Yet this is the reality in many First Nations it is this dual jurisdiction and the lack of response that may cause irrevocable damage to the community and its members. In 1999, the EHO repeatedly requested Dr. Hans Peterson, Volunteer Executive Director of the Safe Drinking Water Foundation (SDWF), to become involved with Yellow Quill. In 2002 he moved to Yellow Quill and lived on the reserve for almost two years. He was instrumental in the development of a new water treatment system. It was an innovative approach to water treatment and was developed, piloted and implemented by Associated Engineering and WateResearch Corp. of Saskatoon.

The Yellow Quill First Nation bio-membrane water treatment plant is the first of its kind in Canada. The bio-membrane process has a number of advantages including the fact that no chemicals are used in the biological process, which takes advantage of naturally occurring microorganisms to remove contaminates. A minimum amount of chemicals are required for the membrane process. Yellow Quill water quality is probably better than anywhere else in Canada right now.

There is a Water Keeper rather than a Water Treatment Operator, paying attention to the spiritual and traditional well being of everyone in the community. This innovative approach will be implemented in other aboriginal communities in the future. Presently Hans Peterson is working with Saddle Lake First Nation in Alberta and other aboriginal communities who would like to safely drink their water without a boil water advisory.

The Safe Drinking Water Foundation (SDWF) was formed to address the needs of people to have and obtain safe drinking water in their communities.

This case study is one of the SDWF initiatives. It is only through education that others will know what is happening on First Nations communities in Canada.

Case Study IV: Natural Resource Transfer Agreement

Under the terms of First Nation numbered treaties signed throughout the prairie provinces in the late 1800’s, crown land was set aside to be used by the Indians for traditional hunting, fishing and gathering. The Natural Resource Transfer Agreement which took place in 1930 transferred control over natural resources from federal jurisdiction to provincial authority. Treaty First Nations have difficulty with the 1930 NRTA that was passed without consultation of aboriginal peoples. This gave the province jurisdiction over crown lands that were formerly under federal legislation. There has been apathy and mistrust of government departments, because much has been done to exploit our natural resources. Treaties were agreements that were signed between two nations and those agreements never stated that the crown lands would be transferred to the provincial control.

One of the provisions of the treaties was that land would be set aside to accommodate Status Indians based upon their population at the time of reserve surveys (1890’s- 1930’s). Many reserves were shortchanged lands and it was only after the 1990 Oka uprising/Crisis that Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE) Framework Agreement began within the Prairie Provinces, it was also at this time that it became important to make amendments to the NRTA to ratify and accommodate the TLE. If the NRTA had not taken place then First Nations would have control over the natural resources in their territories. Rather than the provinces getting money of uranium and other mining endeavors, these monies would be that of the First Nations whose territory was mined. In November of 2004 the Supreme Court of Canada made a decision regarding the provincial crown having a legal duty to consult with First Nations regarding land and resources. Amendments to the NRTA must take place to accommodate co-management of natural resource by the First Peoples and the federal/provincial governments.

A large portion of a "prime woodlot" within Alberta is undergoing some controversy since the government wants to give forestry companies cutting rights located within the Traditional Territory of the Lubicon Lake Indian Nation. "Rather than concluding a settlement with the Lubicon Nation," Lubicon Chief Bernard Ominayak said in a letter published in the Edmonton Journal (Spring 2005), "Alberta is once again trying to unilaterally assert jurisdiction by selling off the very lands and resources under dispute to oil, gas and forestry companies."

Aboriginal groups have long maintained a claim to the land for traditional uses, but also want to explore economic benefits associated with any plans for industrial development such as forestation, oil revenue, uranium mining and other acts which takes resources from Mother Earth. Aboriginal groups have also maintained that they have never given up the rights to their ancestral lands and rather it was the federal government without their consent that passed jurisdiction over the lands to the provincial authority.

If the NRTA was repealed or challenged the rights of aboriginal people would change forever, with significant economic impact. The fact is that without the NRTA the traditional lands of aboriginal people would go back to the first peoples for economic development. If the NRTA is determined to be null and void since Canadian aboriginal people were neither consulted nor approved, aboriginal people would get their land back. Canada is not the only country that has taken away economic benefits from natural resources for the indigenous peoples.

The United Nations declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Section Twelve states “Indigenous peoples have the right to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs.” Although the declaration will not create any legal obligation, it also pertains to return of cultural articles and intangible cultural property which was taken without their consent.

Huge land bases were taken from Canadian aboriginal people without their consent and these parcels of land had a variety of natural resources attached to them from oil to lumber. It has been a long and arduous battle for aboriginal people who maintain their conviction throughout long court battles which cost insurmountable monies to fight for what is morally and historically theirs.

The NRTA works for provinces providing them with revenue to maintain programs and institutions. Natural resource revenues represent the sale of natural capital assets. Natural resource endowment belongs to all provincial residents, including those who are not born yet. It should be treated as capital, and reinvested, so as to confer benefits on each province's citizens over a long period of time; an establishment of a heritage fund is a good idea. The provinces should invest the capital, and only spend the interest it generates.

It is important that every province be able to wisely invest and spend the monies made from natural resource revenue. It is also important that provincial governments ensure that Mother Earth is protected and the resources are sustainable for future generations. Perhaps one day the aboriginal people will regain their rights to natural resources and they will be handled in a more earth friendly manner.

Possible Resources

Aboriginal Elders and Community Workers in Schools: A Guide for School Divisions and their Partners Saskatchewan Education, ISBN 1-894116-58-5

I Have Lived Here Since The World Began: An illustrated History of Canada’s Native People by AJ. Roy. ISBN: 1-55013986-X

Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World (Print-Non-Fiction). Weatherford, J. McIver. Fawcett Book Group 1989. ISBN 0-449-90496-2.

The Stanley Mission Water Unit: Activities and Ideas, K to 12 (PrintNon-Fiction). Staff of Keethanow School Holland-Dalby Educational Consulting 1988. unp. ISBN 0-921848-15-3

Water Management In The Canadian North, The Administration of Inland Waters North of 60°, William MacLeod, 1977. ISBN 0-919996-04-3,


Flooding Job's Garden National Film Board and Tamarack Productions, 1991. Trinkets and Beads First Run/Icarus Films. 1996 James Bay, visit: