Kla. Tuu. Kwe. These are our words for water. As an indigenous woman, I am culturally, physically, spiritually, and mentally connected to water in ways that I am only now beginning to fully understand. Born from the ancient Nuxalk and Secwepemc indigenous peoples, living in modern day British Columbia, Canada, I think about water a lot.
In 2014, the tragic and catastrophic tailings dam fail at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley Mine released over 25 billion litres of mine waste into the clean and salmon-bearing waters of my motherland. Ground waste rock and process water containing heavy metals and toxic chemicals scoured nine kilometres of mountainside into Yuct Ne Senximetkwe, the birthing waters of life-sustaining salmon of the mighty Fraser River.
Quesnel Lake is the last leg of the salmon’s journey and was the last clean water the fish could swim into and spawn. The Fraser River has been polluted and on the endangered list for years. Now, it is a disaster zone that both Mount Polley and the B.C. government continue to deny.
Two years after the worst environmental disaster in Canada, the provincial government of British Columbia has permitted Mount Polley back to full time operations, without a single fine, leaving the waste intact. It is business as usual, despite government reports recommending otherwise. These are dangerous precedents for future disasters, predicted to happen twice every decade in the Mount Polley Panel report.
Now, Mount Polley’s proposed long-term water management plan includes dumping into already damaged lakes and to groundwater as its treatment plan to meet B.C. water quality guidelines. I have been told that “the solution to pollution is dilution.” I wholeheartedly disagree. So do many others.
In December 2016, First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining, a B.C.-based coalition dedicated to reforming unsafe mining practices, organized a letter campaign to raise awareness and take action. My partner Chris and auntie Teena joined me, door-to-door, to discuss the plan. There was no free, prior, and informed consent to this mining project, emphasized by 205 signatures demanding fully treated water at the end of pipe.
Our petition was further supported by organizations across B.C., Alaska, Canada, and the United States. We are all downstream and are connected by the water we drink, use, and pollute. We will soon find out if Prime Minister Trudeau’s words that, “governments grant permits, but communities grant permission” will be factored into the decision.
My indigenous teachings say that protecting water is traditionally a woman’s role. Women and water are life givers. Young women receive names bearing the word water, and are taught important water ceremonies. As clean water is becoming scarce, and treated as a bottomless well for industry to use, abuse, and pollute, our women are standing up and our men are standing beside us—to protect the sacred.
I look to my indigenous relatives near the proposed Site C Hydro Dam in Northern BC, and south, to pipeline opposition at Standing Rock, North Dakota. Have we entered the era of water wars? Speaking truth to power has never been an easy or conflict-free experience. We stand where our ancestors stood, where our children and grandchildren will stand. Clean water will be protected. We are fighting for our very survival- and yours.
Jacinda Mack is the coordinator of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining (www.fnwarm.com), as well as a grassroots advocate, mother, and auntie, committed to protecting clean water.