Water, water everywhere

I am currently sitting beside Lake Erie (Erielhonan), or in Ojibwe, Waabishkiigoo-gichigami (Neutrals’ Sea), or Aanikegamaa-gichigami (Chain of Lakes Sea).

Lake Erie is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world. The surface area of the Great Lakes is about the same as the surface area of the British Isles (a statistic I’ve often quoted to impress the sheer size of Canada upon my fellow English people).

Despite Canada (1) possessing the largest body of fresh water in the world, a significant percentage of the original inhabitants of this northern area of Turtle Island (2) do not have running water in their homes.

According to Google Maps, the Six Nations reserve is 39 minutes’ drive from where I’m currently sitting. It’s 90 minutes’ drive from Toronto. Most homes in the reserve don’t have running water. (Where I’m currently sitting is just outside the Haldimand Tract, an area originally given to the Six Nations in thanks for them fighting on the British side during the American War of Independence.)

Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.’

Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Think about the times you have been camping or in a remote cottage with no running water. Maybe there’s a lake nearby where you can swim (if it’s in summer). If you’re on a reserve, there’s a strong likelihood that your nearest lake or river is polluted by runoff from mining.

When you’re camping or at the cottage, you only have to put up with the lack of running water for a weekend, or a week at the most. You can probably also afford to buy a large container of bottled water. Imagine living like that all the time.

When this issue is raised online, there’s often a smart-ass commenter who says “why don’t they dig a well?” Think about the cost of digging a well deep enough to prevent it being contaminated by runoff from nearby fields, or seepage from the neighbours’ septic tank. Remember that many people on reserves are unemployed and the federal unemployment benefit that they receive is about half of what unemployed settlers receive from the provincial funds (which is itself not enough to live on).

Many Indigenous families have chronic skin conditions caused by the lack of running water to bathe in.

Another comment that is often made is “but they’re sovereign nations, why can’t they look after themselves?” How can a sovereign nation be self-sufficient if it doesn’t have enough land to sustain itself and be truly sovereign over its own resources? And when the federal government can take away that sovereign status and confiscate land, or decide to build a pipeline or a reservoir, at the stroke of a pen?

Another lazy racist trope is “but the band councils / chiefs waste the money they’re given”. Well, so do majority-white councils. They waste money on all sorts of vanity projects, but no one suggests that their budgets should be cut as a result, or uses that as an excuse to deny them land and resources. And Indigenous councils don’t receive nearly as much money per head of population as settler municipalities.

Canada has one of the highest standards of living in the world (on some ways of measuring it, it’s number one). The standard of living for Indigenous Peoples in Canada is number 76 on that same set of metrics. That is an appalling and unacceptable inequality.

The solution is not to subsume Indigenous people into the larger culture. That’s not what they want. It was what Pierre Trudeau proposed in the 1969 White Paper, which was rejected by Indigenous people at the time. What they need is enough land to become truly sovereign nations, properly self sufficient and self-determining. That’s a lot more land than the 0.2% of Canada they currently possess. I checked this statistic online and it’s a Government of Canada statistic. (Not sure if it includes or excludes the 15% of Nunavut held by the Inuit.)

As Lee Maracle asked in her book Conversations with Canadians, why isn’t there a grassroots settler movement for justice for Indigenous people? There are some social justice groups that address this along with other issues, but none devoted purely to solidarity with Indigenous Peoples as far as I know.

As Pagans, it’s not enough for us simply to refrain from cultural appropriation (though that’s a good start). We need to look at other ways of acting in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples. Doing land acknowledgments is a good start but we need to move beyond that.

Buying Indigenous products, attending pow-wows, learning about Indigenous cultures and Peoples without appropriating them, reading about the painful experience of residential schools and inter generational trauma, supporting the revival of Indigenous culture and languages, hosting a Kairos blanket exercise, forming a group to do 150 acts of reconciliation, raising awareness of the issues and countering racist tropes whenever you hear them, getting involved in grassroots activism for Indigenous land rights and against pipelines (if you can). These are all things we could be doing. And many of us are, but more of us need to.

Obviously activism needs to be Indigenous-led, and we should be there to support existing campaigns. There’s been quite enough of white people thinking we know better. It should be totally obvious from the current climate crisis that we don’t know better, and that it’s our supposedly advanced technology that has got us into this mess.

Social justice, environmental justice, and climate justice go hand in hand. Adopting Indigenous ways of working in partnership with the land, instead of settler ways of dominating and exploiting the land, would go a long way towards solving the current climate crisis.

It’s absolutely obscene that in their own land, a land with abundant fresh water, many Indigenous people do not have access to safe, clean drinking water. I can’t understand why more people don’t find this fact outrageous.

Lake Erie (Indigenous name, Erielhonan)

Lake Erie (Indigenous name, Waabishkiigoo-gichigami). That’s a lot of fresh water.


(1) The name Canada comes from the word Kanata, meaning village in the Iroquoian language of the St Lawrence River.

(2) Not all Indigenous Peoples refer to North America as Turtle Island but I prefer it to using the name of the person who “discovered” it, which was a surprise to the many millions of people already living here.

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