waterdayToday is World Water Day, a day established by the United Nations to celebrate and protect clean water. In Canada, we are fortunate to be surrounded by a nearly limitless supply of the cleanest, freshest water in the world. We know very well that many other people and places on the planet are not so fortunate.

For indigenous people, water is sacred. For the Anishinaabe, we call the water nbi. Nbi comes with a myriad of teachings that are passed down, mainly from our Grandmothers. In our culture, it is the women that are responsible for protecting, looking after and speaking for the water.

It is this cultural understanding of water, and it’s sacredness, that has prompted so much opposition to natural resources projects and in particular, concerns over oil sands production, hydraulic fracturing (fracking), pipelines and transportation of oil.

Most recently, the derailment and spill of oil tanker rail cars near Mattagami First Nation in northern Ontario has prompted widespread concern over the effect of a potential release of crude oil into the environment and the water.

Resource development companies and project proponents must redouble their efforts with First Nations and better understand their perspectives on the environment and water.

During the course of engagement, some companies will commission and fund traditional knowledge (TK) studies and traditional land use (TLU) studies in an effort to quantify and obtain data on the environmental values of indigenous communities. But companies are often forced into these studies either to appease the First Nation, go through the motions or jump through certain regulatory hoops. Further, these studies are rarely done using a culturally-based methodology and is more dependant on contemporary, established data-gathering methodologies.

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to quantify indigenous teachings into “data”. Traditional knowledge isn’t only about describing a practice. It’s about thousands of years of environmental understanding and how that has evolved to traditional land use today.

It’s difficult for resource development companies and project proponents to understand these complex principles:

  • Water is the lifeblood of Mother Earth.
  • Water is sacred.
  • Water flows to us from a special place in the Spirit World, and is said to be forever flowing and bringing us life.

The ebbs and flows of the Spirit certainly cannot be studied or quantified into any form of data. But these perspectives can be shared and these concepts can be learned.

Setting aside TK and TLU studies (which certainly have their place and importance within the scope of the duty to consult), how can resource companies and project proponents better understand these values and these cultural-based perspectives? Simple. Just ask and listen.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Do your best to learn as much as you can about these types of traditional and cultural understandings through adequate advice from a reliable source.
  2. Take the time to do this. Set aside half-days, full days, even multiple days to spend with First Nations leadership, consultation staff, traditional people, Elders and women.
  3. Ask the Elders and traditional people for help in better understanding their perspectives on the protection of water. For the Anishinaabe, this means talking to our Grandmothers and traditional women. These conversations always start with an offering of tobacco.
  4. Don’t react. Absorb what is being provided to you. Try to allow the Spirit of the words, and the Spirit of the water to touch you. (Working with First Nations isn’t always about dollars and cents, policy and regulations, budgets and project plans and getting right down to business.)
  5. Take action. How can you take what you have learned about the indigenous understanding of water and incorporate those perspectives, concerns and ideas into your project decision making?

Remember, First Nations and Métis communities have the right to say no. On their traditional territory, their rights and interests need to be respected and accommodated. When it comes to development that may impact that beautiful, fresh and clean water on their territory – accommodation and negotiation will be a necessity.

To that end, you, your company and your project will need to be partners in ensuring that the water is protected and you are respecting the rights, interests and wishes of the indigenous community. From the most fervent polluter, to the well-meaning oil and gas developer, they all can learn more about indigenous perspectives on water. We must all work towards making the world a better place by protecting and celebrating clean and fresh water.