The opening day of the Blue Summit highlighted major challenges to public water systems and resources, and drew lessons from winning campaigns.
The two-day conference has drawn more than 300 participants from across the country and internationally, including a group of more than 80 CUPE delegates from every province.
CUPE and the Council of Canadians organized the summit, being held in Ottawa, to mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of Water Watch.
CUPE national president Paul Moist’s opening speech celebrated how the water movement has grown over the last decade.
He stressed the importance of working in coalition at the community level, as well as nationally and internationally. Key to that work is strengthening solidarity with First Nations communities, to support their struggles for safe drinking water and proper sanitation services.
The economic crisis creates a moment for change, says Moist.
“We don’t accept a society built on greed and private profit, we want a country and a world built on public services and community values, and we won’t rest until that happens,” he told the plenary.
An opening panel moderated by Morna Ballantyne set the stage for the conference by examining the state of Canada’s water.
Council of Canadians national chairperson Maude Barlow dismissed the Canadian government’s “bogus arguments” for continuing to oppose the right to water at the United Nations. The real reason, she says, is it would conflict with the government’s position that water is a tradable good under NAFTA.
Canada is actively promoting new trade deals – such as a Canada –European Union agreement under negotiation - that put our water services in jeopardy, says Barlow. The Canada EU deal is “more dangerous than NAFTA in terms of everything we hold dear in this country,” she said. This deal, along with changes to the Agreement on Internal Trade, are part of a ‘perfect storm’ of trade deals which seek to open up the $100 to $200 billion in provincial and local spending on public services, including water.
Water policy expert Ralph Pentland outlined how Canada is “in a state of general confusion and gridlock just when a sense of national direction is urgently needed.” He emphasized the need for strong legislation and a national water policy to protect Canada’s water resources.
Assembly of First Nations water expert Irving Leblanc painted a stark picture of the challenges facing many First Nations communities. Poverty, underfunding, a massive infrastructure deficit and the absence of legislation dealing with on-reserve water and wastewater issues have combined to create a First Nations water crisis.
Over 120 First Nations communities live with undrinkable water today. Some of those reserves haven’t had safe water for nearly 15 years, Leblanc told the plenary. He called for full consultation and participation in a planned federal First Nations safe water act – something which has not yet happened.
CUPE researcher Blair Redlin reminded delegates that Canada’s public water and sewage systems were established in the wake of widespread public health problems in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These fledgling services were initially privatized, but were taken over by governments when they failed to deliver.
Redlin criticized how the federal government forces communities to privatize by making funding contingent on P3s. Corporatization of some public utilities is a growing concern he said, pointing to the activities of Edmonton-based EPCOR as well as recent moves to corporatize Winnipeg’s water services.
During the mid-day break, participants rallied on Parliament Hill, saying bold action on climate change can’t wait any longer, and that countering the global water crisis must be part of the solution.World leaders will soon travel to Copenhagen for the UN Climate Change Conference on December 7-18.
CUPE and the Council of Canadians will bring a banner signed by summit delegates to Copenhagen.
“Our government’s climate record speaks for itself, said CUPE National Secretary-Treasurer Claude Généreux. We rank 59th out of 60 countries. And it keeps getting worse. A prime example is the pollution and destruction spewing out of the Tar Sands.”
“That’s why we must stand our ground. Together. For water, for the planet, and for our children’s future. The message on our banner makes it crystal-clear: ‘Climate justice is water justice,’” concluded Généreux.
Delegates also participated in workshops and heard an afternoon panel focusing on organizing to win.
The conference opened last night with a party celebrating Water Watch’s birthday. CUPE members, including a number of water and wastewater workers, also held a lively afternoon caucus to share their experiences and strategize about CUPE’s water work.
Couldn’t make it to the summit? Listen in at cupe.ca in the coming weeks for podcasts from the weekend.