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Prominent local and national activists gathered on Parliament Hill March 12 to toast public water and light up the Peace Tower in blue. The event was the start of a week of World Water Day events across the country.

The event, organized by CUPE, the Council of Canadians and the Polaris Institute, kicked off a week of local, provincial national and international action to keep water and wastewater services public, promote water as a human right and cap municipal bottled water use. The themes are all part of a new joint CUPE-Council of Canadians “Blue Communities” project.

Participants sipped Ottawa municipal water, which is delivered by the members of CUPE 503.

NDP leader Jack Layton toasted the “best darn workers in the world” who provide public water. He also drank to the democratic control and community accountability that flows when water systems are in public hands at the municipal level.

Oxfam Canada Executive Director Robert Fox toasted water for all, and described the stark reality for women and girls in the global South who don’t have access to water and sanitation.

Every single day on the face of the planet there are millions of girls and women who don’t go to work or school because they must gather water,” said Fox. He warned the situation is worsening as the climate crisis worsens water shortages around the globe.

What’s just part of our day to day reality is the source of desperation and the foundation of inequality” for millions of girls and women,” he said.

He connected local and international anti-privatization struggles. “If we can’t protect universal access to public water, what hope do our sisters in Zimbabwe, or our sisters in Guatemala have…It is absolutely essential that we protect public water.”

Ottawa city councilor Clive Doucet  toasted the Ottawa River and invited the city’s director of water and wastewater, Dixon Weir, out of the crowd and onto the stage. The city’s water workers are on the job day in and day out delivering excellent water, said Weir, describing how Ottawa’s municipal water is tested over 100,000 times a year. He also highlighted the need to upgrade the city’s sewage system, to increase capacity to deal with storm sewage overflow, and to deal with climate change.

Catherine Coumans, research director of Mining Watch Canada spoke with urgency about recent federal changes that allow mining companies to turn healthy lakes into toxic dump sites. “The danger is that because we have so many lakes and rivers, people think we can dump into them…but those lakes and rivers will be destroyed forever.” She condemned the “cavalier” way the mining industry is using lakes.

Ottawa Riverkeeper Executive Director Meredith Brown toasted the Ottawa River, and reminded participants they were toasting with water from the Ottawa River.  Ottawa residents are “very fortunate” to have such excellent drinking water,” she said.  But she warned against complacency, listing some of the challenges putting stress on the Ottawa River – and on the drinking water supply.

Brown said that it’s essential that water systems stay public. “When water is in the hands of public authorities, you can get straight answers,” she said. “When it’s in the hands of private corporations it’s not so easy to get those answers.”

Maude Barlow, chairperson of the Council of Canadians and Senior Advisor on Water to the President UN General Assembly, ended the night with a short and poetic toast: “To blue water. To public water. To water warriors, here and around the world. To water for other species. To water for children. To water for everyone. To water for the future. Our blue covenant.”