Karin Jordan | Cupe Staff
Rebecca Benson | Cupe Staff

A powerful new video series features members of CUPE’s National Indigenous Council talking about what water means to them and their communities, and calls on us all to protect water resources and services. The series launched on World Water Day, March 22, 2023, and is part of CUPE’s Water is life campaign.

The campaign aims to raise awareness about the ongoing effects of colonization on Indigenous communities and build solidarity with CUPE members. Meaningful reconciliation starts with listening, learning, and honouring Indigenous peoples’ role as the stewards and protectors of the waters of their treaty lands and traditional unceded territories.

Access to water and sanitation are human rights under international law, yet many Indigenous communities in Canada live with water that is unsafe to drink or wash with — some for decades. Other communities don’t have any functioning water system. Pollution and corporate abuse have also harmed water sources that many Indigenous communities rely on.

Indigenous peoples have been fighting threats to their water for generations, including government inaction, corporate resource exploitation, and environmental racism, as a result of the ongoing impacts of colonization.

The National Indigenous Council members share an urgent message through their stories and experiences: we need to act now and take up the fight for water as life.

Lindsay (Loyer) Poll

Lindsay (Loyer) Poll is a CUPE 4070 member and flight attendant with WestJet Airlines. Over the years, pollution has turned the water in her home community from healing to harmful.

“Our community is right on the water. My kookum (grandmother) tells many stories of them as kids, the water was clear and perfect and beautiful. This goes long before colonization. Our water has always been known as the lake of healing. People in our community would come from many miles to just go in the lake, because the lake would heal you. My grandmother is a devout Catholic, and she was baptized in that water. But we can’t even touch it anymore”, they say.

Poll lives on a small family farm on Treaty 7 territory in the Calgary area, but is originally from Lac Ste. Anne Métis Nation and Michel First Nation in the Edmonton area, which is Treaty 6 territory and Métis Region 4.

“Water is not a financial commodity. Water is the lifeblood of Mother Earth. It is not just Lac Ste. Anne – my little tiny community, my little piece of water – that has been destroyed. It is water across this Turtle Island that has been destroyed.”

Poll is taking action to create change and is urging people to ask questions, to invite Indigenous members to share their stories and to truly listen to them.

“I want to make sustainable change. And it’s not for me. It’s healing the next seven generations. It’s giving that voice to my children and my grandchildren, and the great grandchildren. We want all the nations of Mother Earth to be safe, because water is life. Water is what gives us everything. If we don’t have it, there is nothing,” they say.

“Water is life, but land back. Giving back the land that we don’t even own. Nobody owns it. Our kids own the land and when they grow up, their kids own the land. So, we’re just borrowing it, and we’ve got to leave it better for them.”

Leo Cheverie

Leo Cheverie is of Inuk ancestry from Labrador and a CUPE 1870 member. He has worked since 1985 as a library technician at the University of Prince Edward Island. His home community in geographic terms is East Point, P.E.I.

Coming from a fishing family, Cheverie sees the urgent need to protect water sources from contamination and abuse.

“I see destruction of fish and other things. My family used to go dig clams or gather other things, but now you cannot do it in some of those places,” he says. “Prince Edward Island depends solely on groundwater for its drinking water and it is very vulnerable in terms of access to water and the purity of water. I have seen small farms be replaced by large monocultural farms using a lot of pesticides or other chemicals which have run off into waterways and made them anoxic. A lot of bodies of water that I grew up with, including Diligent Pond which is close to my home, have become anoxic.”

Cheverie has stood alongside activists, fishers and Indigenous community members and their allies in protests across the Maritimes to sustain water for everyone, and to protect it from big oil companies and other industries. “I think people are getting it,” he says. “When people know what is happening with water and its pollution, people want to protect it.”

He calls on us all to organize and work together to stop the pollution and the destruction of our water supply for short-term gain.

“Water is globally in short supply and needs to be protected. A lesson I’ve learned is that we are all in this fight together to sustain a blue planet, and make sure that water is available to everybody — not just the richest people who would buy water at the expense of everybody else.”

Nathalie Claveau

Nathalie Claveau is a lead line worker with Hydro-Québec and member of CUPE 1500. She lives in Mashteuiatsh, an Innu community in Lac Saint-Jean, right on the shore of the huge lake. Water has always been a very important part of her life and she sees it as an invaluable treasure.

“Just because we have clean drinking water today, it doesn’t mean we will still have it tomorrow. We have to protect and defend it. There isn’t a never-ending supply of clean water. Even rainwater will be polluted at some point, and our water sources are drying up. It’s about being mindful and not taking anything for granted.” 

Claveau highlights the water injustice many Indigenous communities face, particularly because water is a natural resource.

“Water is something we are supposed to have. We shouldn’t have to fight for it,” Claveau says. “At home, we have our own drinking water treatment service. But I know for lots of communities that’s not true. Even in the North, Inuit don’t have access to drinking water. They have to haul it in with tanker trucks. And then we’ve got these big companies buying up spring water and bottling it. It is unfair. It doesn’t go back to those communities, they are stuck with not having drinking water. They have to go out and buy it. It is a glaring inequity.”

Claveau is happy to see that water and other Indigenous issues are becoming a more common concern. “Because even when members say ‘We don’t know what the issues are,’ that’s not really true. Often we are so close to other communities but just don’t take that next step.” She believes CUPE members are on the right path, asking more questions and becoming more aware of an issue that is critical for our very survival.

“What do we mean when we say ‘Water is life’? Asking the question answers the question. Without water, there is no life. Humanity goes extinct. Do I take this to heart? Of course I do. I want to live!” Claveau says.

Dawn Bellerose

Dawn Bellerose has over 33 years of experience as a developmental service worker with Community Living Algoma, and is a CUPE 1880 member. She lives in Sault Ste. Marie, which is the traditional territory of the Robinson-Huron and the Anishinaabe people. Water has always been central to Bellerose and her family’s well-being and happiness.

“In Sault Ste. Marie, we are surrounded by the beautiful Great Lakes of Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. My grandfather and his brothers were fishermen. That was their life. That was what they brought to their community, to feed not only their family, but their community. As a young child, we would always go to my grandparents, who lived in a little town called Thessalon, and we loved to swim. And my father always took us fishing and boating.”

Bellerose recognizes that she is privileged to be an urban Indigenous person with access to clean water. She says she was shocked when she learned that Grassy Narrows and so many Indigenous communities across Canada have not been able to bathe, drink, or cook with their water for decades.

“Grassy Narrows has been contaminated by mercury for well over 60 years. Studies have proven the levels were very high. Not having clean water is horrific on its own, but the impacts it has on their family and their communities — their food source is contaminated as well. But every government that has been in power always says they’re going to help them, and promise after promise has been broken,” she says. “I didn’t understand that. This is Ontario, this is Canada. I didn’t know this was happening within my country. And I wanted to know what I can do to help.”

So, she got involved whenever the community came to Toronto, supporting them in their activities and protests. CUPE members are allies in this struggle to protect and heal water. We all have a role to play in ending water injustice and working for reconciliation.

“Water is life. It is like the air that you breathe. It cleanses you, it quenches your thirst. It cleans your soul, it feeds you. It is everything. If everybody can just turn on their tap and enjoy a glass of water,” says Bellerose, with hope in her voice.

Everyone is invited to watch and share all four videos online. They are one way CUPE members can learn more about the significance of water for Indigenous peoples and their communities, and get involved.

Members can also order a poster of the Water is life painting created by artist Aaron Paquette.

Stand with Indigenous peoples and demand an end to water injustice. Take the pledge to listen, learn and act at cupe.ca/water-is-life