What Canada taught me about water

By Noor Sheikh, Freshwater Coordinator, WWF-Canada
The day before the Living Waters Rally, I sat on the banks of the Ottawa River and dangled my feet just above the water, watching the quiet, floating scene. I had left a busy city behind me, and in front, birds and water taxis glided languidly on the river. The ease of life on and around the water reminded me that the further I am away from it, the more abstracted my day seems.

(C) Lindsay Telfer, Canadian Freshwater Alliance

As the Rally drew to a close, I was a few steps closer to bridging the gap between passive admirer and environmentalist. For four days I had exchanged ideas with many of the hundred water stewards who had come to the rally from all over Canada. I was not familiar with some of the watersheds that they represented, but it was easy to note the spark that linked us all. We were there to share our vastly different expertise and our thoughts on the future of the Country’s waters. Looming changes to environmental legislation were on our minds, yet the mood was not gloomy. The buzzword for the Rally, if I had to find one, was potential: the potential of youth, the potential of data mining, the potential of combining traditional knowledge with scientific research, the potential of speaking together with a unified voice.

(C) Gayle McLelland, WWF-Canada

For me, ”potential” shared the spotlight with an unexpected feeling that weekend: culture shock – in the best way possible. I come from a country where emotions run high over a trans-boundary watershed. The Indus River has become so politicized that many fear the years of hostility brewing around its management will eventually give way to violent civil or inter-state conflict. It could be decades more before groups along that river can come together the way we did in Ottawa, putting aside territorialism to realize that the flow of a river contains its own wisdom.
Throughout the weekend, Rally participants referred to the spiritual dimension of our water. We mused that it is a biotic part of our natural world, teeming with life and energy. Many cultures, notably the First Nations of Canada, believe that it possesses a life-force and a spirit. If this is true, our “living waters” are as individual are we are, and like individuals, such dynamic entities should have rights of their own to protect their integrity. Here my culture shock reached its zenith.
Newcomers to Canada are often criticized for being apathetic towards environmental issues. I offer this alternate reading: they simply do not know that they can start caring and that their voices matter. Many countries that immigrants come from do not have the benefit of an organized and vocal water-movement, nor do they have parliamentarians who will make time to listen to the average citizen. I felt privileged to have met people at the Living Waters Rally who habitually protect and exercise our rights to assemble and to speak our minds. On the final day, a small but determined group travelled to Parliament Hill to speak about their water concerns with their MPs. Looking back at all the conversations and the momentum that we gathered, The Rally was more than another conference. To me, it was an exercise in collaboration and knowledge-sharing that we need to see more of all over the world.
The buzzword from the weekend returns: potential. The potential here is overwhelming. Fulfilling it will mean moving beyond the hundred knowledgeable voices at the Rally to mobilizing Canadians to set an example the rest of the world can follow. As one keynote speaker observed, rivers, lakes and streams are not just resources “for future generations,” they are teeming with life and sustaining us right now. Let an outsider restate what you may already know: Canada’s water movement is fortunate, it is potent and it cannot rest.