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Debate Over Sale of Water Undermines Indian Sovereignty in Canada

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In a recent survey conducted in Canada by the Globe and Mail/CTV by the Angus-Reid Polling Company it was revealed 66% of Canadians believe that water should be allowed as an export item. 56% believed that even bulk exports of water should be allowed however this should be regulated by the government. Canada has been involved in a serious debate about bulk water export with business proposals ranging from hauling tanker ships of fresh water from Lake Superior to the Middle East; draining entire lakes in Newfoundland; to harnessing icebergs to boats and towing them to Europe; to building water pipelines to the United States. Earlier this year the Canadian federal and most provincial governments banned bulk water exports from Canada. It now seems that business lobbyists have shifted their tactics into the court of public opinion and the press. The larger question will be whether if bulk water is exported it will then become a trade commodity eligible for regulation under international trade instruments like the World Trade Organization. Is there a potential for a WTO tribunal to rule that Canada is acting in an unfair manner by limiting exports of water and require an open market for this resource?

In all of this there are two considerations. The first is the capacity and the will of the Canadian government to protect this most valuable of resources. If indeed through some form of international regulatory chicanery the Canadian government were forced to open an export market for water would they have the capacity to defend the right not to export or, to limit export purely on domestic regulatory terms? In terms of will, neither federal nor provincial governments have good records in terms of regulating the existing water industry. At this time any commercial bottler can access artesian water on private land and bottle great amounts of water for resale at a laughable licensing fee. In other matters such as the labeling of genetically-modified foods in Canada authorities have shown a remarkable reluctance to protect consumers and to cater to the market interests of the large bio-tech. corporations.

The second is the assumption that the water is the property of all Canadians and subject to regulatory provisions by the federal and provincial governments. It is maintained by the Anishnabai and by many other Indian nations who entered into treaty with the British and Canadian governments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that water was specifically excluded from the treaties. That even in the treaties of land cession the people maintained their ownership of the waters on which they lived, traveled and which yielded the resources necessary for the maintenance of life. In one of the earliest treaties signed by the Anishnabai The Gunshot Treaty (1790 and various) the Anishnabai expressly reserved all rivers, lakes, mouths of rivers and lands on either side to the distance that a gunshot could be heard. In the Toronto Purchase and other treaties signed by the Mississauga all fishing grounds, streams, lakes, rivers and islands offshore were reserved. As late as the 1920's the government acknowledged that the island in the Trent- Sevren waterway were still the possession of the Ojibways and Mississaugas. Both in their stated ownership of waters and in the implicit ownership suggested by treaty provisions related to guarantees related to resource harvesting from the waters in their territories, Indian people consistently affirm their ownership of the water.

The world is in a grave crisis with regards to the fresh water needed to sustain life on this planet. Drought has claimed millions of lives in Africa and Asia in the last decade. Whole cities in America currently cannot provide water for themselves and need to pipe it in from great distances. Potable water is not only an economic issue but will become an issue determining the power of states to provide sustenance for their citizens. In much the same way as the oil industry in the 1970's became an arena for diplomacy, militarism, intrigue and hegemony so water will become early in the new millennium. The question that will seem to be ignored is the question of ownership of yet another indigenous resource protected by treaty. Sovereignty over water may be impossible to enforce in the world we live in. It should however be a matter of negotiation and perhaps pursued in the courts by Indian nations. It is the view of many of our elders that the water is the blood of our Mother Earth and as such we have a responsibility to protect it. In so doing we reinforce and reaffirm our traditional relationship with the earth, with the sky that brings that water back to us in the form of rain, with the animals that depend on the water, and to all life that depends on the water to live. The defense of our sovereignty over water is not for the purposes of building an economic or political machine but rather it is because we understand as Indian people, as Anishnabai, or Haudonosonee or Lakota, that the defense of our sovereignty in this regards will ensure our survival and the survival of all life on earth.

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