By Rick Scholes
Over one hundred people squeezed into the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum on the evening of Wednesday November 12th, to enjoy a captivating evening with a veritable Canadian icon. Maude Barlow, National Chairperson for the Council of Canadians, delivered an inspiring talk, packed with information, sprinkled with humour, and laced with both concern and hope. Her message was backed up by a wealth of experience, ranging from high level international committees to demonstrations in the trenches. She has been being tear-gassed on five continents … and is proud of it!
The key message she relayed during her talk was that if a community does not want a hydro plant or a pipeline or a toxic waste dump, they have the power to stop it. There was an audible reaction from the audience when she said these words, and so she repeated them. Provincial and federal governments like to think they run the show, but local governments and regular citizens have more power than they realize. Bad projects can be stopped by local resolve and will power.
In recent years Barlow’s efforts have been focussed on clean water both in Canada and throughout the world. She recounted the drama of one of her best “wins” that occurred back on July 28th, 2010, when the United Nations voted 122 to 0 (with the rest, including Canada, abstaining) to pass a resolution making clean water and sanitation a right for all humans. In the years immediately prior to this historic vote Barlow had served as the special advisor on water to the 63rd President of the UN, Miguel d’Escoto Brockman. On the day of the vote, the culmination of decades of groundwork and months of lobbying, she stood flanked by her staff in the observation balcony. Thankful they had gotten so far, hardly daring to believe they could succeed, they were jubilant when the positive result flashed up on the screen in the General Assembly. Sadly, the Harper government was one of those “leading the charge” against the resolution. This success was a necessary first step in the battle against a growing trend toward privatization of water, the control of water by corporations whose concern is not for human rights, dignity, or health, but only their bottom line: money. Corporations care not that every three and a half seconds, somewhere in the world a child dies due to unsanitary water.
Barlow relayed an incredible amount of knowledge and detail on a variety of topics: fracking (why bitumen pipelines are so dangerous), free trade (the legal perils of CEDA and TPP), water rights and shortages (Sao Paolo, and closer to home, Detroit). She noted that most of us remember from our school days the hydrologic cycle diagram, and so we have a mistaken impression that water is in endless supply and will always be where we want it. But the global economy means that we move water around within the products we buy and ship, be it lumber or plastic toys or running shoes. And our wetlands and rivers, which perform a sort of ecological kidney function of re-purifying our water, are being destroyed or altered. All these factors imperil the natural balance. “When you have a water system like this Mississippi here, when you have these falls, when you have water your kids can swim in, you just hold it so tight, because it’s so important, and it’s so rare”, she said. (We or our descendants may be drinking the river someday, when the town aquifers run dry.) It came as a surprise when she told the audience Canada now has the worst wetland and deforestation record in the world – even worse than Brazil. Damage can be undone if we hold our governments accountable and pursue these issues at every election.
The challenges we face are significant but not insurmountable. In addition to some of the progress made at the international level on water rights, Barlow also recounted some notable environmental victories. Alberta rancher Jessica Ernst recently won a court case against the Alberta government, which had tried to block her lawsuit of a fracking company, EnCana, which had invited themselves onto her property and destroyed her water table. The citizens of Simcoe County, Ontario, were able to prevent, despite MOE approval, a toxic waste dump (Site 41) from being located on their farmland near Georgian Bay, the site of some of the cleanest water on the planet.
During her visit to Almonte, Barlow also enjoyed a tour of the Riverwalk and took the time to appreciate the beauty of this community and its thriving tourism economy, and understand the issues facing it. Several times during her talk she referred back to the local situation. In addition, members of the Mississippi RiverWatchers spoke briefly. Mike O’Malley began the evening with a heartfelt presentation on the river and wetlands, summarizing what they mean to this community. Brian Young and Bryn Matthews extolled the virtues of volunteer work, activism and community involvement in municipal government and all the other many activities and projects on tap. Together we have made what Barlow calls an “intentional community”. We must continuously strive to grow it the way we want it grown, and not blindly accept the wishes of outsiders in provincial government or corporations with other interests. We are the stewards of our land and rivers.
Those who attended were receptive and appreciative. Her message was clear and her support was energizing.
Photos: © DeSa Photography / Shawn De Salvo.