Fresh Sheets

A portfolio of writing by Tamara Neely.

A source of conflict: Book details First Nations’ struggle with tainted water October 28, 2010

Filed under: First Nations — Tamara Neely @ 00:12
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One out of every six First Nations people living on reserves can’t drink the tap water.

Author: Merrell-Ann S. Phare

It is too polluted, according to the author of a new book about indigenous people’s water rights in Canada.

 If one out of every six Canadians in our cities and towns had to buy bottled water because the tap water was brown and stunk, there would be outrage. However, as of June, the Canadian government reported 110 First Nations communities in Canada are under a “drinking water advisory” and many have been for years.

In Denying the Source: The Crisis of First Nations Water Rights, author Merrell-Ann S. Phare explores the problems First Nations face with contaminated drinking water, and the web of reasons why change isn’t happening.

Phare lays out the complex problems in an invitingly small book. Denying the Source is only the size of a daytimer, so wading into the issue isn’t too intimidating. She explains, in simple terms, that a big part of the reason that some First Nations communities have had to buy bottled water for 10 years is that there is no clear jurisdiction over the water.

 Provinces govern water allocation off reserves and have no jurisdiction on reserves, she explains. Treaties don’t specifically include water rights, but they also don’t specifically exclude them either.

As well, First Nations can’t look to the federal government for clarity. First, Ottawa does not govern water-use rights. Second, the Canadian government is not an advocate of water being a basic human right. In 2008, Canada successfully argued against the United Nations Human Rights Council’s attempt to declare it as such.

Phare points to the Supreme Court of Canada as a source of hope, however. The court has a track record of making decisions in support of First Nations access to potable water as well as access to water for agricultural and industrial needs.

 At the heart of the issue is the question of First Nations’ right to water; what legal grounds to use as leverage, balancing limited water with the rest of Canada’s needs, and the importance of maintaining enough water in rivers and lakes to support ecosystems.

 Phare points out that the Canadian approach to water as a commodity adds to the problems. First Nations fundamental law is stewardship for the Earth and water, so Canadian laws and First Nations laws are at odds. It will take effort on both sides to come to an agreement, but it can be done, according to Phare.

Both government agencies and First Nations agencies recognize there is a need to change the current system.

  Two years ago the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) chose six reserves in unique geographical situations and sampled the water. The AFN found that the water in every one of those reserves was either tainted with uranium, had unacceptable levels of disease-causing bacteria or came out of the tap brown and stinking. In addition, all six reserves showed “disturbingly high rates of cancer and evidence of fish deformities.”

 Phare’s book also includes examples of court decisions awarding First Nations access to ample clean water. So instead of seeing the issue as a quagmire without hope, Phare views it as a problem that can be solved, but one that requires empathy from fellow Canadians.

Published in Fast Forward Weekly on February 25, 2010

http://www.ffwdweekly.com/article/arts/books/a-source-of-conflict-5255/

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Community partnership helps prevent violence

Filed under: First Nations — Tamara Neely @ 00:01
Tags: , , ,
RCMP constable Donald Vanderrick, left, chats with Eden Valley resident Keith Lefthand. Vanderrick is stationed at the reserve to prevent crime through innovative programs such as organizing sports events.

RCMP constable Donald Vanderrick, left, chats with Eden Valley resident Keith Lefthand. Vanderrick is stationed at the reserve to prevent crime through innovative programs such as organizing sports events.

Two RCMP officers stationed in Eden Valley are trying to change the community’s perception of police.

Constables Donald Vanderrick and Jason Barber have been organizing sport events, such as a recent volleyball tournament, attending social gatherings and acting as mentors in addition to their traditional legal roles.The concept is that the RCMP officers can help prevent crime by connecting with the community. It’s an initiative that began five years ago, called the Community Tripartite Agreement, signed between the band, federal and provincial governments.

“Our focus is on crime prevention, but a lot of the problems go deeper than that,” said Vanderrick. “They’re associated with poverty, with the system.”

The system can trap residents and fuel a sense of hopelessness, he said. For example, there are very few jobs on the reserve, so to apply for a job residents need a driver’s licence.

Most don’t have a licence, and many have fines stacked up for driving without one. Acquiring a valid driver’s licence means coming up with the money to pay off fines and pay for the test, which can be difficult when the residents don’t have a job.

The RCMP officers are trying to help the residents out of this cyclical trap.

Vanderrick is helping youth support worker Seth Leon refine a new driver’s education program. He has also been in communication with local motor vehicle licensing offices to address such obstacles.

Vanderrick is already seeing a difference he and Barber are making in the community.

“At one time we were considered the outsiders and only here to arrest people and take them away and now we’re part of the community,” said Vanderrick.

People will now approach them and report crimes, Vanderrick said, which is a vote of confidence in their ability to do something about the violence.

Vanderrick began operating in Eden Valley last August and Constable Barber started in June, taking over from two previous RCMP officers operating on the reserve.

“Anywhere there is interaction with people, we want to be there and have a positive presence, not just come in when a crime happens and leave after,” Vanderrick.

The officers’ projects are directed by the Community Consulting Group, which is comprised of residents.

Projects include developing a police cadet to address aboriginal gang presence on the reserve, the driver’s education program, teaching drug and alcohol awareness in the school and organizing activities such as the volleyball tournament.

Vanderrick has found that the problems in Eden Valley echo problems First Nations people are experiencing across the country, however, on other reserves people are hitching their future to education.

“The buffalo died out a long time ago and now there is the saying that now education is our buffalo,” said Vanderrick, who is a Cree from Saskatchewan. “But I’m finding people here don’t have the same belief in education. It’s like, ‘What do I need education for? I’m not going anywhere.’ That was shocking to me.”

Vanderrick said he has seen a sense of hopelessness on the reserve, for example, among some of the Chief Jacob Bearspaw Memorial School children.

When visiting with a Grade 5 class he asked the students what they’d like to be when they grew up. He was met with blank stares.

“Nobody knew what I was talking about,” said Vanderrick. “I said, ‘Would you like to be a firefighter? A doctor?’”

He said there is a general lack of confidence among the residents in their own ability to change their lives for the better. That lack of confidence ties into myriad problems from prescription drug and alcohol abuse, to violent behaviour, arson, unemployment – the type of problems that plague the community.

Vanderrick continued to meet with the students and act as a counselor, educator and role model.

“At the end of the school year I asked them again what they wanted to be and this time they said things like hunter, fisherman, lawyer,” said Vanderrick.

However, in the five years since the Community Tripartite Agreement was put in place and RCMP officers started to have a more visible presence in community life, the crime statistics have not changed.

Sergeant Jim Ross with the Turner Valley RCMP detachment maintains the statistics.

“The statistics do not show a significant change in the amount of calls for service,” he said. “Sometimes it takes awhile for change to occur and you may not see it in statistics, but I think positive changes are occurring.”

Eden Valley resident Keith Lefthand was a member of band council when the Community Tripartite Agreement was signed. He said neither his council nor subsequent councils held workshops to educate the community on why the RCMP officers are stationed in Eden Valley full time.

“A big percentage of the people don’t understand what’s in the Community Tripartite Agreement,” said Lefthand. “They just see that RCMP are on the reserve and they’re charging us for no driver’s licence, no insurance. Over the years, under the Indian Act, we’ve been allowed to drive on the reserve without a driver’s licence or insurance, but with the Community Tripartite Agreement, we have to have those with us.

“When I was on council I knew we’d have to deal with the Traffic Act issues, but the main focus was on the safety of the elders and disabled, that they’re safe at home. Protect them from people who are drunk or high.”

Lefthand said more effort from both the council and the RCMP is needed to get the crime rate down.

“If the crime rate is still there, then something is definitely wrong,” said Lefthand. “I don’t blame the RCMP and it’s not fair to blame our tribal leaders. There has to be a focus from both sides.”

Many people believe education is a tool to help youth create a better future, but “school” for many people, still carries the horrific memories of parents and grandparents in residential schools, Lefthand said.

“People are scared to send their kids to school because of what happened to them,” said Lefthand. “Today, a middle-aged person like myself, in their 40s, their moms and dads were in residential school and when you’re sitting around the table it still affects us – even this far down… Some readers will say, ‘They’re using that as an excuse.’ We hear that at times, but who are they? None of them have lived it. It’s like an abducted child.”

Lefthand has also seen parents struggle to instill hope in their children. Because they are struggling to survive, there is a lack of parental support.

“I see a lot of that,” said Lefthand. “Parents don’t have jobs to support their kids, that makes it tough. It’s not a blame, but it’s a reality that the residential school days hurt a lot of our people and the trust is gone.”

Published in the Okotoks Western Wheel on September 20, 2010

http://www.westernwheel.com/2010/news/community-partnership-helps-prevent-violence-8264