Groundwater: Making the invisible visible

Since 1993, March 22 has been United Nations World Water Day. It is an annual observance to raise awareness of and take action on water-related issues, particularly the two billion people who live without access to safe water.

This year’s theme—groundwater—was chosen to make the invisible visible.  Protecting groundwater from contamination is one of the key priorities for Indigenous communities across Canada. Direct action and conflict have been in the news as activists, struggling to be heard by government and private entities, adapted blockade tactics on various areas of key infrastructure, such as highways and rail lines.

Rather than including Indigenous communities in the decision-making process, infrastructure projects have moved forward that could irreversibly affect traditional ancestral territories, some governments have further criminalized dissent, such as the case with Alberta’s Bill 1.

Canada can and must do better.  

Governments must live up to the constitutional commitments it has made with Indigenous, Inuit and Métis Peoples. Unifor supports the principles embedded in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) including the necessity of consultation and full socio-economic participation.

Recent court rulings are also turning Canada’s moral obligation to respect Indigenous Rights and Title into legal ones as well. 

In Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia (2014), the Supreme Court recognized the Tsilhqot’in’s title claim to a 1,750 square kilometre tract of non-reserve territory. This is significant and means that Indigenous title to traditional territory encompasses the right to control all aspects of land utilisation, including resource development. 

Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities benefit from safe infrastructure that creates good jobs and generates royalties or dividends which serve to strengthen community services and improve the standard of living for working people. 

Development projects must not be imposed on communities who oppose them. Unifor supports responsible development projects that add value to our vast, shared natural resources. The union calls on all governments and private interests to implement joint decision-making that authentically includes Indigenous communities and voices. These processes must abide by the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous communities in all areas affected by any such projects.

As University of Manitoba law professor Brenda Gunn said during a 2021 Unifor webinar:

Indigenous Peoples are Canada’s partners in confederation, a benefit not burden, nor a ‘risk’ to be managed… Indigenous Peoples are decision-makers, not simply one of a myriad of stakeholders, in decisions over their lands and territories.