The Great Canoe Journey

By Jemma O’Malley

On November 7th, members from McGill Students for Amnesty International were fortunate to attend a workshop focusing on water and the history of the birchbark canoe. The discussion-based workshop began with a brainstorming activity surrounding local water issues as well as thinking about water as having its own rights. The conversation ranged from the recent report of lead-laced drinking water, the pollution of local waterways, and the severely inadequate access to clean water among Indigenous communities.          

A representative from Waterlution, an action orientated organization focusing on water sustainability, lead the group in a ‘water embodiment’ activity. Each participant shared a word they associated with water and physically embodied the meaning of the word by using hand gestures and facial expressions. This allowed students to connect with the meaning and importance of water in their everyday lives.

The Story of the Birchbark Canoe          

After an initial conversation about water issues in Canada, Metis Canoe Builder Christian Pilon shared the history and cultural significance of the birchbark canoe. He explained that the canoe was the primary means of transportation for the Omàmiwinini, Haudenosaunee, and Anishinaabe peoples among many other Indigenous groups. They allowed nomadic peoples to travel and trade in the interior of Canada and were later used by voyagers in the fur trade. The watercraft facilitated the sharing of knowledge, resources, land, and water which continue to bridge the ancestral stories of Indigenous and French-Canadian heritage.

Christian Pilon
Photo credit to Waterlution

Christian Pilon builds birchbark canoes in the same way as his ancestors by only using materials found in nature. Following the traditional stories of his past, Pilon describes the vessel’s construction as being a reflection of the composition of the human body. Birchbark is waterproof like human skin and forms the exterior of the vessel. The frame and interior are made from cedar that behaves like muscles to strengthen and support the boat. Like tendons, roots from the spruce tree are flexible and are used to tie pieces of the canoe together. Finally, the sap of the spruce tree seals the canoe just as blood seals wounds on the human body. 

Pilon views the canoe as being a symbol of connection and continues to use it as a way to build relationships between people with their ancestors and paddlers of the past. 

Big Takeaways

Students were asked to reflect on their experience at the end of the workshop and discussed personal plans of action to implement on a daily basis. A common takeaway for many students was the power of sharing. Christian Pilon explained the historical importance of sharing for his Anishinaabe ancestors and how it allows for knowledge to be distributed for the benefit of entire communities. Not only do stories play a central role in connecting people to their history but allow people to learn from one another. In Anishinaabe culture, storytelling is done in circles where everyone can be seen, heard, and respected. This way of sharing knowledge is inclusive and interactive, allowing everyone an equal opportunity to participate and share their own ideas. 

A few students discussed the idea of sharing in their everyday lives and described feeling frustrated with the competitive nature of learning on university campuses. A goal for these students is to actively work to build a learning environment that is collaborative and encourages people to contribute their unique knowledge and experiences. 

Other students focused on another theme of Christian Pilon’s storytelling, specifically that of the relationship between humankind and nature. For his ancestors, nature was honoured and given the same respect as is given to a human being. Canoe builders ask the birch tree for permission before using some of it’s bark, roots, and sap. Treating nature with the same respect as people allows it to be appreciated for everything it provides. Water, minerals, and trees are essential to the survival of humankind, yet can all exist peacefully without human intervention. 

People need nature, nature does not need people.

Learn More 

Learn more about Metis Canoe Builder Christian Pilon and his work connecting Canadians to their ancestry through the art of storytelling. Share what you learn and learn from those you share with! 

Check out Waterlution and their global network of innovative and sustainable water programs. They are dedicated to drawing attention to the globe’s shared interest, water. 

Amnesty International is teaming up with Indigenous water defenders to take action on the polluted waterways across Canada. Despite the fact that contaminated water is severely affecting Indigenous communities, the Canadian government has done little to address these human rights violations. Join the campaign and take action here.

Defending Water, Defending Rights

By Emma Wiseman

The human right to water, as defended by the United Nations, entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, and physically accessible water. Yet, at any given time, there are over 100 cases of water advisories in First Nation communities in Canada. These cases can range from contaminated water to outright inaccessibility, and each one can take years to fix.

To defend the right to water is to address the ongoing human rights violations that aren’t being properly addressed by the Canadian federal government. Here’s a quick overview of the issue, and some of the campaigns that are trying to take action. 

How Does This Happen? 

In Canada, water quality standards fall under provincial jurisdiction: this means that each province enforces different policies pertaining to the safety and access to water. However, any community that falls under national jurisdiction instead doesn’t have any legal standards of water to protect their rights. First Nations communities fall into this category, which is largely how they are so vulnerable to a lack of infrastructure and a failure to obtain safe water. 

In addition, as outlined by the Indian Act, First Nations communities have been made almost completely dependant on the federal government for the rights to “Band Moneys”: the revenue generated on reserve land. This means that any time a First Nation community would like access to financial resources, they have to go through the government. This makes aid and infrastructure a long and laborious process, often resulting in no funding at all

What Does it Look Like? 

Water advisories can range from warnings to boil water before consuming, to outright non-consumption. Cases are most frequently due to a lack of environmental regulation, and a lack of infrastructure. 

Recently, the case for Grassy Narrows has surfaced on the news: a Northern Ontario community that has been trying to deal with mercury-contaminated water for over 50 years, a result of dumping from a paper mill. It is estimated that 90% of the population suffers from mercury poisoning. But this is far from the only case that has failed to be addressed. In Mount Polley, after the largest environmental mining disaster in Canadian history sent waste water into Quesnel Lake, action still hasn’t been taken to clean the water. Since 2014, residents have not been able to use take any resources from the lake. 

Without safe drinking water, there is a high health risk for problems such as waterborne illnesses, influenza, infection and pneumonia. 

These cases have been normalized. Boiling water to access drinking water is a given for First Nation communities across Canada. 

Rights of Water? 

A new tactic for re-thinking the way we interact with natural resources – and the way we can ensure environmental regulation – is to give resources their own rights. This means that instead of focusing on the rights to water, we focus on the rights of water. But what would this look like? 

In both India and New Zealand, rivers have been given the same rights as humans: they have the right to life. Construction, electrical dams and pollution infringe upon this right. If these rights can be legally recognized and upheld, then environmental regulations can be more easily accessed and implemented. For example, in Ecuador, nature has rights: when a river was violated by road construction, a case was brought up on its behalf, and action was ordered to fix the situation. 

Creating rights of water not only allows for water to be protected, but it helps change the way we think about nature. Not as a commodity, but as something integral to our planet.

Get Involved! 

Amnesty International Canada has a campaign to defend water. The campaign is launching on World Water Day in order to raise awareness about the ongoing human rights violations that pertain to the failure to uphold the rights to water. Check it out for ways you can get involved!

Waterlution is a project-driven organisation looking to build a healthy and sustainable relationship with water. They focus on building skilled youth leaders and powerful communities to enact change. Take a look at some of the awesome work they’re doing!

Interested in something hands-on? Join McGill Students for Amnesty International on November 7th, from 6 to 7:45 pm, for a workshop on Canoe knowledge and water. The event will take place in Burnside Hall Room 1B23.

Learn from Metis Canoe Builder Christian Pilon about the craftsmanship of birchbark canoes and the rich history of the Metis people, and take part in a water appreciation activity! An incredible opportunity to connect human rights, Indigenous rights, and the rights of water. RSVP here!