The TALKING WATER collection of stories , images and poems will remain available until May 2015. The site is no longer able to respond to inquiries or add new material. Yet, hopefully, this small offering adds to the other ongoing and varied efforts towards the care of our watery earth.
By the early 1970s it was full speed ahead for Manitoba Hydro Corporation‘s projects to “develop” Manitoba’s great rivers and lakes. These ancient waters flowing to Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean were going to be “better managed“ so as to serve as reservoirs for generating hydro electricity. The corporation was re-engineering the waters, shorelines and life along tens of thousands of miles of rivers, creeks, wetlands and lakes. This in order to raise and lower water levels for the efficiencies of hydro generation. More importantly, there would be jobs, for a while. There would be increased electricity for the province, and profitable electricity exports to the United States. What reasonable objections could be made? Besides, most of the ecological effects, which would be not worth mentioning, would be in the far north. And what was up there but a handful of aboriginal communities? If they couldn’t be ignored, could they not be bullied, bribed or threatened? Or all three together? And in the south, where most taxpayers live, who would care one way or the other?
Communities and leaders of South Indian Lake, Nelson House, Split Lake, Norway House, Cross Lake, York Landing and others most immediately affected, received but a passing nod, even though these machinations were drastically altering the rivers and lakes, which were their “life,” underlying their very way of being. Here they fished for food and livelihood, and shorelines were integral to livelihoods of trapping and hunting. But in its near destruction they were given no voice. Even though the nature’s geography was being re-engineered and the geography of the heart of these communities traumatized, the northern communities were not given a place at the table where these decisions were being made. They were like many other land-based communities around the world being affected by massive “resource” projects: hydro-electric; forestry or mining. They too sought to resist. In 1974, they organized the Northern Flood Community. Several communities had already begun to explore legal action.
In 1973, United Church elders from South Indian Lake and sister communities called for the United Church in the south of the province to join in their emerging struggle. In the summer, a working group from the south of the province of three United Church clergy (Jack McLachlan, Ian Macdonald, Bob Haverluck) gathered, and recruited a Franciscan priest (Brian Teixeira) and Mennonite Central Committee’s Menno Wiebe to make up a core group. “How do we educate ourselves and others in the rest of the province to devastating effects on the northern waters and life being caused by Hydro’s mega projects? How do we in the southern churches organize to nurture support for the northern communities being so unjustly treated?” These were key questions the little group began with, the Inter-Church Task Force on Northern Flooding(ICTFNF).
Even before Jack McLachlan pulled the task force together, he had spent the summer visiting and seeing and listening to the local citizenry as to what Hydro had been doing to the rivers, lakes and the communities whose life and livelihoods were so tied.
During the first months, the Task Force spent much time listening to the experiences of the northern communities. The group knew it only had enough knowledge to begin, but needed much more to continue wisely. It learned more about the inseparability of re-designing rivers and undermining lives of people, forests, animals and all. Example! Where Hydro turned a lake or river into a permanent or temporary reservoir, it often meant holding the water level above the established shoreline for long periods during the summer and fall. This seemingly innocuous act was to have devastating effects on those who were made to live through it. This routinely meant melting the permanently iced earth that stabilized the banks of the shore. When the permafrost melted, the earthen shorelines would crumble, slump. “Slumping” meant great areas of forest collapsing and washing into the waterways. Slumping meant, and still means, that these traditional water highways and fishing grounds have half submerged trees and trees roots fouling them and making passage treacherous and fishing nets entangled. In the winter, the trappers’ frozen shoreline highway became virtually impassable. And this says nothing of the life of fish and animals for whom 150 meters on each side of the shoreline is the lifeline. And as well so for the livelihoods of fisher and hunter gatherer folk. “Fifty thousand miles of life creating and life supporting shorelines…” were to be devastated by this stage of the project. Learning #7, “Slumping” and its many consequences.
The Task Force had conversations with the Manitoba Hydro representatives who presented their pictures of what was happening. And we presented ours. Also at this time, the Anglican and United Churches worked together on Project North, a southern based working group to help educate the south to the issues of first nation’s land claims in Canada’s north. As well, the McKenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry was in many peoples’ minds. Chief Justice John Berger in exemplary fashion had been listening to all parties, interest groups in the proposed gas pipeline. It was to run south along the McKenzie River Valley. Hydro Quebec was in the news for their mega-project in the James Bay area. Then as now, resource exploitation projects of every kind usually involved major damage to the life of land-based tribal peoples. For their life and livelihood is inseparable from the well being of the earth and waters of their ancient homes. In short, issues of just treatment for the peoples and the earth was then a matter of some importance to the media, and was in the air, so to speak. The era of the civil rights movement in the US, and the anti-Vietnam war movements also, helped create a milieu for questioning and confronting injustices. Encouraging also was a persistent undercurrent of socially engaged folk music including Buffy St. Marie singing us along with such songs as “Where have all the buffalo gone?”
Like other business interests around the country and world, Manitoba Hydro was getting over the initial surprise and confusion at pockets of opposition. It began its push-back. Then, as now, it poured money into public campaigns to forestall widespread opposition. The “Hydro Newsletter,” which went to every customer with their monthly bill, became a propaganda tool. Then there were a host Hydro “public information” events in the “south.” As a member of the Task Force who attended gatherings in the towns of Morden and St. Rose, I got to see the sophistication of the corporation’s “public relations” spokesmen. They were pleasant and articulate. They impressed with their large coloured graphics, describing t“he technologically impressive series of river diversions, majestic dams and generating stations. There was a free lunch, free pens, notepads and several coloured brochures for “information.” The brochures showed heroic men and technology taming the wild waters and putting them to good use. These waters, which seemingly served no real purpose since the beginning of time, were now finally, thanks to Hydro, proving profitable.
Even decades ago, the corporation’s investment in “public relations” and the framing of events into a self aggrandizing tale was striking. The presenters skillfully used language to downplay the “collateral damage” of the project. I recall presentations, going something like this:
As for the damage being done to communities along the rivers and lakes: fishermen are be paid money, good money to replace their nets. There is money being paid for inconveniences to trappers. Sure, a few have gone through the ice. One or two may have drowned, supposedly because of Hydro lowering water feet below where the ice has formed. And that is a tragedy, an accident we all feel very badly about.
This ploy is of course to seemingly acknowledge the problem. Then, in the next breath, to reduce it to a matter of money or unpredictable side effects.
Sometimes, the PR spokesman would work with our society’s racist narrative that treaties aren’t contracts or responsibilities, only generous handouts and sinister entitlements:
Besides, these Indian Reserves will be getting free electricity for several years. Don’t have to pay a thing. Of course, there are some who say, ‘There you go spoiling the natives again. Giving them all kinds of handouts and special favours. But I say, ‘Everybody has got to give a little. And Manitoba Hydro is giving a little. Its a win, win,for everybody’.
Of course there was the PR spin device #3, the “False Either/Or” to distort the arguments of their critics:
As for our critics, they would have us live without electricity. They want us all to go back to living in caves and freezing to death. I for one say you the ordinary people of Manitoba know better than that.
In 1974, as in 2014, you could hear a very popular PR tactic of the apparently open and responsive Manitoba Hydro spokesman. This tactic may sound familiar to those in the shadow of oil, mining, lumbering, etc., projects. Rashly I imagine a PR handbook somewhere that coaches something like this:
Your public presentation is most effective when the spokesman begins by ‘speaking as a family man, a father or mother, like everybody in this room’. Of course, the objective is for the listener to forget that the massive, secretive, largely unaccountable organization is not this personable, pleasant face. And the audience must forget, if they can’t sympathize with, the corporation when, for example, it comes to getting documents disclosing environmental and social damage and costs etc. Then, understandably, the friendly responsive corporation must become faceless and inaccessible. Suddenly, the corporation is a business. For good reason, a business can’t have every Tom, Dick and Harry helping themselves to privileged and sensitive details that will put the business plans at risk. And don’t forget to mention that our economy benefits big time, big dollars from this crown corporation that it deserves to transcend mere public accountability.
This plays best if the spokesman speaks in a hurt voice, then moves to a conciliatory adult voice. ‘It really hurts me that you’d think that we would do anything that would not be for the well being of all citizens. Especially the less fortunate among us. So let the critics stop their negative and unproductive blame game. This is not a game! And I’m sure you are too smart to be fooled by the mis-information spread by well-meaning but uninformed idealists and a handful of complainers and well paid lawyers. Instead, we invite your positive suggestions and attitude. Then we can all share in solutions to the little problems that arise. Let’s put the old mistakes behind us. We may have made a few, but who hasn’t? Let’s talk about the positive things we are building. Lets all be part of the solution.
In early 1975, the possibility of all working together through a public forum on Hydro’s projects and their impacts emerged. The provincial governments own Water Commission was scheduled to hold hearings. Then the government announced that they were disbanding the Water Commission, and no hearings would be held. Surely the benefits of the project to all were obvious. Hearings would be an unnecessary expense and potential delay of the project’s schedules.
Short days after the government shut down its scheduled hearings, the inter-church task force met. Frustration at the ending of a possible government sponsored public discussion of these crucial matters left us downcast. Now, it happened that Brian Teixeira had been reading about an international citizen’s panel struck to investigate war crimes in Vietnam and Cambodia. It had arisen from concerned citizen’s groups in the UK and Europe. With that in mind, Brian suggested that we organize public hearings. We could sponsor gatherings bringing together all interested parties, including Manitoba Hydro.
At this time (1975), the churches involved had a track record of engaging social issues fairly. As well, we had spent over a year in conversation with northern communities, Hydro executives, as well as Hydro public relations spokesmen. There had been correspondence back and forth seeking information and just procedures. There had been preaching on this issue as well as congregational discussions and articles in our national church magazines. And given that the related issues were in the air from different regions of Canada, we thought there would be interest in such hearings. Wide interest aside, what more creative response could we make to the situation given the modest power and resources we could offer to the situation?
We soon realized that there were many scientists who would be ready to share their research on the Hydro projects and their devastating effects on the life of lakes, rivers and shorelines. Social impacts of such projects had been documented and reflected upon. Furthermore, folks from the effected communities desperately needed an opportunity to have their voices heard in the south. There was much wisdom and experience going unshared and unattended to. The hearings could provide places and times for Hydro’s massive re-engineering of Manitoba’s great waterways to be evaluated by other than Hydro engineers and business minds behind closed doors. But how was this best to be done? How could the hearings establish their credibility in the face of their dismissal and criticism by the ruling government for whom Hydro was, and still apparently is, beyond any substantial criticism or wide public accountability?
The ICTF pulled together enough money to hire a part time co-ordinator for the hearings, recent law graduate Bruce Parker. Early on, the problem of credibility was given a big boost. The head of the Manitoba Supreme Court, Chief Justice C. Rhodes Smith retired from the bench. He agreed to chair the Inter-church Task Force Hearings on Northern Flooding. As well, he would write a final report with recommendations for a just settlement of the various disputes involved.
Besides the retired Chief Justice, there was a panel to receive, question and comment on presentations. They consisted of an aboriginal spiritual leader, an aboriginal trapper, a water engineer, a political economist (who partook in the McKenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry), a bishop. The hearings would begin in Winnipeg, in September, in a Catholic church basement. They would reconvene in the northern community of Nelson House in September in the United Church. The hearings would be held in the languages of Swampy Cree, Saulteaux, Ojibaway and English with translators provided. This included the language of the elders, which had been ignored by Hydro when it flew in to effected communities to announce Hydro’s plans for their future.
From the time the hearings were announced, the position of the government was that the hearings lacked any legitimacy as they were initiated by citizens and not the government. Although the government and its crown corp[oration were asked to attend, they would not. Credibility would not be given by their attendance. Regardless, the Inquiry indicated that it would proceed even if some of the invited parties chose not to attend. On the evening before the hearings began, a phone call was received from the government Minister in charge of Hydro. Minister Syd Green indicated that he wanted standing and the right for him and Hydro’s chief lawyer Stewart Martin to question presenters the following morning and throughout the hearings. The demand-like request was graciously granted. Ten minutes before the hearings began, the minister and lawyer arrived, briefcases in hand. They were given their very own table at the front of the hall.
The first presenter in Winnipeg and the near-to-last presenter in Nelson House show a silver thread that ran through the hearings. As I recall, the first public presenter was from Split Lake. He began by telling of his father’s daily trek from his little house down to the lake to fetch a first pail of water for washing and for tea and cooking. This water, before hydro had begun its constructions nearby, had been beautifully clear. And since then, the water was muddy and refused to settle. And drinking that water often made his father feel sick. At this point, the lawyer for the Manitoba Hydroelectric Corporation, a crown corporation of the Government of Manitoba stood up.
Politely the speaker paused to let the distinguished lawyer in the three-piece suit and very nice shoes speak. And the lawyer spoke succinctly and forcefully.
SIR…I trust you are NOT suggesting that you can PROVE that MANITOBA HYDRO MUDDIED THE WATER in your father’s pail.
The near-filled hall, with radio, TV and newspaper reporters included was silent. Calmly, quietly came the reply,
One thing I know for sure, the beavers didn’t do it.
The laughter was immense.
The near-to-last presenter on the last day of hearings at the United Church in Nelson House was a very soft spoken native elder, Leta MacDonald. As she was finishing her last words, she pointed out through the windows of the church at the lake-like river, the nearby forests across the water and near the church, and at the homes round about . Then she said, as I recall, “When Jesus left the earth, he said, I leave you my peace, he didn’t say, I leave everything to Manitoba Hydro.”
Many good things resulted from this first citizen’s public inquiry in Canada. Several came out of the retired Chief Justice’s final report. Not by legal power, but by moral and public persuasion. One recommendation was that Hydro cease dividing communities by giving favourable compensation to some and not to others. Rather that Hydro negotiate with community representatives. A second recommendation was that Hydro recognize and negotiate with the Northern Flood Committee, which represented the main effected communities. These among other recommendations were eventually accepted. So in its own way it contributed to the eventual Northern Flood Agreement between the northern first nations communities, Manitoba Hydro and the governments of Manitoba and of Canada (who carried responsibilities not only because of the Indian Act but also because of its duties of oversight of major waterways).
Besides involving the public at the hearings themselves and through the media , the enquiry also modeled a vehicle for public participation in other domains. As the powers-that-be pour more money into “public relations/communications” for purposes of insuring that “their story gets heard” again and again, the task of insuring informed and vital public discussion continues to be challenging. Public sponsored enquiries that can establish their legitimacy can at times be a timely event and happening to engage the public.
A further important impact of this initiative was its education and effect in propelling many of us who participated close in, to continue in such struggles. The importance of that participation, as against simply “being informed” and lamenting the situation is crucial. To engage any struggle actively, up from the chair, ironically makes the issue existentially less daunting. Less overwhelming. It also breaks the participants isolation and gives them a ongoing community, which is also of crucial importance for the long haul. Notably also, the greater education and understanding, I believe, happens in the unfolding of the events , responses and reactions.
In Manitoba, 2014, Manitoba Hydro and the provincial government proceed to engineer more of Manitoba’s waterways and the devastation of the surrounding shorelines, forests and creatures.They do this while continuing to downplay alternative means of energy, such as wind generation or selective solar generation. The public relations dollars and devices for undermining public criticism and subverting opposition to such projects have become larger and more relentless. So the challenge of not only “speaking truth to power”, but joining with those of little power to speak and act remains. No less necessary is the ongoing debunking of the misleading stories and imaging around Hydro’s latest projects. Maybe it helps to live in a land where it snows repeatedly, you come to believe certain tasks just need doing again and again.
Talking Water Project|Bob Haverluck (2014)
Again, there were gardens, fruit trees, water nearby. Again, the creek that once watered the village ran year round. Years of waters from the rains scouring the naked hillsides, topsoil in tow, had left nothing but a dried creek bed and dried water holes. And this was only to be the first village water, forest and earth being regained.
Wangari Maathai’s village was like thousands of other villages on the hillsides of Kenya. Beside these villages once stood forests that had held the rains and mountain streams, releasing the water. But slowly they were being cut down everywhere. Cutting down the forests, contractors said, meant quick money, a well paying job. The hardwood trees were valued lumber in England and Europe. The big leafed deciduous trees had created fertile soil where tea and coffee plantations might be developed. Foreign dollars were to be had. So steadily the forests of Kenya were logged. And the waters, like the other gifts the forests protected and shared, were soon being lost.
Before the forest sheltering Wangari’s village, Ibithe was cut down, she as a child had lived alone with her mother. Often, Wangari would go into the forest with her mother to find dead limbs for fuel, or to pick wild fruit or to fetch a special pail of sweet water. There was a place in the forest where the creek was sheltered by what Wangari remembered to be the most magnificent of trees. Under the shading shelter of the tree, her mother would sit. Nearby, Wangari would play in and along the spring fed creek. Wondrous were the little fishes and water creatures. Wondrous were the birds like the forest deer drinking from the little river. All this fused with the patches of hot sun and cool shadow, and the watery air, spoke to Wangari of a magical and holy embrace. Those times in that place gave Wangari a life time’s sense of what can and ought to be. Experiences yielded a vision.
Was she ten or eleven years old, when Wangari left her mother and village to go away to school? It was in the late 1950s that she went to the U.S. to study biological sciences. In 1966, when she returned from graduate studies in Pittsburgh, she brought several things back with her. Wangari had experienced the emerging ecological movement at work in Pittsburgh with its projects to plant trees, redeem the river and cleanse the air. The civil rights movement gave her a greater sense of what people’s movements might do for the well being of their society and themselves in the process.
When Wangari returned home to Kenya and her childhood village, her heart was broken by what she saw. Much had changed since she had left. And now the nurturing little river was gone, dried up. And the gardens were gone. And the beautiful forest was gone and with it the great tree with big leaves and birdsongs. Gone was the magical stream and forest of her childhood. Gone was the spirit of life among many of the village people. It all left Wangari in grief and despair. But Wangari would listen awhile for the wisdom to be found in her sorrow. So she gave it a room in the little house of her heart. And she gave it the time it needed to become a wise sorrow and its winter to become a kind of spring.
Years later, on World Environment day 1977, Wangari knew what she would do. She decided to plant a bunch of trees near her village home. Curious, neighbour women asked her what she was up to. She explained. Soon several other women decided that they too would plant seedlings along the old creek’s bank. And when they carried water from afar for their family, they would also bring enough to keep the seedlings alive. With Wangari, the women, in the following days, joined by a few others went with into the fields to look for seedlings. They dug up and replanted little saplings that had begun as seeds blown by winds or carried by birds or animals from remaining trees in the vicinity. Eventually, they would begin a small tree plantation with the seeds and little seedlings they had gathered. Soon there was a widening belt of trees being planted up the hillsides companion to their village. Soon, neighbouring and distant villages also had women planting seedlings near dried or drying water sources and hillsides. So began the Green Belt Movement.
Eventually, here and beyond there would be local tree nurseries. Seeds gathered from trips to remaining forests would provide them with accessible strong indigenous tree types at little cost.
Initially using money from her job at the University in Nairobi, Wangari paid the women a few cents for each established seedling. Eventually, there were other funders and a foundation. Within years, thousands of village women in Kenya were planting and nurturing millions of trees. This was facilitated by Wangari’s leadership role in the National Council of women. And what was initially solely an ecological initiative became an economic and democracy activating movement. For the first time, many women had their first “income”. And gathering to plan and talk about planting trees became discussions of the well being of the waters and the earth, and what activities and forces were affecting these for ill and good. With shared acts and sense of accomplishment, came a growing sense of power, imagination, good possibilities and conflicts. There as elsewhere this became scary to some. While there was dismissal and outright opposition to this emerging women’s ecological movement, they persisted and persist. In time, men of the villages began to join in. Not only in Kenya, but in many African countries and around the world, the Green Belt Movement has become a green fire.
As well as restoring creeks, wells and watering holes, the restored green dress for mother earth often meant the revival of individual and community spirit alike. The ecological devastation of deforestation had overwhelmed many communities and individuals sense of well being and self-confidence. To see their trees growing, their forests and their creek return, meant the ecology of the heart was on its way to being restored. The Green Belt Movement started by Wangari Maathai and the village women has become an ecological initiative with many branches and much good fruit beyond first imaginings. And so in 2004, in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wangari said:
We are called to assist the earth
to heal her wounds
and in the process heal our own —
indeed to embrace the whole creation
in all its diversity, beauty and wonder.
Talking Water Project|Bob Haverluck (2013)
The following blog excerpt, from a recent David Suzuki blog, echoes a previous Story that was shared in June 2013: Pete Seeger & the Hudson River Sloop. We celebrate the advocacy and organising voice that was PEte Seeger and hope that his loss will be continued by those of who follow!
“This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”
- Words painted on Pete Seeger’s banjo
A man with a banjo can be a powerful force for good. Pete Seeger, who died January 27 at the age of 94, inspired generations of political and environmental activists with songs ranging from “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” to “Sailing Down My Golden River”.
From the late 1930s until his death, Seeger brought his music to union halls, churches, schools, migrant camps, nightclubs, TV studios, marches and rallies – always inviting audiences to join in. His calling took him from being hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 to being invited to perform at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
Like me, he was inspired by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring to become a strong defender of the environment as well as human rights. In both social justice and environmental causes, he believed in the strength of grassroots efforts. As he told the CBC Radio program Ideas, “The powers that be can break up any big thing they want. They can attack it from the outside. They can infiltrate it and corrupt it from the inside – or co-opt it. But what are they going to do about 10 million little things? They don’t know where to start. Break up three of them and four more like it start up.”
Seeger and his wife, Toshi, devoted a lot of time to protecting the Hudson River near their home in Beacon, New York. To save the polluted waterway, they raised money to build a sloop, the Clearwater, to take children, teachers and parents sailing. The boat and cleanup efforts have since spawned a science-based environmental education organization and music festival – and led to progress in restoring the river and ridding it of toxic PCBs, pesticides and other chemicals.
Seeger was also involved in anti-fracking efforts, adding the line, “This land was made to be frack-free” to his late friend Woody Guthrie’s anthem, “This Land Is Your Land”, when he joined Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews at a Farm Aid benefit last year.
How do we speak of the ill?
When our most valuable infrastructure
is built on an epidemic rusting.
I can’t see the pipes in my kitchen
walls where I want to cut a hole.
I want a hole through
what I can’t see.
The lake looks right through me.
(You lie there with a lie inside.)
I am not seeing what happens
behind the dam. Behind your
There is a light pouring
behind you. A round
hatch. All the water has been
drained so you can be here
imagining another way
out. The flash has caught
your eyes so empty
they tip themselves
back. I walk by thinking
mirror, thinking look.
The exit frames you, a halo
in those Christian paintings.
You stand up inside the main
artery and smile with two holes
in your head, toward the pressure.
Light streams where the flood is being
Look: there is an iv inside of it: live.
A blink in the birdhouse. Another.
Two eyes behind one hole behind
the spine of something
feathering. A bedsheet can be raised
like a sail. Cleanliness can be peace.
If the bolus was a birdhouse,
the feedline our steady rain.
The breath is made of sticks. Tent flutter.
The pencil holds center post.
There is that taut catch in clavicle,
hammock where I lie down and measure
your sips. A pen is said to make the incision
in a pinch. There, where you breathe, where
I pour a small lake
for the bird to drink.
There is a construction in the eye,
the mechanism of blind or blink. We think
that if we can not see it, it’s not there.
Send all our books through the pipeline.
Brace for the ink blotch, the vowel spill.
Forgive me, I’m just learning
how to speak of the ill.
Talking Water Project|Stories
Talking Water Project|Jennifer Still
Talking Water Project|Rhian Brynjolson
The Talking Water in Winter Concert
with Alexa Dirks and Ariel Posen
featuring water musings
by artist Bob Haverluck
and the exhibition
Shhh! Water is Talking!
Where: Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery, 600 Shaftesbury St.
When: Sunday, December 29/13 (Doors open @ 1:15 pm)
Cost: $10.00 (Note: Space is limited)
Spirituality & Water:
A Day of Story, Song, Poetry, Art & Reflection
Where: Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery, 600 Shaftesbury St.
When: Saturday, January 11/14, 9:00 am – 4:00 pm
Cost: $18.00 (Note: Space is limited)
Contact: Connie. E: firstname.lastname@example.org P: 204-888-6781 ext 194