Noun: advocacy (plural advocacies)
• the profession of an advocate
• the act of arguing in favour of, or supporting something
• the practice of supporting someone to make their voice heard

Source: Wiktionary

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Citizens Organize Their Own Public Inquiry

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.

King of Bigger & More

King of Bigger & More

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.

'Oh pardon me ...'

‘Oh pardon me …’

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)

(Stories) Remembering Pete Seeger

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.

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(Stories) Poetry| Aquaduct

Study in oil and water

Study in oil and water
Rhian Brynjolson

This poem,
written by Jennifer Still,
is a poet’s response
to Rhian Brynjolson‘s
Study in oil and water.


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
closed mouth.


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
held back.


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.

Talking Water Project|Stories

Talking Water Project|Jennifer Still

Talking Water Project|Rhian Brynjolson

(Stories) Poetry|washing women

water woman has a sister
sisters actually hearing
her anguish at night
in the tide torn moon
light lying low
over scum unlit algae sick
lake spread spit sired
by hoarse highrising
profit poofs

waterwomen subaltern
sisters with standing
pin money taped to broadthighs
buckets not meant for slop
depigging surfaces
with cloths torn from hope chests
sewn in secret as women are

pigs campcaptive
stalled mechanicals
meat cured treats
processing binges

without regulation
without her swell times
waterwoman calls
in her moon
for sisterly affection
well women
their longtime

in godown water



green ink

wetnursing trusted
intentioned windowmakers
elbowing bluegreen
      scummaking maniacs
      formula fakers

spitpolish washing

        wringing the lake

       so it might sing

Talking Water Project|Debbie Schnitzer (2013)

(Stories) Poetry|We Defecate

we defecate where we dream

near inventory waterwoman tells me of her many deaths
  strangled in theories contested in laboratories
  malnourished by competing interests in bored rooms with money laid down

gives me the names of spoilers
  vomit from drainage ditches forced upon her
  sewage malfunctions burning her membranes
  coughing pig men who do not cover their
mouths we defecate where we dream farmed by excess the way we eat stuffing her skin against
  h e r against
  her children lie wasted bred in gluttony ruining her diversity

   wakes me in the middle of my night when the moon ribbons her waters the light streaming
if I would rise from my comforter to her occasion
fight for her however pale I have become emptied by mechanicals
      indoor fountains
      water bottled

if my shoulder turns away from her wheel
my belly’s intelligence severed
drifts her own beds lamenting
distill the uselessness of bath toys rimming the lake
    hot tubs
    swelled legers fetid along the river bottom
    {water park/pig pen/cod pieces/hydro line}
her nipples damtwisted
    loose talk
    saloon slobber

a wild wests’ seedless consumptive

    in the cradle she turns over to the history of use, passages she has given to the globe spun sick a melting spoken in the factories, their thick necks as creeks she feeds
    without bias
her intention my shape

systems loving
her circulation  emulate poorly on paper

I do not live without her unknown widthmisspent by manufacture still she deposits her mouth at my feet so that I might
    perish the thought of her in water parks only will I
open my foot to her

river you sand my bottom pulled on for our occasions
my parts your parts
our tea muddy
your channel my wave
our skirts skinny
all tongues succulent against your teats
love me loves
me my recesses
your belly mows my
belly rushes a fan beneath

water babies my girth

she replies closing her capacity mangled by wavering resolutions takes her rivers away buries them in the stronger hold of caverns inaccessible

humans dehydrate
boned along river beds where sucking stones no longer undulate
sand stuffs water theft (dams, locks, barges, ice makers, air conditioners, highrise
shafts howl) winds sweep

waterwoman opens her dry mouth void the moon aching pulls at the desert trees forgive their roots grasses discount their number crevices lose reflex
fields relapse


Talking Water Project|Debbie Schnitzer (2013)

(Stories) Poetry|To The River

To The River on the Occasion of its Way

Dear River,
    If I
with the tongue I have
    its worth aching to represent my
    love for you might I/t speak on behalf of the butterfly by the dock
    entirely black
    who allows
    when I call
    might I say
I have consulted
the lap against the pier
the old crow who makes much of dawn
    yarrow slant along the green railing
    standby grasses
    august’s field flowering your rivershoulder
nodding plumeless thistles
    red and sweet clover
    common tansy
    smooth fleabane
    bladder campion
    oxeye daisy
brittle-stem hemp nettle

may I say
I am committing walks in woods
        stained blues from berry picking
        the counsel of two deer
            who look to see if I might return from you more careful having been
            wrapped in your body every day hearing seminars among pines sure-
            footed along the stone slide that trims the line you advance toward the
            lake whose elbow pivots at sunrise

I have written to you before
    belly skyward wording my wake
    in circles backstroke laughable
    a spray of kisses pedaled by knees

    triangular arms sloppy though devout
    spun as any dreidel might
    twisting toward the shore

I am committing my seemingly failed technique
    thankful you have so often returned my writing
        asked me to rethink
            laps I might impose
            energy I might waste looking for a personal
within a
river current unbeaten
    velocity unbested
    volume inexhaustible     I see
    how you come
back from stretches to sea up sky descending

may I commend this cycling
        within which I become

might I say that I am thinking of you
    borrowing from your shore
    the one fish I’ve seen pill the riverglass
    surprising the slimmest of humming birds who dusts birches ancient by the front
window, the spider running through the light grasses on my cheek at night

might I spread my swimmingmind along the highway that sometimes follows your success
carry into the city five weeks of the way I am loving you
the holding tank inspected
    potato peels composted
    grass unmowed
    paths according to their wont
    deers unimpeded
    boat motorless
    soap green
the nest above the fuse box undisturbed

might I ask for next year
the dangle of my body thread whose tangle you have encouraged among waterweed?

Talking Water Project|Debbie Schnitzer (2013)

(Stories) Poetry|Dear Human

Dear Human,

Thank you for the dike.

it is true that
sometimes I am more full of myself than
I thought I’d be
(This sensibility you share.)
in my eagerness to river after ice
(I have seen you thaw in cotton dresses barelegged in March.)
you make shore of me
so tender when you
stack this lap I might rub up against
your human heart as daisy chain
love me love me not
bagging your
small army of sand

you dike me
you really dike me.

my storied spread
from year to year
I carry back and forth the
old water I began with.

I would wish you safe
(Have you not oft wished the same for me?)
in the way you are along my body
though near, closer than is wise stuffed with
too much loving
me for yourself
(You know this.)

I heave
what you leave behind as you eat me
in drainage dumps

I am as careful with you as I can be
wishing you more cautious.

Think of the place you land
(You’re standing on it.)

this basin overall

a flood plain

(By whose accounting is the name given).

I am the way the season comes and goes and
every year
without fail
I bring my children made in snowfall, spillage runs
I am the where you are
with river
what you would dream

(There are sad names for those times and you know them).

The city in you on driveways
wintered shoulders at your side
remembering the way I milk
the shape I take at parties in glasses
how I would be the very last to leave
you if kinder
wider in your understanding
giddy in the gift I bring my
mouth big with my fishes you
might catch deeper stills

(I have seen you bathing in this quiet).

Remember my come and go
faithful in the girth of April
July tongues spun under ice
saga rising

even in the high of summer
my low prepares the work of melting

dikes always on side
moreso when seen through difference.

preparing and unprepared
I do not carry our spring lightly,
The River

Talking Water Project|Debbie Schnitzer (2013)

(Stories) Funeral for the Don River

@ Water's Edge

@ Water’s Edge

In 1969, a funeral was held for the Don River in Toronto. The river had been dying a slow death for a long time, and according to the Toronto Telegram, the funeral was long overdue. The river was contaminated by raw sewage, effluents from heavy industry, and high levels of nutrients and E. coli. From the late eighteenth century onwards, factories, tanneries, breweries and mills began to line the Don river. They used it as a source of power and as a quick way to dispose of waste. In 1886, parts of the riverbank underwent a massive reconstruction that involved straightening the course of the river to reduce flooding, improve rail access and increase the value of surrounding land. This was referred to by the city as an ‘improvement,’ although all that was improved was the human ability to exploit the waterway more efficiently.

People treated the Don as a dumping ground and sewer. It was valued for its ability to enhance business and industry, not for its natural qualities. It was not just heavy industry that was to blame for the death of the Don, though, but the everyday actions of Torontonians over more than a century. Like many urban rivers, it became a cesspool of contaminants from pesticides, detergents and other products. It was muddy brown some days, and bright colours other days, when dyes from the paper mill were dumped into the water.

In 1969, a group called Pollution Probe formed in Toronto. Environmental action groups were forming across North America, and Pollution Probe was the first of its kind in Canada. One of their first actions was a funeral for the Don River. They put up posters which said “Pollution Probe regrets to announce the untimely passing of the Don River and invites all grief stricken parties to weep and gnash their teeth at a funeral.” Many of the group’s members were students at the University of Toronto. Among them was Peter Love, who would go on to be Ontario’s Chief Energy Conservation Officer. Several hundred people attended the funeral. A cavalcade of cars made its way from the University of Toronto, to the Prince Edward viaduct along the Don River. Love’s station wagon led the unusual group of mourners and served as the hearse, carrying pails of dirty river water instead of a body.

A funeral service was then held on the banks of the Don. Several members of Pollution Probe wore 18th century period costumes, and told stories about the days when the river was clean and healthy. Meredith Ware was dressed as Elizabeth Simcoe, who was the wife of John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. In the 1790s, Elizabeth Simcoe had written in her diary about the beauty of the river, and its abundant supply of salmon. She also made drawings and sketches that captured a very different scenery from the current Toronto landscape. Ware read from Simcoe’s diary about the beauty of the river, and her speech served to remind those in attendance that the Don had not always been sick. Another Pollution Probe member was dressed up as “Sir Simon Greed,” a wealthy industrialist who spoke about the necessity of polluting the river in order to further the development of industry and commerce. Near the end of the funeral, Greed was pied in the face, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd.

Pollution Probe’s funeral for the Don River was an action borrowed from the tradition of street theatre, which became a popular mode of protest in the 1960s. The environmental movement was new in Canada at that time, and for many people, the funeral for the Don River would have been an introduction. Pollution Probe succeeded in drawing attention to the issue, and the event was covered by newspapers and media stations across the country. Pollution Probe could have used other means to deliver their message – they could have published a study or lobbied city politicians. Instead, they chose an unorthodox method that was meant to turn heads and get people to take notice. Their artistic action was, in part, a well calculated attempt to gain media attention, but it was also a symbolic gesture meant to stir emotions and emphasize the gravity of the issue. The performance took place in public space, and suggested to those in attendance that while the demise of the river had been caused by political will bending to economic interests, the will of the people could generate change and perhaps turn things around for the Don.

I Tried to Move

I Tried to Move

This is exactly what happened in the decades following the funeral. The Don River has seen a partial rebirth, with wetlands surrounding the river now in the process of being restored, and millions of trees having been planted along the river. Thousands of people use the river for leisure purposes, walking, cycling or runnings along its banks. Canoeing and kayaking is becoming more popular. The diversity of plant species lining the banks has increased, and there are sections along the river where it is difficult to believe that one is actually still in Toronto. Parts of the Don now look like they did when Elizabeth Simcoe painted her watercolours more than two hundred years ago.

While the water quality has improved, it could still be much better. It is not safe to swim in the Don, since there are high levels of E. coli, phosphorus and chloride, which leak into the river through urban runoff. However, thanks to the cumulative actions of individuals and groups like Pollution Probe, there is more public awareness about the pollution issues that affect the Don River. There is also a stronger public understanding of what needs to be done immediately and in the long term in order to improve water quality. Environmental groups have significantly helped to influence public opinion, making the restoration of the Don River an issue to which governments have been forced to respond. As an example of this, the City of Toronto implemented a 25 year plan in 2003 that aims to deal with flooding, and would greatly reduce the level of contaminants that make their way into the river system.

Pollution Probe’s mock funeral helped to bring attention to a polluted river. The action they performed was humorous, poignant, and engaging. It was an interruption in the everyday lives of urban dwellers, and it encouraged Torontonians to reconsider the relationship between themselves and their natural environment. The Don River still needs rehabilitation, but thanks to actions like this one, it now has a pulse.

Further Reading


Talking Water Project|Noni Brynjolson (2013)

(Stories) Art on a Flood Threatened House

Okay, it wasn’t perfect. But it wasn’t a bad name, we first called ourselves “The riverbank loan and savings company”. There we were, four artists : Rhian Brynjolson, painter, storyteller; Sam Baardman, songsmith, photographer; Debbie Schnitzer, poet, novelist; and Bob Haverluck, who draws pictures, then writes stories,poems or something on the bottom of them. We all live on the banks of the Red river, or nearby. Together we understand the river, lakes, earth, air to be not property, not a possession, but on loan. We want to help save the river and all, for our grandchildren or yours. So we first called ourselves, The Riverbank Loan and Savings Company. Now one of us kept saying, ”When people hear that name, none of them seem to know what the hell its supposed to mean. We need a different name.”

Now don’t be thinking we spend all our time on what to name the artists’ collective. We spent time figuring out how our art might lead people to the water, if not make them drink, deeply. As well, we mused together over the delight at each of us finding inspiration in one another’s work. “All art is theft”, declared the poet Eliot and we freely stole bits and pieces from one another. It helped that we all agreed that rivers, wetlands and lakes were something to celebrate big time. Together we also saw these beauties again and again abused, endangered, needing protests on their behalf. Celebration and protest of endangered waters. Maybe that helped us agree on the name we finally settled on: River on the Run.

“River on the run” is part of a closing line from words written on one of Haverluck’s drawings. The picture is of this character, presumably an artist, looks slightly demented to me. Pointing away from himself, the artist is holding up a duck who looks outraged,alarmed or both. Perhaps petitioning the heavens. The caption reads:

Against the arguments
of the stock exchange and
the end of a gun, the
artist aims
a loaded duck. And
a handful of cranberries,
black spruce in an Algonquin
bush. A general strike .
A locomotive and a horse.
Some woman named Suzanne.
A poet planting seed catalogues.
And a river
and on the run

Against the Argument

Against the Argument

The artist, it seems is toe to toe with the ruling order, armed with a circus clown’s toy box of cultural icons and sister mother nature’s offspring? Included, are a handful of cranberries, a forest and an endangered river on the run north. On the run from her attackers . Do the assailants include Manitoba Hydro Corporation who for decades has engineered our great rivers and lakes, turning them into sad reservoirs for the convenience of ever more hydro-electric generation? Is the wounded water on the run from farm field herbicides, pesticides and industrial fertilizers, the sewage of hundreds of thousands of factory farmed pigs invading by way of field drainage ditches? Is it also mayor Sam’s and council’s willfully inadequate sewage treatment plant that harries and haunts the river? Who endangers her and all her relations and who joins in the attempts to give her more voice? Maybe artists joining together can do a little towards rivers well being. Maybe calling the artists “River on the Run” isn’t a bad idea.

Whatever little we were to do, we knew the the wisdom of doing our homework. So we read and sought out conversations with and about the different forces at work in waters endangerment and waters well being. All of us are readers and all of us relished our conversations with water biologists , researchers , activists… and as well, spokesman for factory farming of animals, for engineering rivers and lakes and for defending the dumping half treated human excrement into the rivers. It all fed the use of poetry, drawing, painting, storytelling , photography, song in the keys of celebration and protest, delight and lament.

These became the stuff of several joint exhibitions , coupled with performances in small town and city, halls and house concerts .(Susan Israel often helped us with these.) In 2010 we began teaming with other artists out of the Arts of Water Artist’s Symposia, Jamie Olievero, Scot Douglas, Ellen Peterson, Gerry Wolfram, Derek Eides and others . River on the Run’s Venues included galleries, church halls, the West End Cultural centre and hotels, hotels where we were invited to be part of three international science based conferences on the well being of the waters.

There is some readiness among scientists, ecology educators and activists to invite artist to bring their right brained angles of vision. You, as well as I, know art can offer ways of seeing, thinking, feeling , knowing the world different from empirical sciences necessarily reductionist approach. Matters of seeming fact presuppose narrative frameworks, need conversations about values and visions such as artworks can provoke. Art can articulate a deep sense of the world that helps disturb the false peace of a science in the service of “nature as a mere resource” , as a “system to be developed for human exploitation.”

Art must, to our way of thinking show forth sister mother nature in ways different from this. Different from the iconic scientist Francis Bacon, who championed learning from nature mainly in order to master her. Francis Bacon, tragically one winter afternoon, spent too long in his back yard, enthusiastically stuffing snow and ice up the ass end of chickens, caught pneumonia and died. There is nothing on record to confirm the rumour that several chickens were seen at his funeral. Who of us wants chickens, caribou and rivers showing up at our funeral just to be sure that were finally dead?
During the 2009 spring flood, we noticed a derelict house on the riverside of Scotia Street, where most of our group live. Could the house become an art piece about the river waters, that now were all the news. Sam talked to the owners. Got us permission to have a go at it. We began on a side of the house facing up the street printing out large one of Debbie’s poems

Dear human …
Thank you for the dike
it is true that
sometimes I am more full of myself
than I ought to be…
in my eagerness to river after ice …
you make shore of me. So tender when you stack..
You dike me
you really
dike me …
( remember that I do not carry
your refuse lightly)

Along the lengthy wall with the poem were numerous prints of sam’s photograph’s. Intriguing and unsettling images, near parables of river and lakes relations with humans.When folks followed the bread crumbs along that wall they found a poem by Rhian and more of Sam’s alluring photos. At the back of the house they were four feet from the dike. On the nearby sandbags making up the dike, we wrote out phrases and lines of poetry and made a few simple drawings.

Had folks first approached the house from the north they were faced with a couple of mural sized line and wash drawings. One was of a man being attacked by ducks. One duck was attached to his lip. Another duck was fixed to his nose, another to his ear. Below this piece of Haverluck’s was the writing: The ducks gently savaged the old man from asleep to awake.He thinks , “The canards have gone beserk. Gone nutso at humans turning their lake into a toilet.” Then the old man whispers, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

One sunny afternoon Sam arrived at the front of the house to hear melodious voices from the side. He listened. It was the voice of two teenage girls. They were reading aloud to one another, every word written on the walls of the derelict house.They were mending the necessarily broken circuit between the artwork and the listener, onlooker. They were accepting and opening the package the house was trying to deliver.

The abundance of walkers, going up and down Scotia on those spring days found the art house waiting for them in ambush. TV cameras and a newspaper reporter soon appeared, giving publicity to the event. After about twelve days, a real estate dealers complaints meant we whitewashed the place as earlier agreed. However, the art house had done its job, intriguing hundreds of viewer , leaving them musing more deeply about what might better make for the well being of our relation to the rivers and waters.

Some of the work of the above artists are found elsewhere on this site. As well, the website offers more related pieces and background.

Talking Water Project|Bob Haverluck (2013)

(Stories) Pete Seeger & the Hudson River Sloop

For Pete Seeger, music and political protest have always gone hand in hand. The folk singer and activist has worked tirelessly for different causes throughout his career. He has sung in labour marches, protested the war in Vietnam, and performed at civil rights events, always with banjo in hand. Seeger loved to bring people together, and always wanted the audience to sing with him and struggle with him to make a more just world. There could be no sweeter sound for Seeger than thousands of people harmonizing to the lyrics: “Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, We shall overcome, some day.”



Seeger was a constant thorn in the side of the establishment, and he was labeled a communist and brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He was sentenced to a year in jail for his evasive answers, since he refused to give details about where he had performed, or incriminate anyone he had associated with. Seeger appealed the case successfully and managed to avoid jail time, but he was blacklisted and banned from the airwaves, many public performance venues and college campuses until the late 1960s. The incident was a reminder of how threatening words and songs can be to those in power, and how far they will go to prevent oppositional viewpoints from gaining momentum.

In the late 1960s, Seeger began to focus his efforts on the burgeoning environmental movement in the United States. This came from reassessing his place in the world, and thinking about the issues that affected him personally. Seeger had always been interested in the outdoors, and had built his own house on a hilltop in Beacon, New York, where he and his wife, Toshi Seeger, still live. All Pete had to do was step out into his backyard and stare into the polluted sludge that was the Hudson River, and he found a cause. At the turn of the 20th century the river was much clearer. One could swim without worrying about swallowing raw sewage, and eat fish from the river without worrying about mercury poisoning. Decades of PCB contamination from General Electric and other companies in the region had poisoned the river, as had pesticide use, heavy metals, and dioxins. It got to the point where most people in New York thought it was beyond saving; a toxic chemical dumping ground instead of a river.

Luckily, Seeger was used to people telling him it was pointless to try to change things. He dreamed up an idea that seemed harebrained to many of his friends: he would build a replica of a Dutch sailing sloop – a ship that was common to the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps, he thought, something majestic and unexpected would bring people to the river, and would inspire them to help save it. It was around this time that Seeger wrote My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song):

Sailing down my dirty stream
Still I love it and I’ll keep the dream
That some day, though maybe not this year
My Hudson River will once again run clear.

With the support of friends and environmentalists from the region, the Clearwater sloop was built and launched in 1969. It was 106 feet long, with a wood frame and massive 3,000 square-foot sail. It looked like it was from another era. The ship became a site for environmental advocacy and public education about the Hudson River. Since it first set sail, hundreds of thousands of people have boarded the Clearwater to learn about the fragile ecosystem surrounding the Hudson.

Seeger was a constant thorn in the side of the establishment, and he was labeled a communist and brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955.

Seeger’s initial idea gave way to Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., a nonprofit organization run by environmentalists, educators, and a sailing crew. The group organizes sailing trips onboard the Clearwater geared towards a variety of different audiences. It hosts schools, community outreach programs, corporate groups and aspiring environmentalists. Its main program is the “Sailing Classroom,” which was designed for school groups. A typical outing might involve kids being introduced to the history of the Hudson River, the Clearwater sloop, and the modern environmental movement. Each sailing trip can be designed around a theme, including history, anthropology, geography, biology, art, music and poetry. Different stations are set up on the boat by volunteers, and students have the chance to visit five of them during a three hour sail. At one station, students get hands-on experience learning about fish of the Hudson River. At another, students learn how to monitor the quality of the river water, and perform simple tests to measure salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH and turbidity. An art station encourages students to learn about painters of the Hudson River school, and make their own artworks onboard that are inspired by the river. The idea behind the stations is to get students actively involved in learning about the Hudson. Through creative ways of teaching, the Clearwater continues to spread knowledge and awareness about cleanup efforts. Their work over the past several decades is a reminder that when people work together, small actions add up and can lead to real, measurable changes.

Since it first set sail, the Clearwater has played a major role in environmental advocacy in New York, and has helped to put pressure on governments to change laws. The Clean Water Act was passed by the the federal government in 1972, three years after the Clearwater set sail. PCBs were banned in 1977, and GE was forced to spend millions of dollars to dredge up PCB-contaminated sludge from the Hudson. The river is slowing getting cleaner, and mercury levels in fish have decreased considerably. The Clearwater continues to spread awareness about the river and the role that humans play in shaping the ecosystem around them. The clean up act continues, and the sloop that Pete Seeger dreamed into being has been a big part of the movement. The ship was meant to pique curiosity and inspire action. Like one of Seeger’s songs, it started with one voice, and then grew into a chorus of folks united in their desire for change:

Come along with me
Upon this broad old river.
We will see what we can do.
For when we work together
In all kinds of weather
There’s no telling what the power of the people and the river can do.
(Broad Old River by Pete Seeger, Dan Einbender, Travis Jeffrey, Al Nejmeh, and Steve Stanne)


  • Dunaway, David King. How Can I Keep from Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger. New  York: Villard, 2008.


  • “Broad Old River,” on the album Fast Folk Musical Magazine (Vol. 1, No. 2), released by Folkways Records in 1984.
  • “My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song),” on the album God Bless the Grass, released by Folkways Records in 1982.
  • “We Shall Overcome Someday,” on the album We Shall Overcome, released by Columbia Records in 1963.

Talking Water Project|Noni Brynjolson (2013)

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