‘Would it be able to get into where I fish?’: Lake Huron communities on the risks of a Line 5 oil spill

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Friday, September 23, 2022

By Emma McIntosh The rugged coasts of the islands separating Lake Huron’s north channel from its open waters to the south are famous for rocky vistas, pristine sand beaches and windswept pines. The archipelago, arching from the Bruce Peninsula to Manitoulin Island and beyond, is dotted with protected areas and brimming with wildlife. The fish caught there sustain communities and businesses. Several First Nations pull drinking water directly from the lake. And tourists drive for hundreds of kilometres to see the archipelago’s iconic landscapes and clean, shimmering bays and inlets. But there’s a potential threat beneath the surface to the west: Line 5, which pumps 540,000 barrels per day of crude oil and natural gas liquids from Western Canada through the United States to refineries in Sarnia, Ont. Its twin pipes run bare and exposed for 6.5 kilometres under the Straits of Mackinac on the U.S. side of the border, where unpredictable currents pull water back and forth between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, reversing direction every couple of days. We’re breaking news in Ontario The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism. We’re breaking news in Ontario The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism. Line 5, operated by Calgary-based energy company Enbridge, was first granted an easement to cross these straits in 1953. Indigenous communities, environmentalists and scientists have long warned that any spill there could be a disaster. Some critics have said improved environmental rules would prevent the project from being approved if it were proposed today.  In 2020, years of simmering crossborder tension came to a head when Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered Enbridge to shut Line 5 down, calling it a “ticking time bomb.” Her decision touched off an international court battle that is still playing out two years later.  Enbridge, which is fighting Whitmer’s order, says the pipeline is safe. Line 5 has not leaked in the Straits of Mackinac, though it has leaked 29 times on land since 1968. The company says preventing spills is its “highest priority,” and that it has invested billions of dollars in safety measures along with equipment “designed to be effective in extreme operating conditions.”  “Line 5 is monitored 24/7 by a dedicated team who take immediate action to cease flow within the line via automated remote shut off procedures should they detect a change in pressure, flow, or other operational anomalies,” Enbridge spokesperson Gina Sutherland said in an email. “The watch crew activates trained responders when these conditions are met.” Every day, Line 5 moves 540,000 barrels of natural gas liquids and crude oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan through Michigan to Sarnia, Ont. Map: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal The Canadian government has urged Whitmer to allow Line 5 to keep running. Other pipeline supporters argue that shutting Line 5 could lead to job losses on both sides of the border, energy shortages and even a jump in fuel prices. While the battle rages on in courthouses and legislatures, however, few on the Canadian side of the border seem to know that a spill on the Great Lakes is possible — or what it could mean for them.  Over the course of a few days in early September, The Narwhal spoke to over a dozen locals, visitors and Indigenous leaders about the Lake Huron shorelines that could be at risk.  Some were worried that a spill could hurt places they love and the waters they fish from. Others felt the risk was minimal, or were supportive of pipelines as long as companies take steps to make them safe. Nearly everyone wanted more information about Line 5, and many didn’t know the pipeline was there at all. “This is the first time we’re hearing about it,” said Brinderjeet Singh Dhanoa, who lives in the Toronto suburb of Brampton. He took the Chi-Cheemaun ferry to Manitoulin Island for the day with friends and was walking by the terminal at the south of the island, in the community of South Baymouth. “I’ve fished a few times in this part of the lake, and I’ve never heard of it,” said Meeshen Corbiere, a resident of M’Chigeeng First Nation who has lived on Manitoulin for most of his life. Brinderjeet Singh Dhanoa was visiting Manitoulin Island from Brampton, Ontario. He told The Narwhal he had no idea that the Line 5 pipeline posed any risk to the island. Photos: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal Cross-border tensions with Michigan over Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline The risk to the Great Lakes was laid out in a 2016 report by University of Michigan Water Center researcher Dave Schwab, who used computer modelling to show how spilled oil could spread. The areas facing greatest environmental risk are those closest to the Straits of Mackinac, Schwab found. But oil could also flow into Lake Huron — it depends on the size of the spill,  the weather conditions and which way the currents in the straits are flowing.  “I said to reporters when this first came out that I felt this was the worst place in the lakes to have an oil spill, because you can’t predict where it’s going to go,” Schwab said in an interview with The Narwhal. Though there are many ways a pipeline can burst, Schwab previously told The Narwhal that a spill from Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac is most likely to be caused by a ship’s anchor striking the pipe. The straits are a busy shipping channel, and anchor strikes have happened before. One incident dented the pipe in 2018. Another — which may have been caused by boats contracted by Enbridge — scraped it in 2019. At least one other anchor strike appears to have happened since 1970.  It’s not clear how a spill could affect wildlife, the water and the people who rely on the lake. But scientists have some idea of how things might go. Oil is lighter than water, so if spilled, crude would spread on the surface, following the currents. It would take about two weeks to reach Manitoulin, slightly less to reach the more westerly islands in the chain.  Schwab ran 840 simulations: one in five showed that enough oil to trigger the need for cleanup efforts would wash up on the coast of the archipelago that includes Manitoulin. It could also float to the open waters of Lake Huron on the Canadian side of the border, and even shorelines along the Bruce Peninsula hundreds of kilometres away. In 2016, University of Michigan Water Center researcher Dave Schwab simulated 840 possible spills from Line 5 near the Straits of Mackinac. This map shows areas where oil could have reached based on those simulations, including the percentage of simulation cases in which the oil was expected to reach affected areas. Source: Michigan Water Center. Map: Carol Linnitt / Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal “That would be a cleanup situation and affect wildlife,” Schwab said. “You may see ducks with oil on their wings.”  In an email to The Narwhal, Enbridge said it sees “major flaws” in Schwab’s study. The company argues that even in a worst-case scenario, it would release less oil than what Schwab modelled thanks to automatic shutoff valves that shut down the pipeline if there’s a drop in pressure, Sutherland said.   The company also said the report didn’t account for the ways that oil could move differently than water. “The study looks only at how water flows in the Straits, it doesn’t consider the many differences in the way oil would move, dissipate and evaporate,” Sutherland wrote. That contradicts the first page of the study, where the Michigan researcher wrote that he used “realistic estimates of worst-case discharge spill parameters, including…characteristics of light crude oil (such as specific gravity and evaporation rate)…” Enbridge also said Schwab’s study didn’t look at natural gas in the pipeline, which doesn’t act the same way crude does. Skeptics point to other incidents that raise doubts about Line 5’s safety and Enbridge’s track record.  A vista on the northeastern end of Manitoulin Island. The southern shore of the island could be at risk if oil from the Line 5 pipeline ever spilled and made it into Lake Huron. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal Line 5 is part of the larger Lakehead System of pipelines that runs from the northeastern corner of North Dakota to southwestern Ontario, encircling Lake Michigan and running south of Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Enbridge Line 6B, another part of the Lakehead System, burst in 2010 and caused the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. It went undiscovered for 17 hours and spilled more than three million litres of diluted bitumen into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River, both in Michigan. Enbridge overhauled its safety and emergency response practices after the spill and has said a similar incident couldn’t happen again today.  In 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined Enbrige US$6.7 million for failing to repair cracks and dents throughout the Lakehead System, as it had promised to do after the Kalamazoo spill. And according to research cited on the Michigan news site MLive in 2017, when the pipeline has spilled on land, leak detection systems failed in several cases to discover them.  In 2013, video commissioned by the U.S.-based National Wildlife Federation also showed sections of the line covered in invasive mussels, which can release an acid that corrodes the pipe’s surface. The video also showed that large sections of Line 5 in the straits were unsupported, which means the area’s strong currents could bend it over time, leading to a potential spill.  The islands in the Manitoulin archipelago are part of the Niagara Escarpment and are home to crucial, undeveloped shoreline habitat. The Nature Conservancy of Canada holds at least two conservation properties that could be at risk – one on Manitoulin and one on neighbouring Cockburn Island (the conservancy declined to comment on Line 5 when contacted by The Narwhal).  Manitoulin alone is home to six First Nations: Wikwemikong, M’Chigeeng, Sheguiandah, Sheshegwaning, Aundeck Omni Kaning and Zhiibaahaasing, which was originally located on Cockburn Island and continues to use a camp there. A cormorant on the water near the ferry terminal in South Baymouth, Ont. on Manitoulin Island. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Reg Niganobe says many of the 39 First Nations he serves are worried about the Line 5 pipeline. A spill could impact drinking water and fishing, he told The Narwhal. Photo: Michael Kaiser / aKaiserPhoto Reg Niganobe, the Grand Council Chief of the Anishinabek Nation — which represents 39 First Nations in Ontario, many around Lake Huron — said many of the communities he serves have concerns. One of them, Aamjiwnaang First Nation, is located near refineries where Line 5 ends, and has sounded alarms for years about the community’s exposure to pollutants. Others are located closer to areas that could be impacted by a spill, and worry about how the pipeline could affect water quality and the wildlife they use for sustenance.  “When things like inflation go up, or prices on food go up, there’s a lot of food insecurity in our First Nations,” he said. “So being able to utilize those resources are important to us. Now, a spill means infected resources, right? Contaminated resources. So that’s why we’re constantly worried about it.” Schwab’s simulations that show oil reaching the islands assume there would be no cleanup effort. But Enbridge says it would “move quickly” to contain a spill — it says it’s ready to rapidly deploy equipment in the straits, including booms that can act as a physical barrier and skimmers that can remove oil from the surface.  But cleanup and containment efforts don’t always go so smoothly. After the Kalamazoo spill, it took Enbridge four years — and an order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency —  to finish dredging crude out of the riverbottom.  A pile of fresh perch caught on Manitoulin Island. It’s not clear how an oil spill from Line 5 into the Straits of Mackinac might affect wildlife, if crude were to spread into Lake Huron. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal It’s also not possible to recover and contain oil on the Great Lakes all of the time. In 2015, Enbridge’s own contracted marine spill responder as well as the leading Great Lakes spill response coordinator for the U.S. Coast Guard told the Detroit Free Press that waves one metre or larger could delay or prevent spill response on the Straits of Mackinac. That type of weather happens in the straits fairly often: waves of that size or higher occur about 135 days of the year, though not all day, according to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Spill recovery boats also wouldn’t be able to operate at night, the Free Press reported.  “We are prepared and able to respond in all weather conditions to minimize impact to the environment,” Sutherland wrote in an email. “That said, we do have an agreement with the state to stop operating Line 5 when waves are at a sustained height of more than [2.4 metres].” All that to say, no one really knows what would happen if Line 5 ever ruptures. Meeshen Corbiere grew up on Manitoulin Island and has lived there for most of this life. He told The Narwhal he wants to know whether a spill from Line 5 would affect the fish he catches and eats. Though he mostly fishes on the north end of the island, he does sometimes fish on the south side, which could be at risk. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal “If it were to burst, would it be able to get into where I fish most of the time?” said Corbiere, who eats what he catches. Manitoulin is known for its whitefish, and local and commercial fishermen on the island also catch perch, trout and more.  “​​I believe in preserving the land. Just being Native on the island, it’s a great place to be and I love wild nature.” If a spill were to happen, Schwab’s simulations showed about a one in five chance that oil could be floating in the water along the ferry’s path. “This is the first time I’m hearing this,” said Shubhomita Sengupta, who was visiting Manitoulin for the second time, getting there on the Chi-Cheemaun. “We’re visiting this area for the second time and I thought it’s pretty well preserved…and it’s not much polluted the way Toronto is,” she said. “My origin country is actually a third world country, to be honest. And we have gone through a lot of issues where the natural resources have been destroyed.” Shelly Deforge, who lives on Manitoulin Island, said learning about the Line 5 pipeline makes her worry about how a spill would affect wildlife and the land. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal Shelly Deforge, who’s from the Manitoulin Island community of Tehkummah, said learning about Line 5 and the risk of a spill made her feel a “little bit emotional.” “If it does affect the wildlife and the places around here, obviously, it’s going to have an impact on the land itself,” she said. “It would be best if it was not to burst, but yeah, it would also be best if it wasn’t there in general, because you never know.” Kyle Potts lives on the Bruce Peninsula, on the southern end of the Chi-Cheemaun’s route. He hadn’t heard about Line 5 before, but wanted to know more about how it could be made safer. In response to such concerns, Enbridge is seeking to replace the section of the pipeline below the Straits of Mackinac and build a tunnel to house it. “Placing a new pipeline in a new Great Lakes Tunnel will provide extra layers of safety and environmental protection and make what is currently a safe pipeline even safer, while creating Michigan jobs and securing the needed energy for consumers in Michigan and the region,” Sutherland said in an email.  The United States Army Corps of Engineers is currently consulting the public about that project as it assesses the tunnel’s environmental impact. If it were to go ahead, it would need other permits as well, and the project would take years to build. Kyle Potts told The Narwhal he didn’t know about Line 5, but that he wants to know more about how the pipeline could be made safer. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal “I’d like to know more information on that if they were to proceed,” Potts said about the possibility of a tunnel.  Others were less worried about the environmental risk of the pipeline, and more concerned about what a shutdown could mean for energy supplies. Lori Bayes, who lives on the Bruce Peninsula, said she’s all for Line 5 as long as it can be made safe, and if oil companies can be liable for it. “Trying to find the safest way to get it down here is best,” she said. “A pipeline sounds really good as long as it can be made safely, and strong enough that … it’s not gonna be damaged by boats. Because taking it by train and truck, I don’t think is good either. Because we need it. There’s no way around it, unfortunately, at this point in our life. Sun and solar, living where we are, we can’t depend on that.” The St. Joseph Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary. On a visit there in September, The Narwhal spotted eagles and a kingfisher perching by the water. Though the shoreline of the island likely wouldn’t be impacted by a spill from Line 5, oil could be present on the water around it. Photos: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal On the other end of the archipelago, on lush St. Joseph Island, Carter Dorscht is a frequent visitor during bird migration season in the spring. There’s a migratory bird sanctuary on federal government land on the southern tip of the island, and his dad lives on the way, so Dorscht will often pick him up to go together.  “There’s a long list of usual birds,” Dorscht said. “Like in May, we get up to 80 or 90 species in a day there, which is pretty good.” The main attraction for him is the abundance of warblers and other woodland birds. A few waterfowl and the occasional shorebird hang out at the bird sanctuary, but more often, they fly overhead. Schwab’s modelling shows that oil from a Line 5 spill could make it to the waters around the bird sanctuary, though it likely wouldn’t cause significant environmental impacts on the shoreline. On a visit there in September, The Narwhal spotted eagles  — which eat fish — soaring overhead, and a kingfisher perching by the water. Carter Dorscht often visits the St. Joseph Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary with his dad. Though oil in the water around it would be “unfortunate,” he told The Narwhal he doesn’t think it would have too much of an impact on the bird sanctuary. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal Though he’s not an expert, Dorscht said he doubts a Line 5 spill would have much of an impact on the bird sanctuary. “It would be unfortunate if that ever happened, but it’s hard to predict what the extent of it would be,” Dorcht said after reading over Schwab’s research.  Last year, Canada invoked a 1977 pipeline treaty with the United States in an effort to kickstart international negotiations over the fate of Line 5. Niganobe, of the Anishinabek Nation, calls this “double speaking” — he finds it ironic that Canada is trying to rely on treaties to get what it wants when Canadian courts have ruled again and again that the federal government in turn has violated its treaties with First Nations. Pat Madahbee, a former Anishinabek Nation grand chief who lives on Manitoulin Island, said people often focus on the economic benefits of the pipeline but fail to consider the economic benefits of water. Manitoulin’s economy partially relies on tourism, which could be impacted if oil were to reach its shores. Supplying clean drinking water to the region in the case of a spill could be quite costly. “The Canadian government and Enbridge are all hell bent on… not taking this seriously, and this is part of a big problem,” he said.  “The reality is, I don’t think enough people are really aware of the dangers.” 

By Emma McIntosh Line 5 is still a point of cross-border contention: Enbridge says the pipeline is safe, while a Michigan study shows oil from a spill could reach Manitoulin Island and beyond. Here’s what Lake Huron locals and visitors think

A ferry boat on the water

The rugged coasts of the islands separating Lake Huron’s north channel from its open waters to the south are famous for rocky vistas, pristine sand beaches and windswept pines.

The archipelago, arching from the Bruce Peninsula to Manitoulin Island and beyond, is dotted with protected areas and brimming with wildlife. The fish caught there sustain communities and businesses. Several First Nations pull drinking water directly from the lake. And tourists drive for hundreds of kilometres to see the archipelago’s iconic landscapes and clean, shimmering bays and inlets.

But there’s a potential threat beneath the surface to the west: Line 5, which pumps 540,000 barrels per day of crude oil and natural gas liquids from Western Canada through the United States to refineries in Sarnia, Ont. Its twin pipes run bare and exposed for 6.5 kilometres under the Straits of Mackinac on the U.S. side of the border, where unpredictable currents pull water back and forth between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, reversing direction every couple of days.

We’re breaking news in Ontario
The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.
We’re breaking news in Ontario
The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.

Line 5, operated by Calgary-based energy company Enbridge, was first granted an easement to cross these straits in 1953. Indigenous communities, environmentalists and scientists have long warned that any spill there could be a disaster. Some critics have said improved environmental rules would prevent the project from being approved if it were proposed today. 

In 2020, years of simmering crossborder tension came to a head when Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered Enbridge to shut Line 5 down, calling it a “ticking time bomb.” Her decision touched off an international court battle that is still playing out two years later. 

Enbridge, which is fighting Whitmer’s order, says the pipeline is safe. Line 5 has not leaked in the Straits of Mackinac, though it has leaked 29 times on land since 1968. The company says preventing spills is its “highest priority,” and that it has invested billions of dollars in safety measures along with equipment “designed to be effective in extreme operating conditions.” 

“Line 5 is monitored 24/7 by a dedicated team who take immediate action to cease flow within the line via automated remote shut off procedures should they detect a change in pressure, flow, or other operational anomalies,” Enbridge spokesperson Gina Sutherland said in an email. “The watch crew activates trained responders when these conditions are met.”

Enbridge Line 5 Pipeline Map The Narwhal
Every day, Line 5 moves 540,000 barrels of natural gas liquids and crude oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan through Michigan to Sarnia, Ont. Map: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

The Canadian government has urged Whitmer to allow Line 5 to keep running. Other pipeline supporters argue that shutting Line 5 could lead to job losses on both sides of the border, energy shortages and even a jump in fuel prices.

While the battle rages on in courthouses and legislatures, however, few on the Canadian side of the border seem to know that a spill on the Great Lakes is possible — or what it could mean for them. 

Over the course of a few days in early September, The Narwhal spoke to over a dozen locals, visitors and Indigenous leaders about the Lake Huron shorelines that could be at risk. 

Some were worried that a spill could hurt places they love and the waters they fish from. Others felt the risk was minimal, or were supportive of pipelines as long as companies take steps to make them safe. Nearly everyone wanted more information about Line 5, and many didn’t know the pipeline was there at all.

“This is the first time we’re hearing about it,” said Brinderjeet Singh Dhanoa, who lives in the Toronto suburb of Brampton. He took the Chi-Cheemaun ferry to Manitoulin Island for the day with friends and was walking by the terminal at the south of the island, in the community of South Baymouth.

“I’ve fished a few times in this part of the lake, and I’ve never heard of it,” said Meeshen Corbiere, a resident of M’Chigeeng First Nation who has lived on Manitoulin for most of his life.

A man stands in front of boats at a dock
Brinderjeet Singh Dhanoa was visiting Manitoulin Island from Brampton, Ontario. He told The Narwhal he had no idea that the Line 5 pipeline posed any risk to the island. Photos: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

Cross-border tensions with Michigan over Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline

The risk to the Great Lakes was laid out in a 2016 report by University of Michigan Water Center researcher Dave Schwab, who used computer modelling to show how spilled oil could spread. The areas facing greatest environmental risk are those closest to the Straits of Mackinac, Schwab found. But oil could also flow into Lake Huron — it depends on the size of the spill,  the weather conditions and which way the currents in the straits are flowing. 

“I said to reporters when this first came out that I felt this was the worst place in the lakes to have an oil spill, because you can’t predict where it’s going to go,” Schwab said in an interview with The Narwhal.

Though there are many ways a pipeline can burst, Schwab previously told The Narwhal that a spill from Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac is most likely to be caused by a ship’s anchor striking the pipe. The straits are a busy shipping channel, and anchor strikes have happened before. One incident dented the pipe in 2018. Another — which may have been caused by boats contracted by Enbridge — scraped it in 2019. At least one other anchor strike appears to have happened since 1970. 

It’s not clear how a spill could affect wildlife, the water and the people who rely on the lake. But scientists have some idea of how things might go. Oil is lighter than water, so if spilled, crude would spread on the surface, following the currents. It would take about two weeks to reach Manitoulin, slightly less to reach the more westerly islands in the chain. 

Schwab ran 840 simulations: one in five showed that enough oil to trigger the need for cleanup efforts would wash up on the coast of the archipelago that includes Manitoulin. It could also float to the open waters of Lake Huron on the Canadian side of the border, and even shorelines along the Bruce Peninsula hundreds of kilometres away.

A map showing the probability of oil from a Line 5 spill in the Straits of Mackinac spreading through the Great Lakes
In 2016, University of Michigan Water Center researcher Dave Schwab simulated 840 possible spills from Line 5 near the Straits of Mackinac. This map shows areas where oil could have reached based on those simulations, including the percentage of simulation cases in which the oil was expected to reach affected areas. Source: Michigan Water Center. Map: Carol Linnitt / Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

“That would be a cleanup situation and affect wildlife,” Schwab said. “You may see ducks with oil on their wings.” 

In an email to The Narwhal, Enbridge said it sees “major flaws” in Schwab’s study. The company argues that even in a worst-case scenario, it would release less oil than what Schwab modelled thanks to automatic shutoff valves that shut down the pipeline if there’s a drop in pressure, Sutherland said. 

 The company also said the report didn’t account for the ways that oil could move differently than water. “The study looks only at how water flows in the Straits, it doesn’t consider the many differences in the way oil would move, dissipate and evaporate,” Sutherland wrote. That contradicts the first page of the study, where the Michigan researcher wrote that he used “realistic estimates of worst-case discharge spill parameters, including…characteristics of light crude oil (such as specific gravity and evaporation rate)…”

Enbridge also said Schwab’s study didn’t look at natural gas in the pipeline, which doesn’t act the same way crude does.

Skeptics point to other incidents that raise doubts about Line 5’s safety and Enbridge’s track record. 

Trees with leaves starting to turn in front of a vista overlooking water and islands
A vista on the northeastern end of Manitoulin Island. The southern shore of the island could be at risk if oil from the Line 5 pipeline ever spilled and made it into Lake Huron. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

Line 5 is part of the larger Lakehead System of pipelines that runs from the northeastern corner of North Dakota to southwestern Ontario, encircling Lake Michigan and running south of Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Enbridge Line 6B, another part of the Lakehead System, burst in 2010 and caused the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. It went undiscovered for 17 hours and spilled more than three million litres of diluted bitumen into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River, both in Michigan. Enbridge overhauled its safety and emergency response practices after the spill and has said a similar incident couldn’t happen again today.

 In 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined Enbrige US$6.7 million for failing to repair cracks and dents throughout the Lakehead System, as it had promised to do after the Kalamazoo spill. And according to research cited on the Michigan news site MLive in 2017, when the pipeline has spilled on land, leak detection systems failed in several cases to discover them. 

In 2013, video commissioned by the U.S.-based National Wildlife Federation also showed sections of the line covered in invasive mussels, which can release an acid that corrodes the pipe’s surface. The video also showed that large sections of Line 5 in the straits were unsupported, which means the area’s strong currents could bend it over time, leading to a potential spill. 

The islands in the Manitoulin archipelago are part of the Niagara Escarpment and are home to crucial, undeveloped shoreline habitat. The Nature Conservancy of Canada holds at least two conservation properties that could be at risk – one on Manitoulin and one on neighbouring Cockburn Island (the conservancy declined to comment on Line 5 when contacted by The Narwhal). 

Manitoulin alone is home to six First Nations: Wikwemikong, M’Chigeeng, Sheguiandah, Sheshegwaning, Aundeck Omni Kaning and Zhiibaahaasing, which was originally located on Cockburn Island and continues to use a camp there.

Reg Niganobe, the Grand Council Chief of the Anishinabek Nation — which represents 39 First Nations in Ontario, many around Lake Huron — said many of the communities he serves have concerns. One of them, Aamjiwnaang First Nation, is located near refineries where Line 5 ends, and has sounded alarms for years about the community’s exposure to pollutants. Others are located closer to areas that could be impacted by a spill, and worry about how the pipeline could affect water quality and the wildlife they use for sustenance. 

“When things like inflation go up, or prices on food go up, there’s a lot of food insecurity in our First Nations,” he said. “So being able to utilize those resources are important to us. Now, a spill means infected resources, right? Contaminated resources. So that’s why we’re constantly worried about it.”

Schwab’s simulations that show oil reaching the islands assume there would be no cleanup effort. But Enbridge says it would “move quickly” to contain a spill — it says it’s ready to rapidly deploy equipment in the straits, including booms that can act as a physical barrier and skimmers that can remove oil from the surface. 

But cleanup and containment efforts don’t always go so smoothly. After the Kalamazoo spill, it took Enbridge four years — and an order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency —  to finish dredging crude out of the riverbottom. 

A man's hand moving one fish in a pile laid out on a table
A pile of fresh perch caught on Manitoulin Island. It’s not clear how an oil spill from Line 5 into the Straits of Mackinac might affect wildlife, if crude were to spread into Lake Huron. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

It’s also not possible to recover and contain oil on the Great Lakes all of the time. In 2015, Enbridge’s own contracted marine spill responder as well as the leading Great Lakes spill response coordinator for the U.S. Coast Guard told the Detroit Free Press that waves one metre or larger could delay or prevent spill response on the Straits of Mackinac. That type of weather happens in the straits fairly often: waves of that size or higher occur about 135 days of the year, though not all day, according to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Spill recovery boats also wouldn’t be able to operate at night, the Free Press reported. 

“We are prepared and able to respond in all weather conditions to minimize impact to the environment,” Sutherland wrote in an email. “That said, we do have an agreement with the state to stop operating Line 5 when waves are at a sustained height of more than [2.4 metres].”

All that to say, no one really knows what would happen if Line 5 ever ruptures.

A man standing on rocks by the water's edge
Meeshen Corbiere grew up on Manitoulin Island and has lived there for most of this life. He told The Narwhal he wants to know whether a spill from Line 5 would affect the fish he catches and eats. Though he mostly fishes on the north end of the island, he does sometimes fish on the south side, which could be at risk. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

“If it were to burst, would it be able to get into where I fish most of the time?” said Corbiere, who eats what he catches. Manitoulin is known for its whitefish, and local and commercial fishermen on the island also catch perch, trout and more. 

“​​I believe in preserving the land. Just being Native on the island, it’s a great place to be and I love wild nature.”

If a spill were to happen, Schwab’s simulations showed about a one in five chance that oil could be floating in the water along the ferry’s path. “This is the first time I’m hearing this,” said Shubhomita Sengupta, who was visiting Manitoulin for the second time, getting there on the Chi-Cheemaun.

“We’re visiting this area for the second time and I thought it’s pretty well preserved…and it’s not much polluted the way Toronto is,” she said. “My origin country is actually a third world country, to be honest. And we have gone through a lot of issues where the natural resources have been destroyed.”

A woman stands on rocks near the edge of water, smiling
Shelly Deforge, who lives on Manitoulin Island, said learning about the Line 5 pipeline makes her worry about how a spill would affect wildlife and the land. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

Shelly Deforge, who’s from the Manitoulin Island community of Tehkummah, said learning about Line 5 and the risk of a spill made her feel a “little bit emotional.”

“If it does affect the wildlife and the places around here, obviously, it’s going to have an impact on the land itself,” she said. “It would be best if it was not to burst, but yeah, it would also be best if it wasn’t there in general, because you never know.”

Kyle Potts lives on the Bruce Peninsula, on the southern end of the Chi-Cheemaun’s route. He hadn’t heard about Line 5 before, but wanted to know more about how it could be made safer.

In response to such concerns, Enbridge is seeking to replace the section of the pipeline below the Straits of Mackinac and build a tunnel to house it. “Placing a new pipeline in a new Great Lakes Tunnel will provide extra layers of safety and environmental protection and make what is currently a safe pipeline even safer, while creating Michigan jobs and securing the needed energy for consumers in Michigan and the region,” Sutherland said in an email. 

The United States Army Corps of Engineers is currently consulting the public about that project as it assesses the tunnel’s environmental impact. If it were to go ahead, it would need other permits as well, and the project would take years to build.

A smiling man crouched on the ground near water with his dog
Kyle Potts told The Narwhal he didn’t know about Line 5, but that he wants to know more about how the pipeline could be made safer. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

“I’d like to know more information on that if they were to proceed,” Potts said about the possibility of a tunnel. 

Others were less worried about the environmental risk of the pipeline, and more concerned about what a shutdown could mean for energy supplies. Lori Bayes, who lives on the Bruce Peninsula, said she’s all for Line 5 as long as it can be made safe, and if oil companies can be liable for it.

“Trying to find the safest way to get it down here is best,” she said. “A pipeline sounds really good as long as it can be made safely, and strong enough that … it’s not gonna be damaged by boats. Because taking it by train and truck, I don’t think is good either. Because we need it. There’s no way around it, unfortunately, at this point in our life. Sun and solar, living where we are, we can’t depend on that.”

On the other end of the archipelago, on lush St. Joseph Island, Carter Dorscht is a frequent visitor during bird migration season in the spring. There’s a migratory bird sanctuary on federal government land on the southern tip of the island, and his dad lives on the way, so Dorscht will often pick him up to go together. 

“There’s a long list of usual birds,” Dorscht said. “Like in May, we get up to 80 or 90 species in a day there, which is pretty good.” The main attraction for him is the abundance of warblers and other woodland birds. A few waterfowl and the occasional shorebird hang out at the bird sanctuary, but more often, they fly overhead.

Schwab’s modelling shows that oil from a Line 5 spill could make it to the waters around the bird sanctuary, though it likely wouldn’t cause significant environmental impacts on the shoreline. On a visit there in September, The Narwhal spotted eagles  — which eat fish — soaring overhead, and a kingfisher perching by the water.

A man standing in tall grass with binoculars around his neck
Carter Dorscht often visits the St. Joseph Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary with his dad. Though oil in the water around it would be “unfortunate,” he told The Narwhal he doesn’t think it would have too much of an impact on the bird sanctuary. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

Though he’s not an expert, Dorscht said he doubts a Line 5 spill would have much of an impact on the bird sanctuary. “It would be unfortunate if that ever happened, but it’s hard to predict what the extent of it would be,” Dorcht said after reading over Schwab’s research. 

Last year, Canada invoked a 1977 pipeline treaty with the United States in an effort to kickstart international negotiations over the fate of Line 5. Niganobe, of the Anishinabek Nation, calls this “double speaking” — he finds it ironic that Canada is trying to rely on treaties to get what it wants when Canadian courts have ruled again and again that the federal government in turn has violated its treaties with First Nations.

Pat Madahbee, a former Anishinabek Nation grand chief who lives on Manitoulin Island, said people often focus on the economic benefits of the pipeline but fail to consider the economic benefits of water. Manitoulin’s economy partially relies on tourism, which could be impacted if oil were to reach its shores. Supplying clean drinking water to the region in the case of a spill could be quite costly.

“The Canadian government and Enbridge are all hell bent on… not taking this seriously, and this is part of a big problem,” he said. 

“The reality is, I don’t think enough people are really aware of the dangers.” 

Read the full story here.
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‘Abuse of power’: Indigenous communities call out lack of consultation on Ontario housing bill

By Fatima Syed Housing Minister Steve Clark admitted the government passed Bill 23 without consulting First Nations, despite past clashes with Indigenous communities over development

By Fatima Syed Ever since the Doug Ford government proposed its massive, sweeping housing bill, Indigenous chiefs and organizations across Ontario have been urgently reminding the Progressive Conservatives of their legal duty to consult them before making any decisions about land use. Despite these reminders, consultation didn’t happen, and Ford’s caucus passed the More Homes Built Faster Act, or Bill 23, on Nov. 28 — a move being blasted as a blatant violation of Indigenous Rights. The government is “respectfully advised that development cannot proceed without full recognition of the rights of our Nations,” Nishnawbe Ask Nation Grand Chief Derek said in a statement released hours after the bill’s passage. He wasn’t the only Indigenous leader to express his opposition. In the days before the bill became law, the Chiefs of Ontario, a group representing First Nations across the province, put out a statement calling it “unacceptable and an abuse of power” for the Ford government to make unilateral changes to how development projects in Ontario are approved without engaging First Nations.  We’re breaking news in Ontario The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism. We’re breaking news in Ontario The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism. The Haudenosaunee Development Institute, on behalf of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council, also wrote to Ontario’s assistant deputy minister of housing before the bill passed. In stating its opposition, the institute said the legislation “will significantly impair, infringe and interfere with the established and constitutionally protected rights and interest of the Haudenosaunee.”  “At this point we have nothing from your government or the Crown which would indicate that it has undertaken any contemplation or consideration of established Haudenosaunee rights and interests with respect to [Bill 23],” said the letter from Aaron Detlor, a lawyer for the development institute, which protects Haudenosaunee jurisdiction in regards to development on its territories.  “We would respectfully suggest that the failure to engage in a good faith treaty-based discussion related to accommodations would likely render the proposals unlawful.” Letter to Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark from the Haudenosaunee Development Institute, on behalf of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council The day after the bill was passed, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark admitted the government did not consult with First Nations beforehand, in response to questions from the political newsletter Queen’s Park Today in a media briefing. “We’re looking forward to conversations with our Indigenous partners,” Clark said. He seemed to punt at least some of the responsibility to municipalities, saying they “also have a role to deal with our Indigenous Partners.”  “We acknowledge … we have an obligation to continue the consultation with our partners,” he said. “We will continue the conversation.” Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark said the government is “looking forward” to consultations on Bill 23 with Indigenous communities. Photo: Government of Ontario / Flickr Ford government knew Indigenous communities’ response to Bill 23 could be ‘negative’ The obligation to consult Indigenous communities on decisions affecting their territories is enshrined in Canada’s constitution. And internal documents have shown the Ford government knew Indigenous communities’ response to its bill would likely be negative well before it passed. In early November, The Narwhal received and reported on a leaked 117-page cabinet document that showed an extensive list of concerns shared with Ontario’s 30 ministers ahead of the tabling of the bill.  Almost every section of the document anticipates and outlines Indigenous communities’ response to the many changes listed in the bill — and almost every anticipated response is “negative” or “critical.”   Take one government proposal detailed in the leaked document to launch a “high-level consultation” on the whole bill: the document said “Indigenous communities may be negative due to possible implications on treaty and Aboriginal rights (wetlands and natural heritage).” “Indigenous communities: will be critical of reduced protections and provincial oversight” One of the conclusions in a 117-page leaked document about Bill 23 written for Ford’s cabinet and shared with The Narwhal Bill 23 makes multiple changes to the municipal planning process, giving towns and cities greater responsibility for reviewing and approving development plans while reducing financial and administrative support. The leaked document noted this would mean “Indigenous partners with treaty rights in affected areas will react negatively to changing relationships,” as well as to monitoring and consulting on an increased volume of development applications without an increase in resources.  The government has also removed some of the powers municipalities had to regulate sustainable  development — the document noted this would probably create concerns among Indigeneous communities “that their cultural heritage may not be well captured.” The gutting of conservation authorities and weakening of wetland protections was also highlighted as a key concern for Indigenous communities, due to the “reduced scope of protections for wetlands and watercourses.”  The Ford government has said Bill 23’s sweeping changes are necessary to speed up housing construction in Ontario. “Indigenous communities: will be critical of reduced protections and provincial oversight,” the document noted.  Chief Kelly LaRocca of Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation told The Narwhal she’s not surprised by the details of the internal document or Clark’s comments.  “This government’s violation of Indigenous Rights is nothing new,” said LaRocca, who sent a letter on behalf of her own First Nation on Nov. 17. Indigenous communities say every parcel of land impacted by Doug Ford’s Bill 23 is Indigenous land and cannot be developed without proper consultation. Photo: Sean Marshall / Flickr Ford government has a history of avoiding Indigenous consultation This is not the first time the Ford government has either avoided consulting with Indigenous groups about development or shifted the responsibility onto local governments. Prior to Bill 23, a number of First Nations in Ontario had opposed the Ford government’s unprecedented use of minister’s zoning orders, or MZOs, a controversial provincial planning tool that allows the municipal affairs and housing minister to rezone land to fast-track development and overrule municipal decisions.  In 2021, LaRocca’s community was one of a number of groups raising concerns about a minister’s zoning order issued in an attempt to speedily build an Amazon warehouse in the protected Duffins Creek watershed, near her nation. Although the order was revoked and the project cancelled, most of the wetland was recently cleared and tilled anyway.  That same year, as reported by the Toronto Star, a group of First Nations launched legal action against the province for issuing a minister’s zoning order for a warehouse in Cambridge, Ont. One of the opposing communities was Six Nations of the Grand River, a Haudenosaunee community: after the legal action was launched, Clark’s office rebuked Cambridge’s mayor for not consulting them before asking for the order.  In addition to the constitution, the government’s duty to consult Indigenous Peoples about land use is enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: while Canada recognized the declaration in 2021, the Ford government has still not officially recognized it in the legislature.  The Lower Duffins Creek wetland, near the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation, is supposed to be protected from development but may be impacted by Ford’s Bill 23. Like all the wetlands in Ontario, it acts as a natural sponge during floods. Photo: Toronto and Region Conservation Authority The federal government has already warned the Ford government about upholding the duty to consult: documents obtained by The Narwhal show that after conversations with Six Nations and Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, the Trudeau government told the Ford government in 2021 that insufficient consultation on Highway 413 could result in an intervention and delay the project for years.  The federal government was also brought into a development dispute between Six Nations, Ontario and the municipality of Caledonia in 2020, when members of the Haudenosaunee communities resisted a housing development at a land defence dubbed 1492 Land Back Lane.  In August of that year, both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Ford addressed the standoff: according to APTN, Trudeau said “all orders of government have the responsibilities toward [reconciliation],”, while Ford called himself “a strong believer in collaboration, in sitting down, communicating.”  Later that year, Ontario’s Indigenous Affairs ministry told the Toronto Star it was willing to participate in “federally led” discussions about the standoff, which lasted about a year and involved a court injunction aimed at dismantling the land defence camp, as well as police raids and arrests. The housing project was eventually cancelled.  Chief Kelly LaRocca of Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation says the Ford government’s lack of consultation on Bill 23 is “nothing new” and “smacks of disrespect for Indigenous Rights.” Photo provided by Kelly LaRocca Despite prior friction over Indigenous consultation and its advance warning about the failures of Bill 23, the Ford government has gone ahead with its legislation.  LaRocca said she was not invited to any formal consultation, despite her vocal opposition to the bill and repeated request for discussions. “As we now know from Minister Clark directly, the government did not intend to consult with Indigenous communities.” “Bill 23 impacts Indigenous lands, treaty commitments and rights on multiple levels,” LaRocca said, adding First Nations have a right to manage their territories, natural resources and environment. “The government’s decision to pass Bill 23, knowing that consultation had not taken place, suggests a wanton disregard for our constitutionally protected rights.” “Reconciliation is about trust,” she added. “Seeing the government so blatantly ignoring the duty to consult smacks of disrespect for Indigenous Rights and the basic democratic processes intended to serve every citizen.”  In its letter, the Chiefs of Ontario anticipated Clark’s statement that Indigenous consultation could be done by municipalities, writing, “The Government of Ontario can no longer avoid its duty to consult with First Nations by delegating responsibilities and obligations to municipalities, developers and project proponents.”  Kahentiio Maracle, team coordinator at the Haudenosaunee Development Institute and a member of the Bear Clan from Tyendinaga Mohawk territory, said the government was being “unfair” in making unilateral decisions to develop “land that was never owned in the beginning.” Photo: Fatima Syed / The Narwhal Environmental impacts of development also a concern for Indigenous groups In its letter on behalf of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council, the Haudenosaunee Development Institute bluntly reminded Ontario’s assistant deputy minister of housing of how the government was forced to revoke its zoning order for the Amazon warehouse in Pickering, as well as of its duty to respect Indigenous jurisdiction.  “We’re on land that was never owned in the beginning, so it’s unfair of them to say they’re ripping up things, that they’re going to dig the land up and make money of it,” Kahentiio Maracle, team coordinator at the institute and a member of the Bear Clan from Tyendinaga Mohawk territory, told The Narwhal. As well as Indigenous Rights, the institute’s letter spoke to the overlapping environmental impact of the bill’s sweeping changes. “The impairment and infringement that could arise from your proposed plans are particularly significant if and when the cumulative impacts are considered and contemplated,” the letter said. Detlor, the lawyer who wrote the letter, told The Narwhal the institute is giving the government one more week to respond before they “examine their options.” “Every single parcel of land impacted by Bill 23 in Indigenous land,” he said. “The government is prioritizing development over sacred and solemn promises.” LaRocca said the impacts of Bill 23 will be far reaching for First Nations across Ontario. She has growing concerns about the loss of major natural spaces like Lake Scugog, the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Carruthers Creek watershed, all of which act as natural safeguards against flooding and which are already under threat. Bill 23 removes or weakens many of the remaining regulations that protect those areas. “Paving over this land will speed up this decline, and expose us more to the adverse consequences of climate change,” LaRocca said. “Planning decisions must balance the need for growth with responsible, evidence-based environmental protections and mitigation strategies — a position of which we have ensured the government is made aware.”

Indigenous guardian program brings hope, sovereignty to Manitoba’s last undammed river

By Julia-Simone Rutgers A new Indigenous guardian program in the 50,000-square-kilometre Seal River Watershed in northern Manitoba is the next step toward nearly doubling protected areas in the province

By Julia-Simone Rutgers It had been a stormy August week in Tadoule Lake, nearly 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Days of lightning and rain had darkened the skies over the 325-person community and Stephanie Thorassie was praying for sun. In a matter of days, she and a group of youth from four Manitoba First Nations were set to embark on a seven-day canoe trip to the source of the Seal River, the 260-kilometre undammed river flowing through northern Manitoba into Hudson Bay. The night before the trip was mired by storms, but new light — and clear blue skies — finally broke through in the morning. As the group prepared to set off from a beach on Tadoule Lake, laying tobacco in the water and praying for good weather on their trip, a group of community members urged them to make a detour to a second beach before embarking on their first five-hour stint across the open lake. The team agreed and turned their boats around. “Just as we turned the last point a bald eagle flew over us,” Thorassie recalls. “And we see how the community is standing on the beach with their vehicles and their quads, all honking their horns and showing us this incredible support.” A group of drummers played and sang as the group lifted their paddles in farewell. “They sang for us until we couldn’t hear them anymore,” Thorassie says. “You really do feel like you can take on the world when you have that kind of support from your people.” The Seal River Watershed Alliance was received federal funding and approval for its Indigenous land guardians program, which would see the four member nations develop skills and capacity to care for a proposed 50,000-kilometre Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area. Photo: Jordan Melograna / Seal River Watershed Alliance Initiative The celebratory atmosphere was an appropriate sendoff for the members of the Seal River Watershed Alliance; the group had just received confirmation of federal funding for an Indigenous guardians program — offering the members of the Sayisi Dene, O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree, Northlands Denesuline and Barren Lands First Nations an opportunity to take a designated role in preserving the wild lands of the watershed. The paddle trip marked the first training exercise under the newly established program. For several years now, members of the Seal River alliance have been organizing to protect one of the largest remaining intact watersheds in the world. The Seal River Watershed spans more than 50,000 square kilometres — an area about the size of Nova Scotia — and its lands and waters are home to about two dozen at-risk species, including polar bears, wolverine, lake sturgeon and killer whales. More than 200,000 caribou spend their winters in the watershed and a third of the world’s beluga whales migrate to the Seal, Churchill and Nelson rivers. The land itself stores almost two billion tonnes of carbon — equivalent to eight years worth of Canada’s emissions — in its tundra, forests and wetlands. The alliance received $3.2 million in federal funding in 2020 to help establish the conservation area, but talks are still ongoing with the provincial government, which is expected to provide both approval and support for the project, according to proponents of the protected area, including the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. (A spokesperson for the Government of Manitoba declined a request for an interview about the Seal River Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area and pointed instead to the province’s Climate and Green Plan. In an email, the spokesperson added the government “is reviewing its network of protected areas, in partnership with local residents, Indigenous communities and stakeholders” but did not specify the status of the Seal River protected area.) Eventual formal designation would mark a huge step forward in conserving Manitoba’s last wild river and the ecologically and culturally important land surrounding it. But protecting the watershed won’t be possible without the eyes and expertise of land guardians. Seal River’s Indigenous guardians program is training the next generation to take on the role of stewarding the vast expanse of wild lands. Growing Indigenous sovereignty and hope Thorassie’s grandmother has a piece of advice: it doesn’t matter what you do in your life, or what job you work — if you don’t have a connection to the land you will always be poor. But as a child growing up in Tadoule Lake — accessible only by plane in the summer and winter road, snowmobile or dogsled the rest of the year — Thorassie says her role models were largely teachers and nurses; opportunities to work on the land were slim. It’s that perception she hopes will change as the guardians program takes root in the community. “It’s helping with environmental conservation, it’s helping with biodiversity loss, but it’s also helping ensure there’s futures for these young people,” Thorassie says. Stephanie Thorassie, member of the Sayisi Dene First Nation from Tadoule Lake, leads the watershed alliance. She hopes the new guardian program will offer opportunities for young community members to see a future for themselves on the land. Photo: Jordan Melograna / Seal River Watershed Alliance Initiative Thorassie says Elders in Tadoule Lake — the traditional lands of the Sayisi Dene, who were forcibly relocated to Churchill, Man. between 1956 and 1973 — were sounding the alarm about climate change long before United Nations conventions were held and national targets set — but few people listened. “The world hasn’t really been paying attention to our community members and our Elders because they don’t have those university PhDs, the official titles that come from the western world, but their knowledge is older than the universities out there,” Thorassie says. We’ve tripled our Prairies coverage The Narwhal’s Prairies bureau is here to bring you stories on energy and the environment you won’t find anywhere else. Stay tapped in by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism. The Narwhal’s Prairies bureau is here to bring you stories on energy and the environment you won’t find anywhere else. Stay tapped in by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism. We’ve tripled our Prairies coverage Elders had long noted the risk of forest fires, for example, as they watched the permafrost creep away. They noticed the changing migration paths of the caribou, who couldn’t cross the sheets of sharp ice left atop the snow by warming weather. They saw the wolverines disappearing; they saw the return of the barren land grizzlies. Through the guardian program, Thorassie hopes to empower youth to blend this deeply held ancestral knowledge with western scientific tools, knowledge and certification — all in service of opening doors for future generations to have a relationship with the land. Guardians will have the opportunity to be certified in firearms, watercraft, wilderness first aid, drones, water sampling, fish sampling and caribou tissue sampling. They’ll set up trail cameras and record the calls of songbirds. As they learn, the team plans to establish a baseline of data against which to track and report the impacts of a changing climate on the watershed. “The driving force behind most of the work we do is making sure that there’s a place for our young people to be authentically themselves, because there aren’t a lot of places like that in the world for our Indigenous youth,” Thorassie says. Already, Thorassie says, youth who, at one point “couldn’t see past Thompson, Manitoba,” are dreaming of futures as tour guides, paddle guides and birders. They’re dreaming of futures in their communities, empowered by the knowledge of their ancestors, connected to their land. The hope the guardian program offers Seal River is being echoed across the country as it generates opportunities for partnership, collaboration and celebration. Dahti Tsetso, deputy director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, stresses Indigenous guardian programs provide social, cultural, environmental and economic benefits to both Indigenous and Crown governments. Photo: Jordan Melograna / Indigenous Leadership Initiative “It enables a strengthening of their own Indigenous identity and the work that they do, but then it gets celebrated both within our community, but also by our external partners, by government, by universities, by researchers,” says Dahti Tsetso, deputy director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to spotlighting and supporting Indigenous nations taking on the work of conservation on their lands. “That has such a positive building effect: it promotes healing, it promotes addressing colonial traumas, it does so many things that promote a sense of wellness and well-being within our communities — and when our communities get stronger, Canada gets stronger.” Millions in federal funding earmarked for Indigenous guardian programs While the image of a land guardian — or anyone involved in conservation — may bring to mind a khaki-clad park ranger monitoring water quality and keeping watch for rule-bending hunters, the work of Indigenous guardians is far more broad. “They are representatives of their nation, working to fulfill the mandate, as determined by their nation, to protect land and waters,” Tsetso says. Those mandates can include anything from monitoring to mentorship, emergency response, language revitalization, online programming and more. What’s important, Tsetso says, is the guardians “help build a bridge between Traditional Knowledge and western science.” The leadership initiative began working with land guardians in 2014, starting with a gathering in Squamish, B.C., that brought the country’s guardian programs together — 30 of them, at the time. That gathering established three priorities for guardian initiatives nationwide: establishing a national guardian network, creating a professional designation for guardianship and securing sustained funding for the programs. In the years since, they’ve made strides on all three goals. Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, has been working on a public campaign to educate Canadians about the role of Indigenous guardians in conservation. Over the years, she says, support for such programs has increased from coast to coast. Photo: Jordan Melograna / Indigenous Leadership Initiative “It has been an actual movement,” Indigenous Leadership Initiative director Valérie Courtois says. In 2017, the federal government launched a pilot program with a $25 million budget over four years. In 2021, that commitment was expanded to establish a $173 million budget line over the next five years for new and existing guardian programs. With that investment, the number of guardian programs on the ground has quadrupled, Courtois says, and there are now more than 120 programs operating in First Nations alone — not counting the programs in Métis and Inuit nations. The funding announcement also included specific designation for a national guardians network, which will launch at the United Nations convention on biological diversity in Montreal next month, Courtois says. That body, once established, will help the federal government allocate the guardianship funds and work to establish a formal accreditation program for land guardians. Over the years, Courtois says Canadians have become more aware of the role Indigenous guardians play in protecting and conserving natural landscapes. Still, “that movement has not yet achieved the ambitions on the ground,” Courtois notes. “The movement is even bigger than what the system has been able to respond to.” Members of the Seal River Watershed Alliance will learn a variety of skills that will enable them to blend western science and certifications with the long-held knowledge of the communities, an approach called two-eyed seeing. Photo: Jordan Melograna / Seal River Watershed Alliance Initiative At December’s biodiversity convention, world leaders will finalize what’s been called the “30 by 30” target: a global effort to protect 30 per cent of the world’s lands and oceans by 2030. A growing consensus of scientists has determined land and water conservation will be key to curbing the earth’s staggering loss of biodiversity and limiting the impacts of climate change. Canada, among other nations, has already committed to the target — but progress is slow. A 2021 report from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society noted Canada has, so far, only protected about 13 per cent of its lands and waters — a far cry from the 25 per cent interim target set for 2025. Manitoba is below the national average, with just 11 per cent of its land and water protected by parks and conservation areas, and no specific provincial targets yet established. The report says jurisdictions will “need to step up” if Canada is to meet its 30 by 30 obligations — and Indigenous land stewardship is the clearest path forward. “Indigenous governments across Canada have consistently stepped forward with leading-edge landscape and seascape-level plans,” the report said. Shared values between Crown, Indigenous governments The Seal River alliance’s efforts have been ongoing for several years now and, if successful, could see the watershed — which covers about eight per cent of Manitoba’s land area — formally protected from development. “It’s going to be globally significant,” Courtois says. “There’s nothing else like that anywhere.” Across Canada, Tsetso explains, the momentum and ambition to protect land and water has been led by Indigenous nations because land and water stewardship are often at the very heart of community values. “We need the land, the land needs us. We are part of the land, the land is part of us,” Tsetso says. “Land and water are deeply ingrained into our sense of self and our value, and the way that we see ourselves in the world and the world around us is very much based on this relationship.” Canada is less than halfway to meeting its 30 by 30 targets for land and water conservation. Meeting that international goal in time will require dedicated partnership with Indigenous communities. Photo: Jordan Melograna / Seal River Watershed Alliance Initiative As climate change becomes a growing priority for Canada’s federal and provincial governments — balancing the need for development against the need for conservation — the values of Indigneous nations are beginning to align with Crown values. Commitments like the 30 by 30 target, Tsetso says, “have enabled a shared interest” between Indigenous and Crown governments. “The best way for them to strive to meet them is in partnership with Indigenous Peoples; not only is it the best way — I would argue they can’t do it without our communities,” she says. Land guardian programs, Tsetso says, are crucial to building long-term capacity for conservation and land stewardship — but the benefits of such programs go both ways. The Seal River Watershed Alliance has already created nearly 30 jobs — making them one of the largest employers in the small communities where they work. A recent business case analysis of the Coastal Guardian Watchmen program in British Columbia found the average guardianship program generated $10 in financial, social, political and cultural value for every dollar invested in the project; the study also found some programs can generate returns of up to $20 for each dollar invested. The alliance received $250,000 in federal funds for its first year, and will receive a further $150,000 the following year, Thorassie says. As the program matures, she says the skills and jobs it creates will help build capacity to manage the Seal River watershed protected area — and offer hopeful futures for the communities’ youth. ‘Breathtaking’: Seal River watershed long important to Indigenous communities If there’s one memory about the canoe trip that stands out to 28-year-old Martina Denechezhe, a member of the Northlands Denesuline First Nation in northwestern Manitoba, it was the whitewater. Denechezhe was already an experienced paddler, but like many in the community she was unaccustomed to navigating the river’s stretch of rapids. “It was a bit scary, going down the first rapids,” she says. “Me and my partner swamped in the rapids and I could hear my buddies telling me to put my feet up while we went down the river.”The canoe flipped, sending their supplies floating down the river alongside them. Many of the paddlers capsized on their first day in the rapids, Thorassie says. But gaining whitewater paddle certification (with a little help from Paddle Canada) was a key goal for the team, so the next day they tried again. The group practised ferrying, s-turns and peel-outs — new skills for even experienced paddlers like Denechezhe to master — until they could navigate the turbulent waters with ease. In celebration, they jumped in and swam through the kilometre of rapids, facing the fear of the water. Martina Denechezhe was already an experienced paddler when she joined the alliance on a canoe trip to Shethanei Lake, and the trip offered a chance for her to learn new paddling skills she plans to pass down to her own child. Photo: Jordan Melograna / Seal River Watershed Alliance Initiative “All I could see were helmets and teeth coming around the last corner,” Thorassie says of watching the group swim through the rapids. “They were smiling and having so much fun.” As they trekked first through Tadoule Lake, then Negassa Lake towards the long, winding ridges of glacier sand, called eskers, that line Shethanei Lake, the team learned to portage, heaving canoes over their shoulders and wading through knee-high tangles of red moss. One particular trek, initially expected to take four hours, wrapped up in just one, surprising the team’s Paddle Canada guides. As they reached the Shethanei esker — which stretches from Northern Manitoba into Nunavut — they encountered an ancient birch forest where the community had long journeyed to build birch bark canoes. The group wandered the old campsite, exploring the indents in the moss where teepees and cabins once stood, where English fur-trader Samuel Hearne journeyed with Chipewyan hunter Matonabbee to find the Arctic Ocean. “The feeling I had when I was there was breathtaking,” Denechezhe says. “I could just picture how people used to live.” She found eagle feathers and scraping tools once used to prepare caribou skins to wear as clothing. Thorassie found a birch tree too large to wrap her arms around. The canoe trip, Thorassie says, embodied the principles of what’s known as two-eyed seeing: an approach to learning that blends the ancestral knowledge of Indigenous Peoples with the principles of western science. “That was such an amazing way to start off the guardian program,” Thorassie says. “That’s what it’s about: the capacity building, that training the western science ideas and really utilizing and harnessing the ancient knowledge our people carry from generation to generation.”

‘Removing the evidence of our existence’: logging of culturally important trees rampant in B.C.

By Judith Lavoie Culturally modified trees are an important marker of Indigenous Peoples’ presence on and stewardship of the land — and not enough is being done to protect them, experts say

By Judith Lavoie The rules are clear. Sort of. Culturally modified trees in B.C with marks showing they were used by Indigenous Peoples before 1846 are officially protected. But with little independent oversight, experts say these irreplaceable trees are regularly being cut down by the forestry industry. The steady loss of culturally modified trees means historical gaps, hiwus Calvin Craigan, Hereditary Chief of the shíshálh Nation, said. “A whole way of life has disappeared for my people and culturally modified trees are part of demonstrating that we have been here for thousands of years, using different resources in our forests,” he said. Get The Narwhal in your inbox! People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism. Get The Narwhal in your inbox! People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism. Trees with marks where bark or boards were removed show how communities used — and continue to use — red and yellow cedar to build everything from canoes to houses, with soft inner bark used for weaving into clothes, mats, blankets and diapers. Tree rings make it possible to identify the exact year bark was stripped and can show when and where people lived, helping to piece together histories fractured by colonization. Culturally modified trees are an important marker of history, ‘Namgis First Nation elected Chief Councillor Don Svanvik told The Narwhal. “We still need to demonstrate that we were on this land.” Photo: Mark Worthing / Awinakola Foundation “The critical importance of this point is that … it is a physical marker of our territory. That we were there and we used it,” ‘Namgis First Nation elected Chief Councillor Don Svanvik said.  Culturally modified trees can help reclaim jurisdiction over territory, Svanvik added. “This is the way to get the evidence,” he said. “We still need to demonstrate that we were on this land.” But culturally modified trees are frequently being logged, sources told The Narwhal.  “[Culturally modified trees] are being destroyed regularly because a lot are getting overlooked in archaeological impact assessments — when they have assessments,” according to Jacob Earnshaw, past president of the Archaeological Society of B.C, who specializes in studying culturally modified trees. If an area of what the government refers to as “high archaeological potential” overlaps with an area that a company wants to log, it may require an archeological impact assessment. Some areas are deemed by the province to be too far inland or too difficult to access to be likely to contain culturally modified trees, so companies are not always obliged to look for archaeological sites before logging. Earnshaw, who recently published a paper concluding industrial logging has caused the “erasure of cultural forests and thus Indigenous history from the landscape,” said he’s concerned by insufficient audits being done on cutblocks. “No one sees the [culturally modified trees] that are logged,” he said. Why are culturally modified trees falling through the cracks?  The current system of protecting culturally modified trees is known as a “professional reliance model.” When an area is deemed likely to have culturally modified trees the company must hire its own archaeologist to conduct a survey and also consult First Nations. But when pre-1846 culturally modified trees are found — even if they are “protected” — the logging contractor can apply to the B.C. Archaeology Branch for a site alteration permit. Then, unless the local First Nation has the resources and capacity to employ its own archaeologists and fight for protection, changing the logging plans, companies can be given a permit to cut trees down provided they record dates and write a report. “The site alteration permit process is such a massive loophole in protecting Indigenous cultural heritage that you could drive a logging truck full of culturally modified trees through it,” Mark Worthing, who has an extensive history studying culturally modified trees and helps some Vancouver Island nations with tree surveys, said. Hereditary Chief (Makwala) Rande Cook of the Ma’amtagila tribe of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, agreed the current system lacks accountability. “A lot of these areas are remote, so there’s nobody there to actually see what is happening,” said Cook, whose territory spans northeast Vancouver Island and the Central Coast. Hereditary Chief Rande Cook says the logging industry and government’s approach to culturally modified trees is frustrating. “Companies are blasting roads and clearing and just not taking into consideration how important these [culturally modified trees] actually are,” he said. Photo: Spartan Media Group Inc Though the exact number is unknown, the Ministry of Forests estimates there are 7,687 culturally modified tree sites across the province. Each site can have anywhere from one to thousands of culturally significant trees.  “I’ve seen some where the bark was pulled 300 or 400 years ago, which makes our presence long before European contact very clear,” Cook said. “These markers geographically tie us to that land … Every time industry cuts one of those [culturally modified trees] down they are removing the evidence of our existence in that area.” Culturally modified trees are not always easy to identify. The tree may have grown around the marks, or scars can be caused by natural weathering rather than stripping — that uncertainty means archaeologists may disagree about whether or not it can be cut. On the Sunshine Coast, the environmental group Elphinstone Logging Focus won a decade-long battle proving the presence of culturally modified trees in an area known as the Dakota Bowl.  During the dispute, a company hired by B.C. Timber Sales, which wanted to log the area and maintained the trees were not culturally modified, cut down 13 yellow cedars, including one that was 1,100 years old. They did so in an effort to prove they were not culturally modified trees.  After four different assessments, the final decision found at least 77 trees slated for logging were culturally modified trees and therefore the company couldn’t log them. These trees are now registered with B.C.’s Heritage Branch and a 2021 agreement with the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) means the cutblock is now protected. Culturally modified trees in the Dakota Bowl on the Sunshine Coast are now protected. Photo: Shayd Johnson / The Narwhal Ross Muirhead, longtime forest campaigner with Elphinstone Logging Focus, believes the root of the problem is professional reliance. “The government doesn’t want to hire its own archaeologists so they allow the companies to do it. That’s when you get these conflicts of interest,” said Muirhead, who would like to see such assessments peer-reviewed. Logging companies in B.C. have too much power, experts say Worthing believes the problem is not so much what the government is doing, but what it is not doing. “Most of the time, when it comes to archaeological heritage on the land base, it’s a dangerous don’t-ask-don’t-tell scenario,” Worthing told The Narwhal. “Nobody really enforces the law, with the exception of some nations who are fortunate enough to have natural resource stewardship managers or even culturally modified tree survey teams, meaning they can independently negotiate directly with a licensee or forest company,” Worthing said.  “[Culturally modified trees] are being destroyed regularly because a lot are getting overlooked in archaeological impact assessments,” Jacob Earnshaw said. Photo: Mark Worthing / Awinakola Foundation The Narwhal reached out to the B.C. Council of Forest Industries, which represents the forest industry in the province. Alexa Young, the organization’s vice president of government and public affairs, said the Forest Ministry would be best positioned to answer questions about culturally modified trees.  In response to questions from The Narwhal, the Ministry of Forests sent a background statement saying it is the responsibility of the logging company to determine if archaeological sites — whether they’re registered or not — will be impacted by logging prior to harvesting. But it’s not in the company’s interest to identify culturally modified trees or other archaeological sites, Cook said. “Industry and the government … are all working together. It’s like a system that’s tightly knit together to serve their own needs and that is the frustrating part.”  Finding culturally modified trees disrupts logging plans and frequently areas are cut before communities have had a chance to assess the historical importance, Cook explained. “Often there’s nothing left. Companies are blasting roads and clearing and just not taking into consideration how important these [culturally modified trees] actually are.”  Legislation allows for fines of up to $1 million and imprisonment for up to two years for destruction or unauthorized disturbance of an archaeological site, but enforcement on logging sites is “weak to non-existent,” according to Chris Verral, president of the B.C. Association of Professional Archaeologists. “It also very much depends on whether it gets reported at all. I am almost certain — and I think most of my colleagues would agree — that there are companies and people out there just cutting these things down and just hiding it. If it doesn’t get observed or called out, then enforcement doesn’t do anything,” he said. “It seems to me to be left in the hands of the company a little too much,” Verral added. “I think the province could stand to bolster those protections and the enforcement process.”  When asked how many fines have been levied in B.C., the Forests Ministry told The Narwhal their compliance and enforcement branch has conducted 75 inspections related to culturally modified trees over the last three years. Of the sites inspected, 14 were found to be non-compliant and six “resulted in an enforcement action.” “It is important to note that inspections and enforcement actions related to [culturally modified trees] are often linked to other issues such as unauthorized harvest, unauthorized occupation or use of Crown land and other illegal or unpermitted activity,” a ministry statement said.  What about culturally modified trees from after 1846? Under the Heritage Conservation Act, sites containing artifacts or physical evidence of human habitation or use before 1846 – when the Oregon Treaty ceded territory north of the 49th parallel to Britain — should be registered as archaeological sites. But trees modified after this date “are not protected and can be logged without any involvement of the regulator,” Verral explained. “It’s a very arbitrary date. I think most archaeologists would agree with me that it’s not really reflective of anything we actually see on the ground,” he said. “It doesn’t reflect reality and it doesn’t really offer robust protection.” Protection of trees from after 1846 is something that many, including Cook, want to see change. “It really should be 2022,” he said, adding that all trees need better protection. “I think like any other treaty and agreements nothing has been honoured. [Culturally modified trees] are still being cut down daily by industry.” In B.C., there are stronger protections for trees that were culturally modified before 1846 — but that’s still not stopping them from being logged, experts say. Photo: Mark Worthing / Awinakola Foundation When asked about protection for trees dated after 1846, the Ministry of Forests’ statement said: “The Heritage Conservation Act provides automatic protection to sites that pre-date 1846, whether known or as-yet unrecorded, on private and public land.” “This does not mean that all culturally modified trees that date to post-1846 are not protected, only that they do not receive the protection automatically.” In response to the government’s statement, Worthing said: “Clearly the ministry is suffering from regulatory dissonance with the reality of cultural heritage features like culturally modified forests and the amount of destruction that logging companies are responsible for every day in B.C.” The Ministry of Forests said it is currently working to transform the Heritage Conservation Act to bring it into alignment with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “With respect to [culturally modified trees] dated after 1846, B.C. has heard the concerns of First Nations and others, and is working to improve protections and update the Heritage Conservation Act.” A different way forward  ‘Namgis First Nation has 1,923 members, of which 573 live on its territory that stretches over the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. Protecting heritage is a priority for the nation and it has developed a good relationship with Western Forest Products and Mosaic, the major companies working in the area, according to Chief Councillor Svanvik. ‘Namgis has its own culturally modified trees teams and hires archaeologists, which are paid for by the logging industry, he said. “We have our own crew that goes out and looks at every block that is proposed to be logged and we have found lots of culturally modified trees,” Svanvik said. “We are involved early in the process and, if we find [culturally modified trees], that goes to the company and they plan around it,” Svanvik added. “We told them that’s the way we want to do it. We’ve held conversations and times have changed. It’s not the same as it was even 20 years ago,” Svanvik said, acknowledging many trees were probably lost before any thought was given to protection. Another important piece is the information the trees and other sites provide about the lives of ancestors, Svanvik said. “For me, it has been very enlightening to come to the realization that our ancestors were foresters,” he said. Bark harvesting is an art still practiced on ‘Namgis territory by John Macko. He’s using skills passed down through generations to make headpieces, skirts, masks and other regalia. A key to protecting the big trees and the history they contain is ‘Namgis members got together at a general meeting and agreed on the path forward, Macko told The Narwhal. “We don’t allow old-growth logging. We only let them log the young stuff,” he said. When Macko peels bark he looks for 50- to 60-year-old trees that are going to be logged rather than the big, old trees. However, not every nation has the capacity to do what ‘Namgis First Nation is doing. “It’s difficult to put the energy into the other things we need to do and it can be really challenging, particularly for smaller nations,” Svanvik said. While some nations have the capacity to employ archaeologists and conduct their own surveys, due to the ongoing impacts of colonization others do not have the financial means, staff or historical knowledge to adequately respond when a company submits a logging plan, he added. “We are all funded to the bare minimum. We are kept extremely busy just trying to keep things going,” Svanvik said, pointing to crises such as struggling salmon populations and nations who do not have clean drinking water. “We’re prisoners of colonization and we’re too busy to escape.”

Countless reports show water is undrinkable in many Indigenous communities. Why has nothing changed?

A new report finds tap water in more than 500 remote Indigenous communities isn’t regularly tested. But here’s why this isn’t news to us.

Tap water in more than 500 remote Indigenous communities isn’t regularly tested and often isn’t safe to drink, according to a water industry report released last week. In some communities, drinking water contained unacceptable levels of uranium, arsenic, fluoride and nitrate. While these findings are dire, they aren’t news to us. There have been myriad reports over the years on the poor status of safe drinking water in Australia’s remote communities all pointing to inequity of essential services with implications for health. But little has been done to rectify this. Safe drinking water is a basic human right, no matter where people live. First Nations communities have campaigned for decades for clean water on their Country. As Alyawarre Elders, Jackie Mahoney and Pam Corbett, from Alpurrurulam community in the Northern Territory explained during the report’s launch: That’s why we’re fighting for this water. It’s not only for us, it’s for them too […] For our old people who fought before us and our kids’ future. A bureaucratic inquiry cycle The new report, by Water Services Association of Australia, is the latest to detail this ongoing health crisis. Water can be both unsafe to drink (unpotable) and unacceptable to drink due to taste, colour and feel (unpalatable). Its findings are consistent with a report by the Western Australian Auditor General last year. It found 37 communities had an unfit drinking water supply due to contamination by microbes (bacteria and viruses), nitrates or uranium – and there had been no improvement since the issue was reported in 2015. Similarly, a research paper published earlier this year found drinking water supplied to 25,000 people in 99 small communities in 2018-19 didn’t pass Australian guidelines. Numerous other reports have delivered similar findings. For example, a report in 1994 by the Australian Human Rights Commission examined ten communities and the condition of water and sanitation services, highlighting specific areas of concern. In 2018, a review of Australia’s progress on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals confirmed that many remote communities don’t have the same level of access to water and sanitation services as urban centres, with flow-on effects to human health. Read more: Aboriginal voices are missing from the Murray-Darling Basin crisis And in 2020, a Productivity Commission report proposed new objectives to deliver safe and reliable drinking water in remote communities, noting the additional stressor of climate change. These earlier reports show the drinking water crisis was identified decades ago. Last week’s report reveals not much has changed. Not every tap delivers safe water The reasons for undrinkable water in remote communities are multiple and interlinked. We can group them into four broad areas. The first is physical. This is when the original water source (from the surface or groundwater) may be contaminated with excess levels of chemicals, such as agricultural or industrial chemicals. The water may also have biological contaminants due to hot weather or faeces from birds and other animals, increasing microbial growth. And freshwater may become contaminated with salt as the sea level rises and affects natural freshwater wells. This is a major issue for some Torres Strait islands. The second issue is technical. Local water operators are located remotely, and don’t always get appropriate resources, training and support. Third, there are financial issues. It’s very expensive to deliver essential services, including water, to remote community councils within large states. For example, in Queensland’s remote Indigenous councils, these services are typically funded sporadically via short-term grants. Read more: Some remote Australian communities have drinking water for only nine hours a day The final issue is social and governance. Water needs and practices on a cultural level are often poorly understood by service providers. For example, during the recent drought, severe water restrictions left remote communities without treated and accessible water for hours on end, every day. This not only limited water available for drinking, but also for cultural events such as sorry camps (when the community mourns a loss). A system that’s fit for purpose, place and people A feature of successful sustainable water in remote communities is to tailor initiatives for each location. Such initiatives would be shaped by available local staff, water sources, cultural and governance structures and types of pollutants. All external partners should aim to build long-term working relationships with the communities to avoid the “new face syndrome”. This is a common experience where different representatives visit communities without consistency, inhibiting long-term and trusted working relationships. Sufficient funding will also be crucial for ongoing, sustainable delivery, with the ambition that water quality is the same as urban supplies. And additional stressors, especially water insecurity due to climate change, need to be incorporated into water supply and related energy and sanitation planning. Importantly, all remote essential service delivery and management actions, including water, need to be undertaken collaboratively. They should be led and authored by First Nations researchers, and draw from community strengths and knowledge wherever possible. This shifts water service efforts being for communities, to being with communities. Indeed, cultural sensitivity and guidance is essential to ensure mutual respect and learning forms the basis of all supply delivery. Read more: IPCC reports still exclude Indigenous voices. Come join us at our sacred fires to find answers to climate change In keeping with this cultural awareness is an action-based commitment by water suppliers to develop and thoroughly implement “Reconciliation Action Plans”. These are plans in organisations aimed at embedding meaningful actions to advance relationships, respect and opportunities with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. These plans should include Indigenous-led, co-designed solutions throughout the process. They should be achievable and place-based, however challenging that may be for water utilities and organisations. Walking the talk The Water Services Association of Australia’s report was launched by Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney in Parliament this month. This was a powerful call to action on safe drinking water for all Australians to protect health, uphold human rights and implement sustainable development. It is the responsibility of water service providers and their industry advocates to step up beyond their Reconciliation Action Plan obligations and “walk the talk” to collaborate with communities. Let’s hope the next report on remote drinking water provision will describe successful and sustainable outcomes. This article was co-authored with Charles Agnew, a water scientist. Bradley J. Moggridge is affiliated with the University of Canberra, is a Governor with WWF Australia and a Member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned ScientistsCara Beal receives funding from the Australian Research Council for research in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities. She is a member of the Australian Water Association.Nina Lansbury is an IPCC Lead Author and receives funding from the NHMRC for environmental health research in remote communities.

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