Saturday, September 1 was a day of action for citizens of Michigan. The fourth annual Pipe Out Paddle Protest was held in the Straits of Mackinac, followed by the inaugural Water Is Life Festival. Organized by Jannan Cornstalk, both events drew participants from all over the mitten, coming together to protect our waters. The family friendly Water Is Life Festival featured musicians, panels, and celebrations of water.
“The 2018 Paddle Protest and Water is Life Festival were a powerful showing of our collective commitment to protecting our Great Lakes and decommissioning Line 5,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood, who participated in the event. “The voices of our Indigenous leaders with sovereign treaty rights were bold and clear: water is sacred and the Great Lakes should not continue as an oil corridor for Enbridge corporate profit.”
In addition to the events at Mackinaw City, the first sister paddle protest was held in Traverse City, MI. Paddling together down the Boardman River, participants “spilled” into West Bay, and joined into a flotilla to protest the continued operation of Line 5.
Co-organizer of the TC paddle Karen Bunting said, “We were thrilled with the community turnout for the sister Pipe Out Paddle Protest! We left the Union Dam area cleaner than we found it, paddled together down the Boardman River, and raised awareness about the dangers of Line 5. Other paddlers joined us in West Bay, and we formed a flotilla of about 50 water protectors to demand that Line 5 be decommissioned before it’s too late.” She added,“Our most sincere appreciation to all those who showed up for this important event and our sponsors: FLOW, The River Outfitters, Paddle TC, Oryana, Image360 and Tee See Tee. We made a difference on Saturday and couldn’t have done it without all of you!”
All three events highlighted concerns about Line 5, elevating local voices and putting forth a unified effort and belief that protecting our Great Lakes is more important than preserving a risky 65-year-old pipeline.
Flint is still dealing with the lead poisoning of residents’ drinking water. Residents of Detroit are once again experiencing water shutoffs. Ontario has the highest number of Drinking Water Advisories in First Nations out of all the provinces in Canada. All the while Nestlé is allowed to pump millions of litres of water from Ontario and Michigan every day to bottle and sell for profit.
I went to Detroit recently to meet with the Water Is Life coalition to talk about these and other water justice issues around the Great Lakes. Nearly 20 organizations gathered over two days to develop strategies to prevent the privatization and commodification of water, ensure affordable access to drinking water and sanitation, uphold Indigenous rights to water, protect the Great Lakes and implement the UN-recognized human rights to water and sanitation.
The groups included the Council of Canadians including the Guelph chapter, Detroit People’s Water Board, Flint Democracy Defense League, Flint Rising, Chiefs of Ontario, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Story of Stuff, Wellington Water Watchers, Corporate Accountability International, Great Lakes Commons and more. The coalition has continued meeting since the Water Is Life: Strengthening a Great Lakes Commons summit in Flint last fall to coordinate work and develop collective strategies to advance the human right to water around the Great Lakes Basin.
Nestlé’s bottled water operations in the Great Lakes Basin
In Ontario, Nestlé continues to pump up to 4.7 million litres (1.2 million gallons) of water every day on expired permits from its two wells in Wellington County, Ontario. Nestle has purchased a third well in Elora and could be given the green light to pump once Ontario’s moratorium on new and expanded bottled water permits ends in January 2019. The City of Guelph has raised concerns about the impacts of Nestlé’s water takings on the municipality’s future drinking water.
Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford becoming Ontario’s new premier raises serious concerns about the protection of water from Nestlé and other bottled water companies.
Council of Canadians’ Political Director Brent Patterson has noted, “Ontario PC leader Doug Ford does not appear to have issued a policy statement on the issue of bottled-water takings, but the Toronto Star has previously reported that clients of the Ford family firm, Deco Labels & Tags, include Nestlé Canada Inc., Coca-Cola, Cara Operations and Porter Airlines.”
Wellington Water Watchers and the Council of Canadians have been calling for a phase out of bottled water takings in Ontario. Recent surveys by both organizations have shown that the majority of people in Ontario want bottled water takings to be phased out and for water to be protected for communities.
Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation and the Grand Traverse Band of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (GTB) both recently filed legal challenges against the Michigan government for giving Nestlé the green light to increase its pumping from 250 gallons (946 litres) to 400 gallons (1514 litres) of water every minute. GTB have consistently raised concerns that Nestlé’s permit approvals fail to consider the GTB’s treaty rights.
In May, there were 174 Drinking Water Advisories in First Nations across Canada, with 91 DWAs in Ontario alone. Some of these First Nations have been under DWAs for 5, 10 and some even nearly 20 years and rely on bottled water as a Band-Aid solution. The Mohawks of Tyendinaga on Lake Ontario have had DWAs since 2003 and 2008. Despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promises to end DWAs, the total number of DWAs has remained largely the same.
Different levels of government are responsible for different areas of water management. The provincial government issues Permits to Take Water to companies like Nestle while the federal government is responsible for water on First Nations reserves. But both levels of government have continued to approve projects without free, prior and informed consent as required by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and governments must coordinate to respect treaty rights and implement the human right to water.
Detroit water shutoffs is a violation of the human right to water
In Detroit, the fifth round of water shutoffs began this spring. 17,000 homes were earmarked for their water to be shut off this year. Roughly 80% of Detroit residents are black. Poverty rates are also at roughly 35%. Water rates have risen in Detroit by 119 per cent in the last decade and many residents are unable to pay the high water bills.
UN experts have made clear: “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.”
Council of Canadians Guelph chapter members Lin Grist and Ron East and I joined the Solidarity Saturday’s rally outside the Detroit Water Department to protest the water shutoffs. Participants at the rally connected the dots between water justice issues like Nestlé’s water takings, Flint’s water crisis, Indigenous water rights and the Detroit water shutoffs. Residents and supporters chanted, “Water for Flint, Not for Nestlé” and “Water is a human right!”
The Detroit Water Department now shares an office with the Great Lakes Water Authority. Food and Water Watch and other groups raised concerns about the potential for privatization with the regional water authority early on.
Flint’s water crisis is not over
The poisoning of the water in Flint over the last four years has led to urgent water and public health crises. The lead has resulted in an increase in fetal deaths and miscarriages, development impacts on children and a host of serious medical conditions.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder ordered the last water pods to be closed in April stating that they have restored water quality and the need for bottled water has ended.
The corporate takeover of water by big water corporations like Nestle around the Great Lakes and the violations of the human right to water and Indigenous rights shows that access to water often falls along racial, class and other lines.
Economic globalization and unregulated market capitalism have divided the world – and the Great Lakes Basin – into rich and poor as at no time in living history and endangered the ability of the planet to sustain life. Tragically, most governments support an economic system that puts unlimited growth above the vital needs of people and the planet.
I am heartened and energized by groups and communities around the Great Lakes as we continue to build a world that protects the human right to water and protects water for people and the planet.
Emma is a FLOW Board Member and currently the national water campaigner for the Council of Canadians, Canada’s leading social action organization that mobilizes a network of 60 chapters across the country and advocates for clean water, fair trade, green energy, public health care, and a vibrant democracy. She has been with the Council since 2010 and has worked in the field of human rights and social justice for 15 years. She also holds an M.A. in Political Economy.
“My grandson that’s not here tonight, that’s twelve years old, he was to be an academic ambassador to go to Washington in the year 2014 and 2015. Well he was an A-B student but by the time the lead began to corrode his brain, he was no longer an A-B student. He was a D-E-F student,” said Bishop Bernadel Jefferson of her grandson, one of the thousands of children affected by the lead poisoning of Flint’s drinking water. Bishop Jefferson, who is with the Flint group CAUTION, was one of the speakers on the Friday night panel of the Water is Life: Strengthening our Great Lakes Commons this past weekend.
Bishop Jefferson has been a pastor for 27 years and an activist for 25 years. She is married with ten children and ten grandchildren. She was one of the first signers of the emergency manager lawsuitagainst Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in 2013. Her passionate talk brought tears to many eyes of the 200 people gathered at Woodside Church for the summit. At the same time her talk energized the audience. Her message of doing this work for all children and the importance of coming together reverberated among the crowd. Bishop Jefferson said of the gathering, “Tonight we make history. We did something they didn’t want us to do and that was to come together.”
Water justice for Great Lakes communities
Maude Barlow gave an important keynote speech on Friday night on water justice struggles around the world and her work with other water warriors to have the UN recognize the human rights to water and sanitation. Jim Olson from FLOW gave an impassioned talk about Nestle in Michigan and the importance of the public trust. Indigenous lawyer Holly Bird talked about her work with the legal team for Standing Rock, water law from an Indigenous perspective, that governments need to honor the relationships that Indigenous people have with the water and how that can be done without someone controlling or owning water.
(Photo above by Story of Stuff: Maude Barlow from the Council of Canadians)
Lila Cabbil from the Detroit People’s Water Board, who many affectionately call Mama Lila, talked about how the water fights are racialized in Michigan. “The fight we have in Michigan is very much racialized. We need to understand that truth and we need to speak that truth. Because what is happening even as we speak in terms of how Flint and Detroit is being treated would not happen if it was a white community.” She pointed out how the crises are being condoned by the silence of white people. She took a moment to remember late activist Charity Hicks who was a leader in the fight against the shutoffs and who encouraged people to “wage love”.
(Photo right: Lila Cabbil from the Detroit People’s Water Board)
In Canada, the lack of clean water is also often racialized. There are routinely more than 100 drinking water advisories in First Nations, some of which have been in place for nearly two decades. At the start of her talk on Saturday, Sylvia Plain from Aamjiwnaang First Nation taught the audience how to say “aanii” which is “hello” in Anishinaabe. The Great Lakes region is predominantly Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatami). She talked about how Aamjiwnaang First Nation has had methylmercury in the sediments in their river for a couple of decades. Plain also talked about how the Anishinaabe have cared for the waters and land for thousands of years.
Wearing a Flint Lives Matter t-shirt, Saturday’s keynote speaker (starts at 23:00) Claire McClinton from Flint Democracy Defense League, further described the water crisis in Flint. She pointed out, “In Flint Michigan, you can buy a gallon of lead free gas, or a gallon of lead free paint, but you can’t get a gallon of lead free water from your own tap.”
(Photo above by Story of Stuff: Claire McClinton of Flint Democracy Defense League)
Rob Case from Wellington Water Watchers of Ontario and Peggy Case of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservationboth talked about their grassroots organizations and the local resistance to Nestle’s bottling operations. Peggy Case pointed to the larger issue of the privatization and the commodification of water. “The dots have to be connected. We can’t just look at bottled water. The right to water is being challenged everywhere. The privatization of water is a key piece of what’s going on in Flint,” she explained. The state of Michigan is suing the city of FLint for refusing to sign a 30-year agreement that requires the city to pay for a private pipeline to Detroit that will not be used by residents.
In Evart, Michigan, two hours northwest from Flint, Nestlé pumps more than 130 million gallons (492 million litres) of water a year from the town to bottle and sell to consumers across the state and country. Last year, the corporation applied to increase its pumping by 60 percent. Nestlé’s current pumping and proposed expansion threatens surrounding wetlands and wildlife in the region, which at the same time violates an 181-year-old treaty that requires Michigan state to protect the habitat for the Grand Traverse Band and Saginaw Chippewa tribal use.
Nestlé continues pumping up to 4.7 million litres (1.2 million gallons) a day in southern Ontario despite the fact that both of its permits have expired – one permit expired in August and the other expired more than a year ago. The Ontario government is required to consult with communities on Nestlé’s bottled water applications but still has not done so. The Ontario government recently made some changes to the bottled water permitting system including a two-year moratorium on bottled water takings and increased bottled water taking fees (from $3.71 to 503.71 per million litres) but local groups and residents want more. They are calling for a phase out of bottled water takings to protect drinking water. The Council of Canadians is calling Nestle’s and other bottled water takings to be an election issue in next year’s Ontario election.
Summit speakers and participants were outraged that governments allow Nestlé and other water companies to take, control and sell water for a profit while failing to secure clean water for residents in Flint, Detroit, and many Indigenous nations.
Days before the summit, the Guardian reported that Nestle only pays an administrative fee of $200 in Michigan while Detroit resident Nicole Hill, a mother of three, has her water shut off every few months and has to pay “more than $200 a month” for water.
During the summit, participants took a pledge to boycott Nestle and single-use bottles of water. Immediately after the summit, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation announced the organization was joining the boycott. To join the boycott, click here.
As a tradeable good, NAFTA dramatically limits a government’s ability to stop provinces and states from selling water and renders government powerless to turn off the tap. Removing water as a “service” would help protect water as an essential public service. When services are provided by private corporations, NAFTA provisions limit the involvement of the public sector. Removing water as an “investment” and excluding NAFTA’s Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions would make it much harder for foreign corporations to use trade treaties to sue governments for laws or policies that protect water. Canada has already been sued for millions of dollars for laws protecting water.
A vow to end to Nestlé water takings
Over the weekend, participants of the summit listened to these moving and inspiring presentations and participated in workshops on Blue Communities, challenging the corporate control of water, the colonial enclosure of water and more. The gathering included local and Great Lakes residents as well as water justice, Great Lakes and grassroots organizations including our Guelph and Centre-Wellington Chapters of the Council of Canadians.
One thing was clear at the end of the summit: participants were ready to take action to end to Nestlé’s bottled water takings in Great Lakes, work to have the human right to water implemented and bring water justice to all who live around the lakes.