Rita Wong

Close to its headwaters, stal’ǝw,1 otherwise known as the Fraser River, is clear translucent jade, liquid magic.

Fraser Crossing is the farthest point along the Fraser River that one can reach easily by car, without taking a day’s hike into the Rocky Mountains. Recently, I went there as part of a trip to pay my respects to stal’ǝw, which, in its ceaseless flow for roughly 12 million years,2 has created the landscape on which I live, otherwise known as Vancouver.

At Fraser Crossing, what I found in addition to the beautiful, burgeoning river, shocked me: a high pressure petroleum pipeline had been built underneath the river.

There in the so-called “protected wilderness” of Mount Robson Provincial Park, the Trans Mountain Pipeline has already been very busy.3 In fact, the old 24-inch diameter pipeline has been joined by a new 30-inch to 36-inch diameter pipeline alongside it, accelerating the extraction of oil from the tar sands. The expanded pipeline runs from Hinton, Alberta, to Tete Jaune Cache, British Columbia.4

Currently, I am researching the meanings of water, and what the river taught me on this trip is that it is in danger from petroleum.

The day before I started writing this essay, a pipeline leak in Michigan released roughly 3 million litres of oil into the aptly named Battle Creek and Kalamazoo River.5

Months before I wrote this essay, we all heard about the horrific and enormous oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico.

Just imagine the pipelines and the rivers after an earthquake on the Pacific Rim, along the ring of fire.

You might wonder, what does this have to do with truth and reconciliation?

Everything, for me. And, I would propose, for you too.

Many authors in Response, Responsibility, and Renewal6 have pointed out that an apology for the residential school system without appropriate action would be meaningless and could indeed damage the Canadian government’s credibility. Thinkers ranging from Waziyatawin to Ian Mackenzie to Valerie Galley all assert the need for meaningful action. Roland Chrisjohn and Tanya Wasacase suggest that giving testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission without concurrent substantive, structural changes is like giving a placebo to residential school Survivors.7 As Alfred Taiaiake insightfully notes, reconciliation without restitution will only lead to a perpetuation of injustice. He writes, “When I speak of restitution, I am speaking of restoring ourselves as peoples, our spiritual power, dignity, and the economic bases for our autonomy.”8

As anyone who studies even a little bit of ecology soon realizes, the economy depends on the environment, on the health of the land, the watershed. What systemic colonial violence tried to do was to remove the deep connections between Indigenous peoples and the watersheds to which they belong. It failed, but it has not given up, as the pipeline underneath the Fraser reminds us, for now Enbridge wants to build a petroleum pipeline to Kitimat on the Pacific coast, despite strong and concerted opposition from First Nations9 across what could be called Aboriginal Columbia.

If the government that issued the apology for the residential schools was sincere, it would refuse to continue inflicting contemporary damage and violence onto Indigenous communities. For this to happen, the government needs to try to perceive and act from within an Indigenous world view, one that respects the land and watersheds as life-giving forces, not merely as resources to be exploited and controlled.

But today, Indigenous struggles to protect the land continue all over the continent. From the Chipewyan and Cree courageously speaking out against the Tar Sands in Northern Alberta10 to the Secwepemc protests against Sun Peaks Ski Resort11 to the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug’s (KI) stand against platinum mining12 to the Innu struggle against Hydro-Quebec’s attempts to dam the Romaine River,13 Indigenous peoples and their allies are trying to protect the land and watersheds for future generations of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

This year, Tsilhqot’in Nation, Esketemc First Nation, Canoe Creek Band, and Northern Shuswap Tribal Council successfully fought to protect the life of Teztan Biny, or Fish Lake, up near Williams Lake.14 Following a federal environmental assessment finding that Taseko Mines’ proposed gold–copper mine would “result in significant adverse environmental effects” on the water and the land that give life to these First Nations,15 the mine was stopped in November 2010. However, it is important to remember that Teztan Biny was endangered because of a 2002 amendment to the Fisheries Act, a loophole known as Schedule 2, which allows for freshwater bodies to be reclassified as “tailings impoundment areas” for mining. Since fifteen other freshwater bodies across Canada continue to be threatened with becoming toxic wastewater dumps, Schedule 2 still urgently needs to be revoked.16

Violence to the people and to the land they belong to is not a thing of the past. It continues today, perhaps even in accelerated forms. An apology worth its salt would also entail a moratorium on the tar sands, on mining, on damming, on fracking,17 when such so-called “developments” poison and destroy the watersheds of Indigenous, non-Indigenous, and non-human communities. Ducks, wolves, marbled murrelets, salmon, cedar, frogs, gophers, bears, and beavers have as much a right to clean water and land as humans.

John Ralston Saul argues in Response, Responsibility, and Renewal that most non-Aboriginal people want change and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples but do not know “how to go about it.”18 One of the barriers he identifies is the lack of a plan for change. I would like to respond that one way to move forward together, in peace and with respect, is to cooperatively focus on the health of the water that gives us all life.

Such a hydrological lens has the benefit of respecting Indigenous knowledges that have been documented and generously shared by Michael Blackstock, Ardith Walkem, Dorothy Christian, Jeannette Armstrong, Marlowe Sam, Cheryl Darlene Sanderson, and Josephine Mendamin, to name just a few Indigenous knowledge keepers.19 And it also provides a very clear path for non-Aboriginal people, many of whom are increasingly concerned about the future and the environment in an era of global warming, widespread pollution, and rampant consumerism.

Attending to watersheds is a good way to move toward the paradigm shift that John Ralston Saul invites us to consider.

Within the stal’ǝw watershed, one can see Vancouver as an urban centre that has been modernized, industrialized, and gentrified by movements of global capital and labour. However, from another equally valid perspective, Vancouver is unceded Coast Salish land, still home to the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil Watuth First Nations who hold cultural knowledges of the land and the water predating and exceeding that of settlers/invaders/immigrants.20 As a non-Indigenous, uninvited guest, I am careful to proceed respectfully and humbly in the long process of building a peaceful society in the face of the immense violences that I, and anyone who lives on this land, have inherited.

One main strategy I have found inspiring is to approach life through a watershed mind. Where does the water come from? Where does it go? What has been done to it as it passes through the city? The water I swallow today might have previously hovered in rain clouds above the South China Sea, or might end up in the North Pacific Gyre, an ocean current that houses a collection of floating plastic garbage in the Pacific Ocean said to be twice the size of Texas. Half the oxygen I breathe was created by plankton in the ocean;21 I am connected to flora and fauna, micro and macro, in all sorts of ways that Western science is only beginning to articulate, but which has often already been told in Indigenous stories. Water teaches me interdependency, something that many Indigenous world views understand very deeply.

I started going down this watershed route at the invitation of my sister–friend–comrade, Dorothy Christian, who organized an event with Denise Nadeau a few years ago called Protect Our Sacred Waters. I am humbled and honoured to learn from water with her.

From a watershed perspective, Canada can be seen as divided into five areas, draining into the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Arctic Ocean, Hudson’s Bay, and (a little bit into) the Gulf of Mexico. From a watershed perspective, I understand that the water always circulates, connecting me to places I do not see, but nonetheless rely upon and affect. We would do well to keep in mind that human bodies are roughly 60 per cent water;22 more awareness of water’s dynamics could help to build a culture of peace and respectful interdependence. It has been said that “Rivers within yearn for rivers without.”23

I’ve read that in the Musqueam language, verbs change form depending on where the speaker is standing in relation to the water.24 The verbs you use will indicate if you’re downstream or upstream, if the river is before you or behind you. The language automatically fosters an intimate attention to water as part of one’s everyday consciousness. This brings me to the second important strategy I want to think about as a non-Indigenous person.

Valerie Galley wisely points out that meaningful action also entails granting Indigenous languages official status, as has been done in the Northwest Territories with Chipewyan, Cree, Dogrib, Gwich’in, Inuktitut, and Slavey. She notes that back in 1988, the Assembly of First Nations was already recommending that this recognition be done at the federal level, and that “the federal government should place Indigenous languages on par with French where budget allocations were concerned.”25 Instead, what we witnessed in 2006 was the Conservative Minister of Canadian Heritage, Bev Oda, cutting $160 million from the $172.7 million budget that had been allocated by the Liberals for the revitalization of Indigenous languages over a period of 11 years.26

Because I know how precious my mother tongue, Cantonese, is to me, I want to support multilingual fluency in Canada. In order to live, languages need to be spoken in everyday life. I’d like to encourage those of us who love language to seriously consider learning an Indigenous language. If I had learned Siksikaitsipowahsin (the Blackfoot language),27 or Tsuut’ina, or Cree as well as French as a child, I feel that my capacity for building the culture of peace that we want would be even stronger, gifted by the attunements and sensitivities that each language offers.

As a Chinese Canadian woman, I admit to feeling very ambivalent about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology in 2008. On the one hand, I truly wanted it to be a sign that the federal government was finally respecting the experiences and knowledges of Indigenous peoples. On the other hand, given how skeptical many people are about the political system, I was not convinced that this apology was genuine. I wanted to be convinced, but at my gut and heart levels, I was not so trusting. This reluctant skepticism was further reinforced when Prime Minister Harper announced that Canada had no history of colonialism at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh in 2009, just a year after the residential school apology.28 This big disconnection between historical violence inflicted within Canada and contemporary capitalism-as-usual (mining, land exploitation, water destruction within our borders) is disturbing. It makes the apology seem like a political tactic to push Indigenous people’s experiences into some irrecuperable past, closing the door on it so that business can speed up as people ignore the colonial violence that still exists today. It takes many generations for communities to heal from such violence, and it’s important not to inflict more damage to the land while healing is happening. The healing of the land, of the watersheds, is the healing of the people.

Another symptom of the disconnection between the present and the past is the alarming rate at which Indigenous children continue to be apprehended by government agencies today. More than half of the children removed from their original homes and placed in foster care are Indigenous, and the recent case of Loni Edmonds suggests that there are cases where Indigenous children are being taken from their parents without due process or consent.29 The Federation of Aboriginal Foster Parents points out that “Between 1995–2001 there was a 71.5% increase in the number of on-reserve children with status being placed in foster care.”30 Many observers have noted that some of the money spent on foster care would better be directed at assisting families to stay together when Indigenous parents want to keep and take care of their own children.

I mentioned earlier that human bodies are roughly 60 per cent water, and the ways in which Turtle Island’s waterways have been dammed, diverted, and manipulated can be compared to how many Indigenous people continue to have their families broken apart, controlled, and reorganized by the colonial state apparatus. Whether it is watery human bodies, or larger water bodies themselves, imperial delirium imposes its own agenda and arrogantly assumes that its way is the best way, without making meaningful efforts to listen and learn from who and what are already there.

Today, I carefully watch what is happening to watersheds and Indigenous children across Turtle Island because, ultimately, this is what will determine whether the apology has real weight in terms of respecting Indigenous people’s past, present, and future. It is also the test of how democratic and just Canada actually is—whether it is an imagined community that is actually based on healthy water and healthy children for everyone.


Rita Wong was born where the traditional lands of the Tsuu T’ina (Sarcee), Siksika (Blackfoot) and Stoney First Nations intersect, otherwise known as Calgary. She lives and works on unceded Coast Salish territories, the lands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, also known as Vancouver. As a recipient of a fellowship from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, she has developed a humanities course that explores how cultural perspectives shape our interactions with water. Rita is the author of three books of poetry: sybil unrest (co-written with Larissa Lai, Line Books, 2008), forage (Nightwood, 2007), and monkeypuzzle (Press Gang, 1998). She received the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop Emerging Writer Award in 1997 and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 2008. Her poems have appeared in anthologies such as Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics; Regreen: New Canadian Ecological Poetry; A Verse Map of Vancouver; Rocksalt: an Anthology of Contemporary BC Poetry; Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature; Canadian Literature in English; The Harbrace Anthology of Poetry; Visions of BC; The Common Sky: Canadian Writers Against the War; Swallowing Clouds; Shift; Switch; and more. Building from her doctoral dissertation that examined labour in Asian North American literature, her work investigates the relationships between contemporary poetics, social justice, ecology, and decolonization. Rita serves as Associate Professor in Critical and Cultural Studies at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. She is currently researching the poetics of water with the support of a SSHRC Research/Creation grant in a project entitled Downstream.

  1. This is the downriver (Musqueam) spelling of the upriver StÓ:lŎ, with thanks to Victor Guerin of the Musqueam.
  2. Bocking, Richard (1997:3). Mighty River: A Portrait of the Fraser. Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre.
  3. Kinder Morgan (2007). TMX – Anchor Loop Project Frequently Asked Questions. July 2007. Retrieved 28 December 2010 from: http://www.kindermorgan.com/business/canada/tmx_documentation/FAQ_v7.doc
  4. Pipeline to the Pacific. The Edmonton Journal (2007, November 3). Retrieved 28 December 2010 from: http://www.canada.com/edmontonjournal/news/business/story.html?id=31c8d460-da17-4d52-af2b-a3b134b5c905&k=58903. While the old 24 in. pipeline is dormant for the time being, it may be reactivated in the future.
  5. McCarthy, Shawn (2010, July 28). Enbridge spill yields fresh ammo for oil sands critics. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 28 December 2010 from: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-investor/enbridge-spill-yields-fresh-ammo-for-oil-sands-critics/article1654445/
  6. See authors’ works in Younging, Gregory, Jonathan Dewar, and Mike DeGagné (eds.) (2009). Response, Responsibility, and Renewal: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Journey. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
  7. Chrisjohn, Roland and Tanya Wasacase (2009:226). Half-truths and whole lies: Rhetoric in the “apology” and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In Response, Responsibility, and Renewal: 217–229.
  8. Alfred, Taiaiake (2009:182–183). Restitution is the real pathway to justice for indigenous peoples. In Response, Responsibility, and Renewal: 179–187.
  9. Forest Ethics (2010, April 1). First Nations in BC Declare Opposition Against Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline. Retrieved 28 December 2010 from: http://www.forestethics.org/first-nations-in-bc-declare-opposition-against-enbridges-northern-gateway-pipeline
  10. See for instance: Oil Sands and Truth (2008, April 29). Intervention at the United Nations by the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations. Retrieved 28 December 2010 from: http://oilsandstruth.org/intervention-united-nations-athabasca-chipewyan-and-mikisew-cree-first-nations
  11. See for instance: Kennedy, Tehaliwaskenhas Bob (2007, March 30). Spotlight on Aboriginal Rights: Nicole Manuel and Beverly Manuel. Turtle Island Native Network News. Retrieved 28 December 2010 from: http://www.turtleisland.org/news/news-secwepemc.htm
  12. See for instance: KI Wins Huge Victory over Ontario Mining Company (2006, July 31). Ecojustice. Retrieved 28 December 2010 from: http://www.ecojustice.ca/media-centre/press-releases/ki-wins-huge-victory-over-ontario-mining-company
  13. See: Innu Seek to Block Romaine Hydro Project (2010, May 7). Retrieved 28 December 2010, from CBC News website: http://www.cbc.ca/canada/montreal/story/2010/05/07/mtl-romaine-injunction.html
  14. See: Victory for Teztan Biny (Fish Lake)! (2010). Retrieved 28 December 2010, from RAVEN: Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs website: http://www.raventrust.com/projects/fishlaketeztanbiny.html
  15. Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (2010, July 2). Executive Summary: Report of the Federal Prosperity Review Panel. Retrieved from: http://www.ceaa.gc.ca/050/documents/43937/43937E.pdf
  16. See: Why is the Canadian Government Letting Mining Companies Turn Lakes into Toxic Dumps? Retrieved 28 December 2010 from The Council of Canadians website: http://www.canadians.org/water/issues/TIAs/index.html. See also: Milewski, Terry (2008, June 16). Lakes across Canada face Being Turned into Mine Dump Sites. Retrieved 28 December 2010, from CBC News website: http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2008/06/16/condemned-lakes.html
  17. This term refers to the practice known as hydraulic fracturing, which has been known to emit human carcinogens such as benzene.
  18. Saul, John Ralston (2009:311). Reconciliation: Four barriers to paradigm shifting. In Response, Responsibility, and Renewal: 309–320
  19. See the following: 1) Mother Earth Water Walk website (retrieved 28 December 2010 from: http://motherearthwaterwalk.com/); 2)Armstrong, Jeannette (2005). Siwlkw. In Sandra Laronde (ed.), Sky Woman: Indigenous Women Who Have Shaped, Moved, or Inspired Us. Penticton, BC: Theytus; 3) Blackstock, Michael (2001). Water: A First Nations’ Spiritual and Ecological Perspective. Perspectives: BC Journal of Ecosystems & Management 1(1):1–14; 4) Christian, Dorothy and Denise Nadeau (2007, June). Protect Our Sacred Waters. Common Ground (retrieved from: http://commonground.ca/iss/0706191/cg191_waters.shtml); 5) Phere, Merrell-Ann (2009). Denying the Source: The Crisis of First Nations Water Rights. Calgary, AB: Rocky Mountain Books; 6) Sam, Marlowe (2008, March 15). Okanagan water systems: A historical retrospect of control, domination and change. Paper presented at the Ways of Being in the Academy: 6th Annual Indigenous Graduate Students Symposium, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC; 7) Sanderson, Cheryl Darlene (2008). Nipiy Wasekimew/Clear Water: the Meaning of Water, from the Words of the Elders. Doctoral dissertation, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC; (8) Walkem, Ardith (2007). The land is dry: Indigenous peoples, water, and environmental justice. In Karen Bakker (ed.). Eau Canada. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.
  20. Maracle, L. (2004). Goodbye, Snauq. In T. Cardinal, T. Highway, B. Johnston, T. King, B. Maracle, L. Maracle, J. Marchessault, R.A. Qitsualik, and D.H. Taylor, Our Story: Aboriginal Voices on Canada’s Past. Toronto, ON: The Dominion Institute, Anchor Canada: 201–219.
  21. Mitchell, Alanna (2009:27). Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis. Toronto, ON: McClelland and Stewart. Also see: TEDx Great Pacific Garbage Patch (2010, November 6) for more information about plastic pollution in the ocean. Retrieved from: http://www.tedxgreatpacificgarbagepatch.com/
  22. Suzuki, D., with A. McConnell and A. Mason (2007:91). The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature, Updated & Expanded. (3rd ed.). Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books.
  23. Sandford, Robert (2009:11). Restoring the Flow: Confronting the World’s Water Woes. Calgary, AB: Rocky Mountain Books.
  24. Zandberg, Bryan (2007, March 23). Reviving a native tongue. The Tyee. Retrieved 28 December 2010 from: http://thetyee.ca/News/2007/03/23/RevivingANativeTongue/
  25. Galley, Valerie (2009:249). Reconciliation and the revitalization of indigenous Languages. In Response, Renewal, and Responsibility: 241–258.
  26. Galley (2009:253).
  27. Bastien, Betty (2004). Blackfoot Ways of Knowing: The Worldview of the Siksikaitsitapi. Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press.
  28. See: Prime Minister Harper Denies Colonialism in Canada at G20 (2009, September 29). Canadian Business Online. Retrieved 28 December 2010 from: http://www.canadianbusiness.com/markets/cnw/article.jsp?content=20090929_172501_0_cnw_cnw
  29. Jones, Joseph (2010, July 27). BC Authorities Snatch Three-Day-Old Indigenous Baby. Vancouver Media Co–op. Retrieved 28 December 2010 from: http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/story/bc-authorities-snatch-three-day-old-indigenous-baby/4303 (I hear that this case is currently being investigated by the BC Representative for Children and Youth.)
  30. See: Federation of Aboriginal Foster Parents website. Retrieved 28 December 2010 from: http://www.fafp.ca/fosterparentinfo.shtml