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Mobilizing the Circle of Relationships

Mobilizing the Circle of Relationships

May 4, 2016 Editor

By Bill Cairns, Chair, RES’EAU-WaterNET and Chief Scientist (emeritus), Trojan Technologies

In previous blog posts, authors have discussed new approaches (including RES’EAU’s) to change the course of dialogue between Canada’s First Nations communities and those who have potential roles in helping to resolve the pervasive drinking water problems. 

These water issues are not simply technological in nature, but are intertwined with historic, cultural, legal, financial, environmental, public health and a myriad of other types of challenges that may be unique to each community.  No single individual or sector of society has all the insight to resolve the problem.  However, the Circle of Relationships (1)  in open communication amongst all players can introduce the expertise to enlighten everyone within the circle on the challenges that must be overcome and the options for successful solutions. 

What is the Circle of Relationships?  George Sioui (2), the first indigenous person in Canada to obtain a PhD in history and now an academic researcher at University of Ottawa, provided his perspective in the preface to his book Huron-Wendat:  The Heritage of the Circle: 

“For human beings there is really only one way of looking at life on this earth,  and that is as a sacred circle of relationships among all beings, whatever their  form, among all species.  The great danger we face is that of reaching a point  where we no longer see life as a vast system of kinship.  Strictly speaking, there are no peoples, races, or civilizations:  there is only the human species, one among many species of beings.  Indeed, this species is particularly weak and dependent on other species and their constituent families – animal, vegetable and mineral; material and immaterial.  Furthermore, there is only one civilization  appropriate to human existence:  the civilization of the Circle, the Sacred Circle  of Life.”

In a drinking water context, the Circle of Relationships includes not only the communities experiencing water problems, but also the various spokespersons who possess knowledge in the diverse disciplines impacting the problem and who are able to bring insights toward its resolution. The Circle even includes the environment itself. The latter is not a strange concept, even to those of us brought up outside of First Nations cultures and traditions.  As researchers into other problems, how many times have we acknowledged that the data “speak volumes” about the nature of the problem?

The Circle of Relationships has some parallels with the concept of “Reverence for Life”(3) as advocated by 1952 Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer, who sought a universal concept of ethics. He wrote:

“Ethics is nothing other than Reverence for Life.  Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy to harm or to hinder life is evil.”

Rachel Carson dedicated her book A Silent Spring to Albert Schweitzer, and many suggest that this book prompted the beginning of an environmental consciousness in western societies.  Perhaps we see here the awakening of western cultures to heed the warning signs of environmental disregard, a warning that is deeply incorporated into early First Nations cultures and traditions.

Communication within the Circle of Relationships is therefore the only path forward to resolve problems as complex as the water challenges faced by many small and First Nations communities.  Communication in this sense might be described as an oral sharing (where possible) balanced with critical listening in a process aimed at developing a holistic understanding of the complex matrix of factors impacting the problem.  Through this approach, the knowledge of all within the Circle of Relationships is elevated, leading to an innovative solution that maintains, assists and enhances the lives of all within the Circle of Relationships. Communication, therefore, leads to change.  

No participant in the Circle of Relationships dialogues leaves the circle unchanged. The communities will benefit from the solutions to their water problems, and with a better understanding of their problems and solutions they can share insights with other communities.  Others who brought their expertise to the Circle will leave wiser and better prepared to take their experience and expanded understanding to Circles in other communities.  It is a win-win for everyone.  


New Problem -> Open Communication amongst the Circle of Relationships that can Resolve the Problem -> Changing Awareness and Knowledge Growth by all within the Circle of those Factors Influencing and Driving a Solution -> Innovative Solutions addressing the Factors-> Protecting all within the Circle 


References/Further Reading

(1) (Note: this is an archeologist’s perspective of addressing the consultation process related not to environmental issues, but to archeological work related to First Nations Communities in Ontario)
(2) (Note: the entire issue of Research Perspectives is “Indigenuity, A creative take on issues affecting Canada’s First Peoples”)
(3) (Note: this is a brief summary of Albert Schweitzer’s thoughts on the issue and some of his experiences that led him to this.  The story of Schweitzer can be found in many places.)

Photo:  Frozen time by Boril Gourinov (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Improving Drinking Water in Canada’s First Nations: Time to Embrace Complexity

Improving Drinking Water in Canada’s First Nations: Time to Embrace Complexity

Mar 31, 2016 Editor

By Dr. Madjid Mohseni, Scientific Director, RES’EAU-WaterNET, 
Professor, Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering, UBC

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal party tabled their first federal budget March 22, 2016. As expected, it earmarked nearly $2 billion in funding for drinking and wastewater infrastructure toward the goal of ending boil-water advisories on First Nations reserves within five years. 

Many people are asking, will it be enough? Others are pointing out that, back in 2011, a consulting report  prepared for the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development suggested that $5 billion would be needed over 10 years to bring First Nations drinking water systems in line with regulations. Certainly the new commitment tops our previous government’s allocation  in 2014 of $323 million over two years toward the same challenges.

However, as we previously blogged, it is an oversimplification to suggest that the complex barriers First Nations face when it comes to drinking water will be remedied by funding alone. 

That’s because any undertaking to improve conditions and provide safe and enjoyable drinking water in these communities is a Rubik’s Cube of entangled issues that also include housing and energy – make changes to improve only one, and you risk confounding progress with the others. It’s a puzzle Canada has been struggling to solve for decades now, and despite a proliferation in the number of organizations that claim to be working on solutions over the past few years, we are no closer to a nation-wide answer than at any time in our past. 

Here’s why. Housing, energy and water in our First Nations are really just stratifications of a larger, more important concept – individual and community health and well being, as defined by indigenous peoples. Until we begin to look at impediments to progress and definitions of success through a First Nation lens, meaningful improvements will continue to elude us no matter what our breakthroughs in technology or increases in funding may be. In our experience collaborating with these communities, the only way to understand their perspective is to foster an open dialogue – listening first, and then working together toward goals on which all sides agree. 

Really, there is no nation-wide solution to be had; rather, each community requires and deserves to have their unique perspective heard. That’s not an easy proposition to digest. Improving community health in the context of water will require navigating federal, provincial/territorial and regional regulations to implement new, effective and easy-to-use technologies, as well as a rethink on how we assess sustainability and the economics of drinking water – all while raising awareness of water health and creating buy-in for proposed solutions.  

The truth is that there have been many attempts over the years to intervene in First Nations’ water problems, but rarely have the communities themselves been brought to the table to decide what needs to be done. 

Until that happens, Canada will not maximize the positive impact this new funding could have. 

Photo: soaringbird/Flickr/(CC BY-SA 2.0)


Clean Drinking Water for Canada’s First Nations: What Will it Really Take?

Clean Drinking Water for Canada’s First Nations: What Will it Really Take?

Mar 8, 2016 Editor

By Dr. Madjid Mohseni, Scientific Director, RES’EAU-WaterNET, 
Professor, Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering, UBC

More than six million Canadians get their drinking water from within what are considered small water systems, i.e., those with relatively few tap hookups (often described as less than 500) compared with larger municipalities. They come in many forms – small towns, rural townships, trailer parks, island populations and First Nations communities. 

Despite Canada’s prosperity, high standard of living and wealth of natural resources such as water, many of these citizens face daily risk of illness from untreated drinking water. It’s a problem that the communities that make up our 634 First Nations face disproportionately versus the rest of the country, and even among small systems as a whole. That 20% of First Nations communities routinely have boil water advisories in place is the unfortunate status quo for Canada; some have been in place for decades. 

During the 2015 election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals vowed to correct this social and cultural injustice within five years of taking office. However, even with the political will and the funding in place, providing clean drinking water in First Nations communities will take more than a tidal wave of good intentions.

When it comes to providing clean drinking water, First Nations face unique obstacles. Their remote location makes it difficult to supply existing purification systems with needed chemicals and replacement parts. Attracting and retaining skilled operators to maintain, operate and monitor equipment is a particular challenge. The pay is low, and operators tell us time and again how their job is undervalued in their communities and that they do not receive the respect they deserve.  Local geography and land use patterns affect the quality of water sources dramatically, meaning a one-size-fits-all technological solution will not be the answer. 

"That 20% of First Nations communities routinely have boil water advisories in place is the unfortunate status quo for Canada; some have been in place for decades." 

The challenge of leveling the playing field for First Nations is complex. Solutions will only be had when Canada acknowledges and engages each community to define its unique challenges as well as a clear definition of what success will look like on their terms. Innovation through R&D efforts is also required, so that robust and user-friendly technologies are readily available and do not entail a high degree of technical sophistication to operate and maintain.  In our experience working with these communities over the past seven years (via funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada), we have come to keenly understand that different stakeholders can have vastly different viewpoints on the value that a certain “solution” brings to the table. What the federal or provincial government sees as a win may not be what the community feels is right. 

Based on a detailed analysis of the collaborations among technology suppliers, consulting/engineering firms, government agencies and universities linked with a number of small water systems in Canada and the U.S., we have identified the characteristics that favour innovation, and in turn what produces a positive outcome. We have learned that a community’s unique culture plays a crucial role in success. This represents a clear challenge to the prevailing belief in both industry and government that economies of scale will be achieved through the consolidation of small community systems into larger, centralized systems. 

Critical to the success of any solution is recognizing how to create an inclusive and proactive space where feedback and deeper levels of dialogue with communities can be achieved. For example, in meeting with First Nations community members and listening to Elders, we have explored how the history of the Residential Schools and how the past experience of such imposed “solutions” to community problems has created a climate of distrust, thereby necessitating a deeper and more proactive exchange of knowledge and perspective from both sides.  

Developing this level of knowledge and sensitivity to the unique aspects of each community’s history, as well as an understanding of how they relate to challenges in water system upgrade or replacement projects, will be critical to any new national campaign to improve access to clean drinking water in our First Nations communities. 


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