Mobilizing the Circle of Relationships

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

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