Rethinking Water: The Spirit, Climate Change, and the Link to Reconciliation

by Lilly Lin

Photography by Lilly Lin

Why have we continued to fail to enact impactful and much needed climate action and change? What are the hurdles that obstruct us from achieving global targets? International organizations such as the United Nations have held Climate Change Conferences each year since 1997. In 2015 the Paris Agreement was signed by 195 states and the European Union to collectively achieve “net zero emissions” by 2050, and aim to keep global warming to 1.5℃. But the 2022 Emissions Gap Report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found that current policies “point to a 2.8℃ temperature rise by the end of the century.” It believes that a further 45% cut is needed to get on track to the 1.5℃ goal.

Despite policies to shift globally to greener energy, select countries and corporations resist completely phasing out fossil fuels. Developing countries rich in oil, gas, and coal are keen on the economic growth provided by these resources, and feel unfairly penalized by the push to rapidly transition away from them. A report from campaigners at this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 27) “warned that oil and gas companies are planning production expansion that would result in 115bn tonnes of CO2 being pumped out.”

Closer to home in British Columbia, four of its communities are under Drought Response Level 5—the highest response level—as of November 10th. EmergencyInfoBC classifies this as “exceptionally dry and adverse” conditions where “impacts to socio-economic or ecosystem values are almost certain.” This comes a year after BC experienced heavy flooding in parts of south-western British Columbia. Mudslides damaged and closed highways, and numerous towns and districts including Merritt, Abbotsford and Okanagan-Similkameen were under evacuation orders due to rising water levels.

While the challenges and impacts of climate change continue to affect communities, small triumphs are providing some hope for the years ahead. The increasing cost-effectiveness of renewable energy in the last decade means that in most places in the world it is now cheaper to use renewables than it is to develop new fossil fuels. Electric vehicle are also taking off, with 2021 sales numbers increasing by about 80% over 2020 numbers. Sustainable agriculture, including the use of clean technology (AgTech), are making agricultural practices “more efficient, safe, and less environmentally damaging.” In Canada, innovations such as the Olds College Smart Farm use AI for tasks such as monitoring weather conditions, operating drones, and measuring proteins in harvested crops, all under one farm productivity network.

Indigenous communities are equally concerned about climate change, and are more likely to be impacted by its effects due to the location of their lands. The British Columbia Assembly of First Nations (BCAFN) continuously advocates for First Nations jurisdiction over their waters alongside other First Nations groups. In March of this year the Assembly held a five-part virtual Water Dialogue Series to discuss the Canada Water Agency (CWA), with participants including First Nations Chiefs, Knowledge Keepers, youth, women, 2SLGBTQQIA+, and community members.

Michael Blackstock is a Gitxsan artist and scholar working in a similar sphere of climate change-focused research and practice. Michael served as a member of the UNESCO-IHP Expert Advisory Group on Water and Cultural Diversity from 2008 to 2012 and has published journal articles on water-based ecology. His book, Oceanness, contains poems, essays, and artworks on themes such as water, ecology, oral history, and humor. It also includes his theory of Blue Ecology, which was developed together with Elders, and interweaves their perspective with that of Western science.

Michael was the guest speaker for the second Kerrisdale-Musqueam Story Circle hosted by the Kerrisdale Community Centre (KCC) and co-designed by Musqueam and Vancouver Arts Colloquium Society (VACS). As this initiative is aimed at promoting Indigenization, the focus of the event was to listen to Indigenous stories and perspectives and apply them in our everyday life, and to bring unity to the places we live. 

Michael shared with us his and the Indigenous view on water, how an attitude change on water and a humbling of Western science is needed for positive change, and his work on Blue Ecology as a way for cross-cultural problem solving.

The event took place at the Seniors Centre of the KCC, where a semicircle of chairs had been set up near the front of the room. Around 20 community members attended the event, with the majority of them being of an older age. Five youth volunteers were also present to help with checking guests in and distributing supplies, though they proved rather shy to take part in the actual proceedings.

Before we started the event proper, Michael asked everyone to participate in a ceremony together to prepare for the remainder of the event. He later identified this gesture as Satxw, or a “conscious decision of making a new day through ceremony.” Grace Ulu, a Musqueam artist also in attendance, helped him light a sweetgrass and passed it around to each participant, who wafted the smoke towards them and over their heads. The strong smell of smoke with a brief touch of sweetness lingered in the air. 

Next was a small copper pot with seawater from Stanley Park and a mix of herbs. Michael shared with us his desire to give back to the water as much as he took—he had brought a bottle of water to Stanley Park and returned some of it back to the ocean as he took the seawater from it. We dipped our fingers in this pot of seawater and closed our eyes, letting anything troubling us fade away. And so we created a safe space within that room, and we were all equals as we sat in that circle.

Michael began by defining water, what he called a “deceptively simple” problem. He gave first the Western education system’s definition, seen through a scientific lens. That water was made of 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom, making it H2O. But he also shared with us the Indigenous perspective on water: that it was a living thing, that it had a spirit, and that it connected everything. For many Indigenous bands, water was sacred and some bodies of water were spiritual sites. Because of these different understandings of water, conflicts inevitably happened between Western and Indigenous societies.

But by adopting this Indigenous perspective of water being alive and having a spirit, it propels water and its health to the forefront of our psyche. We humans, alongside many organisms on the planet, need water in reliable supply and in good quality, after all. So why should we not safeguard it as the first of our concerns? Michael gave an example of the City being approached with a mining prospect or real estate development; to him, what they should be asking first and foremost is: how will this impact the water? Only by prioritizing the water can we enact positive policy-making with an eye to the entire health of the planet.

As a part of promoting this mindset and attitude shift, Michael has been developing the Blue Ecology Foundation. It recently became a registered charity, and he plans on holding more activities, including those involving the youth, who Michael refers to as future leaders. Blue Ecology is an ecological approach that interweaves Indigenous and Western teachings and works on 5 principles: Spirit, Harmony, Respect, Unity, and Balance (SHRUB). Michael presented this to us as a Blue Ecology Water Cycle, which re-interprets the Western hydrologic cycle and includes the moon, a point that Michael felt emphatically about—“where is the moon?” Michael asked regarding the hydrologic cycle; without it, the other half of the day isn’t even covered.

The Blue Ecology Water Cycle

Climate change, in Michael’s eyes, is also an issue of water. He considers it as the “rapid change of water’s form on Earth,” an “accelerated transformation” of water that is more drastic and intense. This framing recalls what British Columbia is experiencing now and has experienced last year: atmospheric rivers and now droughts. This rapid change of water is causing disastrous effects of different kinds and damaging both the built infrastructure of human society and the natural world.

A way forward is through an attitude change—and an attitude change costs nothing, Michael emphasized throughout his talk. Western policy-makers focus too much on carbon when attempting to address the climate crisis, but climate change is also a water problem. A water-first approach is essential to making actionable change. To that end, Michael also believes that Indigenous leaders need to have a seat at the decision-making table all year round, to contribute their thousand years of knowledge about the planet. Ultimately, Western leaders need to be humbled to the limitations of Western science and knowledge-systems and be open to a cross-cultural and collaborative process.

Nearing the end of his talk, Michael shifted gears from his analytical side to his artistic side. He shared with us his artwork, including paintings inspired by salmon and Indigenous storytelling. Along with Grace, they led us into the next section of the event, which was a collage making and reflection. Participants were provided with magazine pages, watercolor paper, markers, and scissors and glue sticks. They could combine the materials however they wanted to make a collage about their relationship with water. These individual collages would be put together at a later time into a larger collaborative collage, much like the “Musqcouver Butterfly” from the previous Story Circle.

While participants made their collages, some shared their thoughts on the talk. One participant described herself as a “worried citizen,” who wasn’t very optimistic about the future. She felt humans were doing many things wrong with the planet—digging into the earth, sending things into space, building dams, diverting rivers—and there was a lot of talk but not much action to show for it. Her thought was: “if we can go to the moon, why can’t we solve the climate problem before moving to a different planet?”

Another participant, going by jil p. weaving, expressed the excitement of seeing someone like Michael working in different spheres. She admitted it was difficult to change people’s attitudes, especially if there were limited resources to blast through the media messaging. She also didn’t buy into the idea of humans as the penultimate species, and pointed out that if we looked back at the Celtic and Pre-Christian cultures, which could be considered Indigenous roots for some people, they said the same kind of things as Michael did.

She explained parts of her collage, which had strips of bodies of water and smaller cut pieces of fire. She said she wanted to include the beauty and transformation of water, but also a sense of threat, of the more mechanically cut pieces of fire. A kind of opposition: of dark and light, moon and sun, fire and water.

jil’s Collage

The group reconvened not long after and Michael and Grace encouraged the circle to share their collages and their personal connections to water. A number of participants expressed their deep connection to water: connected to their memories, their upbringing, even their healing. One participant who said she had recently finished chemotherapy, called water therapeutic, that it makes you buoyant rather than heavy-footed. Others mentioned a fondness for swimming, of water being comforting as a child; jil, too, mentioned a sense of longing for the water, of sitting and listening to it—the crunch of snow, the rain coming in deluges, and the air being full of water. 

Perhaps because of this fondness and love, the scarcity and preciousness of water also came up in the conversations. Those who had grown up in different places around the world shared their experiences.

In a small town in Manitoba, they would get water from a well. In a town in Africa there was no running water and they would get water twice a day; they used to consume only 3 liters of water total in a day. Even Grace shared that Musqueam didn’t get utilities until the late 1960s and that she remembered boiling water for baths.

Another participant, Josette, grew up in a water resort in South France. The resort had Roman spas and water dating back to 2000 years; she never questioned water, and treated it as precious—because they had to pay for it. When she went back to her hometown in the fall, recalling there were water restrictions in France at the time, she was nevertheless shocked to see all the water fountains were dry and stopped.

These participants also remarked that living now in North America, where running water is more easily accessible, it made people grow lax about water use and forget to respect or be careful about the water.

Thus far all the story-sharing had come from the participants, but after some prompting one of the youth volunteers at the event also shared her collage. She said that she had a strong connection to water and that her aunt, who died when she was 5, also had this strong connection. It was her aunt who told her there were beautiful shapes in water, and so she reflected those blues, greens, and whites in her collage.

Just as Michael calls the youth the future leaders, they are also the ones who will spend the most time on this planet moving forward. Michael wanted to give hope in relation to water, that by changing attitudes towards water it would shed a light on the path ahead. He plans to launch youth ambassador programs through the Blue Ecology Foundation, and hopes to encourage the youth to be involved.

What Michael shared at the Story Circle was another way to look at water, something that those who had only gone through the Western education system may have never encountered before. Yet despite any barrier these ideas may have presented, the community members at the event worked through them to share their thoughts and stories. Their deep connections to water, their concerns for the state of the planet, and their recognition of the preciousness of the resource, all these reflected their sense of love and care for water. Whether they had the exact words to describe it, water had been and continues to be a spiritual and healing force for them.

What becomes possible from knowing water is alive and has a spirit? What new questions come up and that we can continue to ask ourselves and others? Perhaps it means that we look at and talk about water differently; perhaps our relationship to water changes or takes on another dimension; or perhaps we give water especial consideration when we make decisions. By continuing with our own practices, we can perform the Satxw that Michael spoke of, of consciously deciding to “make a new day” through intentioned action and ceremony. And with each individual practice comes the potential to find new hope, make new connections, and enact our own climate solutions in the everyday. []

"Salmon stream"  A collage by Grace Ulu (Musqueam Visual Artist
Co-organizer of the Kerrisdale-Musqueam Story Circle)
Salmon stream“, a collage by Grace Ulu
(Musqueam Visual Artist, Co-organizer of the Kerrisdale-Musqueam Story Circle)

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