Generating solutions from ‘hard conversations’ about water sustainability in the Okanagan Valley won’t happen without Indigenous voices at the negotiating table.
“We have to think about what our values are if we don’t respect water. It is all that gives us life. We harm ourselves and future generations if we don’t care for it….that is the Sylix perspective,” said Pauline Terbasket, executive director of the Okanagan Nation Alliance.
“Instead of turning it into a commodity, turning it into something foreign to our understanding, that is the conflict in terms of water values and ethics.”
The ethics behind water management was the theme behind the fourth annual Community Water Forum, held via Zoom on Nov. 5, co-hosted by UBC Okanagan, Okanagan Basin Water Board and Okanagan Nation Alliance.
Guest speakers from the local Indigenous communities, university and government water management branches were on hand to address their perspectives on the ethics behind water management.
From the First Nations perspective, the colonial era has introduced a different viewpoint on how water is managed and respected, which for them has to change if we are to sustain the existing and future population of the valley.
“I think about water. I think our principles, our values, our connection to water and I think there has been a disconnection between all of us due to many reasons…one being the way we relate to water,” Terbasket said.
She said caring and respecting water is an ethical value that Indigenous people absorb as a hallmark of their own culture.
“It is part of the Indigenous principles and value and ethics we have grown up with, values passed on for generations,” she said. “It is our responsibility to reward and care for it as stewards. It is why Indigenous voices must be at the table.”
Tessa Terbasket, a natural resource policy researcher for Okanagan Nation Alliance, said urban development too often takes water for granted.
“It’s easy to access. You turn on your tap and the water flows. It tastes good and you never imagine running out,” she said.
“We say to ourselves this is my right, this is what I pay taxes for. I need drinking water to live.”
But she said too many of us don’t stop to think or know where that water comes from, and the role it plays in not only providing our drinking water but sustaining an entire ecosystem throughout the valley.
She said learning from Indigenous ethical values surrounding water protection has to be a key ingredient to how the resource is protected as the impacts of climate change become increasingly evident.
John Wagner, a UBC Okanagan anthropology professor and water rights advocate, echoed Terbasket’s sentiments about gaining a greater widespread understanding about where our water comes from.
“In urban areas especially, too many people do not know where their drinking water comes from,” he said. “Much of Kelowna was built on a historic floodplain dominated by Mill and Mission creeks.
“So there have been big changes from the 1800s to 2019 as that floodplain has been systematically dismantled.”
But on the positive side, creek restoration, riparian rehabilitation and fish population resurgence efforts of recent years reflect a pathway to future long-term water sustainability solutions.
Zoe Kirk, special projects coordinator for the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen, cited three collaborative projects that offer a pathway to better connecting Indigenous and non-Indigenous water value attitudes.
One involved the planting of 1,500 cottonwood trees in a Similkameen floodplain area, co-sponsored by a Heritage Canada grant.
Another was developing an Okanagan guidebook designed to create a greater awareness of respect for land and water-based on Indigenous ethical values, offering homeowners an insight into the impact they have on the landscape.
The third project was another literary effort, this one a storytelling book with illustrations telling the stories of elders about the Sylix/Okanagan nation’s perspective on water, geared to the Kindergarten to Grade 5 age group.