May 1, 2013–This article originally appeared in the Ministry Report, an Anglican Journal supplement produced by the Resources for Mission department of the Anglican Church of Canada.
For most of us, a safe water supply is as Canadian as medicare and the cultural mosaic. But for many indigenous people, clean water is a far cry from reality.
Across Canada, however, Anglicans are beginning to address this issue through an initiative loosely formed by Bishop Mark MacDonald, national indigenous bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada. MacDonald became aware of an uptick in church interest in 2011 when he raised the water question as keynote speaker at the diocese of Toronto’s annual social justice conference.
“There seemed to be little or no church concern about the water issue, and then all of a sudden, dozens of churches across Canada were interested in advocacy work in clean water for First Nations communities,” says MacDonald, who refers to his role as that of a facilitator.
“Some people just wanted to write a cheque, while others wanted to meet and talk and pray about it,” he recalls.
Now the “water group” meets every couple of months at Trinity Church in Aurora, north of Toronto, in sessions that typically attract about 20 people.
“Right now it’s mainly a spiritual movement, but in a couple of years it may become more of an institution,” he says. “We’re picking up people quickly, and a group is forming in Toronto to help the remote northern Ontario community of Pikangikum with water and other issues.”
The advocates’ ultimate aim is to get the federal government to live up to its legal obligations and spend the estimated $12 billion needed for the infrastructure improvements that will guarantee clean water to indigenous communities. “They refuse to do it,” MacDonald says. “It’s a political hot potato; they don’t want to pick it up and get stuck with it. But it’s not going to go away.”
The Mennonite Church in Canada has been organizing to put pressure on the government, and the water network is now in conversation with the Assembly of First Nations about the best approach to take with the government.
In the meantime, the group is working on bridge solutions to improve access to clean water or replace broken delivery systems.
The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) and other organizations such as trade unions have become involved in this galvanizing issue. PWRDF, for example, is reviewing a plan to raise $100,000 for the Pikangikum Working Group over the spring and summer months. If the proposal is approved, PWRDF will be able to accept designated donations for it.
Sometimes the health problem in First Nations communities lies in a polluted water source; sometimes the water pipes are contaminated. A pilot project involving a couple of churches in the network has raised more than $10,000 so far for interim measures to improve water quality. These might include hiring trucks to deliver clean water, digging wells, and providing clean containers for carrying water, filtering devices for tap water or portable purification kits. “It’s going better than we ever anticipated, and there has been an amazing amount of interest in Vancouver and Victoria as part of the network,” MacDonald says.
Gaining momentum, the group may soon officially assume the name Pimatisiwin Nipi (Oji-Cree for “living water”), and it will likely hold a national meeting at some point. “But for now, it’s a community of spiritual concern that stays together in conversation,” says MacDonald.
(Above Photo: The Rev. Andrew Wesley makes an offering to Lake Ontario in an adaptation of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Great Blessing of the Water.)