Saturday, September 20, 2014
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Opinion: First Nations youth walk for clean water

Many have lost family members to water-borne bacteria illnesses


Acadia Solomon just wanted to swim with her friends. Unfortunately the signs posted last year at her favourite swimming spot were clear: it was not safe to swim in or drink the water. The problem was pollution from the paper mill upstream.


So when she heard about a group of First Nations youth walking from Winnipeg to Ottawa to speak out about the "killing" of our nation's lakes and rivers, no power in the world was going to stop her from joining them.

Acadia is just 10 years old, but already she is more aware of, and passionate about, water issues than are most adults.

"Water is life. If we don't have clean water, we don't have life," she says.

No less passionate are 26-year-old Ben Raven and the five other Manitoba youth, aged 13 to 18, who, faced with a water crisis of their own, believed they had no option but to undertake an epic journey of 2,100 kilometres from Winnipeg to the nation's capital to plead for action.

Raven, a member of the Jackhead First Nation, lives in Winnipeg. More than 300 other members of the Jack-head Nation inhabit reserves in Lake Winnipeg's watershed, a two-hour drive north of Winnipeg.

For decades, the world's tenth-largest freshwater lake has been deluged with run-off and sewage leaks resulting in the explosive growth of toxic blue-green algae. Parts of the lake's watershed have been diverted to feed mines and other industrial operations.

In February, an international environmental group awarded Lake Winnipeg the dubious honour of being the world's most-threatened lake.

Raven says he is one of many who have lost family to illnesses resulting from water-borne bacteria.

The federal government announced $18 million in August 2012 to support cleanup projects.

However, the initiative is still in its early stages and no projects have been announced yet, according to a spokeswoman from the Lake Winnipeg Foundation.

For Raven, enough was enough. In February, he led 50 youth on a 250-kilometre march from the Jackhead reserve to the steps of Manitoba's legislature. However, he wanted their message to be heard by the country's leaders, too. So on March 28, Raven and five others set out on a six-week journey to Parliament Hill.

They chose to walk to bring awareness to the communities they passed.

"You're not going to do that driving a vehicle. You've got to carry the message," Raven explains.

Acadia, a member of the Sagamok First Nation in Massey, Ont., near Sudbury, was waiting for the walkers as they approached. She pleaded with her parents to let her walk with them. Her parents suggested that they drive her and she get out and walk occasionally. But Acadia was adamant - she wanted to walk the whole way.

They relented and Acadia walked 600 km on foot, her nervous parents driving alongside. Along the way, other people from the communities they passed would join in and walk for short stretches.

Acadia said one of the most unfortunately memorable moments was passing a roadside stream clogged with garbage, the water a dirty, oozing orange. It reminded her of what they were walking for.

For weeks they had endured freezing temperatures, rain, hail and even racist taunts and middle-finger salutes. On May 13, they took the final steps up Parliament Hill. But standing before the Parliament Buildings they were welcomed with only silence. There were no crowds waiting, and of Canadian leaders only one MP - Niki Ashton, a New Democrat from Churchill - turned out to hear their message.

A day later, Raven and Acadia took a break from breakfast to speak with one of our team. At an adjoining table, two other walkers - a pair of teenage girls, one sporting a red Idle No More T-shirt - sat hunched over their food, their heads bowed with exhaustion.

"Youth are the future, but we have no future without water," explains Raven, his slender six-foot frame dwarfing the petite Acadia, who sits beside him in an Ottawa hotel restaurant.

Although their words fell on deaf ears in Ottawa, Raven and the other walkers will continue to raise awareness about clean water. Raven is going on to a youth conference in Toronto where he intends to raise these issues. Acadia plans to use the travel diary she kept to educate her classmates and community.

We wonder, though, why they have to do this at all? Acadia should be spending these warm spring weekends swimming with friends, not convincing adults to clean up her water.

Children shouldn't have to stop being children to teach us a lesson about our responsibilities to the world.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of Free the Children.

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