By: Arlene Slocombe, Executive Director
Contact Arlene  |  Join Our Mailing List  |  Donate

.  .  .

In the lead-up to the third annual National Truth & Reconciliation Day, it's critical to examine our work and society through the lenses of truth and reconciliation. Stephanie Joe of Pipikwan Pêhtâkwan writes, "It's important to remember that reconciliation cannot happen without the truth. When we speak of the truth in truth and reconciliation, it refers to the truth of how Indigenous Peoples have been treated by settlers and the Canadian government since the colonization of what is known as Canada." Let's take a closer look at how this intersects with Water Watchers' work fighting against water profiteering and water bottling in Canada.

On Indigenous Peoples Day (June 21, 2023), we read an article called "A CELEBRATION OF CULTURE AND SURVIVAL" about the annual Engage and Change Project Water for people experiencing homelessness, a day to help those suffering conditions of homelessness be recognized in their fight to stay alive. 

We acknowledge the harsh realities referenced in this article to be true:

“In Toronto, 2.5 % of the population are indigenous: it is estimated that 15% of that group are homeless. On any given night, the city hosts over 7,400 citizens who are homeless or are experiencing homelessness. Access to shelter and clean drinking water does not discriminate. While we celebrate a culture, we cannot ignore the harsh reality that homelessness is a plague that knows no boundaries. Lack of affordable housing, the opioid crisis, poor hygiene, and a steady increase in refugees mean that the mortality rate among this high-risk group will exceed the 187 deaths reported in 2022.”


Yet we also need to understand and see truthfully the systems of inequity that create these conditions in the first place and take a critical eye to the solutions proposed to alleviate the suffering at hand. The point of the article on National Indigenous Peoples Day was not to reveal systemic failures, but rather to laud the actions of corporate partners:

“In an insurmountable act of compassion, corporate partners BlueTriton Brands; Fortigo Freight Services, CIBC, Scotiabank, Perimeter Development Corporation and Toronto Police Services will distribute over 360,000 bottles of water and 3,000 survival kits of essential items through Project Water to outreach providers and homeless shelters in an effort to provide life-saving resources to the homeless in extreme summer weather conditions…” 


This article reveals a number of important truths about the reality of our colonial governance systems:

  1. There are a disproportionate number of urban Indigenous people who experience homelessness.
  2. Our governments are failing in providing the basic human right to safe drinking water and, instead, are downloading the essential responsibilities of drinking water access to charities and other non-profit service providers.
  3. Our governments support and facilitate the extraction of water for private sector profit in an era of global water scarcity. 
  4. Private companies gain marketing opportunities to increase their profits from disasters caused by and through the complicity of our colonial governance systems.


In order to understand the “truth” of these realities, let's unpack these points.


1. Why are there a disproportionate number of urban Indigenous people experiencing houselessness?

In an article by Nathalie Rech for The Canadian Encyclopedia, she writes, "The conditions and history leading to homelessness among Indigenous populations are significantly different from other populations in Canada." Indigenous peoples are more likely to face poverty, unemployment, and inadequate housing conditions. This disproportionate representation can be directly attributed to a complex interplay of factors rooted in Canada's history of colonization and exploitation. The Canadian Department of Justice summarizes this idea saying, "Colonialism has led to cultural alienation, territorial dispossession, intergenerational trauma, systemic discrimination, and socio-economic marginalization, which together continue to have profoundly negative impacts on the lives of many Indigenous people today." There is a plethora of research and study into this phenomenon. In the spirit of truth and reconciliation, let’s take some time to understand and explore a few examples on the different factors creating this injustice.

From Understanding the Overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the Criminal Justice System from the Canadian Department of Justice, we read: 


Cultural alienation and intergenerational trauma caused by policies such as the residential school system, removal of Indigenous children from their families during the 60s scoop and ongoing child welfare practices, have affected relationships and contributed to the erosion of familial and community ties. This has had complex and tragic results, with ongoing consequences for many, such as high rates of serious physical health problems, issues with mental health and cognitive impairment, suicide, physical and sexual abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, interpersonal violence, family breakdown, and involvement both as victims/survivors and accused/convicted persons in the criminal justice system.Footnote 14


Colonialism was identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 also leading to the disempowerment of Indigenous women by replacing existing forms of Indigenous government, in which women held significant influence and powerful roles in many First Nations.Footnote 15 The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Interim Report in 2017 and other studies also indicate that Indigenous women are often devalued in Canadian society, leading to alarming rates of violence and increased interaction with the criminal justice system as both victims/survivors and accused/convicted persons.Footnote 16

Because of this historical and ongoing systemic violence, a disproportionate number of the Toronto houseless population are Indigenous. But what about conditions on reserves? First Nations on reserve continue to live below the well-being standard of the general Canadian population. The 2021 census found that 31.4% of First Nation people on reserve were living in low-income households and that 21.4% of First Nations on reserves lived in crowded housing where boil water advisories are all too common. Mario Swampy and Kerry Black say on this topic, "First Nations face disproportionately higher numbers of drinking water advisories and are subjected to these advisories for longer periods of time than non-Indigenous people. This is due to inadequate and chronic under-funding, regulatory voids, and a lack of resources to support water management," among other complexities.


2. Our governments are failing to provide a basic right to safe drinking water and are, instead, downloading the essential responsibilities of access to clean drinking water to charities and service providers.

In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized the human right to water and sanitation through passing Resolution 64/292 which asserts that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all other human rights. By recognizing water as a basic human right, the UN requires that each government progressively provide all its citizens with safe, sufficient, accessible, and affordable water, as well as safe sanitation. One way they are doing this is through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Governments must respect, protect, and fulfill an individual's right to water. The human right to water has not yet been legislated in Canada at the federal level, although Canada has recognized the UN declaration on the human right to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. 

Public water fountains were a ubiquitous part of public life before the advent of the plastic water bottle. On this topic, Patrick J. Kiger writes, "In the 1970s and 1980s, companies began aggressively marketing bottled water, benefiting from public worries about pollution, lead contamination and disease getting into the public water supply... Unlike drinking fountains, bottled water also happened to be profitable, which made it more appealing to places that could sell it."

During the covid-19 pandemic, many public water fountains closed as worries about the risks of infection from public water access points soared. This exacerbated the perceived safety of drinking water fountains, many of which have still not been brought back online. This has also further exacerbated issues around public drinking water access and left many with no choice but to buy bottled water.

As climate chaos continues with more intense heat events during the summer months, the simultaneous decrease of safe, accessible drinking water fountains is proving life-threatening for the ever-increasing houseless populations in communities. The absence of government solutions  leads to the need for charities and nonprofit service providers to fill the systemic gap, forcing them to provide an unsustainable consumer product (bottled water) which they need to fundraise to purchase. What ought to be the responsibility of governments of all levels is now being downloaded to cash-strapped service providers.


3. Our governments support and facilitate the extraction of water for profit to private companies in an era when alarm bells are sounding all around the globe about the overallocation of precious groundwater.

Despite a Cease and Desist order from the Confederacy Council of Six Nations, first to Nestlé Waters Canada and then to the new owner, Blue Triton, water taking for bottling in Aberfoyle on unceded territory still exists. For 16 years, Water Watchers has led campaigns to support the need for the prioritization of water permits for essential uses as we enter an era of increasing water uncertainty. With all of the negative environmental and social implications of the bottled water industry, many in Ontario want to see permitting for for-profit water bottling curtailed. In 2018, Water Watchers commissioned a poll through Mainstreet Research and learned that 68% of Ontarians support the phasing out of permits to bottled water in this province. 

In fact, issuing permits for water profiteering by corporations and private equity firms was never imagined as part of the original permitting policy. 

The history of the Permit To Take Water (PTTW) regulations in Ontario dates all the way back to 1956. Initially formed as the Ontario Water Resources Commission Act (OWRA), its primary purpose was to finance, build and manage water treatment facilities, with a secondary focus on managing the province’s water resources through PTTWs. At the time, population growth and industrial development combined with inadequate sewage treatment & disposal were impacting the water quality of the Great Lakes. Wastewater had traditionally been directed to surface water as a means of disposal. As towns and cities grew, increased discharge of wastewater led to bacterial pollution and required more stringent regulations. In the mid-1970s with new infrastructure now in place, Ontario shifted the costs of operation and management to the various municipalities and became focused more on policy and enforcement. The OWRA as we know it today began to take shape. Permits through this process were granted to municipalities to provide drinking water, to agriculture projects for irrigation, and to industry where water is an ingredient or a component part of operations. At that time, the bottled water industry did not yet exist, so it was not foreseeable the PTTW process would ever be used for water profiteering. 

Increasingly, we are reading headlines of the depletion of groundwater all over the globe. The American Geophsyical Union writes, "Scientists lack complete data about aquifer structure and storage capacity to say exactly how much groundwater remains in individual aquifers," yet there are a great number of permits to extract that water. This is true in Ontario, too. It is akin to writing cheques on a finite bank account for which the balance is unknown. The Precautionary Principle dictates that we act wisely and only issue permits for needs deemed a priority for our collective wellbeing, not simply for the profit of private companies. 



4. Private companies gain marketing opportunities to increase their profits from disasters caused by and through the complicity of our colonial governance systems. 

Companies such as Blue Triton (formerly Nestlé Waters Canada) benefit greatly from creating a false self-image as do-gooders. This can take many forms.

"Greenwashing happens when a company makes an environmental claim about something the organization is doing that is intended to promote a sense of environmental impact that doesn't exist. The green claim is typically about some form of positive effect on the environment," writes Sean Michael Kerner.

Bluewashing has a connected but more water-focused meaning. Wikipedia defines bluewashing as "a term used to describe deceptive marketing that overstates a company's commitment to responsible social practices. It can be used interchangeably with the term greenwashing but has a greater focus on economic and community factors."

Bluewashing and greenwashing are tools of a larger problem: disaster capitalism.

The term “Disaster Capitalism Complex” was first coined by Naomi Klein in her book Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. She describes it as “a complex series of networks and influences employed by private companies that allows them to profit from disasters.” There’s a great summary of Part 5 of her book on Wikipedia which reads, “She mirrors this new Disaster Capitalism Complex with the Military Industrial Complex and explains that both employ the blurring of the line between private and public, through tactics like the revolving door” which refers to the movement of high-level employees from public-sector jobs to private-sector jobs and vice versa. 

We can see all of these factors at play within BlueTriton’s one-time donation of bottled water to Toronto’s urban houseless population, engaging with the initiative to be part of the false “solution” for drinking water inequities. To add insult to the injury of their bluewashing, greenwashing, and participation in disaster capitalism, they are contributing to the problems of drinking water access and climate change, both through their water profiteering and through their private equity investments.

What can we do about all of this?

A well-referenced strategy tool in activist circles is the Movement Action Plan (MAP) developed by Bill Moyer in the late 1970s. Bill Moyer was an American journalist and political commentator. He used case studies of successful social movements to illustrate eight distinct stages through social movements' progress. It is designed to help movement activists choose the most effective strategies and tactics to match their movement’s current stage.

In Moyer’s analysis, he says the public has to be convinced of 3 questions - and in this order:


  1. There is a problem,
  2. The power holders are not interested in solving the problem and, in fact, are responsible for it, and
  3. The solution


The environmental movement - and many social justice campaigns - often skip question 2 and go right to question 3, solutions. As a result, solutions are often not designed to address root causes of harm or solutions are not implemented at all, the public believing power holders will eventually do the right thing or perhaps because the movement has yet to reveal the power dynamics at play. In the example at hand, BlueTriton and other corporations are decreed saviours by providing bottled water to Toronto's houseless population, a large portion of whom are urban Indigenous folks. Colonial systems allow for this to be portrayed as a solution, but we must demand real and just alternatives.

The more we convince the general public that there is a problem and that the power holders who are responsible for solving the problem are not interested in solving it, the greater leverage we – the masses – have to create change. 


Tides are Turning

Last week in California, the State Water Resources Control Board voted unanimously to order the company BlueTriton Brands to “cease and desist” taking water for bottling from tunnels and boreholes in the mountains near San Bernardino

This is a tremendous win for the movement fighting water profiteering. It took the long, hard, diligent work of activists in that region and the solidarity of other activists & organizations across North America. 

We can be inspired by this news to further the good work already well-established here in southern Ontario to oppose BlueTriton who own three wells in Wellington County. There is already a Cease and Desist order to the company by the Confederacy Council of Six Nations, yet water taking is ongoing. 

There have been 16 years of solid groundwork in this region through the organizing work of Water Watchers, Save Our Water, and the communities of Hillsburgh and Erin, alongside many other neighbours and allies. Each person supporting this campaign makes a difference and builds the power we need to win. We all have an important role to play in order to (in the words of Yanis Varoufakis) “...end the legalized robbery of people and Earth fuelling climate catastrophe and the broader ecocide."

On our way towards the 3rd Annual Truth and Reconciliation Day, let’s take an eyes wide open approach to understanding the realities that enable water profiteering and disaster capitalism so we can work together to find real solutions to ensure everyone has clean drinking water and sanitation. To start, let's put a stop to the reckless water-taking permits filling plastic bottles for profit.