Lighting a Fire in Flint: water groups unite for a Great Lakes Commons

Great Lakes Commons co-hosted a Water Summit in Flint this fall as part of a union of water organizations challenging Nestlé on its water bottling and calling an end the tap water crises in Flint, Detroit, and Indigenous nations.

Great Lakes water protector groups including Canadian, US and Indigenous representatives united at the Water Is Life: Strengthening the Great Lakes Commons in Flint on September  29 & 30, 2017.

Sixteen water protection organizations representing urban and rural communities from Ontario and Michigan along with local residents, Indigenous representatives, and activists attended this unprecedented international summit on water justice around the Great Lakes. Attendees pledged to challenge Nestlé's attempts to commodity Great Lakes water and end the water crises in Flint, Detroit, and Indigenous nations.

Maude Barlow of Council of Canadians presented the keynote speech on Friday evening to a crowd of more than 200 people at Woodside Church in Flint, Michigan.

“The summit this weekend was a powerful moment for water justice organizations, Great Lakes residents and Indigenous representatives. We came together to challenge the issues that our governments are failing to address. We renewed our commitment and outlined concrete steps to secure the human right to water and bring about water and social justice for all communities around the Great Lakes,” Maude Barlow 

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People shared stories of violations of the human right to water - that echoed a similar message – water in communities around the Great Lakes is being put at risk by privatization and commodification.

A common discussion theme raised during the two day summit was the outrage people feel at allowing Nestle to take water (cheaply) for private gain while Flint, Detroit, and Indigenous communities cannot rely on public systems and government for clean water.

Sylvia Plain, from Aamjiwnaang First Nations, near Sarnia, expressed her concern that Indigenous nations in both countries have keep their treaty promises yet are still waiting for American and Canadian governments to reciprocate.

Claire McClinton of Democracy Defense League of Flint, Michigan said:

“In Flint Michigan, you can buy a gallon of lead free gas, or a gallon of lead free paint, but you can’t get a gallon of lead free water from your own tap”, when she spoke to a crowd of over 200 people at the Forum held at Woodside Church in Flint.

Nestlé Waters is the common face of water privatization in Ontario and Michigan. In both countries Nestlé controls access to underground aquifers, takes water for fractions of a penny per litre and sells water marked up by 2000% in single use plastic bottles which wind up as litter more often than they are recycled. The pumping, packaging and distribution of bottled water is unsustainable for the environment. Bottled water undermines confidence in public tap water as governments neglect investment in public water infrastructure and are used as short-term band-aid solutions to water crisis in Flint, Detroit, and Indigenous nations.

For more on bottled water in the Great Lakes, see our previous blog posts highlighting the crisis with this patchwork map of withdrawals and consumption and a regional meeting last winter between some of the activists. Check out our Charter Toolkit resource using bottled water as a way to start a conversation on 'commons'. 

Great Lakes Commons hosted a workshop called "The Colonial Enclosure of Water" in the Great Lakes that showed several examples of how to re-centre Indigenous claims, perspectives, and rules for water governance. Content came from Renee Le Roux Goretsky (University of Guelph) and Paul Baines using the GLC Charter Toolkit resource on this topic. Rather than just have Michigan and Ontario governments unilaterally manage water as a resource, the focus here was on listening to and supporting greater Indigenous governance of water as a source of life. The issues of capitalism, privatization, and commercialism cannot be addressed without also understanding and dismantling colonization.  

Our workshop filled the room with over 20 people responding to the short presentations with their personal experiences, reflections, and commitments. This was our workshop pitch:

How can we (re)Indigenize Great Lakes water governance? How are we aligning our efforts to both de-commercialize and de-colonize water guardianship? Since the Great Lakes are shared by Indigenous and non-Indigenous nations, what can we do to honor our respectful and reciprocal bonds with all of our relations? 
Nestle and privatizing companies don't share our water ethics and they should not be welcomed. Yet Michigan, Ontario, and their related water institutions continue to impose their water-ways onto Indigenous peoples across the Great Lakes. These colonial institutions give away resource permits and treat the waters as if they own them. Having uninvited and foreign powers control the water has been disastrous for Indigenous peoples and a renewed relationship for water sharing and governance is fiercely needed. 

At the Summit conclusion, representatives from a diversity of water protection organizations pledged to work together to protect water in communities dealing with these issues. Water campaigner with the Council of Canadians, Emma Lui,  also did a fantastic summary of the Summit you can read about

At the end of February, Detroit Public Television will air its full documentary on this topic called "Tapping the Great Lakes". Here's the trailer.

A coalition of water groups continues to work on these intersected issues. We meet regularly and if you would like to get more involved in this effort, please get in touch.