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Water conference calls for royal commission

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Monday, August 27, 2007

FORT SMITH - A conference in Fort Smith has called for a royal commission on water in the Mackenzie River Basin.

Participants at the Tu Beta Ts'ena (Water is Life) Conference - held Aug. 20-24 - also proposed a constitutional challenge to have human, aboriginal and treaty rights to water recognized.

NNSL Photo/Graphic

Justin Trudeau, right, accepts a gift of a model teepee made by Irwin Norn of Fort Resolution. Trudeau criticized the use of bottled water during his speech to a water conference in Fort Smith. - Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

The conference brought together First Nations, aboriginal organizations and some non-aboriginal groups from around the NWT, Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C.

It focused on growing concern about development in the basin, a massive area covering most of the NWT and parts of the three westernmost provinces.

A petition from conference participants asks their elected leaders to take immediate action to protect the water, follow up on conference recommendations, and report back on their work.

"It's up to the leadership to carry it through," said Chief Fred Daniels of Smith's Landing First Nation, which co-hosted the conference with Salt River First Nation.

Daniels said the conference is a start to dealing with the issue. "And it's going to be ongoing from the looks of it."

A royal commission would cover the sub-basins of the Athabasca, Peace, Liard, Peel, Slave, Mackenzie and Bear rivers.

Participants strongly encouraged First Nations and communities along the rivers to begin working together to implement conference recommendations.

Bill Erasmus, national chief of the Dene Nation, will lead the implementation and will report to a later summit of First Nations from along the rivers.

Erasmus said it's very clear that action has to follow in a consistent way from leaders.

"We will be prepared to take the lead to bring the different parties together and to consistently deal with it," he said.

Erasmus said conference participants need to take the recommendations back to their regions and chiefs to get feedback and endorsement.

There was worry expressed about pollution and high water use by upstream industry, particularly the Alberta tar sands projects.

Mary Heron, an elder with Smith's Landing First Nation, was one of the elders who largely drove the discussions at the conference.

"We have to save some of this stuff for the future generations," Heron said, adding that includes the land as well as water.

The elders stressed First Nations unity and involvement by youth.

Plus, they also emphatically stated that the time to act is now.

Leaders cannot take too long to do something, Heron said. "By that time, there will be more stuff destroyed."

Acting Chief Mike Beaver of Salt River First Nation agreed action must be taken.

"We can't fool around with it," Beaver said. "We've got to do it now."