Contributed B.C. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.

Standing up for water

Indigenous peoples want to exert influence on how watersheds are managed.

B.C.’s indigenous peoples are becoming climate refugees because of mismanagement of water resources, says B.C. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.

Phillip, leader of the Penticton Indian Band, said natural events such as the flooding this spring across the Okanagan is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

“We see fires and floods, many people evacuated from their homes. We have seen flood levels (in the Okanagan) that exceed 1948 records and there is still a lot of snow in the higher elevations yet to melt,” Phillip said.

“The way we are going, we see year after year, a trajectory for the earth getting hotter and hotter…we have some serious work ahead of us.”

Phillip made the comments Tuesday morning in his opening remarks to the Okanagan water forum titled Forward Thinking: Syilx Knowledge Informing Watershed Planning, hosted by UBC Okanagan.

He was critical of the province’s past record for environment management of not having “stellar success” and how everyone must work together and share their knowledge to come up with better solutions.

“We come together and have meetings about this and give lip service to talk about reconciliation, but then everyone retreats back to their offices and fall back on the same old policies,” Phillip said.

“Those policies have not been effective. We have to start doing something about that.”

He applauded the efforts of indigenous people, from the elders and knowledge keepers to a younger, educated generation advocating for change while gaining a greater appreciation for their own cultural heritage beliefs about how water has to be shared by all living things, not just as a means for resource extraction.

Phillip said politics is part of that greater solution, recognition of the rights of the indigenous people from both the federal and provincial governments.

He said the provincial Liberals did little to pursue reconciliation which makes it difficult for any inter-jurisdictional discussions, such as watershed management, from going forward.

On Tuesday afternoon, one sign of optimism for Phillip was shown under the minority government deal struck by the Greens and NDP, as both parties will recognize the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the 94 recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation agreement.

Phillip also chastised the new water strategy initiative by the City of Kelowna to bring local irrigation districts under the city’s umbrella.

“We sent the city a letter saying excuse me but we have constitutional rights concerning the water supply and we need to be engaged in any discussions going forward about the management of water,” Phillip said.

“There has been no significant response to our letter and therein lies the problem.”

He said the government enclaves and policies that shut out the rights of indigenous peoples in B.C. more than 140 years ago remain in place.

“Somehow we have to work together with everyone’s interests taken into consideration. I can’t stress enough how important that is. It’s disturbing to see how we are all the proverbial frogs in the pot and bubbles are starting to pop up, and we need to realize it will start to boil if we don’t get our act together.”