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By protecting their water, indigenous cultures experiencing rebirth

LaDonna Tamakawastewin Allard holds up her hand as she speaks during the OPSEU Indigenous Circle Water Protector event.
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Her community has been attacked by police and soldiers. They’ve been threatened with dogs, sprayed with mace and, in sub-zero temperatures, hosed down with freezing water. They've been infiltrated, spied upon, and subjected to misinformation and slander. Their camp was eventually cleared and torn down and forced into hiding.

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But the Lakota woman who founded the Standing Rock camp refuses to accept defeat at the hands of the authorities and corporations pushing to build a pipeline across her nation’s traditional territory in North Dakota. In fact, LaDonna Tamakawastewin Allard experience at Standing Rock has left her profoundly optimistic about the future.

"We will heal,” says LaDonna Tamakawastewin Allard. “We will grow stronger. One day, we will take over the world."

Allard was speaking to more than 100 people crowded into OPSEU’s membership centre in Toronto on Friday, May 5. Organised jointly by the Law Union of Ontario, Idle No More Toronto, and the OPSEU Indigenous Mobilization Team, the event featured drumming, singing, prayer, a dinner prepared and served by Food Share Toronto, and presentations by Indigenous women like Allard who are helping lead their communities as they protect their land and their water.

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“All around the world, it is indigenous people who hold the most untouched land and the most pure water,” said Allard. “Industry will come for it. Industry will lie and manipulate to get it. We have to stand up for it.”

The threat is extreme, but in the threat, there is also incredible opportunity for indigenous people, she said.

“For many of the people who came to our camp at Standing Rock, there was a rebirth of love and song and dance and prayer and spirituality,” Allard said. “As we gathered to protect our water, we began to rediscover much of what we’d lost.”

In Northern British Columbia, a similar rebirth has been taking place on the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. Under constant encroachment by the mining and oil industries, the Wet’suwet’en have been successfully resisting by renewing their culture and returning to their territory.

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“My father always told me we have to occupy,” said Freda Huson, the spokesperson for the Wet’suwet’en. “He always said to me, ‘How do you think all those towns and cities got there? Those people just came and occupied that space. We have to do the same. We have to occupy our traditional territories.’”

So Husan has been working to build a permanent camp in an area known to be sought after by pipeline companies. They’ve been menaced and threatened by police, but have been able to use a combination of legal and traditional tactics to defend their territory.

“I always use facts and my people’s wisdom when I’m speaking with people. I never use aggression to protect our territory,” says Huson. “And we always have a camera. They lie about who’s the aggressor, but when you have a recording of all of your encounters, you can just pop in the USB and show the truth.”

Like Allard, Huson says the camp she’s helping build reflects traditional culture instead of carbon culture.

“We use solar power. Wood furnace. The river is so clean you can walk up to it with a cup of water and take a drink, all year round,” she says. “For generations, the Canadian government was doing everything in its power to 'take the Indian out of the child.' Well, we’re doing everything to put the Indian back into our children.”

Among the people who’d come to hear Allard and Huson were Cree elder and Wisdom Keeper Pauline Shirt.

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Also in the audience was a pair of Indigenous women who’d travelled from Papua, New Guinea, where their territory and culture is being assaulted by the Canadian mining company Barrick Gold. They declined the offer to speak, preferring instead just to listen. As another audience member said: "They're couragous women who've come to hear and honour other couragous women."

Allard finished her presentation with a piece of practical advice for everybody in the room.

“Every day, do something to divest,” she said, pointing to things as simple as choosing to walk instead of drive or as meaningful as moving from the traditional banks to a credit union.

“In every thing you do, heal yourself and heal the Earth.”