For thousands of years before North America became colonized by European explorers and subsequent waves of immigration, the land was occupied by Indigenous peoples.
They spoke different languages and lived in territories that didn’t have the borders and boundaries that exist today. And they sustained themselves living off the land, nurturing their environment in ways that modern practices ignored in the interests of encouraging massive resource production and urban growth.
That knowledge, which was passed down from generation to generation within Indigenous communities, was broken down while massive urban growth coupled with intensive resource extraction endangered our future water supply.
But looking at the state of our environment today has led to a reconciliation with historical practices on how to manage our water supply and our land.
This past year has seen several water use and climate change impact conferences take place across the Okanagan, and a notable participant at these events as keynote speakers have been First Nation representatives, both Indigenous band elders sharing their own knowledge passed down from their forefathers and a younger generation educated in modern environment management tools but trying to resurrect past land use practices long endeared to their own cultural values for literally centuries.
Deana Machin, strategic development manager for First Nations Fisheries Council, was as keynote speaker at the Environmental Water Flow Needs conference held in Kelowna this fall.
While Machin welcomes this new era of inclusivity, she says it’s just a first step in what will be a long and challenging road.
“We have to continue to work together but there is no end to that process,” Machin said. “It is tough and uncomfortable at first, but like anything it is about getting used to doing things differently, being more inclusive from a First Nations point of view and appreciating the different perspectives.
“It gets complicated as you get more people at the table going forward. We recognize it is not easy for different levels of government. While First Nations people are excited about doing this work and forging new relationships, there is also some apprehension given how this relationship has worked for the past 100 years.”
When Machin spokes to a conference room full of government and private consultant environment management officials at the conference, she made it clear that token representation at the decision-making table is not acceptable.
“There is no point in being welcomed to the table for discussion if the decisions are already made before we can have any input. You can’t bring us in at the end of that process, we need to be involved from the beginning.”
Machin cited at the conference how government biologists come and go, transferred from one job and one community or region to another, but for Indigenous people their relationship to their traditional territories never changes.
“We will still be here long after you are all gone,” she said.
While how that resonates in government circles remains an ongoing process, it is clearly taking hold within First Nations communities today, how a younger generation is seeking to reconnect with their past, a chain of knowledge passed down by village elders and knowledge keepers that was interrupted by destructive government policies such as residential schools.
Machin says issues affecting the Okanagan Valley watershed surrounding forestry, agriculture, land management and urban development tend to resolve ultimately around one key issue—water supply.
“Jurisdiction over water is so spread out among federal, provincial and even municipal government level interests, trying to engage in water governance doesn’t involve dealing with one central agency.
“For good or bad, all decisions made on land affects our watershed water supply….water is such a high priority for First Nations culturally and as a focal point of our survival.”
That rings true for the rest of us as well.
Barry Gerding is the senior regional reporter for Black Press in the Okanagan.