A Reflection on Canada 150 – Part 1: Don’t Drink the Water

I grew up near Orillia, Ontario.  Orillia’s claims to fame are a book called “Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town” and being the birthplace of Gordon Lightfoot.

Orillia also shares the same birth year as Canada.  This is something that comes up every Canada Day, so celebrations in Orillia seem just a little extra special.

I was nine years old in 1992 when Canada celebrated its 125th anniversary.  It was a Big Deal. Couchiching Park along the waterfront was the place to be.  Red and white everywhere.  Faces painted.  Bryan Adams and Tom Cochrane blaring over the loud speakers.  High fives all around. Canada was the best country in the world.  This is what I was taught.  Canada is a nice country.  A kind country.  Canada takes care of people.  Hooray for us. 

My opinion of Canada sat high up on a clean, white pedestal.  It was a lofty perch from which to fall. 

When I was 16, I participated in a three-month exchange to Germany.  One day in Geography class, we were reading about an Inuit community in the North West Territories where dozens of teenagers were dying from huffing gasoline.  Kids my age who lived in homes with no running water, mouldy walls and leaky roofs.  Kids whose parents didn’t know how to parent because they’d never been parented themselves — they’d been snatched away from their communities as children and sent to schools run by churches far, far away.  The textbook went on to describe how this situation was widespread across Indigenous reserves. 

Wait, what?

I’d never learned any of this at home.  I had to be in Europe to hear it.  I was aware that we — settlers — had treated First Nations people poorly.  But that was in the past, right?  That’s why we learned it in history class.  I was shocked to realize the injustice to our First Peoples continued at that level. 

And I learned all this sitting alongside classmates who, 50 years after the end of the Second World War, were still feeling shame from being linked to the genocide of six million Jewish people.  I never saw people waving German flags the way we did in Canada.  National pride was not something that was cultivated.  My German friends were used to the feeling, but it was the first time I’d ever felt ashamed of my country.

After some more digging, I realized my connection to the shame ran deeper.  The United Church of Canada — the denomination I belong to — was one of the churches who had managed some of the residential schools.  So now, not only was I ashamed of my country, but also ashamed of my church.

Fast forward a couple of decades…

My family and I are set to move into Queensville this summer.  We are moving into a home that has been purchased on behalf of Living Waters Presbytery (a local level of governance within the United Church of Canada) to be the centre of a new ministry – The Living Presence Ministry.  The house is a new build within the My Queensville subdivision. 

There is always a cost when new homes are built on a large scale. The landscape becomes permanently altered.  Butterfly, bee and small animal habitats are destroyed.  This is something I’ve wanted to be mindful of while integrating into the East Gwillimbury community.  Can we simultaneously hold the excitement of our new homes with the acknowledgment of what it cost to put them here?  If you’ve received one of our “Welcome to the Neighbourhood” bags, you’ll know we’ve handed out seed bombs to try and provide some food for the bees and butterflies until people can plant their gardens. 

Recently, I found out that in order for any more new builds to be approved in northern York Region, a sewage plant needs to be constructed.  This new sewage plant, currently awaiting approval from the province, is said to be the most sophisticated treatment plant in the country.  It will release 40 million litres of treated sewage into the East Holland River every day.  The site will be a couple of kilometers away from Queensville. 

The East Holland River empties into Lake Simcoe — a sensitive watershed that is home to the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.  Members of this community are very concerned about the impact the treated sewage will have on the water.  Since there wouldn’t need to be a new treatment plant if people such as my family weren’t moving to York Region, I wanted to meet with members of the Georgina Island community to see how we might be able to support and work alongside them, making sure the water in Lake Simcoe remains clean and safe.  The residents of Georgina Island are our neighbours.  Let’s start off on the right foot.

Last week, along with two other members of Living Waters Presbytery, I had the opportunity to meet with a member of the Georgina Island community.  A lot of ground was covered (subjects for another reflection), but in discussing the Upper York Sewage Solutions project, I found out that Georgina Island has been under a boil water advisory for years.  Once again, I found myself shocked.  York Region wants to build a new treatment plant so more new homes can be built, while other people who have been living here for hundreds (if not thousands) of years need to boil their water just to be able to drink it.  Added to this is the fact that the pumping of treated sewage into Lake Simcoe may mean the water is even more contaminated by pharmaceutical products.

But some unknowns still remain, such as the effect of residual pharmaceutical and personal care products that can get into wastewater.
Toronto Star, May 14, 2017

How is it that we can live in an area — in a country — where one group of people is so highly prioritized over another?  I understand that it’s not as if York Region has a single pool of money that they are choosing to put into a new project rather than fixing an existing plant.  It’s likely that it’s not the same pool of money at all.  But it still says something when one neighbour cannot drink their water while a lot of time and money is being spent so the other neighbour can flush their toilet.

So while I was waving my flag high and celebrating during Canada 125, my mood is a bit more subdued as we are about to commemorate 150 years since the signing of the British North America Act.  

I am so grateful that Canada is a sanctuary to those who are fleeing conflict around the world.  I am grateful that people can marry whomever they love and worship the way the wish without the threat of state persecution.  We still have a ways to go before we reach a state of equality, but we’ve made great strides.

I am grateful that I don’t have to worry about how to pay for my health care, or whether my children will receive a decent education.  These are accomplishments our country should celebrate.

Because I do live in the best country in the world — the best country for me; a woman whose ancestors came from England, France and Ireland.

But I hope by the time we celebrate Canada 175, my country will also be the best country in the world for our neighbours whose ancestors have been here for thousands of years. 

Because I think we can all agree that everybody deserves to drink clean water.

If you’d like to join our Indigenous neighbours in advocating for the protection of Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching, consider joining the Waawaasaegaaming Water Walk happening from August 9th to August 19th.  You don’t need to walk the whole thing!  Walk for a day or an hour.  There will be spots to camp.  My family and I will be doing part of the walk around Lake Simcoe.  If you’re interested, send me an email and I can get the information to you.

A Reflection on Canada 150 – Part 2: We Don’t Mourn What We Haven’t Seen


Photo Credit: Lake Simcoe Sunset by pshelton (flickr) Creative Commons License

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