09/01/2013 03:05 EDT | Updated 11/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Whose Water? A B.C. First Nation Perspective

As is so often the case here in B.C. when controversy arises concerning land and resources, many non-natives rally to the cry that it is "our" resources or "public land" that's at stake.

To some First Nations, this is met with puzzlement: how did my people's traditional land and resources become something that belongs to all British Columbians?

A case in point is the recent issue of Nestle's water extraction operation in Hope, B.C. Here, one of the largest corporations in the world is taking 260 million litres of water per year of aquifer groundwater without charge. It's certainly an issue to be concerned about.

However, the media narrative is grounded in the notion of water as a public resource. The Sto:lo Nation communities of Chawathil and Union Bar would like to know how their rights and title to this particular resource was taken from them.

After all, Canada is supposedly a democratic society based on the rule of law. The highest law of the land, the Canadian constitution, "recognizes and affirms" Aboriginal rights and title and finally there's also a B.C. treaty process, as dysfunctional as it might be. These things are supposed to mean something, not to be taken as token gestures to the reality of the usurpation of native sovereignty in this country.

And what has come with the usurpation of control over our traditional territories? Certainly not cleaner, healthier and more productive waterways. And certainly not inclusive, accountable and localized decision making that serves the common good.

Another case to consider is the antiquated B.C. Water Act -- enacted over a century ago in 1909 when natives were considered "irrelevant" in public policy -- when it was illegal for us to hire legal representation or to organize politically to defend our rights. Usurpation is not gentle.

The Water Act, thus, most obviously lacks First Nations consultation and accommodation, to which is now legally obligated. The Act is not effective legislation for the industrial realities of our day (i.e., Nestle).

But, in moving forward on these matters, we must be mindful that this province has demonstrated that it is unable to manage abundance. Just look at B.C.'s history of forestry, fisheries and mineral extraction and consider that there is a perception of abundance of fresh water in this province -- though there are some who do beg to differ.

And when we consider the Nestle issue, we must be mindful that it's not just the Swiss-based corporation that is extracting water but also Natural Glacier Waters (Neve, Canada Icefield), Polaris Water Company (Whistler Water), Aquaterra (Canadian Springs) to name a few.

Perhaps most egregious is the use of water in existing and proposed LNG operations; which involves fracking, a practice that could take multi-millions of litres out of the water cycle annually, injecting it with toxins.

We have occasion to talk about these matters, and that time is now. The current B.C. government has promised to update the 1909 legislation in what it's calling a "Water Sustainability Act."

There are many good reasons to move on with reconciliation of rights and responsibilities between First Nations on a federal and provincial level. With fresh water in particular, we can't afford to make a mistake. We must get to a better place with other natural resources in this province.

We must strive for a time where all of us who live here, those who call this place home, can truly say it is "our" water.