Water Rites Invites Us to Consider Different Perspectives on Water

By Ann Sullivan

One of the most striking themes in Water Rites: Reimagining Water in the West is the idea that all water issues are connected, and that water connects and affects all


 forms of life. As editor Jim Ellis writes in the book’s introduction, “Water visibly reminds us of our connections, as well as our responsibility to those that share the same watershed.”

The book Water Rites came about after the 2017 Annual Community Seminar hosted by the Calgary Institute for the Humanities (CIH), of which Ellis is director. The CIH, formed in 1976, is Canada’s oldest humanities institute. Each year it hosts a seminar on an issue of importance to Calgary and the wider community, and in 2017 the seminar topic was “Water in the West: Rights of Water/Rights to Water.” Three guests, Michelle Daigle, David Laidlaw and Adrian Parr, spoke at the event, and some of their opening remarks are included in Water Rites along with contributions from, among others, artists, art critics, First Nations groups and non-profit associations such as the Elbow River Watershed Partnership.

The book is a beautiful collection of essays and artwork, curated in a way that invites readers to think more deeply about issues around water, for example, the overallocation and insufficient flow in Alberta’s rivers; the rights of everyone to clean water; but also the beauty of water in our everyday lives, such as at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers in downtown Calgary.

As Ellis says, there is plenty of scientific information about climate change and water scarcity, but somehow this information alone fails to move us to action. A book, however, provides a different way of looking at these issues. “Sometimes art can motivate our behaviour more than any scientific statistic ever would,” he said.

Water Rites provides Western scientific perspectives, but it also presents Indigenous ways of looking at water, as in the essay by Helen Knott, a Dane Zaa and Nehiyawak from the Prophet River First Nation, and in the piece by Michelle Daigle entitled “Embodying Kinship Responsibilities in and through Nipi (Water).”

Indigenous groups across Canada are gathering strength in their opposition to projects that harm their water and land, and their activism could be the motivator that brings about positive change in Canada. “There are some very strongly political Indigenous groups,” says Ellis. “These are the people that bear the highest cost.”

In 2017, New Zealand granted the Whanganui River rights as a living entity. Could water rights in Canada be far behind? Currently, there are 42 Canadian Heritage Rivers across the country (39 designated, 3 nominated). Admittedly, says Ellis, recognizing the importance of these rivers is not the same as granting them rights, but he adds, “It might be an important first step in shifting our thinking in that direction.”

Ellis says that editing Water Rites made him “more alive to the importance of thinking about water” and the way that water flows across boundaries and connects us. “It’s the physical manifestation of our ethical obligations, not just to each other but to the plants and the animals and all the communities downstream.” We can’t separate ourselves from water, he added. “It’s the ceaseless flow of water that binds us to our environment.”

Water Rites: Reimagining Water in the West is published by the University of Calgary Press.


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