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15th March 2023
...Continued from part 1

I asked Maude Barlow about her thoughts on what has been accomplished, and what remains to be done, to rectify the injustices associated with the lack of safe drinking water and sanitation in many Indigenous communities throughout Canada. Her response? “The lack of clean drinking water and proper sanitation in First Nations communities has been a badge of shame for Canada for many years – rightly so. There are some First Nations that have lived with Drinking Water Advisories (DWAs) for over 25 years! But this is a story that is changing. The [Justin] Trudeau government made ending this crisis a priority when it first took office. While the original 2021 deadline to end all long term DWAs has not been met, there has been real progress nonetheless. The government – with the solid backing of the Canadian people – has ended 138 long term DWAS since 2015, something no government of any political stripe even tried before. There are still 32 long term DWAs in 28 First Nations communities, but they are all slated to be addressed in the next few years. Water advisories have been lifted in 81% of the communities with water issues and there are no remaining DWAs in BC, Alberta, Quebec or Atlantic Canada. This initiative is a small but important step in the reconciliation process” (Personal communication February 26, 2023).

First Nations consider water (rain, streams, rivers, lakes, oceans) integral to their communal well-being and spirituality. Water is elemental, is sacred. “The land and care for the land and water is the founding source of First Nations identity and culture and is captured in each nation’s laws” (Barlow, 2016, p. 66).

Reflecting upon her years as a social justice activist and the commitment required for social activism Barlow writes, “In my social justice work, it is getting harder to stay positive in front of my colleagues, many of whom are such experts in the details of the crises we face that it is hard for them to offer hope themselves” (2022, p. x). Writing in her recent autobiography, Still Hopeful (2022), she quotes Buddhist teacher and author Joan Halifax who makes a distinction between “optimism and hope”. “Optimism…can be dangerous as it doesn’t require engagement. Things will get better on their own…”. Halifax refers to “wise hope”; “…wise hope is born of radical uncertainty, rooted in the unknown and the unknowable. Wise hope requires that we open ourselves to what we do not know, what we cannot know, and to being perpetually surprised” (p. 3).

Asked to expound on this, Maude Barlow responded, “Well, let’s be frank. There are many and very real threats to the health of the planet and its inhabitants. [Including] The climate crisis, declining freshwater sources, loss of habitat and species, plastic pollution of lakes and oceans, and so on. My goal in writing Still Hopeful was not to undermine these very real threats, but to face them squarely and find the solutions to deal with them. I worry that many young people may get the message that it is ‘too late,’ that the climate crisis has gone too far and there is little anyone can do. This is a recipe for defeat and we cannot let it happen. For me, hope is a commitment to protecting all that is good for the future and the planet, knowing that we do not control the outcome but taking action anyway, having faith that countless others are doing the same. Miracles do happen” (Personal communication February 26, 2023).

The Green Technology Education Centre (GTEC) is interested in young persons and their extremely legitimate concerns surrounding the climate crisis as well as in promoting educational initiatives and processes contributing to environmental sustainability and the commons on a local level. I asked Barlow what action(s) she thought young persons could take, apropos the climate crisis. “Young people can do so much! They can stop drinking bottled water, recycle at home and school, join sustainability committees, join river and road side clean ups, plant community gardens, and so much more”; adding, “But many are going way beyond these measures, as they head into post secondary studies, helping to design ways to free the oceans of plastic or desalinate water using solar energy, protecting waterways from harmful run off through regenerative farming, and so many other innovations we badly need. If we teach young people to care about the planet and give them the tools they need, they will lead the way. I am working on a new project called “Blue Schools” designed to do just this” (Personal communication February 26, 2023).

Finally, reflecting upon her experiences over decades of involvement with national and international activism, and considering that capitalism, neo-liberalism, and belief in the free market system have constructed impediments to the ongoing security and sustainability of publicly owned safe drinking water and sanitation, I asked Barlow just what kind of economic system would most benefit the current climate crisis, and assist in cultivating a return to the commons, to which she responded, “In my view, we need an economy very like one we had in the past in Canada, where there was a role for the private sector, but where government and community were responsible for essential services, such as education, health care, water, postal and at one time, even transportation. Canadians, sparsely populating such a vast and cold land, had to ‘share to survive’ in Margaret Atwood’s words, and it gave us the belief that we deserve good government. A return to the notion of the commons is essential to our collective survival.” (Personal communication, February 26, 2023, emphasis added.)

I am extremely appreciative for the graciousness demonstrated by Maude Barlow in taking time to consider my questions and respond in writing for this article. With deep gratitude, thank you Maude! Thank you also to Shauna Klein for her editorial assistance with this article, much appreciated!


Barlow, M. (1998). The Fight of My Life: Confessions of an Unrepentant Canadian. Toronto, Ontario: HarperCollins.

Barlow, M and Clarke, T. (2005). Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop Corporate Theft of the World’s Water. Toronto, Ontario: New Press.

Barlow, M. (2013). Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press.

Barlow, M. (2016). Boiling Point: Government Neglect, Corporate Abuse, and Canada’s Water Crisis. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press.

Barlow, M. (2019). Whose Water Is It, Anyway? Taking Water Protection into Public Hands. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press.

Barlow, M. (2020). It’s been 10 years since clean water was declared a human right – and there’s still work to be done.

Barlow, M. (2022). Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press