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At Its Essence: What Indigenous Teachings Tell Us About Water

In our first mini-episode of the summer season, we turn to three guests from our past seasons to explore Indigenous ways of knowing, and to look more closely at the sacred nature of water — how various people understand it, conserve it and co-exist with it.

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster shares how climate change is affecting Indigenous reconciliation efforts in Canada and what melting permafrost means for the Inuit of Iqaluit.

Deon Hassler gives hope to a new generation of Indigenous water operators in the face of long-term boil water advisories.

And Josée Street shares her story of learning the lessons of western science, while the teachings of her family and culture bubble under the surface.

We’d also like to hear your thoughts, in our What About Water Listener Survey. As a thank you, we will plant a tree through One Tree Planted for each survey our podcast listeners complete.

Guest Bios

Janet Pitsiulaaq BrewsterJanet Pitsiulaaq Brewster

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster is the MLA for Iqaluit-Sinna, one of 4 MLAs representing Iqaluit at the territorial level. At the time of our interview, Janet was on leave from her role as Deputy Mayor of Iqaluit.

Deon Hassler

Deon Hassler is a Circuit Rider Technician and Trainer with the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council. Hassler is responsible for 11 First Nations bands, providing the technical services to mentor, train, and assist water treatment operators in operating and maintaining their systems, and obtaining and maintaining certifications. Three years ago he was recognized for that work with a National First Nations Water Leadership Award by Indigenous Services Canada. Hassler is from the Carry-The-Kettle Nakoda Nation on the Canadian prairies and is a former water plant operator himself.

Josée StreetJosée Street

Josée Street is a 23-year-old Oji-Cree woman belonging to the Martin Clan. She was born in Dryden, Ontario and raised in Ottawa. She attended the Environmental Technician’s program at Canadore College for about three years in North Bay, where she currently resides. Josée is also an ambassador with Water Movement and featured weekly in Water Movement’s video learning library. The library includes a wide variety of content designed for Indigenous audiences in various stages of their water career: from technical and hands-on for day-to-day operations, maintenance, and troubleshooting for current operators to classroom style with Q/A for both prospective operators and those interested in the water sector; and cultural and traditional videos for preserving cultures, spirituality, traditions, and language.

Photo Credit

Title Photo – Courtesy of Tasha Beeds
Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster – Submitted
Deon HasslerSafe Drinking Water Team
Josée Street – Submitted

Full Transcript

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster:
The impact that climate change is having on reconciliation, is putting up more barriers to creating healthier families. Rebuilding healthier families.

That is something that every Canadian, everybody around the world should be concerned about.

Jay Voice Over:
Welcome to the summer edition of What About Water. I’m your host Jay Famiglietti. Over the next few months, we’re bringing you some of the most compelling interviews from our past seasons.

We’ll hear how climate change is affecting everything from farmer’s fields to your morning cup of coffee. How state-of-the-art engineering can work in tandem with natural solutions. And about water’s role in global conflicts and the people working to resolve them.

First up… the sacred nature of water. And the ways Indigenous People adapt and push for greater water protection.

Jay Voice Over:
Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster sees first-hand the ways climate change affects Indigenous communities. She’s an Inuk politician representing Iqaluit-Sinaa in Nunavut.

Like many people in the Arctic – she’s watching the gradual but devastating impact of glacial retreat, thawing permafrost, coastal erosion, unpredictable weather and changes for wildlife.

But it was the contamination of her city’s main water supply last year which really made headlines.

Eight thousand people live in Iqaluit. The first signs of trouble began in October, when people started to smell diesel in the water.

No one could drink from the taps for two months while crews tried to fix the problem.

After Christmas … the diesel smell returned. That led to a boil-water advisory, and another shutdown of the water treatment plant — in the dead of an arctic winter.

The Government of Canada promised to spend $214 million on a new water reservoir system for Iqaluit, along with upgrades to the city’s water distribution system.

For Janet Brewster, water security means much more to the Inuit of Iqaluit. It is a key part of reconciliation between her people — and Canadians.

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster:
And that’s why it’s so important to invest in the water and sewage infrastructure in Iqaluit, so that families are at an equitable level of access to clean water so that we can spend our time concentrating on rebuilding our connections and on building healthy communities.

Jay Voice Over:
Last fall, Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster was running for a seat in Nunavut’s Legislative Assembly when her city of Iqaluit was plunged into that water crisis I mentioned. I spoke with Janet as it unfolded.

I asked her about the ways the Inuit feel the effects of climate change, from their drinking water — to their way of life:

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster:
Every single community has been impacted so far by, by global warming and climate change. The permafrost layer becoming more active and thawing and freezing puts pressure on the underground infrastructure, and as that permafrost warms and becomes liquid, uh, what happens is when it begins to freeze again, the ice actually causes cracks and problems in that infrastructure.

It’s a huge concern for Iqaluit because our water and sewage system has two different methods of working here. So some families here, their homes have a huge holding tank for water, and then they have an additional holding tank for sewage. And so that water, uh, gets pumped in by a truck. And then the sewage gets pumped out by a different truck.

And then for the rest of the city, we rely on underground sewage and water pipes. And so the big concern is that, each time a section breaks down, it puts more pressure on the sections that pick up that slack. Well, while that section is broken down.

And so the concern is that there could be a domino effect. If we’re not able to replace the majority of the infrastructure, we’re going to run into this problem over and over and over again.

Jay Famiglietti:
We’ve already talked a little bit about the impact on infrastructure. What about impact on livelihoods?

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster:
Residents are paying 2 cents, 2 cents a liter for water. We’re asking families to pay 10 times more in Iqaluit, than families in Winnipeg are paying for water.

When you consider the economic impact in relation to the high levels of poverty that, especially, that the Inuit population faces here in Iqaluit, it then becomes a question of do we pay for water or do we pay for food?

Jay Famiglietti:
That disparity is, is really unbelievable.

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster:

Jay Famiglietti:
Well, you know what I’m getting from you, Janet, is that the emotional strain on your population must be enormous.

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster:
Again, this is not just about climate change.

It’s about historical trauma and about the intergenerational impact of residential schools and how that has impacted the way that families move through the world and through life.

And so to have the additional impact of food insecurity and lack of access to very, very important cultural learnings, because we know if it’s not safe to go out on the land and to teach youth on the land skills and language skills, really important language skills. When we’re on the land with, with our children, where we’re using more traditional Inuktitut and giving our children and our youth the opportunity to grow emotionally and to connect with family, to reconnect.

And so when we take our children out on the land. When we go out with our elders, when we go out with our parents, essentially what we’re doing is we’re practicing our traditional culture and our traditional values. And most importantly, we’re reconnecting as families.

Jay Voice Over:
That was part of my conversation with Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster. She now serves as Member of the Legislative Assembly for Iqaluit-Sinaa.

As Janet points out, a step towards greater water security for the Inuit can be a step towards reconciliation – a perspective other Indigenous communities share.

The United Nations recognizes access to safe, affordable and reliable drinking water and sanitation services as a basic human right, — but safe drinking water is still not a reality for many Canadian First Nations.

As of March of this year, there were around 34 long-term drinking water advisories on Canadian reserves. The Government of Canada hoped to lift all those advisories last year, but that deadline is now pushed back to 2025.

Deon Hassler is from the Carry-The-Kettle Nakoda Nation, on the Canadian prairies. He’s a former water plant operator. He works with the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council as a Circuit Rider Technician and Trainer.

Hassler teaches Water Plant Operators how to operate, monitor, and maintain their drinking water and wastewater systems.

Three years ago he was recognized for that work with a National First Nations Water Leadership Award by Indigenous Services Canada.

Two years ago, when I spoke with Deon, he told me he tailors programs to better meet the needs of water plant operators on First Nations.

Deon Hassler:
We still have operators that aren’t fully qualified in their water plants, where they should be.

Then they’ve been there for years, but, uh, I gotta admit, some of my biggest accomplishments were having these a couple long time operators that weren’t certified. And I finally got them certified, maybe 15 years they were operators, but they didn’t have no certification.

Jay Famiglietti:
What about the younger generation? Are you, can you generate interest in the next generation of circuit riders?

Deon Hassler:
Well, that actually some of the communities, a couple of years ago, they asked me to come in and actually teach them an hour or so with, uh, students – high school students – and they might be interested in doing a water plant. Actually, I was in three communities doing that. So while, sometimes I do it to start with an hour, I ended up doing two or three hours because they really listened to what I had to say. it’s just building their interest. Also with the safe drinking water team, we have the foundation, it has kits for students that they can also practice, uh, taking water samples.

Jay Voice Over:
Deon Hassler is is a Circuit Rider Technician and Trainer with the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council, in Saskatchewan

By mentoring youth, Deon is helping support a new generation of Indigenous water treatment operators. A generation with a spiritual and cultural connection to water — that’s shaping their scientific careers.

Josée Street:
My name is Josée Street. I am a 23 year old Oji-Cree woman and I belong to the Martin clan. My spirit name is , which means white feather woman. And I attended Canadore college for about three years in their environmental technicians program here in North Bay. I’ve always had this kind of overwhelming desire to pursue a career in the water industry.

The biggest difference that I noticed, especially after coming out of college in the environmental field, is that our culture teaches reciprocity. It teaches that the water spirit has memory and feelings just like we do. And if we take care of them, they will take care of us. And I’ve seen a lot of separation when we go into the field as scientists, it’s kind of like a very factual, very literal sense.

Which is….good, but it forgets the spirit that is living within the rocks and the plants and the trees. And it still is like watching the ecosystem through a glass instead of getting our hands in and knowing that we’re a part of that ecosystem as well.

Western culture a lot of times refers to rocks as things as objects. It’s a tree, it’s water. It’s just, it’s very separate from us.

But to us, when I go out into the field, especially after my teachings, I look at, you know, Uh, grandfather, son and grandmother moon. And I think of the trees as my cousins, and I think of the water as, you know, carrying the spirits of my ancestors and, and it’s kind of bringing that connection back into the land, instead of things being objects.

When I’m in the classroom, I’ve constantly reminded myself. I am here as an indigenous woman first and a scientist second.

I do have a lot of hope for the future because we talk a lot about resiliency. And I like to think of myself as a lake sometimes. Although a lake can be poisoned, it itself can turn itself around and slowly with time and patience and love can heal.

Jay Voice Over:
That was the voice of Josée Street, an ambassador for Water Movement. This Canadian nonprofit gives Indigenous water treatment operators a place online to connect, to tap into training videos, and to share experiences. Check it out at

You’ll find my whole conversations with these guests at And if you like what you hear or have any feedback for us, we’ve created a quick listener survey to help shape our upcoming seasons of What About Water.

You can find it on social media or on our website. And for every completed survey, we’ll plant a tree! We’ve paired up with One Tree Planted, a nonprofit that’s helping restore damaged ecosystems, stabilize soil, and support the water cycle through tree planting.

That’s it for this episode. We record and produce this podcast on Treaty Six territory, the homeland of First Nations and Métis people.

It’s produced by the Walrus Lab and the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan.

I’m Jay Famiglietti. Thanks for listening.