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United Nations water conference will hear Indigenous contributions from Yukon ambassadors

Two C/TFN citizens to speak about Indigenous water governance in New York City
(From left) Colleen James Ghoóch Tlâ ; Tyler Obediah, Carcross/Tagish First Nation staff; and Travis Richie, Yukon Energy Corporation official, converse at the Whitehorse dam re-licensing consultation in Carcross March 16. (Lawrie Crawford/Yukon News)

It’s no small deal to be invited to participate in a United Nations Conference. Besides the attention, the paperwork, the registrations, the permits — its humbling, and it’s scary. That’s according to Colleen James as she readied to depart for New York City.

Colleen James Ghoóch Tlâ and Jewel Davies Yekhunashin/Khatuku of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation are invited as part of a delegation from the University of Manitoba selected to demonstrate how Indigenous people can play a significant role in decision-making about water-related policies.

The UN23 Water Conference event is scheduled March 22 to 24 at the UN Headquarters in New York City. The conference is hosted by the governments of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Republic of Tajikistan.

James is often referred to as a water ambassador, and Davies as a youth ambassador for climate change. Both wear many hats and both are involved with the How We Walk with the Land and the Water initiative with Carcross/Tagish First Nation, the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council and Kwanlin Dün First Nation.

Nicole Wilson is the Canada Research Chair in Arctic and environmental change at the University of Manitoba and is a research partner with Carcross/Tagish First Nation and has a long relationship with the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, which is where she and James first met.

The University of Manitoba is designated an UN Academic Impact Hub and is the only academic institution in North America which holds that designation.

“Indigenous communities around the world have historically been excluded from many important decisions on water policy,” reads a university article on University of Manitoba’s UN conference delegation.

James cites a perfect example.

“There was no free prior and informed consent of that Whitehorse damn going in, or the Lewes dam,” she said March 16, just hours before she was attending the consultation with the Yukon Energy Corporation on the 25-year re-licensing application for the same dam that evening in Carcross. Once there, she questioned officials about water and salmon, and restoration of habitat.

James and Davies lead water ceremonies.

“When you haul water from a stream to drink it, you care for it, you keep it clean,” James said at the beginning of one such ceremony in 2021. “Water is us, we are made of water, and we need to heal both.”

READ MORE: Ceremony at Yukon River seeks salmon’s return

James is never content talking about water in isolation, or talking about land alone. Her work with How We Walk with the Land and the Water always looks to the land, water, animals and people in relation to each other.

“Regional land use planning can’t separate the land and the water — that’s one of the bigger messages — that land and water are not separable,” she says. It permeates her belief system.

“The swan itself is a very powerful water-land [messenger] — it needs both and reminds us twice a year of that connection.”

Everything depends on the timing of the seasons.

“I love that this [UN event] is going on during that because that migration is all a part of that seasonal-round stuff, too — that we’re all dependent, and those swans, too.”

She gets a little excited describing the connections that are so much a part of who she is.

“We are 80 per cent water,” she marvels.

Snow is water, as is ice. Fish live in it, but all life depends on it.

“We are water.”

In anthropological circles, Tlingit people are known as an aqua-centric culture. This means that all language references and understandings are placed in relationship to the sea and the flow of rivers, or what has been called “thinking like a watershed.”

Language orients people in relation to water, she explains.

“Our directional verbal language is directly related to the water. Down to the water, or from the shore, to the lake — it’s all in relation to water.”

James gives another example: “We like to sleep with our feet to the water — it’s just something that’s in our tradition. If you’re going to camp somewhere safe with your feet to the water and you just do it. I don’t know why.”

“We have like this law, never take more than what you need, right? You need one trout to live for the night, catch one trout.”

Same for water.

“Use what you could pack in, and never take more than you need.”

She warns: “Don’t play with nature. Don’t play with fish. These are our ways.”

“Water governance can’t go on the way it is, because there just isn’t enough fresh water and there’s just too many humans,” she says.

She asks: Why would people use the same method of governance that has resulted in species dying off and disappearing, contamination and pollution? James shames the pursuit of industrial interests and profits. She believes that buying water in bottles creates a disconnect that separates people from the source and the land, and then people don’t care about what happens in nature.

James explains the importance of Indigenous contributions to water governance by reading Article 25 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People: “Indigenous people have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with the traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to the future generations in this regard.”

The University of Manitoba is coordinating a side-event on decolonizing water governance. It will feature a panel to discuss how Indigenous peoples’ strengths can help the broader water community to achieve its goals. James and Davies will be speaking and open to questions.

While working with various international and United Nations programs around the world, Dan Paleczny has been to many UN conferences in different places. He told the News the real stuff happens in the side events, and even the social events, but not in the enormous rooms with big-name speakers. He finds that the contacts made globally help create a network of people that help can build alliances and connections into the future.

The UN23 Water Conference could be extremely valuable for James and Davies. By engaging with thought leaders from around the world, Paleczny says, it gives both an impression of the big picture and the range of interests, and how complex the considerations are that need to be made.

Contact Lawrie Crawford at