Aishihik’s user manual

A lot of people don't know what water has to go through to get to their taps. Fewer still think about what it takes to bring electricity to their lights as they flick the switch.

A lot of people don’t know what water has to go through to get to their taps.

Fewer still think about what it takes to bring electricity to their lights as they flick the switch.

And hardly anyone thinks that the process may affect other people.

Nadia Joe wants Yukoners to know exactly what it takes, and who is affected, when they turn on their taps and flick on their light switches.

As well, she wants affected people to have more influence over the water that flows into the pipes and dams than those who benefit from it.

“Like with the Aishihik hydroelectric facility,” she said. “Someone in Whitehorse who’s using that energy, do they know what it’s doing to the ecosystem that it’s coming from and to the people that rely on that ecosystem?

“We, as a society, collectively accept that someone who’s never been to an area has more rights to that resource than someone who lives there or depends on that area.

“Folks in Whitehorse who have never been to Aishihik have more rights to that resource than the folks who actually live in the Aishihik area or depend on the resources in that area.”

Joe is a member of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.

But, except for summers on the land with her grandparents, she hasn’t lived in the territory for most of her life.

And she is two years younger than the hydrodam that radically changed her community’s traditional territory.

According to the Yukon Energy Corporation, the underground Aishihik hydro-plant was fully installed by 1975 to meet the growing demands of Whitehorse and the large lead-zinc mine at Faro.

Recently, Joe returned to the Yukon with a degree in chemistry and biological sciences and started her masters of environment and management.

While considering her thesis, an elder asked for a favour.

They asked her to look at the water in Aishihik.

“This is water,” said Joe, the mother of a six-week-old baby boy. “There’s a lot of compelling reasons to be looking at how to better manage your water resources. We don’t have a replacement for water, and we’re never going to be able to synthesize one.”

While beginning her research, Joe stumbled upon the Jane Glassco Arctic Fellowships. The program, offered by the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, supports aboriginal northerners from across Canada in the early stages of their careers to focus on an important Arctic issue.

Joe was accepted alongside 12 other northerners from Old Crow to Northern Labrador.

As part of the two-year fellowship, you’re obliged to attend multiple local and national gatherings and workshops and connect with the community. For instance, a participant could have a local elder mentor their research.

Finally, the fellows must produce a report or video on their findings.

Joe is doing both.

Her work, due this year, will make recommendations to the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. And she will complete a video of her interviews with elders.

The goal is to define her community’s values about water, which is key to their aboriginal identity, she said.

Once the values are defined, policy can be created, Joe added.

When the Aishihik dam was built, the community began finding sink holes and watched lakes dry up. Water channels shifted, fish and animal habitats changed and cabins fell into the water.

These issues weren’t being monitored. Many were not included in Yukon Energy’s original assessment, and, nearly 40 years ago, the First Nations didn’t know how to do the research or policy work, Joe said.

Today, bolstered by the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act, the First Nation government is better equipped to deal with these issues.

But it still must identify the community values, said Joe.

“We’ve been given the tools but we haven’t been given the users’ manual,” she said. “It’s up to us to create that user manual.

“It is a learning process. We’re not always going to get it right the first time, but those tools that we’ve worked like crazy to achieve means we can now have self-determination. Indigenous people globally are still working to achieve that – to be recognized as government, as a people, as distinct with rights and responsibilities.”

Most of Joe’s work has been gathering information about Aishihik before and after the dam was built. There was very little data before the dam, so most of that research was interviews with elders. Post-dam data was easier to find, but there are still gaps, she said.

“We don’t have a complete inventory of what our water resources are like in the territory,” Joe said.

And without the fellowship’s support, Joe wouldn’t be able to do as much as she is.

And she couldn’t be political.

“It’s allowed me to explore the interface between science and policy to understand how science can better influence policy and decision makers,” she said.

She’s also found ways for communities and First Nations to influence policy and decisions.

This year, the Yukon Energy Corporation put a third turbine in the Aishihik hydro-plant.

Also, it floated a plan to divert water from the Gladstone Lake system into the Sekulmun-Aishihik Lake system, to draw more water to the Aishihik dam.

Despite concerns from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, the company says the scheme presents few risks to the watershed.

But for Joe, the First Nations – the people affected – should have the final say.

“I want to ensure that the things that I have experienced and enjoyed in my life here in the Yukon … (my son) will be able to enjoy as well,” she said. “And hopefully (he can) further this users’ manual of the final agreements that we’ve worked so hard to achieve.”

Joe and the 12 other Arctic Fellows will be at the MacBride Museum on Friday, October 21 from 5 to 7 p.m. to discuss their projects and the future of the North.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at