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The water rite

Would you flick a cigarette on your dinner plate? It's a question Carl Sidney has to ask people far too often. But he doesn't ask it while sitting around a kitchen table. Instead, he does it while standing beside the Yukon River.

Would you flick a cigarette on your dinner plate?

It’s a question Carl Sidney has to ask people far too often.

But he doesn’t ask it while sitting around a kitchen table. Instead, he does it while standing beside the Yukon River.

Now, the chairman of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council - a grassroots organization made up of 70 tribes and First Nations along the Yukon River - wants aboriginal water rights airtight, so he can have a strong legal backing when asking that same question in the future.

Sidney admits aboriginal people used to be among the worst polluters of the river.

“Out of sight, out of mind, that’s what everybody always thought,” he said. “But I think they’ve learned, since then.”

Now, aboriginal people are the key to clean, free water for everyone, he added.

“We live on it. We live beside it. It’s part of us. It’s part of our life. We come from the land and the water.”

The council has been working towards its goal of a Yukon River clean enough to drink, from the headwaters to the tributaries, for 14 years.

And, until now, it has made the conscious effort to keep the fight outside of the courtroom, said director Jon Waterhouse.

“We always kept it in the back of our minds that sooner or later, someday, this day’s going to come,” said Waterhouse. “I guess that day has arrived.”

Waterhouse jumped on a plane from the council’s headquarters in Anchorage, Alaska, to Portland, Oregon, Tuesday to meet with the team of lawyers working on defining aboriginal water rights in Canada and the United States.

It was the same group of lawyers that offered a presentation on what rights currently exist in both countries, at the council’s biennial summit in Ruby, Alaska, at the beginning of this month.

The good news is aboriginal water rights do exist - in both Canada and the United States.

The bad news is they have never been really defined or asserted by aboriginal people - not enough to win a case in court at least, said Waterhouse.

And while Yukon First Nations are blazing the trail with their final agreements and the establishment of the Yukon Water Board, there is still a lot of ambiguous language to wade through before aboriginal groups can be assured they’ve found solid bottom to stand on.

For example, Canada’s Constitution assures aboriginal people they can use the land for “traditional practices,” but doesn’t explicitly define what those practices are, how much land they will need and whether or not they can force other people off the land to do so.

Yukon’s Umbrella Final Agreement gets more specific, actually guaranteeing the water quantity, quality and flow won’t “substantially” change. But what does “substantially” mean?

The United States retains a more paternal approach to aboriginal water rights.

When the farrago of acts, doctrines and case law is boiled down, they say Alaskan Indians are supposed to have enough water for traditional practices, but it is up to Washington to provide that water.

The past 14 years of water monitoring the council has done, along with the United States Geological Survey, should help in defining the quality, quantity and flow aboriginal people have a right to.

Already, the council has established a 10-year, quality baseline for the Yukon River, said Waterhouse.

And aside from getting a little bit warmer, the council hasn’t witnessed the quality of the river’s water degrade over the years, he said.

So the hope is to keep things as they are now - or cleaner.

Which is happening, said Waterhouse, noting the new sewage plant in Dawson City and even more work in Alaska.

But the council should not be mistaken for an environmental group, said Waterhouse.

“Heck, some of our in-charge First Nations are development orientated,” he said. “But as we push ahead with any kind of development, does it always have to be the bottom line’s the buck? I don’t think so. I think the bottom line should be the people, and taking care of the people.

“If we have to have development in the future, that’s fine. But if you build the conservation in on the front end of your plan, rather than after the disaster happens, I think the two can live together.

“With native people, I think a lot of people might get a mistake calling us environmentalists. I mean heck, we eat the animals and we burn the wood in our fireplaces, I mean c’mon, we use the resources. But conscious use of those resources is what we’re looking for.”

And the Yukon River is a jewel of a resource, said Waterhouse.

He’s been to rivers in Russia and the Amazon and nothing compares to the Yukon, he said.

Sidney couldn’t agree more.

As chairman of the council, he was invited to an international conference held for the Tisza River in Hungary two summers ago.

They wanted his insight on how to establish an organization like the council.

But the biggest lesson learned during that trip was one ingrained in Sidney’s brain after seeing the haunting state of the Tisza.

“We just take it for granted, that the water is going to be clean all of the time,” he said. “Free, clean water. I think everybody should have the right to that. Just like having the right to breathe.”

And putting the power in the hands of the aboriginal people, closest to the river, is the answer in securing those rights for everyone, he said.

“We want to be able to say that we own the river and we have a say to what happens in the future to it,” he said. “We don’t want our governments pulling it out from underneath us and selling it off.

“The people aware of the importance of water would never allow the council to ever fail - given the situation currently happening in our world, globally, environmentally and economically.

“If it ever comes to having to pay for our water in order to survive on this earth, we’d be in big trouble.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at