Youth for Water participants with Canadian author and water rights activist Maude Barlow.
From left to right: Nat Cummings, Amber Pitawanakwat, Hattie Edwards, Maude Barlow,
Kristin Muskratt, and Crystal Cowie. Picture courtesy of Crystal Cowie.

PETERBOROUGH–How do you respond to youth who are feeling frustrated and powerless in the face of environmental issues? You empower them. Creative genius, environmentalist, and water walker Alix Taylor from Green Communities Canada, fiercely addressed this somber reality by not only developing a framework for a youth initiative designed around the theme of water, but also by securing the funds to implement the project. And thus, the Youth for Water (Y4W) program sprung to life.

The Youth for Water program focuses on bridging traditional Indigenous knowledge and culture with Western science and environmental issues to deliver a project that provides young Indigenous adults (ages 18-25) with an opportunity to learn about water issues and become involved in water protection and conservation. The project was funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation – Youth Opportunities Fund and supported by the Sacred Water Circle, a volunteer run, not-for-profit initiative that has brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to work together for the benefit of water and Green Communities Canada, a national association of community-based environmental organizations that supports people in living sustainably in their home, work and on a community level.

Because Y4W is completely youth driven, including one coordinator and 4 participants, the group had the opportunity to identify their own focus and what projects they would like to undertake. In this way, the projects are designed by what is meaningful to the youth participants and what they feel passionate about. At the core of the youth programming are three aspects: skills building, job shadowing and mentorships, which work together to empower the youth through experiential learning. This program seeks to offer Indigenous youth the necessary skills, tools, knowledge and understanding of how Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and Western science can work together to lead them to solutions and action locally, nationally, and globally.

Kristin Muskratt, a 25-year-old from Curve Lake First Nation, grew up with water boil advisories as a regular occurrence – as a child she thought this was “normal.” Now she understands that it isn’t and it was very frustrating for her to see the state of water in other First Nations communities.

“Before I became a participant of the Youth for Water program I didn’t know how to approach making change,” stated Muskratt. “Protecting water and the environment were important to me, but I wasn’t sure how to turn this into a career. I’ve always felt that it’s important to feel passionate in a career and to feel as though you’re helping in some way. Youth for Water is my first job position that I’ve felt like I’m moving towards my dream career.”

Nat Cummings, Y4W participant from Curve Lake First Nation, would like to see the youth in his community develop a strong understanding of Anishinaabe culture and values. He is merging his Y4W project with Kristin into a combined effort as they are both to be located in Curve Lake First Nation. With feedback from the community, their project expanded from its original form. Running from April 2017 to the end of May 2017, this Y4W project will include a series of information sessions as well as the planting of both a Rain & Sensory Garden and a Medicine Garden in the Curve Lake First Nation School yard. The information sessions will teach the CLFN School children the historical uses and importance of the four sacred medicines and the sacredness of water. A significant part of the project will engage participation from the local youth.

“We believe that it is very important to show the youth of Curve Lake First Nation how they can contribute to helping the water and the environment,” stated Cummings.

Nat says that the program has profoundly enhanced both his professional and personal life by equipping him with valuable skills and experience in community-based projects.

“There is a mural depicting the local Pow Wow grounds that hangs near the library that Kristin and I helped make when we were in grade 3, and going back for a visit recently we saw the mural is still there,” recalled Cummings about his first visit at CLFN school for this project. “It was a strange feeling seeing that mural – reliving the feeling of our class spread out along the canvas, each contributing to something that would still be hanging in the school 17 years later. Part of what I would like to accomplish is giving the current students the opportunity have a similar feeling; they could come back in 15 years and still see a garden that they had a hand in planting, and maintaining – in some small way it will still be their­ garden, they will be spiritually tied to that school and to that land.”

Kristin says she would love for the gardens to become a Learning Space where community members can visit and see how they can build their own gardens on their property.

“I hope that the project will bring more awareness to the importance of water protection, will help to keep our culture alive, and perhaps inspire others to create or become involved in similar projects,” stated Muskratt.

Amber Pitawanakwat from Whitefish River First Nation, an Indigenous Environmental Sciences student at Trent University will be facilitating the creation of a Rain Garden in her home community at the Shawanosowe School. The garden will not only help teach students from JK to Grade six about the water cycle and climate change but it will also give them a chance to be stewards of the environment. The project aims to introduce the larger community to green infrastructure and sustainable methods of storm water management.

“I am excited to see the outcome of the garden and by gearing this project towards youth engagement it has the potential to impact the community in a very meaningful way,” stated Pitawanakwat.

Crystal Cowie, an artist from Hiawatha First Nation, says that working with Y4W has changed her outlook on her career path and has inspired her to create change in her home community. She is combining her passion for the water and her artistic background into a project that will see the creation of a short promotional documentary for the Y4W program as resource material for future participants. Crystal will direct and film the video which will feature behind the scenes footage of the program as well as firsthand accounts from the current participants and key individuals, and footage of each project execution.

“It’s important to me that I develop this project and see that it’s successful because I really believe Youth For Water could have an impact in helping to protect and conserve water and habitat for many generations to come,” noted Cowie.

Project coordinator Hattie Edwards, from the community of Akwesasne, highlights the success of the Y4W program: “My experience as the program coordinator for this project has been amazing! This project is unique and empowering. I am able to make a positive impact on other Indigenous youth through our everyday interactions, mentorship program and the workshops we participate in. Our way of thinking, interacting and relating to our community and environment has changed in the last six months together. I know I am not alone when I say this program has helped me to be a better person. Team-building, relationship-building and raising our consciousness has helped us to view water issues in a different way, and dealing with them together has also allowed us to feel confident in finding our own solutions, and to make our own difference!”

Y4W was a pilot project and as it winds down its first year of operation, the new vision is to see the program continue for generations to come. At this time, Alix Taylor, Project Mentor, is working on bringing people and organizations together and securing the funds to not only continue to run the initiative locally,  but to extend it to other communities in Ontario.

“For example Hattie, Y4W Coordinator, will be moving home to Akwesasne to start a Y4W program there, and I will continue to support her until she is confident doing the program on her own,” stated Taylor. “In Peterborough, I will continue to support our new coordinator and program participants.”

Y4W is currently seeking community support and striving to raise funds to keep the momentum of the program moving.

“We are hoping to deliver the program in other communities and we have partners ready to support the program, but we are waiting on funding,” added Taylor. “Tentative locations include Peterborough, Akwesasne, Aurora, Georgina Island, Toronto, and Thunder Bay.”

In a world in which the earth’s water is under continuous threat, the Youth for Water program offers a strong beacon of hope. The program has been instrumental in inspiring Indigenous youth to empower themselves and their communities. Y4W has laid the groundwork for future generations of Indigenous youth to actively engage in learning about and protecting water, which essentially involves them in the protection of life itself. Miigwech, Nia’weh Y4W.

If you are a young adult and interested in starting a water project in your own community, or individuals or organizations that want to support the participants they can contact Alix Taylor at ataylor@greencommunitiecanada.org or Hattie Edwards at hedwards@greencommunitiescanada.org.