For 11-year-old Liam Wruth and the other elementary students at W.L. McLeod School in Vanderhoof, BC, water is a very big deal.
The rural town of about 4,500 people sits on the banks of the Nechako River, on which the Kenney Dam is located a little over 100 kilometres away. In the summers, Liam and his friends go swimming and fishing in the river. His school is within walking distance from the Nechako White Sturgeon conservation centre, which is dedicated to saving the endangered species unique to the river. One of Liam’s favourite memories is helping to release baby sturgeon into the river to spawn when he was in Grade 3.
“I’ve released two sturgeon. It’s really fun and sometimes you get to name them,” he says. “I remember my first one’s name, I named it Logan.”
Two years ago, teachers at Liam’s school decided to focus on helping students learn more about the history of the watershed that is an important part of their lives.
What the students learned was eye-opening.
A troubling history
Built in 1952 to provide electricity to a massive aluminum smelting plant, the Kenney Dam is one of the largest of its kind in the province. Its construction blocked off several parts of the Nechako River and flooded an area of 92,000 hectares in the river’s drainage basin. The Cheslatta T’En (the Cheslatta Carrier First Nation) who’d lived there for at least 10,000 years were forcibly relocated and their homes demolished and burned.
The massive surge of water also washed away an ancestral graveyard belonging to the people. For many years afterward, it was reported that bones, crosses and other debris from the site could be seen floating on the surface of the lake that formed as a result of the dam’s construction.
Today, the river’s water levels continue to be controlled by the dam complex.
“There are times when it is overflowing because they need to release the water, so we have to sandbag around our community,” explains Michelle Miller-Gautier, a support teacher at the school who also helps implement WE’s educational programming into classroom curriculums. “And there are times when it is so low that you could walk across it.”
When too little water is released into the river, local fish such as salmon and white sturgeon can be adversely affected. When too much water is released, it can cause floods that can contaminate reservoirs of drinking water for surrounding communities. For the various members of the Cheslatta T’En, this can result in boil-water advisories—where residents have to use boiled or bottled water—that can last for years.
A watershed moment
Using WE Schools resources, students had also been learning about water issues in communities in Kenya where access to clean, drinkable water is difficult and perilous. But when the 45 members of the school’s WE group heard news reports about the water issues that First Nations communities in their region still faced, they felt a call to action.
“About 35 percent of our student population have First Nations ancestry,” says Michelle. “Some of them live on the local reserve, and we have lots of students who are urban First Nations.”
It was a particularly personal issue for Liam, who’d been a member of the group since Grade 2, as he also has First Nations heritage through his great-grandmother on his father’s side.
“We just wanted to help,” he says simply.
The WE Schools group, which has members from all grades in the school—including all of Grades 5 and 6—began brainstorming.
“There were lots of ideas that were not financially possible and maybe not realistic—they wanted to mail bottles of water to the community,” laughs Michelle. “So, we moved toward using our voices instead.”
They decided to help by using WE Schools resources to raise money for water initiatives in Kenya while working to advocate and raise awareness for their First Nations neighbours. That spring, they joined the students of Nechako Valley Secondary, the local high school, for their WE Walk for Water walk, making signboards that displayed facts, statistics and news articles about First Nations water problems. They also performed student-designed skits, and baked hundreds of Queues de Castors (Beaver Tails), a local treat, which they sold at a bake sale during Carnaval.
One afternoon, they sat down to write a series of impassioned letters to both their local Member of Parliament, Todd Doherty, and to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. They asked them to improve the access to clean water among the First Nations communities in their region.
“And they were pretty astute,” recalled Michelle. “Some of the older kids would quote a fact about the number of water advisories in First Nations communities then ask a question like ‘how’s that going?’ It was pretty powerful.”
That November, Todd Doherty came to visit the class. He spoke with the students about complexities around the issue and explained the government’s efforts to implement changes. Before leaving, he pledged to lend his voice to the cause and joined the students on video to record a message of solidarity, which he posted to his Facebook page.
The group’s advocacy has continued to pay off in unexpected ways. In October of this year, as part of a partnership that helps young people living in remote communities attend WE Days around the country, 10 long-time WE group members, including Liam, were chosen to attend WE Day Alberta in Edmonton.
Liam got to stand on stage, before a crowd of 16,000 other students from across the province, and speak on behalf of the group. When he mentioned their work to address the clean water issues in First Nations communities, the crowd erupted in cheers.
“He did a fabulous job of addressing the crowd,” said Michelle, in an email last month. “Liam’s mom and two aunties happened to be in the city for a wedding and the WE staff let them come in to watch him speak. Lots of proud tears were shed.”
Overall, the experience could not have gone any better, says Michelle.
“Our learners came away with a greater sense of purpose, a strong sense of empowerment that they can make a difference and that people are paying attention.”
For Liam, the fight is not over. He remains a member of the group and plans to lead a water walk next spring. The group will also be writing to MP Todd Doherty again, and will try to find a way to gift some of the funds they’ve raised to a First Nation community that has a boil water advisory.
“I kinda feel happy and a little bit sad,” Liam says. “I feel happy because I know that we are helping other people, but I feel bad that people still have to live without clean water.”