Everything on the Table

National Chair of the Council of Canadians Speaks at ConU

The National chair of the Council of Canadians and “water warrior” Maude Barlow visited Concordia this past week for the Montreal premiere of Liz Marshall’s film Water on the Table.

The film moves from the tar sands to North Simcoe, Ont., to the floor of the UN as Barlow campaigns against the privatization of Canada’s water resources and works to have safe drinking water deemed a human right by the United Nations.

Barlow, an outspoken critic of water privatization and former senior advisor on water to the United Nations, applauded Marshall’s work as a “wake up call” to the realities of world water shortages and the increasing interest of the private sector in Canadian water.

Liz Marshall sees Water on the Table as an “educational tool” and has released an accompanying teacher’s guide. She spoke glowingly of her time spent with Barlow.

“Something I learned while keeping up with Maude this year is that an activist is something to be,” she said. “Maude embraces it, and as a filmmaker able to witness it from this side of the camera, it is a gift.”

The film features supporters of water privatization and commoditization, including Montreal Economist Michael Bayer and Terence Corcoran—editor of the Financial Post—who argue that cash strapped governments cannot provide water in an increasingly thirsty world.

Terence Corcoran argued that water shortages are the future and that the mass export of water is a matter of time for Canada and its corporations.

“The issue will not be whether to export, but how much money the federal government and provinces will be able to extract from massive water shipments,” said Corcoran.

In July, a resolution was passed by the United Nations making clean drinking water and sanitation a human right. Notably, Canada and the United States abstained from the vote, reasoning that an expert inquiry into the status of our water systems should be established before any decisions are made.

The amendment to the UN Declaration on Human Rights illustrates the increasing fragility of the world’s raw materials.

“When the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights was written, no one could foresee a day when water would be a contested area,” said Barlow. “But in 2010, it is not an exaggeration to say that the lack of access to clean water is the greatest human rights violation in the world.”

Barlow celebrated the amendment, but addressed the difficulties it has created. Questions regarding the global responsibilities of water-wealthy nations such as Canada are of primary concern.

“This convention does not mean that Canada must now ‘share its water,’” said Barlow. “A human rights agreement at the UN is between a government and its own people. If we do have an obligation, it is to financially aid, to help countries that cannot deliver this obligation.”

Barlow argued that water sharing should take the form of aid, not permanent arrangements with worldwide shipments of Canadian water.

“There is a difference between sharing and selling. If we agree that water is [a] human right, then we won’t sell,” she said. “There are places and times where we should share our water, for example times of famine around the world. We bring in food during a crisis to help, not to say ‘Oh, well, here is a permanent customer for our grain.’”

Barlow stated that the CoC would use this UN amendment to address the “terrible record” in Canada regarding the quality of water in First Nations communities—including the territories of the Lubicon Cree, which have been permanently damaged by the tar sands projects in Alberta.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 10, published October 19, 2010.