(Speech prepared for a presentation at Cobourg Public Library, March 16 2018. I wound up speaking extemporaneously without reference to the notes, but what I said more or less took this form.)
Thanks for welcoming me here today. It’s a privilege to speak here, locally, where we live, about matters that are truly global in nature. And it’s especially invigorating to be presented with an opportunity, as all of us are here today, to actually make a difference in the world we live in—and the one our descendants will inhabit—by supporting the Blue Dot Campaign initiative to have the right to clean water, clean air, and clean food enshrined in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
I’m going to begin with a quote from a poet-farmer-activist, Wendell Berry, and hope that his insight will guide my words here today. Berry said, “There are no unsacred places, only sacred places and desecrated places.” (Say that again, slowly).
My name is David Newland. Some of you know me. I’ve been a writer, a musician, a photographer, a traveller, and more than anything, a child of this land we know today as Canada. I have lived and worked and travelled coast to coast to coast. I’ve written and sung and spoken about my travels, my experiences, and the insights I’ve gleaned along the way. I’ll share some of what I’ve learned here today.
I grew up North of Parry Sound on the shores of Georgian Bay. I spent my childhood on the water, boating and swimming. This was water so clean you could drink it right out of the Bay. Swimmable, fishable, drinkable water. I did not truly know what a blessing that was—and what a rarity. A sacred place. Though even in my childhood, there was desecration too: little lakes polluted by the local dynamite plant; oil spills from tankers on the bay; the introduction of species like the lamprey that devastated the fish stocks. The Inco stack in Sudbury that spewed smoke that poisoned our waters.
When I was 17 I won a scholarship to represent Ontario at an international school, Lester B. Pearson College outside Victoria BC. Again, I was on the water (this time the Strait of Juan de Fuca), again, in a phenomenally beautiful place, and again, I spent as much time out in boats as I could: learning to drive Zodiacs, taking up sea kayaking, and ultimately coordinating the paddling program. Again, a sacred place! And again, desecration was also visible: condoms, tampon applicators, and other plastic jetsam in the tidewater from Victoria’s untreated sewage outflow.
I backpacked and hitch-hiked and journeyed around the planet some, and I saw the sacred and the desecrated places all around the world. In Mexico I saw the huge slums around a city with the population of this country, where entire neighbourhoods shared a single tap. In India, I visited the Ganges River at Varanasi, where I saw people ritually bathing, women doing morning laundry, kids swimming, tourists boating, and corpses floating all in the same water, in the same place at the same time. In Nepal I walked along a river choked with garbage that ran right by the foot of the steps leading to the glorious Monkey Temple. In the cities of Europe I saw the famous rivers—the Thames, the Seine—made into highways and sewers. And I saw that the only thing different about Canada was that we had more rivers, fewer people, and less time to make a mess.
I worked my way through university as a tree planter. Six seasons living in bush camps, always by a lake or a stream. Skinny dipping en masse at the end of a long day, canoeing in utter peace on a day off, loons on the lake at night. But we spent our days in the wreckage of the boreal forest, a devastation that stretches nearly as far as trees grow in this country. And every now and again we would glimpse, through the narrow border of trees left standing along some bush road, the bright and deadly reflection of a tailings pond. We crossed the dams that harnessed the rivers that powered the cities far to the south, changing ancient landscapes irrevocably; leaching mercury from the soil.
I lived for 5 years in Montreal, where I watched trucks dump poisoned snow into the St. Lawrence River after plowing—salt, oil, and all. I lived in Halifax, where untreated sewage was piped into open ocean. I also lived in the woods near the Bay of Fundy, where for over a year I drew my water directly from a nearby stream, tasting water right from the Earth as I had done as a child.
And I then lived in Toronto, in the home my dad had grown up in, where I became a passionate urban canoeist. I paddled the Don, the Humber, the Rouge rivers. Toronto Island, the Leslie Street spit, appreciating the beauty that remained among the desecration, while cottagers spent hours on crowded highways seeking a few moments of the sacred, far away.
Everywhere, I saw that interplay between the sacred, and the desecrated. In the pristine places, the forces of destruction were creeping in: development, industry, pollution, extraction. And in the desecrated places I saw the incredible power of nature continuing to work its wonders despite all we subject it to—something we should do our best not to ignore.
Today I live here in Cobourg, where I have been getting to know the local waters. My wife and I shared a loving cup from a stream at the Ganaraska Forest Centre as a part of our wedding ceremony. I’ve canoed the entire shoreline from Port Hope, to Grafton. The Ganaraska River several times. Gages Creek, Cobourg Creek (last year with the high water I got all the way up to the lamprey dam above King Street.) I’ve paddled my way from Peterborough, to Trenton, in little jaunts on the weekends. I’ve seen the kingfishers and the loons and the big fish jumping, and I’ve seen the nuclear plant and the overpasses and the outflows, too.
I work as a Zodiac driver and expedition host with Adventure Canada, a travel company that specializes in expedition-style cruises. I’ve visited coastlines from Quebec City, to the Magdalen Islands, to St. John’s; around the entirety of Newfoundland; out to Sable Island; up the coast of Labrador; Ungava Bay; the Northwest Passage and the islands of the Arctic archipelago.
Everywhere It’s the same: so much beauty, so much inspiration, so much appreciation for the beauty of the natural world. And yet the desecration: finding plastic on beaches more than a thousand miles from any city. Seeing the hulks of abandoned military sites where Inuit have hunted and fished forever. Watching the tankers ship ore through the leads in the diminishing ice pack. Witnessing the rapid retreat of the polar glaciers, the diminishing of the sea ice, and the effects on the people and the wildlife in the most fragile environments in the world.
What is true there, is true here, and everywhere. From El Salvador to Fjii to Greenland, everywhere I’ve been on planet Earth (or Planet Water): we all live in tiny, diminishing margins capable of nourishing life. Everywhere we are sustained by miracles we cannot fathom, and threatened with devastation by our own ignorance. There are no unsacred places, only sacred places and desecrated places.
A couple of years ago I had the honour of briefly accompanying the Water Walkers as they journeyed through Cobourg. These Anishnaabe women have been literally carrying water, around the Great Lakes and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Plains, on foot, for years now. They have had very little publicity, very little in terms of public welcome or support, and have had in the worldly domain very little impact that you or I might see. But what they have done, and this to me is totally profound, is they have affirmed, and reaffirmed, and continually uplifted the sacredness of these waters. I have a friend who is an Anishnaabe elder; she occasionally visits Cobourg for the sole purpose of offering tobacco and prayers for the water.
Now, what do we do? If you are like me then you have understood that the lifelong draw to places of beauty in what we call the natural world is the makings of a spirituality. A necessary spirituality, in my view. We cannot sustain ourselves for long without something that passes for a higher vision, for the simple reason that unless we think of something higher than ourselves, we will continue to desecrate the sacred. And if we don’t suffer, or are not awake to our suffering, we can be sure our descendants will—just as we are now suffering from the desecration wrought upon the sacred by our own ancestors.
We who have religions not of this land, or no particular religion, or who are not practitioners, or who do not find in our teachings and our laws that which would uplift the sacred, and prevent its desecration: what are we to do? How do we respond to a situation in which constantly treating the waters, the air, the land, the people as Unsacred leads to their perpetual desecration?
Ironically, I think we can begin here, as the Blue Dot Campaign very practically seeks to do, by affirming our humanity. It’s a truism that compassion for ourselves is the root of compassion for others, and for the world. In this case Canadians must assert our compassion for ourselves by affirming and enshrining in law what other peoples, in this place and in other places, have known since time immemorial and what we ourselves know still at the deepest level to be true: that we have the RIGHT to clean water. We have the RIGHT to clean air. We have the RIGHT to clean food.
These are human rights. It’s so obvious on the face of it that it’s astonishing we need to demand this. But that’s the reality. We live in a world where all that lives is treated as resources, rather than as relatives. We are living in a world in which corporations have more power than people. Where industry wreaks havoc, and we look away. Where we drive our cars without thinking where our fuel comes from, where we flush our toilets without thinking where our waste goes. It goes where our drinking water comes from: now THAT is the circle of life.
We are living in a world where the laws do not recognize the sacred, and so treat everything as though it were unsacred. So we must make laws, human laws, by and for humans, that state these eternal truths. We must assert our humanity, demand its recognition and insist on its enshrinement in law. Clean water. Clean air. Clean food. Since no one can live without these things, there is at some level already unanimous support for the idea. I mean, everyone at least wants these things for themselves.
Let me be clear: We already HAVE these rights, by virtue of being creatures of this world. We humans, too, as children of nature, are sacred beings, living in sacred—or desecrated—places. But since there seems to be confusion, and since our laws and our systems and our politics and our faiths have wandered from the path, we’re going to have to assert, and affirm, and reaffirm their fundamental importance. We need to call these Human Rights, loudly. We need them made a part of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. We need more communities to sign on, as Cobourg and Port Hope and over a hundred other municipalities have done, to support this initiative. We need to do what our Constitution doesn’t do, what our legal system doesn’t do, what our politicians have by and large not been doing.
We need to demand this. We are here to demand this. No reasonable person, or party, or political system can refuse it. And this will be a step forward, a huge and dramatic and critical one.
It won’t change the world. Not overnight. But it will help, I think, prevent the worst desecrations of that which we all require to live. Clean water. Clean air. Clean food. The sacred things. And we can start there. We must.
Chi Miigwetch. Thank you.