On an October day in 2016, students at Calgary’s Ian Bazalgette junior high school gathered to watch Canada’s Waterless Communities: Neskantaga. The documentary—part of a series produced by Vice—left its young audience silent and uncomfortable as they learned about natural resource issues afflicting the Neskantaga First Nation, a remote community near Attawapiskat Lake in Northern Ontario.
Confronted with the reality that 94 First Nations communities have limited or no access to clean water resources, when Canada has the world’s second-largest supply of fresh water, the luxuries of their day-to-day became clear. While clean water rushed out of the sinks in their kitchens, the showerheads in their bathrooms, the hoses in the yards, and the fountains at school, the documentary revealed how one in five of the First Nations communities in the country are living with boil water advisories and “do not consume” warnings.
Stricken by the disparity, members of the school’s WE club were motivated to take action. As part of the WE Schools service learning curriculum, they had already addressed water scarcity overseas, but now—after learning of the situation in Canada—they wanted to tackle the issue on a local level. “It’s not right that people don’t get water, especially in Canada,” Ryan Moss says quietly. What stuck out to the lofty Grade 8 student was the fact that “no one’s helping them.”
Denise Hammond, the educator (and ardent social justice advocate) who co-runs the WE Club, expresses her own disappointment; “Sadly, when we talk about kids that don’t have access to clean water, we don’t usually think of Canada, but this is actually what’s going on underneath our noses.”
With the nation focused on Canada’s 150th birthday last July, the students found a stage for activism. And so was born The Clean Water Birthday Project, an initiative that set out to bring clean water resources to First Nations communities across Canada through a letter writing campaign targeting government officials, combined with surveying community members themselves about the need for change. “When we started this, I kind of thought it would just be a small, one and done project,” says Hailey Hawkin, another soft-spoken Grade 8 student at Ian Bazalgette. She pulls her hands apart and says, “But then it evolved into a lot more than that.”
In the end, Ian Bazalgette’s WE club and The Clean Water Birthday Project raised $1,300 with all funds donated to Water First, an Ontario charity working alongside Indigenous people to address water issues in their communities.
This year, WE Walk for Water clears a new path. While the campaign is typically used to raise awareness around water scarcity and sanitation issues overseas, Denise has decided—influenced by the cause close to her students’ hearts—to focus on prompting positive change at home. Together, Denise and students of the WE club are organizing their own unique WE Walk for Water fundraiser, a school-wide water walk intent on supporting clean water initiatives within Indigenous communities across Canada.
On April 27, the WE club will call upon their peers, neighbouring schools and community members to join them on the water walk. A toonie gets students out of class for the last two periods, during which they’ll walk just over two kilometers to Valleyview Park. Here, Denise hopes to have a celebration waiting, including a speech from an Elder and drumming, but she relies on her students to bring her big ideas to life. “I really want to make it their thing.”
To rally support, students are reverting back to the medium that first ignited their passion: film. Between a five minute video examining the issue of water scarcity in Canada’s First Nations communities and a signature water bottle students will be selling to raise funds, the WE club’s campaign is already promising a big payoff—in the form of dollars raised and awareness seeded.
Denise beams with confidence when speaking of her team of impassioned teens: “The kids here, they all know they could actually make change,” a realization that students like Ryan have come to, despite obstacles pitted in their way. “It was really hard, but I think we helped a little bit,” Ryan says when asked about the WE Club’s support of First Nation communities. “We didn’t want to give up on them like everyone else had.”
While the WE club’s next steps are more a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach for now, Denise is quick to emphasize the leaps and bounds her students have grown—all because they feel heard. “Bringing social activism into the classroom gives them the sense that it’s important to be here… and that they’re important,” the exact feeling these students are hoping to pass on to members of the First Nations communities they’re dedicated to supporting.
Sarah Fox has a natural curiosity for people’s lives. She loves to hear about them, write about them and live different ones herself.