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Walking the talk with a water advocacy campaign

Children pour clear spring water into the St. Lawrence River – a symbolic gesture that reminds of the importance of our stewardship of all creation.

June 4, 2018

By Penny Rankin

Penny Rankin is the PWRDF Parish Representative for St. Matthias’ Church, Diocese of Montreal

It was a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon in late September in Montreal. The sun was shining magnificently as more than 100 church members of all ages, clergy and Bishop Mary Irwin-Gibson gathered on the shores of the St. Lawrence River. Having set out from two points a few kilometres apart, groups of happy walkers met and merged together to join in worship. Following prayers, and with little need of encouragement the children stepped down the gentle grassy slope to the river’s edge to empty the buckets that had been sloshing against sun their legs the length of the walk.

This was more than just a day of sunshine. It was “the cherry on top” of our campaign, a time to both celebrate and reflect on all that we had learned and accomplished on our journey.

It began in the fall of 2016 when the PWRDF committee of the Diocese of Montreal committed to supporting Right to Water, a four-year joint initiative of PWRDF’s justgeneration Youth Council and Evangelical Lutheran Youth Ministry. In part the decision to invest our energies in what became known as our “Water Project” was fuelled by the desire to engage children and youth in our parishes. We also were keen to focus on an important issue here in Canada. The justgeneration call to action on access to potable water, along with increasing media that highlighted concerns regarding First Nations housing, health and education had truly galvanized us all.

The Water Project we were about to embrace was never going to be an “autopilot” leap from some form of generalized concern about an issue to fundraising for it. Our path was destined to take many turns as we explored some new ideas! Here’s what we learned:

  1. State Your Objective. While raising money was and is necessary to address the concrete problems facing the people living in First Nations communities without access to clean water, we were also determined to engage as many people and parishes in the project as we could- including young children and those who may not have the resources to donate funds. By adopting an inclusive model for acknowledging participation, our success was to evolve and grow in ways that ended up being truly inspiring.
  2. Educate Yourselves. We were to discover that more than 100 communities across Canada lack primary/basic services that many of us take for granted. It was through this fact-finding process that we first learned the brutal truth that whole generations of some of our fellow Canadians have grown up never having being able to turn on a tap for a “simple” glass of water. Our focus on the Ojibway First Nation community of Pikangikum led us to Dave Steeves of the Pikangikum Working Group. Dave has been pivotal in helping develop and implement constructive measures with PWRDF to address the many problems facing this isolated fly-in community in Northern Ontario, where approximately 90% of the 450 homes have no water or wastewater services.
  3. Formulate Your Response. We would need to find effective ways to communicate the facts we had gathered and our strategic plan to parishes (and hopefully the broader public as well.) Keeping in mind our desire not to focus on fundraising alone, we decided to launch an advocacy campaign. We developed templates of letters to be sent to the Ministers of Health, Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs and Families, Children and Social Development, raising our concerns. These, as is true of all letters addressed to government, could be sent without a stamp – a plus for those dealing with financial restrictions. We sent out letters addressed to wardens and clergy that included these templates, as well as information inserts, Sunday school materials, prayers and other resources, and made them available on the Montreal Diocese’s PWRDF website. You can now read and download these resources at www.pwrdf.org/waterwalk.

rap sheetAfter a year of education sessions being held in various parishes across the Diocese, we found ourselves at the bank of the St. Lawrence. We had all gained a deeper appreciation and understanding of what it is to be in “right relationship,” including in right relationship with the various gifts each of us (including the young) can offer in service to each other.

That’s the point really, it can never be about only money, only awareness, or only advocacy. If we are to arrive anywhere, it is best we arrive together having given of our talents, whatever they may be.

(Please note: Before planning a Water Walk, check with local authorities for permission and comply with local laws.)