A group of Grade 7 students in Calgary is calling on all levels of government to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday by giving First Nations communities across the country the gift of clean water.
Denise Hammond and her two humanities classes at Ian Bazalgette junior high school have spent almost the entire school year researching, writing letters to government officials and fundraising for their cause, which they’re calling the Clean Water Birthday Project.
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“Our mission is to try to get awareness out about the more than 100 First Nations communities in Canada that do not have access to clean drinking water,” Hammond said. “There are some government ideas in place to solve the problem within five years, but we personally feel like that’s too long. It’s already been going on for some places more than 20 years, so we’re hoping that if we get enough awareness out there that the government will actually take action and get it resolved by the end of 2017.”
Getting the project started
It all started after Hammond showed her students two short documentaries highlighting the lack of access to clean water on First Nations. Her students were appalled, and decided to make it their mission to do something about the situation.
“It kind of came from them just caring enough that they wanted to take it a step further,” Hammond said.
In October, the students started researching. They tried to compile as much as they could about the issue. Despite their best efforts, information was limited and hard to find, and the students couldn’t help but feel frustrated.
“After that, I asked if we should give up,” Hammond said. “And the kids were like, ‘No, we shouldn’t give up, because everyone else has given up on these nations, so we need to be the people that actually move forward and try to do something.’”
The group decided to go straight to the source, and sent e-mails, faxes and letters to 40 different First Nations across Canada. This also proved to be a challenge, because many of them didn’t send any sort of response. The five that did reply though, gave the students a wealth of information. Once the students had a better understanding of the issue, they started looking into the costs and resources required to solve it.
The students recorded a mannequin challenge, a popular social media trend at the time, hoping it would go viral and help bring more attention to the issue. When that didn’t work, they reached out to Calgary author Carolyn Pogue, who suggested the students tie in Canada’s 150th birthday to their cause.
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That’s when things really got rolling. In February, they came up with the project name, put together a website, started a petition, and picked an organization to fundraise for. They chose Water First, an Ontario-based non-profit that educates and trains First Nations members on how to work through their water access challenges. The students decided to sell water bottles, with most of the money going straight to the organization.
The students also began writing letters to more than 40 municipal, provincial and federal government officials, including to their local MLA Joe Ceci, local MP Deepak Obhrai, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The first politician to get back to them was Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.
Nenshi’s tweet was followed by a long period of silence from politicians, which Hammond admits was discouraging.
It wasn’t until the end of May that they finally got some more traction, and it came in a big way. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley shared their project on both her Twitter and Facebook pages. This was an exciting moment for the group, and they saw the impact the premier’s backing had, as more Albertans signed their petition, and more people started sharing their story on social media.
While the students are appreciative of the politicians’ support, they say the responses they’ve received are underwhelming.
“Honestly, multiple people wrote to the same person, and whenever they responded, they didn’t respond with much. They wrote the exact same thing to everyone, and it was pretty off topic,” Jordan Milligan, one of the students involved, said.
“Personally, I think it should be faster. Because, not to be racist or anything, but if it was for a white community, it would be treated way faster.”
The students are still hoping to hear back from more politicians, especially Trudeau.
Learning life lessons
A look at the numbers alone might suggest the project has so far been less than successful. But that’s not the way the students and teachers involved are looking at it.
“It’s a real education for some of these kids, and adults, who didn’t realize how many places in Canada kids and families are going without water. And I think what it’s taught these kids is empathy,” said Mary Winslow, an education assistant at the school who is also involved in the project.
Hammond admits her students have been discouraged at times, but that despite the failures, the kids continue to work towards their goal.
“We just focus on the good things. Like someone sharing our stuff on Facebook, or getting 10 more people clicking one of our links – these are still successes,” Hammond said. “It might not get us to reach that goal of getting it resolved this year, but we’re 50 kids and a teacher. So we can try.”
Hope for the future
The school year is almost over for the students, but their teacher is planning on keeping the project going.
“I’m also responsible for our social activism club, so I was going to propose to the school that I continue this project through that,” Hammond said. “That way it gives students an opportunity to continue on with this.”
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Many of them do plan on continuing to fight for the cause – and they’re hoping others will help them.
Villeneuve feels the same way.