Episode 1: Dr. Shannon Waters in the Cowichan

"There are so many ways that we're connected [to the river], which I don't think we really label and value."

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Join Danielle as she sits down with Dr. Shannon Waters, medical health officer for the Cowichan Valley region, a member of Stz’uminus First Nation and Cowichan Watershed Board member to discuss the connection between watersheds and human health.

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Episode 2: Shannon McPhail

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Danielle | 0:00  

I'm Danielle Paydli and this is the Freshwater Stream, a podcast about BC’s watersheds and the people who care about them.

There's a myth here in British Columbia that our rivers and lakes provide limitless clean water. And certainly, that was once the case in much of the province. But due to resource extraction, poor water management and climate change, many communities are facing serious water shortages in the coming years. So we'll be talking to people all over the province to find out about the challenges facing their local watersheds and what can be done to solve them.

I live in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island in the traditional territory of the Coast Salish people. Looking around you see lush trees, clear rivers and more streams than I could have ever imagined growing up in southern Alberta. The Cowichan or Quw’utsun river runs through the heart of the valley. People come here to swim, to kayak, camp, fish and hike. It's a vital fish habitat. We've got coho, chinook and chum salmon, steelhead and rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout. In the Cowichan Valley forests, you can see native red squirrels jumping from tree to tree and black bears fishing during salmon spawning season. And any day, if you look up, you can almost always see a bald eagle circling overhead.

So what does this river mean to the people who live here, my neighbours? Let's hear from them.

Community Member 1 | 1:30  

The river to me means a place to live, a place to play. And a place to even get your food from.

Community Member 2 | 1:41  

The river runs through our community and holds us together, supports our salmon and our way of life and makes us who we are. 

Community Member 3 | 1:51  

I spent my entire adult life as a water well driller in the Cowichan region. To me, the Cowichan River is of vital importance because it provides the water that recharges the aquifer that supplies the wonderful, clean, high-quality drinking water to most of the residents of the Cowichan Valley.

Community Member 4 | 2:13  

To me, the Cowichan means resilience, and both human and ecological. It means reciprocity. Relationships community is a common thread for all of us whether we are community members or just passing through the valley.

Danielle | 2:49  

In this first episode of the Freshwater Stream, we're talking about the connection between watersheds and human health with Dr. Shannon Waters, a medical health officer for the Cowichan Valley region, a member of Stz’uminus First Nation, Cowichan Watershed Board member and a fellow mum who joined me and my kids for a crayfish catching expedition.

What an amazing opportunity to talk about water together while sitting here on the rocks. And watching our kiddos splashing in the river. I love how they like have no concern, whether it's freezing cold or not.

This river I know means a lot to you and really holds a story. Maybe lots of stories for you, I was hoping you could share one of those stories with us just to help us better understand you and your connection to the river.

Dr. Shannon Waters | 3:35  

So I trained in Vancouver and worked there for about eight years with the First Nations health authority and my husband and I had our first daughter there. And we always felt like we would come back to the Cowichan Valley.

And when my daughter was about four things seemed to really, you know, gel that looked like it was time for us to come back. And one of the things I just really felt really strongly about was that for my kids, I now have two daughters to be able to know our home territory.

I'm Hul’quimi’num from Stz’uminus, First Nation here on Vancouver Island and have a lot of family ties to Cowichan Tribes as well. My husband's family is from the valley too. And his mom remembers playing in the river growing up and just really find that, you know, being able to be connected to place provides such mental, emotional, physical, spiritual kind of presence and stability for people and I really wanted my own children to be able to have that. 

And I just feel really, that I have an honour, privilege and challenge now being what's called the Medical Health Officer for the Cowichan Valley region and helping to look after the population that lives here.

Danielle | 4:54  

I know that you have a story that you've talked about in the past and different publications and that you've shared about your own personal health and how, how you really relate that to the river? Is that something that you could share with us a little bit? Are you comfortable to do that?

Dr. Shannon Waters | 5:13  

Yeah. So I mentioned earlier that, you know, the river is quite a bit lower, like, about two feet lower here than it was earlier in the season, when I brought my daughters down swimming and really, what's going on in our environment with things such as climate change is really affecting our landscape, especially our waters here in the Cowichan Valley.

And if you look across the world, there's many different effects or factors and how climate change is affecting health. But one of the most immediate effects we can see here is with regards to drought, it's not as severe this year, but it's still a concern, the Koksilah watershed is having, you know, some issues with regards to water flow and water supply.

But really, last year, there was a dire kind of unprecedented situation that happened in the Cowichan Valley, where there wasn't enough water flow to keep the river flowing from the outflow from Cowichan Lake. And as we were watching this over the course of last summer, you know, I was going through the summer, with my kids, we had actually gone to Calgary for a visit. On our drive back, I kind of noticed that, like I was having some discomfort in my abdomen, but I, you know, had things to do work, you know, looking after the kids, other stuff. And so I just kind of pushed it out of my mind and was like, oh, it seems to be a bit better, I was taking ibuprofen, really just trying to push through it finally got to a point wherein the middle of the night, I was tossing and turning, and I just really suddenly sat up and was like, Oh my gosh, like I am in a lot of pain. If I can't even lie still, that means something's pretty wrong. And it hit me then that I was gonna have to go into emergency surgery.

I remember looking just on my phone as I was, you know, waiting, trying to deny the pain, and was reading the news that the Cowichan River was going to start being pumped to keep the flow going. And for all my kind of fears and a little bit of like apprehension about what was coming up for me with regards to my surgery, just suddenly struck me that, you know, my environment, the place that I was living in was going through the same situation.

Danielle | 7:47  

I find that really interesting because I think that often like oftentimes when people are having, you know, a personal health crisis, they often look internally for reflection and things. And I'm sure there were elements of that in your journey as well. But you also kind of went the other way and looked outside of yourself and into the river. And were really introspective about that.

Dr. Shannon Waters | 8:10  

The Chair of the Watershed Board, Ian Morrison at the time, was quoted in the article as saying like the river was going on life support. And it just really struck me and it actually just took me out of thinking about only myself to thinking about the bigger picture, and how we all really need each other like, you know, the health system here in the valley.

Danielle | 8:37  

As a society right now, we're collectively dealing with a public health crisis with regard to the Coronavirus. So what are your thoughts regarding our waters and our watersheds and their unique role in our recovery as a community?

Dr. Shannon Waters | 8:51  

Really, I think we really need to shift our ideas around what our health system is to beyond healthcare services.

And I think as an Indigenous woman, thinking about how I think of my home territory and how it nourishes me, I just think, especially in times of crisis, like we're dealing with COVID right now, we cannot undervalue. We need to focus on and value our environment as part of our health system as part of something that keeps us well.

It wasn't lost on me in the spring when we were in more extreme interventions. You know, schools closed, many businesses closed in the spring where people were not able to do a lot of the activities that they usually did, that we had the benefit to our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health to be here in the Cowichan Valley, where people have such access to our rivers, the ocean, parks, trails, just ways to get outdoors and still feel alive and able to let things go.

You know, I just reflected on my husband a number of times, you know, if we were in a more urban setting without all this access, I know I wouldn't mentally be doing as well.

Danielle | 10:15  

I know it was you were saying that like I, I don't know how many times throughout this process, I've said how grateful I am to be living here and how much less affected I feel through this whole process, especially when we're really shut down.

Like we would do the same things that we do. Otherwise, we would be down, we'd be walking in the forest, we'd be going down to the beach, we've been going to the river and so completely agree that I feel like I haven't been more grateful than right now to live in this amazing place.

Dr. Shannon Waters | 10:46  

And I think a lot of that is about health promotion, you know how you stay healthy in the first place. And that's one of the reasons I went into the realm of medicine that I'm in. I worked as a family physician, and I became frustrated largely with seeing people after they were already sick and not having a whole lot of things to help people from getting sick in the first place.

Danielle | 11:19  

The economy is one thing that is another way in which the river supports us.

Dr. Shannon Waters | 11:25  

Yeah, yep. As for food security, for people whose jobs or incomes are tied to the river, for cultural or recreational practices, for physical fitness, like people swimming or running or hiking along rivers, like there's so many ways that we're connected, which I don't think we really label and value in the same way within the health system I so that's where I really want to try and, you know, bring that forward more.

I mean, ultimately, water is so connected to everything I think of here in the Cowichan Valley, there was an individual who came to speak, and he's written a book called 13 Ways to Kill a Community. The number one thing he says about, you know, a way to kill a community, it's not to have quality water. Like it's, it's pretty much a fundamental of us living as human peoples within the landscape. And so we have to, you know, value and protect that, because that's ultimately valuing and protecting ourselves. 

Danielle | 12:31  

Yeah, it impacts every area of our life.

Water is such a vital part of our life. And although it appears that we have this abundance of clean and healthy water, we know that isn't a reality. There are real threats, what do you see as some of the threats to your home waters, and how these will impact your family and your community?

Dr. Shannon Waters | 12:51  

My older daughter, I've brought her down to where we are here today for a few summers over the course of the summer. And it really, I can see it really affects her mentally as she sees the level come down. And she notices that it's not as vigorous, you know, later on in the season as the water levels drop.

And makes me feel sad, you know. I can't prevent her or protect her from feeling that, and I think that's something she needs to know. I wish she didn't have to know that and especially at such a young age, but I really just feel it's important for her to realize how it affects her emotionally. Because that is an important thing to feel and therefore potentially be put into action to do something about.

Danielle | 13:46  

Something you've said before, and what you were just touching on now is like that pain prompts action. So what do you think? Where do we need to be to see government take action around rivers or who needs to be the ones to step up and take that action to protect our rivers?

I mean, the Cowichan Watershed Board is doing amazing things. But there's still a lot that needs to be done in terms of decision-making power and local control.

And, and I just I'd love to hear your thoughts more on what needs to happen, like how much pain do we need to see the river in before people are going to be prompted into taking action?

Dr. Shannon Waters | 14:20  

It's a good question. I've been thinking a lot and I guess... this pause we've had during COVID. I think I've seen it quoted some more as 'anthro pause', you know, just there's a bit of a pause of our effect as humans within our greater environments, while, like, a lot of people had a lot more time to think during this time of COVID and I think some of the things people realize about that time is that you felt more you had the time to think about things maybe not deny things like I was doing when I had appendicitis and just be more sensitive to your emotions.

And so how much pain or how much fear does there need to be to prompt action? I think that depends on what's going on in our larger environments. I mean, I think other opportunities we have in front of us include what has happened politically in BC, and in the last year or so.

So one of the CEOs I used to work with, one of the CEOs he had said to me, like, you know, politics can create space, but it can't fill space. And I thought about that we have had some space created politically, in the province of BC, with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. I feel. Because really, in terms of our rights as Indigenous peoples to have relationships, with our environment, with our waters. Like that, is now actually required to be protected in our laws.

I had previously reached out to a colleague of mine who works in Bonnie Henry's office, Dr. Danièle Behn Smith, she's the Aboriginal physician advisor, really just musing with her around the Public Health Act, which is the law that we work with as public health physicians, and how, in a lot of cases, there are gaps that are created, because there's not a, quote-unquote, human health risk that's defined within Western academic literature. But there is a quality, of the relationship we have with something, that is damaged. Which is not that quality of the relationship isn't protected by our current laws, it's only when Western science basically defines their human health hazard. And I really looked at the fact that the declarations on the Rights of Indigenous or UNDRIP, the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous peoples could actually like fill that gap. And it was something that we were talking about. And in the meantime, like work had been happening, and the DRIP Act came in place here within BC. And I just really see this as such an opportunity for me as an Indigenous woman and in the type of role that I'm in, to really look at something and tease it apart for where this could help protect our environment.

And when we brought this to Bonnie Henry, she actually asked if maybe we would look at water, to begin with. The Drinking Water Protection Act, because there had been the officer of the Auditor General's report, looking at the Drinking Water Protection Act.

And I have to say, if I’m perfectly honest, I was a little irritated at first, because I was like, no, I wanted to go big, I wanted to look at the whole Public Health Act, not just the Drinking Water Protection Act.

But then after I thought about it, I realized water is in fact connected to everything. And that having a definable area to start actually gave us a place to sink our teeth into. And so really, I think that's one of the opportunities I have. And we all have as different people, different gifts, and things we enjoy and passions, I guess just to remind every person that we all collectively, but we also all individually have relationships with the world around us. And here we're talking specifically about water, trying to encourage everyone to find, you know, what is your relationship to the waters around you? And how can you honour that? And how can you give back? That's what I've really just been trying to encourage people to do. Because one thing I will say that prompted for me when I did have my appendix out and I realized what was going on with the river as well. It just really prompted me that I was going to make a very concerted effort to give back.

Danielle | 18:47  

Well said, I would listen to this podcast.

And so maybe we'll just end by asking what gives you hope for your water and your watershed?

Dr. Shannon Waters | 19:01  

I think about me personally, what gives me hope I think about some of our stories as Cowichan people. And one of them is called Those Who Fell From the Sky. And it's our origin story. And the first men fell from the sky and the first woman walked from Sooke to Cowichan, to meet them.

And I actually walked that path myself. What was interesting to me, I had so many learnings when I was doing it. One of them was really the path we walked was following the waters. We went through the Sooke Lake watershed, we went across the Kinsol Trestle, the Koksilah River, and once I had walked that path, the lessons that I learned really placed me within a story of our people that has been here since time immemorial. 

And that gave me that hope -- that when I realized as I was that path I thought these ancestors like, had no issues or no problems or no fears. Like they just did this walk in a supernatural amount of time. And as I did it myself, I was like, no that, how do I know there didn't lie in bed at night worried about bears like I am right now? How did I know they didn't feel really hot one day and decided they wanted to give up? How do I know? And I was 11 weeks pregnant with my oldest when I was walking the walk, like, how do I know they didn't feel totally sick to their stomachs? Like they probably did. And that just really placed within me that what I'm going, what we're going through is, is a crisis. But you know, there are stories and we have them. Because as human peoples, we have the strength and resilience to come through it. And so how do we place ourselves, especially our youth, within that larger story of where they see themselves creating, the better world we hope we have for the future generations as well.

Danielle | 20:59  

I mean, the work that you're doing, and just the commitment that you have to, obviously and the passion that you have for the work that you're doing, and for the health of our waters and combining those two passions. And I mean, this is why right? Just seeing your little cutie run around here, loving every minute of it right? And feeling safe and learning and all those amazing things.

Dr. Shannon Waters | 21:23  

You know, and it doesn't feel like work. It feels like a purpose. And I think, you know, in finding that purpose, you find hope because it's just, it's something bigger than you. And I think that's what I realized when I was going into surgery. I was like, wow, this is something bigger than me. You know, when that fearful moment just really made me realize we all have parts to play.

Danielle | 21:41  


Thank you so much for coming out today, for letting the kids play and for sharing in this great conversation with me, and for providing your insight into all of these things around the health, our personal health, our public health and the health of our rivers. Thank you so much.

That concludes our very first episode of the Freshwater Stream. Thanks so much to Dr. Waters for sharing her insights, to all the Cowichan community members who contributed to this podcast and thanks to you for listening.

You can find out more about this episode at freshwaterstream.ca.

If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to listen. It really does make a difference.

Stay tuned for our next episode where we'll be talking to Shannon MacPhail up in the Skeena region about watershed and food security.

Freshwater in B.C. needs your help. Please donate today to support our work and help protect your local watershed.

The Freshwater Stream is a collaborative effort between the Canadian Freshwater Alliance, CodeBlue BC and Watershed Watch Salmon Society.