Episode 4: Lauren Terbasket in the Similkameen

"The system, of course, is over-allocated. The permitting by the province of the water in the Similkameen ... is allocated over 300 percent."

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This week, Danielle meets with Lauren Terbasket from the Okanagan Nation and member of the Lower Similkameen community to learn about the work she is doing to secure and preserve the Similkameen watershed.

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Episode 5: Tara Marsden and Trixie Bennett 

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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.

Lauren Terbasket | 0:09

When we look at water as flowing through all living things, as flowing from the highest places to the lowest places, then we change how we think of it.

Right, we change, we have a word (speaking Nsyilxcən), which means where we went wrong. And so when we began to commodify water or to take it as ours, right, that sense of ownership, and it changed the way we think.

And so if we can move our thinking to the idea of sermon and prayer, and add that in as an aspect of how we do things, of how we look at water, how we look at the world, it changes us fundamentally.

Danielle | 0:52

I have the pleasure to sit down with Lauren Terbasket from the Okanagan Nation, who is a member of the Lower Similkameen community. She, like others across this amazing province, is passionate about the health of her watershed and the life it supports. 

Community Member 1 | 1:07

I like my watershed because I love swimming, and kayaking in the summer.

Community Member 2 | 1:14

My watershed means everything to me. It's my home. It's where I live, and it's where I work, and it's where I play. And growing up here, I see how my actions have an effect on its health and vitality, which in turn affects larger systems as well. So, my watershed means life to me, because without it, we're really without any watershed or all watersheds, we wouldn't have anything.

Community Member 3 | 1:44

Bowen, can you tell me why water is so important for us to protect?

Because it's... it makes us healthy and it's important.

Danielle | 2:05

Lauren is a Master's candidate in Leadership and Training through Royal Roads University. Lauren has extensive experience in Aboriginal education, including both curriculum development and teaching, cultural community development and environmental conservation. She's a mother of three, a grandmother of seven an educator and water defender. Thank you for joining us, Lauren.

Lauren Terbasket | 2:23

(Speaks Nsyilxcən). My name is Lauren Terbasket and my Okanagan name is (speaks Nsyilxcən), which means Green Water Woman and my mother and father are from the Similkameen and the (speaks Nsyilxcən), as well as my mother is from the Lakes area, a place called Kettle Falls, and is also related down into the Nez Perce people.

I've been involved throughout my life in primarily in education as my background, some stints in politics. So I've been involved in leadership in the community.

Currently working with my band, the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, Chief and Council, working, negotiating, a national park reserve.

I've got some, my background in environment and as well as in traditional law and utilizing traditional story systems, to frame principles that inform cultural law, traditional law for the Syilx people, the Similkameen people.

So that's sort of my general history. I'm a mother and my grandmother. I have my mother of three beautiful children. And my grandmother of seven. Just got a new grandbaby born about three weeks ago, I guess. So, which is amazing.

Danielle | 3:46

Oh, congratulations!

Lauren Terbasket | 3:48

Yeah! So I'm pretty excited about that. Yeah, so that's me.

Danielle | 3:53

One of the things that I would love to know more about is where you live, your home. So can you take us on a little bit of a walk through your watershed and describe it for us?

Lauren Terbasket | 4:03

Sure. So the Similkameen river system, Okanagan word for it is (speaks Nsyilxcən), which means the Eagle River, and it comes from the Okanagan word for Eagle.

And the river system is a number of tributaries, so it's probably about 220,000 square kilometres. So it's a fairly large system. The river systems that connect the watershed include the Tulameen River, the National river system, the Poseidon, they all feed into the Similkameen, and the Similkameen then feeds into the south, the Okanagan River, which then flows into the Columbia system.

It's a really important river, as a cooling system for the Columbia River salmon fishery. It's not a salmon-bearing river. It does have a number of various fish species, including a number that are endangered. So we have lingcod in the Wolf Creek system that feeds into the Similkameen River.

It's a living river of flows and it moves and it's got these beautiful sand and gravel pits and it's surrounded on both sides by, of course, cottonwood riparian systems.

And if you look at it sometimes on a mapping system, it looks like the whole valley is a river, because the river over time has moved so much.

It's a really beautiful place. I grew up swimming in the river. Our babies are swimming in the river. And so it's, yeah, it's where we call home.

Danielle | 5:38

Thank you, you really kind of taken us there to your home. And I love the image of you there with your kids and grandkids.

I know you've spoken before about raising your babies and their babies to grow up with a love of water and the land that surrounds them. And that really resonated with me. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on raising a generation of water defenders and how we do that as mothers and grandmothers, aunties and neighbours.

Lauren Terbasket | 6:04

Okay, I think it starts with the idea that water and the beings that exist in water, they have rights outside of human utility.

We're in a society thing today that is very human-centric and is very self-centred. And so, you know, I think the really important thing is to really help children understand. And so we have a number of cultural protocols and practices that connect our children to water.

And so one of the first ones, of course, is naming. That many of the names and especially of women, mostly of women are, what water names. So my Syilx name is (speaks Nsyilxcən), which means Green Water Woman, and my little granddaughter, her Syilx name is (speaks Nsyilxcən), which means she's afraid of the water. And it came from this dream about her, this medicine that she would get and these stones that she would find, that would help her to connect to the water. And so in that dream, she was afraid, and these things helped her. So she was named (speaks Nsyilxcən), which means afraid of the water.

When we look at our protocols, culturally, that's where we start. And we bring our children to those places. And we talk about those places in and of themselves. And the creatures that live within them, the fish, and the insects, and we work with our children to, really to honour those life forms that exist in our water, our creek systems, our river systems.

Of course, when they're little, you know, between zero and five, they're just open to that understanding and that way of thinking about the world. And once it's ingrained, it stays with them. You know, they'll always go back to that.

Danielle | 7:59

Beyond that role of mother and grandmother, which weaves into all areas of life. I know you both have your hands in a lot of projects and are leading a lot of initiatives in your community. So what would you say are the key issues facing your watershed right now?

Lauren Terbasket | 8:14

Historically, and more recently, I think the biggest threats to the Similkameen watershed is really twofold. Right, it's big industry, its mining companies and historic mining companies that have basically left tailings ponds that have heavy metals, that have arsenic and a number of other chemicals as well.

More recently, we've done some water analysis, and we've got about three or four mines that are leaching various chemicals and various compounds into the river system.

They say, "Oh, you know, the sulphates are basically like soap, they'd be like something you put in your washing machine." It sounds like a really harmless process. But as soon as you start to realize right, that the sulphates are responsible, when they leach into the system, one of the things that it promotes is blue algae. And of course, the blue algae is a type of microorganism that deoxygenates your water systems. And so it basically kills the living things that are in the system because they don't have enough oxygen.

And, you know, the system, of course, is over-allocated. The permitting by the province, the water in the Similkameen, in both the groundwater and the river water, is allocated over 300 percent. Which means three times the actual amount of water has been permitted for use. And so if everyone you know, started to take up that water, you can see how quickly the river would be just depleted. But also the groundwater, which we don't have a lot of studies about.

I think that one of the important things is that we live here. The Similkameen people have lived here for at least 15,000 years. We're going to be here for another 15,000 years. Our people are fairly sedentary in the way that we live, we live in the same place, and for generations. Our children and our families don't typically move and so when our systems become contaminated or depleted, the long-term impacts to us are just exponential.

And that contaminated system is left to, to who? To no one, to government, to taxpayers. And so we think of these industries in the short term, that they bring this tax revenue and that's true, but the longer-term impacts to communities, to water systems, to people and into wildlife, to the natural world, are just it's an unsustainable industry.

And our work in the Similkameen has been to really start to understand, what are those contaminants? What are those threats to our water systems? So what does our strategy need to be? Well, it needs to be accountability, and it needs to be able to show that the impacts are from these companies.

And so what do we need? We need baseline studies of uncontaminated or unaffected systems. Well, the companies aren't going to pay for that, because they don't want that information known. And the government is going to say, "Well, why, you know, what's the purpose of this." Right, and they're not going to, in a sense, bite the hand that feeds them. So they don't want to know, either.

But in the Similkameen, I mean, one of the other things is to secure those existing clean systems. So in where I live, right, there's about four or five creek systems that feed into the Similkameen that are still relatively intact. So that would include the (speaks Nsyilxcən) creek system, the National river system, Susat Creek, Paul Creek, Blind Creek, that all flow into the Similkameen. And they're clean, they still have relatively clean water.

And so how do we secure those? And so the work that we've been doing is really, in more recently, the national park reserve, we're negotiating a national grassland park reserve, in the southern part of the valley. But we're also working to attempt to establish an Indigenous Protected Conservation Area for those systems that are still intact, including the nationalist system.

When Indigenous People, First Nations communities attempt to preserve or conserve lands where we are labelled or were shown by media, as being anti-development, anti-progress, all of the ways that they skew our intentions. But it comes from our story systems in our law, and not just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of the land, we have this unwritten law that speaks to the idea of protecting the natural world, but also all of those things that live there that need clean water, right? The animals, like moose, and bear, deer and all those beings that need water.

We're partnering with NGOs and various groups to, to start to do that work. I guess that's a long answer.

Danielle | 13:13

It's a wonderful answer. You talked about partnering with different NGOs. I work with a lot of community-based groups who are working tirelessly to keep their local watersheds in good health, and many of them express a desire to work more closely with, or support the work of local Nations. Do you have any guidance or suggestions of how non-Indigenous community members can better support the local Nations who are leading these conservation efforts?

Lauren Terbasket | 13:42

This partnering is, finding ways to partner with local First Nations, is contributing financially, but it's also contributing in human resource capacity, in knowledge capacity. We need folks who are hydrologists, we need biologists, we need fish biologists. We need folks that understand mining industry.

And so partnering with local colleges, universities to begin to do research as a part of Master's and PhD level project. Government responds, in some ways to evidence-based information. So you know, those sorts of partnerships.

In First Nations communities, we have expenses, we have health, and we have social and we have education. So the amounts of funds that we can allocate to fighting big companies are in essence, I guess fighting government, to protect our water systems are limited.

And so those partnerships where we can look at either NGOs that can help to support us in lobby efforts, or college universities that can help us with gathering information that that could stand up in the courts, makes a difference.

I also think partnerships, right? It's partnerships with our local schools, it's you know, it's, it's more down-to-earth things that we can do. It's planting, right? Cottonwood riparian. It's understanding how to restore what's there. It's requiring accountability, by government, right? It's writing our local ministers to find out who our MLA is to hold them accountable. Because of course, we can all get busy and because we don't have a lot of times financial or intellectual capacity in our communities. And so it's difficult that social piece or those political alliances or the social alliances are really key, I think, to longer-term success.

Danielle | 15:36

We get busy in our, in our jobs and in our worlds and with our families and everything like that. And sometimes we forget those, like, kind of key pieces. I know, I always go back to emails and I think, oh, I didn't even, like, say hello, I just start asking a question because I have something on my mind. And I think, well that's not, you know, a very nice way to start the email. Sorry, how are you doing? Even meeting sometimes you end up starting that way. And then you're like, wait a second, "How are you? How was your weekend?"

Lauren Terbasket | 16:01

We forget that. Right? That is, I know I do all the time. I've got one gal, and you know, she's always talked to me about communication. She said, "You know, my Auntie's talk to me about the importance of good communication." And I'm a sort of a task girl. And so I, I forget. And so she will typically bring me a coffee or some chocolate because she knows that I survive on sugar, and she'll be like. "How are you doing?"

And it's that connection, right? It's like, oh, like, somebody actually cares about me. You get so stuck and so busy in the busyness of things and the task of things that, you know, that relationship piece, it's, it's really key.

And I mean, that's the relationship between people. It's the relationship politically, it's the relationship to the natural world, to water, right? That's a piece that's really undervalued in our society.

It's one of those things that's so important. And I forget all the time. Sometimes I say do the same thing. I step back, and I'm like, "Oh, oh, yeah. How are you?"

Danielle | 17:04

Okay, I'm glad I'm not the only one. So Lauren, within our podcast, we're trying to determine what a water-secure community looks like, and how would we get there. So can you tell me what does watershed security mean in your community?

Lauren Terbasket | 17:23

You know, in the end, it becomes twofold. There's a human element to it. But I think the other thing, of course, is a policy element, right? So we can look at, for instance, the pipelines that come through the province and the oil and gas industry. When there's no legislation or the legislation is inadequate, the people become villainized. Right? You know, the law becomes the opposition to human rights. And so for us the importance of legal mechanisms that can be put in place that protect water, that can require specific initiatives or activities for the protection of water.

So, you know, one is social, and one is political. One thing that we're working on right now is water law. And so our water law, cultural law; we're oral society, meaning we had no written language. And so now what we're doing is codifying our law, our water law. We don't have to codify our law, because there are people who grow up in the law, they grow up with that really strong connection to water, that sense of responsibility. So a lot of times when we deal with government, and we deal with bureaucracies, and we deal with legal frameworks that are colonial systems, they speak from that perspective of rights, right, who has a right?

The companies have rights, right? companies have been granted these sort of human rights, which is a really funny thing. And then what about the other humans that exist in a system?

And so the legal framework speaks to the idea of our rights? What do we have a right to what companies have a right to? But if we look at law from a different perspective, and rather than what is our right, but thinking about it, as people who live here, or work here, or who gain value from those things that exist here, including water, what is our responsibility to that?

So if we start from that place, rather than, oh, it's that sense of entitlement to it, and then fighting over the entitlement to it. If we look at it as, in a sense, fighting over the responsibility to it, it changes the narrative.

So when people all of a sudden have got to take onto their backs, certain responsibilities, then they change. And I'm responsible for my children and responsible for my work, I'm responsible for community, I responsible for the water and I take that on, as my responsibility, the idea of clean water, the idea of the protection of it, not just for myself, but for other living beings.

When I reframe it as a responsibility, not a right or an entitlement, it changes the narrative. And so I think that one of the really important pieces in terms of security is changing the mindset, changing the dialogue, and changing the way that we look at those policy, that policy piece, that legal piece to what is the responsibility to water?

And some people won't take on that responsibility. But when we live here for 1,000 years, we have to take it on and we have to find ways to do that. We have to find resources, we have to instill that sense of responsibility for clean water, period. That's what changes the world. Right? I really firmly believe that. And I think that's where hope lies. 

Danielle | 21:08

You know what, Lauren, that was such a beautiful way to end.

Thank you so much, and thanks to all the community members that contributed to this podcast. Also to Watershed Watch Salmon Society and everyone who makes this podcast possible.

You can find more episodes at freshwaterstream.ca and if you enjoyed it, please subscribe rate and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to listen. It really does make a difference.

We'll see you next time when we speak with Trixie Bennett and Tara Marsden, two incredible Indigenous women from two different sides of the border who are fighting to protect the unit and NASS river watersheds from their homes in Alaska and northern BC.

Freshwater in BC 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.