Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Volunteers, government officials, and media from across the country gathered in Calgary city hall with nonprofit Water Movement earlier this month to celebrate an unseen hero of every community; the operator that ensures clean water comes out of the tap.
The story of Water Movement begins three years ago, said Water Movement Ambassador Bita Malekian, when Engineers without borders put out their campaign “Hello 2030.” This campaign was to help raise awareness of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) put out by the United Nations.
“One of the sustainable development goals that we focused on was SDG Six, clean water and sanitation,” said Malekian. “And the first event we had was just to create more awareness about the SDG. And a group of myself and some other volunteers with Engineers Without Borders. We were just so surprised that Canada, a developed nation, still hadn’t reached SDG Six. Canada has one of the largest freshwater reserves in the world. And we’re still seeing countless communities, and most of them which are indigenous, without access to clean water. So we wanted to dive in a little bit more.”
Malekian and the other volunteers then began to meet with industry experts, as well as professors at universities, but it wasn’t until they started to speak with community members and indigenous water operators that they started to see the pattern behind the issues Canadians were experiencing.
“We’ve heard a lot of issues around retention of operators. So not enough young people are going into the industry. And the people who do go into the industry, they usually actually leave their community and go work for a municipality,” said Malekian. “Training was Another common issue we heard. Some communities can’t afford training right away for their operators. So sometimes, we’ll see literally high school students handed the keys to the water treatment plant.”
Malekian also cited issues with connection and support, which is where the heart of Water Movement lies.
“In response to these gaps that we heard, we decided to create this online platform where operators are able to connect, ask questions, and share lessons learned. We provided a video learning library on the platform as well, which has been the most attractive aspects of the platform.”
It’s all short videos answering the most common questions that operators have on a day to day basis; how to troubleshoot certain equipment or how to replace the seal on a pump, instead of trying to figure it out, if they haven’t received the training, said Malekian. Or if they don’t have a senior operator there to support them, they can just watch one of these short videos, exclusively featuring expert indigenous operators, because other operators want to see and hear from those that can relate to their struggles.
The platform also features the Youth Water Leaders program, which is aimed to give high school students opportunities and awareness of the water industry.
The support for the project has been inspiring since launch in January 2021, but has also taken shape in ways that Malekian and the rest of the team didn’t expect.
“We were expecting to see the discussions on the platform and the connections made on the platform to mostly trend around technical topics,” said Malekian. “But to our surprise, a lot of the conversations and connections made were actually around other types of issues that resulted in calls to action and kind of created an advocacy campaign.”
The campaign was called Operators First, and it featured four calls to action. The first was a more detailed allocation of the operation and maintenance funding set out by the government. The second call to action was to support community leadership and understand what competitive wages should be for the operators.
The third, to recognize these operators. A lot of the time community members don’t know that there’s someone behind the water and someone who’s treating the water, said Malekian, so the third call to action was to recognize these operators officially on a day and we selected March 21, the day before World Water Day, with the concept being that “before we can celebrate World Water Day we have to celebrate those that treat the water we drink.”
The final call to action was to support nonprofits like Water Movement, who were working boots on the ground with these essentially water heroes.
This campaign attracted the attention of millions of Canadians, said Malekian. Eventually they were able to meet with government to establish a relationship with Indigenous Services Canada and work to have operators present with policy makers when establishing next steps.
March 19th marked National Indigenous Water Operator Day, hosted at Calgary City Hall, said Malekian, a chance to showcase the work being done with Water Movement and indigenous water operators across the country.
The event started, of course, with a Calgary Flames game.
“The reason we did that is because every time we visit these community members for the video learning library, the key thing the key conversation we notice every time is always they start their day talking about last night’s hockey game and they end it talking about the games are going to watch at night,” said Malekian. “So hockey seems to be a very kind of connecting conversation. So we thought what a better way to kind of kick this off.”
This was followed by the official celebration, which featured a gallery of artwork by indigenous artists, including portraits of the operators that had made the learning library of Water Movement possible in a “Humans of New York” style collection of stories.
The event also featured a prayer by an elder from Siksika Nation, a land acknowledgement, and all attendees being smudged, some for the first time.
In addition, the event contained speeches from Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indigenous Services Vance Badawey, Lethbridge East MLA Nathan Neudorf, Councillor Evan Spencer of Ward 12, and Alberta Minister of Indigenous Relations Rick Wilson.
“It was a really kind of special event and it really blessed the ceremony. It was incredible to see a lot of these operators meeting for the first time connecting and really just being recognized for their hard work,” said Malekian. “A lot of Canadians don’t even know what a water treatment operator is or what they do. This kind of not only helps recognize them, but it helps raise awareness on this career path.”
While the journey to this point has been long, and has taken a different shape than Malekian and her team anticipated, she expressed her enthusiasm for her work and where Water Movement may be in the future.
“It’s been wild. And in such a short period of time. So it’s been incredible. And having those operators lead the mission and vision of Water Movement, I think, is just so successful we’re just there to support them and use whatever resources or skills we have to support them,” said Malekian. “And what’s really cool about the volunteers that Water Movement has, they all come from different walks of life. Like we have videographers, we have website developers, communications people, like everyone’s just really trying to use whatever they have to help these operators. So it’s been really incredible, incredible to see.”