Indigenous water walkers and Haudenosaunee Development Institute ask Hamilton to listen amid sewage spill

Local and urban Indigenous leaders want the City of Hamilton to listen to them in the wake of another sewage spill.

'I’m sick of talking and it falling on deaf ears,' said local water walker Kristen Villebrun

Kristen Villebrun is an Anishinaabe woman who is also known as Wassode nibi kwe (Shining Water Woman). (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

When Kristen Villebrun heard the City of Hamilton recently discovered sewage has been flowing into the harbour for the past 26 years, she was upset.

Villebrun said she and other water walkers have complained about sewage in the water there for years.

"I'm sick of talking and it falling on deaf ears,"said Villebrun, an Anishinaabe woman who is also known as Wassode nibi kwe (Shining Water Woman).

Water walkers are members of the Indigenous community who host walks along the water and pray for its health.

Villebrun has previously led demonstrations about the state of local waters such as Chedoke Creek — where 24 billion litres of sewage was leaked between 2014 and 2018 — but said she was never taken seriously.

Now she said she's hoping the city will listen to her and others to prevent this from happening again.

WATCH: City discovers 26-year-old sewage leak

City of Hamilton discovers 26-year leak of sewage into Hamilton Harbour

6 months ago
Duration 2:24
The city of Hamilton says it has discovered sewage has been leaking into the Hamilton Harbour since 1996 because of a hole in a combined sewage pipe in the industrial sector.

The city discovered the leak in late November, near Wentworth Street North and Burlington Street East.

It said it estimates 337 million litres of sewage flowed into the harbour from 1996 until they noticed a sewer pipe design flaw and fixed it.

City spokesperson Emily Trotta told CBC Hamilton the city contacted Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, the Six Nations of the Grand River, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council and the Huron Wendat Nation by phone call and email after discovering the spill.

But Villebrun and other local and urban Indigenous leaders have had rocky relationships with the municipality.

"We've got this [faulty sewer] pipe, how many more are there? And what steps are going to be taken to do further investigation and how are the Haudenosaunee going to take part in that process?" said Aaron Detlor, a lawyer with the Haudenosaunee Development Institute (HDI).

A man stands on a bridge above water
Aaron Detlor said the City of Hamilton needs to consult Haudenosaunee leaders about how to care for Chedoke Creek and the harbourfront. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Detlor and HDI have been trying to get the city to consult with them about cleaning up the billions of litres of sewage that spilled into Chedoke Creek.

The talks haven't progressed, which led the city to pause its efforts to clean up the water.

City needs to 'close the gap' with Indigenous partners: councillor

Trotta said how HDI and water walkers might be involved in a harbour clean up has "yet to be determined" and the city is still trying to figure out how or if they can clean up the spill. 

"If a project is planned, then consultation would occur as part of that project," she wrote.

Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson with the province's ministry of environment, told CBC Hamilton the ministry hasn't ordered the city to undertake cleanup work yet "as the scope is still being defined."

Trotta also acknowledged how water walkers raised issues about Chedoke Creek as far back as 2015 and said the city could've handled communication around that better.

"With that said, a lot of work was done to check our infrastructure in 2015, and new studies were launched as a result (which later turned into program changes, such as the expansion of our outfall boom program)," she said, referring to the program that monitors "debris accumulations" at sewage outflows. 

"Unfortunately there was no indication flagged by Hamilton Water staff in 2015 of the discharge that was taking place at the Main/King [combined sewer overflows] tank," she said.

She also said water walkers's participation in upcoming discussions are "welcome."

People wearing hard hats and safety vests stand around a hole in the road while a machine sticks a tube into it.
The city said it's expecting the province to issue an order to clean up the sewage that flowed into Lake Ontario. (Aicha Smith-Belghaba/CBC)

Ward 2 Coun. Cameron Kroetsch said in a Dec. 2 general issues committee meeting the city needs to "close the gap" with Indigenous communities.

City manager Janette Smith responded, saying there's an urban Indigenous office and strategy but "we're not making as much progress on it as we'd like."

"Some of it is, as we work and better understand and do a lot of listening, moving forward on that strategy, we're not going to rush it for the sake of checking a box that it's done," she said, adding that the city needs more staff for its urban Indigenous office.

Eleven city councillors did meet with several urban Indigenous community leaders Monday to discuss a range of issues and how to move forward with better collaboration between the city and Indigenous partners here.

Villebrun said she wants to see action next.

"We need to do better," she said.


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.