Indigenous women urge Hamilton council to apologize to the water after Chedoke spill

A group of Indigenous women will hold a quiet ceremony this month for Hamilton city councillors to apologize directly to the water.

At least 3 councillors say they're willing to participate in a quiet waterfront ceremony

Lynda Henriksen - centre, with Danielle Boissoneau - was moved to tears talking about the sewage and stormwater leak into Chedoke Creek. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

A group of Indigenous women will hold a quiet ceremony this month for Hamilton city councillors to apologize directly to the water for the Chedoke Creek spill.

Nibi Awan Bimaadiziwin, which describes itself as "two spirit, Indigenous women water protectors, including water walkers, artists, aunties and everyday citizens of Hamilton," says it doesn't want an apology from city council after a four-year leak that saw 24 billion litres of sewage and stormwater flow into the creek.

Council has to make amends, the women said at a town hall Tuesday. But the focus should stay on the water to remind people where the damage lies.

"We just really want to see the water being centred in our conversations," said Danielle Boissoneau, an Indigenous water walker and member of Nibi Awan Bimaadiziwin. She spoke at the town hall, which about 100 people attended Tuesday at the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre.

Council approved making amends with the water walkers, but "we won't be accepting an apology," she said. "We're going to be asking city council to go down to the water and apologize."

The state of Chedoke Creek and Hamilton Harbour made national headlines last month.

Water from Cootes Paradise sat front and centre at the meeting. "We’ve got to stop having conversations about her when she’s not in the room," Hendriksen says. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

That's when people learned sewage and stormwater runoff flowed into the creek from 2014 to summer 2018. A bypass gate at a facility that houses Hamilton's largest combined sewage tank was left partially opened. The city admitted to a leak last year, but the magnitude only became public when someone submitted an anonymous tip to the Hamilton Spectator.

Lawyers advised the city to keep the leak confidential, the city said.

After public outcry, city council apologized for the breach and released reports "in an effort to begin rebuilding the public's trust."

Indigenous women have sounded the alarm for a while. Kristen Villebrun, another member of Nibi Awan Bimaadiziwin, noticed sewage in the water in 2015, and floated on a raft for two days to try to draw attention to it. She also participates in an annual water walk around the harbour.

Villebrun, Boissoneau and Lynda Hendriksen of Nibi Awan Bimaadiziwin said Tuesday that at least people are paying attention now.

The city says 24 billion litres of sewage and stormwater runoff flowed into Chedoke Creek over four years. (City of Hamilton)

"I feel, in a way, that our prayers have been answered," Boissoneau said. "We've been wishing this would come to light in a way that no one could turn their faces."

"An elder once told me, you can't expect accountability from irresponsible people … I want to challenge you to consider what it means to create power and unity among ourselves in the community."

Three councillors — Maureen Wilson (Ward 1), Nrinder Nann (Ward 3) and John-Paul Danko (Ward 8) — attended the meeting Tuesday. All three said they'll participate in the ceremony.

"For the apology to be effective, it has to be sincere," Danko said. "It's a really interesting concept that it's not an apology to people. It's an apology to the water itself."

There won't be cameras or social media at the ceremony, Boissoneau said. "When the publicity comes, it becomes all about ego."

Hendriksen said everybody says they love the water, but really mean they love using it for their own purposes.

"Harm has been done," she said, "and the water has memory."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca