Bruce Jackson and the “Keepers of the Water”

Bruce Jackson and the “Keepers of the Water”

Bruce Jackson is a Centre for Christian Studies alum, currently living in Alberta, where his passion for social and environmental justice has him deeply involved in water rights issues and the “personhood of rivers.” We asked current CCS student Kristie Piling to chat with Bruce and find out more about him and the issues he cares about.


Farming is integral to rural life in Saskatchewan. I was raised on a grain farm which I think is where my love for and interconnectedness with nature was instilled. My mom used to pick dandelions and make dandelion tea until out came the sprayer to kill all of those dandelions. My grandpa, my mom’s dad,  taught me to be very in tune with nature. Even as a young child, I was very bothered by the chemicals and fertilizers that were used on the crops. I was bothered not only emotionally but also physically. I have Celiac’s disease but didn’t know that fact until I was over 30 years old. I often wonder if my disease was brought on by exposure to chemicals as I also have another auto-immune disease called Alopecia. Now as an avid organic gardener, I am increasingly concerned by the amount of chemicals and fertilizers used on crops and seeping into our precious water ways. The potash industry is also a huge industry in Saskatchewan. Within a 50 mile radius, we have four potash mines. I wondered what Bruce thought about all of that.

“What do they use potash for? Fertilizer. And what do they use fertilizer for? To make the crops grow. And what else do they use fertilizer for? Fertilizer, diesel fuel and a dynamite cap. …Do you understand the Oklahoma bombing? It was a bag of fertilizer in the back of that truck and it was filled up with diesel fuel… So the oil and gas industry and the mining industry are still using diesel fuel and fertilizer to break the rocks open when they’re drilling for fracking, when they’re drilling for rocks in the mountains, when they’re blowing things up, when blowing up the coal tops off the mountains they’re using fertilizer and dynamite and diesel fuel.”

Bruce Jackson is a person who makes connections. He is a wonderful storyteller. What was supposed to be an hour-long conversation turned into over two hours!

I asked Bruce what drew him to his work on the personhood of water. I learned that it came out of a long-standing commitment to peace and justice. In 2002, after graduating from CCS, Bruce accepted a ministry placement in Athabasca, Alberta. At this time George Bush was in power in the United States and “the drums of war were going on”.

“I thought, you know, we need a vision; this town church doesn’t have a vision, what can we do? Why don’t we make the community a place where they can teach peace? We have colleges; we have a university; we could develop a network and bring young people in from all over the world – kind of like Lester Pearson college on Vancouver Island – where people could learn and understand peace within themselves, between themselves, relationships in community”. 

They attracted university professors, retired professors, and activists who had taken on the Don Getty and Ralph Klein governments.  In those days, the province had given control of the forest industry to foreign companies that are still successful today. The professors and activists fought against a pulp mill outside of Athabasca, one of six pulp mills along the Athabasca River. Through their efforts they forced the company to abandon its plans for chlorine process mill, which would release chlorine compounds and sulfuric acid into the environment, and adopt instead a cleaner, safe, less smelly peroxide process. 

“It helped raise the standards,” said Bruce, “but the government would never increase the environmental standards to the level that Al-Pac (Alberta-Pacific Forests Industries) operated under because it would be too hard on them. And so industry controls environmental monitoring”.

Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils, or WPACs, also came on board, but according to Bruce, when groups of people with varying opinions come together and they have to work by consensus, nothing other than fancy reports and pictures are the result. And nothing is actually done for the river.

“The Athabasca watershed hasn’t had access to data, environmental data, since 2012. So how do you write a ‘state of the watershed’ if you haven’t had access to the data of what’s in water?”.

Knowing what’s in the water matters.

“Where does water come from? It comes from the glaciers. But when it rains, it falls on the forest and most of it goes into the ground. And that’s what’s called ‘groundwater’. And the water that runs down the rivers, 80-95% of the water, comes from the groundwater. Now if you’re pumping sulfuric acid and carbonic acid down to 3500 metres under the ground – because you don’t want to produce the sulphur that’s in the sulfuric acid so you pump it down a well and call it “Sulfolane” (a proprietary name by Suncor) – this is called “carbon sequestration,” because they’re using carbonic acid as well, which is CO2 in water. …Well, when you pump those down together, and an aquifer gets poisoned and then you end up with 12 dairy farmers around Edson with contaminated water wells, nobody knows about the story.” 

If you Google the South Rosevear Gas Plant near Edson, you will come across numerous horrific stories about a sulfolane leak into the wells of residents. The dairy farmers now have to have potable water delivered to them daily because their wells have been destroyed. 

If you allow the river to have rights, then protectors of the water can go to the courts and say, ‘This person needs protection’.

Bruce Jackson

Bruce was recently in Britain, where the town of Frome, near Bristol, petitioned the government to grant “legal personhood” to the Frome River. New Zealand was one of the first countries to grant personhood to a river. And here in Canada, the Magpie River in Quebec has just achieved personhood status.

“They give the river personhood so that it has rights. If corporations can be considered persons…”

Bruce continued, “If you allow the river to have rights, then protectors of the water can go to the courts and say, ‘This person needs protection’. Those who are contaminated can sue those who are contaminating because you are destroying a person.” Explicit legal recognition of groundwater is necessary to ensure access as a right, not just for humans but for all living things.

This made me think of my own relationship to water. I have lived on Treaty 6 territory in the communities of Watrous and Manitou Beach my whole life. I have said countless times when I was out on the lake in my kayak, when the waves were rolling in, that the water seemed alive. Manitou in the Cree language means “Spirit”. The Legend of Manitou says that an Indigenous tribe was traveling through the area when some of the members became very sick with smallpox. A tent was set up for the sick men were left behind to die. The sick men, having run out of water, crawled to the lake and drank from it and soaked in it. Now you have to understand, the lake water here is the second saltiest body of water on the planet, second only to the Dead Sea. Mysteriously, within a few days, when the rest of the tribe came back, the men were fine! Since then the lake has been known as the “Lake of the Healing Waters” or “The Lake of the Good Spirit” or as I know it, “Manitou Lake”. 

As I was preparing for my interview with Bruce, I came across a quote from “Water is Alive,” a webinar hosted by Caleb Behn focusing on Indigenous peoples’ understanding that water is a spiritual being with agency. 

“…the theology of air, water, land and life. Those are the sacred objects. Those are the sacred things of life. It’s not a piece of bread and a glass of wine…” 

Bruce and I spoke a little about the Doctrine of Discovery and the connection to the land and its sacredness. Being Christian doesn’t just mean partaking in communion; it means being interconnected with the sacred things in life and protecting those sacred things. 

“What’s sacred is life itself. It’s what we take in; the water, what we need for life. In Indigenous people it’s the women who traditionally were in charge of water; keeping it clean, because it’s vital. If you don’t see water as being a sacred part of life, you’re not living.” Bruce sees in the market commodification of water something like a Windigo, or Wetiko, drawing on the image of a cannabalistic spirit representing the force of greed and selfishness that destroys everything it touches described by Blair Stonechild in Loss of Indigenous Eden and The Fall of Spirituality.

Bruce mentioned that a new kind of schooling has been introduced to Northern Alberta, Yukon and the Territories. Covid-19 has provided an opportunity for educators and students to leave the close quarters of the classrooms and head out to the land to learn. Studies have shown that learning outdoors increases academic performance and childhood development. Not only is on-the-land learning beneficial for students, but teachers and elders notice reconciliation and healing taking place as well.

“It was Murray Sinclair, former Senator and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who said, ‘Know who you are, know where you came from, have a vision and go for it.’…How you’re connected to the land, how you’re connected to the people, and then you can thrive because you know who you are. You’re not what the system wants you to be”.

Bruce is a person who makes connections.

“I think the Spiral learning is what I was naturally adept at,” he said, referring to the action-reflection process that is integral to CCS’s pedagogy, “because you would do something… think about it… How can I do that different?”

I asked Bruce what he would like the United Church of Canada to know about his work. He started by quoting Lilla Watson, “If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time”.

Here’s Bruce’s advice to the church: “Go out and build relationships with Indigenous people. Don’t worry about them coming into your building, go and build and make and have relationships and work with them. We’re not going to “save” them. Go and be with them and walk with them. ‘Come and walk with me and work with me and we’ll do things together.’ Give the churches back to them, make them into homeless shelters, do something, because they’re just property. We spend so much time and effort trying to put the roof on our own building, ‘cause it looks good? It’s got good acoustics, but we won’t take the pews out because we need the pews in here! Well, the church in 1950, when it was built it had a flat floor…you have a space that is good for weddings and funerals and when you get to a point when there’s no young kids anymore, what are you gonna do with that building? Throw the pews out and have a dance hall!”.  

Resource suggestions:

Kristie and Bruce’s wide-ranging conversation touched on many interconnected topics and justice issues. Here are some of books, articles, and thinkers that Bruce recommends:

  • Tom’s River by Dan Fagin – “It was an industry, it moved from Europe to New Jersey, and this whole story is about setting up a company along the Tom’s River and this chemical company that went out in the middle of the woods in a pine forest. Pine forests are usually where there’s lots of sand, and so if you want to get rid of things, you just dump it in the ground and ‘pfft’ it goes down”. This is a story about a water company and a chemical company that knew the dye was getting into the wells and people were dying but “the systems” 
  • Resource Extraction – “I found this article on the United Church of Canada website.”
  • Water Shed by Doreen Vanderstoop – “It’s a dystopian story about how in 2058 the rivers have all dried up in Alberta and there’s water wars and they’re bringing water up the Gateway Pipeline from the Pacific Ocean to desalinate it in Bruderheim and so that they could pump it down the pipelines to the cities and across Alberta. So the intention is to get it down into the States. With the climate change they’re gonna get wetter or drier or whatever”. 
  • Violence and the Sacred by Rene Girard – “…the police are so scared and have been trained in intimidation and violence to be used against and on peaceful citizens. …the attraction to violence, being sucked into violence rather than living for peace”.
  • Run, Hide, Repeat by Pauline Dakin. Interestingly, Bruce and I were talking about the Southern family in Calgary that owns Spruce Meadows and Atco Structures. That conversation led to the topic oil and gas companies setting their own rules and taxes on utility bills leaving very little accountability with the governments, and how in difficult times politics becomes a game of promises based on the illusionary visions of some political leaders.
  • Helena Norberg-Hodge – “There’s a revolution in Canada that no one knows about”. 
  • Get to know UNDRIP – “There are points in there on how to live in right relationship; you have to have informed prior consent. You have to do your negotiation before you decide you’re gonna use the old satellite mining technique of pounding a stake in the ground and saying ‘That’s mine’….It’s all part of the Doctrine of Discovery”.
  • Towers of Deception by Barry Zwicker which is about the media coverup of 9/11. “…the need to create a war to keep the economy going.”
  • Andrew Nikiforuk – Andrew has written many books but his book Slick Water is of particular interest in this interview as it tells the story of oil patch consultant, Jessica Ernst, and her household water turning into a flammable liquid because of fracking near her community. 
  • Gwyn Morgan and his work with Encana Corporation and SNC Lavalin.
  • The difference between surviving and thriving
  • David Dodge on the program Ideas. He is the former governor of the Bank of Canada.
  • Six Day Bicycle Racing during the Depression. Al Capone would eventually take this over.

Comments: 1

  1. Barbara Barnett says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful article, and for the resources you have listed. You are taking me deeper into water/river theology and reflection, as I start to work with a group on sewage discharge into the Assiniboine River

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