On a beautiful fall prairie morning on September 20, 2016, approximately 30 people gathered near the Alberta-Saskatchewan provincial border to discuss our shared waters, upstream and downstream dynamics, and how we might work together across borders. The initial idea for this event came from a Project Blue Thumb participant, Dr. Graham Strickert, from the University of Saskatchewan who said: “Hey! Why don’t we connect people from upstream and downstream more often?”
Rivers know no borders. As they flow across a landscape, so too do they flow through our lives, tracing a story of natural and human history, and ignoring political lines. These rivers act as connectors, linking remote landscapes with communities far downstream – a thread among us.
In Alberta, three mighty rivers – the Red Deer, Bow, and Oldman rivers – flow across the landscape from west to east, eventually joining to form the South Saskatchewan River. The Bow and Oldman Rivers meet first, and the Red Deer River joins later, a few miles inside Saskatchewan. All three rivers are fed from the Rocky Mountains, and their waters travel across provinces en route to Lake Winnipeg, and ultimately to Hudson’s Bay.
From origin to outlet, these rivers roam across a huge portion of Canada’s interior landscapes. Yet somehow, despite the obvious hydrologic thread that connects us as Canadians, we forget to reach out to people living upstream and downstream of us. With this in mind, the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance (RDRWA) and partners decided it was high time to connect with more of our neighbours downstream. We decided to host an event – a tea party! – and invited guests from Alberta and Saskatchewan to the confluence of the Red Deer and South Saskatchewan Rivers.
A morning in Empress, AB
On a beautiful prairie fall morning we met in the Village of Empress in eastern Alberta – only 500 meters from the provincial border. We were a diverse group, including people from Alberta and Saskatchewan watershed groups, municipal and provincial governments, the University of Saskatchewan, municipal water management groups, First Nations, and local residents. Two participants – Gary and Karen Carriere – drove over 9 hours from Cumberland House in eastern Saskatchewan to join in.
With participants sitting in a circle, the day began with opening remarks from facilitator Josée Méthot, who spoke about the need to work together across boundaries. She described how the RDRWA’s work with the “social lab” Project Blue Thumb sparked the idea for the gathering, because lab participant Dr. Graham Strickert with the University of Saskatchewan stressed the need to work more with partners in Saskatchewan. As hosts for the day, Jeff Hanger (RDRWA) and Lis Mack (Partners FOR the Saskatchewan River Basin) went next, welcoming people and acknowledging our presence on Treaty 6 lands. Lis reiterated how “rivers know no boundaries, but we work within boundaries”. Our task for the day was therefore to help transcend these boundaries, to connect “upstreamers” with “downstreamers”.
Dr. Graham Stickert, a professor with the University of Saskatchewan later presented research showing that governance is the #1 water concern in Saskatchewan, followed by concerns related to water quality and quantity, land use change, drought and climate change. According to Dr. Strickert, “we need to connect people at the grassroots level,” in order to make meaningful strides on these linked issues.
In a passionate speech, Gary Carriere of the Saskatchewan River Delta Stewardship Committee told us about the Saskatchewan River Delta downstream, the largest inland freshwater delta in North America. Gary lamented declines in the populations of birds, fish, and other wildlife in the delta, owing to low water flows and insufficient sediment loads. Gary attributed these changes to man-made alterations of river flow: “Today we have it in our heart to respect the land, but we have interfered with the natural flow by putting structures along the rivers”. He remarked emotionally “Listen to the animals, where has the muskrat gone? I can see what happens with the animals there. God has given us dominion over the land and we are not doing it right”. Gary’s story highlighted how, within the span of a few decades, cumulative changes to the landscape were impacting the traditional way of life of First Nations, people living in the area for thousands of years.
The room was quiet, grappling with the importance of Gary’s words. Eventually a participant spoke up, “We can do better”.
The group later worked on an interactive exercise that asked upstream (Alberta) and downstream (Saskatchewan) participants to draw the watershed system in their area, highlighting concerns, key players, natural and human infrastructure, and more. Participants flexed their artistic skills, and later compared their drawings to reveal similarities and differences upstream and downstream.
Tea at the confluence
Following a brief lunch, it was time to go on a real adventure. Packed into several vehicles, our carpool convoy drove 30 minutes to the Estuary Ferry crossing, passing increasingly magnificent prairie countryside along the way. After a quick ferry ride, we were on our way to see firsthand the confluence of the Red Deer and South Saskatchewan rivers, about 3 miles from the border as the crow flies.
Conditions were near perfect as we arrived at the banks of the river, a mix of blue skies, golden grasses, and a warm wind. Eager to take in the majestic scenery, the group went for a walk through the native grasses, and hiked up to a lookout point to view “our” Red Deer River join up with “their” side of the South Saskatchewan River.
Meanwhile, trip organizers Josée and Graham were down at the river’s edge, filtering river water into a large stainless steel pot. It was time for a tea ceremony.
We held the tea ceremony to symbolize our connections with the river and with one another, regardless of any political boundaries. Water was taken from the river, filtered, boiled, and steeped with Saskatoon tea. A small team of engineers helped boil the water using camping stoves, realizing part-way through that we needed smaller pots to make the water boil faster. We had to laugh at the delay; this tea ceremony was a feat of engineering!
On top of a small hill, the group gathered in a circle as the tea was poured into beautiful porcelain teacups. Gary gave a blessing in Cree, and with the confluence as our backdrop, we drank in true outdoorsy style.
We closed the day with a sharing circle. Everyone shared their opinion of the day, what they learned, and what they would carry forward with them. Etched in the minds of participants were memories of the two rivers, Gary’s stories of the delta, new relationships, new knowledge, and new ideas. A municipal politician promised that her future decisions would always consider impacts to local and downstream waters. It was a powerful way to end the day.
Overall, our day at the confluence gave us new vigour to work on what really matters to make this a healthy, dynamic, and sustainable watershed. Jeff Hanger, brimming with enthusiasm, suggested we meet up again in a few years, to see how our actions have changed the system. All agreed! We packed the porcelain tea set back in the cardboard boxes and reluctantly headed home.
We had fallen in love with the prairies and our rivers all over again.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: The RDRWA would like to thank our event co-hosts, Lis Mack (Partners FOR the Saskatchewan River Basin) and Dr. Graham Strickert (University of Saskatchewan), as well as RDRWA volunteers Tjarda and Rob Barratt for helping make this event possible. We also thank the Town of Oyen, Special Areas, the University of Saskatchewan School of Environment and Sustainability, and the Global Institute for Water Security for help with event funding. Thanks to Jean Bota for lending the tea cups. Finally, a special thank-you to our gracious and hospitable hosts in the Village of Empress, including Bev Farnden and Dan who cooked our delicious lunch.