Watersheds 2020 an Inspiring Success

Over 200 water champions came together in decade-long tradition

Published On: November 30th, 2020

It’s been a month since Watersheds 2020 brought together more than 200 water champions from across B.C. and Canada to learn from one another, explore initiatives and opportunities for innovative partnerships and watershed decision-making, and be inspired to continue making a difference in their home watersheds.

The program was shaped by the needs and priorities identified by the B.C. water community in two pre-event surveys. The responses sent a clear message: Watersheds 2020 needed to focus on reconciliation and implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), co-governance and shared authority, and Indigenous laws in the freshwater context.


“I appreciated that the whole agenda centered on Indigenous voices.”


The planning team was honoured and grateful that Coast Salish Elder Florence James (Penelakut Island, B.C.) and Anishinaabe/Métis scholar Dr. Vicki Kelly (Simon Fraser University) opened the virtual meeting space in a good way through ceremony, prayer, and teachings that gathered participants together in mind, heart, and spirit. They also brought the day to a good close after the generous sharing and exchanges that took place.

The two-day virtual forum included contributions from 31 speakers and moderators. Participants included individuals from Indigenous Nations, watershed groups, local and provincial government, funding organizations, academic and research institutions, and professional networks.

“When we pivoted to a digital event instead of an in-person gathering due to COVID, we did our best to create a meaningful and respectful space for cross-cultural learning between Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants within the limitations of virtual meeting platforms,” said Laura Brandes (Communications Director, POLIS Water Sustainability Project). “This is the most ambitious digital event we’ve ever undertaken with lots of moving parts, including videos, numerous speakers, live polls, chat boxes, artwork, and breakout sessions.”


 “I felt a bit more recharged for my work after Watersheds 2020—a bit more excited, and like I had a bit more perspective on my work … I’m grateful for Watersheds 2020 inciting those emotions. I feel like there’s still so much to learn about working in/with/around water … the learning can’t stop.”


Law’s Indigenous Ethics

Featured keynote speaker Dr. John Borrows (Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law, University of Victoria) encouraged participants to think of “law” as a verb—something that we do—and reflect on how we ourselves engage in “law-ing.” We need to expand our imagination about what we are doing when we think about law. Law is something that is co-constructed—not just with humans, but with the Earth and the natural world as well. The community of law-makers is much broader than we typically imagine and we all have a role in understanding and creating law. In particular, it is important to create new spaces for dual and shared authorities to actively engage in governance and law-ing together.

John’s talk drew on some of his recent work including the book Law’s Indigenous Ethics, which focuses on the Anishinaabe grandmother and grandfather teachings of love, respect, truth, wisdom, honesty, humility, and bravery.

Discussants Lydia Hwitsum (First Nations Summit) and Oliver M. Brandes (POLIS Project on Ecological Governance) then offered their insights in the context of watershed governance, DRIPA (B.C.’s application of UNDRIP), and B.C.’s Water Sustainability Act, exploring ways in which decision-making, laws, governance, and relationships can—and must—evolve to advance reconciliation and watershed security. Dr. Vicki Kelly acted as witness and spoke to what was shared.

Innovative Work on the Ground

During the second session of Day 1, champions involved in existing watershed governance initiatives shared their innovative approaches, learnings, and insights. This session built on the “Stepping Stones to Watershed Governance” framework—an approach that explores and illustrates the various milestones that must be in place to shift to more sustainable and equitable decision-making—and demonstrated watershed governance in action. Participants learnt from individuals involved in the Water Sustainability Plan scoping work and partnership for the Koksilah River (Xwulqw’selu Sto’lo) Watershed, ʔElhdaqox Dechen Ts’edilhtan (“ʔEsdilagh Sturgeon River Law”), and Syilx (Okanagan) Lake Watershed Planning.


“Very interesting for concrete examples, specifically the role of Indigenous people as … drivers of policy implementation.”


Exploring Emerging Issues

The second day of Watersheds 2020 offered multiple concurrent sessions, allowing participants to take a deeper dive on a selection of themes and emerging issues. Working in small, focused groups facilitated open, meaningful exchange between panelists and participants—which has been a foundational feature of the in-person Watersheds forums in past years. Each of the five sessions provided valuable insight into innovative ideas and opportunities. Despite covering a wide range of topics—from the overlap between water and clean tech, to the role of storytelling in effecting change—the panelists were unified in their emphasis on the importance of adopting a whole-of-watershed approach, prioritizing Indigenous-led processes and decision-making, and securing long-term sustainable funding for watershed security.


“Great selection of topics, crucial for advancing watershed governance!”

“I really enjoyed the breakout sessions, and the opportunity to discuss in a smaller group.”


Looking Ahead

The Watersheds 2020 planning team is working on a proceedings report and event videos that will be released in the coming months. These will capture the main themes of the discussions and learnings from the event to help guide the work of water champions going forward. The proceedings will offer a summary of the event and be a resource for future work and events.

Participant feedback is already informing planning for future events to ensure the dialogue and action sparked at Watersheds 2020 can continue. Stay tuned for more details on POLIS’ Creating a Blue Dialogue webinar series, which will continue to explore core themes and conversations started at Watersheds 2020.

Watersheds 2020 Planning Team

The entire Watersheds 2020 planning team offers a big thank you to all the supporters, organizers, speakers, participants, and those who couldn’t attend but are eagerly awaiting the proceedings report. We look forward to seeing you all again at Watersheds 2022!