Where the waters divide: Environmental justice, neoliberalism, and Aboriginal voices. An ethnography of the changing Canadian water sector

Michael Mascarenhas
Dept. of Sociology, Michigan State University
June, 2005


This ethnography provides an in-depth analysis of First Nations' reflections and experiences concerning the significant changes in systems, institutions, and practices of drinking water distribution in Southern Ontario. These changes---often referred to as neoliberalism---although unique in their circumstances represent a new set of inequalities and injustices for First Nations' communities in Ontario that has largely been undocumented. The hegemony of neoliberalism is made most evident by the ways in which profound political and ideological projects have successfully masqueraded as a set of objective, natural, and technocratic truisms. In the case of neoliberal water governance reform in Ontario, this means the introduction of highly centralized, inegalitarian, and discriminatory institutions, systems and practices. To be more specific, an emphasis on expert-led science is advanced as objective, necessary, technical, and the only solution to the current water crisis. However as this paper illustrates the emphasis on expert-led science illegitimates more popular forms of epidemiology. Similarly, an insistence on credentialism undermines indigenous and local knowledge systems, and thus obviates more decentralized forms of measuring and understanding environmental quality and illness. What follows is my interpretation of the many ways, both obvious and subtle, in which the technologies of neoliberal water governance in Ontario discriminate against indigenous peoples.