When her community struggled to gain access to clean drinking water and proper infrastructure, Trent alumna, Emily Whetung ’03, dived into playing a leading role in filing a groundbreaking national class-action lawsuit which recently resulted in an $8 billion federal settlement for Curve Lake and other First Nations communities.
Emily, a real estate lawyer and Trent Philosophy graduate, became Chief of Curve Lake First Nation in 2019, with access to clean drinking water being a key driver in her decision to run for chief.
“I have two kids and it occurred to me that they might not be able to live in our community if we didn’t change the water situation,” Emily explains. “I decided to run for chief for a couple of reasons – that being a really big one. We needed to find a way to have a conversation about access to clean drinking water after 40 years of trying to make changes.”
The settlement requires the government to provide both individual and community compensation, as well as a legal commitment to ensure communities get access to clean drinking water with proper infrastructure.
Gaining confidence to lead at Trent
Emily, who stepped down from her position as chief in June 2022, chose Trent University as being close to home allowed her to maintain her tight family and community connections.
“The support at Trent University to pursue who you want to be is so significant. Attending the University that had the first Indigenous Studies program in North America allows you to have that pride—a pride that can be really hard to achieve given the history of First Nations in Canada,” she explains. “Taking control of my education, being close to home, and being encouraged to be proud of who I was and pursue those different education pieces in different ways, was huge in giving me the confidence to step forward and demand the necessities of life that our community needs. To have the fight and hold my head high is foundationally a part of the support that Trent University gives to students.”
Keep treading water – overcoming other water issues
The class action, which was settled in only two years, included both individual and community representative plaintiffs and comprised a claim for the past harms of not having access to clean drinking water, and for the actual costs of infrastructure and operation and maintenance going forward.
Over 140,000 individuals qualify for the class action and 259 First Nations can participate. Another unique thing about this class action is that those First Nations can choose to sign up now, even though the settlement has been signed, which is not normally how you participate in a class action.
The fight for clean drinking water is, however not over yet.
“This [class action] is not solving all of the water issues,” Emily explains. “It’s the first step down the road to that access. We need to acknowledge that there are other water issues First Nations are facing that we still have to overcome.”
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Trent Magazine. Visit mycommunity.trentu.ca/trentmagazine to download and subscribe.