After the Swedish mystic and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg had visions of celestial worlds “in the universe beyond our solar system,” he wrote of an inhabited planet with a “trough that was supplied with water by a small ditch from a lake.” That was in 1758. More than a century later, in 1880, the British writer Percy Greg described an unnamed explorer who travelled to Mars aboard the Astronaut, which he stocked with “a supply of water sufficient to last for double the period which the voyage was expected to occupy.” The prudent measure would prove unnecessary, though, as he soon encountered alien seas of “greyish blue” and advanced infrastructure that supplied “water of extraordinary purity to a population of perhaps a quarter of a million.”
In the twentieth century, Ray Bradbury imagined a planet that was more arid than Greg’s but that nonetheless had adequate fresh water. His character Benjamin Driscoll — a determined J. Sterling Morton of the heavens — spends years planting “oaks, elms, and maples, every kind of tree, aspens and deodars and chestnuts” across the Martian plain so that oxygen might enrich the atmosphere and attract more settlers like himself. Driscoll’s own Arbor Day comes after a thirty-day rainstorm: “five thousand new trees had climbed up into the yellow sun.”
What to do about water on the Red Planet became a tougher and more urgent nut to crack after the first human space flight in 1961. And although, just ten years later, NASA’s Mariner 9 provided direct evidence that water did in fact exist, whether it could ever support human exploration remained an open question. So someone like Mark Watney, the protagonist of Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, The Martian, has to burn hydrazine, which enables him to wring just enough moisture from the air to keep himself and his plants alive.
According to the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration at Western University, however, there may be a better way: Recent radar surveys suggest enough ice exists just below the surface of Arcadia Planitia, a “flat-lying lower mid-latitude region of Mars,” to support irrigation, drinking water, even the production of rocket fuel. A shallow but frozen river, with up to 61,000 cubic kilometres of water, makes this part of the planet a “potentially favorable site for future missions due to the high potential for in situ resource utilization.”
In this summer of national tragedy and statuary change, the news from Mars is at first a welcome distraction. “Canada could play a big role” in additional reconnaissance work, Western’s Gordon Osinski told the CBC not long ago. “The idea that it would be a Canadian radar . . . You know, that’s quite exciting.”
But the idea that Canadian technology and Canadian minds could help solve a water problem on a distant land is also terribly ironic in a water-rich state like ours that nonetheless has sixty water advisories currently in effect across forty-one reserves. If this dishonourable status quo continues, according to a recent auditor general’s report that points out the obvious, “the health and safety of First Nations communities will be at risk.”
It’s not as if Ottawa has been unaware of the situation, of course, and in 2015, the government promised to eliminate all long-term water advisories by March 31 of this year. In the uninspired words of Marc Miller, minister for Indigenous Services Canada, the failure to make good on that promise is “unacceptable in a country so rich.” That’s why an unfolding class-action lawsuit merits much more attention than it has received. Spearheaded by Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Curve Lake First Nation, and Neskantaga First Nation (without potable water since 1995), the $2.1-billion claim alleges that “Canada has been negligent, breached its fiduciary duties, breached the honour of the Crown, and breached various rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
It’s all well and good that Justin Trudeau has said, once again, that Canada is “not going to hide” from stark realities facing Indigenous communities, that we as a people will “own up” to our past sins. It’s all well and good that the citizenship oath has been amended, so that newcomers will now swear to recognize “the Aboriginal and treaty rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.” But empty press conference bromides and ceremonial affirmations are not exactly thirst-quenching.
We live in a country where serious minds are actively solving the water question on Mars; this is no longer the realm of science fiction. Surely, then, we can finally solve an even more pressing problem, one that’s much closer to home.