Access 2 Clean Water

October 08, 2020
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In September 2020, SFU Centre for Comparative Muslim Studies Community Engagement Coordinator, Aslam Bulbulia, spoke to Hasan Syed about his Access 2 Clean Water campaign which involved him walking and running across Canada to raise awareness for the First Nations’ water crisis.

AB: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and the Access 2 Clean Water campaign?

HS: My name is Hasan Syed, I was born in Pakistan and grew up in Toronto. In my last year of nursing school I was involved in some community projects with the local mosque in Thunder Bay. One of the events we hosted was an open house at the mosque, and a “Breaking Bread” community dinner. Following the success of these events we were invited to an Eid dinner with many faculty and community leaders in attendance. I was one of the youngest people at the dinner and the table I sat at had the conversation turn to the question of international aid versus local development. At that point in my life I had no knowledge of Indigenous community issues in Canada and said “What does Canada need money for? We’re such a wealthy country, we should be giving as much as we can abroad.” That’s when I first heard about the fact that there are more than 50 communities living on reservations without access to clean drinking water. This really shook me. I felt ashamed and felt like I was the only person who didn’t know about this issue. It really struck me hard because I had memories of how hard it was for my parents to get us clean water when I was growing up in Pakistan. They had to boil water, carry it through the house and pass it through a filter then add ice that they’d frozen the night before everyday, just so we could have clean water to drink. I remembered how different this was when we moved to Canada, and even though we were living in a small apartment, we could just open the tap and drink the water. Reflecting on the life I had in Canada, it shocked me to think that other people didn’t have this basic necessity.

AB: The feeling of shame and not knowing is common with many Muslims I speak to about the history of colonization and its ongoing legacies, why do you think this is the case?

HS: I can only speak for myself, I grew up thinking my struggle was the hardest struggle. To move to a new country and build a new life is very difficult and the reality for so many people in our community. It’s not easy to see others’ struggles when you’re so deep in your own. I grew up with the focus on working hard to get a good job, become successful and live the Canadian Dream. 

AB: What was the process like from going from that dinner to running across the country to raise awareness for First Nations’ water access?

HS: I have to thank a lot of people, elders around me, who were very patient with me. It must have sucked for them but they were so important. The person who first spoke to me about this at the dinner was Sister Amina who happened to be from the mayor’s office at the time and was stopping by at my university the next day. I had a follow up conversation with her and she introduced me to Celina, a lawyer working for NAN at the time and Cynthia, a Lakehead University provost of Indigenous Affairs at the time. These mentors were extremely patient with me in my learning journey. 

I was also very excited to raise awareness and do something very quickly. They advised me against my very ambitious first idea of a huge ten thousand person fundraising dinner. Since this was a national issue I knew I wanted it to be a national campaign of some sort. Eventually I landed on the idea of running across the country, and even then I was very ambitious and said I wanted to do it without any training and only eating bread and drinking water. It was important for me to embody some of the suffering that people without access to water go through.

AB: Why running across the country though?

HS: One of my earliest memories from when I moved to Canada was Terry Fox’s run across the country to raise awareness and funds for cancer research. Every year we would do the Terry Fox run in school and that run had always been in my mind. His run also ended just outside of Thunder Bay where I was studying nursing.

AB: That makes me think about what is emphasized at schools and what isn’t. Not to take anything away from Terry Fox but it surprises me how little is known about Indigeneous communities but there’s a Terry Fox run in schools every year and he’s so well known. Maybe one day there’ll be a Hasan Syed run for access to clean water done in schools across the country.

What were some of the highlights of your run?

HS: There were so many! The thing that stands out most is the Indigenous communities who reached out to me along the way. The story was picked up by the media pretty soon and the headline read “Canadian Muslim runs for First Nations”. This meant that as I went across the country I was invited to attend community events and gatherings. Many of which brought Muslim and Indigenous communities together for the first time.

In Hamilton there was a blanketing ceremony for me, my parents were invited out and it brought the whole community together, there were so many children there. In London the Friendship Centre made a halal meal for the Muslims that came out and we ate together and prayed in the main hall. The next day the Mosque hosted the Friendship Centre community to their space for a meal. In Shoal Lake the youth hosted an open dialogue to dispel stereotypes and assumptions that existed if or both communities.

I also treasure the small moments of people stopping on the side of the highway to hug me and thank me for bringing attention to this issue.

AB: What are your thoughts on how we educate people about the complex history of Indigenous communities, the same way Muslim communities are so complex? How do we tell stories that speak to the issues and the resilience? Show solidarity from other communities and highlight the leadership from within?

HS: I think the best way for our communities to learn about each other - would be to start spending time together. Like the example of Shoel lake where the youth came together and had open conversations in a safe space. Another great example is London where the mosque invited the Indigenous community and the Indigenous community invited the mosque and cooked food for them. It was amazing - like an educational party.

AB: What does the future of Muslim-Indigenous solidarity look like for you?

HS: There’s still so much to be done. It’s something I’d like to give more time to.

AB: Thank you so much for your time. I’m looking forward to staying in touch.

HS: Likewise, assalaamu alaikum.