“I immediately felt welcomed [at FES]. I was treated with respect, as a person with something to contribute but I was also challenged to learn, grow and succeed.”
Chiefs of Ontario’s Director of the Environment Kathleen Padulo (MES ‘01) is propelled by her passion for environmental issues and fueled by a sense of responsibility to fight the injustice of environmental racism against First Nations. As part of the first generation who wasn’t stolen from her family and forced into the residential school system, she feels her education was a great privilege that has helped her find a niche where her work can make a lasting impact.
Communication is at the heart of her role with the Chiefs of Ontario. Padulo is tireless in her efforts to keep the Chiefs of Ontario’s 133 First Nations communities informed of the Government’s environmental policies that would impact their treaty rights, of funding opportunities, and of forums where their voices can be heard. Concentrating on priorities and bound by resolutions the Chiefs pass in assemblies that meet twice a year, she leads a team that has recently grown from two to five staff to undertake research, develop strategy, and advocate on behalf of the people they serve.
In 2015 Padulo was approached by Human Rights Watch (HRW) to help them investigate the water crisis currently facing Canada’s First Nations. They focused on Ontario where water advisories affect almost 40% of reserves and some advisories have persisted for over a decade.
“If Toronto was ever issued a boil water advisory, it is safe to say the issue would be dealt with immediately,” Padulo said. “There are reserves where generations have grown up without ever being able to drink tap water at home.”
Padulo connected HRW Senior Researcher Amanda Klassing to Chiefs, Elders, and women who could advise on traditional protocols with respect to water. A water and sanitation survey of 99 households and 11 qualitative interviews were collected into a damning report titled “Make it Safe. Canada’s Obligation to End the First Nations Water Crisis” published June 7, 2016.
““Water safety affects everyone in a community but the responsibility and the work falls disproportionately on the women who are our caregivers,” Padulo said. “When you take into account the cultural significance of water and women’s traditional role as keepers and protectors of water and givers of life, the issue becomes that much more life-threatening.”
In February 2016, Padulo and a team from HRW accompanied and supported nine First Nations women from communities across Ontario on a trip to Geneva to tell the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) that filthy water is making their families sick and undermining their spiritual relationship with water.
“It was phenomenal to see the process in action,” Padulo said. “The women gave such a powerful testimony. Bringing them before the UN elevates the issue and the rapporteurs will put pressure on Canada to address the systemic challenges that have allowed the water advisories to happen and continue for so long. I feel honored that COO was involved and that I could contribute.”
Before her work with COO, Padulo worked with LURA Consulting and with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. Her national government experience is a great asset in working effectively and building relationships with all levels of government now.
Prior to York University, her undergrad was in Indigenous Studies at Trent University. Her Professor Dan Longboat (MES ’98 and PHD ‘08) who did both his masters and doctoral studies with FES recommended the MES program for its flexibility. From day one Padulo “fell in love” with York, which she described as a city unto itself that felt like it was bigger than all of Peterborough.
“I immediately felt welcomed,” Padulo said. “I was treated with respect, as a person with something to contribute but I was also challenged to learn, grow and succeed.”
One of her most special memories was defending her major paper which was inspired by the massive garbage dump outside her home community of the Oneida Nation of the Thames and focused on seven First Nations across Ontario and what they were doing with their garbage.
“I interviewed and researched what they did historically, today and what they wanted to do in the future,” Padulo said. “I learned there was no word in Iroquois for garbage,” she said. “We used everything.”
Scheduling her defense was complicated given one of her supervisors had relocated to British Columbia. “The night it came together we got hit with a huge snow storm but we persevered” Padulo said. “I was encouraged to invite my Chief because my community was a part of my research and he was one of my main counsellors. It meant a lot to me that he was there.”
When asked about advice for future students, she shared advice that has lead her into her own rewarding career.
“Know your passion and develop a clear understanding of your focus,” Padulo said. “Use your passion to drive yourself and get to know your profs and your fellow students. I am still friends with classmates today who are all over the world and working in many different sectors.”
Her own future goals include strengthening procedures and legislation around including aboriginal traditional knowledge in environmental assessment.
“Chiefs of Ontario’s Environment Unit coordinated the development of an environmental assessment toolkit with the expertise of Elders, women, technicians, and educators and we’re very proud of that work,” Padulo said. “Integrating traditional knowledge promotes understanding and collaboration across the board. It would be such a positive way to move forward.”