By Melanie Stirling

Welcome to the second part of our three part blog series, amplifying the voices of water leaders of colour in our community. For part two we were fortunate enough to speak with Lina Azeez about her personal connection to water, the incredible work she does to protect our waters, the wildlife she advocates for, and her perspectives on different issues that POC face.

Lina Azeez is the Connected Waters Campaign Manager at Watershed Watch Salmon Society. Watershed Watch is a salmon conservation and advocacy organization. They focus their attention on different ways to support and stand up for wild Pacific salmon.

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Watershed Watch Salmon Society logo. Photo: Watershed Watch Salmon Society, Facebook.

Connection to Water

When discussing how Lina made the decision to pursue a career involving water, she reflects on a time while completing her undergraduate degree in human and environmental geography at the University of British Columbia. There was a discussion on water security and governance and how climate change is going to affect the demand for water. At the time she was reading a book about how water is equivalent to black gold, and that it was going to become more precious than oil. It was from reading this book, having conversations about the importance of water, a series of very interesting co-op jobs, and trying to figure out how best to apply this knowledge in the real world, that inspired her to work in the water sector.

She shares that when you live in the Lower Mainland, being involved in the water sector often leads you to salmon. Over ten years ago, when Lina was beginning her career, there was already a lot of work happening around the human need for water. She wanted to help bring the focus towards the needs of the ecosystem at large and its animals. This began her career in water, and one with a strong connection to salmon, a keystone species in British Columbia.

Lina’s Watermark Story

One of Fraser Riverkeeper and Swim Drink Fish’s initiatives is the Watermark Project. Watermark stories highlight a time or moment when you connected to a body of water and why that moment is important to you. Lina’s watermark story involves a thrilling adventure that she calls “an opportunity of a lifetime”. This adventure was a 25 day rafting trip down the Fraser River, from source to sea. She learned of this opportunity as a second year student at UBC, having come across a poster advertising the Rivershed Society of BC’s Sustainable Living Leadership Program. Unfortunately, being a university student, it was a little out of reach at the time, but Lina dreamed that one day she would be able to do this amazing program. 

Fast forward to her late twenties and this dream came true! She shares how this adventure starts with complete strangers (who soon become your River Family) travelling from the source of the Fraser River at Mount Robson. She recalls waking up early the first day and heading down to the river to spend time with it. She was in complete awe of how beautiful it was to be up there where the river starts as more of a trickle before it accumulates more water, plunges down several waterfalls, and winds its way out to the sea. She recalls being amazed and full of wonder and hope standing at the beginning of the biggest and the most bountiful salmon river in the world, one that becomes so mighty, and feeds and nourishes so much.

“In the lower mainland, we see the Fraser as this really mucky muddy river that nobody really wants to spend time on. It’s fully diked up, and it’s just not given a lot of love, but up there it’s just so beautiful and natural and wild, so it was nice to see that side of the river. I highly recommend it.”       - Lina Azeez

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Lina paddling the Fraser River from source to sea. Photo: Lina Azeez.

Having the opportunity to meet the source of the Fraser River and then follow it out to sea, calling it “a quintessentially Canadian or British Columbian thing to do.”, is what makes this epic water adventure Lina's watermark story. To share your own watermark story, click here.

Connected Waters

At Watershed Watch Salmon Society, Lina works on the Connected Waters campaign, which focuses on restoring and reconnecting 1500 kms of waterways in the lower Fraser that are impacted by flood infrastructure by changing the way we think about and manage for floods. She believes that people know about salmon farming and the effects of climate change on salmon, but they aren’t quite as aware of the impacts that flood structures have on the movement of salmon and water. There are a lot of barriers that Watershed Watch has identified in the lower Fraser watershed, but barriers extend beyond this region to the entire Lower Mainland. Watershed Watch believes this to be one of the biggest issues impacting salmon that people have not heard of.

“I work on our Connected Waters campaign, where we look to restore and reconnect waterways in the lower Fraser that are impacted by flood infrastructure. We say that this is one of the biggest issues impacting salmon that people have not heard of.” - Lina Azeez

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Connected Waters campaign. Photo: Watershed Watch Salmon Society, YouTube.

Our society built walls to try and protect communities from the water, but this was done to the detriment of salmon. Watershed Watch’s field crew and volunteers have found water temperatures of up to 25°C in these blocked waterways, which are lethal to salmon and many other species. They’ve also recorded very poor levels of oxygen, a sign of poor water quality. These are some of the reasons Watershed Watch wants to change the way floods are managed. Lina says they’re looking at ways people can continue to protect our built environment, but do so in a way that doesn’t negatively impact salmon and other species.

They recommend looking at green infrastructure solutions and the current policies that could be updated or changed to help support salmon. Lina notes that flood infrastructure is a very complex and expensive issue, stating that most of these structures are owned and operated by local governments, but they receive funding to upgrade or build flood structures from the provincial and federal governments. Watershed Watch wants to ensure that funds also consider the needs of salmon and other fish, not just the needs of humans.

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Lina meeting with MP Gord Johns in Ottawa to discuss the impacts of and solutions for flood control infrastructure on fish and fish habitat. Photo: Lina Azeez.

Lina shares that although floodplain management is starting to come into play more, it’s been a real tough push because people are so used to the piecemeal approach of one structure at a time rather than taking a step back to look at the entire landscape and how we should be managing the entire floodplain.

Diversifying the Conversation

Lina remembers being one of very few POC in her university program and that discussions of marginalized communities, such as Indigenous peoples, didn’t really occur. She also recalls learning of conservation in a very traditional way where local context and dynamics were not considered. She knew there needed to be a better and more inclusive approach to conservation and management but didn’t yet know how to fully express those solutions. 

When she was able to continue her studies in Costa Rica in Natural Resource Management, she learned of many more approaches to conservation. The international university in Costa Rica had students from all over the world doing environmental work in countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, the Maldives, and in various parts of Central America.

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Lina witnessing the ‘arribada’ or arrival of the Olivia Green Sea Turtles on a protected beach in Costa Rica. Photo: Lina Azeez.

This experience opened her eyes to a very different way of thinking about conservation and environmental work as something more rooted in community. This is where conversations and learnings about climate justice, environmental justice, and considering the importance and values of intersectional decision-making came to the forefront for her.

“It was really interesting, when I continued my studies in Costa Rica in Natural Resources Management, it was much more different than the very traditional way that we think about conservation and environmental work here in BC. It really opened my eyes to the environmental world as something being more rooted in community, and that’s where climate justice, environmental justice, and intersectional decision-making started to become more present for me.” - Lina Azeez

When she returned to Canada, she knew there was a need to work more closely on environmental issues with diverse communities. When she joined Watershed Watch it was in transition towards doing this work with a broader engagement organizing method. Where the organization used to spend a lot of time truth telling to the government and not gaining significant traction it was changing its model towards more storytelling and organizing to inspire and empower people from all communities, sectors and interests to stand up and take action.  There is always more power in diversity, listening, and sharing other peoples voices and Watershed Watch understood this to be an effective way forward. Lina feels really lucky to be working at Watershed Watch for its progressive outlook on conservation work, openness to engaging on deeper issues such as climate justice and their strong ally-ship and support of Indigenous rights. She is really glad to be a part of this change and sees being a POC as a strength because it allows her to approach issues from a different perspective.

“I do really love that I can straddle so many different worlds, and so many different ways of seeing. I feel like that really improves my ability to do this work.” - Lina Azeez

Global Perspectives

Having had the opportunity to live and learn in different places, including Sri Lanka, the U.A.E, British Columbia, and Costa Rica, it has inspired Lina and made her eager to adopt a global perspective when focusing on local issues. She shares that with her current work on flooding, a lot of the science and research has come from Europe and the U.S.A. She always wants to have an international perspective and be able to bring it back home to use in her own context. She is also very grateful that at Watershed Watch the perspectives and involvement of First Nations is front and center, as everything they do, they do with the support of and to support and align with Indigenous values and goals in the watersheds.

“Having had the opportunity to live in a couple different places, it makes you always want to think globally and be inspired by and learn from people across the world.” - Lina Azeez

Lina also shares that she has been overwhelmed and impressed by the way youth are tackling climate change by organizing the Global Climate Strikes and many other local actions. Noting that they have been incredible for raising awareness about climate change and a just transition and getting more youth involved in the movement. She is happy to see more people paying attention to these issues and demanding action across the globe.

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Lina at the Climate March in September 2019. Photo: Lina Azeez.

“The Youth Climate Strikes have been incredible for raising awareness and bringing youth into the movement. I’m really excited by what youth are doing in Canada and across the world.” - Lina Azeez

Encouraging POC to Join the Environmental Field

Lina has noticed that more POC are coming into conservation and environmental work, but that there still aren’t enough. She shares that first and second generation immigrants may have a different concept of success. Many believe economic opportunity and stability lie in tech, law, or the medical field and are not encouraged to pursue social or environmental sectors. She believes this will change with time as more people are starting to study programs that have an environmental focus. She has noticed organizations trying to inspire more POC to get into this line of work, but believes it will likely take some more time before any notable changes occur. Lina finds herself at a point in her career where she wants to be a mentor for others within the community. She recognizes the pressures that POC have and wants to encourage them to step outside the box if they are interested in this area of work.

“It’s a bit of a supply and demand thing, and it’s going to change. I know that there are more people studying and going into fields that have more of an environmental focus.” - Lina Azeez

Using Your Voice as a POC to Speak Out and Make a Difference

Lina believes that everyone should speak out and take action to make a difference if they have the passion and concern to do so. One of the ways that Lina has taken action to make a difference is a few years ago when conversations were happening about the Green New Deal, Lina initiated and facilitated a conversation in her community about it. She did this because a lot of people thought that Canada should have a version of it and many POC were pushing for it. Over 40 people attended and were keen to talk about how best to organize to make a difference in their community on various environmental and social issues. Lina says it was affirming to see people show up to this event with so much energy and have real conversations about what a just transition would look like in all aspects.

“I initiated and facilitated a conversation in my community about the Green New Deal. A bunch of people showed up and they were all so keen to talk about how we were going to make a difference in our community on all aspects, like all the social and environmental issues put together, and it was just so cool to see that much energy.” - Lina Azeez

This event led to the hosting of an all candidates debate within Lina’s riding during the 2019 election organized by herself and a few people who attended the initial Green New Deal meeting. The debate was focused on climate justice and it was a packed house!

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All candidates in the Burnaby South riding at the debate meeting. Photo: Lina Azeez.

 Lina shares that this debate was awesome and showed that people clearly care so much and there is an appetite for these conversations in order to keep moving forward. Not only did these events give Lina a lot of energy for her own work on floodplain management but it gave her a better understanding of the effectiveness of grassroots organizing. It helped to see her work through a comprehensive lens.

“It was really awesome, there’s clearly such a need for these conversations to keep moving forward, for leadership to see that people care so much and people want to see the systems change.” - Lina Azeez

Events like these have inspired Lina to have more conversations about these topics within her own community, the Sri Lankan Muslim community in the Lower Mainland. Recent events such as the (re)discovery of the children’s graves at the residential “schools” have also given her an opportunity to talk about Indigenous rights and climate chaos with family and friends. She believes that it isn’t just about ensuring that the POC voice is heard in mainstream circles, but it’s also about creating cultural norms within one’s own community. With this in mind, Lina is trying to raise awareness so that members of the community consider their actions and how they impact the environment. She notes that this is so important because there aren’t many organizations that speak directly to new immigrants, or first generation POC. This often causes them to be left out of the conversation, so if it can be tackled from within, it’s a start.

“It’s not only about ensuring that the POC voice is heard in the larger circles, but also within our own community, and so I’m trying to do work within my own community to raise a bit of awareness.” - Lina Azeez

How Organizations can Become Allies

One summer as a student, Lina worked for the City of Surrey biking around the city and educating home owners about water conservation. The city wanted to reach out and educate their diverse community in their primary languages. This is important because there’s often a language barrier when it comes to raising awareness and it’s more inclusive and effective to put out important information in various languages as it reaches a wider range. This also adds more diversity as people who can speak these languages are hired and trained as part of the outreach teams. Opportunities like Canada Summer Jobs are a great way for organizations to be an ally and bring more POC into the workforce.

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Canada Summer Jobs. Photo: TheCourt.ca.

She encourages POC to take advantage of opportunities like this, as she thinks it’s a great way to bring a set of needed skills to an organization, gain training in a field of interest, and inspire people to share this gained knowledge within their communities and even continue to pursue careers in the environmental sector.

“There’s often a language barrier when it comes to educating or raising awareness and it’s really nice when they put out information in different languages and hire people who can speak multiple languages who can go out there and share it. I think that’s really important to hire for that diversity.” - Lina Azeez

Religious Ties to Environmental Ethics

Lina also wants to share how growing up Muslim has impacted her outlook on the environment. Something that’s not often celebrated or highlighted about being Muslim is the environmental ethic embedded within the religion’s teachings. In the Quran it states that people are supposed to be stewards of the Earth. However, due to colonial and capitalist factors and the basic need to survive, Lina has seen that oftentimes what the religion and its philosophies say versus what goes into practice are so different, and to her this can be quite disappointing as she wants more people within her community to pay more attention to the environmental teachings. She would like people to celebrate this, take their responsibilities seriously, put science to good use, and to take action to protect the environment from a place of spiritual understanding.

“I’m Muslim, I grew up Muslim, and something that’s often not celebrated or highlighted about being Muslim is the environmental ethic around it. We are supposed to be stewards of the earth.” - Lina Azeez

Islam grew out of the desert and has water conservation embedded in it. You are also supposed to treat animals well and not take more than you need from the world around you. It’s interesting that people from desert regions want to celebrate water and lush greenery and unwittingly end up wasting this precious resource. She says it was particularly apparent in Dubai, where she grew up. Lina thinks that Muslims should reflect on the basics and consider what it means to be a steward of the environment. She herself is trying to understand the spiritual importance of doing so more as there is so much to learn and unpack.

Protecting What We Love

At Fraser Riverkeeper, we recognize the importance of diversity and the value of inclusion in the conversation around conservation on every scale. We believe that by sharing personal stories and connections to water and knowledge, it helps us all to connect to nature. We’d like to thank Lina Azeez for her time, openness, and insightful comments on her personal connection to water, the incredible work she does to protect the Fraser River, the wildlife she advocates for, and her perspectives on different issues that POC face. We support and value the work Watershed Watch Salmon Society does within the community and we encourage everyone to learn more about their programs and how to get involved so you too can help defend, protect, and rebuild British Columbia's waterways and wild salmon.

Want to read more stories from exceptional water leaders of colour in the Vancouver community? Read Part 1 of our POC Connections to Water and Perspectives series with Dr. Elaine Leung from Sea Smart here.

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