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Water Today Title April 14, 2024

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Update 2020/4/28
First Nations


By Suzanne Forcese

"nibi onje biimaadiiziiwin – means ‘water because of life, but life because of water’. It is not descriptive like the English language; it is not ‘water is life’, it is ‘because of’ – it is purposeful.”
-- Aimee Craft, Indigenous Lawyer and Professor, University of Ottawa

The western scientific perception of water as two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen (typically seen by mainstream society), has reduced it to a commodity for human uses and activities. This remains a stark contrast to the culture of Indigenous peoples. The Indigenous relationship to water as a living entity embraces many more nuances. It is a relationship bringing with it a responsibility and a teaching that has the potential to enrich the water security narrative while complementing western science.

Dr. Robert Patrick, Professor and Chair of Regional and Urban Planning in the Department of Geography, University of Saskatchewan, contends the Indigenous perspective is an important piece of the conversation that needs to be included in Canada’s water security story. WaterToday had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Patrick who is a member of the Global Institute for Water Security. Patrick’s research interests include land use and watershed planning. “I work with First Nations communities,” Patrick told WT, explaining how he has reframed his own common beliefs about First Nations that were part of the untrue story he experienced growing up in British Columbia.

“Colonial domination over Indigenous peoples in Canada created a chain of events that continues to impose negative health impacts on First Nations communities.”

Today, at any given time, one in five First Nation communities in Canada is on a Boil Water Advisory with some advisories lasting over ten years. The high number of contamination events is the result of the lack of community water distribution systems, inadequate technology, lack of federal funding and land use activities (water extraction , mining and agricultural practices) that affect source water quality.

Focused now on reclaiming Indigenous culture as a pathway to local water security, Patrick is emphasizing the relational components of kinship, custodial territory, traditional knowledge, cultural beliefs and inter-generational considerations as holistic foundational building blocks to Indigenous planning in developing community based watershed and source water protection.

“We define water security as sustainable access on a watershed basis to adequate quantities of water of acceptable quality to ensure human and ecosystem health.” But there are inherent difficulties within that definition.

Water governance in Canada is highly fragmented across multiple layers of government departments and agencies. In addition, authority over watershed planning in many regions has been further devolved to local watershed organizations that operate in isolation not only from one another but from First Nation communities within the same watershed.

Poorly designed community infrastructure services—inadequacies in housing, water supply and delivery services and wastewater disposal-- have been identified as legacy projects that reproduce undrinkable water in many First Nation communities. Further, inconsistent planning and management programs; a patchwork of drinking water quality regulations; and the expansion of resource extraction activities continue in many parts of Canada without prior and informed consent from First Nation communities. These developments and associated impacts range from damned rivers and flooded valleys to polluted surface water and contaminated groundwater.

“Indigenous communities are particularly mired in a web of federal and provincial regulatory and jurisdictional fragmentation, adding to the daily challenges of delivering safe drinking water to community members.”

In a March 2020 research paper (Indigenous Perspectives On Water Security In Saskatchewan, Canada) co-authored with Masters student Obadiah Awume and PhD student Warrick Baijius, Patrick states that five themes emerged from the Indigenous participants of varied communities in Saskatchewan. A more holistic framing of water security would include:
  • Water as a life form
  • Water and the spirit world
  • Women as water-keepers
  • Water and human ethics
  • Water in Indigenous culture

“Participants often related water to a life form explaining that the way we protect our water will either help or hinder our preservation.”

A simple statement, yet the complexities and subtleties became augmented and refined as WaterToday explored the concepts involved with bringing western and indigenous perspectives closer to alignment as a means of answering our water security issues.

For a better understanding of ‘decolonization’, WT had the privilege of speaking with Aimee Craft, Indigenous (Anishinaabe-Metis) lawyer whose expertise is in Canadian Aboriginal Law. A direct descendent of Louis Riel, she is also Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa and Adjunct Professor at the University of Manitoba. Her research on Indigenous laws, treaties and water are an extension of her own relationship to water.

“My relationship to water is celebratory in terms of acknowledging its importance but there is a sadness that comes with water that is not safe to drink, or water that is being dammed, or water that is being manipulated for individual purposes without keeping in mind the collective interests, the spirit of that water itself. My relationship is first in giving thanks to the water, then working for the water in any way I can.”

Craft is Co-Lead for Decolonizing Water – Building Resilient Water Futures, an Indigenous based water monitoring initiative. The project is based on a “two-eyed seeing”, to learn with one eye from Indigenous ways of knowing, and with the other eye from the Western ways of knowing and blending both ways as complementary.

“The Indigenous perspective has simply had a base time of a longer term. Decolonization is about bringing together the two different perspectives to make better informed water decisions,” Craft said.

“In Anishinaabe inaakonigewin (our own legal system), we regard nibi (water), as a being with which we conduct a relationship. We do not control it, although in some cases we try. Water is an independent legal actor. When we alter water, for example by adding chemicals, this changes our relationship to water and makes many Elders feel unsafe. We also know that we cannot stop water’s flow without consequences. This is a breach of sacred and natural law. When we alter the flow of water, we must have good reasons and be prepared to make reparations to the water and other beings including animals and plants. We do that through healing ceremonies and our everyday actions.”
    Anishinaabe Water Law can be simplified in the following basic principles:
  • Water has a spirit
  • We do not own water
  • Water is life
  • Water can heal
  • Water has duality (it can give, sustain and take life)
  • Water can suffer

Environmental justice for Anishinaabe peoples and the revitalization of Anishinaabe Law is the basis of Susan Chiblow’s work. In an illuminating conversation with Chiblow , a York University PhD Candidate, WaterToday learned more about water governance and gender. Chiblow who was born and raised in Garden River First Nation has worked extensively with First Nation communities and has been involved with governments on policy analysis. She also coordinated the development of the First Nation Environmental Assessment Toolkit for Ontario.

The Water Declaration of the Anishinaabek, Mushkegowuk and Onkwehonwe in Ontario has a section on the conditions of the waters, stating how different lakes, rivers, oceans and streams are poisoned by “foreign economic values violating our sacred laws given by the Creator”.

“The lack of implementing Indigenous knowledge into environmental decision- making caused challenges and gaps in water governance. There is currently a lack of gender balance in water policies strategies and governance,” Chiblow stated in a recent article she authored (Anishinabek Women’s Nibi Giikendaaswin, January 2019).

“There is no separation between water and human beings as we are water and water is us. If we respect water, we are respecting ourselves. If we harm the waters we harm ourselves. This is the basis of nibi governance.”

Nibi can take many forms including snow, ice, spring-water, rain, fresh water, swamp water, aquifers, and birth water. “Anishinaabe women have a special relationship with the waters since women have life-giving powers and a particular responsibility to protect and nurture water,” Chiblow adds.

The Chiefs of Ontario Report on First Nations Water Policy also states women are the water keepers. “I participated in several Mother Earth Walks led by Anishinaabe Grandmother Josephine Mandamin with the intent of teaching the importance of nibi.”

“Grandmother Josephine spoke of the memory of water and the importance of placing beautiful and uplifting words on our water cups so that the elements of those words become our own water. Later I learned that the Japanese scientist, Masaru Emoto explained that human consciousness had an effect on the structure of water. Science is catching up with us!”

“She also taught that drinking bottled water is akin to drinking dead water. The water in the bottle has taken on the contamination of the plastic and that contamination spreads to our water systems, our fish and our animals.”

Chiblow also explained that the trauma water suffers also affects the child in utero. “I believe this is not only true for our own generational trauma but that it affects all peoples of the world.”

Anishinaabe are considered ‘water people’. “Since water is considered a sacred element in life, it must therefore be cherished as an essential relative, elder and teacher. If we can view nibi as one of our teachers, we should be able to allow nibi to manage itself.”

An Indigenous perspective on water security supporting the human relational approach appears to expand the mainstream science materiality definition and would be transformational for many Indigenous communities as well as a step towards greater sovereignty over planning. Certainly it requires consideration in the discourse.

“The understanding of Anishinaabe ways of living with nibi is old but will be new to many current water decision-making regimes. It is urgent that the new understandings for politics and governance in relation to nibi be accepted, as nibi is not infinite; rather, nibi is needed for all life to sustain itself. We are all nibi. When we understand that connection that we all have the same essence then we can bring into balance our respect and our responsibility.’
– Susan Chiblow, PhD Candidate, York University



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