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Water is life and needs to be respected. For the Indigenous people in Canada, there is a reciprocal and unique relationship with water. In particular, Indigenous women share a sacred connection to the spirit of water through their role as child bearers, and have particular responsibilities to protect and nurture water. The forces of colonization and the lack of services to sustain reserves (space), residential schools (relationships), and federally imposed Elected Council systems (governance) have led to a disconnect in the intergenerational transfer of knowledge surrounding water. As a consequence, communities have experienced loss of language, traditional practices, and the roles and responsibilities of Indigenous women related to water. In response, Indigenous women across the country are raising their voices to draw attention to water issues faced in Indigenous communities and the inequities in the involvement of Indigenous women in water governance. They are arguing for the necessity of restoring women’s rightful place in and responsibilities for water governance. Drawing from literature, inspirational examples, and personal communication with Indigenous men and women from across Canada, this article provides a framework that is guided by 10 key principles and seven mechanisms to support Indigenous women in reasserting and reclaiming their influence on water governance.
Indigenous women in particular share a sacred connection to the spirit of water through their role as child bearers and have particular responsibilities to protect and nurture water.
Indigenous women across the country are raising their voices to draw attention not only to water issues faced in Indigenous and wider communities.
As principles and mechanisms are applied to re-empower and support Indigenous women in their role as water stewards and to be part of or lead the water governance dialogue, challenges can be overcome.
The Earth is said to be a woman. In this way it is understood that woman preceded man on the Earth. She is called Mother Earth because from Her come all living things. Water is Her life blood. It flows through Her, nourishes Her, and purifies Her.1
A LONGER VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE CAN BE FOUND HERE AT THE SOLUTIONS JOURNAL
Indigenous women across the country are raising their voices to draw attention not only to water issues faced in Indigenous communities, but also water issues that affect all Canadians. The following are a few inspirational illustrations of specific events and initiatives from across Canada. These activities empower and support Indigenous women, building a movement of understanding about the role Indigenous women play with regards to water, the inequities in the involvement of women in water governance, and the need for restoring women’s rightful place in these processes. These experiences support not only awareness but also the participation of Indigenous women in local, regional, and national water dialogues.
Mother Earth Water Walkers
In 2003, a group of Anishinaabe women led by Grandmother Josephine Mandamin of the 3 Fires Lodge initiated the Mother Earth Water Walks (MEWWS) to raise awareness of water issues, both the sacred connection between people – especially women – and the waters, and how women take care of water.26The first of these water walks took place in the spring of 2003, when the group walked around Lake Superior with a copper pail (due to its sacred and healing properties) of water to draw attention to the need for action regarding water issues. There were subsequent walks each year around the Great Lakes. The MEWWs have become an action of solidarity as many women have taken up the role of speaking and caring for water, renewing their traditional responsibilities,27 and supporting each other. Katherine Morrisseau-Sinclair is one Indigenous woman that was inspired by Grandmother Josephine Mandamin to start the Lake Winnipeg Water Walk and commit to taking care of Lake Winnipeg.28 In recognition for their work, Morrisseau-Sinclair and the Lake Winnipeg Water Walk received the 2014 Champion for Sustainability award from the Manitoba Round Table for Sustainable Development and the Department of Conservation and Water Stewardship.29
Yinka Dene Alliance
In BC, pipeline development has spurred Indigenous women to rally their communities to achieve a unified, stronger voice for water. As the Enbridge gas company was proposing the Northern Gateway Pipeline to various communities along its routes, a group of Indigenous women from the Saik’uz First Nation focused on building ties with other First Nations in BC. The result was the Yinka Dene Alliance, consisting of six First Nations that united to stop the pipeline. The alliance is drawing on Canadian, international, and Indigenous law to prevent the expansion of the oil industry while organizing campaigns to raise awareness of the devastating impacts of oil sands extraction. The Alliance developed the Save the Fraser Declaration, signed by over 1,600 First Nations and allied American Indian groups, which bans pipelines from their traditional territories in the Fraser River watershed.30
Ontario Indigenous Women’s Water Commission
The Ontario Indigenous Women’s Water Commission (OIWWC) was established by the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA). It represents women from across the 54 ONWA locals, their board members, and Elders. The OIWWC “strives to reassert and promote the traditional and inherent roles of Indigenous women as the caretakers of the waters by engaging in traditional practices, participating in education and planning on water issues, and forming relationships among Indigenous women.”9 The OIWWC developed aWater Rights Toolkit with input from local Elders and community members that recognizes the unique relationship that Indigenous women share with water. It was created to empower Indigenous women who are confronted with water-rights issues and to support them to effectively engage in decision-making processes around water at the community and governmental levels.9
The Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources
The Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER), a First Nation-directed environmental nonprofit organization with charitable status, has been working on Indigenous water issues for many years.31 From 2012 to 2013, CIER led an ambitious and successful ‘Youth Water Leaders’ project where 16 Indigenous youth (of which eight were female) from four different communities (Beausoleil First Nation, Lower Similkameen Indian Band, Iskatewizaagegan #39 Independent First Nation, and Fort Smith) representing each of Canada’s four main watersheds were engaged in and educated about water issues. This initiative gave the youth an opportunity to become leaders in the challenge to have universal access to safe drinking water and healthy freshwater ecosystems across the country. During four, week-long workshops (one in each partnering community), the youth learned from and were inspired by a variety of Elders and community and Canadian leaders from media, politics, advocacy, literary, science, and other relevant fields. The youth were commissioned to work together to craft real solutions to water issues, which they implemented with the support of their local communities and CIER. Respected Indigenous women were involved in each workshop to share with the youth traditional teachings about water and how it is being managed and perform water ceremonies. In one particular exercise, the youth had to take care of a jar of water for a week, put positive energies into the water, speak lovingly to the water, and take it everywhere they went. At the end of the workshop week, they returned the water to the river. This taught the youth that water is life and deserves to be taken care of and respected. Since completing this program, female Indigenous youth from Iskatewizaagegan #39 formed an environmental and water organization called Ferda Water. The group has implemented a peer-to-peer learning approach by sharing what they have done with youth from other First Nations (e.g., starting a community garden and water testing workshops). As a result, those youth have gone back to implement similar initiatives.32
Water Declaration of the First Nations in Ontario
In October 2008, First Nations communities from across Ontario met in Garden River First Nation to share their perspectives on water and to discuss current water issues and models on how to move forward in protecting the waters. This led to the Water Declaration of the Anishinaabek, Mushkegowuk and Onkwehonwe in Ontario, which explains the importance of water to the First Nations culture and their responsibilities to protect and respect the waters for future generations. The Declaration clearly articulates the important role Anishinaabek, Mushkegowuk, and Onkwehonwe women play as “the keepers of the waters as women bring babies into the world carried on by the breaking of the water and;…through the teachings of women have the responsibility to care for the land and the waters by our Creator.”33
“Aboriginal women have a special connection to water that mainstream society has not considered in formal decision-making processes. This lack of recognition has not stopped Aboriginal women from fulfilling their obligations. They continue to do as they have always done, guided by spiritual teachings, traditions, values, and ceremonies.”25 – Mi’kmaq Women Protest
Indigenous people around the country are rising up to stand against developments that impact water. In October of 2013, a protest against shale gas exploration in New Brunswick came to a head against Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers. The majority of protestors were Mi’kmaq women who were upholding their traditional responsibilities to care for the water. The women drummed, sang, prayed, and smudged RCMP officers. However, the protest escalated to the point where the RCMP intervened with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and dogs for crowd control and arrested 40 people. A respected Mi’kmaq Elder from Elsipogotg First Nation said that it should not be called a protest, saying rather, “I want to call it protect. We are here to protect our water, our land. We have a river. It’s a beautiful river. We love it and respect it.”34
Weaving the Threads of Indigenous Engagement and Empowerment
Water is life and needs to be respected. With Indigenous women’s sacred connections to water comes responsibilities to protect and nurture it for current and future generations. Indigenous women’s voices need to be valued and their positions re-established in their roles regarding water governance to better inform the water governance dialogue at all scales. As this is a national problem that requires local solutions, how this is accomplished will vary across the country depending on several factors, including the historical role of Indigenous women, internal and external influences, and readiness and available capacity to engage. However, through developing these solutions, there are some overarching principles articulated in documents such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the process provided for in both the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Report, and the Truth and Reconciliation Report, in addition to leading Supreme Court of Canada decisions respecting and incorporating traditional teachings and knowledge into how water is governed and improving gender equity through shared leadership. Ultimately, the engagement and empowerment of Indigenous women will contribute towards promoting the sustainability of our waters, lands, communities, and families.
Through literature, inspirational examples, and personal communication with Indigenous men and women from across Canada, a framework emerged that is guided by several key principles and mechanisms to support the success of engaging and re-empowering Indigenous women in water governance. This framework of principles and mechanisms can support a discussion on how Indigenous women will reassert their traditional and contemporary roles as caretakers of water.
In order to effectively support Indigenous women in asserting their traditional role as the “Keepers of the Water,” the following principles should be considered:
Pathways to Success
The following mechanisms can be employed to develop and implement these processes while upholding the key principles to support Indigenous women in reasserting and reclaiming their influence on water governance:
“We continue to educate and support women’s knowledge of the important role water plays in both the traditional sense and the environmental sense, and how valuable their role is in protecting the water. We restore their roles through educating and through traditional knowledge.”39
There are several potential barriers to engaging Indigenous women and supporting them in their water stewardship roles. The solutions to these types of challenges will vary and will require a multipronged approach. However, to address these solutions requires building relationships based on respect, reconciliation, and responsibility. One barrier that must be overcome is that traditional knowledge keepers are often not involved in dialogues and decision-making and appropriate cultural protocols are not acknowledged. Another barrier is that men often dominate leadership positions without engaging Indigenous women. For example, in some paternalistic-based Indigenous communities where women are not allowed to participate in certain cultural ceremonies (e.g., sweat lodges or using a traditional drum), fewer women are in leadership roles. On the other hand, in some maternalistic-based Indigenous communities that have been influenced by colonial processes, Indigenous women have lost their traditional roles as water leaders. A third barrier is the broader impact from colonialism (e.g., residential schools, disconnect to the land, loss of language and culture) and the need for truth and reconciliation providing an additional incentive to move forward with engaging Indigenous women in reclaiming their role in water governance.
In order to collectively overcome these barriers, it is essential to redress the balance of women from economic, cultural, and social perspectives. This will only happen if time and money are not used as excuses to constrain the processes because the “best decisions take the appropriate length of time.” It is a balancing act to bring traditional knowledge, values, and practices into new processes, although increasingly the balance is being recognized and operationalized. As people continue to understand and respect the role of Indigenous women, they will continue to embrace opportunities to engage them in water governance processes.
Bringing Indigenous women together not only supports efforts in asserting their traditional roles as the “keepers of the water,” but also engages Indigenous women (at different scales) in water stewardship activities. While not necessarily true at the individual level, collectively, women have been identified as effective agents of change and innovators of solutions.38 Harnessing the gender traits and traditional roles of Indigenous women in particular, could lead to policy development that, in addition to addressing ecological integrity, community sustainability, and cultural restoration, addresses broader gender equality. It further creates opportunities for children to learn traditional practices related to water alongside their mothers and a critical space for Indigenous women to connect, learn, and share for sustainable empowerment and engagement. Ultimately, it is essential to create kinship among Indigenous women and non-Indigenous peoples to protect water resources and the environment for future generations.As these principles and mechanisms are applied, Indigenous women will be supported and re-empowered in their roles as water stewards and leaders of the water governance dialogue. The inspirational illustrations of specific events and initiatives from across Canada shared in this reflection have resulted in: i) renewing traditional responsibilities of Indigenous women; ii) the development of declarations to protect land and resources and re-establish Indigenous women’s roles as water leaders in task forces, working groups, and new administrative positions in community, local, and national governance; and, iii) the creation of a youth environmental and water organization. While the broader outcomes are plentiful and will vary across contexts, these are just a few that can be highlighted from these reflections.
“A traditional role of women in water governance will allow us to undertake activities that are respectful of water and thus attempt to keep our society in balance.”40
These outcomes can only be realized through a willingness, on behalf of all people (Indigenous and non-Indigenous, men and women), to understand and act upon the recognition of gender equities, the lack of access to efficient and safe drinking water in Indigenous Canadian communities, and the importance of reconciliation between Indigenous communities and the rest of Canadian society. In developing solutions to these three issues, they cannot be viewed in isolation but as a collective that can be used to catalyze change and overcome the historical intergenerational, intergovernment, and intergender complexities that will move us towards a sustainable society from an equitable water security perspective.
References, SEE ORIGINAL FEATURE HERE AT THE SOLUTIONS JOURNAL
Fall | Winter 2016