Water is Community 

This teaching is based on the following article:

Arsenault, R., Diver, S., McGregor, D., Witham, A., & Bourassa, C. (2018). Shifting the Framework of Canadian Water Governance through Indigenous Research Methods: Acknowledging the Past with an Eye on the Future. Water, 10 (1), 49. 


The authors of this paper examine the importance of using Indigenous research methodologies to address current water issues affecting First Nations in Canada. The article recommends shifting methodologies on water quality and centring inquiries on Indigenous research methodologies and Indigenous knowledge systems. It describes three research initiatives which use Indigenous knowledge and practise decolonizing methodologies: a Community-Based Health Research Lab based on the philosophy of two-eyed seeing (Saskatchewan), a water policy research that uses knowledge sharing to facilitate conversations between Elders and traditional knowledge holders (Ontario), and a decolonizing water partnership which focuses on creating and supporting a framework for reciprocal learning (BC, Alberta). Through those case studies, the authors begin to operationalize what it means to apply decolonizing methodologies to water research and policy formation and offer recommendations of best practices in Indigenous research which can inform long-term water policy solutions.


First Nations in Canada are disproportionately affected by poor water quality. Many First Nations communities across Canada are living with multi-year boil-water advisories, inadequate water treatment facilities or little commitment from the government to address local source water contamination. The federal or provincial governance bodies have delegated water management responsibilities to communities, based on the idea that local communities are better positioned to understand and address water management challenges more efficiently. However, many local communities lack financial or technical resources to provide for the community’s needs. Moreover, beyond technology, infrastructure or funding problems, deeper analysis reveals that inequitable resource distribution and sociopolitical and governance challenges are the core issues. Indigenous research methodologies seek to understand how research exists within a system of power and demand of researchers to think critically about how to address these structural relations of power. Therefore, the authors argue that constructing Indigenous-led frameworks for water governance based on Indigenous concepts of reciprocal relations can best address the deeper roots of the water crisis affecting First Nations in Canada.


It is important to note that there are as many approaches to Indigenous research as there are Indigenous nations. This paper focuses on community-based Indigenous research as a way to prioritize community concerns and ways of knowing. Indigenous research is grounded in reciprocal and respectful community-based relationships and ensures mutual benefits for both the community and the researcher.

Indigenous communities are developing their own ethical guidelines and protocols that will protect their communities and knowledge systems. These guidelines are built on four core values of community-based Indigenous research: respect, responsibility, reciprocity and relevance. This research approach proposes a particular knowledge-sharing framework, where knowledge holders come together to share their expertise, experiences and knowledge through an open process. It also facilitates more innovative and culturally appropriate modes of working with Indigenous peoples and their knowledges, in addition to mobilizing Indigenous knowledges for broader aims and aspirations.


Working within this knowledge-sharing framework, all three research initiatives described in the paper follow the philosophy of “two-eyed seeing, an approach to linking innovative Indigenous research methodologies and western approaches. While the research starts from Indigenous methodologies, centring Indigenous ways of knowing that have been undermined for centuries, the two-eyed seeing approach does not reject western scientific knowledge.


This research approach is consistent with Indigenous water relations, which are often based on the concept of reciprocity. Reciprocity is the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit. Therefore, just as water sustains human life, humans hold an inherent caretaking responsibility for the waters they depend on for their survival. Reciprocal learning aligns with the core values of Indigenous community-based research: respect, reciprocity and relevance. Working in the spirit of reciprocal learning means engaging in partnerships with communities. This will require researchers to shift from an expert-subject paradigm to a collaborative inquiry that engages in open dialogues about power dynamics and inequities, as well as building capacity among community and academic partners.


Indigenous peoples continue to experience ongoing colonial legacies, which in turn create social, political and environmental inequalities. These inequalities make Indigenous communities more vulnerable to health problems and other issues. Non-Indigenous worldviews regarding water as a commodity to be bought or sold threaten Indigenous worldviews of water. Using Indigenous stories as guidelines for understanding our responsibilities to the earth helps everyone understand that our relationships are not centred exclusively on people, but rather are shared among all relations. This includes Indigenous connections to all creation that extend to the earth, the plants, the animals and all peoples, including our ancestors and those yet-to-be-born generations.


The case studies presented suggest that centring Indigenous law in water management will increase our collective capacity to solve today’s most pressing water problems. The authors describe the importance of acknowledging, learning from and using traditional knowledge systems for the benefit of all human beings. Nevertheless, Indigenous peoples are often wary about sharing all of their knowledge, as not all knowledge is appropriate for sharing with all people. For example, it can be difficult for Indigenous communities to share their traditional knowledge without giving away sensitive cultural information.


Indigenous epistemologies of water relations hold distinct perspectives about how to frame and analyze water problems. Indigenous community concerns, priorities and ways of knowing need to be at the forefront of water governance research to ensure that policy outcomes meet the needs of particular Indigenous communities. This work involves rethinking laws, regulatory rules and institutional structures with Indigenous epistemologies and experiences in mind. It will require investing in capacity building, shifting research relationships and centring traditional knowledge. It will also require collaborating across cultures, borders and even species to protect and restore a broad range of water relations. This work includes taking responsibility for protecting our water sources, not just mitigating negative impacts. By applying Indigenous concepts of reciprocal learning and Indigenous water relations to critical water policy issues, we hope to strengthen water outcomes for First Nations in Canada. To do so, water research needs to be centred on respecting Indigenous worldviews, ontologies, epistemologies and knowledges and to directly involve First Nations, both in research and in policy formation.


The summary was prepared by Myia Antone and reviewed by Marina Guessous.