Water is Knowledge

This teaching is based an article written by Dr. Deborah McGregor. 

McGregor, D. (2012). Traditional Knowledge: Considerations for Protecting Water in Ontario. The International Indigenous Policy Journal, 3 (3).


This article addresses the role of Traditional Knowledge (TK) in protecting water in Ontario. At the same time, it highlights the need for mutually respectful collaboration between TK and Western science in resolving the water crisis primarily experienced in small, usually Indigenous, communities in Canada. The insights shared in this paper provide an overview of what water means to the Anishinabek in Ontario as gathered from the lessons and teachings of Elders, knowledge holders, practitioners, Anishinabe thinkers and scholars, amongst others.

Over the past two decades, Indigenous peoples have made their voices heard in environmental and resource management at the international level. The Indigenous Peoples’ Kyoto Water Declaration (2003), the Tlatokan Alahuak Declaration (2006) and the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) (2007) all emphasize the holistic dimensions of water as the source of material, cultural and spiritual life, and they outline the contributions TK can bring to addressing global water issues. However, so far, the indiscriminate and narrow application of Western science and technologies has prevented full and equal participation of Indigenous peoples in water management and is contributing to the loss and degradation of water around the world.

Taking care of water has been part of our knowledge for most of our history as Anishinabe people. It is only recently that we have not been able to exercise these responsibilities.

This issue is highly relevant in Canada, where the “techno-fix” has failed to solve the water crisis experienced primarily in First Nations communities, where drinking water advisories are frequent and water quality continues to pose a serious health concern. The problem is rooted in colonial history and compounded today by a conflict of jurisdictions. Provincial regulatory standards do not apply to on-reserve First Nations communities, and federal initiatives have been inadequate for governing water in First Nations communities. As a result, in 2011, over 80 percent of water treatment plants in Ontario First Nations were found to be at medium to high risk of failing existing regulations


Government-led initiatives so far have failed to address the problem from an Indigenous perspective and are failing to respect the guidance provided by UNDRIP. In 2010, the federal government launched Bill S-11, which did not fulfill the legal duty to consult First Nations and adversely impacted Aboriginal and treaty rights according to the Assembly of First Nations and Chiefs of Ontario. In response to those criticisms, the government revised the bill in 2012, now referred to as Bill S-8. The revised bill remains contentious due to a loophole that allows abrogation or derogation from existing Aboriginal and treaty rights “to the extent necessary to ensure the safety of drinking water on First Nations lands.”


In addition to poor water quality on reserves, Indigenous peoples are also concerned about water protection in their traditional territories located outside the federal reserve system. Unlike reserves, those territories fall under provincial jurisdiction and are regulated by the Clean Water Act passed in 2006. The Act assigns source water protection to Conservation Authorities, who manage water resources on a watershed basis with little consideration of the core issues such as Aboriginal and treaty rights or First Nations authority and jurisdiction. 


Despite those legal and political obstacles, First Nations are continuously striving to fulfill their responsibilities to care for the waters. The “Water Declaration of the Anshinabek, Mushkegowuk and Onkwehonwe” drafted by the Chiefs of Ontario in 2008 and adopted by the Chiefs in Assembly emphasizes the caretaking role of Indigenous peoples with regard to water and recognizes the special responsibility of Indigenous women to talk and care for water. This responsibility finds an illustration in the “Mother Earth Water Walk” movement or in the activism of groups such as Akii Kwe. The traditional and spiritual knowledge driving those groups is slowly being integrated in Indigenous decision-making processes, as shown through the foundation of the Anishinabek Women’s Water Commission in 2008. It is hoped that, through its work, the Commission will influence government agencies to go beyond the “techno-fix” and to meaningfully include Anishinabek insights directed at finding long-term solutions for the current water crisis and the protection of the Great Lakes and other waters.


Traditional Knowledge Regarding Water

While Indigenous worldviews regarding water are far from homogenous, some traditional beliefs and attitudes towards water are widely shared across Nations. As part of a submission to the 2000 Walkerton Inquiry, the Chiefs of Ontario have collectively shared the views that water is a living being with its own spirit. Water is life and as such is sacred and respected as a relative. Water is part of a greater, interconnected whole; therefore, a focus on just drinking water is misguided. One must consider all that to which water is connected. In keeping with this traditional perspective, water is not about “use” but rather about proper relationships. Because water is recognized as a living spiritual force, one’s relationship with water should be based on respect and an ethics of thanksgiving and should fulfill specific responsibilities. Proper relationships to water ensure that water is, in turn, able to fulfill its responsibilities. Those views entail that planning for water governance must take a long-term approach where knowledge about water is shared, with respect of the special role of women to speak for the water and with an emphasis on using the original Indigenous names of the waters.

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