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Honouring the Lands & Waters

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

You may have noticed more and more events and organizations are creating and announcing 'land acknowledgements' to name the Indigenous / traditional territories their work is performed on. While the content and expectation of these statements is evolving, how can our water-based project initiate honouring the lands and waters?

On June 24th, project coordinator Paul Baines hosted a 2-hour workshop at the Peterborough house to explore how the Blue Communities project can facilitate a meaningful reflection and commitment to water justice here in this 'place' and at 'this time' in history.

This post is a summary of that workshop and an attempt to present this information in the best way possible for future workshops at other CSJ locations. Because there is much to learn and unlearn, a 2-hour window for this work is not enough. It's the perfect time for getting some of these ideas and questions out to the group and to create the needed momentum forward.

We started with ourselves. Each person talked about which water bodies feed their body and soul and how these lakes, rivers, and sources where doing -- what state of repair or decline are they in? Then individually, people were given some time to circle which of the following 9 Water Friendship teachings best named their water connection. These opening reflections were used to ground the work in our own knowledge and relationships to water. The goal is to have either a personal or collective land and water acknowledgment that integrates this awareness.

Each participant received a worksheet with 8 boxes for note taking. This was designed for capturing key words during a lengthy talk about where we are, how power and respect have been exercised, and some pathways for healing. These key words would be useful for braiding a draft statement. The 8 categories offered were: Place Names, Concepts, Agreements, Values, Emotions, Actions, what we want to leave behind, and what we want to turn toward.

These Water Friendship teachings came out of an a 2017 project that Paul Baines facilitated with water protectors in Guelph, Peterborough, and Thunder Bay.

The Blue Community project is equally about place as is about water. We love and protect what we are connected too. These lands and waters need to be honoured as our sources of life and as the homelands of various Indigenous nations. Water gives us an opportunity to acknowledge how we have been nurtured by place and how we aim to heal our broken relations with these native nations.

We are learning to re-inhabit this place.

Thinking about place, let's look at some maps and ask ourselves:

  • Which maps look familiar?

  • What do these maps or map features teach us about place?

  • What story do these maps tell us about the lands and waters of this place?

There were many responses to the above questions re. these maps. Top left is a regional map of the Kawarthas, next to one of the Trent-Severn waterway, above a water stress/pollution map of the Great Lakes, next to a regional map of Nogojiwanong and Anishinaabemowin names for places within what is now called the Kawarthas.

One of the comparisons is who gets to name the places we call home? Peterborough is named after Peter Robinson -- an Irish-born political agent who helped settle this place with more immigrants like himself. The original/Annishinaabe name for this place is Nogojiwanong -- named after the character of the river and which roughly translates into "the place at the end of the rapids". A small yet powerful example of how the very places we call home are contested spaces based on different values and relationships to place.

The map on the left is one of the Great Lakes from an Anishinaabe perspective -- both for the names of places and its cultural orientation to the east. At the top right is a map of the Great Lakes that marks the Anishinaabe nation and tribes and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. At the bottom right is a Treaty Map with the Kawartha area bordered as Treaty 20 under the Williams Treaties.

How can we protect water as a human right, shared commons, and sacred gift without connecting to our home lands and waters? Part of the disconnection we have to place is Canada’s hidden route to sovereignty. How did some of those maps come to be and how did ‘we’ come to ‘settle’ in this place? These were the questions we asked ourselves before wading deeper into the work of re-inhabitation.

We looked at the land acknowledgement written by the Indigenous Working Group in the Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough to ask ourselves:

What are land acknowledgments? Why do they matter? What do they include? What could they include? What could they change?

“We recognize that we gather here in Nogojiwanong [Nigozh-i-wanong] in the Michi Saagiig Anishinaabe Treaty 20 territory, with affiliation to the Williams and other treaties. We say “miigwetch” [mee-gwetch] for sharing these sacred lands and waters with those of us who are newcomers. May we live in respectful relationship with all beings. As Treaty people, we commit to working towards understanding, justice, and reconciliation.”

We used this example to unpack who the Michi Saagiig Anishinaabe are, the Treaty 20 (written) and non-written treaties (like wampum belts), what sharing and respectful relationship could mean, and what kind of commitments these types of acknowledgments can be asked to describe.

Learning about the Treaties needs to go beyond the Crown's written documents which are highly contested interpretations of what was being negotiated and recognized. As Treaty people, Canadians should learn about the above wampums as an introduction to our responsibilities to this place and our relationship to the hosting / ancestral Nations we made ongoing agreements with. These agreements (even while contested) allow us to be here. They legitimize our right to be here and the "unfinished business" of sharing the lands and waters and the authority of Indigenous nations. (During a recent talk by Sylvia McAdam she described Treaties as unfinished business)

It is also vital to learn about the Doctrine of Discovery. We often hear how Indigenous nations need to 'win' or 'argue' their land claims in Canadian courts. What is never disputed or in need of legal proof is Canada's sovereignty. This is because Canada uses the Doctrine of Discovery as its legal precedent and authority -- it's called "the underlying title of the Crown" in the modern age. From the above link/source:

The Doctrine of Discovery established a spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians.

It has been invoked since Pope Alexander VI issued the Papal Bull “Inter Caetera” in 1493. The Papal decree aimed to justify Christian European explorers’ claims on land and waterways they allegedly discovered, and promote Christian domination and superiority, and has been applied in Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas.

If an explorer proclaims to have discovered the land in the name of a Christian European monarch, plants a flag in its soil, and reports his “discovery” to the European rulers and returns to occupy it, the land is now his, even if someone else was there first. Should the original occupants insist on claiming that the land is theirs, the “discoverer” can label the occupants’ way of being on the land inadequate according to European standards.

This ideology supported the dehumanization of those living on the land and their dispossession, murder, and forced assimilation. The Doctrine fuelled white supremacy insofar as white European settlers claimed they were instruments of divine design and possessed cultural superiority.

There has been some formal responses by the Catholic church, including a 2016 Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops response about the falsehoods and impacts of this Doctrine. Adding to this, how can our 2019 land and water acknowledgement include our awareness about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Report and Canada's support for (yet not implemented) United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

As Canadians, we should also be aware that Section 35 of our Constitution recognizes the rights of Indigenous peoples, regardless of how ill-defined this affirmation is. As 'newcomers', 'guests', 'settlers', 'immigrant's and Treaty people, we should also know that our laws are not above Indigenous ones. UNDRIP and good treaty relations must affirm Indigenous laws -- such as the four kinds of Anishinaabe laws Aimée Craft teaches about: Spiritual, Natural, Customary, and Human.

Before we divided into smaller groups to discuss the language and learning needed to craft an honourable land and water acknowledgment, Paul (with permission) shared on written by Edward George / Waasekom Niin (Anishinaabe water walker and advocate for water personhood) for a public hearing impacting Lake Huron. This is an acknowledgement not about whose territory we are on (as typical with these statements) but about the water 'it' self. He writes:

I would like to acknowledge and give of my heart to Lake Huron who is our hosting our very existence today. To date, every inch of their 6,000kms of shoreline has been prayed for, sang to and thanked for their contribution to our daily lives. Miigwech to the women for picking up their bundles to care for them the way they do.

Of their 30,000 Islands and their many rivers, streams, estuaries, Lake Huron continues to follow their original instructions to provide life to those living in the water, those living on the shorelines, and those living in the skies.

As human beings we have benefitted, even now from their incredible generosity.For this generosity they have paid and continue to pay a dear cost on our behalf for the 200 years of development, mass deforestation and ongoing modern pollution.

Even with the inflicted wounds, total ignorance and disconnect, desecration and negligence from the visitors to these waterways, the corporate persons, and even to some of the Anishinabek, Lake Huron is still looking after us all.

We owe a great deal of respect for their ability to continue to host us today.

Small groups of 3-5 people had 20 minutes to discuss and draft any statement they felt added to our ongoing learning, reflection, and commitment to honourably acknowledge the lands and waters that we call home.

This blog is being written and shared so that the next groups can have the benefit of accessing some of these ideas and questions in advance. Paul will be working with all the participants to take the next steps towards some form of meaningful acknowledgment.

Add your questions and comments below on how this workshop could work for you.

By Paul Baines
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