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Water is Alive: a conversation

Updated: Feb 25

On January 13, there was a conversation between several Indigenous water leaders and their reflections on ways to recognize water as a spirited being with agency.

After an opening prayer and introductions, Kat Ying gave some context to water as private property, water as a public good (owned by the government), and water as a collective resource. While there are significant differences between these 3 categories, they are all about water belonging to humans. Kat invited us to think about water governance that centres how we are a part of a larger waterbody, rather than these 3 ways of water belonging to humans. She also made the critical difference between the rights "to" nature and the rights "of" nature (ie, the right of humans to a healthy environment v.s. the right of waters, animals, trees, etc. to have their own sets of rights).


There was also a summary of the various examples of to protect water from a 'Rights' or 'Personhood' perspective -- sometimes braiding Western and Indigenous legal frameworks. We learned about the constitutional changes by Ecuador, India, and Colombia that recognize the rights of nature. There are also examples of legislative change such as the Lake Erie Bill of Rights and the personhood of the Whanganui river in New Zealand. In these examples Creation has legal standing for its own sake, rather than laws only coming into effect when property, profits, or human health are harmed. Corporations have had legal personhood for hundreds of years which grant them legal protections for expressing speech, collecting damages, making political donations, and much more. See the three videos below for more on these examples.


What follows is not a summary of the Water is Alive conversation, but my own notable observations and reflections. To see the full recording, the video is below:



One of the 3 examples talked about during this webinar was the Nibi Declaration of Treaty #3. The written and oral versions of this Declaration affirm that water has spirit and various forms of water all have their own spirit (fresh, salt, ground, birth, rain, snow, etc). Water also has agency. Water gives life, but also takes it. Aimée Craft invited us to think about a moment in our lives where water (and not us) was in control.


Rights of Nature and water personhood discussions often leave these elements out -- water has spirit and water has its own agency (including intelligence).


While recognizing the legal personhood of water might enable more effective protection strategies, the legal 'personhood' of a river or lake is very singular protection strategy for a particular body of water. If new and ancient strategies are being explored about the personhood of water, we should acknowledge all the forms and movements of water as understood by the water cycle. On our blue planet there is only one water in constant flow and flux.


Aimée also contrasted Western and Indigenous legal approaches. Canada's laws focus on harms and reparations, while Anishinabek laws (to name just one Indigenous nation) promote vitality and the ongoing maintenance and balance of life.

Nibi Declaration artwork by Danielle Morrison

From the Nibi Declaration Toolkit:


A word about the cover art by Danielle Morrison (Anishinaabeg of Naoongashing): The artwork, done in the Woodlands style of Treaty #3, overall captures the essence of the interconnectedness between water, fish, animals, plants and finally, humans. There are two human figures, representing two generations and the responsibility we have to protect water and life for the present and for the next generation. The duality of these figures also represents our responsibility we have to pass along the teachings of being a protector. Night and day are reflected in both the sun and the stars. Water in various forms is presented in a flowing river or body of water, the rain, and the snow. All of this embodied in a single drop of water, which can hold life, knowledge, and memory.


This conversation about the Rights to/of Water and Water Personhood was also deepened by the question of responsibilities. Regardless if we are Indigenous to Turtle Island or not, we have individual and collective responsibilities to water since water provides us not only with our drinking water and sanitation, but all the lives we depend upon for our material and spiritual wellbeing. The interconnectedness of these responsibilities is illustrated within the Nibi Declaration logo.


The Watchmen of Great Bear Lake and the Lake Winnipeg Indigenous Collective are two more examples of Indigenous-led water protection using the laws and cultures of the participating nations.


There is a lot of current interest -- even excitement -- about the potential for advancing new legal frameworks that give nature 'rights' or a form of legal 'personhood' in order to compensate for the devaluing of water, air, trees, animals, insects (aka Creation) have within our current legal structures and even within our most cherished environmental laws. It's definitely time for a reboot.


But let's not use the same kinds of thinking that created this crisis and create new laws with a flawed understanding of what rights and responsibilities are ultimately for and where agency and spirit also live. The Water is Alive conversation hosted by the Decolonizing Water Governance collective gives us a lot to think about.


What are your thoughts about how we value water's spirit and agency in 2021 and pathways for changing Canada's legal systems and how Canadians value water?


For a bit more information on water personhood from and Indigenous perspective, watch Kesley Leonard's 13 min Ted Talk and the trailer for a new documentary on the Rights of Nature called the Invisible Hand.




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