By Lori Thompson
Reporter from the local journalism initiative
We have much to lose if we fail to recognize our shared responsibility to protect and restore the Great Lakes. That’s the fundamental premise of Biinaagami, a multi-year collaboration between Canadian Geographic and Swim Drink Fish. The project was launched on September 26 in Niagara on the Lake with a number of Manitoulin Island First Nations leaders as key participants.
Patrick Madahbee was brought in as a consultant for the project and coordinated the kick-off event. Glen Hare, Ontario Regional Chief, provided a Chiefs of Ontario perspective on water conservation and raised a number of concerns including burying nuclear waste near water and Line 5. Both are key to protecting water, he said.
Historians Professor Rick Hill, Mohawk of the Six Nations of the Grand River, and Brian Charles, of the Chippewas of Georgina Island, discussed the wampum belts, their relationships with new settlers, territory and water protection. M’Chigeeng First Nation Ogimaa-kwe Linda Debassige, a water walker, delivered the keynote speech. Linda Manitowabi, an elder and water strider from Wiikwemkoong, held a water ceremony accompanied by her grandson Oha Cada. Wiikwemkoong Elder Donna Debassige and Garden River Elder Barbara Nolan also assisted with the water ceremony.
The Anishinaabewmowin translation of Biinaagami is clean, pure water. “Water is essential to life,” Mr Madahbee told The Expositor. “If we don’t protect this absolutely precious resource, we do so at our peril.”
“It all starts with water,” said Ontario regional director Hare.
“We are with them at the table (biinaagami). All of these projects are great, but we still have a long way to go. We can’t fix it overnight, but we’re part of it.”
The partners began working on the Biinaagami concept because of the regional and global importance of the Great Lakes watershed, said Meredith Brown, director of special projects at the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. “We felt that with the 50th anniversary (of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement) approaching, the Great Lakes just weren’t getting enough attention.”
They wanted the project to be indigenous and brought in Mr. Madahbee and Charlene Bearhead, who works for Canadian Geographic. Mr. Madahbee is a “good friend” of Swim Drink Fish, having worked with its President Mark Mattson over the years at the Lake Ontario Waterkeepers and the Great Lakes Guardian’s Council.
“Basically, we really want to put the spotlight on the Great Lakes watershed and talk about how incredible they are and how globally significant they are, and most importantly, we have so much to learn from the ecosystem,” Ms. Brown said. “We have much to lose if we fail to recognize that we have a shared responsibility and must take action to protect and restore the Great Lakes.”
One way they’ve begun to “shine the light” is by releasing a three-part documentary series about the Great Lakes titled Great Lakes Untamed. The series was launched in Canada by TVO and in the United States by Smithsonian.
The second part of the project is about creating a network of nations that are in the watershed and have historically been excluded from governance and decision-making, Ms Brown said.
“We want people to understand that there is incredible indigenous knowledge, expertise and perspective and we have ignored them for far too long. There is always talk of two nations ruling the Great Lakes: Canada and the United States. We call that out.
We say that you must recognize that there are several indigenous nations in the Great Lakes watershed, and we must honor the sovereignty of those nations. We need to honor their ceremony, their practices, their protocols, and most importantly, we need to pull chairs up to those decision tables and invite them in.”
Canadian Geographic is well known for its cartography and mapping and has used that expertise to create a giant soil map of the Great Lakes watershed. “It’s quite spectacular,” said Ms.
Brown. The map shows all indigenous languages and areas in the different regions of the watershed in indigenous languages only. It uses augmented reality to share three-dimensional stories.
“So far we have the story of the water wanderers told through indigenous voices,” she said. Ultimately there will be 10 to 14 stories told by the indigenous nations in the watershed. It’s an opportunity to amplify those stories as the cards are shared with school groups across the watershed and even across the country.
Canadian Geographic has a network of over 30,000 teachers and makes this available to people as a free resource. They develop curriculum-based lesson plans that fit each of the stories.
Swim Drink Fish also brings their experience to the table.
They have created community-based water monitoring centers with the goal of increasing the number of these community-based monitoring centers in the Great Lakes watershed.
Swim Drink Fish is inspired by the leadership of people like Mr.
Madahbee and Ontario Regional Chief Hare, Mr. Mattson said. He wants Indigenous nations to sit at the table on any Great Lakes Accords that move forward. “We also think there needs to be a coming together where everyone on the Great Lakes can work together and it’s not viewed as a rust belt or second class waters,” he said. “It’s one of the most important freshwater ecosystems in the world and we want it to be treated as such.”
This is the first major collaboration between Canadian Geographic and Swim Drink Fish and they’re pretty excited about it. “We have so much trust in each other,” said Mr. Mattson. “A lot of this comes from the leadership of people like Patrick and others who genuinely believe there needs to be more collaboration across the Great Lakes to address some of the serious issues, whether it’s climate change or plastic or untreated sewage. The Great Lakes know no political borders and need cooperation and cooperation. We need to listen and work together, and that’s what Biinaagami is all about. It’s about shared responsibility. Sharing responsibility also means that some units have to give up a little power.”
Community science is so important, Mr Mattson added, noting the need to get baseline data on fisheries, water quality and wildlife. “The government doesn’t have enough resources, but you don’t need a PhD. to collect water samples.”
He’s confident that Biinaagami will ultimately help us identify watershed issues faster and address them faster.
Water connects us all deeply, he said, and Biinaagami provides an opportunity to find other stories from people who share the same deep connections to their watersheds and to help provide the tools needed to protect and restore the Great Lakes are.
“We need more people volunteering to protect the Great Lakes across the board,” he said. He urges people to go to the website (biinaagami.org) and find ways to get involved in their own communities. “Change happens there, whether with five or with 500 people.”
Lori Thompson is one Reporters from the local journalism initiative THE MANITOULIN EXHIBITOR. The LJI program is federally funded.
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