Reconciling our relationships with the Great Lakes


The 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is an Agreement between the United States and Canada to restore and protect the Great Lakes that recognized the involvement and participation of Indigenous Peoples is essential to achieve the objectives of the Agreement. Stemming from this Agreement, the Canada-Ontario Agreement (COA) on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health (COA) set goals and objectives to restore and protect the Great Lakes. The COA includes Annex 13: Engaging First Nations and mentions that Canada is committed to reconciliation. Guided by an Anishinaabek Research Paradigm (ARP), which addresses decolonizing research on Indigenous peoples and employs a conversations style design, I explore what reconciliation is in Great Lakes water governance and how reconciliation can influence Great Lakes water governance. Reconciliation is more than words and involves the restoration of good relationships between people and with the waters. Reconciliation can also play a significant role in water governance. We are all water, and all come from water understanding that without water, there will be no life. This knowledge commits every human to preserve, protect, and conserve the waters. Understanding Anishinaabek views on reconciliation can assist with water governance.


Water governance



Anishinaabek law


Indigenous knowledge systems


Anishinaabek were here occupying the lands surrounding the Great Lakes since time immemorial, governing ourselves, and drawing on our knowledge of the waters, the lands, and sky world to sustain us mentally, spiritually, physically, and socially (McGregor, 2022). Prior to European contact, evidence suggests that First Nations administering their own laws were quite successful (Johnson, 2018). Johnston (2006) states “For millennia, the Great Lakes region has been home to indigenous people” (p. 3) and “DeSoto, Cortes, Champlain…didn’t explore or find anything…the land, every lake, river, forest…was already well known to our ancestors…” Johnston, 2011, p. 162). Millions of Indigenous Peoples lived in the Great Lakes occupying the water ways (Ettawageshik and Norman, 2020). Indigenous Peoples in Canada have historically been excluded from colonial government’s water governance systems (Sanderson et al., 2020), which disproportionately impact their health and their relationships to water (Wilson et al., 2021). McGregor (2022) states, “If you don’t have healthy water, you won’t have a healthy community” (p. 2).

Anishinaabek have a strong place-based connection to the waters (Diver et al., 2019). It is a “lived-knowledge” and cannot be separated from “human experience and action” (Chief et al., 2016). The lived knowledge and place-based connection have informed Anishinaabek that the waters are alive with spirit, is sacred, is medicine, is healing, carries knowledge, and is life (Arsenault, 2021Chiefs of Ontario, 2018Craft, 2018Craft and King, 2021Latchmore et al., 2018McGregor, 2022McGregor, 2014Pahl-Wostl, 2020Wilson, 2020) which includes the Great Lakes. The place-based connection to the Great Lakes is based on responsibility and reciprocity. Diver et al. (2019) explains, “reciprocal relations underscore the mutual caretaking obligations held between and among nature and society, as intertwining entities that co-constitute one another” (p. 3). The reciprocal relationships involved Anishinaabek women’s responsibilities to the waters which formed the basis of water governance (Wilson et al., 2021) for Anishinaabek.

Through participation in Water Walks and water ceremonies, awareness of women’s relationship and responsibilities have been increased (Chiblow, 2019). The Water Walks were led by Anishinaabe Grandmother Josephine Mandamin Ba, beginning with Lake Superior in 2003, and covered each Great Lake and the St Lawrence River, routinely covering distances of over 1000 km (McGregor, 2013). The relationship to women is based on women’s ability to carry birth water bringing forth life (Anderson, 2010). Women are known as “water keepers” (Chiefs of Ontario, 2018) which has generated specific knowledge (Chiblow, 2019). Far too often, women and their knowledge are not a part of water governance systems (Chiblow and Jiménez Estrada, 2021Anderson et al., 2013).

Water governance is complex, lacks cohesion, and is multijurisdictional (Arsenault, 2021Bakker and Cook, 2011Craft and King, 2021Irvine et al., 2020). Water governance “[I]n Canada is characterized by a high degree of fragmentation in a decentralized state” (Bakker and Cook, 2011, p. 275) that has implications for Anishinaabek communities. Black and McBean (2017) quote Justice O’Conner explaining that water quality and quantity in First Nations are not comparable to that of most Canadians. Arsenault (2021) states, “There are many First Nation communities that have been impacted by water insecurity over the past few decades” (p. 2). Adding to this complexity is the international waters along the boundary of Canada and the United States (Clamen and Macfarlane, 2020). Bakker et al. (2018) attribute the poisoning of the waters to competing jurisdictional priorities, lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities, and a failure to cooperate which has resulted in systemic governance gaps. In response to the degradation of the Great Lakes, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) of 1972 was signed by Canada and the United States with the commitment from each country to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Great Lakes basin (Krantzberg, 2020) but had no mention of Indigenous Peoples until 2012 (Ettawageshik and Norman, 2020). The inclusion of Indigenous Peoples in the 2012 GLWQA can be attributed to years of Indigenous Peoples advocating for acknowledgement through Indigenous activism (Coates, 2015Chiefs of Ontario, 2018Ettawageshik and Norman, 2020).

Stemming from the GLWQA, the first Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health (COA) was signed in 1971 between the provincial and federal governments which set goals and objectives to restore and protect the Great Lakes (McGregor, 2011). First Nations in Ontario engaged in several dialogue initiatives through the Chiefs of Ontario over the last decade to be included in the Agreements. In 2013, Environment Canada set out to engage First Nations about the COA hosting a meeting where First Nations expressed their concerns with the COA and Environment Canada agreed to work with the Chiefs of Ontario to develop a First Nations Annex (McGregor, 2013). In 2014, the COA included Annex 13: Engaging First Nations (Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health, 2014). In 2021, Canada and Ontario signed the ninth COA (Ontario, 2021). The COA (2021) preamble states, “AND WHEREAS the Government of Canada is committed to advancing reconciliation with First Nations and Métis peoples through renewed nation-to-nation, government-to-government relationships based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership” (Canada Ontario Agreement on the Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health, 2021, p. 5). The 2021 COA does not mention Indigenous women in the agreement. The failure of the 2021 COA to mention Indigenous women contrasts with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which does focus on the colonial disenfranchisement of Indigenous women.

The TRC in Canada was established in 2008 to document the historical and ongoing impacts of the Canadian Indian residential school system on former students and their families (TRC, 2015). Truth commissions responded to Indigenous communities demands for redress and Indigenous activism and resistance (George, 2020). The TRC (2015) released 95 Calls to Action with the expressed purpose of “redress(ing) the legacy of residential schools and advanc(ing) the process of Canadian reconciliation” (p. 319). Reconciliation “is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, p. 6). The term reconciliation has met significant criticism (Williams et al., 2020) and soon became associated with an apology based on the colonial past of the residential school era (O’Neil, 2020). O’Neil (2020) explains, “That is, residential schools could not be framed as a sad legacy conveniently regulated to the colonial past, all the while ignoring the ongoing inequalities of the colonial present” (p. 76). Further, reconciliation is used in multiple ways and by different governments, academia, media, entertainment, legal institutions Indigenous governance, and protests struggling over the meaning of the term (Borrows and Tully, 2018).

“Reconciliation can mean different things to different people” (Indigenous Circle of Experts, 2018, p.7). “First, reconciliation is also a language of decolonization” (Mills, 2018, p. 114). “They [Indigenous Nations in Canada] told us that while there is no word for reconciliation in their languages, there are many concepts, stories, teachings, laws, ceremonies, protocols, and practices that their respective Nations have used for millennia to resolve conflicts, repair harms, and restore good relations among diverse peoples and with the Earth” (Regan, 2018, p. 211). Reconciliation is more than words and involves the restoration of good relations with the Earth, including the waters. “Reconciliation needs to pair intention with doing in order to be effective” (Joseph and Joseph, 2019, p. 4). Craft and Regan (2020) state, “If reconciliation is to be more than rhetoric or purely symbolic, there must be concrete actions that achieve real societal change” (p. xi). Reconciliation is about action through the restoration of good relationships with Indigenous Peoples laws.

Concrete actions include the revitalization of Indigenous laws and legal traditions. O’Neil (2020) quotes the Truth and Reconciliation Final Report as stating, “Establishing respectful relationships also requires the revitalization of Indigenous law and legal traditions (p. 79). Indigenous law revitalization can assist humanity to reconcile with the earth (Borrows, 2018). This paper explores what reconciliation is in Great Lakes water governance and how reconciliation can influence Great Lakes water governance.


This paper stems from a larger research study of n’dodneaahnon chikendaaswin (I am searching for knowledge) into Anishinaabek g’giikendaaswinmin (our knowledge) conducted in the Great Lakes territory that employed Anishinaabek protocols.

This paper provides critical insights into reconciliation for water governance in the Great Lakes from Anishinaabek kweok (women), mishoomsinaanik (grandfathers), nokomisnaanik (grandmothers), grassroots people and traditional knowledge holders. These participants who focus on reconciliation, N’bi (water) activism, Mother Earth Water Walks, Anishinaabek naaknigewin (law), Nokomis Giizis (Grandmother Moon), and ceremonies advocating and educating for responsibility-based governance, the healing of Anishinaabek, and the healing of the lands and waters in the Great Lakes territory were asked to participate in the project. Many of the participants were known to me through ceremonies, Water Walks, work experiences, and N’bi demonstrations. Anishinaabek participants recommended other Indigenous women who are not Anishinaabek to be part of the study through the snowball method (Patton, 2002). A total of 28 participants were involved in this study which consisted of 5 kweok in one focus group. Other focus groups became key informants though telephone or Zoom calls due to COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders. The key informants were contacted by their organizations to determine if they were willing to participate as key informants which increased the number of conversations (Starblanket et al., 2019). In-person conversations were held with most participants prior to COVID-19. The data gathering happened between January and June 2020.

The data shared in the conversations (Kovach, 2009) from the single focus group, the participants, and key informants were audio recorded, transcribed verbatim, and analyzed utilizing a qualitative Anishinaabek analysis. The Anishinaabek analysis is founded on Jim Dumont’s (2006) Indigenous Intelligence. It is based specifically on bisindaage (to listen to someone; spirit); ozhibii’igi (write things down: emotional); nanaagadawendam (I consider, notice, think, reflect, realize; mind); and nisidotaagwad (it is understood; physical). The first step was listening, allowing myself to feel and imagine several times what was being said prior to transcribing verbatim. The second step ozhibii’igi was transcribing verbatim what was shared allowing myself to be attuned to the spiritual significance. The third step of nanaagadawnedam was reviewing the transcripts, reflecting, and coding to find similar phrases, thoughts, words, and differences. The fourth step of nisidotaagwad was the totality of being generating creative expressions through experience (Chiblow, 2021). This approach based on Indigenous Intelligence, is distinct to my understanding.

I move beyond university research ethics by employing the offering of asema (tobacco) to the participants. The unique expressions produced in this article are formed from the participants who shared their knowledge through the offering of asema. The Anishinaabek protocol of offering asema holds me accountable to standing with (Tallbear, 2014) participants and their knowledge as a means of ensuring ethical research is conducted (Reid, 2020). The offering of asema activates relationships which involves a great deal of responsibility and ensures we work to strengthen and uplift those we are doing research with (Wilson and Restoule, 2010). As Anishinaabek, we participate in relationships to what we are learning as we are not separate from the knowledge (Chiblow, 2021Wilson and Hughes, 2019). The participants consented to be named in the research. This is essential in honouring their knowledge and maintaining knowledge relationships and responsibilities to strengthen and stand with the participants (Chiblow, 2021). I use many direct quotes from the participants to honour them and their knowledge.


The major findings of the thematic analysis that emerged from this study are presented in this section. The following are specific to reconciliation and how reconciliation from an Anishinaabek perspective can influence Great Lakes water governance.

Reconciliation with water

In recent years, Anishinaabek have been asserting their right to participate in water governance (Curran, 2020) as “We are and always have been original Nations that have never relinquished our title, rights, language, culture, and governance” (MacDonald, 2018, p. 13). Reconciliation is about the right to participate in water governance which includes the right of the water to participate in water decision making. Participant Biidaabinokwe Jessica Keeshig-Martin states, “The lake has a voice that needs to be listened to and respected in major decision-making processes”. It is important to understand that as humans, we rely on other beings for our survival and are directly linked to water through a web of kinship relations (Wilson, 2019). Understanding we are kin to the waters can address reconciling our relationship with the waters (Lowe Fleischner, 2021). Participant Barbara Day explains, “We need to be reminded that we are part of that [water], not above it”. McGregor (2022) explains that the waters are not a resource but “a sacred entity with different functions…” (pg. 3). Reconciliation is more than improving relationships between humans, it is about humanity improving relationships to the lands and waters.

Participant Isaac Murdock expresses, “Reconciliation is our relationships with the lands and waters and so that is where true reconciliation happens – reconciling with the earth – it is a responsibility-based agenda that every-one can do”. Anishinaabe legal scholar John Borrows (2018) explains that reconciliation includes all people’s reconciliation with the Earth as we cannot live independently of our ecological relationships. Participant Nancy Rowe maintains, “Reconciliation has to happen at those fundamental levels” and participant Carol Gingras revealed, “Reconciliation is about everything in the water – not just the water but all waters and all beings in the waters”. Tully (2018) affirms reconciliation is about people with “more-than-human-beings (plants, animals, ecosystems, and the living earth as a whole)” (p. 83). Anishinaabek understand that reconciliation includes humanity reconciling relationships with the Great Lakes. Reconciliation includes ensuring women and their knowledge are included in water governance.

Reconciliation and women

Several scholars have stated that women are water keepers and have knowledge that can assist with water governance (McGregor, 2022McGregor, 2020Wilson, 2020). Participant Rhonda Hopkins stated, “Women are the keepers of the water” and participant Rachel Arsenault articulates, “It is our job [as women] to protect the water and to make sure everybody is protecting the water”. Anishinaabek women’s knowledge of the water comes from multiple sources. An example is participant Elizabeth Webkamigad states, “The moon governs our women” and “[T]he source of women’s roles and responsibilities are coming from the teachings of the moon” (participant Beverly Jacobs). There is a lack of gender balance in water policies, strategies, and governance (Varcoe et al., 2019). Participant Nancy Rowe explains, “A lot of times, the Indigenous women are not listened to”. Reconciliation in Great Lakes water governance means including Anishinaabek women’s knowledge in water-decision making as they have specific roles and responsibilities to the waters – it is about listening to Anishinaabek women. Participant Elizabeth Webkamigad explains, “It is listening”. Participant Hilda Atkinson described how “women were treated with the utmost respect because they were able to bring life forward”. The knowledge women have is based on their responsibilities. Participant Biidaabinokwe Jessica Keeshig-Martin stated, “As women, as ones who have the ability to carry life, life carriers, we have the very profound connected relationship with water and a very unique and special understanding of water”. Altamirano-Jiménez and Kermoal (2016) explain how women could provide a valuable perspective on water. Anishinaabek women’s knowledge can influence Great Lakes water governance through Anishinaabek law.

Anishinaabek law, interconnectedness, and reciprocity

Roles and responsibilities stem from Anishinaabek law. They provide an important context and significant detail for understanding and explaining humanity’s obligations to lands and waters (Borrows, 2010). Participant Aimée Craft stated, “It [law] is definitely connected to Anishinaabek knowledge and the philosophy of interconnections of relations”. Anishinaabek women understand the interconnectedness of water as “we are all water and so all the waters connected to each other” (participant Christi Belcourt). Interconnectedness to water is an expression of water law which can provide principles and values for water decision making in the Great Lakes (Wilson, 2019).

One principle is based on reciprocity. An example of reciprocity is doing the water ceremonies and making those offerings (participant Linda Toulouse and Joyce Morningstar) to the waters. McGregor (2022) explains that responsibility includes conducting ceremonies to honour the waters. Within Indigenous systems of governance, human responsibility extends to the water (Pictou, 2020). Reciprocity is based on respect. Participant Pricilla Simard clarifies that you put tobacco in the waters every time, to respect the waters because water can take life. Aimée Craft furthers, “It is about mutual recognition – recognizing Indigenous jurisdiction”. The 2021 COA recognizes the need for respect and recognition of rights (Canada Ontario Agreement on the Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health, 2021). The reciprocal relationship Anishinaabek have with water can inform water governance in the Great Lakes, but it is up to the settlers to learn about Anishinaabek and “do their work” (Participant Sherry Copenace). In the context of the Great Lakes, reconciliation about action for the Anishinaabek Nation and taking action to listen and understand Anishinaabek is a first step in addressing reconciliation.

Reconciliation is action

Participant Dennis Councillor states, “They have to listen to us, understand who we are, what we represent – educate themselves on understanding who we are and what we represent and what our goals are”. The TRC (2015) explains that reconciliation cannot happen without listening, that reconciliation is complex, may be challenging but is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships. Participant Laura Horton expressed, “I think it is action”. Reconciliation is about doing the hard work (TRC, 2015). “Every-one needs to learn the teachings about each other” (Participant Barbara Day). The COA (2021) has acknowledged that Indigenous knowledge can assist with the restoration, protection and conservation of the Great Lakes. “How you learn about things is you participate” (Participant Mona Jones). Several participants shared that action is needed for reconciliation. For example, participant Kyle Whyte talked about the Water Walks as reconciliation – the fact that action was being done to educate and inform all people about the water. Lightfoot (2020) declares, “Reconciliation is not a destination but, rather, a difficult and necessary journey we must all make together, far into the future” (p. 277).


Anishinaabek have knowledge to contribute to the Great Lakes water governance systems. Lee et al. (2019) states, “[I]ndigenous people traditionally practiced a sustainable way of living and sustainable engineering through living and participatory relationship with the above and below, sky and earth” (p. 3). The 2012 GLWQA states that water decision making should be based on traditional ecological knowledge (McGregor, 2022), and the 2021 Canada Ontario Agreement explicitly states that the Government of Canada is committed to advancing reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership (Canada Ontario Agreement on the Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health, 2021). Participants in this study expressed the right to participate in Great Lakes water governance. The right to water is also about the right to participate in water governance and power structures that influence those rights (Sultana and Loftus, 2020). They further explain the need for the waters to have a voice in water decision making by including Anishinaabek women. McGregor (2020) affirms, “In the Anishinaabek tradition, it is the women who speak for the water” (p. 147). Advancing reconciliation is including Anishinaabek worldviews in water governance.

Diver et al. (2019) explains, “Many Indigenous world views position people as just one part of the natural world, co-existing in a web of relations that includes land, water, animals, and other non-human entities, including spirit beings (p. 4). Taking action to understand the Anishinaabek world view of humans as part of the web of relations is reconciliation. Borrows (2018) clarifies, “Indigenous practices, languages, histories, cultures, and placed-based philosophies that recognize and build on these views are key to reconciliation” (p. 61). Reconciliation is understanding ourselves as inhabiting relations of interdependence with one another and the world we live in (Starblanket and Stark, 2018) and “Humans are part of the cycles of the earth, and we all bear responsibilities with them” (Starblanket and Stark, 2018, p. 195). Indigenous knowledge about and relationships to the waters is inseparable from reconciliation processes and it also requires reconciliation by all people to the natural world (O’Neil, 2020). When all humanity reconciles their relationships with the waters, the Great Lakes will be able to continue to provide life.

Responsibilities include reconciling humanity’s relationships with the waters. “If human beings resolve problems between themselves but continue to destroy the natural world, then reconciliation remains incomplete” (George, 2020, p. 106) as the TRC (2015) asserted reconciliation is also required with the natural world. Participants supported the importance of reconciling relationships with the waters. Reconciling relationships to the waters is an action that begins with self (Tully, 2018). Reconciling with the waters has the potential to bring societal change in water governance. Regan (2018) explains that concrete actions establish respectful relationships demonstrating societal change and Latchmore et al. (2018) articulated that the societal perceptions about water need to change which can provide a more meaningful understanding of the critical importance of water for all life.

Anishinaabek women understand that water is the lifeblood of all life and without water, there will be no life (McGregor, 2022Pahl-Wostl, 2020). Reconciliation needs to be inclusive of Anishinaabek women’s knowledge for water governance. Craft and King (2021) state, “Anishinaabe kwewag (women) have a sacred responsibility and should be included in all decision making relating to Nibi [water]” (pg. 6). The COA (2021) acknowledges that “Traditional Ecological Knowledge may assist efforts to restore, protect and conserve the Great Lakes” (p. 6) which should include Anishinaabek women’s knowledge. Irvine et al. (2020) justifies that traditional knowledge have been cited as important for water governance and have yet to be adequately included into water governance models. With the COA (2021) stating that traditional ecological knowledge may assist, Anishinaabek women could provide a framework on exactly how to assist with restoration, protection, and conservation of the Great Lakes based on their knowledge and unique relationship with the waters.

The COA (2021) states, “First Nations of Ontario have adopted a Water Declaration that expresses their objectives regarding water protection” (p. 6). In the Water Declaration that COA is referring to, it states, “[W]omen are the keepers of the water” and “through the teachings of women have the responsibility to care for the land and the waters by our Creator” (Chiefs, of Ontario, 2008, p. 1). Since the COA (2021) also mentions “advancing reconciliation” (p. 5), reconciliation includes ensuring Anishinaabek women have a voice in water governance since they also “maintain a special relationship of care with water as water carriers and keepers” (Craft and King, 2021, p. 6). The TRC (2015) reminds Canada that supporting aboriginal people’s revitalization of laws is part of reconciliation. Borrows (2018) explains that Indigenous laws will assist in reconciliation with the earth and between humans. Anishinaabek law tells us that water is life, has consciousness and capable of being in relationships with other forms of life and women have an inherent responsibility to the waters and should be included in water governance (Craft and King, 2021). This will be the paradigm shift and bring changes in water management that are needed for reconciling relationships.

Reconciling relationships to the Great Lakes can play a significant role in water governance (Latchmore et al., 2018). Reconciliation requires much more than words of an apology (Asch, 2018) and requires focused work (Borrows, 2018) by the Canadian government. The COA (2021) provides opportunities for the development of Anishinaabek knowledge in water governance advancing reconciliation. Reconciliation is interwoven with governance as the Canadian government is the driver to the COA (2021) agreement and can be the driver to address reconciliation in its policies. One step is centering Indigenous ways of knowing and being, will create space for Indigenous Peoples in water governance (George, 2020). This requires work from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples. It will require listening carefully to each other through respectful relationships (Borrows and Tully, 2018). Our relationship with each other and with the living earth are far to interdependent and entangled to treat reconciliation separately (Tully, 2018).

I put my asema (tobacco) out each morning as an offering to the waters, the lands, the sky world, and all life. While I was leaning on a tree, a vision was shared showing how we are all connected to each other, the past, the present, and the future through the waters. This connection will always remain constant. Craft and King (2021) state, “The relationship between water within our bodies and the water in the environment severs as a reminder of how everything is connected and how life depends on these connections” (p. 6). Every human has a responsibility to preserve, protect, and conserve the waters. We all come from water, and therefore all have a relationship to water (McGregor, 2022). Reconciliation includes learning to understand the relationship to the waters, to respect the waters for providing life, and maintain a reciprocal healthy relationship to the waters. This will guide true sustainable water governance.

Declaration of Competing Interest

The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.