Indigenous leaders come together to discuss water as a spirited being

·4 min read

On Jan. 13, Indigenous community leaders and those working alongside them came together for the Water is Alive webinar where they reflected on ways to recognize water as a spirited being with agency.

The meeting was hosted by Caleb Behn and featured speakers Elder Isobel White, professor Aimee Craft, Tsâ Tuê Kenahtsenehta Watchmen of Great Bear Lake Mandy Bayha and Walter Bayha who is part of the Déline Got’ine Government, Lake Winnipeg Indigenous Collective Sophia Rabliauskas and Daniel Gladu Kanu and Legal Personhood of water Kat Ying.

The webinar is part of a series hosted by Decolonizing Water Governance-Deep Water Conversations and looked at Indigenous people’s reflections on ways to recognize water as a spirited being with agency.

The meeting began with an open prayer by Elder Isobel White, of Treaty #3, because the discussion will continue on. She also prayed that the spirit in the water will listen and that they honour it and are grateful to have it.

“This is a time where our relationship not only to one another but to the world matters and especially the colonial legal structures,” Caleb Behn said. “I want to remind people how tangible and how real these things are. This is a poignant and very sad reminder of not only what’s best in the world and what my ancestors protected and saved but also what’s at risk.”

The webinar looked at three case studies explored by the panel on ways to address water as a living, spirited being.

Legal Personhood of water, Kat Ying, opened the discussion by looking at why is it important for western legal systems to conceptualize water and in Canada, she said that there are at least two reasons why it is so important.

“The first is reconciliation and returning to our original agreements with the Indigenous people of these territories and reconciling our legal systems with indigenous legal systems,” Ying said. “The second is repairing our relationship with nature especially in light of the current climate crisis.”

Ying said the fundamental part of the western legal framework is treating water as something that is separate and subordinate to human activity and the alternative would be to think of water as a person itself.

In her research Ying found that there are three pathways in the Canadian legal system that legal personhood could be recognized. The first is constitutional, the second is legislative and the third is judicial but all three could work in combination with one another.

Ying gave Ecuador’s constitution of 2008 as an example where nature - known as Pachamama, by the Indigenous peoples of the Andes - was given rights. In doing so, this changes the perspective to not just conserving nature for human enjoyment but giving a voice to nature and to water for its own sake.

“In Canada, which is an export based extraction of state and economy, this is an obstacle that is going to have to be overcome. If we try to recognize rights of nature and especially rights of water in Canada, there’s going to be this pushback,” Ying said.

Ying added that it will take time and education to change because they are asking that people change their fundamental worldview and to see water not as something subordinate to human activity but as something that is integral and has rights in our legal system.

Elder Isobel White, member of the Grand Council Treaty #3 Women’s Council worked on the Nibi Declaration and toolkit. The development of the declaration would ensure that the water law principles are recorded and formally recognized in governance processes. It will also guide Grand Council Treaty #3 leadership in future policy and decision making processes that relate to water.

Aimee Craft, associate professor in the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa, was also part of the Nibi Declaration said that the declaration is focused on the idea of responsibility and interconnected responsibility.

“When we start to understand water not in a singularity but in a plurality, then I think we’re getting closer to understanding Indigenous ways of viewing water and I think that connection to understanding plurality is also what allows us to understand spiritedness and agency of water,” Craft said.

The discussion surrounding the autonomy of water and its preservation is ongoing with more webinars in the works.

Natali Trivuncic, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort Frances Times