“We rise in the dark before the sun comes up. The spirit of the lake is already calling us. Bleary eyed, about 100 of us shuffle onto the misty grounds of the Scarboro Mission on the edge of the bluffs on September 24 for a sunrise ceremony to show a little love for the lake that gives and gives to millions of us everyday. This is Toronto’s inaugural Great Lakes Water Walk.”—Adria Vasil, Now Toronto.
On September 24th of 2017, the first annual Great Lakes Water Walk on the shores of Lake Ontario united first peoples and Canadians in shared reverence for life-sustaining water in a day of “walking for the water.” The Water Walk to honour Nibi (Water) was led by Indigenous Grandmothers, Elders, and Knowledge Holders.
The Great Lakes Water Walk is “reconciliation in action,” says Ojibwe Anishinaabe grandmother Kim Wheatley. The Anishinaabe grandmothers invited all cultures, ethnicities and religions to join in, hoping, as Elder and Trent University professor Shirley Williams says, “to have Canadians look at the water differently. When you look at something as sacred you don’t damage it or mistreat it.”
The walk began at the Bluffs to the east and the mouth of the Credit River to the west for traditional water blessings, converging at Marilyn Bell Park, (after adding water from the Humber and the Don Rivers) where Elders Josephine Mandamin and Shirley Williams blessed the water with offerings of tobacco and sweet grass.
Precedence for the Lake Ontario Water Walk was set years ago by a humble and passionate Anishinaabe Elder from Manitoulin Island. Josephine Mandamin dedicated years of her life to helping water and bringing awareness to help protect and clean the water. Her first sacred Water Walk began in 2003 when she walked around Lake Superior with her message that “water is sick and people need to really fight for that water, to speak for that water, to love that water.” Josephine has since walked and honoured all five Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. The walks are now known as the “Mother Earth Water Walks” or “NibiWalks”.
In Anishinaabekwe culture, women are responsible for taking care of the water. “The water of Mother Earth, she carries life to us, and as women we carry life through our bodies. We as women are life-givers, protectors of the water, and that’s why we are very included to give Mother Earth the respect that she needs for the water,” says Josephine. “That’s our responsibility, our role, and our duty, to pass on the knowledge and understanding of water, to all people, not just Anishinaabe people, but people of all colours…As women, we are carriers of the water. We carry life for the people. So, when we carry that water, we are telling people that we will go to any lengths for the water. We’ll probably even give our lives for the water if we have to. We may at some point have to die for the water, and we don’t want that.”
I joined the walk at the western shores, where the Humber River entered Lake Ontario. I’d timed it just right; just as I reached the Waterfront Trail, the snaking procession arrived at the same location on the Toronto Waterfront Trail and my heart thundered with an emotional thrill. So many people had decided to join the Water Walk “because of water.” At the mouth of the Humber River, one of the indigenous women collected water in a copper pail and handed it to a grandmother, who continued the easterly walk with an indigenous man carrying a raptor-headed staff by her side. The day grew sweltering hot but somehow I felt my steps spring with hope.
Then a volunteer asked if any of us wanted to help carry the water. I went to say yes when a gentleman told me I couldn’t—I wasn’t wearing a skirt and that was required to honour the Grandmothers. I didn’t realize how much it meant to me until that moment. Something made me persevere; when the volunteer came around again, I told them I’d like to help carry the water. To my thrilled surprise, she handed me a throw-on skirt to wear over my shorts and led me to the head of the procession behind the current carrier, where I was smudged with sweet grass before taking hold of the pail’s handle for a stretch of the walk. I was told that I needed to look forward, not backward or down, as I carried the water on its journey ahead. And it was important to keep positive thoughts.
When someone else tapped my shoulder to take over the load, I fell back into the snaking line and as I struggled to pass the skirt on, Ojibwe Anishinaabe Grandmother Kim Wheatley came beside me and thanked me for helping to carry the water. I realized that I felt so thankful too. Wheatly had shared earlier with Vasil about sharing the water carrying load: “I have seen women change how they look at the water, how they treat the water. They make changes within themselves and also within their family. They stop putting chemicals in the water. They’ll save water.”
Wheatley would like to see Toronto declare itself a Blue Community, which would grant water legal status as a human right. For these Indigenous women, who as mothers and grandmothers are traditionally charged with protecting “the lifeblood of Mother Earth,” it’s about getting Torontonians emotionally connected to their water source, writes Vasil, who found herself grow teary with emotion as the copper pot was passed into her hands to carry during the walk and she focused on a prayer for the water. Ecologos, one of the sponsoring organizations has spearheaded efforts toward a Toronto Blue Community. This initiative, led by Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians, has resulted in several communities—including Paris, France and Zurich and Bern, Switzerland—becoming Blue Communities. Hopefully, Toronto will soon become a Blue Community too.
The Anishinaabe write on their Great Lakes Water Walk website: The Great Lakes have shaped and influenced our history, economy, natural environment, and many generations of surrounding communities. Yet these magnificent bodies of water are far from thriving, suffering from years of neglect, abuse and degradation. By sharing the Indigenous practice of honouring and giving thanks to those same Lakes, The Great Lake Water Walk is an invitation to pause and reflect upon what we can do individually and collectively to ensure the health and well-being of our waters for generations to come.
“Water has to live, it can hear, it can sense what we’re saying, it can really, really speak to us. Some songs come to us through the water. We have to understand that water is very precious.”—Josephine Mandamin
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Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.