Manitoulin First Nations leaders prominent in Can. Geographic, Swim Drink Fish Great Lakes protection project

From left to right, Charlotte Commanda, Chiefs of Ontario chief of staff; Elder Linda Manitowabi, water keeper; Oha Cada, helper to water keeper; Ogimaa-kwe Linda Debassige, M’Chigeeng First Nation; Patrick Madahbee, Biinaagami advisor; Elder and Anishinabek Language Commissioner Barb Nolan; Brian Charles, wampum belt historian; Elder Donna Debassige and Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare pose with a birchbark canoe built by Chuck Commanda and students at Mohawk College.

NIAGARA ON THE LAKE—We have a great deal to lose if we don’t acknowledge our shared responsibility to protect and restore the Great Lakes. That’s the underlying premise of Biinaagami, a multi-year collaborative project undertaken by Canadian Geographic and Swim Drink Fish. The project was launched September 26 in Niagara on the Lake with a number of First Nations leaders from Manitoulin Island as key participants.

Patrick Madahbee was brought in as advisor to the project and coordinated the launch event. Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare gave a perspective from the Chiefs of Ontario on the protection of water, raising a number of concerns. “He talked quite a bit about how crucial water is, about burying nuclear waste near water, and about Line 5, key to the protection of water,” Mr. Madahbee said.

Professor Rick Hill, Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River and Brian Charles, who is from the Chippewas of Georgina Island, are historians and spoke about the wampum belts, their relationships to new settlers, the territory and the protection of water bodies. M’Chigeeng First Nation Ogimaa-kwe Linda Debassige, a water walker, gave the keynote address. Linda Manitowabi, an elder and water walker from Wiikwemkoong, held a water ceremony, accompanied by her grandson, Oha Cada. Wiikwemkoong’s Donna Debassige and Garden River’s Barbara Nolan also assisted with the water ceremony.

The Anishinaabewmowin translation of Biinaagami is clean, pure water. “Water is important to life,” Mr. Madahbee told The Expositor. “If we don’t protect this absolutely precious resource it’s at our own peril.”

“It all starts from water,” said Ontario Regional Chief Hare. “We’re at the table with them (Biinaagami). All these projects, they’re awesome but we’ve got a long way to go. We can’t fix it overnight but we’re part of it.”

The partners began working on the concept of Biinaagami because of the regional and global significance of the Great Lakes watershed, said Meredith Brown, director of special projects with Royal Canadian Geographical Society. “We felt with the 50th anniversary coming up (of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement), there just wasn’t enough attention being paid to the Great Lakes.”

They wanted the project to be Indigenous guided and brought on Mr. Madahbee as well as 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 with Lake Ontario Waterkeepers and on the Great Lakes Guardian’s Council.

“Essentially, we really want to shine the spotlight on the Great Lakes watershed and talk about how incredible they are and how globally significant they are and mostly, we have so much to learn from the ecosystem,” Ms. Brown said. “We have a great deal to lose if we don’t acknowledge that we have a shared responsibility and that we need to take action to protect and restore the Great Lakes.”

One way they’ve begun to ‘shine the light’ is through the release of a three-part documentary series on the Great Lakes called Great Lakes Untamed. The series was launched in Canada through TVO and in the United States through Smithsonian.

The second piece of the project is about creating a network of the nations that are in the watershed that have been historically excluded from the governance and decision-making, Ms. Brown said. “We want people to understand there’s incredible Indigenous knowledge and expertise and perspectives and we’ve been ignoring them for far too long. There’s always talk about two nations that govern the Great Lakes: Canada and the US. We’re calling that out. We’re saying you need to recognize there’s multiple Indigenous nations in the Great Lakes watershed and we need to honour the sovereignty of those nations. We need to honour their ceremony, their practices and their protocols and most importantly, we need to pull chairs up to those decision-making tables and invite them in.”

Canadian Geographic is really known for its cartography and mapping and has used that expertise to create a giant floor map of the Great Lakes watershed. “It’s quite spectacular,” said Ms. Brown. The map shows all the Indigenous languages and territories in the different regions of the watershed in the Indigenous languages only. It uses augmented reality to share three-dimensional stories.

“So far, we have the story of the water walkers told through Indigenous voices,” she said. Ultimately, there will be 10 to 14 stories, told from the Indigenous nations in the watershed. It’s an opportunity to amplify those stories as the maps will be shared with school groups across the watershed and even across the country. Canadian Geographic has a network of over 30,000 teachers and will provide this as a free resource to people. They are developing curriculum-based lesson plans to go along with each of the stories.

Swim Drink Fish similarly brings their experience to the table. They’ve been creating community-based water monitoring hubs with the goal of increasing the number of these community-based monitoring hubs in the Great Lakes watershed.

Swim Drink Fish is inspired by the leadership of people like Mr. Madahbee and Ontario Regional Chief Hare, said Mr. Mattson. He wants to see Indigenous nations included at the table for all of the Great Lakes agreements moving forward. “We also think there needs to be a coming together where everyone can work together on the Great Lakes and it’s not seen as a rust belt or a second class water body,” he said. “It’s one of the most important freshwater ecosystems in the world and we’d like to see it treated as such.”

This is the first big collaboration between Canadian Geographic and Swim Drink Fish and they’re quite excited about it. “We have such trust in each other,” said Mr. Mattson. “A lot of that comes from the leadership of people like Patrick and others who really believe there needs to be more collaboration on the Great Lakes in order to address some of the serious problems, whether it be climate change or plastics or untreated sewage. The Great Lakes don’t recognize political boundaries and they need cooperation and collaboration. We need to listen and work together and that’s what Biinaagami is about. It’s about shared responsibility. To share responsibility it also means that some entities need to give up a little bit of power.”

Community science is so important, added Mr. Mattson, pointing to a need to obtain baseline data for fisheries, water quality and wildlife. “The government doesn’t have enough resources but you don’t need a Ph.D. to collect water samples.”

He’s hopeful Biinaagami will ultimately help us see problems in the watershed quicker and address them faster.

Water connects us all deeply, he said, and Biinaagami provides an opportunity to find other stories of those who share the same deep connections to their watersheds, and to help provide the tools needed to protect and restore the Great Lakes.

“We need more people to volunteer to protect the Great Lakes right across the board,” he said. He urges people to go to the website ( and find ways to get involved in their own communities. “That’s where change happens, whether it’s with five people or 500 people.”