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Youth doing art.
Youth with Music for the Spirit & Indigenous Visual Arts work on projects about relationships with water at Six Nations of the Grand River. (Elaine Ho), Author provided

Indigenous youth are playing a key role in solving urgent water issues

Unsolved environmental problems, a national mandate to uphold treaty responsibilities and a new appreciation for positive treaty relationships are leading some water researchers to consider new approaches to their work. They are examining how water monitoring practices that are conventionally considered strong, can be improved.

Recent research examined how water quality monitoring in the lower Grand River and nearby Lake Erie can inform management to address prolific growth of nuisance algae. Nuisance algae affect wildlife habitats and fishing, as well as swimming and boating. This work is part of the Lake Futures Group at the University of Waterloo and Global Water Futures, Canada’s largest water research collaboration.

This research was a collaboration with Music for the Spirit & Indigenous Visual Arts, a youth-led program that provides space for expression, learning and guidance for over 40 students at Six Nations of the Grand River.

A framed drawing next to a paddle hung on a wall.
From Waterlily series: ‘Waterlily’s Unravelling,’ digital drawing, and ‘Behind the Falls,’ paddle (double-sided), by Adriana Johnson, on display at the Carolinan Cafe. (Adriana Johnson), Author provided

Indigenous and treaty perspectives

Some water researchers are looking to a teaching from the Mi'kmaw culture that can enable a more holistic understanding of a watershed, including interactions between land and water and the social-ecological contexts surrounding them. Etuaptmumk, or “Two-Eyed Seeing” is about learning to see from one eye with Indigenous knowledge, from the other eye with western science and integrating the knowledge to see with both eyes open.

With such approaches, water scientists and managers look to Indigenous cultural teachings, community intergenerational stories and records as well as western science.


Read more: It's taken thousands of years, but Western science is finally catching up to Traditional Knowledge


The Grand River — named O:se Kenhionhata:tie (“Willow River”) in the Kanien’kéha:ka (Mohawk) language — is Southern Ontario’s largest and most populated watershed. It drains into the eastern basin of Lake Erie — named from Erielhonan in the Iroquoian language spoken by the Erie people, meaning “long tail.” About 80 species at risk are found in the watershed. The Grand River and contributing waters are home to more than half the fish species in Canada, resulting in a world-class fishery.

The watershed is home to roughly one million people who reside in 39 municipalities and two First Nations territories: the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation — Canada’s largest Indigenous population and the only place in North America where all six Iroquois nations reside — and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.

Three treaties apply to the Grand River watershed:

  1. The Two-Row Wampum that recognizes distinct but equally valued cultures living together but separately, without interference from each other.

  2. The Dish With One Spoon, a treaty to collaboratively maintain the health of lands, waters and wildlife.

  3. The Haldimand Proclamation of 1784, which designated six miles (about 10 kilometres) on either side of the Grand River — from headwaters to Lake Erie — as permanent Six Nations of the Grand River territory. Six Nations Lands and Resources notes that today the Six Nations of the Grand River community lives on approximately 46,000 acres, a base that is less than five per cent of the original 950,000 acre grant from the Haldimand treaty.

Ink drawing of turtle with straw.
From plastics pollution series: ‘Plastic Beach,’ ink, by Steve Johnson. (Steve Johnson), Author provided

Building relationships, reciprocity

Taking a collaborative research approach of documenting Six Nations youth perspectives on water with Music for the Spirit & Indigenous Visual Arts involved a shared process:

  1. Investing time to build relationships (our process required over a year of building relationships and developing the exhibit concept). Community members Paul General (former Six Nations wildlife manager and artist) and Tayler Hill (youth leader with Music for the Spirit & Indigenous Visual Arts) also supported this process.

  2. Ensuring participants can contribute in meaningful ways. For example, I, Elaine, as a doctoral researcher, had to grow intercultural competency. The youth artists further developed their skills to ensure they could produce either independent or collaborative artworks for this project.

  3. Ensuring reciprocity is part of the process. In this project, Six Nations community members asked to have youth insights amplified by seeking opportunities where they could be widely shared.

Acknowledging and enacting reciprocity means that collaborative research should not be pursued to serve the needs of western science, and that research is flexible to accommodate community interests.

The above considerations shaped the development of an ethical framework for the project. It is important to challenge ethical processes that apply a single set of western or empirical criteria to all activities, including those involving Indigenous communities. A growing literature can guide this process.

Together, we explored one way of sharing Six Nations youth perspectives with non-Indigenous community members and water managers.

collage about chemical spills
From Grand River chemical spills series: ‘Grand Chemical Spills 2,’ photographic collage, by Paityn Hill. (Paityn Hill), Author provided

Looking at the river: Many stories

Youth from Music for the Spirit & Indigenous Visual Arts used different artistic media accompanied by stories to describe their relationships with water. In some cases, these were their responses to the question: “What do you see when you look at the river?”

Themes that emerged were plastics pollution, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, drinking water, Grand River chemical spills and Waterlily (a cultural story transmitted in oral history).


Read more: The MMIWG report: A call for decolonizing international law itself


The youth art and stories were profiled in the Grand Expressions art exhibit. This exhibit was displayed at the Carolinian Café in Cayuga, Ont., near Six Nations territory on the Grand River, before being shared virtually due to the pandemic. THEMUSEUM in Kitchener, Ont., later featured the virtual exhibit.

Haldimand County Water and Wastewater division staff were among those who visited the Grand Expressions exhibit at the Carolinian Cafe in Cayuga, Ont. Author provided

Artist Ashley Cattrysse explored the connection between water and women. She wrote:

“Indigenous women share a sacred connection to the spirit of water. As water keepers their responsibilities are to protect and nurture. Among their roles, women across Canada are raising awareness to draw attention to the water crisis faced in Indigenous communities and Canada. As depicted in this piece, the message is stop, listen, act, prepare, join. However, this is not the only crisis in Canada.… The colour red represents the missing and murdered Indigenous women.”

A figure holds a hand up that is painted red.
From Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls series: ‘Water Keeper,’ canvas, by Ashley Cattrysse. (Ashley Cattrysse), Author provided

Artist Hannah Wallace-Lund contributed an image depicting summer camp participant Chase in front of water coolers holding a water drum. She wrote:

“It reminded me as someone who has grown up outside Six Nations that even though we all as onkwehon:we people care deeply for water, some of our relatives live without clean drinking water.… I grew up next to the Grand River and many of my strongest and happiest memories from then involve the river. To keep the river and Lake Erie clean should be the responsibility of all those who have lived beside them and received their many gifts, not just Indigenous people.”

A young man with lacrosse stick in front of bottled water jugs.
From drinking water series: untitled photograph, by Hannah Wallace-Lund. (Hannah Wallace-Lund), Author provided

Articulating principles

An analysis of common themes in the youth’s stories identified recommendations, most of which were statements of values. These were synthesized with perspectives from 21 water managers, western scientists and subject-matter experts interviewed as part of the larger study.

The result was 10 principles for guiding water monitoring and management. For example, that water is finite; impacts are shared but are unequally distributed; we will manage as stewards and treat waters as living; and that managers should measure and enhance community experiences as part of watershed health.

Our co-created, arts-based approach can be effective for engaging youth and diverse community members not just for water management but all aspects of sustainable planning.

Relationships formed during this research lay the foundation for meaningful Canadian-Indigenous cooperation, especially in the context of our most important shared resource: water.

This exhibit would not have been possible without the efforts of Tayler Hill, Jordon and Whitney from the Carolinian Café and Laurel McKellar at THEMUSEUM. Elaine notes there are no words to express appreciation for the cross-cultural bridging that was supported by the positive and energetic involvement of Richelle and Tayler. Thank you.

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