The Day After: Water

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Author’s Note: The Manomin Research Project is cross-posting Brittany Luby’s segment in “The Day After: Water” with permission from Canadian Dimension. “The Day After: Water” is the seventh installment in an ongoing curated series by editors Jonathan Peyton and James Wilt, and features contributions from Heather Dorries, Alice Cohen, Brittany Luby with Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation, Kathryn Furlong, and Deborah McGregor. Check out the full installment here!

By Brittany Luby with Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation

For years, the International Joint Commission (IJC) and Lake of the Woods Control Board (LWCB), two federally financed organizations responsible for regulating water levels on Lake of the Woods, defined First Nations as a “Specific Interest Group.” Canada categorized First Nations like cottagers’ associations: groups with an interest in water levels. This label disregarded Aboriginal Title generally. It also ignored the English written version of Treaty #3 as published by Canada in which watersheds and waterways provide boundary lines and the arrival of settlers to share the land is contemplated. It was not until the 1980s that Canada, Ontario, and Manitoba sought an alternative position (and label) for First Nations as an “affirmation of Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in the Canadian Constitution (1982, s 35).”[1]

Freed of the “Specific Interest Group” label, First Nations were invited to consult with colonial regulators about water levels. This was (and is) an imperfect solution. Consultation does not challenge the power dynamics coded into the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. With this treaty, Canada and the United States decided how to manage international boundary water issues. They laid out the structure and mandate of the IJC. They affirmed each other’s governing power. Together, Canada and the United States dismissed their treaty partners. First Nations negotiators were not invited to the table in 1909 and so there is no legal requirement to invite them now. It is a moral imperative that drives contemporary dialogue.

In summer 2019, representatives from the IJC and LWCB visited with Elders from Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation. They travelled the river with us. Despite these limited interactions (and their promise), inclement weather in September led to “exceptionally high inflow into Lake of the Woods,” which meant the LWCB “directed further additional flow increases” into the Winnipeg River. In fall 2019, water levels increased around 1.5 metres or 5 feet near the reserve.[2] Families at NAN feared for their homes and their livelihoods. We did not anticipate the almost complete destruction of a nearby pictograph site (even though artificial water fluctuations had caused damage in years past).

It is no secret that water fluctuations can damage (and have damaged) sacred sites in addition to reserve lands. As early as 1959, ethnographer Selwyn Dewdney started recording the date and water level when creating pictograph etchings in the upper Winnipeg River drainage basin. Dewdney noted that some of the ancestors’ writing was below the water line. See, for example, his etching from Upper Grassy Lake with its submerging shaman:

Elders in Treaty #3 associate damages like this one with dam operations.

At NAN, cultural protocol prevents individuals like me from photographing such sacred spaces and, by extension, from creating a documentary record of damages to them. The coronavirus prevents the Elders and I from taking colonial regulators onto the Winnipeg River to show these damages, from substituting a shared record with shared experience. Fear inhabits these limited options. You see, Aboriginal Title (as recognized under Canadian common law) requires evidence of occupation and use of ancestral lands prior to colonization. Colonial regulators have washed away markers of ancestral presence. They have erased writings left by First Nations in red ochre and sturgeon grease thousands of years ago.  What happens in the days after this erasure? If artificial water fluctuations erode ancient writings and disease prevents us from proving contemporary damages, what future is Canada positioned to steal under colonial law?


[1] “First Nations and their First Nations Advisors,” Lake of the Woods Control Board (LWCB), accessed 7 May 2020,  [].

[2] Lake of the Woods Secretariat, email message to authors, 23 September 2019.

Image provided by the Manomin Research Project.

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