'It's really very crucial right now': Great Lakes Water Walk focuses on protecting 'lifeblood'

In 2003, when Anishnaabe Elder Josephine Mandamin took her first ceremonial water walk around Lake Superior she wanted to share the message that the water is sick and people need to really fight for that water, to speak for that water, to love that water.

'We're coming together to make awareness to take care of the water,' says elder Shirley Williams

A group of water walkers, including one holding a sign that reads 'Nibi [water] is life.' (Photo courtesy of G. Horton-Baptiste)

In 2003, when Anishnaabe elder Josephine Mandamin took her first ceremonial water walk around Lake Superior, she wanted to share the message that the water is sick and people need to fight for that water, to speak for that water and to love that water.

Following Mandamin's example, elder Shirley Williams and her niece Elizabeth Osawamick have been organizing annual water walks, called Nibi Emosaawdamajig (Those Who Walk for the Water), around the Kawartha region of Ontario for the past eight years.

"It's really very crucial right now because a lot of communities can't drink the water. A lot of First Nations communities cannot drink the water because it's become poison," Williams said.

From the front left: Liz Osawamick, Shirley Williams, and Josephine Mandamin participating in a water walk. (Photo courtesy of G. Horton-Baptiste)

The Great Lakes Water Walk, which is being held in collaboration with Nibi Emosaawdamajig and the environmental group Ecologos, will take place Sept. 24 along the Toronto waterfront. The walk is open to all people who would like to participate, and more than 150 volunteers have already signed up to take part.

"We're coming together to make awareness to take care of the water. Regardless if you're an Aboriginal person or not, we need to work together to keep the waters clean," Williams said.

An investigation by CBC revealed that two thirds of First Nations communities in Canada have experienced boil water advisories in the last 10 years.

It's the responsibility of the people to look after the water, Williams said. In Anishnaabe tradition, women have held the primary caretaking role in looking after water and protecting it.

Elizabeth Osawamick holds a copper pail and blesses the water. (Photo courtesy of G. Horton-Baptiste)
"In our ceremonies it is the woman who will bless the water, because women are the carriers of the water," Williams said.

"We carry babies in our wombs and it's the water that comes out first. In the ceremony there will be water carried in a copper pail," she added.

The copper pail that the women use to carry the water holds great significance because of its conductive and antimicrobial nature, explains Kim Wheatley, culture protocal director for Nibi Emosaawdamajig.

"If you take water and place it in copper, it's going to get cleaned up in a very short time period and sustain that cleanliness level. We as Indigenous people know and have always known about this relationship, so we honour that," Wheatley said.

"When we carry our copper pots of water, we're amplifying our prayer, keeping that water clean and returning clean water at the end of the walk back to the source of its origin," she added.

Campaign focuses on connection to water

The Great Lakes Water Walk organizers have launched a social media campaign, #BecauseOfWater, which encourages people to share their videos and photos showing their connection to water.

The campaign aims to draw attention to the ceremonial walk and to the importance of reconnecting with with the water.

"We as Anishinaabe believe that the Earth is like our mother. From her we have everything that sustains us," Osawamick said.

"The water is like her lifeblood. All the bodies of water are her veins. Without water we would not be here. It's so important that we educate the people about the importance of how sacred the water is," she added.

Osawamick said that she walks for her children and grandchildren. Her youngest daughter, Florence, is 10 and Osawamick wants to make sure that she understands the importance of water as life-sustaining.

"We do it for seven generations and beyond. We have to start praying and talking to the water. We have to make sure that our kids understand that," Osawamick said.

The walk along Toronto's waterfront trail will have two starting points, one in the east and one in the west, with a common meeting group at Marilyn Bell Park.

The eastern route starts at Scarboro Mission and can be joined at Ashbridge's Bay Park or the mouth of the Don River. The western route will leave from J.C. Saddington Park and walkers can join at Colonel Samuel Smith Park or the mouth of the Humber River.

As the two groups culminate at Marilyn Bell Park, Williams, Mandamin and Osawamick will lead a final ceremony and blessing for the water.

"They say we are living in the time of the eighth fire," Wheatley said.

"That means it's time to start sharing, speaking, and acting. Recognizing the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] report, acts of reconciliation and standing up as protectors — these are real meaningful actions. They are necessary actions."