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The St.Lawrence River at Sunset. | Image Source:

In 2000, author, and respected Midewin Elder, Eddie Benton (Ojibway) spoke at a large gathering in Pipestone, Minnesota where he prophesied that if society continues to neglect its responsibility for the waters -30 years from now an ounce of water will cost the same as an ounce of gold. Benton warned that water will become so precious wars will be fought over it. He concluded by asking attendees: What are you going to do about it? Elder, Josephine Mandamin was listening; “It seemed like he was looking straight at me when he said that,” she said in Women Water and Health: Reflections from First Nations, Inuit and Métis Grandmothers. It was in the winter of 2002, Josephine came up with the idea of walking around Lake Superior carrying precious water to pray for it and raise awareness about our responsibilities to care for it. On April 21, 2003 the first annual Sacred Water Walk was held with Mandamin leading the way.

This year’s annual Sacred Water Walk started on June 23, 2015 in Matane, QC, with the eastern clans (Ojibway, Mi’kMaq, Pasmaquaddy, Abenaki/Wabanaki, and others) gathering to share stories of the great migration story, a story about how the Anishnaabe migrated after receiving what they called, ‘The Seven Fires’ prophesy. Another focus of this year’s Sacred Water Walk was to share traditional teachings about our connection to water and to raise awareness about water disasters such as oil spills and train derailments along the Great Lakes and St.Lawrence River that make the water ‘sick’.

The Sacred Water Walk 2015 Pail
The vessel Jospehine Mandamin used during The Sacred Water Walk 2015

Traditional Teachings

Aboriginal teachings convey that when we pollute water, we pollute our own bodies. One must be respectful to the water because water gives life; it is a spirit and has healing properties. Humans and water are responsive and hold a reciprocal relationship. A big part of reciprocity is being thankful and appreciating the life that water gives us.

Mandamin referred to women as “carriers of water” because women’s bodies have to ability to host and sustain life, much like Mother Earth. When women give birth they release this water similar to what happens at spring time with the earth’s spring water flows, followed by the birth of life. Water is considered the blood of Mother Earth; her veins are the lakes, rivers and inlets. Like Mother Earth, humans are mostly made up of water, whatever affects the water affects us- everything is connected.

The Great Migration

In his book, The Mishomis Book: The Voice of The Ojibway, Benton wrote about the Seven Prophecies that came to the Anishinaabe at the time. They identified each prophecy as a Fire, each Fire represented a period of time in the future.

A long time ago before European settlers came, the Anishnaabe lived peacefully and prospered by the Atlantic Ocean. Prophecies started being told of a light skinned race that would come along and bring death and destruction. After much counsel the Anishnaabe travelled westward guided by the prophecies and sacred visions. The First, Second and Third Fires led the migration of the people. The Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Fires prophesied how the light skinned race would come with promise of a new and better life, only to try and destroy the Anishinaabe culture for generations to come. The Fifth and Sixth Fires referred to the attacks on Indigenous people’s sovereignty, forced assimilation and residential schools. The Seventh Fire prophesied how “the New People will emerge. They will retrace their steps to find what was left by the trail. Their steps will take them to the Elders who they will ask to guide them on their journey. But many of the Elders will have fallen asleep. They will awaken to this new time with nothing to offer. Some of the Elders will be silent because no one will ask anything of them. The New People will have to be careful in how they approach the Elders. The task of the New People will not be easy.”

Map of Anishinaabe Migration
Map of Anishinaabe Migration | Image Source:

Diluted Bitumen Shipped Through the Great Lakes and St.Lawrence River

A report done by the Council of Canadians, Doubling Down on Disaster, revealed that in December 2013, regulation changes increased the allowable width of cargo tankers from 32 to 44 metres, increasing the amount of diluted bitumen oil being transported down the St. Lawrence River. Diluting thick bitumen from the Alberta tar sands involves using various toxic and explosive chemicals to make it thin enough to transport. Unlike conventional crude, which floats on water, much of the diluted bitumen would sink to the bottom, making cleanup efforts far more difficult after a spill.

The tankers carry anywhere from 110 to 120 million litres of diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands, down the St.Lawrence River to destinations like Sardinia, Italy and The Gulf of Mexico. The energy company, Suncor has announced that they’re planning 30 shipments like this per year. The company, Calumet Specialty Products also plans on shipping more diluted bitumen across the Great Lakes.

If the TransCanada Corporation’s East Energy Pipeline proposal is accepted that could add another 200-300 supertankers per year, to ship more than 150 million litres of unrefined crude oil per day on the St.Lawrence River and the Bay of Fundy. The report also explained that, “current oil spill response capacity is not sufficient for the approximately 300 shipments of conventional crude oil currently delivered on the St. Lawrence River every year.”

Living in the Seventh Fire

We are living in the time of the Seventh Fire, a time when young Indigenous people are reclaiming their culture and Non-Indigenous people are becoming more educated about our traditional ways and teachings. This is also a time when governments and big oil and fracking companies are relentlessly extracting resources from the land, polluting it along with the air we breath and the water we drink. The Seventh Fire is extremely important as it stated, “This time the light skinned race will be given a choice between two roads. If they choose the right road, then the Seventh Fire will light the Eighth and final Fire, an eternal fire of peace, love brotherhood and sisterhood. If the light skinned race makes the wrong choice, then the destruction which they brought with them in coming to this country will come back at them and cause much suffering and death to all the Earth’s people.”

Isadore Day
Regional Chief of Ontario, Isadore Day, speaking to the water walkers July 22, 2015 in Toronto, ON

The Walk as a Spiritual Experience

Support and participation for the Water Walk this year was tremendous and positive. It gave walkers an insightful and spiritual experience embedded in Aboriginal culture. Communications liaison, Sandi Boucher said, “For non-Indigenous walkers and supporters, it was a learning curve and a chance to take part in something spiritual and ceremonial that many had never had the chance to even observe before. All are changed in a positive way by the walk.” This year’s water walk followed along the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, ending at Madeline Island in Wisconsin, a path similar to that of the Anishnaabe migration story.

Sacred water walker, Louanna Harper noted, “the preparation [for the walk] is a spiritual one,” she said, “on a day to day basis, as Native people we believe that prayer is such a powerful thing. You can sit there and pray with the water everyday, teach the children the prayer and teach them how to respect water.” Boucher explained, “The Sacred Water Walk was a success that has people talking and writing about the water. It has people realizing that if a 72-year old woman can set her life aside to walk across half the continent, then perhaps they can do something as well. Many now realize there is no longer a choice. We HAVE to do something before it is too late.”

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About The Author

Erica Commanda

Born in Toronto, Erica Commanda (Algonquin/Ojibwe) grew up in the small community of Pikwakanagan. From there she moved across Canada living in Ottawa, Vancouver and now Toronto, working in the bar/hospitality industry, mastering the art of listening to stories from her regulars while slinging and spilling drinks (at them or to them). And now through a series of random decisions and events in life she is on a journey discovering and mastering her own knack for storytelling as Associate Editor for MUSKRAT Magazine.

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