A panel discussion entitled, “The Great Lakes: The First Nations, Metis Nation and Tribal Perspective” hosted by the Great Lakes Water Quality Board of the International Joint Commission was held on the evening of November 9th in Thunder Bay. The session, held at Old Fort William, saw approximately 30 persons attend.
Mark Matson, President of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper moderated the session. The four-member panel included Dr. Rob Stewart of Lakehead University, Harold Michon of Rocky Bay on Lake Nipigon, Dean Jacobs of Walpole Island First Nation on Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River and James Wagar of the Métis Nation of Ontario.
After introductions, the evening began with a series of questions probing the relationship of indigenous peoples with the Great Lakes and the connection between identity and environment. Environmental factors associated with specific locations around the Great Lakes, whether Lake Nipigon, Lake St. Clair or the Detroit River were discussed. Panelists cited examples of environmental degradation as well as models for Great Lakes restoration and protection.
Themes surfaced like the time through generations that indigenous peoples have lived on, around and from the Great Lakes, the close relationship with the Great Lakes environment for hunting, fishing and gathering and the impacts on indigenous peoples of environmental degradation.
Dean Jacobs pointed out that the effects of environmental degradation were substantial in the case of Walpole Island First Nation, just downstream from Sarnia. He stressed that environmental stewardship in this area was critical, citing several innovative, cooperative actions taken by Walpole Island First Nation.
Harold Michon said he thought highly of the environmental cleanup carried out on Lake Superior’s Nipigon Bay. He said he understood that efforts to reduce swings in water levels on the Nipigon River due to hydro-electric power generation were central to efforts to restore Nipigon Bay fish populations. He pointed out though, that the waters of Lake Nipigon were the true headwaters of the Great Lakes. He asserted that although original agreement regarding Nipigon River water levels had sought balance between water levels on Lake Nipigon and the Nipigon River, this balance was not being maintained. He stressed that Lake Nipigon fish populations were experiencing severe negative impacts, especially due to the effects of fluctuating water levels. He said that while mechanisms for dialogue were in place to address this situation, he would like to see much closer cooperation between Lake Nipigon, Nipigon River and Lake Superior interests.
Rob Stewart agreed that a watershed approach was fundamental to environmental restoration and protection. He explained that as efforts concluded to address the original suite of very specific environmental issues identified in Nipigon Bay, it was his hope that a broader approach, including Lake Nipigon, be developed and maintained over the longer term.
He said that reports about problems on Lake Nipigon reinforced the need for first-hand, traditional knowledge to be included in environmental considerations. He said water did not respect arbitrary administrative boundaries and that the quality of water in Superior was directly related to the quality of water flowing into it. He stressed that local community members were the people directly impacted by cumulative environmental degradation, whether in the form of pollution or degradation of habitat due to water level swings from power generation. He agreed with the assertion of other panelists, that indigenous peoples are the true environmental stewards, hosting all of us on their traditional lands. He said he was pleased to see an organization like the Water Quality Board of the International Joint Commission come to the most upper portion of the Great Lakes to hear the perspective of regional residents. He said he hoped this action by the Water Quality Board would lead to sufficient resources and capacity for indiginous peoples to host a similar conference of their own and that it would be just, and right, that government representatives and scientists report back to the people who had lived around the Great Lakes for countless generations, rather than indigenous peoples reporting to government. He thanked Water Quality Board members for providing the opportunity to panelists to voice their perspectives.
Audience members put forward several comments and questions, such as whether nuclear waste had finally been ruled out for storage within the Lake Superior watershed, whether lampricide might be affecting species other than lamprey, whether environmental conditions in Thunder Bay Harbour were improving, even after a heavily industrialized past and whether economic, rather than environmental interests were the real focus on the Great Lakes.