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Josephine Mandamin and the Ashinabik Women's Water Commission

by Frances Rooney | April 24, 2007

This message must go out to the earthly powers that be. Our First Nations/Tribal Leaders must take the step toward acting on their responsibility. Our elected government leaders must also enact policies to protect our waters and waterways. Lake Huron is home to the largest fresh-water island in the world and Georgian Bay being a part of that lake used to boast the wealthiest fishing grounds in the world. Protection of the water is key to our survival.

— Josephine Mandamin, Journal Entry 1, Mother Earth Water Walkers Journey, Lake Huron | May 2003

On March 24, 2007, the Union of Ontario Indians established the Ashinabek Women’s Water Commission, with Josephine Mandamin – long-time water activist and leader of the Mother Earth Water Walk – as the founding head commissioner. The other commissioners are traditional teachers – Mary Deleary of Muncey, and April Jones of London.

Announcing the commission, Grand Council Chief John Beaucage said, “We need to ensure that First Nations, especially our women, maintain their role as stewards of the water and give a voice for our most precious resource.” The “Commission will play a leadership role in raising the awareness of Great Lakes water and impact to its quality and quantity. The Women's Water Commission will also share their tremendous traditional knowledge and teachings about water as they undertake their work.”

Commissioner Josephine Mandamin feels deeply the plight of our earth and all life on it. “Hearing mother earth cry about how ill she is and how she is having a hard time feeding her children is a reminder to us all that our women feel the same way too,” she says. “We must unite in this monumental task.”

Josephine does not consider herself to be a fighter, “but I like to be on the up and up with people. The water, for example, really hits me in the heart. So much so that I cry every time I speak of it. And it’s not just the red people who need to take action, but the white, black, yellow and red people together. And the governments have to wake up and do something.”

Three days after the commission was set up, the Union of Ontario Indians and the province’s Minister of Natural Resources, David Ramsey, signed a co-management agreement to ensure First Nations participation in decisions that will impact the Great Lakes basin.

Mandamin’s first hope is to sponsor a large Ontario-wide water conference to explore the spirituality of water, how to revive dead lakes and how to work together to achieve common goals.

At the end of March, a huge train derailment underlined part of what Mandamin is working for. Millions of litres of sulfuric acid were dumped into the river system just upriver from her home in North Bay. That most talk about the derailment focused on repairing the rail lines and removing the acid in damaged cars is telling. Mandamin asks, “What is that acid doing to the water system? And where is it going? How far will it spread? And why was it there in the first place? Where was all that sulfuric acid being shipped? Who was going to use it? And for what? None of that is being talked about.”

The water commission is so new that its voice and impact are not yet known. “People say that First Nations people are always complaining about these things. Look at Kashechewan. We told people about the problems for years. Nothing happened until they had to evacuate. We live with these things. We know about them. People need to listen to us.”

Perhaps the greatest hope is that, with the establishment of the Women’s Water Commission and its place within the co-management agreement, the wisdom and strength of First Nations women will have a stronger voice.


The Union of Ontario Indians, founded in 1949, is the political and social organization of the Anishinabek Nation, an association of 42 member First Nations from seven groups: Odawa, Ojibway, Pottawatomi, Delaware, Chippewa, Algonquin, and Mississauga. The organization’s history goes back, through the Confederacy of Three Fires, to 796CE, making it the oldest political organization in Ontario and perhaps in North America.

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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