Honouring Water

Water is the most life sustaining gift on Mother Earth and is the interconnection among all living beings.  Water sustains us, flows between us, within us, and replenishes us.  Water is the blood of Mother Earth and, as such, cleanses not only herself, but all living things.  Water comes in many forms and all are needed for the health of Mother Earth and for our health.  The sacred water element teaches us that we can have great strength to transform even the tallest mountain while being soft, pliable, and flexible.  Water gives us the spiritual teaching that we too flow into the Great Ocean at the end of our life journey.  Water shapes the land and gives us the great gifts of the rivers, lakes, ice, and oceans.  Water is the home of many living things that contribute to the health and well-being of everything not in the water.

All life requires water and yet our global water supplies are quickly being dried up and polluted.  The First Nations peoples of North America have a special relationship with water, built on our subsistence ways of life that extends back thousands of years.  Our traditional activities depend on water for transportation, for drinking, cleaning, purification, and provides habitat for the plants and animals we gather as medicines and foods.  Our ability to access good water shapes these traditional activities and our relationships with our surroundings.  As Indigenous peoples, First Nations recognize the sacredness of our water, the interconnectedness of all life and the importance of protecting our water from pollution, drought and waste.

Water is the giver of all life and without clean water all life will perish.  First Nations are seeking the recognition of their authorities over water and require resources to build capacity to advocate for our water rights and to protect the health of the water that Mother Earth gives.  Many First Nations seek to restore the traditional ways of protecting the health of water and to share these ways with the world.  

The water-related challenges facing First Nations are many.  The ESU provides support to First Nations who are actively working to protect their waterways from things like dam projects, industrial development and contamination.


Water Rights & Allocation 

In many regions, First Nations live with insufficient water allocations and infringements on their Aboriginal and Treaty Rights to water.  The ESU strives to ensure that First Nations’ water rights are recognized, protected and upheld.  The ESU is engaged in water legislation and governance discussions at the federal level. Within these discussions the ESU is committed to ensuring that First Nations’ rights to water are recognized and upheld.  The ESU has also collaborated internationally with other indigenous groups to create declarations asserting First Nations’ water rights and associated responsibilities as keepers of the water.

Garma International Indigenous Water Declaration
Convening of Indigenous Peoples for the Healing of Mother Earth, Palenque, Mexico

Climate Change Impacts to Water Systems 

Climate changes are expected to alter water quality and quantity.  It is important to understand the character of expected changes in order to develop adaptation strategies that will help First Nations to continue to live with comfortable access to sufficient water even as the climate changes.  The ESU has completed research on how climate change will uniquely affect First Nations and how First Nations might adapt to the changes to waterways in Canada.  The ESU continues to raise awareness of the issue of water protection among First Nations and to provide guidance for First Nations in dealing with adaptation issues.

Source Water Protection 

First Nations’ water is often degraded by activities that occur far from reserves and traditional lands.  Source water protection plans can help to protect water from irresponsible use and contamination.  The ESU supports community development of Source Water Protection Plans in support of responsible water management practices that acknowledge the multiple external stresses threatening water quality and quantity.


The ESU works actively to protect First Nations’ Aboriginal and Treaty Rights to water, including the right to navigation.  During the winter and spring of 2009, the ESU helped to raise awareness of the need to recognize, protect and uphold First Nations’ rights in Canadian federal legislation through providing oral and written comments on the Government of Canada’s amendments to the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA). These amendments were pursued without a full, prior and informed consultation process with First Nations.  

Read AFN comments to Senate on Proposed Changes to the NWPA

Drinking Water and Waste Water Treatment 

Many First Nation communities live with high-risk drinking water systems and drinking water advisories.  The ESU works closely with the AFN Housing and Infrastructure Secretariat to help improve First Nations’ access to sufficient quantities of high quality, safe drinking water. The ESU has also been closely following the development of the new Canada Wide Wastewater Effluent Strategy, advocating for First Nations’ concerns throughout its development.

The ESU is working in collaboration with the Housing and Infrastructure Section on Drinking water and Waste Water Treatment.  Please visit the Housing and Infrastructure Section website for more information.

AFN Policy Area – Water and Wastewater



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Angie TurnerHonouring Water