Students at St. Benedict School in Sudbury, Ont., have been learning of the importance of water to Indigenous communities. Photo by Mickey Conlon

Students get the conversation on water flowing

By 
  • May 20, 2022

For the Diversity Club at Sudbury, Ont’s St. Benedict Catholic School, the conversation on water and what it means in Indigenous cultures began on Earth Day.

At a school-wide assembly and through various activities, the students were given an introduction to the Indigenous view on water, as well as the story of the original “water walker,” Josephine Mandamin. Known the world over as a water-rights advocate, Mandamin was the Anishinabek Nation Chief Water Commissioner and referred to as “Grandmother Water Walker.” She walked around the Great Lakes from 2003 to 2017 to bring awareness to water pollution and environmental degradation on the Great Lakes and on Indigenous reserves in Canada. Mandamin passed away in 2019.

The school has pledged to carry forth Mandamin’s legacy, and one of its first activities was an Anishinaabe-led ceremonial water walk to raise awareness of the importance and need to protect our water. 

Indigenous support worker and Diversity Club staff lead Shannon Agowissa led students from the school to a water fill station near the Gerry McCroy Countryside Sports Complex. They walked carrying the traditional eagle staff and filled a ceremonial copper vessel with water and sang a traditional water song. Considered a walking prayer, part of the ceremony is to ensure that the water remains in continuous movement.

Upon return to the school, students continued the walk around the track where classes were able to come out throughout the day to join the walk. Classes from neighbouring Holy Cross Catholic School also came out to walk laps and carry the eagle staff and water around the track.

Traditionally females carry the sacred water and males carry the eagle staff as a flag and symbol of protection.

Agowissa, from Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation, hopes that perhaps through these learning opportunities young people will be inspired to rise up as advocates or trades people working to support the movement towards clean drinking water for all.

“The Indigenous peoples that are standing up for Mother Earth and standing up for the water, we’re not just doing that for Indigenous peoples,” said Agowissa. “Everyone is benefiting or will benefit from a healthy place to live and clean water to drink. Water connects us all.”

Agowissa says it was wonderful seeing non-Indigenous students’ excitement, appreciation and reverence for the ceremony.

“It was really neat to have those conversations with anyone who is wanting to carry the water or carry the eagle staff and getting them to understand the responsibilities of what they’re actually doing,” said Agowissa. “I told some of the young men who were the eagle staff carriers, ‘Once you meet the staff, you’re going to understand. You’re going to feel it.’ I was really happy about how the (ceremonial items) were handled. That piece was really beautiful to see.”

The school has received a grant through the Jane Goodall Institute to go towards projects supporting the environment, which the school chose to put towards education on the water crisis and to honour and celebrate the natural resource.

Water, or a lack of clean water, is a huge concern on Indigenous lands across the nation. There are a reported 36 long-term drinking water advisories in effect in 29 Indigenous communities, a number that fluctuates regularly.

After the assembly classes were invited to participate in Zoom sessions led by the Junction Creek Stewardship Committee, Long Lake Stewardship Committee and the City of Greater Sudbury wastewater and water management. The presentations introduced students to how water systems work, the spiritual aspects of water and aimed to get them thinking critically about what water means to them.

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