Mike Sutherland grew up trapping and fishing in Washow Bay on the edge of Lake Winnipeg. The Peguis First Nation resident has seen firsthand the changes to the land and the lake over the past 50 years: the fish are less plentiful, the muskrats have moved away and the healing medicines are disappearing. While he has tried to engage government and industry on the impacts of development on his community, he never gets very far. So he’s trying something new.
Peguis First Nation is one of 14 First Nations involved with the emerging Lake Winnipeg Indigenous Collective (LWIC). These nations are coming together to build a collaborative voice to improve the ecological health of Lake Winnipeg. Their mission is “to seek healthy and equitable solutions for our waters and our people from the diverse communities who have a relationship with Manitoba’s sacred great lake.”
Sutherland says that if First Nations around the lake have a unified voice, they will gain more influence. “As a collective, we can take on these issues and make them public.”
Gord Bluesky, lands manager for Brokenhead Ojibway Nation and LWIC’s south basin representative, also sees a role for LWIC in developing solutions for Lake Winnipeg. “Our First Nations have a responsibility as the original stewards of our lands to become actively involved with the rehabilitation of Lake Winnipeg,” he says. “Her current health reflects the lack of First Nation involvement in decision-making processes.”
LWIC has had four gatherings over the past year. With LWF support, the collective has been gaining momentum: connecting with allies, growing relationships and working to establish a governance structure.
Loretta Mowatt of Norway House Cree Nation is LWIC’s north basin representative. She, too, has concerns about the environmental changes on and around the lake. “Northern Manitoba is quite often forgotten in provincial planning processes,” she says. “A common misperception is that waters and lands in the North are pristine. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Observations by our resource users and harvesters indicate that change is occurring at a rapid rate, which is impacting our ability to conduct traditional activities.”
Back at Peguis, Sutherland says a current concern is the impact of peat mining on the Washow Bay Peninsula. The mining process drains water from the area’s bogs, which play a crucial role in cleaning the water of Lake Winnipeg. If the bogs are drained, the overall health of the lake will be compromised.
Sutherland believes LWIC’s collective voice will be strong enough to ensure protection of both the lake and the livelihood of his people. “It’s the piece of the puzzle that is needed for change.”