Worlds collided this week as knowledge keepers, engineers, conservationists, activists and community members joined together at Museum London for The River Talks: A Gathering at Deshkan Ziibi.
At 15,000 years old, Deshkan Ziibi, commonly known as the Thames River, is one of southern Ontario’s largest running rivers and London’s richest cultural landmark. Though Londoners pass by the 273 km river every day, most don’t consider the impact their lives have on the river that cuts through their city. Even fewer are aware of the spiritual meaning that runs deep in Deshkan Ziibi.
During the three day event, educated speakers passionate about river conservation walked attendees through future plans for improving sewage systems and storm-water management. They also discussed a master plan to better design river corridor systems. The interactive talks occurred both indoors and outdoors. Attendees were invited to explore the river on flood walks, historical walking tours and river cleanups.
London Environmental Network, the event organizer, realizes the river’s well-being isn’t only important for city employees in departments like environmental engineering and resource management.
The voices carrying the culture of those who nurtured and protected the river had wisdom and insight to contribute to the conversation long before colonization. When it came to environmental planning and sustenance, Indigenous ways of thinking about the heritage of the land are often overlooked. As these traditional teachings are left behind in the storm of urbanization, the spiritual significance that has guided so many Indigenous communities is lost on those outside of these communities.
Wahsayzee Deleary, a speaker for the Deep Dive Discussion: Indigenous Perspectives panel, couldn't remember a time where water didn’t play a significant role in her life.
“As an Anishinaabe woman, it is my responsibility to create and take care of life. Without water, there would be no life. That is my relationship to the water,… and as with any relationship, there is responsibility and accountability,” she shares. “Part of that work is advocating for the water and teaching Anishinaabe culture and understanding of the water.”
As a knowledge keeper for the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge, Deleary is responsible for teaching the cultural ways, ceremonies and traditions of her people. She actively fights for the proper treatment of the land we live on.
“Any community that lives along the banks of Deshkan Ziibi needs to be aware of the importance of the spirit that the water and the river carries in order to maintain creation and sustain life,” she says. “If the river is not well, we as people will not be well either. Eventually, there will be no life.”
From fasting to honour Creation and the well-being of Deshkan Ziibi to offering her tobacco on the water, Deleary has always had a strong relationship with her environment. This sense of acknowledgement and respect has been fundamental to her upbringing and basic understanding of self. Her mission is to help others learn the value of honouring the land and the water by establishing a relationship with it, rather than taking it for granted.
Another panelist, Sam Whiteye, is from the Delaware Nation and Turtle Clan of the Lunaapeew. Her role as the youth female board member of Meesingw Inc., a grassroots non-profit environmental organization, allows her to advocate for the health of Ontario’s rivers and clean water for all First Nations.
For Whiteye, the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives in the planning of this event is a milestone.
“This event helps raise awareness and gives a platform for First Nations to have a voice. Today in society, that is so important.”
This event marks a positive step forward between the LEC and the Indigenous communities innate connection to the land so many people call home. Educating people on Deshkan Ziibi and the ways that the river can be renewed and reworked to better serve the environment promotes healing and restores relationships with the land.
Community drives change — which is why Whiteye is confident that the only way to truly be mindful of the environment and its implications in everyday life is to work together to promote change.
“There needs to be space and there needs to be a conversation to open up with everybody — not just First Nations but everyone who lives in the London area. Everyone has to play their part.”