Great Lakes Waterworks at the University of Toronto

By Bonnie McElhinny, University of Toronto

Building a watershed movement for restoration and healing of the Great Lakes comes with several challenges, as noted by authors Peter Lavinge and Stephen Gates. These include increasing public understanding of rivers and lakes, enhancing ecological literacy, recruiting and empowering leaders, building citizenship organizations, and linking water activists. The draft Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement also notes increasing need for public engagement, especially from indigenous nations and other under-represented groups.

student indigenous perspectives
Students learn about indigenous perspectives on the Humber River as part of the Great Lakes Waterworks program at the University of Toronto. Credit: Bonnie McElhinny

At the University of Toronto, an initiative called Great Lakes Waterworks will serve as a hub for social scientists and humanities scholars and social justice activists to think collectively about community building and public engagement. Supported by an ATLAS (Advanced Teaching and Learning in Arts and Science) grant from the University of Toronto, the initiative has three key goals:

  • to establish an identifiable cluster of courses linked to water-based issues in and on the Great Lakes, including more experiential approaches to education
  • to train undergraduate students in the social sciences and humanities to do hands-on research generated by emerging needs linked to ongoing environmental initiatives in their community
  • to forge teaching and research networks with organizations in Toronto working actively on environmental and social justice initiatives.

Great Lakes Waterworks also dovetails with 2016 recommendations from a Canadian federal Truth and Reconciliation report for transforming relationships with indigenous nations. The University of Toronto’s version of the report, released in January, notes the need for indigenous approaches to spaces on campus, with a particular call for attention to a buried water body on campus (Taddle Creek), and deepening commitments to land-based education.

This year’s courses in Anthropology and Women and Gender Studies, taught at University of Toronto-St. George by Bonnie McElhinny and at the University of Toronto-Mississauga by Andrea Muehlebach, included “Living on the Water’s Edge in Toronto,” “Water and Social Justice,” and “Anthropologies of Water: On Values, Meanings and Futures.”

The courses introduced students to a range of ways to represent debates about water, such as photography, fiction and ethnography, to debates about water extraction, pipelines and approaches to city infrastructure. All were inflected by indigenous understandings of water and land. Instructors blurred classroom boundaries by inviting local activists from such organizations as Wellington Water Watchers to discuss ongoing work.

wellington water watchers toronto
The Wellington Water Watchers explain their work to University of Toronto students. Credit: Olivia Adamczyk

Students also had the opportunity to participate in a Digital Campfire called “Water Pedagogies:  Confluence in the Great Lakes,” which allowed 12 educators working with undergraduate students, elementary school students and general audiences to discuss ongoing work, how they engaged students, problems, questions and resources that are unaddressed or unavailable, and opportunities and needs for connecting educators and students around the Great Lakes. The audio file and a summary of presenters’ key points can be found at

Initiatives planned for the next year include:

  • a Great Lakes Circle convened with the support of Great Lakes Commons and the University of Toronto for 60-80 academics, activists, artists and others
  • a canoe build by an Anishinaabe activist with indigenous teachings
  • podcasts by students on water issues for a campus radio station
  • joint projects and courses for social science and planning students with Sheila Boudreau, a landscape architect with the City of Toronto who works on green infrastructure
  • joint initiatives with New College, integrating water-curriculum into ongoing initiatives on land and food security in residential, curricular and extra-curricular activities
  • A research partnership to support land and water protection and indigenous governance with Nancy Rowe, Mississaugas of the New Credit, and Kevin Best, Rivercourt Engineering/Indigenize or Die.

Bonnie McElhinny is an associate professor at the University of Toronto, and can be contacted at for further information.  A website and Facebook page will be launched for the Great Lakes Waterworks project in late summer 2017.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *