Indigenous Knowledge and Water Management: Past and Present IJC Initiatives Involving Indigenous Knowledge, Indigenous Collaboration and Engagement

Seine River First Nation Sturgeon Spawning Project


The IJC has benefitted greatly from the sharing of Indigenous Knowledge and perspectives. Below are some examples of working together.  


Rainy-Lake of the Woods 

To identify the timing of lake sturgeon spawning in the Seine River, and to inform better management of water levels in the system, a study was conducted from 2011 to 2015 in which underwater camera videography was used to collect data on egg mats and larval drift to best determine the time to increase water flow to prevent sturgeon eggs from drying out. Two Indigenous Knowledge indicators were identified by Seine River First Nation knowledge holders, which were found to coincide with sturgeon spawning. These indicators are particularly important when temperature data is not available.  


As a result of invasive cattails, anthropogenic water management and climate change, there has been a decline of wild rice or manoomin (as it is known in Ojibwe) in the Rainy-Lake of the Woods watershed. Manoomin is a staple food of the Couchiching First Nation. Over the past several years, the IJC has sought to improve conditions for wild rice in this area. The IJC worked with First Nations in the area as well as with wetlands ecology specialists on this project. Using IJC funding, Peter Lee, a wetlands ecology specialist from Lakehead University, worked with Seine River First Nation to determine the best water conditions for rice growth. 


Great Lakes 

As a result of the ongoing challenges between health benefits and threats associated with fish consumption, the IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board  is partnering with the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne’s Environmental Program to better develop a framework for fish consumption in the St. Lawrence River Area of Concern (AOC). The topic of fish consumption is particularly confusing in this region because the region is a multi-jurisdictional AOC and has multiple conflicting fish consumption advisories. It is envisioned that this collaborative project will be a case study for exploring approaches to reduce confusion over fish consumption advisories in areas with multiple jurisdictions. This initiative involves workshops to develop a stronger understanding of the value of fish and water to the Indigenous Peoples in the area, discuss current fish consumption advisories and confirm the partnership between affected parties. All of this will be done to better develop a collaborative approach to fish consumption in the Great Lakes area. The final project report and framework is expected by April 2024. 


In April 2017, the Great Lakes Water Quality Board (WQB) adopted principles and practices for how it will engage and collaborate with First Nations, Métis and Tribes in the Great Lakes basin. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (2012) signed by the governments of Canada and the United States acknowledges the importance of the involvement and participation of First Nations, Métis and Tribes in the governance and management of the Great Lakes. The WQB strives to engage deeply and genuinely with Indigenous Peoples in the Great Lakes basin and has adopted principles and practices to ensure consistent and meaningful engagement and collaboration in its duties under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. 


Bridging Western Science and TEK 

In 2020, the Great Lakes Science Advisory Board (SAB) initiated a project entitled “Bridging Western Science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge.” As a part of this broader study, a listening session was organized with Haudenosaunee community members on the territory of Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne in September 2022. The listening session sought to advance IJC’s understanding of ways to appropriately engage Indigenous Knowledge (IK) or Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and communities. The specific purpose of the listening session was to discuss community perspectives on TEK/IK as well as highlight any local experiences, successes and challenges participants had in using TEK/IK in environmental stewardship activities. Information gathered in this listening session will be used to help develop final recommendations for building a new framework regarding the meaningful inclusion of TEK in IJC’s outreach and engagement efforts. As of February 2024, the SAB is planning several similar listening sessions in various First Nations and Tribal communities across the Great Lakes basin. This project is expected to be completed by December 2024. 


Souris River Basin Study (2017-2021) 

In 2017, the Governments of Canada and the United States issued a reference for the IJC to undertake the Souris River Plan of Study in response to unprecedented flooding in 2011. The study included Indigenous perspectives in its work and recommendations, and resulted in continued engagement with the permanent International Souris River Board upon completion of the study. The study worked with Indigenous Nations and Tribes to develop Performance Indicators for modelling and analysis to determine how potential changes to the agreement might affect Indigenous interests. 


In November 2019, the International Souris River Study Board hosted an Indigenous engagement workshop in the International Peace Garden, located on the Canadian-American border between Manitoba and North Dakota. The purpose of this workshop was to discuss the concerns of First Nations, Métis and Tribes living in the area and determine how those concerns might be integrated into the study. During the workshop, Indigenous Peoples from both sides of the border were briefed on the fundamentals of the IJC, the IJC’s role, the goals of the Souris study and ways to participate.  


The IJC worked with the Souris River Study Board to conduct a Souris Indigenous engagement workshop again in September 2020. The objective was to update Indigenous Nations and Tribes regarding the progress of the Souris River study and how they may participate until the completion of the study. The workshop also allowed discussion with Indigenous Peoples on the goal of developing an Indigenous Advisory Body for the temporary study board and permanent river board to ensure Indigenous participation and decision making within the study and on an ongoing basis in the basin.  


International Lake Champlain-Richelieu River Study (2016-2022) 

As a result of intense flooding along Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River, in 2016 the IJC established the International Lake Champlain-Richelieu River Study Board to better “explore the causes, impacts, risks and solutions to flooding” in the basin. Regarding Indigenous engagement, the board’s goals were to develop an understanding of Indigenous Peoples who have historical and current use of the land and waters in the basin, regularly engage with Indigenous Peoples in this area to learn about their interests related to the study; and work with them to develop several performance indicators of relevance to Indigenous Peoples that were affected by water level fluctuations on current and traditional uses of the lands and waters within the basin.  


The study collaborated closely with the Grand Conseil de la Nation Waban-Aki, the Mohawks of Kahnawa:ke and the Abenaki in Vermont. Study members met on numerous occasions with Indigenous Nations that have interests in the basin and the IJC entered into an arrangement with the Waban-Aki and Mohawk Nations in Quebec to work on a special project on Indigenous land use in the basin which includes documenting archaeological sites and developing performance indicators. 


International St. Croix Watershed Board 

Annual fish counts at the Milltown Dam (IWI Projects 2011 – Present) 

Fish counts have been conducted annually at the Milltown Dam between St. Stephen, New Brunswick, and Calais, Maine. As Milltown Dam is currently being decommissioned, fish counting will continue upstream at Woodland Dam. The fish counts have been going on since 1981, and the IJC’s program has been providing funding for more than five years. The fish counts are conducted and led by the St. Croix International Waterway Commission (SCIWC). The SCIWC also works collaboratively with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, New Brunswick Power and the Peskotomuhkati First Nation/Passamaquoddy Tribe. 


In addition to counting fish, in 2021 the fish count added PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tagging to monitor fish migrations upstream of Milltown Dam. The SCIWC partnered with the Peskotomuhkati Nation to provide PIT tag reading equipment and data analysis techniques, and the Passamaquoddy Nation to monitor the readers at Woodland Dam and Grand Falls Dam. 


International Red River Watershed Board (IWI Project 2021-2024) 

In 2021, the board initiated the “Building the foundations for Indigenous collaboration in the International Red River Basin” project. In support of the IJC’s priority to actively increase collaboration and engagement with Indigenous peoples along the transboundary basins, the board has initiated a multi-phased project to improve its overall understanding of the current state and priorities of the Nations and Tribes in the Red River basin. This work incorporated research, workshops and deliverables to build a common understanding of the Nations and Tribes in the basin through virtual meetings and workshops on both sides of the international border. 


International St. Mary and Milk Rivers Study  

The study launched in November 2021, with a commitment to engage Indigenous Nations residing or having land in the basin through a dedicated advisory group; encourage participation of key Nations on the study’s government forum alongside federal, provincial, and state entities; and encourage contributions from several Indigenous experts working as members of the study’s technical working groups. 


Osoyoos Lake Water Science Forum  

The 2022 Osoyoos Lake Water Science Forum was hosted by the Osoyoos Indian Band and the Town of Osoyoos, British Columbia, in October. The forum was presented by the Okanagan Basin Water Board, International Joint Commission and Okanagan Nation Alliance along with other partners with an interest in the Okanagan/Okanogan watershed. The forum provided an opportunity for watershed residents to learn about water management, climate change and the ecology of Osoyoos Lake and the broader transboundary watershed.