Saving Lake Winnipeg

EP. 10 / Canada

Saving Lake Winnipeg

For decades, fertilizers from agricultural production, sewage and commercial phosphates have flowed into Lake Winnipeg, creating huge algae blooms that are sucking the life out of its water.

As government, scientific and business leaders sound the alarm for Lake Winnipeg, Indigenous knowledge may hold the key to its survival.

Since the first steps of man, Native peoples have shared a spiritual connection with mother earth, a belief that sustains us, shapes our cultures and gives us faith.

My name is Simon Baker and I’ve come to Winnipeg, where scientists, politicians and business leaders have come together to share their concerns about the future of Lake Winnipeg, the world’s tenth largest lake.

For decades, all along a water shed spanning four provinces and three US states, the run off of fertilizers from agricultural production, sewage and commercial phosphates have flowed into Lake Winnipeg. Over time they’ve combined to create huge algae blooms that are slowly sucking the life out of the lake, threatening its fresh water fishery and a multi-million dollar tourism industry that surrounds this great lake. Now, climate change is adding to the threat, creating an uncertain future for the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities living all along the shores of Canada’s sixth biggest lake.

On the banks of the Winnipeg Rivers.

My journey begins at the historic forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, the place that gave birth to Winnipeg where today, climate science and data modeling paints a dire picture for the future of this province and the fate of its’ most important lake. Now, scientists, politicians and business leaders are working together to find ways to mitigate the anticipated effects.

If we continue on the current track of climate change, one of the things that will change is Lake Winnipeg. Lake Winnipeg will be a lot warmer in the future, a lot more heat and less precipitation means drought, and drought is not a good thing in this part of world.

Dr. Danny Blair, Scientific Director, Prairie Climate Centre.

Based out of the University of Winnipeg, the Prairie Climate Centre is researching and mapping the future of climate on the Canadian prairies. To see how climate is projected to impact Lake Winnipeg, I’m heading there to meet two Indigenous student leaders who’ve offered to take me inside the climate centre.

Simon visits the Prairie Climate Centre.

A one-hour drive north of Winnipeg, the town of Gimli survives on tourism and a commercial fishery that depends on Lake Winnipeg. Gimli’s Mayor is concerned about the effect algae blooms will have on tourism, his town’s single largest industry. However, one of Canada’s largest fresh water fisheries is also at risk. I’m heading to Gimli to meet Mayor Randy Woroniuk and the oldest fisherman still plying his trade on the world’s tenth largest lake.

Algae blooms, that scares me more than anything, because it’s toxic to humans, it’s toxic to the fish, to wildlife, and it’s going to foul our beaches. It could drive down property values, lakefront properties.

Simon visits Gimli, Manitoba, the largest community on Lake Winnipeg.

Here in the heart of Canada’s agricultural breadbasket, farming and livestock production are essential to Manitoba’s economy. For decades, nutrients in fertilizers used to boast agricultural output and the waste from livestock production have washed off of farmer’s fields and into the Lake Winnipeg watershed. Spanning some 7 million square kilometers, its collective drainage draws water from four Canadian provinces and three US states that all eventually flow into Lake Winnipeg. Predictably, agriculture has been viewed as the single largest contributor to the problems of Lake Winnipeg so I’m visiting a local farmer to see what efforts can be taken to reduce the run off of agricultural nutrients.

We have to educate the general public on what’s really happening and why we’re not really the problem, we could be more so the solution.

Simon talks with local farmers about the effects of agricultural pollution and possible solutions.

While the fate of Lake Winnipeg now demands aggressive scientific, environmental, and political action, the wisdom of Indigenous knowledge is now helping to shape attitudes towards this Lake and our understanding of fresh water.

We need to take traditional (Indigenous) knowledge seriously in climate change debates and that’s because they’ve been on the front lines of it, they’re seeing it. Western science and Western society doesn’t have a way of life and a way of understanding relationships with nature that we desperately need for the future.

Home to Canada’s largest concentration of First Nations and Métis people, Indigenous peoples here continue to cherish their harmonious relationship with nature, one they’ve nurtured long before the arrival of European settlers. Directly across the lake from Gimli the Sagkeeng First Nation’s Turtle Lodge is a spiritual center of Indigenous teaching led by Anishinabe Knowledge Keepers.

Teepees and Totem Pole at Winnipeg.

I’ve been invited by Elder Dave Courchene to attend ‘Onjisay Aki’, a climate change conference the Turtle Lodge is hosting. For the next three days, Anishinabe Knowledge Keepers will be leading Youth on a cultural and spiritual journey that seeks to show them how solutions for Lake Winnipeg challenges reside within ourselves.

Lake Winnipeg is at the bottom of the flow of all the rivers. Whatever man has put in there that is unnatural, we’re the ones that get it, and if we can’t change our attitude and the way we are treating the land, then we face extinction as a human species.

Simon visits the Turtle Lodge International Centre for Indigenous Education and Wellness, a sacred lodge of the Anishinabe Peoples, situated in Sagkeeng First Nation on the Southern tip of Lake Winnipeg.

For over a thousand years, wild rice has been a staple food of Indigenous peoples in this region of Canada and the neighboring northern USA. As part of the Onjisay Aki Youth Climate Change Conference, Elders from the Sagkeeng First Nation are taking their Youth onto the water to practice their culture, pick wild rice and consider how climate change is affecting their traditional ways of life. They’ve asked me to join their group so I’m about to learn how to pick wild rice.

This is our traditional territory, it belongs to the Ojibway people and wild rice is our staple. We used to have a ceremony for the wild rice because it has vitamins in it, it’s like a medicine.

Simon speaks with the members of the Heritage Centre about the potential detrimental impact on Lake Winnipeg ecosystem.

To further connect youth to their ancestors and history, Knowledge Keepers from the Turtle Lodge are leading a group from the climate change conference to ‘Manitou Api’ a sacred site of Anishinabe petroyglyphs and petroforms. I’m honored that they’ve invited me to join them to this spiritual place. This afternoon I’ll have the opportunity to speak with some of the people participating in Onjisay Aki to see why they’ve come and what they hope to gain from their experience.

Our youth have had a tremendous opportunity to come with us, so we can continue to pass on and acknowledge that gift
that has been part of our life from the beginning of time.

Knowledge Keepers sharing their thoughts and concerns about the Lake Winnipeg's future.

As the youth climate change conference comes to a close, I am thankful to all the Knowledge Keepers for giving Native Planet this opportunity to share in the teachings of the Turtle Lodge. Before I leave Manitoba, I’m going to meet one last time with Dave Courchene, the spiritual leader of the Turtle Lodge, to express our thanks and see what he takes away from the Onjisay Aki Youth Climate Change conference.

Turtle Lodge Leading Man, Dave Courchene at his home.

I believe our culture is a culture of gratitude, that’s why we have survived. We continue to survive and we want to share that with the rest of the world because through it, we are all brothers and sisters.

Elder Dave Courchene is sharing his hopes about people taking action to help heal the lake.

Share this story