Making a Difference in Nogojiwanong with Youth for Water

Rain gardens that filter pollutants;  shoreline naturalizations; aid for at-risk species; traditional medicine food gardens; storm and ground water management with low-impact solutions –it’s  all part of Youth for Water in Nogojiwanong

By Melodie McCullough

While people the world over struggle to protect and save the planet’s water, a small, but dedicated, group of Indigenous youth in Nogojiwanong/Peterborough, Ontario are making some pretty big splashes towards this effort — right in their very own communities.

Youth for Water, which is a collaboration between Green Communities Canada and the Sacred Water Circle of Nogojiwanong and is funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, began last summer.youth-for-water-logo-1024x455

A spiritual connection to water is what drives the group’s passion, said Hattie Edwards, program co-ordinator, and a recent grad from Trent University’s Indigenous Environmental Studies/Science program, and a Mohawk from Akwesasne First Nation, in a recent interview.

“What we’re focusing on is water conservation and taking an individual responsibility, seeing how we can do our part in managing the resources we have left,” she explained.

“It came out of feedback from the 2013 Sacred Water International Conference, held at Trent University. Youth, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, said they didn’t know where to go to find solutions, and they kind of felt a little bit hopeless,” Edwards continued.

A cornerstone of the program is bridging Indigenous knowledge, especially spiritual knowledge, with Western scientific knowledge, she said, and working as a team to promote each person’s skill set, while specifying goals for the project and tackling water issues with confidence.

“We want to have those two backgrounds merged together with the skills to go into a workplace and do the necessary work. A large piece of this program is to develop and implement youth-led community-based programs.”


Youth for Water participants shared details of their work at Maude Barlow’s launch of her new book in October in Nogojiwanong/Peterborough. Left to right: Nat Cummings, Amber Pitawanakwat, Hattie Edwards, Maude Barlow, Kristin Muskratt and Crystal Cowie.

Water issues on First Nation reserves are widespread, said Edwards. Boil water advisories are endemic; water treatment plants are lacking or in disrepair;  leachate leaks from land-fills; and storm water, surface and ground water is pollluted from farm runoff and other contaminants, along with surrounding lakes and wells.

There are four members of Youth for Water other than Edwards, all between the ages of 23 and 27. 

Kristen Muskratt and Nat Cummings, both from Curve Lake First Nation, are building rain gardens in their home community. Muskratt’s rain garden will be a teaching tool for the local First Nation Kindergarten-Gr.3 school. Cummings’ garden will be used to teach youth about traditional medicines and wild edibles with the four sacred medicines — cedar, tobacco, sage and sweet grass. Both gardens will focus on native plants in an effort to reintroduce traditional plants into the community.

A rain garden is a bowl-shaped garden with native plants that work together to absorb lawn run-off and storm water run-off from hard and surfaces like driveways, walkways, and parking lots. It acts as a catchment system for storm water which helps the water naturally infiltrate back into the ground (groundwater), thus reducing pollution, contamination and flooding of storm water run-off. 

“When it rains, everything from the surface — chemicals, pesticides, pet waste, cigarette butts — is washed into the lakes. By implementing more rain gardens you filter out pollution,” said Edwards.

As of October 31, 2016, there were 133
Drinking Water Advisories in effect
in 90 First Nations communities across Canada,
excluding British Columbia, including
Curve Lake and Hiawatha First Nations in Nogojiwanong.

Health Canada 

Muskratt said she hopes the school children will learn and take home the knowledge to their parents. “I hope to broaden Curve Lake’s knowledge of rain gardens so we can all come together, cleaning our lakes and streams, and helping our youth learn how to protect the water and make it a normal behaviour for our future generations.”

Another Youth for Water member, Amber  Pitawanakwat, from Whitefish River First Nation, is in her third year of the Indigenous Environmental Science/Studies at Trent University and she is also making a rain garden as her contribution — hers is at Trent.

Fifth member Crystal Cowie’s project involves shoreline naturalization and turtle habitat restoration at the western beach of Serpent Mounds Park at Hiawatha First Nation, her home. Cowie aims to plant non-invasive plants – incorporating the four medicinal plants because it is a sacred site –to help prevent storm water runoff pollution in Rice Lake. She also wants to transform the sandy area of the site into a turtle nesting beach.

“Pollution in Rice Lake is a huge concern,” said Cowie. It’s something I’ve grown up with at Rice Lake, seeing signs saying you can’t swim. I don’t think I’ve been in the lake since I was two.”

“The basis of the Youth for Water program is we’re being mindful,” concluded Edwards. “We’re still young and we have the rest of our lives to change, to lesson the impact and we’re learning the knowledge skills to do it.”


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