The following are a collection of first principles and proposals that inform the Charter Declaration. They share wisdom of different communities and people regarding how we should care for and govern our Great Lakes Commons. We are collecting more principles and welcome your contributions. 

  1. First Peoples and first languages
  2. Community Responses and Proposals 

1. First Peoples: Indigenous Teachings about Water

A team of indigenous leaders has begun collecting teachings from Great Lakes Nations about our relationship and responsibility to water. These will include various indigenous teachings, language versions and translations. These will demonstrate how Indigenous thinking, which views the water as alive and in relationship to all other beings, is embedded in the language and brings this thinking into the creation of the Charter. Centrally including the knowledge of Indigenous peoples in the origins of the Charter is essential to our overall work to highlight the complementarity of Indigenous and commons governance.

Below are some examples of Indigenous teachings about water and our relationship and responsibility to it. These are drawn from various accords and documents from the region. We have provided links to the full documents as well.

From Sue Chiblow of the Garden River First Nation, Ontario:

“I have been taught that everything has a responsibility or duty including the waters, the lands, the animals, etc and the humans. If all beings followed their responsibilities or duties, there would be plenty for today and for those yet unborn. At this point in time, it appears that only humans are not following their responsibilities and duties thus interfering with everything else.”

From the Tribal and First Nations Great Lakes Water Accord, 2004:

Photo by  Meaghan Ogilvie

“Our ancestors have inhabited the Great Lakes Basin since time immemorial, long before the current political boundaries were drawn. Our spiritual and cultural connections to our Mother Earth are manifest by our willingness to embrace the responsibility of protecting and preserving the land and Waters.

Traditional teachings and modern science combine to strengthen our historical understanding that Water is the life-blood of our Mother Earth. Indigenous women continue their role as protectors of the Water. Ceremonial teachings are the reminders of our heritage, they are practices of our current people’s, and they are treasured gifts that we hand our children.

When considering matters of great importance we are taught to think beyond the current generation. We are also taught that each of us is someone’s seventh generation. We must continually ask ourselves what we are leaving for a future seventh generation.

We understand that the whole earth is an interconnected ecosystem. The health of any one part affects the health and well being of the whole. It is our spiritual and cultural responsibility to protect our local lands and Waters in order to help protect the whole of Mother Earth.”

Photo by  Sally Arshi

Photo by Sally Arshi

"Our elders teach us that…The Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug were put here by Keeshaymanitou (the Creator) who gave us the four sacred elements of fire, earth, air and water, along with the right to use them and the responsibility to care for them always in order to maintain the sacred balance of life. This right and responsibility has its spiritual foundation from the beginning of time, it continues now, and will exist in what is yet to come.

Water is the source of life – a sacred gift given by the Creator to heal and sustain all living beings.

Water is alive, and is life itself. All life on this earth depends on healthy water for survival. Water is a relation, we depend on it and it connects us to all other living things in the sacred web of life which we are a part of.

All life is within a circle, including people. Because we are within the same circle, we must be careful in reaching decisions that affect the circle. Our decision will travel around the circle and impact on the future generations to come. We have a responsibility to ensure that the future generations can look back at us and say that our decisions today have not caused harm to them in the future.

We have a deep spiritual dimension to our connection with the lake and our territory. We have our own spiritual ceremonies and our own ways of spiritual understanding that have developed over thousands of years of lived relationship to the sacred landscape of our homeland. Our people understand that all entities like plants, rivers, lakes, and animals embody spiritual relationships that must be maintained and honoured.”

“The Anishinaabek, Mushkegowuk and Onkwehonwe have our own territories that include the waters which include the rain waters, waterfalls, rivers, streams, creeks, lakes, mountain springs, swamp springs, bedrock water veins, snow, oceans, icebergs, the sea;

The Anishinaabek, Mushkegowuk and Onkwehonwe women are the keepers of the water as women bring babies into the world carried on by the breaking of the water;

The Anishinaabek, Mushkegowuk and Onkwehonwe in Ontario through the teachings of women have the responsibility to care for the land and the waters by our Creator;

The Anishinaabek, Mushkegowuk and Onkwehonwe in Ontario know that we need to respect, honour and shared the spirit of the waters in the ceremonies given to us by the Creator;

The Anishinaabek, Mushkegowuk and Onkwehonwe in Ontario have a direct relationship with the waters – fresh and salt that must be taken care of to ensure that the waters provide for humans on a daily basis

The Anishinaabek, Mushkegowuk and Onkwehonwe in Ontario have the laws and the protocols to ensure clean water for all living things;

The Anishinaabek, Mushkegowuk and Onkwehonwe in Ontario have knowledge, laws and our own ways to teach our children about their relationship to the waters;

Our responsibility is to the future generations – for those children yet unborn…”

2. Community Responses and Proposals

First Principles for the Milwaukee Water Commons (Spring 2013)

  1. Water is an essential element for all life on Earth. 

  2. Water belongs to no one and cannot be owned.

  3. We recognize the gift of the Great Lakes; they have nurtured our ancestors and shaped us as a people and as a community. They continue to sustain us.

  4. We have a profound responsibility to protect and pass on clean and abundant fresh water to future generations.

  5. Decisions about the care and responsibility for our waters must involve all of us.

“If we take care of the water, it will take care of us.”

Four Principles: Council of Canadians (2013)

In Blue Future, international bestselling author Maude Barlow offers solutions to the global water crisis based on four simple principles:

Principle 1:  Water Is a Human Right chronicles the long fight to have the human right to water recognized and the powerful players still impeding this progress.

Principle 2:  Water Is a Common Heritage and Public Trust argues that water must not become a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market.

Principle 3:  Water Has Rights Too makes the case for the protection of source water and the need to make our human laws compatible with those of nature.

Principle 4:  Water Will Teach Us How to Live Together urges us to come together around a common threat — the end of water — and find a way to live more lightly on this planet.

7 Principles for a New Water Ethic

from: Ethical Water: learning to value what matters most

by: Robert William Sandford & Merrell-Ann S. Phare


1. Recognize Nature's Need for Water

a) meet ecosystem flow needs
b) appreciate the difference between 'blue' water versus 'green' water
c) practise the precautionary principle 
d) emerging ecohydrological perspectives will drive a different future

2. Water is inextricably linked to human health

a) establish and enforce mandatory, legally binding drinking water standards
b) recognize the hazards and costs of polluting water
c) the right to clean water must extend to everyone

3. Honour the First Nations Water Ethic

4. We must make a strong public commitment to expand safe, reliable public drinking water supply

a) water is a human Right
b) beyond the level of individual need, the use of water is a privilege, not a Right
c) bottled water is not a solution
d) recognize the real cost of water infrastructure
e) water reuse must be expanded
f) conservation is the foremost imperative

5. Breaking down institutional territoriality and jurisdictional fragmentation

a) recognized that surface water and groundwater are part of the same supply
b) we must recognize the value of continuous monitoring
c) the concept of integrated water resources management has to be informed by different ethics 
d) agricultural policy has to be tied to water policy
e) watershed basin councils need to be empowered

6. Governments must send appropriate economic signals to effect change

a) we need to clarify what we mean by water Rights
b) we need to accept the limits of markets
c) we must recognize the link between water and energy
d) opportunity resides in new perspectives on water

7. We cannot succeed without political leadership 

a) it is a good time to create a new vision
b) climate change has made water policy reform an urgent priority 
c) we have viable, interesting options 
d) we urgently need a new relationship among the Provinces, Territories, Indigenous Peoples and the Federal government concerning water
e) we need to cultivate leadership now