From Stakeholder To Guardianship: making decisions for perpetual care

In 2015 Ontario passed the Great Lakes Protection Act. Rather than a government Ministry being the sole driver of change, this Act establishes a new Guardians Council that would: 

  • identify priorities for action and projects

  • facilitate information sharing

  • give the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change an opportunity to obtain input for the purposes of developing plans and implementing the Act

The Great Lakes Commons community is encouraged by this new Council because the focus on 'Guardianship' aligns well with many of our principles. But how might a Guardian protect the waters differently than a typical stakeholder? While the Council invites a variety of representatives to its meetings (see below) the list seems to be based more on each group's particular interest rather than a Guardian outlook. 

The Act states that Council meetings will invite: 

(a) the other Great Lakes ministers;

(b) representatives of the interests of municipalities located in whole or in part in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin;

(c) representatives of the interests of First Nations and Métis communities that have a historic relationship with the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin;

(d) representatives of the interests of environmental organizations, the scientific community and the industrial, agricultural, recreational and tourism sectors in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin and of conservation authorities that have jurisdiction under the Conservation Authorities Act over areas located in whole or in part in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin; and

(e) representatives of any other interests that the Minister considers should be represented at the meeting.

Can the perpetual care of the Great Lakes depend solely on a reasonable balance of interests or is something missing? How does the choice of using a term like 'Guardian' instead of 'Stakeholder' expand our choices for water protection? What kinds of indicators would a Guardian want to measure?

Guardianship is based on a set of responsibilities, while the stakeholder role (a representative from an interest group) is based on a set of impacts and uses. Farmers are stakeholders because their choices impact the quality and quantity of water. Boaters and water bottlers also have water uses and impacts. The list goes on. A Council can represent a diversity of stakeholders, but the sum of these perspectives does not equal a Guardianship whole. Let's explore this web of responsibilities since they transcend typical user-based priorities. 

The Great Lakes are often revered as a special 'resource'. Their utility is tied to their protection, with their aesthetic and transcendental qualities sometimes admired. The virtue and practice of 'stewardship' is also common as humans take care of their 'environment'.

But doesn't this environment also take care of us? Aren't our bodies 70% water (never mind all the other earthly elements)? Guardianship principles are rooted in mutualism (not one-way relations) and in a living earth (not a resource). Being a Stakeholder flattens our web of relations rather than enlivening them. 

Anishinaabe author, researcher, and educator Robin Wall Kimmerer links the subject/object biased English language with our current state of climate change, biodiversity loss, and general ecological harm. Humans are subjects and 'nature' is an object. 

But 'nature' is an extension of ourselves and just as we would never call our mother "it", many uncritical of the English language turn 'nature' into an object in the same way. Managing a resource is much different than managing a source of life. How can we design water policies that connect us to this living (non-object) extension of ourselves?

So Guardianship is about a set of responsibilities to life - or as Robin suggests - to 'kin' (our relatives). A Guardians Council should fulfill these responsibilities rather than balancing out various resource representatives. 

'Environmental' indicators, projects, and targets are important for the Great Lakes, but can we first talk about principles, ethics, and responsibilities?

The Great Lakes Commons Charter was collaboratively authored to respect what we call First Principles: a (growing) collection of Indigenous and community statements about our collective responsibilities to water. Please take a look since these are not in many water protection books or studies examining the state of the Great Lakes. We believe these Principles should be at the core of any water governance strategy and as a bundle, they align well with the role of Guardian. 

There is much work to do braiding 'Guardianship' with policy, action, and results and a Guardians Council could lead this work. Using the same kind of thinking to solve a problem that also created the problem is a dead end. We need new institutions, laws, and commitments. What can water protectors learn from climate justice activists (such as the Leap Manifesto) and from our shifting attitudes and choices about food?

The food movement has caused transformative change in the past 10 years because it has decoded and offered solutions that understand our ancestral relationship to food. Rather than just focusing on food's nutritionism (its molecular service for human health), the movement has restored and advanced connections between agriculture and culture. Well known Indigenous author, teacher, and activist Winona LaDuke says it best in her Ted Talk on food as ancestor. Using examples from Indigenous nations around the world, Winona talks about wild rice not just as food but as seeds for Anishinaabe identity and responsibilities. 

Can water protectors move beyond just managing H20 quality and revitalize our responsibilities with water? Improving chemical and cultural health can be mutually reinforcing. 

For some water organizations and government offices, keeping water clean is more a mitigative and administrative issue than one of revitalized governance. The work identifies polluting sources, limits, indicators, impacts and clean up targets while working for win-win solutions for healthy people, economies, and ecosystems. This approach respects the complexity of ecosystems and the variety of human interests towards water. But is this enough? 

Before introducing a set of 'indicators' for water guardianship, let's look a bit deeper at the Principles of Perpetual Care that have been practiced for thousands of years and retold below in Carolyn Raffensperger's video.

Carolyn has an extensive career in the promotion of Guardianship, the Rights of Future Generations, and the Precautionary Principle which share some key lessons for any Council interested in being a Guardian, rather than a multi-stakeholder forum.

Being a good ancestor means we work together to leave the world as good or in better health than how we inherited 'it'. Governments of all nations must be responsible Trustees of our shared wealth (the commons) and they need to revisit how they heed early warning signs of damage, place the burden of proof on the polluters, and rank the rights and risks of/to future generations higher than those of legal and illegal polluters. This is only a summary of Carolyn's work. Please see the video and links for more depth. 

It's encouraging to learn about groups like Earth Guardians and the recent win in a legal landmark case granting the right of young people to sue their governments over the loss of their commons. This is Guardianship in action. Can the Great Lakes community learn from and adapt these lessons?

Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has 94 Calls To Action to remind Canadians that they are Treaty People with past/present/future responsibilities to respect Treaties with Indigenous peoples and share the land and waters. A Great Lakes Guardian should know and act upon these responsibilities.

Indicators for a Great Lakes Guardians Council

Here is a brainstorm on potential indicators that could guide the processes and projects of the Council that reinforce the Guardianship responsibilities introduced above. While we still need to measure water quality, these indicators would measure the quality of our common relationship with water. Comments and new suggestions welcomed. 

Public Engagement in Decision Making

  • percentage of people who feel included in water governance decision making at the local and bioregional level

  • amount of water quality data that is current, accessible, and comprehensive

  • number and diversity of people making submissions to policy reviews

  • disclosure of how public consultations has affected a water policy

  • number of local water organizations able to review and organize water decisions for accessible public education and action

Reconciliation Between Treaty Peoples

  • disclosure of how specific Indigenous knowledge contributed to a water policy

  • disclosure of how a water policy respects and advances Indigenous rights and traditional governance regimes

  • percentage of people who know what Indigenous people's territories their homes are built on and the related Treaty agreements

Reconciliation Between People and Place

  • percentage of people who know the name of their local and regional watersheds

  • number of events and practices that show gratitude and reciprocity to water

  • amount of people aware of their water footprint and the resulting change in individual consumption volumes

  • comparisons of how much money a business makes by using water in their operations to how much social and ecological benefit is returned

  • comparisons of how much habitat is restored to how much has been damaged

  • comparisons of how many times a water policy refers to water as a resource, asset, and service to the labels of commons, source of life, gift, or sacred

  • number of information signs near water bodies that detail the history and state of the water in local and accessible languages, including associated Indigenous languages

Government as Trustee of the Commons

  • number of water filters people buy to improve the quality of their tap water

  • number of people who buy bottled water because they don't trust their tap water

  • disclosure of how a water policy honours the precautionary principle

  • disclosure of how a water policy is protecting the rights of future generations

  • disclosure of how a water policy is protecting extra-human (the environment outside humans) rights to exist and flourish

  • disclosure of how a water policy affects all life up and downstream, regardless of political boundaries

  • disclosure of all resources used for water policy enforcement and the impacts of this enforcement

  • disclosure of all chemicals (and their concentrations) in Great Lakes waters with the burden of proof on governments on how these chemicals are not a harm to human and non-human life

  • percentage of people who feel safe swimming in and eating fish from the waters

  • amount of resources governments are investing in long-term public water infrastructure

  • review of how all regulatory offices and policies affecting water are performing as Guardians

add your indicator or comment on any of these

This post raises many questions and for some, introduces new concepts and traditions. While the 'representative' model of stakeholder decision-making can be effective, Great Lakes Commons will collaborate with anyone wishing to extend 'who' and 'what' is being represented. Learning from other social movements (like the food movement) water bonds are not just chemical -- they are ancestral, personal, ethical, and cultural.