A Troubling Reality

We began with a question: “Why, with all of the remarkable efforts to protect and preserve the Great Lakes, were our waters ever more jeopardized?” This question was at the heart of a 2010 gathering of environmental and environmental justice activists, First Nations and Native American leaders, scientists, educators, artists and other allies who shared a love of the Great Lakes. 

We concluded that we couldn’t achieve healthy Lakes fighting the threats one by one without ALSO addressing deeper problems: 

  • We treat water as a commodity or resource, prioritizing industrial, agricultural and energy demands at the expense of ecological and human wellbeing;
  • Political boundaries in the Lakes region fragment decision making in ways that do not correspond to ecological realities;
  • The people of the Lakes are disconnected from water stewardship and largely lack standing or power in the water decisions that affect them;
  • And stunningly, we appear to have forgotten that we too are part of this eco-system, not outside it, and that our lives and those of future generations depend on the Lakes.

Nor could we wait for someone else to lead the way – the citizens of the Lakes needed to step up and act.

Deeper Reflections 

The Great Lakes Commons Initiative emerged from a recognition that fundamental change is essential if we want to create a sustaining future for our Great Lakes. Decades of activism and effort (and even some remarkable victories) have not resulted in thriving and protected waters. It is clear that a transformation of our relationship to these waters and of the region’s governance is key for enabling us to care for this life-giving ecosystem. 

The Great Lake Commons initiative draws on the knowledge and practice of both commons and Indigenous governance, long-standing and complementary models that each offer a viable path for transforming the governance of our waters. These two approaches reflect successful ecosystem governance based on shared benefit and responsibility, sustainable use, and participatory decision-making. And they are bolstered by the powerful legal traditions held in the public trust doctrine and regional treaty rights.

Of course the Great Lakes are already a commons—something shared by many and belonging to none. But they are an unconscious commons, left vulnerable to misuse all too often. A true commons lives in the understandings, relationships, actions, and laws recognized by the public. A commons needs commoners who are empowered to act as stewards and protectors.

The Great Lakes Commons Initiative will establish and protect the Great Lakes as a living commons, but it will require participation from us all to succeed.

“What we do to the water, we do to ourselves” 

This is an undeniable truth and yet, we live as if it weren’t.

The Great Lakes are an incredible gift of nature that makes up most of North America’s freshwater. Millions of people, along with a whole ecosystem of living creatures, depend on them. And for most inhabitants of the Lakes bio-region, we feel a rich sense of history, place and identity that connects us to these waters. We drink, fish, boat, swim, walk, grow food, and live because of the Great Lakes. 

And yet, despite all this, the Lakes face a growing list of threats – from extreme energy extraction and mining to agricultural run off, toxics and climate change. And while there is no shortage of efforts to protect and restore the Lakes, they cannot keep pace with the damage.

We will be stymied in creating the future we want if we continue to fight the attacks on the lakes one by one without also developing a transformative vision and ground-breaking strategy to address these deeper problems. And we can’t wait for someone else to lead. We the citizens of the Lakes need to step up and act. 

We need to put forward and legitimize a different approach—one that values the Lakes both unto themselves and as a source of life in a vast region, one that enables us all to play a vital and effective role in the care of the water. This work will build on existing frameworks, particularly commons and indigenous models of governance, as well as the public trust doctrine and regional treaty rights.

Irene Orkin  offering tobacco to South Bala Falls

Irene Orkin offering tobacco to South Bala Falls


We are undertaking a bold new effort to create a bioregional governance framework for the Great Lakes that is rooted in Indigenous and commons knowledge. In addition, we are developing a strategy to make this transformation legally, politically, economically, ecologically, and culturally possible.By drawing on the practice of Indigenous and commons governance—and understanding their complementarity—we can tap the power of long- standing models that offer us practical and holistic solutions for the future.


Indigenous communities continue to demonstrate the viability of a life- affirming vision for the Great Lakes. Resurfacing the values that recognize our interdependence, engender multi-generational thinking, and foster belonging, generosity, and reciprocity above ownership are essential to our collective survival.

The commons approach includes a set of kindred principles and values. As both a worldview and practice, the commons rejects that what we buy, sell, and own in the market provides fundamental meaning to our lives. Instead, value is placed on caring for all that we share and passing this legacy on to future generations undiminished.

Both a commons and Indigenous governance approach is ecosystem based, where the ecosystem is held as a precious whole. Water is viewed as a vital gift rather than a resource to be exploited, and each of us have a role and responsibility to care for this gift.

If we are to protect and restore the health of the Great Lakes, then we must move beyond a transactional worldview and practice rooted in ownership and private gain. Both the commons and Indigenous thinking offer concrete, system-shifting approaches to transform the current market paradigm that dominates water use decisions—approaches we can use to create a new bioregional framework for Great Lakes governance.

Photo by  Daphne Randall

Photo by Daphne Randall


Our Great Lakes Commons Initiative aims to undo a centuries long dynamic in the debate around the future of the Great Lakes where Indigenous communities are excluded or marginalized.

We’re dedicated to bringing Native and non-Native peoples together in a meaningful way to emphasize how both Indigenous wisdom and the legal rights of Indigenous communities are foundational to new governance. Active recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and the cultural, spiritual, and legal rights of Indigenous peoples and Nations guaranteed through treaty and international declarations is central to our effort to craft a framework for the multigenerational care of our waters.

We also recognize that harmful water decisions disproportionately impact Indigenous peoples. Those most impacted need to have a leading voice, as sovereign Nations, in determining a just water future.

Establishing a new, just dynamic in conversations around the future of the Great Lakes will help us restore our common humanity and our water.


Two bodies of established jurisprudence — Public Trust and Treaty Rights — are key to a commons-based governance framework for the Great Lakes. Legal strategies such as the Rights of Nature, Wild Law, the Rights of Future Generations, and vernacular law are congruent aspects of such an overarching legal framework. These legal systems offer strategic means for upholding an ecosystem-wide approach that protects the health of the waters and all species.

The Commons Law Project is an attempt to imagine a new architecture of law and public policy that can address ecological issues while advancing human rights and social empowerment. “Commons Law” (not to be confused with common law) as a way to integrate a broader notion of economics, human rights, and commons-based governance into a compelling new paradigm of environmental protection.


In Western law, the most established legal foothold for establishing a Great Lakes Commons is the Public Trust Doctrine. The Doctrine, which was conceived in Europe over one thousand years ago, has withstood the test of time. It upholds the principle that certain resources, including navigable waters such as the Great Lakes, must be preserved for the public good as a duty of the state. Learn more about Public Trust law

Photo by  Sara Martel

Photo by Sara Martel