This June, in celebration of National Indigenous History Month, Susan Chiblow, PhD alumna and now Assistant Professor at the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Science, is interviewed by Research Assistant, Igor Lutay, on her research work on water knowledge, Indigenous law, and bridging western science with Indigenous science.
Q. What inspired you to choose the topic of water governance for your doctoral dissertation?
A. The reason why I chose this topic was driven by the fact that we, Anishinabek people, have an understanding that water is life and that it provides life for every being, including humans. We all come from the water lodge. Also, as an Anishinabek woman, knowing that the knowledge that we carry typically is not found in government legislations and policies. Women are not normally consulted on water issues which was another reason why this topic was important to me.
Q: In your work, you have stated that it is necessary for governments to understand the importance of women’s' role in water decision making. Would you say that has changed? Or has there been any positive changes in that direction?
A: Colonization caused destruction of Anishinabek women’s' responsibilities within the communities. One of the reasons for this was the knowledge that women were the decision makers. Settlers from Europe had their colonial mindsets which meant that women had a different role and a different place. They did not understand the role women had in the decision-making processes.
Anishinabek women are standing up and picking up our responsibilities and we have a lot of examples. Most of the demonstrations concerning environmental issues that are happening right now including Water Walks, Idle No More and Tiny House warriors, are stemming from women standing up to protect the Earth. There is change that is happening and you can see that Indigenous women are standing up.
In terms of how the government views women’s' role in the process of decision-making -- changes do not happen quickly. Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) are used more widely to balance out the advisory committees' membership and to provide space for more women to express their opinions on the environmental matters. Consulting with Indigenous women is still lacking and this because of the Indian Act system in which everyone has to go through Chief in Council in the First Nation communities.
Q: You have organized a challenge called "Waterless Wednesdays". What inspired you to start this challenge?
A: One of reasons that inspired me to start this challenge was that the community in which I grew up in did not have access to clean running water till I was about eight years old. We used to haul water after retrieving it from a pump system that was designed by my father. Then we would have to get it back to the house where we lived. I remember how careful we were with the water, and we knew that we could not waste it.
When I first moved back to the reserve and started building my home, I found out that the pipes in my house were not properly insulated. This caused water to freeze in the winter. Teenage children were affected by the absence of running water the most as they needed to take showers before school. Introducing this challenge helped many people realize the importance of preserving water.
Q: Why do you think people are afraid of change to the systems that are in place right now?
A: I think we just get comfortable in our daily routines. We as humans are very habitual and changing that is a challenge. A lot of mental health challenges arose from COVID-19. This has really challenged humans to understand that change can have a lot of negative effects on us. I think that people understand that change needs to happen, but they do not know where to start, and it can become very overwhelming. This is one of the other reasons I chose to organize the Waterless Wednesdays challenge as this was a small change that people can make. Even if they could go without water for one morning of the day in their week, that can be a small change in their lifestyle that can contribute to a bigger change.
Q: Tell us about your career path and journey?
A: I work as an Assistant Professor at the University of Guelph. I teach in their new Bachelor of Science in Indigenous knowledge and practice. In my mind, it is almost like this program was designed for me. This is because I did my PhD later in life as I was working with Chiefs, communities, and Elders. I spent a lot of time harvesting with elders. This allowed provided me with some knowledge from the Indigenous perspective. I do not just talk about the knowledge that I have, but I also live that knowledge. I feel that, as an Anishinabek person, continuing to walk the talk is really important.
Q: What made you choose your program and the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York?
A: There was only one reason. Dr. Deborah McGregor was teaching at York University.
Q: What is your favorite or most memorable event of your time at York University?
My graduation ceremony was my favorite memory from the time I was studying at York University. Our graduation ceremony was amazing! They treated us very well. I have attended graduation ceremonies at other universities and I have seen the way those were organized. I have seen doctoral students being thrown in with the general crowd. Standing underneath a tent in your robe while it is 30 degrees outside can be challenging.
York had a separate space at which doctorate students could meet. I never really spent a lot of time on campus at York University. One downside that I can point out is that for such a beautiful campus and university, York has a lot of garbage all over the place. I was surprised as York has a lot of young, amazing and intelligent people. On a positive note, I really enjoyed the food options that York has to offer.
Q: What are some of your hobbies and projects that you are most passionate about? What interests do you pursue during your spare time?
A: I do a lot of kayaking and I usually take my dog with me. He is a border collie and I have taught him to sit in a kayak with me. I also really like being in the bush, so I am making plans this weekend to make a trip to my favorite swimming hole spots in the bush with my nephew. I have an app on my phone that lets me play and record sounds of different bird noises while I am out there. It then tells the kinds of birds that are around me. If you play the sound of their voices, they tend to come closer to you and then I can take a better look at the bird as well as take their pictures. I identify myself as an amateur photographer.
Q: What advice do you have for current and future students in the Environmental Studies program, the Faculty or at York University?
A: Just follow your dreams. You have to remember who you are and where you came from. Do not conform to institutional standard, instead go above and beyond that. Do not let the institution dictate to you who you are.
Susan Chiblow is Anishinaabe kwe, born and raised in Garden River First Nation, Ontario. She has worked extensively with First Nation communities for the last 30 years in environmental related fields. Sue has a B.Sc. in Biology, M.Sc. in Environment and Management, and has her PhD in Environmental Studies with a focus on N'bi Kendaaswin (Water Knowledge). She recently published a paper on Reconciling our relationships with the Great Lakes and co-authored with Deb McGregor, among others, an article on Wise practices: Indigenous-settler relations in Laurentian Great Lakes fishery governance and water protection in the Journal of Great Lakes Research.