Josephine Henrietta Mandamin, Anishinaabe elder, water-rights advocate, Anishinabek Nation Chief Water Commissioner (born 21 February 1942 in Wiikwemikoong Unceded Territory, Manitoulin Island, ON; died 22 February 2019). Mandamin, known as “Grandmother Water Walker” and Biidaasige-ba (“the one who comes with the light”), was a world-renowned water-rights activist. She walked around the Great Lakes from 2003 to 2017 to bring awareness to the problems of water pollution and environmental degradation on the Great Lakes and on Indigenous reserves in Canada. For her activism, Mandamin was awarded the Anishinabek Lifetime Achievement Award (2012) and the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Cross (2018). Her great-niece, Autumn Peltier, followed in Mandamin’s footsteps, becoming the next generation’s “water warrior.”
Water protector, Josephine Mandamin, walked around the Great Lakes from 2003 to 2017 to bring awareness to the problems of water pollution and environmental degradation on the Great Lakes and on Indigenous reserves in Canada.
Early Life and Education
Josephine Henrietta Mandamin (née Trudeau) was born and raised on the shores of Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes, the world’s largest freshwater supply. A residential school survivor, she attended St. Joseph’s School for Girls in Spanish, Ontario, from 1948 to 1954. She married Andrew Mandamin. Together they had five children and adopted another three.
In 1979, the family moved to Thunder Bay, Ontario. There, Josephine Mandamin worked at Kashadaying residence for students from First Nations communities and Mino Bimaadiziwin, a group home for First Nations children with mental health issues. She also served as the executive director of Beendigen Inc., an organization that provides support to women and children escaping domestic violence. Before retiring in 2006, Mandamin joined the Ontario Native Women’s Association.
In 2000, during a Sun Dance Ceremony at Pipestone, Minnesota, Grand Chief Eddie Benton-Banaise (Bawdwayadun) told Mandamin and others of a dream in which water would cost as much as gold due to pollution by the year 2030. The grand chief asked the audience, “What are you going to do about it?” Armed with this prophecy and extensive water knowledge (nibi giikendaaswin), Mandamin organized a group to fight against water pollution on the Great Lakes and Indigenous reserves. As a “Grandmother” (nokomis) of her people, this was a particularly significant role for Mandamin, since the term “Grandmother” is one of great veneration for Indigenous women.
From 2003 to 2017, Mandamin organized and led a series of “water walks” around the Great Lakes and surrounding waters. During her final water walk in 2017, Mandamin trekked from Spirit Mountain in Duluth, Minnesota, to Matane, Quebec, a distance measuring more than 8,000 km.
Mandamin’s activism was inspired by her Ojibwe spiritual worldview (see also Anishinaabe), which sees water as a living being. As a woman and elder, as a “lifegiver” and “water-keeper,” Mandamin believed that she had a sacred obligation to pass on her water knowledge (nibi giikendaaswin) to this and future generations:
We’ve known for a long time that water is alive. Water can hear you. Water can sense what you are saying and what you are feeling.… Give it respect and it can come alive. Like anything. Like a person who is sick…if you give them love, take care of them, they’ll come alive.
Since 2015, the Canadian government has lifted 88 long-term drinking advisories, as they work toward cleaning contaminated water on reserves. However, as of February 2020, 61 long-term drinking water advisories remained in effect. The federal government acknowledged in December 2020 that its goal to get rid of the problem by March 2021 will not be met, though efforts to eradicate boil-water advisories continue.
Josephine Mandamin made a significant contribution to Indigenous peoples, Canada and the world as “Grandmother Water Walker.” Her treks around the Great Lakes raised awareness of the urgent need to fight water pollution and contaminated water on Indigenous reserves in Canada.
Honours and Awards
- Anishinabek Lifetime Achievement Award (2012)
- Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award for Excellence in Conservation (2015)
- Governor General’s Meritorious Service Cross (2018)