The waves of Lake Ontario lapped a light andante to the prayers, chants and drumbeats of a powerful ceremony—Toronto’s second annual Niigaani-gichigami Gratitude Walk and Festival.
Held June 8 just before dusk in a downtown waterfront park, the interfaith spiritual gathering attracted First Nations and non-First Nations folk alike—some in Indigenous dress, others in African garb, the Muslim hijab or the bright blue habits of the Sisters of St. John the Divine.
Organized by the Niigaani-gichigami Collective, the Urban Native Ministry and the Cathedral Church of St. James, the event was designed to thank, celebrate and protect the life-sustaining integrity of Niigaani-gichigami (Lake Ontario) and its connecting waterways. Its aim is to promote community thinking and action on how we live on the water and build a right relationship with the life-sustaining waters in our region.
The cathedral’s the Rev. Leigh Kern, who helped organize the event along with Pastor Evan Smith of the United Church of Canada (both of Indigenous ancestry), introduced the main speaker, Mi’kmaw elder and educator Wanda Whitebird.
“Water teaches us humility. If we don’t drink water, we die,” Whitebird said, noting that water, an essential gift from the Creator, is central to Indigenous peoples’ spirituality. “Water is the most powerful entity on Earth. It is also our first protector,” she added, referencing the waters that surround the unborn child in the womb.
Whitebird stressed that this legacy of respect for and stewardship of water has been handed down to Indigenous people by their ancestors throughout the generations. “We are taught that everything you do or say has an echo, not only to you but your children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren,” she said.
As a harbour police boat chugged by and the constables on board looked long and hard at the celebrants, Whitebird explained how if the year were 1950, this ceremonial gathering would be illegal. “If we were standing here, we’d all be arrested. It wasn’t until after 1951 that we were legally allowed to practise our ways, and it didn’t become legal in the United States until 1978. Our spirituality was outlawed,” she said.
Whitebird thanked the Creator and offered prayers for the “amazing, pure, precious lake,” asking for the blessing of its spirit.
Then a native of Quebec stepped up to the mic and recounted how her ancestors, who came to New France in 1650 to be voyageurs in the fur trade, relied on Indigenous people to teach them how to live off the daunting new land and especially how to navigate the waterways to the interior. She led the celebrants in five verses of a lively French song dating back to the days of the coureurs des bois.
A representative from the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network explained how Big Mining, with Canadian companies in the forefront, is polluting waters around the globe, producing environmentally disastrous tailing ponds whose heavy-metal toxicity takes the greatest toll on the poorest and most vulnerable people—the children and the women who wash their clothes in the river and fetch water for cooking.
A representative from the Ashkenazi Jewish community spoke of the importance of water in Jewish cleansing rituals and how water connects her to her ancestors, whose bones lie half a world away. Three members of the city’s Islamic community sang a song of praise.
The event also featured the ancient Indigenous smudging ceremony, with the matchless aroma of burning sage rivalling that of the finest church incense. Attendees also held small pieces of cedar leaves and small cups of water, which they emptied back to the ground in a gesture of respect. The group sang “The Nibi Song,” a paean to water written in Ojibwemowin by Doreen Day and her grandson Mashkooice (Little Elk).
After the water ceremony, drummers led the celebrants in a walk several blocks north to the cathedral for a community barbecue with live music.