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Decolonization or recolonization? The case of trans-boundary water governance in the Rainy Lake of the Woods watershed and its impact on wild rice

Authors: Johann Strube*, Pennsylvania State University
Topics: Water Resources and Hydrology, Indigenous Peoples, Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: Boundary Waters Treaty, International Joint Commission, Settler-colonialism, wild rice, decolonization, trans-boundary water governance
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The International Joint Commission (IJC), the bi-national governing body of trans-boundary waters between the United States and Canada, has long been criticized as a colonial institution. This appears to be changing. In 2019, Canada appointed the first Indigenous commissioners to the IJC. In the Rainy Lake of the Woods basin (Minnesota, Ontario, and Manitoba), the IJC established a model watershed board with reserved seats for Indigenous representatives. Unlike in the past, the IJC now addresses issues essential to Indigenous food sovereignty in the watershed, particularly the restoration of wild rice. This aquatic grain is central to the social and cultural reproduction of Ojibwe Nations in the basin, but has largely been destroyed by IJC-sanctioned hydro-dams. I ask: Do these changes in governance signify an instance of decolonization or do they merely reorganize the way settler hegemony operates? In this presentation, I weigh the evidence on this matter using data from public documents, interviews with Ojibwe community members and IJC representatives, and ethnographic fieldwork in the watershed. Although Indigenous people participate in settler water governance institutions like never before, one fact cannot be missed: There is still no sign of recovery of wild rice.

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