December 10, 2019

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'Severe need' for Indigenous representation in fight for Lake Winnipeg water quality: advocate

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files</p><p>Algae blooms have returned to Lake Winnipeg.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files

Algae blooms have returned to Lake Winnipeg.

Lake Winnipeg’s verdant shores, once awash with people, have of late become overgrown with a new defining feature: blue-green algae.

But the problem doesn't just impact affluent cottagers who have to travel a bit further to find a beach to lay out on — although that’s often where attention for the issue seems to be directed, said Rebecca Sinclair, a program co-ordinator for the Lake Winnipeg Indigenous Collective.

For years, advocacy work around the lake has lacked an Indigenous perspective, Sinclair said Friday. The collective is working to change that by consulting and working with area First Nations communities.

"There was a real lack of Indigenous representation for people within Lake Winnipeg, as there’s quite a number of First Nations (nearby)," said Sinclair, who is a band member with Little Saskatchewan First Nation, some 250 kilometres north of Winnipeg. "There was a severe need to represent that group of people."

Sinclair said the collective has been working on projects such as a fish and fish habitat survey, which set out to collect perspectives and traditional knowledge from First Nations communities around Lake Winnipeg. The ongoing project is investigating how algae overgrowth, which is primarily caused by an excess of nutrients such as phosphorous, is impacting fish and their habitats.

The results they’re getting are cause for concern, said Sinclair.

"The main takeaways were that the fish habitat has been drastically changed," she said. "The quantity of fish has declined, and the health of the fish has declined."

The data and knowledge collected through the project will eventually be summarized and provided back to the places it came from — a departure from the typical organization-centred approach to one that centres on communities, said Sinclair.

"We’re trying to aid, not speak for, the communities."

The cyanobacteria gaining traction on Manitoba shores isn’t just dangerous to the water itself — it can also be harmful to people and animals as some species have the potential to produce toxins, said a spokeswoman for the Manitoba government.

The province monitors 64 areas through its clean beaches program, and collects samples to analyze for the number of blue-green algae cells and the concentration of the algal toxin microcystin, the spokeswoman told the Free Press in a written statement.

The province has two advisory signs for algae: first level, which measures algae cell levels, and second level, which measures microcystin concentration.

As of Friday, there were 13 first-level algae advisory signs posted in Manitoba, which remain posted for the rest of the season. There were no second-level algae advisory signs, which would be removed when the toxin concentration drops to an acceptable level.

But for Sinclair, the impacts of the algae in the lake stretch much further than being able to swim on a hot day.

"Our water is sacred to Indigenous people," she said. "The ceremonies that we do, the livelihood that we do, the medicines that we harvest — everything is centred around water."

caitlyn.gowriluk@freepress.mb.ca

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History

Updated on Friday, August 2, 2019 at 6:00 PM CDT: Updates beach number

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