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Standing Rock activist Winona LaDuke visits U of T to talk about water protection and restoring Indigenous economics

In last year's U.S. presidential election, Winona LaDuke became the first Native American woman to receive an electoral vote for vice-president (photo courtesy of Winona LaDuke)

Winona LaDuke – Indigenous environmentalist, economist and author from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota – will give a free public lecture at University of Toronto's Convocation Hall on Sunday.

LaDuke led water protectors at Standing Rock, twice ran as a vice-presidential candidate with Ralph Nader for the Green Party in the United States, and has written extensively on Indigenous and environmental issues. Originally from New York, the alumna of Harvard and Antioch universities is known as a leader in issues of culturally based sustainable development, as well as renewable energy and food systems. LaDuke advocates internationally for the protection of Indigenous plants and heritage foods from patenting and genetic engineering.

Her Sunday lecture is part of a larger “Water is Life (but many can’t drink it)” event, bringing together artists, activists, scholars and students to talk about issues relating to water protection, the fossil fuel industry and Indigenous sovereignty.

“I’m really excited that we’re coming together and figuring out how to defend water rights here,” says Michelle Murphy, a history professor who is bringing her second-year gender and environmental injustice class to the event.

Murphy is part of a collective of students, faculty and staff at U of T and beyond who organized the event around LaDuke's planned speech. The gathering will include music and special discussions, coinciding with the Indigenous-led Great Lakes Water Walk taking place earlier in the day.

Deborah Cowen, an associate professor in the department of geography and planning in the Faculty of Arts & Science, spoke to LaDuke just as the struggle at Standing Rock blew up, garnering news headlines worldwide.  

Deborah Cowen received a Trudeau Fellowship last year to pursue a research project entitled Reassembling the Infrastructure of Citizenship (photo by Diana Tyszko)

Cowen, a Trudeau Fellow whose research looks at how conflicts over infrastructure have come to define political landscapes, says she invited LaDuke to come and speak at U of T.

“I was excited about the energy she was bringing to these issues, and it was really clear that there was a lot of momentum in Toronto – especially on our campus – around Indigenous sovereignty and water protection,” says Cowen.

LaDuke accepted Cowen's invitation in January, and not long after a collective called the Mooshkahan – meaning "they overflow/flood" – was formed to create an entire water-themed event around LaDuke's talk. 

The result? An event featuring music, art and dialogue exploring themes of water and Indigenous sovereignty.

Sunday's event will feature the world premiere of Beverly McIver’s musical suite Boozhoo Manoomin, with performances by Melody McKiver and Ruhee Dewji, and a dialogue with Erin-Marie Konsmo, Christi Belcourt, Isaac Murdoch of the Onaman Collective. Karyn Recollet, an associate professor at U of T, and Syrus Marcus Ware, an artist, activist and core member of Black Lives Matter Toronto, will emcee.

“We knew there would be a large audience for this, and we hope it will contribute to some of the community-building and environmental work that is happening here in the city,” says Cowen.

The event is sponsored by Cowen's project – Infrastructure Otherwise – as well as U of T’s Indigenous Initiatives Office, the Indigenous Education Network, New College, Great Lakes Waterworks and the Indigenous Futurisms Project.

“A question of water and land is something that is so big, these challenges are so big, that they need to everything and everyone to come together on it. And, I think we need to change our minds. We need to change our hearts. We need to share our stories,” says Murphy.

“We need water testing. We need ways of holding polluters accountable. We need regulations. We need respect for Indigenous sovereignty – all those things completely exceed any discipline.” 

Tickets are free and available online. The event runs from 5-8 p.m. on Sunday at Convocation Hall, 31 King's College Circle.

The Mooshkahan Planning Committee includes: Murphy, Recollet, Cowen, Eve Tuck, Connor Pion, Jennifer SylvesterDonna Ashamock, Julie Blair, Susan Blight, Amy Desjarlais, Jennifer MurrinEllie Adekur, Sabrien Amrov, Sefanit Habtom, Pedro Moran Bonilla, Deanna Del Vecchio, Vern Ross, Jenny Blackbird, Dayna Scott and Lee Maracle.