Great Lakes Canoe Journey Founder Shares Vision in FES Talk

Plain’s talk, held Jan. 25, was part of this year’s continuing FES speaker series on Indigenous Environmental Justice (IEJ).

Led by York University professor and Canadian Research Chair, Deborah McGregor, the York-based IEJ Project began in 2015 in pursuit of developing a more “grassroots” or community-oriented understanding of environmental justice. The project, which strives to conceptualize environmental justice from an Indigenous knowledge perspective, hopes to become a resource for activists, community members, students and scholars in the coming years.

Plain’s Canoe Journey project contributes to the IEJ philosophy by bringing Indigenous communities together to the Great Lakes Basin for annual canoe journeys. These are more than just canoe trips, however; they signify the relationship between people and waterways.

Sylvia Plain

Plain was inspired to start her program after discovering the vibrant canoe culture that exists in the Pacific North-West region of Turtle Island (North America).

“Different Indigenous communities were coming together, sharing their common love and care for the waterways and the surrounding lands,” she said.

Plain wondered whether there might also be Indigenous canoe cultures existing in the great lakes region.

“I wanted to find out who knows our canoe songs, our canoe practices,” said Plain.

She ultimately discovered that canoe culture has served as a site of Indigenous environmental knowledge and narrative. As Plain explained it, “when you step into the canoe, all this verbal knowledge and tradition about the water and the lands gets shared.”

Plain argues that such knowledge contains ethical insights into how the environment ought to be treated, and hopes it can influence the way the government handles its environmental policy.

Since the inception of the program, Plain has created four new birch bark canoe builders, has taught over 2,000 elementary and university students, and recently built a birch bark canoe in her own community, Aamjiwnaang First Nation.

Learn more about Sylvia Plain’s program by visiting

An initiative of the IEJ project is this year’s FES speaker series which seeks to highlight Indigenous women and youth perspectives on environmental justice. In keeping with place-based objectives of Indigenous protocols, the invited speakers primarily hail from the Great Lakes region in Southern Ontario. The series continues on Feb. 15 with Vanessa Gray presenting “Environmental Racism in Canada’s Chemical Valley”. Full details of all upcoming IEJ events are listed below.

Native Youth Sexual Health Network (Featuring Krysta Williams & Beze Gray)
Date: Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Location: HNES 141
Time: 1 to 2:15pm

Video Recording of Event - Coming Soon 

Adrianne Lickers
Date: Wednesday April 12, 2017
Location: HNES 141
Time: 12:30 to 1:45pm

Video Recording of Event - Coming Soon 

Visit the newly launched IEJ Project website to learn more about the project and the upcoming FES Speaker series events.