Data for self-determination: Qʷúʔ, siwɬkʷ (water) data hub to support Indigenous watershed governance and protection

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Centuries of colonialism has had a devastating and lasting impact on Indigenous communities in what is now called Canada. One of the negative consequences of this is the mishandling and exploitation of Indigenous data. For Indigenous Peoples, data is more than a collection of numbers and information; data is connected to culture, identity, traditions, and self-determination.

OCAP® is a tool to support First Nations data sovereignty. Standing for ownership, control, access and possession, it asserts that First Nations have control over data collection processes in their communities, and that they own and control how this information can be used.

It’s with this perspective that the Nicola Watershed Governance Partnership (NWGP) — a government-to-government initiative between the Five Nicola First Nations (collectively known as the Nicola 5) and Province of B.C. —  identified the need for a sovereign qʷúʔ, siwɬkʷ (water) data hub to house watershed information.

In August 2022, Living Lakes Canada was invited and ultimately selected from nine open bid proposals to build a water hub that supports NWGP information governance. The NWGP recognized Living Lakes Canada’s unique strengths in having designed a robust data hub that adheres to Indigenous data ownership and jurisdiction (visit the  Columbia Basin Water Hub), and commitment to Reconciliation through water stewardship. In the fall of 2022, the NWGP data portal build began and will continue until March 2024.

The data portal is more than just a technical project to house water-related data as per the feedback received during the RFP award process. The Partnership sees this project as an opportunity to help build trust between the Nicola 5 and the Province and support this developing relationship. The NWGP indicated that the tone, approach, and language of the proposal along with Living Lakes Canada’s willingness to listen, learn and meet the NWGP “where they are at” was a strength in our successful bid.

Fall colours reflect on the edge of Nicola Lake.

Data and knowledge of the land have been gathered, managed, and stewarded by Indigenous People for millennia. As such, Indigenous Peoples understand their data needs and how to best govern their information. The NWGP portal will bring together Indigenous Knowledge and Western science to support collaborative efforts in watershed protection. It will weave together data on water quality and quantity, groundwater and snow surveys, cultural heritage information, archival documents, oral histories and Indigenous laws, protocols and policies and more.

Through the building and ongoing development of the Columbia Basin Water Hub, Living Lakes Canada has learned firsthand the importance of a central repository that allows communities to manage and access their data. The NWGP project will be grounded by thoughtful consideration of data governance and the complexity of ownership, control, access and possession.

“Through this project, we are reframing the way that we think about data governance and putting the OCAP® principles into practice. While we are building off of our learnings from the operation of the Columbia Basin Water Hub, we are also co-creating customized features and solutions that reflect the values of the NWGP,” said Paige Thurston, Project Lead with Living Lakes Canada.

Douglas Lake in the Nicola Valley.

Central to the project’s success is relationship and trust building between Living Lakes Canada, the Province of BC, and the Nicola 5 — Coldwater Indian Band, Lower Nicola Indian Band, Nooaitch Indian Band, Shackan Indian Band and Upper Nicola Band. Through previous partnerships, Living Lakes Canada had already developed a strong relationship with the Nicola Watershed. Over the last year, Living Lakes Canada and Upper Nicola Band have developed an Indigenous Knowledge and Values Framework. This recently released report will guide Indigenous engagement for the Foreshore Integrated Management Planning project on Nicola Lake this summer. The NWGP data portal project is another opportunity to explore how Western science-based organizations can best work with Indigenous Knowledge partners.

“To be acknowledged as a trusted partner to this Indigenous and Provincial Government project is a recognition of both our work in the field of data management and our organizational commitment to reconciliation,” said Andy Miller, Living Lakes Canada Deputy Director.

Indigenous People of the Nicola 5 “understand that all sources of water are connected and that water has spirit and all spirit has purpose.” The NWGP data portal will facilitate an ethical space that can be harnessed to affect positive policy change for Indigenous communities and the Nicola watershed. Guided by principles of collaboration and relationship building, Living Lakes Canada looks forward to delivering a data portal that will foster trust between the NWGP partners and support government-to-government co-management and decision making to improve watershed health.

Banner photo by Brian Holmes/Upper Nicola Band.

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