This dissertation examines several sites of conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples over water and water rights in Canada, from the 19th century up to current articulations of environmental policy and land rights. Through examination of a selection of public policy, land rights decisions, grassroots activism, and Canadian and Indigenous fiction and non-fiction, I probe relationships to water that have structured and limited the legibility of Indigenous rights in Canada. I track a history of settler colonialism through the lens of water, querying whether water offers a productive site that might challenge the current land-based constraints of colonial legal and policy frameworks that have led to what are often irreconcilable relationships between the settler state and Indigenous peoples.
Through Indigenous legal orders, social, cultural, and political expression, as well as strands of materialist and environmentalist Western philosophy that focus on water, ontology, and narrative, I explore the limits and potential for decolonial approaches to water governance that might better support the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples. Using an interdisciplinary methodology, I read public policy and land rights decisions in dialogue with settler and Indigenous literatures and community action in order to understand the often-competing worlding practices that materially, socially, subjectively, and figuratively construct settler and Indigenous approaches to water—what I am calling settler and Indigenous water worlds. Specifically, I analyze four sites of conflict and their various representations where competing laws, philosophies, and social registers of water come up against one another: the 19th century establishment of a liberal order in the Trent Severn Waterway, and its expression in early settler life writing and environmental policy; the mercury pollution of the English-Wabigoon River Systems in Treaty 3 Anishinaabe territory, and the ironic representation of late liberal environmentalism in M.T. Kelly's A Dream Like Mine; the James Bay Hydroelectric conflict, and the political response of the Grand Council of the Crees, as well as the conflict's figurative reimagining in Linda Hogan's Solar Storms; and Haudenosaunee and settler relations in Grand River territory in Southern Ontario, and the impetus to engage these relations through the historic treaty, the Two Row Wampum.