Damming Rainy Lake and the ongoing production of hydrocolonialism in the US-Canada boundary waters

Johann Strube
Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education, The Pennsylvania State University, United States of America; johann.strube@psu.edu

Kimberley Anh Thomas
Department of Geography and Urban Studies, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, United States of America; kimthomas@temple.edu

ABSTRACT: Transboundary water governance between the United States and Canada – ahistorically described as cooperative and harmonious – has been instrumental to Settler colonialism and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples around the Great Lakes. At Rainy Lake, on the border between the American state of Minnesota and the Canadian province of Ontario, transboundary water governance supported a binational, Settler colonial joint venture through which European-descended Settlers established themselves in this area. It allowed for the construction of hydroelectric dams that enabled industrial development but also damaged ecosystems and species on which local Ojibwe and Métis communities depended, particularly the lake's wild rice (Zizania palustris) stands. We reconceptualise transboundary water governance in the region by expanding the framework of hydro-hegemony to include relations between Canada, the United States, and Indigenous Nations. By recognising Indigenous Nations and Settler colonial states as having equal status in political negotiations around the use of water, our analysis reveals negative hydro-hegemony between the United States and Canada on one side, and Indigenous Nations on the other. We advance hydrocolonialism as a framework for describing these relationships. Hydrocolonialism persists through the ongoing exclusion of Indigenous Nations from nation-to-nation diplomacy; this exclusion is particularly embedded in the functioning of the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty and the International Joint Commission which it established.

KEYWORDS: Wild rice, Settler colonialism, hydro-hegemony, hydrocolonialism, Boundary Waters Treaty, International Joint Commission, hydroelectric dams, USA, Canada