Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Geography & Environmental Studies


Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Derek Armitage

Advisor Role


Second Advisor

Ryan Plummer

Advisor Role



Water quality and quantity are prominent concerns for First Nations across Canada. The federal government shares the responsibility with First Nations to ensure water resources on-reserves meet the needs of First Nations. Federal approaches have been predominantly technical, focused on addressing issues related to infrastructure, maintenance, training, and monitoring. This approach is important. However, water issues concerning First Nations go beyond technical issues and relate to inadequate participation in decision making, poorly defined roles and responsibilities, and approaches to managing water resources on-reserve that have not accounted for local context. These issues parallel historical nation-to-nation (i.e., First Nations and federal government) governance challenges in a broader range of social and economic development settings.

The purpose of this research was to examine the potential emergence of adaptive forms of water governance in three First Nations contexts in southern Ontario to ameliorate current limitations in practice. The key objectives that guided this research were to: (1) characterize and assess water management and water governance in the three case studies using the multi-barrier approach for drinking water safety; (2) identify and critically examine institutional attributes and conditions (i.e., capacity) that facilitate or constrain adaptive forms of water governance in each of the case study sites, with particular reference to opportunities for analytic deliberation, institutional variety, and linkages across scales; and (3) examine the multi-level institutional setting of the case studies for empirical evidence of adaptive water governance and to identify opportunities to foster it.

Three First Nation communities were the setting for this research: Six Nations of the Grand River, Oneida Nation of the Thames, and Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. The research involved actors both on-reserve and off-reserve including representatives from federal, provincial, and municipal governments, watershed organizations, non-government organizations, and citizen groups. Multiple qualitative methods were used to triangulate the findings (i.e., semi-structured interviews, archival data gathering, secondary date gathering, and direct observation). The research utilized the multi-barrier approach to safe drinking water to characterize and assess water management and water governance issues in the case studies. Drawing from this characterization and assessment, the research identified and critically examined institutional attributes and conditions that facilitate or constrain adaptive forms of water governance in the case studies utilizing an institutional lens. Finally, the research examined the multi-level institutional setting of the case studies for empirical evidence of adaptive water governance and identified opportunities to foster it and enhance water quality and quantity.

The findings shed light on community perspectives that are often absent in literature discussing the social and political contexts that define First Nations water rights and responsibilities in Canada, including experiences with colonialism and discrimination. Community perspectives have revealed divergent understandings of decision making authority and legitimacy, formal institutions for managing water on-reserve that are incompatible with cultural norms, and a lack of community engagement in water issues. Poor sharing of knowledge (both scientific and traditional) and unclear roles and responsibilities constrain First Nations from responding effectively to the water issues they confront. In response, this research identified governance opportunities to foster adaptive forms of water governance in First Nation contexts, including acknowledgment of underlying socio-political conditions, creating space within current formal arrangements for alternative approaches to water management to be recognized and substantiated, and mediating divergent assumptions about rights and responsibilities among water managers.

The research offered several important contributions to theory, practice, and methodology in water governance. For example, this research contributed conceptually to an emerging literature on adaptive water governance, and in particular, how it resonated (or does not resonate) within First Nations contexts. It did this by drawing attention to the role current institutions (e.g., rules, legal frameworks and norms) may have in constraining or creating opportunity for adaptive forms of governance. The research also contributed conceptually to understanding what a multi-barrier approach means in the context of First Nations in Canada. The insights here are relevant in Ontario and Canada more broadly, where challenges implementing the Multiple Barrier Approach (MBA) in First Nation contexts have been voiced.

Empirically, this research reinforced the need to acknowledge and include First Nation approaches in water management practice. It did so by bringing to the forefront First Nation water management practices of three First Nation communities, particularly for protecting water resources on-reserve, and in terms of highlighting what is working and what is not. These insights provide guidance for advancing water policy and practice toward the meaningful involvement of First Nations in decision making, and a commitment to include the cultural practices required to foster more adaptive forms of governance.

Methodologically, the research made a contribution by utilizing two analytical frameworks. First, the research made a contribution through the use of the multi-barrier approach as a framework to characterize and assess water management and water governance in First Nations contexts. The adaptability of this framework may be useful for use in First Nation contexts as a way to identify key drinking water management and governance challenges. Second, the research extended Dietz et al.’s (2003) framework depicting institutional strategies for adaptive governance to examine and understand how these strategies may be operationalize and assessed in First Nations contexts. The extension of the framework may be helpful to explore constraints and opportunities to manage and govern resources in other marginalized communities.

This research presented five recommendations to enhance opportunities for more adaptive forms of water governance in First Nations in southern Ontario: (1) Give further attention to potential divisions between groups on-reserve and the implications for water governance, (2) build support for and maintain the relationships that enhance water governance but which often transcend legally defined mandates and/or jurisdictions, (3) foster a common understanding of the different ‘legitimate voices’ that must be incorporated in efforts to support adaptive water governance, (4) be open to First Nation approaches to managing water resources that may be based on cultural practices and norms, and (5) identify new opportunities to foster the financial stability needed for adaptive water governance. Collectively, the findings and recommendations from this research developed the concept of adaptive water governance and help to bridge the gap between concept and practice.

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