Blog: Manito Aki Inaakonigewin // Great Spirit Law

Blog post by:
Jane Cooper, Law Student (Osgoode Intensive Program in Indigenous Lands, Resources & Governments), CELA
Hailey Krolyk, Policy Analyst, Treaty #3 Investment Group, Grand Council Treaty #3

Manito Aki Inaakonigewin (“MAI”) loosely translates to “Great Spirit Law” and is the law of the Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty #3. Although colonialism has subjugated the practice of Anishinaabe ways of life, Manito Aki Inaakonigewin continues to be asserted and is undergoing an exciting revitalization process in Treaty #3.

Importantly, Manito Aki Inaakonigewin is not a part of the “common law” (Canadian law in all provinces except for Quebec, which uses “civil law”). Instead, it is a separate legal system. Just as the common law has roots in a British worldview and culture, Manito Aki Inaakonigewin is rooted from the Anishinaabe worldview and is based on the duties Saagima Manito (Creator) gave to the Anishinaabe. These duties include protecting, caring for, and respecting the land.

Photo Credit: Fred Kelly, Grand Council Treaty #3

Manito Aki Inaakonigewin was given to the Anishinaabe from Creator, which has been passed on through ancestral teachings and is now written down as an official law of the Nation in Treaty #3. This written version of Manito Aki Inaakonigewin was first officially written and ratified by Elders in 1997. The ratification process included many days of ceremony, including taking the written document through four sweat lodges built in the four directions, and to be scanned by the spirits (more details available here).

Elder Don Kelly says, “We have to go back to spirituality – that’s the only way you can heal the human side of things. You want to understand, know and implement – don’t listen with your ears and eyes – listen with your heart – it will never lie to you because it has no eyes and ears – it’s just love.”

Though Manito Aki Inaakonigewin was recorded in writing in 1997, it is not new law. It has always been applied to the lives of the Anishinaabe in Treaty #3 through governance and ways of being. However, the written form has been useful in changing the way that Proponents engage with Treaty #3 Nations, through processes in Anishinaabe law. As one environmentally relevant example, Grand Council Treaty #3 has created a “Project Application Framework” guided by Manito Aki Inaakonigewin. This framework ensures that proponents and development projects pass through Anishinaabe processes, in order to respect Anishinaabe governance and sovereignty. The impact and implications of Manito Aki Inaakonigewin on the Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty #3, and on Proponents/the Crown, are laid out in the diagram to the left.

Photo credit: Grand Council Treaty #3

Projects in Treaty #3 have already been approved through a Manito Aki Inaakonigewin driven process. For example, the Niiwin Wendaanimok (Four Winds) Partnership has applied Manito Aki Inaakonigewin during the Highway 17 Twinning project. Niiwin Wendaanimok is comprised of four Treaty #3 Anishinaabe communities, which is an Anishinaabe-owned construction, contracting, and environmental monitoring services. Its Highway 17 Twinning project involved a Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) between the Crown of Ontario (represented by the MTO) and Niiwin Wendaanimok. As part of the assessment process, Niiwin Wendaanimok created a “Harmonized Impact Assessment” which was guided by Manito Aki Inaakonigewin. As an example, the document includes the traditional planning phases as informed by Manito Aki Inaakonigewin: visioning, scouting, hunter/warrior/gatherer, and feasting and celebrating.

Manito Aki Inaakonigewin provides consent for projects to move forward in Treaty #3. The obligation lies on all associated parties who wish to develop or manage resources within Treaty #3 Territory to abide by and follow Manito Aki Inaakonigewin, in relationship to the Anishinaabe in Treaty #3. Manito Aki Inaakonigewin is considered a foundational process of mutual respect.

Key outcomes of following Manito Aki Inaakonigewin include ensuring:

  • Respect for Treaty and Aboriginal rights
  • Conservation and protection to the environment
  • Joint decision making
  • Contracts
  • Co-management
  • Business opportunities
  • Compensation
  • Partnerships/relationships
  • Employment and training

Grand Council Treaty #3 has also published a general Toolkit on Manito Aki Inaakonigewin, which includes a comprehensive guide to the four teachings within the law (respect, rights, reciprocity, and responsibility), and a discussion of its implementation. Grand Council is currently continuing to use the toolkit to facilitate workshops and presentations with both Treaty #3 communities, the Crown, and proponents. For Treaty #3 communities, the presentations support communities in applying Manito Aki Inaakonigewin within projects in Treaty #3. For proponents, it is to help them understand how to respect Anishinaabe sovereignty and build honest, transparent, and mutually beneficial relationships. For the Crown, applying Manito Aki Inaakonigewin supports a Nation to Nation relationship that honours Treaty commitments.

While Grand Council Treaty #3, and Indigenous Nations more broadly, are working on revitalizing traditional law, the common law can be (and has been!) a barrier. So, what is the common law, or common law lawyers’, role in upholding Manito Aki Inaakonigewin and other Indigenous law?

As common law lawyers, we need to start thinking about what it looks like to create space for Indigenous law. Damien Lee’s conceptualization of decolonization as a balloon may help. In this example, we can think of Anishinaabe Law (or other Indigenous legal systems) as a balloon. Anishinaabe leaders are already doing the difficult work of inflating the balloon. Common law lawyers can help by making sure that the balloon has room to inflate. In practice, this may look like assisting in negotiating favourable agreements with government partners that recognize the jurisdiction of Indigenous law (see, the case study of Nipissing First Nation). It may also look like advocacy to allow Indigenous Nations to opt-in or out of regulatory regimes (as a CELA-specific example, see: First Nations Land Management (FNLM) Regime starting at page 13).

Treaty #3 was signed in the spirit of friendship and was to last for as “long as the sun will shine and water runs, that is to say forever” (Paypom Document).  Especially for non-Indigenous people/settlers on the land, it’s never been more important to understand, uphold and respect Anishinaabe law. As the toolkit reminds us, “Although the law was given to the Anishinaabe at the beginning of time, it’s important to understand that the responsibility to protect and respect Creation doesn’t solely depend on Anishinaabe people, the law represents the collective duty of us to protect all of Creation.”