The Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve organization is removing the word “reserve” from its name and incorporating a traditional Ojibway name for Georgian Bay. Several world biosphere reserves in Canada have made similar decisions, dropping the word “reserve” and replacing it with “region” or a locally preferred name.
In 2004, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve (GBBR) after a group of volunteers incorporated a not-for-profit in 1998. The biosphere area stretches 200 km along the eastern coast of Georgian Bay from Port Severn to the French River, and from Highway 69 (400) west to the Limestone Islands. It is situated in the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850, upon which is layered the Williams Treaty of 1923 in the southern portion of the region and includes territory of at least nine First Nations.
However, since 1970 when UNESCO first created the world biosphere program, the word “reserve” has caused confusion. A biosphere reserve does not legally “reserve” any part of nature, but celebrates people in nature and supports sustainable community development in special places like Georgian Bay.
“The GBBR is a region that is ecologically unique and has met strict criteria for UNESCO designation,” says Becky Pollock, Executive Director. “It’s something for all of us to be proud of. But at the same time, the “GBBR” is also an organization based in Parry Sound that manages the work of a biosphere – and the two names are confusing: one is a place and one is an organization.”
In February, the Board of Directors agreed in principle to remove the word “Reserve” from the organization’s name upon recommendation from a consensus brought forward by the organization’s Cultural Advisory Circle that was supported by staff and management. The new “Georgian Bay Biosphere” (GBB) was adopted for common usage and then respectfully made bilingual with a place name in Anishinabemowin (the Ojibway language).
“Our new naming has been a long journey,” says Pollock. “Since 1998, everyone at the Biosphere has been learning. Since 2008, we have wanted to properly honour the territory. We were taught several traditional place names and spellings for Georgian Bay, from working with Mskwaankwad Rice who reached out to his former teachers like Johna Hupfield and his elders, and to researchers like Brian McInnis and knowledge keepers like Dr. Mary Ann Naokwegijig-Corbiere and others. There are many names, spellings and dialects for this place, including Mnidoo gamii or gamiing or gumeeng (Spirit Lake) and Waaseyaagami-wiikwed (Shining Waters Bay) and others. We chose one to add to our name as a symbol of respect.”
Marilyn Capreol is Anishnaabe-kwe and a Director on the GBB board. She says: “the name change is important for the ancestors, our present elders, knowledge keepers and the gift of our youth. Return of knowledge that the youth have begun to wear the moccasins for. We now have many young people and all communities carrying the ancient knowledge of the birch bark canoe. It was witnessed by many nations.”
Ron Chase, Chair of the GBB explains: “UNESCO sites are called to honour the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and in Canada we’ve had a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) and recently the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). There is much collaborative work to be done across Canada and within our communities to act on the recommendations of the Commission. Our name change is a small but significant step in the right direction.”
Sherrill Judge, Maawaanji’iwe Manager (Gets People Together) at the Biosphere says: “When I think of the word ‘reserve’ in conservation and nature reserves, that word was used to conserve a species. “Indian reserves” were intended to assimilate and oppress Anishinaabek ~ Indigenous peoples, to ensure we weren’t connected to our land, water, people and language. The new name of GBB symbolizes respect and honor to the original people of the land, Anishinaabek. It’s one of the steps that this organization is taking towards building relationships, working together and learning from each other. When I was a kid, I remember using the name ‘gumeeng’ for the Shawanaga Landing. So for GBB to reclaim and acknowledge Anishinaabemowin is beautiful.”
“Some people have asked us if our Biosphere Reserve is a First Nation,” says Greg Mason, General Manager, “due to the Indian Reserves system created by the Indian Act of 1876. The word ‘reserve’ in Canada is directly related to the systematic dispossession of lands, driven by racism that continues to this day. Our organization refuses to perpetuate that harm and wants to educate people about our area and its history, including the original Treaties – legal agreements – that still govern how we should share land and resources. For us, it is about building respectful relationships so we can live well together in this special place.”
Capreol adds that the name change shows respect in a good way to the ancestors of the original nations. “In our culture, carrying a Spirit name is life. Often names change when Spiritual growth has been earned. For the members of this organization, the new name is very important as they have come to understand the Creator’s governance of responsibility to take care of the water, land, air and skyworld. Respect is a great honour.”
On June 16, 2020, a resolution was passed to change the GBBR’s operating name to Georgian Bay Mnidoo Gamii Biosphere and adopt a new logo. The decision will be shared with UNESCO. “The logo has kept the iconic water, rock and westwind pine of Georgian Bay,” says Mason, “as well as the four directions or compass points. And we’ve added the words Mnidoo Gamii – Spirit of the Water to celebrate Anishnaabek culture and teach people about where they are.”
European records show that in 1615 Samuel de Champlain, an explorer from France, referred to the Bay as “la mer douce” or freshwater sea. Two hundred years later, Captain W. F. Owen called it “Lake Manitoulin.” But it was soon after named part of Lake Huron and called “Georgian Bay” for King George IV by Captain Henry Wolsey Bayfield in a survey of 1819-1822. It acquired the local name “the 30,000 Islands” in the late 1800s, as shown in old postcards of Parry Sound.
Kyla Judge is the Indigenous Youth Coordinator for the Biosphere. “Since the beginning of my role here, changing the name has always been a topic of conversation… within the Cultural Advisory Circle, among members of the newly formed Georgian Bay Anishinaabek Youth, and in the questions community partners. GBB continues to be a strong supporter and mentor for Indigenous youth in grassroots organizing, and a name change reaffirms the commitment that GBB has for building connections to the place we all call home – Mnidoo Gamii. It can be pronounced: min-ah-DOE guh-MEE.”
Biosphere reserves have no jurisdiction themselves but work within the existing international, Indigenous, federal, provincial and municipal governance on the landscape. Over 700 biosphere sites and organizations worldwide take many forms but they all play a strong role in conservation, education and sustainable development.
The Georgian Bay Biosphere is a not-for-profit and now a registered charity. It has a core of 12 staff that expands to 22 in the summer. Their team are considered leaders in environmental education and community partnerships among seven municipalities and nine First Nations.
For common usage, the name Georgian Bay Biosphere (GBB) will be used and the former GBBR will evolve away. Over time, the organization’s communications platforms, such as website, social media and email accounts will be updated.