On the warm sunny evening of August 1st, in an area best known for spectacular sunsets and relaxing on the beach, the local community hall in Saugeen Shores, ON, was at standing room only. The Lake Huron town hosted the Great Lakes Need Great Friends event, part of a multi-city international tour by guest speaker and National Chair of the Council of Canadians, Maude Barlow.
Concern for the Great Lakes is running high in this town of about 12,000 permanent residents, though the population swells in summer months with cottagers and tourists. It’s obvious to residents that water levels are in serious decline, a fact that has been well documented in the national media in recent months. For example, the passenger ferry Chi-Cheemaun, which runs from Tobermory to Manitoulin Island, was unable to operate as scheduled due to the record-low levels.
While water levels are a very visible problem, a plethora of other issues are a cause for concern for many of those who attended Maude Barlow’s talk, including invasive and non-native species, eutrophication, water pollution, climate change, and the privatization and sale of Great Lakes freshwater throughout North America. Contentious topics in this tight-knit community are two proposed nuclear waste "repositories" that are currently under review.
While this event was hosted by Save our Saugeen Shores (S0S), a group opposed to the waste repositories, the dialogue during the evening did not focus on the nuclear topic exclusively. Sierra Club of Canada water expert Mary Muter provided a thorough overview of the hydrogeological history of the lakes and their formation during the last ice age, focusing specifically on the loss of water through the St. Clair River in Sarnia. Keynote speaker Maude Barlow discussed the growing global water crisis, water privatization in Canada under NAFTA and the threat it presents to the Great Lakes. Looking at the lakes as a single watershed with a shared heritage, Barlow called for a new “water ethic” and motivated the crowd to take action with her passion for protecting Canada’s fresh water. Long-serving Sarnia mayor Mike Bradley provided his insight into the role of local government in addressing these issues and expressed concern with the proposed waste storage sites. Other guest speakers included Saugeen First Nation’s Chief Randall Kahgee, and Councillor Chris Peabody from neighbouring Brockton.
During the question session at the end of the evening citizens expressed concerns about local water pollution and of course the nuclear waste storage sites. Both Bradley and Barlow criticised the site selection process. Barlow compared the current debate to the controversial Site 41 landfill proposal in Simcoe County, which was terminated by the provincial government in 2010. Site 41 saw a large uprising of local concerned citizens, First Nations groups and celebrities whose chorus of opposition eventually caused the province to intervene after 20 years. The site selection process for the nuclear waste storage sites was criticised as being one of convenience, and the expert panel agreed that concerned citizens need to draw on the example of Site 41 to rally against policies that could be damaging to the Great Lakes.
At the end of the panel presentations the crowd rose for a standing ovation showing that local citizens care deeply about the issues facing the lakes. It was an evening where the big picture issues were discussed by ordinary people. Officials in both Canada and the US, through the International Joint Commission, will need to formulate consistent, effective policy to solve each of these issues, with input from experts like Barlow and concerned Canadians. It was, as noticed by the expert panel, remarkable and promising that people could come together to discuss the issues in a free, open dialogue. Looking ahead to the future more conversations like this will be essential to preserve and protect the Great Lakes. Up next is a Town Hall Forum later this month in nearby Kincardine with a variety of stakeholder panelists to discuss ecological issues threatening the Great Lakes, organised by the Huron-Bruce branch of the federal Liberal Party.
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