What sets BARC apart is the diversity of people it has engaged in reclaiming Hamilton Harbour.

WHEN THE BAY Area Restoration Council (BARC) in Hamilton, Ontario, celebrated its 20th birthday in June, there was much to celebrate: The organization had just won Earth Day Canada’s 2011 Group Hometown Hero Award.

Karen Logan nominated BARC for this annual award, particularly noting the diversity of people it has engaged in helping clean up Hamilton Harbour. Given BARC’s small size, just three full- time staff, “what they get done is really amazing,” Logan says.

Formed in 1991, BARC is a child of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which identified Hamilton Harbour as one of 43 Areas of Concern. Decades of industrial development by mammoth corporations including steel manufacturers Stelco and Defasco, and sewage discharge, had turned Hamilton Harbour into a toxic soup of polluted water and contaminated sediments. By the 1960s, all but five per cent of the shoreline was closed to public access.

To remedy the situation, the International Joint Commission required that Canada develop a Remedial Action Plan. BARC and the Bay Area Implementation Team had the Herculean task of executing the clean-up. BARC executive director Jim Hudson says his group “was set up to be the community side of it” while government and industry – “the folks that are supposed to get the work done” – made up the Implementation Team.

Since it began, BARC has not only spearheaded efforts to restore Cootes Paradise Marsh, a 320-hectare environ- mentally significant wetland, it has also seen the percentage of publicly acces- sible shoreline increase to 28 per cent from under five per cent. Water clarity has improved, E. coli levels are down and native fish are returning.

Nonetheless, the region continues to be blighted by Randle Reef. This 630,000-cubic-metre blob of coal tar is the most toxic site in the Canadian Great Lakes. Despite years of hard work, funding issues will likely prevent BARC from meeting its goal of having the bay delisted as an Area of Concern by 2015. Though keen to get the job done, Hudson recog- nizes that delisting will result in another challenge: The office in charge of the Remedial Action Plan will close, putting a greater burden on BARC.

Hudson recognizes that BARC will “need all of the residents of the watershed to be committed to finishing this job.” It’s a task for which Rhoda deJonge, BARC’s diversity co-ordinator, is ready. She contends that human diversity is at the heart of BARC’s success. By seeking people who “are true environmentalists,but wouldn’t necessarily give themselves that label,” she has successfully reached out to the broad community, including schools. And in a place where more than a quarter of the population was born outside Canada, there is an enormous opportunity to engage a diverse group of people.

Proof of BARC’s commitment to reaching out comes from Hamilton’s for- mer mayor, Fred Eisenberger. He writes, “BARC’s more recent initiative to assure greater involvement of all the peoples of Hamilton has given great hope to the future of environmental efforts in our community.”

Last year, deJonge created the Multi-Cultural Waterfest, a one-day event to get new Canadians involved in recreational opportunities in the bay. The event grew out of her talks with community newcomers who said they had no idea how to start enjoying what should be Hamilton’s greatest asset. “The work that we’re doing is not only restoring the harbour,” she says, “but restoring the harbour in the minds of the people.”

BARC, it seems, is living its motto: Together, we’re bringing back the bay.

To learn about Hamilton Harbour’s rich biodiversity, visit The Cootes to Escarpment Park System Project at archive.rbg.ca/greenbelt/.

Janet Kimantas is associate editor at A\J with degrees in studio art and environmental studies. She is currently pursuing an MES at UWaterloo. She splits her spare time between walking in the forest and painting Renaissance-inspired portraits of birds.

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