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Wellington Water Watchers make water an election issue

Lake beach. Photo: Viv Lynch/flickr

Mike Nagy is a natural wonder. His formative years were spent in southern rural Hamilton where he lived a uniquely angelic childhood. Walking home from school each day included stopping to drink natural spring water bubbling  from rocks at the "Jolly Cut," a little oasis in the woods. As Nagy recalls, "Kids hung out there every afternoon. We had freedom because there was no bus and while we walked home from school we had time to explore and have fun."

This idyllic childhood abruptly ended in Grade 8 when Nagy's family moved to inner city Hamilton. Experiencing the loss of paradise gave birth to the actionist conservationist in Nagy who, despite working in private high-tech fields, has logged in excess of 20,000 volunteer hours crusading for a better local, national and international environment.

Nagy has a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Geography and Political Science from McMaster as well as a master's in Environmental Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University in Eco-Certification Labeling and Traceablility of Seafood in Canada. Nagy pursued his master's in order to further understand, and speak to, the connection between healthy oceans and the survival of earth's inhabitants.

Nagy believes that ecology cannot be put into silos. He sees a connection between the sustainable food movement, water protection and reversing climate change. He also knows there's an undeniable link between the economy and the environment.

According to Nagy, "The environment produces all of our wealth. What we have done is build an environmental deficit and one day the environment will ask for payment. It's catching up with us and it will take more money to clean it up than to prevent the devastation. Every dollar spent on prevention saves us four to five dollars in clean-up costs."

Nagy looks to the end of the Cold War for proof. East Germany had so heavily polluted their water sources with heavy metals and other contaminants that it was impacting the composition of steel they were manufacturing. East Germany eventually had to truck in clean water at great cost in order to continue production.

Then, there's Poland. Once considered an environmental gem with landscapes similar to northern Ontario, Poland became one of the most polluted places on earth. "The economy was in tatters and innovation was halted, all to try to compete with the west while using post-Second World War technology. The human condition suffered terribly as a result of the environment being so severely degraded," observes Nagy.

But, the world in general, and North America in particular, is not heeding the warnings. As Nagy notes; "Modern equivalents of this exist all over the world now from over-consumption, race to the bottom policies and the thirst for more and more resources. It has become a world of haves and have-nots with the new term Global North vs. Global South. China has now publicly recognized that it can no longer pollute like it has as it is threatening their economy. It's all a delayed effect."

Nagy knows, "Climate change and the collapse of the oceans is the biggest global issue the world has faced. Both are tied to bottled water -- a luxury we can no longer afford." Water extraction is an indisputable concern because many Canadians live under the misconception that we can find more water whenever we need it while the truth remains water is not renewable.

Not one single drop more has been produced since the world began. All we do is simply transform water into different states and we contaminate it. But, the bigger concern is the huge carbon footprint of bottled water production and transportation.

In order to save the planet, Nagy believes Canadians need to reorganize ourselves and our economy as well as that of the international community. Nagy sagely advises, "Attitudes need to change. People need to connect the dots to understand the cause and effect and the interrelatedness of our health, the health of our environment, and the health of our economy. Bottled water slows the problem solving down and enables corporations to get rich off of a problem that shouldn't exist."

Nagy wants Canadians to understand that, "Renewable, clean water is not abundant in the populated areas of Canada. Our Great Lakes are not bathtubs that can be drained and shipped around the world because there is no magic faucet to refill them. All life depends on clean water."

Yet, Nagy remains hopeful. He believes in empowering people one person at a time because, ultimately, it's the actions of individuals that will have the greatest and longest lasting impact. In fact, recognizing the doom can be liberating: "You know that you're doing as much as you can. It's your civic duty to be engaged in making things better. So, help design your society and work for it."

Nagy credits his mother, Hamilton actionist Beverley Nagy, with inspiring him to become an actionist conservationist. Nagy lovingly recalls, "She was part of the cultural inner circle. She did what was right, not what was popular. She made Hamilton a better place."

Nagy's father, Les, was a Stelco career worker born to Hungarian immigrants on their kitchen table in a rented house on the shores of Hamilton harbour. At a time when homes were patriarchal temples, Les Nagy created a true house of equality. Nagy recalls often hearing his father say, "Do what you think is best Bev." Needless to say, the younger Nagy developed the same sense of fairness and equity.

Nagy prefers the term actionist over activist because, "All it takes to be defined as an activist is to write a letter or contact your MP or simply ask for better heath care. But, over the decades the term has too often become associated with negative connotations."

Nagy has been involved in ecological issues since the 1980s. But, his focus turned to water in 2002 due to the hypocrisy of water use in the town of Elora. At that time, the residents were experiencing water shortages during drought conditions. Yet, the provincial and local governments were championing the development of the Grand River Raceway which combined horse racing and slots and placed excessive demands on Centre Wellington's water supply.

In 2007, the Wellington Water Watchers (WWW) formed and Nagy immediately joined. His water actionism expanded in 2008 when he ran again in a byelection for the federal Green Party in Guelph, Ontario. Nagy was on track to victory, which helped prompt then prime minister Harper to prorogue government a mere 24 hours before the scheduled vote, forcing a general election and thereby eliminating the byelection.

Nagy returned once again to tackling water issues and eventually became the spokesperson and face of the WWW. This will be Nagy's last year as chair. During that time, he would like to see a sizeable push from Ontarians during the upcoming provincial election.

The WWW program, Water for Life Not Profit, places pressure on Premier Wynne to make water an election issue. To date the Green Party is on side; the Liberals have undertaken new regulations but have not committed to the phase out, the NDP has partially supported the directive of the program and the Conservatives have yet to declare their stance.

As Nagy sees it, "Bottled water is a symbol of water inequality not luxury. This includes First Nations reserves where water contamination is commonplace. Yet, instead of timely fixes to the problems with equipment and training, bottled water has become institutionalized in too many cases. But, really the question all Canadians should be asking is, why is the water contaminated in the first place?"

March 22 is World Water Day. Celebrate by endorsing the WWW's Water for Life, Not Profit program. Then, download the MPP action kit and ask your MPP to endorse the program. While you're at it, print and sign the letter for Premier Wynne and be sure to add your own personal comments.

For more information or to volunteer with WWW go to their website.

This article originally appeared in The Anvil newspaper's Water for Life, Not Profit edition available throughout the GTHA during the month of March.

Photo: Viv Lynch/flickr

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