Review: The Muskoka Freshwater Summit

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With its 900 lakes and a strong local watershed council, Bracebridge, Ont., was a great location for The Muskoka Freshwater Summit, held on June 1 and 2.

Over coffee and a muffin, I spoke with a kind-eyed, silver-haired woman, Barbara Power, a member of Grandmothers to Grandmothers. Her eyes twinkled as she told me about picketing Mike Harris and Walkerton in 2000 but her grew dark when I asked why she was at the summit. "I'm very worried about the future and concerned about what my granddaughter will inherit."

I sensed a lot of angst in the auditorium among the sold-out crowd of 300, preceding the opening remarks. This was momentarily put aside by the beautiful "Blessing of the Water" ceremony conducted by Nancy Noganosh of the Magnetawan First Nation. Next, Henry Lickers, of the Seneca Nation, a member of the Turtle Clan, put us at ease with a few stories, meant to teach as well as provide humour.

"I learned that thunderstorms, like the one here in Bracebridge last night are meant as a sign. Our grandfather's are grumbling. It means that, today, we must be vigilant." He also remembered he was taught that, "We should keep things under the earth that should stay there." He went on to explain the shameful statistic; only one in six children, on reserves, has access to clean drinking water and some reserves have had a boil-water advisory for over a decade.

I began to soon feel uneasy watching the pictures and charts of Canada's fresh water situation, from the "before and after" images, courtesy of the next speakers, Professors John Smol of Queen's University, Norm Yan of York University, and David Schindler of the University of Alberta.

A metaphor explained by Dr. Smol, that of two cars sitting in the sun for a day, put into perspective Canada's situation. "Imagine placing your hand on the white car then on the black." In terms of our northern hemisphere, the cooler white is quickly turning into the hot black due to the increasing loss of the ice cover.

By the time Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians spoke of the worldwide threat to fresh water due to industrial greed, despair now began to sit heavy with me.

"We should be aware," she said, "that the Harper government [groans from the audience] seems inclined to promote a market model for water that may put Canada on a course that privatizes our water supply and even open it up to foreign ownership." We already have investment rights under NAFTA that threatens our water's sovereignty.

Before his talk began, it was announced by the summit moderator, David Pearson, that Gord Miller, who has been Ontario's Environment Commissioner since 2000 has just be reappointed for another term. This brought whoops and cheers from some in the audience. Hailed as an "independent environmental watchdog" Miller used plain language to explain that there are many disconnects between people and the earth, more so now than ever with the country's increased urbanization and, "especially with your average city kid".

Telling a story how when he decided one day that a good school project for kids would be to plant some trees; he gave them shovels and told them to dig a hole. After hearing screams he ran over, "I thought one of them had cut off a toe or something." It turns out that they had dug up some worms and were shouting in awe of them wriggling in the ground. From his viewpoint, that of fishing as a kid in Timmins, he stated sadly, "This level of detachment is not good. We need to get young people on the water -- in the water, reattach them to the gifts of water -- bond them."

Questions from the audience were asked during the panel. The audience was comprised of members of cottager associations, politicians, PhD students in the science fields but also like-minded members of the general public. A feeling of camaraderie enveloped me. There was laughter when someone quipped how there were no protesters at this summit and unlike the G8 and G20 not one penny was spent on security.

A parallel Youth Summit was run by local high schools, supported by Nipissing and Laurentian Universities. They were connected via a live feed and they sent over a question for each speaker. Answering a tough one, "What threat is worse, Climate Change or World Population Growth?"

According to Professor Yan, "Population Growth."

Many of the speakers mentioned Canada's embarrassing carbon footprint with regards to our Tar Sands. Professor Schindler talked about the snowpack next to the Athabasca River, that when studied, revealed large quantities of chemicals such as PAH's and wondered aloud why the Minister of the Environment is not doing anything about it?

Schindler said, "This is in direct contravention of the Fisheries Act, Section 36 (3)." Later, Professor Smol mentioned to in an interview that a snow pack also contains contaminants from other sources, due to the proliferation in recent years of motorized recreational vehicles. He suggests that, "Next time you want to go outdoors, think about cross country skiing or snowshoeing or just walking, instead of a snowmobile or an ATV."

Some statistics from the Freshwater Summit stick. According to a Nanos Poll, in 2009 almost 70 per cent of Canadians put fresh water at the top of the list of environmental importance and view water pollution as the biggest threat. But, all panellists agreed that things have changed in the Canadian mindset. Unlike other polls to date and despite whether the economic picture is up or down, recent figures show that "concern about the state of the environment" remains high on the list. Canadians now see a healthy environment as being integrated with the economy.

Ironically, while the majority of Canadians are concerned about the state of Planet Earth and our precious fresh water, Gord Miller pointed out another disconnect, the one between the government and what the people want. When comparing figures in the federal budget, Gord Miller stated that, "out of every dollar spent on health care, 0.3 cents is spent on the environment. There is nothing left to cut. A point-three is a rounding out area in the health budget."

According to Barbara Power: "Water; quantity, quality and ownership are all in jeopardy."

Henry Lickers closed the summit with a Seneca prayer, patiently delivered and emotive. It moved several members of the audience to tears.

Highlights of the Muskoka Freshwater Summit highlights will be aired in a two-hour segment on the CBC Radio show Ideas with Paul Kennedy, on June 25th and 26th, during the G8 Summit.

It's called "Speaking Truth to Power" and it is just that.

A community-based policy position paper will be tabled over the next few weeks and sent to the government. It will be available to those that request it by e-mailing this address.

The Canadian Freshwater Summit takes place in Toronto on June 17.

Kathy Ashby lives in Muskoka. She is the author of the book, Carol ‘A Woman's Way', adult environmental fiction published by DreamCatcher NB.

 

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