Current Events: The Great Lakes Public Forum

AMY CHEN

For an assignment in Dr. Matt Price’s “Hacking History” class, students attended the 2016 Great Lakes Public Forum. The forum brought together stakeholders from Canada and the United States to discuss the restoration and protection of the Great Lakes.

After mayor John Tory led the opening reception, speakers such as Elizabeth Dowdeswell (Lieutenant Governor of Ontario), France Picotte (Chair of the Métis Nation of Ontario), and Bruce Heyman (United States Ambassador to Canada) discussed current strategies being used to assess, restore, and protect the Great Lakes in order to meet the commitments outlined by the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, as well as proposals for future priorities.

Nine indicators of health, along with their sub-indicators, were discussed throughout the first half of the forum. One indicator was the current state of the lakes’ shorelines, in which it was noted that shoreline hardening, a process which replaces natural shoreline with hard surfaces for structures, also protects surrounding environments from flooding and erosion. Another indicator was the presence of terrestrial invasive species, which can negatively affect the ecosystem and water quality.

Harmful algal blooms, nutrient transmission through groundwater, and toxic chemicals, such as  PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) and PCEs (perchloroethylenes) were described as having an overall negative effect on fish consumption, drinking water, and the usability of the beaches.

For me, what stood out was the discussion of fish consumption, drinking water, and the beaches, because these aspects are relevant to the majority of the population’s needs, questions, and concerns related to restoring and protecting the Great Lakes. Such aspects are also intimately tied to human health.

Several individuals emphasized concerns about drinking the lakewater, eating the fish, and swimming at various beaches.  But one of the most impactful statements was from a First Nations speaker, who commented, “It’s not just one community, it’s 63 percent of our communities who don’t have access to clean drinking water.” This concern truly highlighted the major problems Canada is facing when it comes to making sure everyone has access to clean drinking water.

Attendees of the public forum want to make sure that the fish citizens consume, the water they drink, and the water in which they swim are healthy and free from toxic chemicals. Attendees are taking action to restore and protect the Great Lakes through following the Water Resources Act, Lakes and Rivers Improvement Act, or Safe Drinking Water Act. However, outside of the forum, are the citizens living in affected communities, affected countries, and even indirectly affected countries and individuals involved in this action? How can attendees reach out to and involve more of those citizens who may not have a “direct stake” in the health of specific communities?

What makes Dr. Price’s course so interesting and important is that it provides students with an opportunity for experiential learning. Through his course, I learned so much about the importance of the Great Lakes, restoration projects that are currently underway, and the great need for additional policy changes.

It is also clear that additional public engagement is needed to create sustainable change. After attending the Forum, students were able to put their learning to use by starting a collaboration with Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, an organization that is working towards the access to clean water. Together, they will be creating a website with the aim of improving public engagement through clear information about the scientific processes at work and ways in which the public can become involved in community health.

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