On November 13, 2014, our Swim Guide Coordinator Gabrielle Parent-Doliner gave a special presentation at the Oshawa Environmental Advisory Committee's event, Water For Life. Through Wallace's story, Gabrielle showed why it's so important to know your watermark.
Hi. My name is Gabi. I’m from Welland, Ontario. I grew up on the banks of the Welland Canal. I work for Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. We are a charity in pursuit of a swimmable, drinkable, fishable Lake Ontario. You may know us from your own work protecting the Oshawa Harbour, Second Marsh, or Harmony Creek.
In May 2000, seven people died after drinking tap water in Walkerton, Ontario. When lawyer Mark Mattson and researcher Krystyn Tully finished with the government inquiry, they were determined that no person should ever become ill after swimming, drinking, or fishing. So they started Waterkeeper, with Mark as president and Krystyn as the Vice President.
People come to us all the time and ask, “What can I do?” People like you–residents, teachers, retirees, students, people from the media, scientists, business people, artists–people from all walks of life care about water and want to know if they can help.
Our answer is yes, everyone can.
The people who make the biggest impact have similar qualities. These qualities don’t have to appear all at once. They don’t have to appear in the same order. But they are present in everyone who makes a difference. We call those people water leaders.
So, how do you become a water leader?
Let’s ask Wallace. Wallace is 40 years old. He grew up on the shores of the beautiful Lake Ontario. He passed the lake every day on his way to school. But Wallace’s parents would not let him swim in the lake. They said his skin would burn off and his eyes would fall out. He never forgot the fear his mom and dad had of what the water in the lake could do to him.
So Wallace didn’t swim in Lake Ontario. He lived his life with this untouchable lake looming as the backdrop of everything he did. He grew up, went to school, found a partner, found a job, went to work, went trick or treating with his kids, had barbecues with his friends, shovelled his driveway and took out the trash, everything right beside Lake Ontario.
One day he looked at the lake and as always he wished he could go for a swim. He called the Durham health unit and asked about the state of the Lake. He was pretty shocked to find out that his drinking water comes from Lake Ontario. He asked whether it was okay to swim at Lakeview Park. They said it was. Sometimes.
That fall when the salmon ran in Oshawa creek he walked over with his partner and watched them, wondering where the fish had come from and where they were going.
He sat with his kids’ geography homework and refreshed his memory on how the water moved through the Great Lakes, from the cold rivers north of Lake Superior to the point in the Saint Lawrence where it became salty when it mixes with the ocean.
Wallace realized he didn’t actually spend that much time in his watershed. So he started to make the effort to visit waterfront.
He went for walks with his dog along the creeks. On the weekends he brought his kids to marsh where they scouted for fish and crab and sharks and anything else they felt like imagining lived there.
In the summers Wallace and his family went to the beach at Lakeview Park. They swam and built sandcastles. They ate picnic lunches full of dusty sand.
Basically he and his family did all the things Wallace had always wanted to do when he was a kid but that he hadn’t been allowed to because of the poor quality of the water.
Several times a summer Wallace and his family saw warning signs go up advising them against swimming in the lake because they could get sick from bacteria and other contaminants. Those signs always ruined their day because everyone is his family, including his dog, loved to swim.
Not being able to swim because of the quality of the water was all too familiar to Wallace.
Wallace wondered where all the bacteria and pollution were coming from. Wallace wasn’t a lawyer but he knew that if you can’t swim, drink, or fish in the water then somewhere there is a rule being broken.
He started Google'ing laws and regulations that protect Lake Ontario. He consulted Swim Guide. He spoke with the local Health Unit.
There was a community meeting at city hall about storm water management. Wallace decided to attend to see what it was all about. At the meeting Wallace talked about what the lake meant to him and explained the impact the contaminated water was having on him and his family.
The main thing Wallace took away from the meeting was that he could be part of the administrative decisions being made about his lake.
He had a say on issues like access to the waterfront, industrial pollution, and contaminated runoff. Wallace showed up at more meetings, and continued to participate in the discussions and in the decision-making.
Driving home from work one day Wallace looked out the window at the lake he had passed thousands of times over the course of his life. As always his heart swelled at the sight of the water. And as always he wished he could swim in the lake without having to worry about getting sick. He decided that he would do something real to protect it, so that he and his kids did not have to fear and avoid the water the way his parents had.
Water Leaders like Wallace take the final step and dedicate their lives to working for their watershed. This may mean they work full-time for their watershed. They dedicate their volunteer hours as a board member. Or maybe they are an engaged donor.
In every case, their commitment to their watershed is unmistakable.
What did you notice about Wallace’s story?
No one told him what to do. No one recruited him. No one gave him permission to start caring about the lake and pursuing ways to make the water swimmable again. Wallace did it because, in his heart, he loved his lake. He was connected to it, and so he took action when an opportunity arose.
Where does all of this start, this motivation to be fully committed to protecting our waterways?
It all starts with your personal water story. Somewhere, some water body is part of each of us. It shaped us and it made us who we are. We call these unequivocal, unforgettable experiences with water your “watermark.”
It sounds like a simple first step, but finding your watermark is the foundation of everything that will empower you to protect water.
My watermark is on the Welland Canal, pretending the mangled water was full of life, animals, fish, mermaids.
It’s similar to Krystyn’s, who grew up here in Oshawa and started Waterkeeper partly to ensure future generations don’t see the same “no swimming” and “no fishing” signs that were part of the city’s landscape in the 1980s.
The people who do the most for their community, know and experience their watershed. They know the rules that protect water. They participate in decision-making. They commit themselves.
Most importantly, they are driven by a personal connection. They are driven by their watermark.
Every person has the potential to be an effective water leader. So let me leave you with something to think about when you go home tonight. What is your watermark?