I’ve been an environmental lawyer for twenty years. I’ve represented business, government, and citizens. For more than a decade, I have dedicated my time to strengthening nonprofit environmental organizations.
In that time, I have been privileged to know some of the most effective water stewards on the planet. I have worked on my own campaigns for swimmable, drinkable, fishable water.
I have always believed that clean water depends on people, and that different people have different roles to play.
Now I think I know the secret to a clean water future.
Six qualities of a water leader
I have come to believe that there are six qualities that make an effective water leader. (We use the term “Waterkeeper”).
The qualities of a water leader don’t all appear at the once, or even in the same order. But they are present in everyone who embodies the Waterkeeper spirit.
A water leader knows their own water story (their “watermark”). They know about their watershed. They experience their watershed. They know the rules that protect watersheds. They are engaged in decision-making. And they make a true commitment to protecting what they love.
Why I believe knowing our Watermarks will transform Canada
When planning the first season of programming at the National Water Centre, I decided that the first quality - knowing your watermark - is the place I want to focus. It is crucial to a swimmable, drinkable, fishable future. And I believe that there is an urgent need to recognize, discuss, celebrate, and explore this area.
The truth is, some water body somewhere is part of who you are. It shaped you. You’ve shaped it. And when we do harm to our waterbodies, we do harm to ourselves.
There are not enough Canadians organized and encouraged to protect our cultural memory of water, which means that there are not enough Canadians organized and encouraged to protect themselves.
So this is where we have decided to focus.
The Watermark Project
The Watermark Project started in a darkened theatre in Saint John, New Brunswick in December 2013.
Filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and photographer Edward Burtynsky had just released Watermark, a groundbreaking documentary about the state of water.
The National Water Centre teamed up with the TIFF Film Circuit and RBC to host a screening in Saint John.
After the screening, an arts reporter asked the filmmakers this question: what is your most powerful memory of water?
It was transformative.
In the audience, musician Gord Downie and I listened to Jennifer, Nicholas, and Edward explore this question for the first time.
In that moment, they realized that Waterkeepers are not the only people with water stories; the subjects of the documentary are not the only people with water stories -- Everyone has a water story. Every one of those stories is different.
Those unique individual stories became known as “watermarks”.
The following May, Gord Downie hosted the Waterkeeper Gala in Toronto. He invited performers such as Feist, Sarah Harmer, Scott Thompson, and Wab Kinew to share their watermarks with the audience.
Again, it was transformative.
Each watermark was different. Each appealed to different guests in the room that night. After the gala ended, people phoned me to share their water stories. They emailed. To this day, they bring it up at barbeques, meetings, and in late-night conversations.
The National Water Centre’s first program will be the creation of a national archive for Canadians’ watermarks. Because Canadians need it.
With the first announcement of the “Watermark Project”, the National Water Centre is asserting that discovering, collecting and sharing watermarks is in our national interest. The Project aims to capture 35-million watermarks in the coming years (one for every Canadian).
This digital archive is the first step in formally chronicling the influence of water in our culture. The watermarks it contains will be of service to communities, academics, researchers, artists, and leaders for generations to come.