What makes a great water leader? Do you need to be an environmentalist? A scientist? A politician?
After a busy month on the road listening to scores of great speakers, I’ve had a lot of time to think about this.
They can talk about water in a way that is central to who they are. And they connect.
In Rothesay, New Brunswick, Joseph shared stories of growing up in Georgian Bay boating and swimming with his family. He spoke of his time on the Moose River, paddling, fishing, and hunting. His stories from the north are real and deep. When he calls himself Canada’s Arctic "Waterkeeper," it’s easy to understand why.
In Toronto, Edward presented anecdotes from his time on Lake Ontario in St. Catharines. Growing up near the municipal beaches, he liked to carve drainage ditches in the sand. He fished for eels with his father off the pier and caught smelt by the nets-full.
Like Joseph, Edward's stories are deeply embedded in his memory. His words are strikingly honest. When Edward says Toronto is the freshwater capital of the Great Lakes and needs to start living up to its potential, people listen.
In powerful and relatable stories, these two artists revealed the imprints water has left on their lives. They captivated and inspired the audience. In each case, no one expected a presentation like this, one where we were invited in to discover that what shaped them and made them who they are. No one expected to be invited in to hear their "Watermarks."
The way in which Joseph and Edward can do this without losing their audience is rare. But the secret is simple. Joseph and Edward are authentic water leaders.
Like all great water leaders, Joseph and Edward talk about what they know and their experiences. They’re aware of the physical nature of their watersheds – the fish, the wildlife, and its human relationships. They have an interest in the rules that protect their watersheds. And they’re prepared to fully participate in the processes. Joseph even once went so far as to organize his own public inquiry when his government wouldn’t.
And the last step and most difficult step in becoming a water leader – they made powerful and personal commitments to their waterbodies. Joseph created Moose Riverkeeper and Edward is a Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Steward.
They are in good company.
Gord Downie is a water leader and a knowledgeable citizen of Lake Ontario. He fishes and swims in its waters. He knows the laws and participates in the legal processes that shape the future. Once a Waterkeeper Steward, Gord is now a Board Member for Lake Ontario Waterkeeper.
Sarah Harmer is a water leader and an expert on the Lake Ontario headwaters off Mount Nemo. She walks, hikes, swims, and sails around her local watershed. She knows the rules and participates in the formal processes as an intervenor shaping the future. Sarah’s also committed to PERL and supports many other organizations including Waterkeeper.
So how did they become great water leaders? Why do people listen?
Despite all being great artists, there’s much more to the power of their work than their notoriety. It’s their level of knowledge, experience, commitment, and leadership that resonate.
When water leaders talk about clean water, they’re speaking from personal experience. That’s why Waterkeeper is so inspired by artists. Artists know how to personalize our abstract values and desires.
These artists recognize that water didn’t only influence their art but shaped each one of them as a person. That awareness makes them powerful water leaders – true "Waterkeepers" – who imagine swimmable drinkable fishable water for everyone.