Community Cases play a big part in Waterkeeper’s work for swimmable drinkable fishable water. This year, we’ve received more Pollution Reports than ever before. More community members are finding reasons to be engaged and involved. This is great news. But after pollution is reported, what happens next?
President and Waterkeeper Mark Mattson took time to talk about community cases and explain why they are so important for creating a future where we can all swim, drink, and fish.
Q: What is a community case?
MM: Unfortunately, the burden of ensuring the community’s safety is on the community. And this is often forgotten.
When a member of the community sees something concerning, takes notes and gathers evidence, then uses their evidence as proof – this is what we call a Community Case.
It’s not enough to have a story. The most crucial part in a community case is putting together evidence. You need proof.
Sometimes people report a bad smell coming from the water. But were people swimming in the area? When did this happen? Did you take pictures?
So many people send pictures of dead fish to the local media and they’re just setting themselves up for failure. When someone asks them, “When did this happen? What’s happening?” all they can say is, “I don’t know” because they haven’t gathered sufficient evidence.
Now, if someone doesn’t want to do what’s involved for a case, you can always report it by calling 1-800-268-6060. But you have to understand that the government might come down and look at the pipe and maybe fix the pipe. They are not obligated to find out who’s causing the problem or do an actual investigation. They won’t. That’s how it works. You have to offer reasonable probable grounds to believe an offence is being committed. To get an environmental investigation or any kind of process to look into who or what is causing pollution, you need proof.
But most people aren’t used to that. Generally speaking, people believe they can call someone and the problem will be dealt with. But that’s not the law. That’s not the process in Ontario. When you file a complaint, you will be asked Can you prove that it happened? If you look at the Environmental Bill of Rights’ Request for an Investigation it says, list all the evidence that supports your allegation. If you don’t have evidence, government can’t do anything. If a person wants to be a waterleader and create change, he or she has to recognize that.
The Port Hope Area Initiative, Environmental Hamilton’s Lynda Lukasik, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, and Fraser Riverkeeper are great examples of organizations that emerged when community members recognized the steps needed to make change. And there is a lot of work involved in taking a case from start to finish. These groups don’t have all of the resources to do all of the investigations for everyone. So what Waterkeeper does is find people who are leaders in the community and understand what it takes to actually make a difference.
Q: Can an untrained citizen really make a difference?
MM: An environmental case is no different than any other case. And when it comes to protecting your community, there’s no such thing as an “untrained citizen.” It’s all about being a good investigator. The citizen needs to collect good evidence – take informative notes and take telling photos. That’s all it takes. They don’t have to prosecute the case. Hopefully, if there’s good evidence the government can take the case on either as a result of the Environmental Bill of Rights’ Request for Investigation or by taking it directly to the Ministry of the Environment. But in order to get the ball rolling, the citizen needs to be a good investigator and gather good evidence.
Q: What responsibilities do citizens have to their community, especially in regard to environmental concerns? What’s their role? What kind of support can a person expect from Waterkeeper?
MM: With the recent changes to federal environmental laws, the burden is on the citizen and the community to ensure their water is swimmable, drinkable, fishable. This is a really important awareness issue. Once people are aware that the burden is upon them, they can choose whether or not they want to accept that burden and ensure their water is clean.
Waterkeeper encourages them and gives them advice on how to do a proper investigation. It’s not hard. And in some cases – when we’ve evaluated whether or not we have the resources, the capacity, and the time to do the job ourselves – at times we will. But if we’ve done it before, if there’s a clear path for others to follow, and if there are people in the community who can do it – that’s a much better option. They’re there, they live in the community, they’re directly affected, and it’s not something they need to be experts to do. So we encourage them to do it on their own and we provide them with the precedence, the steps, and the support to do it.
And really, that’s what we need at the end of the day. We need more water leaders – people who understand their connection to water, facts about the water, how the laws work – that’s ultimately what’s going to make a difference. One group can’t do it all. We need more and more water leaders. And this is a great opportunity for us to work with others.
Q: By asking the community to take on a case, is Waterkeeper refusing to help?
MM: We don’t refuse to help. We’re always there to provide the information that we have and the precedents. If a person is willing to take on a case, we’re willing to give advice.
At the end of the day, we’re ordinary citizens, too. We’re not the government. Our goal is to share what we have learned and to help inspire a larger community of water leaders. That’s really the most effective thing we can do.
Q: Why does Waterkeeper rely on community members?
MM: We’re trying to create community members who understand the environmental laws and their connection to water. That’s our whole job. That’s what water leaders are. That’s what the Watermark Project is about. That’s what Swim Guide is about.
We’re trying to reach out to community members and help them become water leaders in their own right. Because of the rollbacks to Canada’s environmental laws, we know that’s the only way we’re going to have swimmable, drinkable, fishable water. When we lost the Fisheries Act, the burden shifted. The Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Environmental Assessment Act are basically gone. We advised against those changes, but that’s the way things are now.
If we have more leaders in more communities who understand the rules, more communities will get involved. That means people have to have their own story, understand what lives in their watershed, participate, they’re out there experiencing their watershed, they understand where their drinking water comes from, they understand the laws and know how to use them, then they can make a commitment to their watershed.
That’s what a water leader is. And that’s what we try to inspire.
Q: Waterkeeper’s most recent success regarding Toronto’s wet weather water quality notifications got a lot of attention. What’s your advice for those who suspect something similar is happening in their communities?
MM: You have to be able to establish the proof. That’s why, here in Toronto, this sewage case is so important. Because now the City has to tell us when they release sewage and I no longer have to argue with people whether or not it’s true. Now we can move forward.
Other people concerned about other communities will need to do the same. They can say they have swimmers who swim on their waterfront. They can say they’ve seen people swim on their waterfront. But they have to prove it.
We often “know” people swim in the water. We “know” there’s fish in the river. But that’s not evidence. In the Petitcodiac River, the salmon disappeared when they built the causeway. I asked 70 year old fishermen to file affidavits to say there were salmon in the river. Everyone knew there was salmon in the river and they all died as a result of the causeway but that doesn’t matter. It’s not evidence. With the affidavits, there was proof. There were real names, real people, real stories. They were there.
Evidence is incredibly valuable. Evidence can be independently, objectively verified. It’s fact.
That’s what people have to understand.
Do you want to start a community case? Great. Start collecting evidence. Make sure you keep quality notes. Will it work? Yes. It’s never failed us. We’ve never put together a case, or with any community, that hasn’t resulted in change for the better. It works, but it also takes a lot of work. And if you need help, get in touch with us at Waterkeeper. We’ll always do what we can to talk you through the process.