The text below is lifted verbatim from Krystyn Tully's keynote address at the "Lake Ontario, Our Future to Shape" conference on October 24, 2017.
You can tell a lot about a society by the state of its water. Is the community prosperous? Is there equality? How are decisions being made? How is the economy doing? How about culture and social life? What will the future hold?
The answers are all there, in the water.
Today we are talking about Lake Ontario.
Did you know that more people in Canada live in the Lake Ontario watershed than in any other watershed? There is no single body of water more relevant to the physical, social, and economic well-being of this country.
You would think that Lake Ontario would be treasured and protected.
We’ll come back to that.
We have a saying at Swim Drink Fish Canada- somewhere, some waterbody is part of who you are. We call that your “Watermark”. Everyone has one. Everyone’s is unique.
There’s usually a story about that waterbody, a memory or a moment. Knowing someone’s story tells you a lot about them.
So let me tell you mine.
My Watermark is Lake Ontario.
I grew up in Oshawa. I lived one kilometre from Lake Ontario. I could see it on my way to school, every day, a blue ribbon at the end of Cedar Street.
I lived within sight of one of the largest bodies of freshwater on the planet—and I never went swimming. I thought the lake was a dirty lake. That swimming outside was for rich people with cottages, something you did when you were “away”. We didn’t own canoes. We weren’t surfing. At “home”, the water smelled of dead fish and decay.
Mine is not the traditional tale of the environmentalist, captivated by nature at a young age and raised by forests and streams and friendly wolves.
My story isn’t even about swimming in sewage or getting a rash. I didn’t see closed beaches. I didn’t get sick. I didn’t go to the water at all.
I am part of the first generation of people to grow up beside Lake Ontario—one of the largest bodies of freshwater on the planet—without knowing what it is like to swim, drink, or fish. I would also like to be part of the last.
How does someone with no connection to water end up dedicating her life to water?
The year I finished university, seven people died and 2,000 people got sick in a small town in southwestern Ontario. E. coli bacteria in their tap water tore families apart and changed the way many of us think about water forever.
Fresh out of school, I ended up working as a researcher for an organization involved in the government inquiry into the water tragedy. By studying the tragedy and the events leading up to it, I saw how even the smallest actions can make a difference—for better or for worse, the choices we make today shape the world that people live in tomorrow.
To be clear, I wasn’t qualified for this work. My degree was in radio and televisions arts. But I cared, and I was willing to work hard, and I took the time to try to learn everything I could from the experience. In the process, I learned the lesson I shared with you a few minutes ago: you can tell a lot about a society by the state of its water.
So what does Lake Ontario say about us?
Not good things, I’m afraid. Lake Ontario shows that we have been short-sighted. In the last two centuries, the most common way to “manage” a wetland was to pave it over and build on it.
Now, 90% of the coastal wetlands in this region are gone and we are spending millions of dollars to repair the damage. Only in the eleventh hour do many people see how important wetlands are to fish and birds, to water filtration, to quality of life in our neighbourhoods, and to flood management.
What else does Lake Ontario say about us? It says we have injustice in our society. If you map pollution hotspots, for example, you quickly see that neighbourhoods with most water problems are also often neighbourhoods with the least political and economic clout.
Anyone who looks can see that every person in every part of Canada does not enjoy equal access to clean water. The chronic drinking water quality and fish contamination issues affecting First Nations communities are prime example of pervasive inequality.
Lake Ontario also says that our options for connecting with water are declining. There are half as many official public beaches in Toronto today as there were the day you were born. Think about that. When it comes to accessing Lake Ontario, you have half as many options as students before you.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
We started Swim Drink Fish Canada and the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper program for two reasons. First, we did not like what the state of our water—Lake Ontario—said about us.
Second, because ordinary people—students, lawyers, storytellers, artists—have the power to change the future.
The choices people made
When it comes to the state of our water, very little happens by accident.
You are learning about wetlands and fish today. Lake Ontario was once the most important habitat in the world for the eel. Half of all the biomass in the lake was American eel. Then people built dams and barriers. We cut off the eel’s migratory routes. Now the eel is endangered. It happened in a single generation, the blink of an eye from the lake’s point of view.
You are learning today about microplastics pollution. When you do, remember that people built the sewage pipes that connect your home to the lake and carry microplastics into the water. People invented plastics. There’s no mystery there.
If you look behind any current water issue, you will find a series of choices people made leading up to this moment in time.
Once you see the pattern, it can feel overwhelming.
It is also empowering.
Because once you see how the choices other people made shaped the world that you live in, then you start to see how the choices you make will shape your community’s future. Things don’t have to be this way. Lake Ontario is in your hands.
So what are you going to do about it?
The most important thing you can do is choose, each and every day, to restore and protect the water around you. To make things better. Yes, there are centuries of loss and harm behind us. But this could be the dawn of a new era of restoration.
There are problems in the lake, yes, but there is also inspiration. With the help of the Weston family, we are helping Ontario Streams protect redside dace habitat. This little minnow has a red stripe down its side. It is the only fish of its kind that eats flying insects. It lurks in the water, sees a fly, and leaps into the air to catch it. It is magic to see it.
Go to any popular beach on the weekend in summer. You see families spending time together. Look at the smile on the face of a child walking into the lake for the very first time. There is nothing quite like it.
Paddle a river like the Humber River. As you pull through the water you will feel the act of navigation, how it connects you to traditions that date back more than a thousand years.
Nature. Family. Freedom. When we protect water, we protect the things that are most important to us.
You should know that every time we as a society have made a concerted effort to protect water, we have made progress. When we passed - and enforced laws in the 80s, things got better. When we invested in restoration, things get better.
Your generation doesn’t have to be defined by loss. You can be all about restoration.
If you want it.
What’s standing in our way?
People often ask me what’s standing in the way of swimmable, drinkable, fishable water. They’re expecting me to name a threat, like sewage pollution or invasive species or pipelines.
But that’s not it.
And it’s not that people don’t care, either. People in Canada and on the Great Lakes consistently say that water is our most precious resource, part of our identity. But when you compare Canada to other developed nations, we rank near the bottom of most key environmental measures.
If awareness isn’t the problem, what is?
Would you believe me if I said it is a lack of imagination?
Because it’s the truth. We care about water. We believe our waters are threatened. We just aren't dreaming big enough. Yet.
It’s not our fault, exactly.
We are victims of this thing that scientists call “shifting baseline”. Many people have lived in polluted or vulnerable communities for so long that they have come to see pollution and loss as “normal”.
Think about me growing up in Oshawa. I wasn’t upset about my polluted beach. It never occurred to me that things could be any other way. That was my baseline, and I accepted it.
The problem with shifting baselines is that we become a society that tolerates sickness and inequality. We teach our kids that the “good life” isn’t for everyone.
That has consequences. On the national Index of Wellbeing, there are only two measures in the last 20 years where Canadian quality of life have declined: the environment, and leisure and culture. If we can restore our waters, we can reverse that decline.
How will we turn it around?
The biggest game-changer for water and nature is communications technology. Specifically, the web and mobile devices.
Each of you has a tool in your pocket that can do more for water than my entire organization could back in 2001.
One of the biggest threats to water quality on Lake Ontario is sewage pollution. For decades, cities downplayed the problem. They lulled people into thinking that it is “normal” to see condoms and needles floating around on the lake. They let people think that the sewage problems of the 50s and 60s had been solved. It’s no wonder, then, that residents didn’t want to pay more for water treatment; cities found themselves starved for the cash they need to properly capture and treat sewage. Meanwhile, people are getting sick because they are swimming or boating in contaminated water.
Now along comes the City of Kingston with a new website you can go to. They installed monitors right there inside their sewage pipes. And you can see in real-time when sewage is overflowing into the lake. That means people who are swimming or boating can stay clear of the contaminated areas. And city residents for the first time can see for themselves where and how often sewage flows into their lake. Their water bills start to make sense.
When you can see the problem, you can solve the problem.
Our Swim Guide app is a beach information service. It helps you find a beach and it tells you the latest water quality results. But Swim Guide’s real power is in the way it democratizes watershed protection. Remember when I said that there were half as many beaches in Toronto today? Swim Guide gives citizens the ability to share water quality information about their favourite beach or boat club. You don’t need to wait for government to test the water anymore. You can do it yourself. That was impossible a decade ago.
Pollution reporting is another way that smartphones are changing the environmental movement. We used to have to pay staff people to be our eyes and ears on the water and equip them with expensive GPS devices and cameras. That meant that we could only be in one place at a time. Now, volunteers can do what they love—spend time on the water—and submit photos and pollution reports back to our office for follow up. We can be in more places, helping more people, more often. It’s better for the community, better for the lake.
This kind of pollution reporting has a huge impact. It was sailors who first brought attention to the global plastics pollution problem. They noticed changes in the ocean and reported it. Scientists caught wind of the problem, studied it, and now there is a global movement of people working to solve the fastest growing pollution issue of our time.
Technology helps us fight back against shifting baseline syndrome. My good friend Gord Downie used to say, “If you can remember it, you can protect it.”
If we can remember our waterbodies, we can protect them. We use smartphones and webforms to capture people’s water stories and we put them in our Watermark archive. We’re creating a living, ever-growing document of our relationship with water.
In a few years time, it will be impossible to forget what water means to us. And we’ll be able to understand how that relationship is changing over time. We’re making a new baseline.
The knowledge and perspectives that Cat Criger (Traditional Indigenous Elder, University of Toronto) and Kyl Morrison(Credit River Metis Council) offer to you today do the same thing. They improve your understanding of what the watershed means. What it once was. And what it could be.
Carolyn O’Neill, the next speaker, has been a champion of the Great Lakes within the government of Ontario. I have the privilege of working with her on a new project called Great Lakes Guide. When it launches next year, this new web platform will connect millions of people the Great Lakes.
Like Swim Guide, it helps you find places where you can access the water. Like Watermark Project, it allows you to share your own reviews and testimonials about the lakes. And it will highlight traditional languages, culture, and territory information to make it easier for everyone in Ontario to become more informed about Indigenous knowledge and perspectives.
I truly believe that ambitious projects like Great Lakes Guide show how technology can help to protect our waterbodies. Not because the technology itself makes a difference. But because it allows people to connect: with water, with knowledge, and with each other. And when people are informed and active, good things happen.
What do you want Lake Ontario to say about you?
As you head off to the water today, I’d like you to do two things. First, think about Lake Ontario and the influence it has on your life. Is this your first day by the water? Your thousandth? How does the lake affect you, and how do you affect it? This is your Watermark.
Then I want you to imagine yourself ten years from now in that same spot. What do you want Lake Ontario to be like? Will the people who come after you be able to swim? Is their drinking water safe? Are there fish? What stories will they tell about the lake? That’s their Watermark.
The choices you make after today and every day for years to come will shape Lake Ontario. They will shape the lives of many, many people.
The only thing standing between the problems of today and a better tomorrow is your imagination.