The Gord Edgar Downie Pier opened to the public in Kingston in 2018. This unique swimming pier was part of a multi-million dollar restoration project at Breakwater Park spearheaded by the City of Kingston. Lake Ontario Waterkeeper’s parent organization, Swim Drink Fish, worked with The W. Garfield Weston Foundation to secure funds to support the creation of the pier and protect the shoreline.
Rob Baker, guitarist with The Tragically Hip and Kingstonian, helped us create a video to promote public safety at this incredibly popular swimming spot. In this interview, Waterkeeper Mark Mattson tells how the video came to be.
Q: Why did Swim Drink Fish create the video?
MM: We strive to connect people to water in order to build a strong community of people working for swimmable, drinkable, fishable water. This is a change from the way things used to be on Lake Ontario.
For generations, most of our urban waters were dotted with “No Swimming” signs. As more people, especially young people, come back to the water, it’s important we remind ourselves how to safely interact with wild waters.
We want to help people avoid injury and promote a culture of respect for water. So that’s why we decided to work on this video for the Gord Edgar Downie Pier.
Q: How did Rob Baker of The Tragically Hip get involved?
MM: I spent a great deal of my youth and university years in Kingston. The Tragically Hip were a a big part of our community back then. Even after their fame grew, the band supported many local causes. When we launched Waterkeeper in Kingston 2001, the band supported our efforts and backed us during some critical cases and moments in the movement’s growth.
When Jennifer Baichwal, one of Swim Drink Fish’s Board members suggested we ask Rob to narrate, it was a no brainer. She and her partner Nick had filmed the last Hip concerts across Canada for the Long Time Running documentary. She knew that this was Rob’s home, the Pier is in his backyard, and he has a perfect voice for narrating the message.
We were so happy when he said he’d help. And as you can tell from the video, he took the idea and made it very personal.
Q: Who produced the video?
MM: Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier from Mercury Films. They’re the brilliant team behind some of the best documentaries in recent memory, including Anthropocene launching in the U.S. later this month. Their collaborations with Edward Burtynsky on Anthropocene, Watermark, and Manufactured Landscapes all highlight our connection with water and nature in different ways. That’s why they were among the first ever Swim Drink Fish Ambassadors.
Q: What are the safety messages you want people to take away from the video?
MM: Always check water quality. People argue about whether Lake Ontario is “safe” for swimming but the answer is that most of the time most beaches meet water quality standards. It’s not a question of “if” but “when”. Water quality can change like the weather, so people just need to know about tools like our Swim Guide app.
Even in the fall when government monitoring programs have ended for the season, you can get historical information. And, of course, in Kingston you have the benefit of real-time sewage spill alerts.
Second, never swim alone. Always assess your surroundings and always take swimming seriously. These are wild waters, so people should plan how they are going to get in and out of the water.
Never swim when you are drinking or under the influence. It’s irresponsible and jeopardizes the safety of this place for everyone.
A key message is to respect the Pier, make it yours and treat it with care. That’s why we encourage people to share their experiences. This is one of the greatest things about living near Lake Ontario.
Q: What other lesson do you want people to take away from this?
MM: We often feel hopeless when we read about the environmental loss and threats to our natural world. An empowering place to start is by focusing on the issues in your community. Recreational waters in our urban centres and rural communities can be a gateway to building the knowledge and energy that you need to tackle big, complex problems.
And on a practical level, we want to recognize that it takes a big community of people working for swimmable drinkable fishable water to create change. It doesn’t happen by accident.
In Kingston it took many years to build support for improving infrastructure, transparency and investing again in the lake. It took citizens going back to Janet Fletcher and even before her. And now there are people like Su Sheedy, David McDonald, Sarah Harmer, Annie Clifford and so many more. It takes government leaders, foundations and financial investors like our supporters at The W. Garfield Weston Foundation. It takes designers with vision like Claude Cormier and his team. And of course it takes youth and the people who show their desire to be engaged again with the water. All of those things need to come together to restore and protect the places we love.