"Every drop of this river is another good, good day"

Wednesday, August 19, 2020
An 8-ft long glass tile mosaic sturgeon is filled with various examples of plastic waste affixed onto cardboard scales

By Elaine Ho

Nothing about a river is straight, nor is its management straightforward. I quickly learned from my exploratory research, evaluating monitoring indicators in the Muskoka River Watershed, that the supposedly simple task of generating a list of environmental indicators for monitoring watershed health was more about social equity, communication, organizational capacity and partnerships, than it was about managing the watershed – at least at that stage in the monitoring program’s development. The question ‘what do we measure to understand watershed health’ quickly evolved into questions around whose definition of health was used, who decided what the priorities should be, why certain groups were not engaged, what the implications of exclusion might be, and how to rectify this exclusion. Essentially, the monitoring indicators workshop I spent weeks designing turned into a philosophical discussion largely about the community, not the watershed. As a result, the 14-year old watershed monitoring and reporting program was overhauled and redesigned to incorporate the interests and needs of the community. The new program (as of 2018) is one of the strongest examples of watershed reporting I have reviewed.

Water monitoring and management can be viewed as an endeavor to understand how our interactions with the water system affect the health of the aquatic ecosystem as much as it is about effects on the economic, cultural and biophysical health of our communities. The connection between healthy communities and healthy waterways was illustrated beautifully by two Indigenous elders in their talks to more than 400 water researchers from across Canada at the second Global Water Futures Annual Science Meet (May 2019). Roland Duquette (Skywalker), an elder of the Northern Plains Peoples from Wanuskewin (in Saskatchewan), and Regional Chief Bobby Cameron of Witchekan Lake First Nation (and Chief of Assembly of First Nations), both highlighted how mistreatment of water reflects our mistreatment of each other. Both elders shared teachings about respect for the water as the mother of the lands, animals and us – a shared origins story regardless of culture. As we are born of water in the womb, the elders shared that our disrespect of water can be reflected in the maltreatment of mothers and women in general. This was one example of the many deeply seeded connections between water and other facets of society we either take for granted or abandon to our subconscious.

While exploring these connections further, I began to view the Sustainable Development Goals as a potential framework for reconciling multiple scales of ecological, economic and social challenges that are somewhat distinct but entirely connected. For this reason, I engaged in co-authoring Generation SDG, a blueprint for Canada’s achievement of the Goals. Collaborating with people from across the country from all walks of life and from many cultures enriched my understanding of many issues and made the lack of true co-creation in my research a fatal issue in my mind. When it comes to designing a monitoring solution for managing the Grand River estuary at Lake Erie, I needed to ensure diverse perspectives drives the determination of monitoring priorities as well as the process by which stakeholders/rightsholders are engaged.

The need to engage with people in ways that are meaningful to them sparked a partnership with the Great Art for Great Lakes initiative, led by Waterlution. The 2019 program invited local artists to engage with members of the public in projects that developed a skill, shared information on the Grand River and (especially) Lake Erie, and created permanent, publicly accessible art installations in the community. For example, Rob Lamothe of Haldimand County and Logan Staats of Six Nations collaborated to write and perform a song for the water. They shared scientific information about Lake Erie and the Grand River at each of their workshops and facilitated discussion on our connections to water, how we are all neighbours living on the Grand, and that the river and the lake connect us, physically and emotionally. The creation of Song for the Water involved collaborative song writing workshops with 200 students and members of the public in Haldimand County, at Six Nations reserve, and with the neighboring Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. The title of this article takes a line from the song. The chorus reflects connections between humanity and the water:

We are the water,

We are the shore.

We are the calm,

We are the storm.

The wind on the weathervane,

We are a Hurricane.

My sons and my daughters,

We are the water…

My sons and my daughters,

We are the water…

Elsewhere, in the Port Dover Harbour Museum, an 8-ft long glass tile mosaic sturgeon is filled with various examples of plastic waste affixed onto cardboard scales. The idea to depict a sturgeon was inspired by my talk at the artist information session in Norfolk County, where lead artists Holly Anderson of Cleaning Up Norfolk and Suzanne Coverett Earls of Peaceful Arts met. I discussed the historical significance and presence of this prehistoric fish in the Grand River watershed. Although the Dunnville Dam prevents sturgeon from returning to the river today, it is a symbol of hope for systemic changes in the future that may restore the historic greatness of the Grand River/Lake Erie ecosystem. The final installation was created by more than 200 members of the public. Volunteers collected plastic pollution that washed up on the shore of Lake Erie, at the Long Point Biosphere Reserve. Buckets of plastic were washed, sorted (with unusable or unsafe waste disposed of appropriately) and glued onto a base shaped as a scale. The scales were placed within the outline of Lake Erie at the centre of the fish, symbolizing the plastics issue the lake faces.

The arts are being used in this research to reach populations that aren't conventionally engaged in current water management processes. The Great Art for Great Lakes workshops engaged with a thousand Canadian and Indigenous community members of all ages. A second partnership with Music for the Spirit & Indigenous Visual Arts – an after school program for young people at Six Nations of the Grand River – engaged Indigenous youth to create a traveling arts exhibit that demonstrates their relationships with water through photography, paintings, drawings and more. Over the next month we discussed engaging with youth in the program to share stories and artwork to local Canadian communities and to water managers while contributing to my research. From October 2019 until early March 2020, the youth worked hard creating their pieces. We organized a photojournalism workshop for interested youth and their family members and held a one-day art camp where the youth came together to create their pieces, share their progress, contribute to group artwork, and enjoy their peers. I also visited a few of the youth during regular program days to get to know them, build relationships with their parents (i.e., answer any questions), and to record the story of one youth whose preference was to share her story orally as would be tradition.

The Grand Expressions art exhibit was originally scheduled to rotate between nine events at eight venues across five cities over six months; however, due to closures resulting from COVID-19, the exhibit was launched only at its first location at The Carolinian Café. All venues shut down, so the exhibit was promptly converted to a virtual exhibit made available via the research website. The first version was launched on Monday March 2, 2020, followed by a second version on Monday August 3, 2020. This second version is viewable on a tablet on the third floor of THEMUSEUM in Kitchener until the end of January 2021.

Further reading:

  • Grand-Erie study website: granderiestudy.ca
  • Grand Expressions Virtual Tour: granderiestudy.ca/tour
  • Global Water Futures: gwf.usask.ca
  • Great Art for Great Lakes: greatnessglp.com/GAGL
  • Song for the Water (listen, embed, download): roblamothe.bandcamp.com/track/song-for-the-water
  • Ho, E. and Runnals, J. 2018. Blueprint: Generation SDG. Waterloo Global Science Initiative. Waterloo Global Science Initiative.
  • Ho, E. 2018. Criteria-based ranking (CBR): A comprehensive process for selecting and prioritizing monitoring indicators. MethodsX, 5: 1234-1329.
  • Ho, E., Eger, S., and Courtenay, S. 2018. Assessing current monitoring indicators and reporting for cumulative effects integration: A case study in Muskoka, Ontario, Canada. Ecological Indicators, 95: 862-876.