Keeping the Great in the Great Lakes

By MPP Toby Barrett

My proposed Great Lakes Protection and Promotion Act, 2019, (Bill 166) passed second reading last week and I am excited for its prospects in promoting sustainable, environmentally sensitive economic growth  while continuing to protect the Great Lakes ecosystem. 

The Great Lakes are 20 per cent of the world’s surface freshwater – providing drinking water for 80 per cent of Ontarians and, life support for 4,000 species of plants, fish, and wildlife. 

On the commerce front, North America’s Great Lakes combined would comprise a $6 trillion USD economy –third largest in the world.  There is $278 billion in US/Canada trade and $86 billion exports to adjacent lake states.

In short, the potential is as impressive as the Great Lakes themselves.

The proposed legislation is built to develop a framework and an action plan to serve as a model for any, and all, interested agencies, jurisdictions, communities or governments around the Great Lakes with respect to promoting tourism, recreational and other sustainable economic activities.

At the same time, this framework will protect the pristine environment, the ecological diversity and the scenic, cultural and historical beauty of our Great Lakes.

Speaking of history, many can recall when the health of the lakes was anything but “Great.”  I was saddened in the 1970s when experts declared Lake Erie dead. I always reiterated this news to my students in the environmental science high school classes I was teaching at the time.  One of my colleagues recalls seeing, in the ‘70s, hundreds of dead fish floating in Lake Ontario on repeated occasions visiting Ontario Place.

Thankfully, the lakes have come a long way through binational environmental agreements forged during those dark days.  But there’s still work to do and vigilance to be maintained.

On the day the legislature debated my bill, I was heartened to experience the passion felt toward the Great Lakes from my colleagues on both sides of the chamber.  Members spoke with real affection about what the lakes mean to them and their constituents. 

I heard about so many aspects of the region that should be promoted more aggressively: the beauty of the Trent-Severn Waterway with all its cycling, culinary, fishing, arts and culture; Prince Edward County’s wine region; Ganaraska Forest, Lake Superior lighthouse associations and life-sustaining wetlands; the Amazing Places project in the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve; the Island Queen Cruise taking visitors on explorations of Georgian Bay’s 30,000 islands; and, even the revitalization of cities like Buffalo and Detroit.

These are but a taste of what the Great Lakes can be.  A feast awaits better promotion and, along with it, protection.

I have worked promoting my proposal – meeting with political, environmental, and business stakeholders. E-mails have been sent to municipalities around all five lakes. Interested parties have been quite pleased with the intent of the bill. 

Skeptics out there will be glad to know that everyone I contacted wants tourism and economic promotion, but also protection.  The health of the economy is hinged on the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem.

I’ll close with a quote from a support letter from Environmental Defence:  “Bill 166 offers an opportunity to invest in the ecological health of our Great Lakes coast line to not only support a thriving Great Lakes ecosystem, but a thriving economy as well.”

Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk