September 10, 2016 OURWINDSOR.CA
For some they mean the beach. For others they mean work. They can be a draw for tourists, but are often just a backdrop for locals.
If you are an environmentalist, you might see them as a living, breathing thing in need of protection, but ask the average high school student and they’ll roll their eyes like they would for any five-point answer on a geography test.
On their own, they are Ontario, Superior, Huron, Erie and Michigan. Together they are the Great Lakes.
You can see them from space, but now a group of prominent Ontarians, helped along by the province’s lieutenant-governor, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, is looking to put them on the map — so to speak — with a campaign to brand the importance of the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem onto peoples’ hearts and minds.
“Why not? The Amazon rainforest is the lungs of the planet. Why can’t the Great Lakes be the heart and arteries of North America, or something like that?” said Douglas Wright, who is leading the initiative that will be unveiled next month at the Great Lakes Public Forum in Toronto.
It has been dubbed “Greatness — The Great Lakes Project” and the idea is deceptively simple: create a marketing campaign to embed the lake system deeper into the public consciousness. To get people thinking not only about the environmental threats and challenges, but also about the potential lapping at the shores of communities as diverse as Toronto, Thunder Bay, Toledo and Tobermory.
In practice, it is a potentially staggering task to harness attention, support and donations from among more than 35 million people who live in Ontario and the eight American states that make up the Great Lakes Watershed.
The campaign seeks to create a sort of umbrella brand for the lakes that can be harnessed to influence decision makers, raise awareness to emerging risks, attract tourists, immigrants and industry as well as encourage scientific study and innovation.
“As far as I can tell there is no common brand to attach to. This is not about taking over or subsuming the work of others. It’s about helping the work of others and giving a common theme,” said Wright. “We’re basically giving this brand away.”
Scott Thornley, a Toronto advertising executive and fiction writer who is working on the campaign, said he had his own Great Lakes revelation back in 1974.
“The whole idea of ‘Great’ never really meant anything,” said Thornley, a Hamilton native.
“It was a Japanese photographer whom I met in the early 1970s who said he came from Osaka because he’d studied maps of Ontario and seen these incredible lakes and saw that they were called the Great Lakes—and he really believed it . . . For me, that was an incredible eye-opener.”
The dilemma remains the same all these years later, Thornley said.
“The largest lake system in the world goes mainly invisible to those of us who’ve been born and grown up around it. We use them for what we use them for, whether it’s pleasure or resources, but we’re not really as awestruck as a visitor would be.”
As evidence, he points to the popularity of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s photographs from space, some of which put into stunning perspective how tiny we are compared to the bodies of water at our shorelines.
“(Hadfield) has a place on a lake,” Thornley said. “He knows the power of what that image-taking would mean because he got to see it.”
The committee that has been formed to work on this project over the last year includes photographer Edward Burtynsky, who is famed for his large-format images of industrialization, Olympic paddler and four-time medal winner Adam van Koeverden, Henry Lickers, the environmental science officer for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne and underwater explorer Dr. Joe MacInnis.
There are also representatives of academia, industry and non-governmental organizations, such as Karen Kun of Waterlution, a group that promotes sustainable water use.
Ultimately, the committee would like to raise funds for a Great Lakes Centre to promote sound water management and act as a repository for information as well as an international hub for what they see as a global treasure.
“The Great Lakes region three or four years ago was evaluated as the world’s third-largest economy . . . That’s dependent on the health of the lakes and the health and vitality of the people who live around the lakes,” said former Toronto mayor David Miller, who is the Canadian President of the World Wildlife Fund.
“If we don’t pay attention to them and nurture them we could have pretty serious consequences for people and for nature.”
That’s the business case, but the campaign aims to appeal to people on an emotional level. That is how the environmental bug was planted with Miller, who was born in England and moved as a child to Canada.
“I first got interested in the Great Lakes because of the film Paddle to the Sea which I saw in school,” he said, referring to the 1966 Bill Mason film about a native boy who makes a carving of a man in a canoe and sends it on an epic journey from Lake Superior out to the sea.
“The fact that I saw the film that was drawing attention to the ecological health of the Great Lakes and that had an impact on me and my life and indirectly on others — I think that is the kind of impact this group is hoping to have.”
Eight years ago, former television broadcaster Valerie Pringle pitched an ambitious three-or-four-hour documentary on the subject, seeing in the lakes grand tales of history, entrepreneurship, ecology and culture. But she found no takers either with the national broadcaster, CBC, the provincial broadcaster, TVO, or two American networks.
“It was always heartbreaking to me that I never got to do this,” said Pringle, who has a home in Niagara-on-the-Lake and admits to occasionally pinching herself on waterfront walks or bicycle rides.
Her involvement on the committee may be a way to focus people’s attention in the way that her stillborn documentary on the Great Lakes never got the chance to do.
“We’re all blinded by how spectacular this is — sometimes in Toronto by the condo buildings — and you can forget you live on a lake,” she said.
“We are lake people . . . It is our history. It’s why we’re here and it is the crucible of the environment. If we can’t look after this, then God help us.”