07/31/2012 07:43 EDT | Updated 09/30/2012 05:12 EDT

No Matter Your Social Status, a Healthy Lake Ontario Belongs to You


My life changed when I was 23 years old. I went on an airplane for only the second time in my adult life -- to Pensacola, Florida -- and I met members of a unique watershed protection network known as "Waterkeeper Alliance."

For three days Waterkeepers taught me about water, law, democracy, pride and community. They told me stories about families plucking fish from North Carolina rivers, surfers swimming in waves in Southern California, commercial fishermen casting their nets on the Hudson River. They talked about all the different ways a community is bonded to its waters.

As the Waterkeepers spoke, I realized how different my life in Southern Ontario had been from theirs. I spent my childhood in just minutes away from Lake Ontario, but I never went swimming outside of a pool. I never caught fish, had never even been in a canoe. I thought Lake Ontario was a "dirty" lake and that it was supposed to be that way. I never questioned it.

When I returned to Toronto, I helped Mark Mattson build Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, an organization dedicated to a Lake Ontario where every person can safely swim, drink, and fish.

Our first and greatest challenge has been the simplest: reminding people that they have a right to safely swim, drink and fish in this great lake. We celebrate people who are using those rights. We also defend those people who have been living without access to a healthy, vibrant Lake Ontario.

Our rules are simple: It should never matter how polluted your community already is. It should never matter what kind of economic clout you wield. It should never matter how many political allies you have. Lake Ontario is yours, too.

One of my passions is beach protection. On its surface, the "beach" issue may not seem as serious as mercury contamination or drinking water shortages. Swimming might seem like a luxury, not a necessity. The truth is, healthy beaches are hallmarks of a healthy environment and an engaged community. It is too easy to "solve" the beach problem by sticking up No Swimming signs and hoping people stay away. It is too easy to accept that sewage pollution in our lake is a normal state of affairs.

Each year, 22-million Canadians will swim at one of our nation's beaches or swimming holes. Roughly 100,000 people will contract some kind of waterborne illness or rash because of bacteria pollution from sewage and stormwater. I think we can do better.

People who agree with me -- people who think that every Canadian can and should have access to clean water -- have a tough battle ahead. Each and every day we compete against the lobbyists and spin doctors who tell government, industry leaders, and citizens that our options are limited and that our powers are few, that high levels of pollution and an infringement on Canadians' ability to enjoy their own communities is inevitable.

I disagree. I've heard too often about about impoverished communities who settle for pollution because they believe that they can't achieve better. Worst of all, I hear about people who (like me once), don't even realize that "better" is an option.

Waterkeeper is all about restoring and defending clean water and a healthy environment for every person, wherever they live. We work with scientists, law students, lawyers, and volunteers. We don't lobby and we don't posture to get onto the front pages of the newspapers. Instead, we fight for forums where every party is equal. Where money and political influence are less important. And where victories set precedents that give future generations more options.

There is a small part of the work that is self-serving. I am tired of pollution. I am tired of hearing about long-ago days when amazing species of fish and animals lived in our lake. I want to live in a community where each and every one of my neighbours has the same rights as me. Mostly, Waterkeepers do the work that we do to help people like you -- so you can turn on your tap, catch a fish, or plunge into the lake without fear.