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Voices of Water: Mark Matson

Alexandra Cousteau interviews Lake Ontario's champion and defender, Mark Mattson, on reforging Toronto's ties to Lake Ontario

20101010 Toronto 5767 OD© Blue Legacy/Oscar Durand

Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Mark Mattson’s purpose in life is to protect Lake Ontario, the world's tenth largest lake. Mattson, an environmental lawyer, often describes himself as a little Lake Ontario walking around because he drinks its water, as do millions of Canadians.

During our time in Toronto we had been fortunate to bask in Mattson’s insights on several occasions, most recently the day we interviewed him as we sat on the concrete channelized banks of the Don River, where its abused waters meet Lake Ontario. Below us spawning Atlantic salmon swam upstream through the city’ of Toronto's flotsam, which pooled on the river surface. In front of a backdrop of highways and overpasses that framed the Don River, we talked about the city’s relationship to its watershed and its impact on this Great Lake.

What is the relationship between people here and their lake?

The science is that the Great Lakes are about 1% renewable. So what we’re putting in it today… that’s going to be there for the rest of our lives. Considering that I’m roughly 77% water, I’m a little Lake Ontario walking around.  I’m going to walk around with that in my body for the rest of my life.

How does Toronto fit into the picture of restoring the lake’s health?

I consider Toronto the biggest polluter on the lake. It’s just the sheer magnitude of the population. This is the biggest city in Canada and its growth has been exponential and its infrastructure hasn’t caught up with that.

As a leader on the great lakes it needs to ensure that it has the best sewage treatment. They also need to recognize the impact of storm water. It’s the forgotten killer of the lake. It’s such an incredibly abusive pollutant on the Great Lakes.

It’s really a killer of fish and it’s polluter of water and it shuts our beaches.

How are some of these issues here in Toronto’s urban environment similar to those that plague other cities? 

The one thing that distinguishes Toronto is that we do drink the great lakes and oftentimes people forget that. 40 million people drink from the great lakes and we don’t have an alternative supply.

I think the other issues are the same whether you’re in Australia, England or France or down in Brazil; you have to deal with sewage and you have to deal with runoff from the streets when it rains and you have to deal with pollution.

How you deal with that is a reflection of how civilized and truly responsible a community you are.

Why do people need to think know about their watershed?

To disconnect yourself, for example like the city of Toronto has, and to jeopardize the very fact that it provides you with drinking water, I think that somehow erodes that sense of well-being of a city. So in the short term it may save you money but in the long term without that privilege of living here on the great lakes Toronto might as well pack up and move somewhere else.

It’s a real tragedy that cities took rivers like the Don put them in pipes and buried them. So the privilege to have a river running through your city needs to be protected and not destroyed and hidden from the public eye.

What keeps you fighting for Lake Ontario? 

I know that human beings are incredibly creative and I think those creative abilities will allow us to rebuild, so I’m hopeful long term for this community.

My hope is that our knowledge, our creative people, our communities and social workers, public workers and politicians will find a way to fix this problem. But that’s going to take a while. It took a while for us to get here and it’s going to take us a while to get back out. And that’s what keeps me working so hard because eventually we’ll get to where we’re going.

Sometimes I just pretend we’re there already.