The crisis at home: when the lake reclaims the land

Updated: Jan 19, 2020

After record-breaking erosion on Lake Erie in the summer and fall of 2019, it is ever more obvious that integrating comprehensive, cumulative knowledge with sound planning and decision-making is imperative. The footage below was recorded one month ago, in December 2019.

On Friday, March 29, 2019, I visited the Canada Centre for Inland Waters to interview two individuals from Environment and Climate Change Canada. While there, I had informal conversations with several of their colleagues. It soon became clear that the priorities expressed by those working there (not necessarily of ECCC as a whole) were not what I expected nor had heard during my previous interviews. The top two concerns I heard from those informal conversations were chloride (e.g., road salt) - an increasingly critical issue common to waterways across Ontario - and shoreline erosion in areas across Lake Erie's perimeter.

Shoreline erosion is a normal part of Lake Erie's natural variation, as is the movement of sediment from one part of the lake to another; however, the cumulative effects of climate change and increased human development/activities along the shore have made the issue of erosion an ecologically- and economically-costly issue in the last decade. Changes in climate not only increase precipitation and the intensity of storms, but the reduction of winter ice cover allows winter wave energy to increase (models from the Chatham-Kent Lake Erie Shoreline Study show wave energy increases of 70%-120%, depending on the area of shoreline).

The impacts of Lake Erie's erosion can be visibly tracked over time. Long Point resident Chris Bradley watched his 12 meters of beachfront disappear since purchasing his cottage in 2011 - until finally his home was knocked from its foundation. In November 2019, demolition crews destroyed what was left. Elsewhere, Tammy Dobbie, a biologist at Point Pelee National Park, says erosion destroys 0.5ha of forest each year - having removed 12ha between 2010 and 2017. The issue has contributed to putting 62 plant and animal species at risk in the Park alone.

From an ecological standpoint, both Long Point and Point Pelee are unique and globally-important. Long Point was designated a World Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1986, and Point Pelee was designated a Wetland of International Significance by UNESCO in 1987. From a social and economic perspective, the growing impacts of shoreline erosion are devastating. Residents are solely responsible for managing their portion of the shoreline, which in recent years has been a losing battle costing some residents hundreds of thousands of dollars - and, in some cases, complete loss of property and/or near-bankruptcy (see the clip below).

There have been (and continue to be) massive collaborations across levels of government and the private sector that are working to find solutions to the issue of shoreline erosion. Two examples of these collaborations include the Lake Erie Shoreline Hazard Mapping and Risk Assessment Study and the current Chatham-Kent Lake Erie Shoreline Study (final report set for March 2020). Still, conventional approaches to knowledge and an outdated bureaucratic system of decision-making mean solutions are not likely to be timely nor innovative. This is why the Grand-Erie study is exploring ways to bring together different knowledge forms - especially Western Science with Indigenous Knowledge - to enhance the ability of managers and decision-makers to address community needs and generate effective solutions.

As part of this research, I partnered with Great Art for Great Lakes, which engaged Canadian and Indigenous community members in various arts projects to educate community members and create permanent installations in their communities. On August 26, 2019 I joined one of Lacie Williamson's workshops, in which Dunnville community members of all ages collaborated to build Inheritance using graffiti art. Elaine's talk can be found on the resources page.

The town of Dunnville is home to about 12,000 residents and sits in low-lying elevations just 7km from Lake Erie. Frequent flooding from the Grand River reminds the community the watershed is an important part of their daily lives, whether they recognize it or not. Inheritance participants learned to spray paint and burn wood to create the finished product, below. The final piece illustrates the strong connection between land and water, and that people are integral to this intersection - as with Erie's shoreline erosion.

Sadly, some individuals at Haldimand County decided Lacie's artist statement - which included a land acknowledgement of the Indigenous peoples and their traditional territories - could not be displayed with the community piece. However, when I spoke with members of Haldimand's Water & Wastewater Engineering & Compliance unit, they were quite taken aback by this unfortunate decision. According to them, Haldimand County is typically very receptive to land acknowledgements and is known within the organization as respectful of the region's history with Indigenous peoples. This discrepancy highlights the need for consciously creating and maintaining a consistent community culture of respect and recognition of our shared (Canadian-Indigenous) history, within organizations and across society at large.

Despite the lack of land acknowledgement posted at the Dunnville Farmer's Market, Lacie's workshops and the unveiling incorporated open discussion about the realities of our past. Hundreds of families happily participated with interest and respect. If my talk at one of Lacie's workshops was any indication, community members from multiple generations have a basic level of knowledge regarding Dunnville's/Grand River's history. These same community members were also eager to learn more - a sign of positive change as Canada strives to move towards reconciliation. Change starts with each of us.

Watch the creation and unveiling of Inheritance below - including a wonderful short story Lacie shares from an Indigenous child participant!

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This research is part of the nationwide Global Water Futures research initiative at University of Waterloo (Lake Futures group).  Global Water Futures is funded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund in partnership with participating institutions.  The research is also supported by the University of Waterloo.
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