Ottawa still refuses to recognize the economic benefits of clean lakes.

By Douglas Hunter


Illustration by Marco Cibola


On March 4, the Obama administration marshaled enough bipartisan support to table legislation in Congress for the five-year, $650-million-a-year Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). The U.S. government is determined to deal with pollution hot spots identified by the International Joint Commission, as well as combat invasive species, restore and preserve natural habitats, and make public beaches safe for swimming. 

One might have hoped for a parallel commitment on our side of the border. After all, Canada shares in the ownership and stewardship of four of the five Great Lakes, as well as Lake St. Clair and the St. Lawrence River. Our country is a partner in the International Joint Commission and a co-signatory of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, under which the pernicious Areas of Concern requiring remediation are identified. Yet there was nothing comparable in dollars or enthusiasm when the Harper Conservatives introduced a new federal budget on the very same day that the U.S. legislation was tabled. 

Comparing Canadian initiatives with the Obama megaplan is difficult, as the U.S. umbrella program encompasses many areas. Nevertheless, our federal response constitutes less than one-eightieth of the annual funding under the Obama initiative. More Areas of Concern are on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes than on the Canadian side, but not 80 times as many; currently 26 such areas are in the United States, nine are in Canada and another five are shared. 

Our federal budget was a letdown for anyone expecting a meaningful response to the multifold challenges – and opportunities – the Great Lakes present, despite the assurance that “cleaning up the Great Lakes is a key objective of our government’s Action Plan for Clean Water.” The budget plan says Environment Canada will receive “$8 million per year ongoing to continue to implement its action plan to protect the Great Lakes.” That’s it: no specific details are included about how Environment Canada will spend this “ongoing” $8 million, for how many years the funding will continue or how this figure relates to previously announced funds for cleanup efforts that have not yet occurred. 

The federal Conservatives evidently understand that they can afford to neglect the environment without annoying the bulk of the electorate. Many Canadian voters probably think the Great Lakes should be the sole concern of Ontario, as it is the only province that borders on them. But above and beyond the economic importance of the Great Lakes to the entire country, pollution problems and environmental degradation are a federal responsibility, and Ottawa must show leadership and commitment in dealing with them. 

The failure of the federal budget to recognize how restoring and protecting the Great Lakes might be part of a job creation effort is noteworthy and perhaps understandable: we have come to equate economic stimulus with pouring concrete and laying asphalt, the sorts of activities in which people do something for a paycheque, creating physical infrastructure everyone can see. The economic benefits of environmental spending come in less obvious, but nevertheless quantifiable ways – everything from increased tourism dollars to improved property values to major savings in health care. 

A prime example of our failure to address Great Lakes rehabilitation – and benefit financially from doing so – is the unfinished restoration of one of the worst Areas of Concern: Hamilton Harbour. A 2007 study by York University’s Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability concluded that remediating the harbour would produce $914 million in economic benefits for local taxpayers, businesses and municipal governments. Ottawa cited this long-term payoff as a justification for the partnership struck that year between the federal, provincial and local governments (and local agencies) to split equally the estimated $90-million cost of capping Randle Reef, a notorious submerged coal-tar dump in the harbour. Only Nova Scotia’s Sydney tar ponds had a greater concentration of harmful polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in this country before Public Works Canada finally tackled that mess. 

Yet despite the Hamilton Harbour cleanup having been on the agenda since 1987, the Randle Reef project is currently stalled; cost estimates are escalating and the local partners are unable to provide their agreed share. If Ottawa really wants to show it cares about Great Lakes water quality, Environment Canada should do what it takes to rehabilitate this chronic, dangerously polluted, Area of Concern – and reap the economic benefits that were promised three years ago. It is time for everyone – voters and politicians alike – to recalibrate our commitment to restoring the Great Lakes and not watch our neighbours south of the border get on with the job. 

 Douglas Hunter is an author and a regular contributor to ON Nature. He runs the website, on Great Lakes wilderness boating.