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Monday, March 05, 2007

Lake Simcoe `Ladies' to the rescue

Lake Simcoe `Ladies' to the rescue

Who needs men? Not us, Ladies say

Ladies of the Lake is a redoubtable force of committed professionals and volunteers, women used to getting things done and knowing the most effective ways of doing them.

It was formed about two years ago, when Annabel Slaight and her neighbour Jane Meredith were talking about the rise in weeds and expanding areas of surface slime on their part of Lake Simcoe.

As Meredith recalls, "We said, `Okay, we're going to do something about this.'" They called some friends, and told them to bring a friend, to a meeting at Meredith's home.

The group's first task was to raise money to finance an action plan.

The Ladies of the Lake 2006 calendar was an overwhelming success, featuring as it did some discreetly undressed members of the action committee ranging in age from their 30s to their 70s.

Out of that initial gathering of 30 or 40 women, the Ladies of the Lake was born. There are now about 100 members.

No men have applied to join the group and there's a feeling that things work just fine without them.

Meredith describes their meetings as "electric with ideas."

"We hate to say so, but there's no question women as a group are better at this," she says. "You decide to do something and you go for it."

"I never worked in an all-woman organization before," says psychologist Goody Gerner, who lives in East Gwillinbury. "When I started working 30 years ago, if there was a meeting I'd be the only woman in the room. This is totally different. Women are used to getting things done, without questions."

Susan Walker
Mar 03, 2007 04:30 AM
Susan Walker
toronto star

Two years ago, they were posing naked on the shore. Now they're broadcasting the Naked Truth about the deplorable state of Lake Simcoe and what can be done about it.

The Ladies of the Lake, a force of about 100 women residents of the Simcoe watershed, are using the $250,000 they raised from the sale of a calendar featuring their tastefully denuded selves to rally government, business, the school system and the local citizenry to rescue the lake.

As Canada marks International Women's Day on Thursday, the example of The Ladies of the Lake illustrates the particular contribution women can make to their community. In this case, it's a whole watershed that benefits.

The Ladies have employed their formidable communication skills to raise awareness and create consensus under the slogan, "Drink it, Swim it, Fish it, Love it." They showcased their concerns last year through a campaign called the Naked Truth Summer of Events and followed that up with a research project in the fall.

Now that they're on the political map, the next stage is to move from awareness into action.

"We're talking about a real grassroots movement going here," says co-chair Annabel Slaight, founder of OWL magazine and OWL TV and an indefatigable activist with business savvy.

Nudity was their way in. "We can get meetings with politicians and town councils, and the meetings always begin with a joke and a smile."

Hilary Van Welter, who was one of the Miss Julys, says The Ladies of the Lake have been instrumental in creating strategies for change.

"We think about what role do we play to help integrate all the groups and all the voices and how do we use our expertise to really (co-ordinate) all these various organizations," Van Welter says.

Slaight believes Lake Simcoe will be restored when everyone takes responsibility for it. It's not a question of nagging or making people feel guilty. "I think the environment has to be totally integrated into everybody's way of life. We have to get everybody to say `we' and not `they.'"

The lake is the victim of pollutants and urbanization around its shores. The lake bottom is a gooey mixture of weeds and algae, the lake surface is dotted with gloating mats of Eurasian milfoil, an alien species, and zebra mussels proliferate. Georgina Township spent $200,000 last year in Cook's Bay, harvesting and dredging in a losing battle against the weeds choking swimming areas.

"For me," Van Welter says, "this lake is an amazing messenger of what we're doing in our world; it's a microcosm of the bigger picture."

Barrie beach is often closed because of biological hazards in the water, she says. "The zebra mussels were so bad last time we went to Willow Beach my son said he won't go there any more because he gets cut."

There are still fish in Lake Simcoe, many of them non-native species or trout placed there by hatcheries.

The native herring, whitefish and walleye are dwindling, an indicator of rising temperatures in the lake and lower oxygen levels.

To the cottagers and year-round residents, watching the lake decline is like witnessing the demise of a close family member.

More to the point, it's a slow death for the economic and lifestyle benefits that the lake and its watershed, an area of 3,576 square kilometres, has provided, for as long as humans have lived there: more than 5,000 years in the case of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.

"Everybody used to drink the water directly from the lake, but you can't do that any more," says Cynthia Wesley Esquimaux, a member of one of the oldest families on Georgina Island and an anthropologist who teaches in the aboriginal studies program at the University of Toronto.

"We had to put in a water treatment plant."

She says the community has seen an increase in skin and ear infections over the years.

Ladies co-founder Jane Meredith says her family first settled on the Keswick side of Lake Simcoe in the 1880s. "Ten years ago, I used to drink the water."

Psychologist Goody Gerner, who lives in East Gwillinbury, south of Keswick, is assisting in one of the latest initiatives: researching what local schools are teaching children about the lake and the environment and developing an educational project.

The students, she says, are the generation that will make the difference, both by being instrumental in fixing the lake when they are adults and by going home and talk about the issues now.

"Remember, it was the kids who got all the parents recycling."

Another initiative has been a research document, The Naked Truth: Going Behind the Science of Lake Simcoe, that the Ladies commissioned from the Windfall Ecology Centre, a community-based, non-profit organization in Woodbridge set up to promote environmental solutions.

But Van Welter, who is chair of the ecology centre's board, says science is not enough.

The cure for Lake Simcoe is people.

One of the core accomplishments of the Ladies of the Lake has been to draw together different communities in the watershed through their common concerns for rescuing Lake Simcoe. The awareness projects last summer included a blanket invitation to everyone to contribute their ideas for solutions and priorities in cleaning up the lake.

"The community I live in is quite insular," Esquimaux says, "but we've been raised to work together."

Support for the Ladies has mushroomed, Meredith says. It seems that everyone wants to co-operate. In fact, the momentum and enthusiasm was such that it was more a case of, "Please can we have another meeting?"

Garfield Dunlop, Conservative MPP for North Simcoe, says the Ladies is one of the most effective organizations he's seen and he's doing what he can to help, including getting Queen's Park to agree that the environmental integrity of the lake should be a priority.

"I consider Lake Simcoe to be like the sixth Great Lake. It's the second biggest lake in Ontario after Nipigon. I think it requires federal designation as a hotspot. Through the International Joint Commission, they could provide funding to help rehabilitate the lake."

Dunlop says there is every reason for all sectors to co-operate. "The economy around the lake generates about $250 million a year."

Another aspect of the Ladies' approach is trying to learn from other people's experience. To that end, advice was from people who had solved problems similar to Lake Simcoe's in their communities.

Now Slaight is pushing the political envelope, meeting with politicians and advancing a proposal that a Watershed Council be established to manage the lake. It would be modelled after the Lake Champlain Basin Program, which was created after concerned citizens in Quebec and the states of Vermont and New York co-ordinated efforts to save their lake.

As Slaight notes: "If they can manage to get New York, Vermont, Quebec, Canada and the U.S all working on one thing in any orderly way, we should be able to do that for Lake Simcoe."

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