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Kicking off Great Lakes Week in Detroit

I spent the day at the International Joint Commission’s Biennial Meeting where Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, opened the Great Lakes Joint Meeting. She emphasized the need to prevent pollution and threats instead of attempting to clean up pollution or restore degraded areas.

Frank Ettagaweshik, Director of United Tribes of Michigan, was next to speak. He pointed to the problem of the commodification of the waters of the Great Lakes. He simply but poignantly pointed out that we can live without oil and we can live without gold but we can’t live without water. He asked the audience to think about we would be leaving for the seven generations to come.

One very informative and riveting session was the Great Lakes Town Hall Public where organizations and members of the public were invited to speak for three minutes on various Great Lakes issues.

Flow for Water Chair, Jim Olson kicked off the Town Hall and presented an overview of the Public Trust Doctrine and the importance of incorporating these principles in governance of the Great Lakes. There were nearly 100 speakers over the next three hours.

Lila Cabbil from the Rosa Parks Institute gave a passionate speech about how race and class have impacted people’s ability to access water in Detroit. Some poor neighbourhoods in Detroit have experienced water cut offs. In a meeting yesterday, she sadly pointed out how people in Detroit are surrounded by the waters of the Great Lakes but some people can’t access any of it.

A number of nuclear activists and lawyers including Michael Keegan from Coalition for a Nuclear Free Great Lakes, Anabel Dwyer and Ed McArdle spoke about Bruce Power’s nuclear shipment and called for the re-instatement of the nuclear task force at the IJC. Kay Cumbow from Citizens for Alternatives to Chemical contamination and Sierra Club also called for the Great Lakes to be declared a commons and public trust.

Lynna Kaucheck from Food and Water Watch Detroit outlined the long list of negative impacts hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ has had on people, the environment and called for the IJC to support a ban on fracking.

Melissa Damaschke from Sierra Club and the Detroit’s People’s Water Board spoke about environmental injustice and job creation in Detroit. One banner at the IJC meeting read “Can I eat the fish?” Melissa pointed out that some people in Detroit don’t have a choice in whether or not to eat the fish because they can’t afford other options.

Many organizations raised the lack of transparency and detailed information in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement negotiations.

I was one of the long list of speakers and re-iterated our written request for FLOW and Council of Canadians to make a presentation to the IJC on the importance of using public trust and commons principles as a framework for governance of the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Key points of my presentation are included below:

Maude Barlow’s report Our Great Lakes Commons: A People’s Plan to Protect the Great Lakes Forever calls for the declaration of the Great Lakes as a living commons, public trust and protected bioregion. To quote Maude’s report: “The notion of the commons is a very old idea and asserts that no one owns water. Rather it is a common heritage that belongs to the Earth, other species and future generations as well as our own.”

The report outlines a governance framework for the Great Lakes that includes 10 principles such as:

  • Private interests to the Great Lakes are subordinate to public rights.
  • The waters of the Great Lakes are a human right (This principle is in line with the UN resolutions recently passed recognizing water and sanitation as a human right.)
  • Public participation is key to the Great Lakes Commons.
  • Decisions about the Great Lakes should be made with the involvement of First Nations and Native American tribes.

Some of these principles are already reflected in the work of the IJC such as public participation and attempts to consult First Nations. The IJC has done an excellent job in researching and making recommendations on some new and emerging threats such as chemicals of emerging concern and spills of hazardous materials in the Great Lakes.

However, implementing commons and public trust principles would address the underlying causes of the threats to the Great Lakes which are who makes the decisions, the power dynamics of decision making and the values that underly the decisions that are made.

There are also issues that need the IJC’s immediate attention. For example, as the IJC knows, Bruce Power plans to ship nuclear waste through the Great Lakes to Sweden. The Council of Canadians recently collected more than 100, 000 signatures from people around the world calling for the shipment to be stopped. In a natural resources committee hearing, Michael Binder – President of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission – noted that this type of shipment had never been done before. Because of the precedent setting nature of this shipment, communities and residents need the IJC to take a stronger role and stance in this issue.

More importantly residents and communities around the Great Lakes need a governance structure that incorporates such current threats as the nuclear shipments or hydraulic fracturing – a process to mine shale gas that has resulted in water contamination in communities.

Several people at the Town Hall raised the issue of a change in governance structure and the need to incorporate commons and public trust principles. We need a governance structure that enables communities to better participate in the decision making process.

The work of the IJC is now more important than ever. Hopefully they take to heart the concerns and suggestions of the participants of the Town Hall.

Vice President Al Gore will speak tomorrow. More to come.