Mark Mattson spent his summers growing up on Wolfe Island, near Kingston, where his family has owned property since 1865, swimming, fishing and watching the ducks scudding across the lake.
Water was his baptism into the wonders of nature, a passion he maintained even while attending law school to become a criminal lawyer as his father had done before him.
While in the courts, water again held him transfixed – but this time for all the wrong reasons.
In Walkerton, a rural town of 5,000 in Southwestern Ontario, seven people died and many more were sick as a result of contaminated water that flowed unchecked into the public system in 2000. Mattson served as counsel for an environmental public interest group.
A public inquiry followed in 2001, with high-profile arrests made in 2004.
There were other headlines of the day, also involving water, and they were equally depressing.
Mattson determined to converge the two main tributaries of his life – law and water – in creating Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, a 2001 charity aimed at keeping the province’s water systems clean.
“It was in part created in reaction to my disgust to what happened in Walkerton and [a] concurrent sewage spill in Kingston, Ont., that fouled Wolfe Island shores and waters,” Mattson says. “This underscored my lingering feeling that Lake Ontario and other water bodies across Canada, U.S. and the world need full-time defenders.”
One of his main collaborators in the war against water pollution is Robert Kennedy Jr., a scion of the famous Kennedy clan, who invited Mattson to serve on the board of directors of the Waterkeeper Alliance in New York.
Mattson, 51, also serves as head of the new U.S.-Canada alliance, Waterkeeper Council, which tackles problems on the Great Lakes.
To help his Waterkeeper cause, he and his team have created smartphone apps that have put environmental issues in the hands of more than 100,000 people. “Environmental law and processes are meaningless unless we have a public that cares about the benefits of these laws, which is swimmable, drinkable, fishable water,” says Mattson, who today resides with his wife in a house on the Scarborough Bluffs in eastern Toronto, overlooking Lake Ontario, his long-time inspiration.
“The apps help us build this community and also reach out to younger generations with important information that impacts their right to clean water and empowers them with free information and evidence.”