Skip to main content

Canadians “love water, we are drawn to it, but for years we have taken it for granted,” writes Elizabeth Renzetti.

On Canada Day, as many of us celebrate our connection to water, Elizabeth Renzetti remembers the person who warned her about the well running dry

On a recent spring day, I climbed with my husband and two children down the steep side of a valley in an Ontario provincial park so we could reach the creek at the bottom. The children moaned, you can be sure. Mud, gross. Mosquitoes, blech.

Until we reached the bottom, that is. And there was the mundane magic of a Canadian landscape: a gorgeous, fast-flowing body of water, surrounded by trees and flowers and birds. A group of men sat on rocks in the middle, speaking a language I didn't recognize. A young couple had hauled their infant in its stroller down the trail and dipped the smiling baby into the water, a Canadian baptism. My children stopped complaining. We all sat with our feet in the creek, strangers united by this water.

This is one way to think of Canada: We are strangers united by water. Oceans surround us on three sides, at least a quarter of a million rivers flow in all directions. We swim and boat and fish, hardly thinking about our good fortune, barely acknowledging what Hugh MacLennan wrote about the ridiculous bounty of the landscape so many years ago in his novel Two Solitudes: "My God! Is all this ours?"

A better question today might be: "My God! Do we even deserve this?" We love water, we are drawn to it, but for years we have taken it for granted. Perhaps we're not quite the guardians we hoped we'd be. We may be on the verge of paying the price.

A recent report from the World Wildlife Fund found that a number of the country's watersheds were threatened by pollution and habitat loss – and the problem could be worse than we know, since data-gathering is so poor. Across the country, Indigenous communities endure water that is not safe to drink, with some water advisories lasting for years. (There were more than 150 such advisories in place as of May 31.) Ontario's Wabigoon River was a dumping ground for toxic mercury, a decades-old legacy that continues to harm the inhabitants of Grassy Narrows First Nation and Whitedog First Nation. It will finally be cleaned up, the province announced this week, at a cost of $85-million.

In the Canadian imagination, the landscape is equally a waterscape – the vast span of the Confederation Bridge, the etching of the Bluenose on our dime, the waters of Lake Superior closing over the doomed shadow of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Don't we have one-fifth of the world's fresh water? In fact, that's misleading: The figure is closer to 7 per cent, using the better measure of renewable water – the water that arrives as rain or snow every year. Much of that water is inaccessible to the majority of the country's population, which lives close to the U.S. border.

We think we have more water than we do. Academics call this "the myth of superabundance." I know this because one of those academics was my brother.

Mr. Water

Everyone in this country, I think, has a personal connection to the water. This is the lake our family has visited for years. This is the ship my grandparents arrived on. This is the treaty my ancestors helped negotiate, which has been ignored for generations.

My grandfather arrived in Halifax in 1927 on a ship called the Arabic. He never much cared for water – he preferred brandy – but he sailed back to Italy to fetch my grandmother a couple of years later. Like many new Canadians, they were both fascinated and terrified by the water that surrounded them. (Even today, new Canadians are more at risk of drowning, and less likely to take swimming lessons, than people born here.)

“We think we have more water than we do,” Elizabeth Renzetti writes. “Academics call this ‘the myth of superabundance.’”

My father never learned to swim. He would never have put "pleasure" and "boat" together in a sentence. At best, when we went on picnics to the local conservation area, he would dip his city-pale feet in the water, but you could tell he always had one eye on the car. He and my mother raised four children who swam, and who loved everything aquatic. One of us pretty much grew up to be Mr. Water: my brother Steven.

For years, every one of my brother's e-mails ended with a quote from a reggae song: "You'll never miss your water/till your well runs dry." He was possibly the only person in the world to combine water-pricing statistics and reggae. An economist at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., he was a much-cited expert in water use and pricing, and founder of Canada's Water Economics, Policy and Governance Network. He swam, and camped by water, and led his troop of Beaver Scouts to clean up the nearby creek.

I ribbed him gently when he published books with sexy titles such as The Economics of Water Demand. And, when I bothered to listen – when we weren't telling each other dirty jokes – I heard his warnings: We don't know enough about water in this country. We consume too much. We're the second-highest per-capita consumers of water in the world! We don't charge enough for it. We don't think enough about it, because it's everywhere. One day the well might run dry, when we are looking the other way.

The last book he edited was called Water Policy and Governance in Canada (his co-editor was his wife and fellow economist, Diane Dupont.) The introduction they wrote addresses our national myth of water abundance: "Canada's water resources face a number of significant challenges arising from population growth, natural resource-based developments, the looming implications of climate change, a growing reliance on large-scale irrigation, and a legacy of past laws and regulations unable to address these challenges adequately."

Steven died in February, at the age of 56. Every day, I want to call him up and talk about a story in the news. What about U.S. President Donald Trump's proposed budget cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative? (Steven had been an adviser to the International Joint Commission, and would not have been pleased.) What about the rivers around the world being granted the same legal status as people – the Whanaganui in New Zealand, the Ganges in India? That, I think, would have made him very happy.

The news about Canada's waterways would have been more troubling to him, though not surprising. As the World Wildlife Fund writes in its recent report about the threats to the country's watersheds: "The popularly held belief that Canada is a nation of pristine lakes and rivers has been dispelled. Pollution, overuse, habitat loss and fragmentation, alteration of flow, climate change and invasive species are taking a toll on the country's freshwater supply."

None of these changes may be obvious, on an individual level, as we gather this weekend around lakes and creeks, as we take boats into harbours and follow our giddy children into swimming pools. Maybe everything will look peachy keen, especially if we're lucky enough to be in a place where the sun shines on the water. But it's what we don't see, or measure, or regulate, that we should worry about. The things that are in plain sight, but invisible. The well that's running dry.