Our research and interviews to date have made it abundantly clear that while humans tend to create arbitrary boundaries, our rivers know no nationalities, nor do they operate under any geographic limitations, governmental jurisdictions, or other such artificial constraints.
This became all the more obvious when our travels took us North into Ontario. The day started bright and early with a visit to the St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Sciences in Cornwall, Ontario.
Established in 1994, the Institute is a non-governmental, non-profit community based organization that conducts independent research and promotes environmental education programs and initiatives that focus on the Great Lakes Basin, and specifically the St. Lawrence, which flows right through the city.
We received a warm Canadian welcome from Jeff Ridal, Executive Director of the institute, then took a brief tour of the research facilities.
“The biggest threat” to the St. Lawrence, said Ridal, “is the multitude of the threats. You can’t point your finger at just one threat. You have to look at all of them.”
Those challenges include a large and voracious exotic fish known as the Asian Carp, zebra mussels, chemical and pharmaceutical pollution, and industrial waste dumping. In addition, dams and other physical alterations to the river’s flow have had detrimental effects, all exacerbated by climate change.
After talking with Ridal, the team headed in separate directions. While John and Josh rented a separate vehicle and headed toward Ottawa for separate meetings, the rest of the team headed back to the United States, where we stayed just a few minutes before heading on to the Akwesasne (pronounced Awk-wey-sahs-ne) Reserve, home to the Mohawk First Nations, a people whose territory prior to European settlement included parts of what is now considered North New York and Southern Ontario.
We had the great privilege of speaking with three community members: Craig Arquette, the superfund oversight specialist, Mary Arquette, a teacher at the Akwesasne Cultural Restoration (ACR) Center, and Angie Barnes, a student at the ACR.
Craig was kind enough to escort us around the territory, introduce us to the industrial impacts on the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries.
Both Mary and Angie explained that in the late 50s and 60s, large companies such as General Motors and Alcoa established manufacturing plants in the area, resulting in pollution of the St. Lawrence.
“We grew up on the river,” said Arquette. "In the 50s, things were dumped. I remember how heavy the air was and how smelly it was.”
More than half a century later, many of the problems remain.
“In Cornwall,” explained Barnes, “the industries that have polluted have left now,” including General Motors, which declared bankruptcy several years ago and shut down operations. “The people themselves who are impacted had very little to say about what impacted them.”
Incidents of cancer and other serious health problems are significantly higher among the residents of the Akwesasne, who now number around 7,000 on the reservation and in the general area.
Despite the hardships, both women say they remain optimistic.
“There’s hope still,” Arquette said. “I still feel there’s hope when I see bald eagles. I remember when they were going to be extinct. To have them back is a remarkable thing.”
The Mohawk Community believes that the St. Lawrence is the Mother of life, which drives their efforts to restore and protect the river.
“We are water. Without it, we have nothing on the earth,” said Arquette. “We have to put water at the forefront of our thinking.”