Barricades uses music to keep water clean

Wolfe Islander merges art and activism

At The Barricades features Canada’s top musicians singing for a cause.
At The Barricades features Canada’s top musicians singing for a cause.
Wolfe Island resident Chris Brown, left, with fellow album contributor Kate Fenner.
Wolfe Island resident Chris Brown, left, with fellow album contributor Kate Fenner.

At The Barricades isn’t just the title of a compilation CD produced by Wolfe Island resident and indie musician Chris Brown. It’s also the mantra for environmental justice group The Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. The grassroots organization, headed by environmental lawyer Mark Mattson, is one of 161 groups working globally to ensure peoples’ three basic rights to drink, swim and fish in clean water. Through negociating the legal system, Mattson and his charity fight, in court, for issues that affect the quality of Lake Ontario’s water.

“These are very elemental basis rights that we’ve had stripped away from us,” said activist-musician Brown.

Along with tackling the legal side of things, the group is determined to open up dialogue to empower the public and have them involved in government environmental decisions. Mattson hosts the show Living At the Barricades, on CFRC every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. The group puts on concerts and panel discussions in the communities situated on Lake Ontario.

“The people who are at the barricades are the people who are demanding … access to clean water and wanting to participate in the processes,” Mattson said.

“At Waterkeeper we feel we are living at the barricades, that’s the nature of an environmental justice group.”

Naturally, part of activist dialogue comes in the form of music.

“Music and literature are two really important ways of communicating with each other. As an environmental advocate working in the field, one of the great barriers is how we communicate about it,” Mattson said.

To connect from the ground up, Brown, a former Bourbon Tabernacle Choir member, got involved in the project to raise awareness by producing a CD of exclusive tracks by Canadian musicians. Sarah Harmer, Broken Social Scene, Gord Downie, Stars, Dave Bidini, Kate Fenner and Bruce Cockburn are among those who responded to the call and provided exclusive tracks for the compilation. Proceeds from the CD will go to the Waterkeeper. Many of the songs deal with political themes to accompany the work being done by the group.

“On a cultural level, I see [At The Barricades] as being a very classic application of music to social context. It’s something everyone harkens back to the 60s, but really it’s been going on all the time. People have always been singing about their situation,” Brown said.

The eclectic CD, though mellow at times, has an urgent thread running through it. Interspersed throughout the tracks are spoken interludes by astronaut Edgar Mitchell. These voice-overs speak about humans and science that reminds listeners to think of the world more universally. Mitchell’s matter-of-fact voice bleeding into the beginning of Broken Social Scene’s “Until it’s Dead” is foreboding and a particularly appropriate introduction to the album.

Brown has experience playing with other activist musicians such as Ani Difranco. He has also worked with them to put together compilation albums of the political nature. Brown’s GASCD was a compilation album inspired by the protests at the Quebec City Sumit of the Americas back in 2001 and featured songs by Canadian and international artists. The response from musicians for the At The Barricades album sparked so much energy that the album is going to become an annual effort to raise awareness.

“[The album] really permeates a larger body than a single news item. It creates a lasting legacy of these issues and keeps them in people’s minds,” Brown said.

Waterkeeper is focusing on issues in the Kingston area such as pressuring the city to revamp the sewage system to stop the release of raw sewage into the lake. Also, investigating the LaFarge cement kiln’s environmental practices is on their watch-list. The group wants to create transparency for environmental procedures to keep governments and companies accountable.

Tonight, the group hosts a concert at the General Wolfe on Wolfe Island featuring Chris Brown’s Citizen Band and Tony Scherr as well as a discussion with Mattson and local advocate Maggie Smith. They’ll be discussing the proposed wind turbine program on the Island. “They still haven’t released the environmental review, exempting it from the studies that have been done. If this project is done poorly … it could actually set back clean power in Ontario for a decade,” Mattson said.

The concert will provide information and serve as a meeting for the community to unite to discuss the issues that affect their drinking water.

“Lake Ontario, not only is it our drinking water, it’s a mode of transport, it’s an ecosystem, it’s aesthetic beauty, it’s our weather patterns.”

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