Water literacy speaker series turns legal

Queen's alumnus and Wolfe Island native addresses concerns with water systems

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On Wednesday evening, a full house convened at the Grad Club to talk about water. 

Mark Mattson, who graduated from Queen’s in 1985, now practices law in the environmental sector. He came to Queen’s this week as a part of the Kingston Water Access Group’s Think.Drink.Water Speaker Series. 

Addressing his audience, Mattson implored students to take personal action on water advocacy. “Politicians are weather vanes,” he said. “It’s on us to provide the direction.”

Mattson currently serves as president and co-founder of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. Its most recent project is the Watermark Project, a collective archive of people’s personal stories with bodies of water. 

In reference to the organization’s name, he talked about a sewage dumping case he worked on in Kingston, which was prompted by citizen action. To him, they were the “original waterkeeper.” 

Before his time at Queen’s, Mattson described growing up on Wolfe Island, during which he recalled a “dark shadow in the lake.” In the 60s and 70s, he said, water pollution was a growing issue.

Since receiving his law degree from Windsor Law School in 1988, his environmental legal action has covered sewage dumping, tire-burning, and radioactive waste clean-up. After nearly a decade of environmental law enforcement, Mattson said he’s still faced with the question of whether water quality and liveability has improved. 

“There are more problems now than in the 60s,” he said. 

He described an observation of his, where the public was starting to accept being unable to swim, drink, or fish from certain large bodies of water. At that point, he said, he wondered whether legal action was the only answer left. 

From that concern came the SwimGuide — a website and app that simply serves to answer the question “can I swim here?” Water quality reports are available through the SwimGuide for hundreds of beaches across Canada. 

Mattson says the innovation has caused people to pay more attention to the state of these waters, and prompted small groups of community leaders to create their own water-related solutions. 

The Watermark Project targets engagement more directly. The collection of water stories promotes thought, and allows for the mapping of Canadian people’s water use geographically. The project, he explained, is a collection of “affidavits and evidence”. The initiative seeks to engage communities, but also provides lawyers like Mattson with important evidence for their work protecting watersheds. 

For students, Mattson highlighted six steps to building water leadership. 

To him, it comes down to knowing your own ‘watermark’, knowing the rules and laws in Canada when it comes to water-related issues, participating, getting “out there”, orienting yourself in the debate and dedicating yourself to the cause. 

He stressed the importance of students educating themselves in legislation such as the Fisheries Act and the Water Protection Act as a crucial step for advocates to take — especially considering the Fisheries Act is set for review in November, and citizens are able to participate online. 

He urged his audience to research the Canadian Environmental Law Association prior to the review. “Learn what to say,” he told them. “And how to say it.” 

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