“It’s like wanting your kid to grow up to become a doctor but instead he becomes a stage actor. It’s not what you wanted but he’s still alive.” The ’parent’ of that kid is Mike Stainton, a retired scientist who studied lake chemistry for decades. “Lake Winnipeg is a managed body of water, a managed aquaculture project,” he said, wild Einstein hair blooming above his thin face and spare frame. “It’s managed by default, by neglect. None of it is malicious but cumulatively it’s of consequence. The lake isn’t dying, it’s reacting and living in ways we don’t like.”
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For decades Frances Russell was a columnist for the city daily. At the height of her influence she wrote The Great Lake, a biography about the “beauty and treachery” of the world’s 11th largest freshwater body. The book was published in 2000. Like most products of Winnipeg it’s written for an appreciative small town audience with frequent touchstones to seasonal lakeside communities where families vacation together for generations and then run the city. It’s clubby, claustrophobic, generous and parochial. Typically Winnipeg.
In a recent reading of the book I was struck by the alarm she raised about the state of the lake: algae, pollution, water level woes and marsh destruction. But these are current issues. How could they have been concerns back then? Has nothing changed in 20 years? It has, but only by becoming worse. I wanted to write a story about this neglect and decline.
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Mistehay Sakaegan: Cree for Great Lake
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Having researched many articles over the years I sketched out the list of “usual suspects” for this piece. The academy, government, artists, activists and campaigners. I connected with lobby groups and professors. Yet the intensity of the spotlight they shine on specific sedimentary layers of cause and effect makes it hard to see what’s in the shadows of the big picture. I spoke with artists to see if the lake has a theme song, like Lake Erie. I interviewed retired government officials and have plans to talk to today’s government decision makers later (no one willingly wants to ensure bland non-answers). I have read, questioned, gathered and sifted as any journalist is wont to do. Yet after 15 interviews I feel as tossed about as I would be in a squall on the petulant, shallow and rambunctious lake itself.
It seems no one is guardian of the big picture. Everyone sinks in to the gumbo of their immediate concern. Few sense a horizon big enough to offer a sense of where this huge lake is heading. Who speaks for the whole?
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I have watched the lake closely for more than a decade. It turns green and blue. It stinks of decay. It becomes sharp with zebra mussels. Levels rise and fall unnaturally. It spews out dead carp by the hundreds but each fish is so toxic the scavengers won’t eat them. The mosquito population has crashed. Fish flies were three weeks late in 2019. Bank swallows fled two months early in 2019 and started their southward migration almost three months early in 2020. The frogs are silent. The lake is “living and reacting in ways we don’t like”. What have we done? How can we affect something so big as Lake Winnipeg? But wait… isn’t that question still echoing in the former spheres of the bison and carrier pigeon?
In my research it became evident that if government had championed the health of the lake and an active guardian of the crown land to which it is entrusted, then perhaps the lake wouldn’t be in such a dire state. It seems like moral arithmetic. If one does harm out of ignorance, that is morally excusable. However, if one does damage knowingly (or allows that damage), then one is culpable. So is the government is morally bankrupt? For more than 20 years it has known that we have been hurting the lake. Yet nothing changes. Is that neglect, corruption of vandalism?
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I want to continue looking at the desecration of Lake Winnipeg. Partly to find out how it got to be this way. But mostly I want to find out how things can change. Are there ways of being, listening and acting that can allow the lake to regain its integrity and health.
I started this last year but after all my interviews I cannot seem to see a storyline, or a way of putting this piece together. My journalistic chops — such as they are — have washed ashore on this assignment. Perhaps I am drowning in too many voices or too much research. Where is the focus for this story? Who are the key players? What weight goes to the past as context and what shifts more towards a new way of engaging? I am unable to construct out of the specific the barques of the general which can float a different discussion. I need to get off the shore.
Why am I laying out my limitations? Because I think this story needs to be told. I believe that Lake Winnipeg deserves better than the lackadaisical stewardship it has received. It craves more than the news release-driven reporting which typifies this — and most — environmental stories. Many people want to know how to adjust their lives so that the lake can flourish. We want to know how the lake can once again become more than a managed aquaculture project.
To finish this story I need your help. Over the next few weeks I will post here the interviews I have conducted with the “usual suspects”. I will also provide key research and context. I am hoping that by putting this all out there as ‘raw’ material then together we can hone a compelling narrative.
The lake needs people who can swim towards a broader understanding of what constitutes health. This body of water cries out for respect for who and what it is, regardless of its ‘services’ to humanity. We benefit because the lake is whole. The lake doesn’t need to be healthy in order to service us. The lake needs people willing to step on the stage along with the actor who was supposed to be a doctor and together present a play of change and possibility. To write that new script I need co-creators. Will you be one of them?
The second installment of the Lake Winnipeg Project is an interview with Vicki Burns, director of the Save Lake Winnipeg Project.
The third installment catches up with Bill Barlow who wrote a damning — and neglected — report about the lake.