Not just the Average Lakes

Documentary filmmaker Kevin McMahon knows the Great Lakes as few people do: He spent years making the acclaimed documentary “Waterlife,” a portrait of the Great Lakes in peril.

The stunning film has achieved both critical success (winning the Special Jury Prize for Canadian Feature at Hot Docs 2009), and wide distribution at a time when the Great Lakes urgently require our collective attention.

I sat with Kevin McMahon to discuss the pride, the problems and the promise of the world’s greatest freshwater reservoirs.

The above video comprises excerpts of our conversation. See below for an abridged transcript of our interview.

david and kevin

DN I’m here with Kevin McMahon, the man behind the  documentary Waterlife, which is a portrait of the Great Lakes today. For the past year or so you’ve been on a journey with this film: the film’s been making its way around into distribution in your local video store, through the festival scene, the NFB, Global television.

What’s that journey been like?

KM It’s been great. Kind of extraordinary, kind of  surprising. Extraordinary in the sense of seeing how people around the Great Lakes have embraced this movie, and been very eager to see it, eager to talk about it, exchange it with each other, vying to get it into the video stores.

Because – and this is the surprising part – people don’t realize what’s going on in the Lakes and therefore what’s going on in their sink. Because we live around the Great Lakes, we draw our water from the Great Lakes, and all the water that we use goes back into the Great Lakes.

Which is actually unusual for North America, in particular. Most people draw from the water table; we draw right out of the Lakes. So it’s been interesting to see how little people know about these gigantic bodies of water.

DN You talk about community screenings and people going to their local video store to pick up a documentary. Is there a sense that people are starting to wake up or to get worried? What’s going on here?

KM People are curious. It’s been a long time since anyone has done anything substantial on the Lakes. People are curious about that. Of course the interest in the environment is burgeoning everywhere. People are starting to understand that they’re physically situated in an ecosystem and they’d better understand how it’s functioning.

I tell audiences, this film is your autobiography. You’re seventy per cent water and this film is going to tell you where that water comes from.

DN This is no ordinary ecosystem. This is the one place on the planet where something like 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water is sitting in giant basins, in the middle of North America. An absolutely vast number of people live in that space. Can you talk about how unique that is?

KM As you say, it’s 20 per cent of the Earth’s surface fresh water. So if you don’t count the water that’s locked up in the glaciers, which is essentially now melting into the ocean, it’s a fifth of the water we have easy access to.

In the context of the United States, it represents 95 per cent of the fresh water available. In Canada of course we’re more fortunate than that, but it’s huge.  There’s 40 million people that live around the Lakes. The Lakes are very much the economic foundation for this whole society. The reason people came here, when Europeans immigrated to North America was because it’s so rich. Because it offers fishing, and obviously a supply of water.

Because the Great Lakes are the remains of the original glaciers that covered the top part of North America, the land, all around them – almost all around them, not so much the North Shore of Superior – is extremely fertile, because it’s all the dirt that those glaciers scraped all down North America. Very very wealthy land, arguably the wealthiest land in North America.

And now, with global warming which is going to create so many water problems, and so many problems on the coasts, really this is the diamond jewel in the centre of North America. You know, the North American economy very much turns on what happens around here. And to the environment.

DN In one brief blurb you’ve touched on transportation, agriculture, human health, the history of settlement, the fisheries, the natural environment, the economy, our civilized world, and all of these things are really complexly interlinked. Is that part of what makes this such a unique story?

KM Yeah, I think it is, although every environmental story is that story. And the other part that we didn’t talk about which is crucially woven in is culture. We draw our cultural sustenance from the environment, very much so, but we also have a profound effect on the environment. It is in direct relation to what the culture does.

So all of those things are bound together in any environmental story, but in the Great Lakes, they’re kind of writ large. Because they’re the Great Lakes! They’re not just the Average Lakes, they’re the Great Lakes. There’s really nothing like them.

DN This seems to me a unique film. It’s very beautiful to look at, for one thing. The soundtrack is terrific, some amazing musicians involved. You’ve got Gord Downie doing your narration. These are high production values. It had to be an incredibly expensive thing to shoot. It looks wonderful, and yet at every turn, it seems there’s a hard truth being told. Talk about that marriage of aesthetic and message.

KM Well, it’s what I always try to do. It’s sugar coating, I guess. Movies, or any form of art, are what they are, so they have to be seductive in themselves. If it’s not fun to watch the thing, then it’s not going to work.

So that’s the job: try and make the experience beautiful and moving enough to hold people through. I like being able to document the world, and this is a beautiful subject. It’s inherently beautiful. Even when you go into a sewage treatment plant, and the water’s all brown and sludgy, it’s still moving in these amazing patterns.

So this was a very easy movie to shoot, in the sense that everywhere I turned the camera – it’s like that old expression, fish in a barrel, it was easy to get a beautiful image here. You can’t separate the beauty of the subject from the beauty of the film.

DN Speaking of fish in a barrel: they’re literally pouring fish from barrels into the Great Lakes to try to re-stock a massively declined fishery. You document the efforts to clean up PCBs around industrial locations.

You follow a Native woman traveling around the Lakes, trying to raise awareness and bring healing to the space. You look at people who are trying to figure out what’s wrong with beluga whales, a large percentage of which have cancer, and on and on.

How do you maintain a sense of beauty when what you’re hearing are sad, overwhelming stories of negative change?

KM Well… you just have to look at the place.

There are many, many places of great beauty on the Great Lakes, that are still in pretty good shape, but are being challenged, as everything is, by the fundamental problems.

Which are badly controlled municipal waste, badly regulated industries which still dump a shitload of toxins into the Lakes constantly, badly dealt-with legacy toxins…  So these are the challenges that the place faces.

But the place is overwhelmingly beautiful. The whole hydrosphere, the Lakes, the sky above and the clouds, and in fact the human communities around them. There’s a profound beauty in all of that.

So it’s not hard to find beauty. What’s hard to do is to keep your temper in the face of this really stupid, really stupid damage that’s being done. It’s incredibly unnecessary. It’s a matter of lazy thinking, lazy action, and just all around kind of moronic behaviour.

Which is completely unnecessary and is undermining the legacy of our leaders.

DN I grew up on the shores of Georgian Bay, literally in Group of Seven country, where so much of our visual sense of ourselves is grounded, surrounded by Native communities that had lived on the Bay and indeed on the Lakes for tens of thousands of years.

And as well, at a time when the St. Lawrence Seaway was a pinnacle of Canadian or North American engineering achievement, transportation achievement, how we were establishing ourselves.

There was a sense of shared culture at that time around the Lakes, and it seemed to me a sense of pride in and awareness of this incredible phenomonon. Has that fallen off? Have we lost it in some way?

KM That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure what the answer to it is. I think I would say in some places, to a certain extent yes – more in the urban areas. I mean, I grew up in Niagara Falls. When I was a kid, you could swim in the Niagara River. And I quite clearly remember the time came when I was, I don’t know, ten, eleven, something like that when it was like, oh… maybe that’s not such a good idea. And we stopped.

And I think people in this city, Toronto would tell you that they remember that they remember as kids going to Cherry Beach, going to Sunnyside, going to these places along the Lake, going to Toronto Island swimming. It’s not the first instinct of Torontonians anymore.

What happened in the 1970s was there was the first flush of awareness of the pollution of the Lakes. You know, you had the great damage done to Lake Eerie, and the Cayahoga River catching fire, so that made people aware.

There was an uprising that went on for a while. When I first started in journalism in the 1980s there was a lot of fierce fighting over the Lakes. Fierce! You used to go to meetings of government bodies that were tasked with taking care of the Lakes and there would be big crowds of people, angry foot-stomping and so on. This had to be cleaned up!

And I think what happened were two things. Governments very cleverly manipulated that. We don’t deal with this in the film, but there’s a  fascinating story to be told about the Lakes, the way governments actually worked in a very concerted way to diffuse public anger, and give the sense that the Lakes were being cleaned up.

But at the same time, people in various ways have kind of pushed away from the Lakes. A lot of people came to the conclusion that, oh, they’re polluted. You can’t go in them, you can’t go near them, you don’t want to swim in them. And so that has the effect of course of, if people have given up on something, they’re not so worried about whether or not it’s being polluted. They’re not so interested. They’re not going to the government meetings and stamping their foot on the floor anymore and saying something has to be done about this. Because in a sense, they’ve given up.

And one of the things I really wanted to do with Waterlife was to show, whoa there! This is a magnificent jewel that we have in our midst! You have no idea! I mean to watch the sunset on the shore of Lake Huron, or to travel that north coast of Lake Superior, or indeed to travel in certain places where it hasn’t been destroyed along the shore of Lake Ontario, or along the the St. Lawrence river, especially when it gets into Quebec…

Now these are amazing, amazing landscapes that we have. And the people who know that are the people who live in small communities still on the Lakes and still use the Lakes. And they DO go to the meetings. They do complain. They’re the ones that will come out of a screening of Waterlife and will stay for hours afterwards to talk about it, because they want to know how do you get the politicians here?

So I think yes, to answer your question, there has been a pull away to some extent. And I’ll also say, it’s different in Canada and the States. The Americans still have a very strong Great Lakes culture. And the Americans have a much stronger involvement, in terms of trying to get things done about the Lakes and get the Lakes cleaned up.

DN A lot of the issues that plague the Great Lakes today – I’m thinking about zebra mussels, lamprey, the danger of incursion of Asian carp, water levels, industrial pollution – can be tied in quite directly to the development of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

KM Some, yes.

DN This pinnacle achievement that was the St. Lawrence Seaway, was that a really bad idea?

KM (Pauses) Um…  Yeah. That was a really bad idea. And it was done in an extremely ham-fisted, clumsy way, like so much industrial development is. I mean, building a city, a metropolis of chemical and petroleum refineries right on the St. Clair River: also a bad idea. Doing the exact same thing in Niagara Falls, where I grew up, and then taking whatever horrifically toxic waste you had that you didn’t know what to do with, and digging holes in ground that was essentially shale and dumping it… Bad ideas. Bad  ideas, all.

So a lot of mistakes were made in the 20th century, in terms of managing large-scale technology. And some brutally fatal mistakes. But some that can be recovered from. You know, the St. Lawrence River is tremendously polluted not specifically because of the seaway, but the industry that the Seaway brought to the river, and because of the way it changed the currents and and so on.

You know, the 19th and the 20th centuries were the time when humanity first got its hands on really gigantic toys. It’s like giving a toddler an atomic bomb. In fact we are still morally and politically toddlers, and we do have atomic bombs.

So a lot of bad things have happened and a lot of mistakes have been made. But the good news is that we have the technology to reverse a lot of the damage that’s been done. And we have the knowledge to go forward and develop and maintain a highly technological society – which we have to, you know we live in urban environments, most of us, and even those who don’t, we still have to house and take care of great masses of people – and we’re quite able to do it in very sustainable ways, if we’re not idiots about it.

The problem always is the idiot factor.

DN This is what I’m wondering. Because you say we have the knowledge, we have the technology. And yet in the film you show people swimming in giant swimming pools right next to Lake Huron, and they sort of playfully talk about the fact that “yeah, yeah, the water levels are going down, but it just means we have more beach!”

KM That’s the idiot factor.

DN So my question is, we may have the technology, we may have the knowledge on some scale, but do we have the awareness? Do we have the personal awareness and the personal sense of responsibility?

I think often of the Aral Sea, which was once one of the largest inland bodies of water in the world. Which basically dried up, and turned into two much smaller lakes, one of them probably poisoned for all time.

My own awareness of the water levels on Georgian Bay is very poignant for me. And I just wonder, are we aware enough to really deal with that?

KM Well, you know, there’s an interesting comment that’s almost the last comment in Waterlife, where a scientist talks about the effects that chemicals will have through successive generations at the genetic level. And essentially he says one of the impacts will be deleterious effects on mental health. They will make us stupider over time.

And that makes sense. It’s logical that if you’re poisoning yourself, your body’s not going to function as well. Your brain’s not going to develop as well, or it’s not going to be as plastic, and therefore you’re going to become dumber.

And if you want to worry about something, that’s something to worry about, because there is a curious sort of evolutionary chasm that we’re at, where we have the technological ability, we have the knowledge and the ability to distribute the information – you know, it’s very, very easy for anybody to get a lot of information about almost any problem they care to address – but we have a curious civic and political culture where stupidity is valued.

Where big, dumb, “solutions” are embraced when it’s very obvious that they’re not solutions. It’s very obvious that they’re going to be damaging. But people have this kind of desire for simple-mindedness. And I think it isn’t necessarily a lack of awareness as much as it is that people are shit-scared. It’s like “Oh my God, the sky is falling!”

Early on in the research, I looked at a government report about the Great Lakes and about various challenges. And right in the last few pages,  government scientists said, well of course, the biggest challenge that we will have to face, that we’re just starting to get our heads around, is global warming. It’s bound to have all these effects, but we don’t really know what they are because we’re just starting to study it. So that’s more than 20 years ago.

David Suzuki talks about how when he interviewed Lucien Bouchard, who was the first environment minister for the Mulroney government – so that’s like however many governments back – Bouchard said, the biggest problem we’re going to have to deal with is global warming.

So there’s no lack of information. At the very top governments have known for 20 years. They have known well. They didn’t need Al Gore to tell them. It was well on their radar a long time ago. But they are short-term monkeys. They go for whatever they can put in their mouths right now. They can get the votes by going on about taxes, or some other nonsense. That’s what they do.

So the problems that we are have are not a lack of awareness. The problem that we have is a dysfunctional cultural system, dysfunctional civic and political system, and the inability to marry the awareness that we have and the technological abilities that we have to deal with the problems that we have, with a kind of social movement that can bring all those things together and effect the change for the positive.

DN The compelling image that stays with me from the film is this single woman walking with a staff and a bucket of water around the Lakes. Tell me her name and what her story is.

KM She’s a wonderful person. Her name is Josephine Mandamin. She is Anishnabe. She’s from Thunder Bay. She’s a grandmother. About 7 years ago, roughly, she was at a Native conference and one of the Chiefs noted the problems with water pollution. And noted that as water became more polluted and as it disappeared it was going to become more more and more precious, and it was going to have the value of precious metals.

In the Anishnabe culture, the women, so Josephine tells me, are the water bearers. It is their job. That’s part of their basket of responsibilities within the culture. To get the water, take care of the water, to manage the water. So she felt moved to do something.

She and some of her friends decided that they would walk around Lake Superior, to raise awareness essentially… and by the time she was part way along on that journey she’d decided to walk all the way around the Great Lakes, 15,000 kilometres I think it is, the circumference of the Great Lakes, including walking eventually all the way out to the Atlantic Ocean to where the lake water meets the ocean water.

We had already been filming, we were already started shooting Waterlife when I happened to learn about Josephine. Happened to! It took me four years, roughly, to finance this film. So I had spent a lot of time researching the Great Lakes. A lot. I knew a lot of people, I’d talked to a lot of people. I didn’t know about this Waterwalk. I didn’t know about Josephine.

As she walked, she gathered the support of First Nations. Everywhere she went they’d be welcomed, they’d stay in community halls and so on, they’d be given feasts, they’d be discussed in the First Nations media, or what the Americans call the American Indian media. Mainstream media, zip. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Nobody mentioned them. Nobody talked to them, nobody took pictures of them.

And they’re some pretty stunning pictures, these Native ladies, you know, going along come hell or high water. Factory land, or beach, or whatever, just plodding along for SIX YEARS and no one paid them any attention. Including the politicians! Nothing nothing nothing.

The only one, for whatever reason, who noticed them and took an interest was Jennifer Granholm who is the Canadian born Democratic governor of Michigan. And Michigan of course, more than probably anywhere else, understands the significance of the Great Lakes. They call themselves the Great Lakes State. They border four of the Lakes. So they take the Great Lakes very seriously, and she noticed them and she gave them a plaque and had a ceremony for them.

But by and large, they did this entire journey over this entire period of time in isolation, except for within the First Nations community. But they didn’t care!

Because as much as anything her message, I think was, not only to the people who live around the water – but to the water itself. When they would stop at any little creek or rivulet going into the Lake, they would say a prayer, they’d make an offering, and they would talk to the water. I saw her do this countless times.

So it’s something that seems either mysterious or flaky depending on your point of view, from the point of view of downtown Toronto, but is an integral part, in my experience, of that Aboriginal way of being. To some extent Josephine’s walk was about bridging the gap between humanity and the water.

DN It’s powerful because it’s this incredible individual action that at the same time speaks to something universal. And as I walk away from this conversation I want to know, what can I do as an individual?

KM Well, you know, I think there’s 2 kinds of answer to that; maybe three. As you know we set up websites. We have tried, to the best of our ability, to channel people’s anxiety and interest into organizations that are designed to make a difference. Some of them are lobbying organizations like Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. Some are legal organizations like Ecojustice that actually go out and fight on behalf of the environment in the courts. And then there’s others that are various kinds of conservation organizations.

DN Award winning website, by the way – multiple award winning website.

KM There’s actually two websites. There’s a community website and then there’s an interactive educational website. The educational website helps people to understand the issues better. The other one’s just to funnel their interest into organizations. So that’s a long-winded way of saying, one thing you can do is there are many existing organizations.

Specifically around the Great Lakes there’s an umbrella organization called Great Lakes United, which has existed for thirty years or something like that. It’s an umbrella organization of all the tiny little conservation and environmental groups around the Lakes. they do great stuff. They’re basically about raising awareness. And there are other organizations.

So that’s one thing you can do. You can give them money, you can give them time. You can write a letter on their behalf or you can just become knowledgeable about what they do.

Then on a more personal level there’s the way we manage water. And I think we all pretty much know by now that you don’t waste it. You don’t waste it and you don’t pour paint down it. And you don’t put pesticides on your lawn. You don’t do all those things that we can personally do to waste water or poison water. Again there’s stuff on the website. But that’s stuff we all know, and we just tend not to think about.

Because we tend to think, well, I’m here, in my little bathroom over my sink, running the water while I’m brushing my teeth, you know – what is the big deal? Well, so are five million other people, so that’s the big deal.

But I think the third, and by far the most important thing is, this has to be on the political agenda. We are a communal society. We all drink the water. We all breathe the air. And you know, I’ve been a reporter for about 30 years. And through that whole period what I’ve seen is even while a recycling level – a don’t waste the water while you’re brushing your teeth level – of environmental awareness has vastly increased, there has been an almost constant assault on all the measures that were put in place, starting in the late 1960s through the 1970s, to make material gains in improving the environment.

Regulation of industry. Insistence that things be cleaned up. Insistence that municipalities cannot dump their shit into the water. Having ministries of the environment at the federal, the provincial, the municipal level that actually function, that actually had inspectors that actually went and got stuff done.

All of those things have been undermined. You know, politicians will get up and go blah, blah blah. But there’s an election going on in this city right now. And as far as I can tell the biggest issue is, “they just better not raise our taxes!”

Well, what’s going to pay for the sewers? If they don’t have the tax money to fix the sewers, you’re going to be drinking shit. And your kids are going to be drinking shit times two. And their kids, shit times three, and you’re not even going to realize it. So, you know, so what, your taxes increase?

So I think the most important thing you can do at this juncture is at every level – municipal, provincial, state, federal – we have to really say to the politicians, this is the most important thing. Taxes, not so important.

I think people just have to say “FUCK IT! We’re fed up! This is our corporeal being. Nothing else matters.” It actually doesn’t matter if you don’t have a job if you’re dying of cancer. It really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re paying an eighty per cent tax rate, or a twenty per cent tax rate, or no taxes at all if your kids are completely screwed up.

If they’re autistic, if their livers are corroded… all those things. So I think people need to kind of slap themselves in the head, and I think they have to slap the table and demand better of the politicians that surround us.

And I don’t blame the politicians, at least I don’t entirely blame the politicians, because they are shaped by what we want. And I think we have to understand, this is what we want, because the best things in life are free, and then we have to insist on them taking that into account in their actions and moving society forward instead of backward.

DN There’s nothing more important than water, is there?

KM It’s seventy per cent of you… I guess the other 30 per cent is important too, but if you don’t have that medium, like we learned in chemistry, you don’t got nothin’.

DN Kevin McMahon, thank you very much. It’s a terrific film and it’s an important one.

KM Thank you.

One comment on “Not just the Average Lakes

  1. Lovely interview and it has the stuff that should be the big news.

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