Our Times 3

IJC Report on Great Lakes

misunderstanding the problem


Living on a First Nation and looking across the boundary line is a little like looking through the wrong end of a telescope—your field of view is wider, the picture is clearer, and Canada looks a lot further away than it really is. People who have lived on a reserve will know what I mean. For those who haven’t, well Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore; although which side of the boundary is Oz depends a great deal on which side of the line you’re standing.

It’s a perspective you can’t get anywhere else in the country, and it’s wonderfully useful for examining the workings of Canada and the US.

Take the IJC for example. The International Joint Commission is charged by both US and Canadian governments with managing water diversions in and out of ten lake and river systems that dare to cross the border without a visa or VISA.

The IJC was formed because, in 1900, the Army Corps of Engineers built the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to link Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River System. The level of the Upper Great Lakes dropped precipitously and someone said, “Oops, perhaps we should have talked to Canada first.” And the IJC was born.

The IJC still carries the Corps’ can-do attitude. It can suggest ways of managing the Great Lakes, but now all the parties have to agree before they do it. However, it’s still not very good at dealing with the consequences.

For example, it obtained agreement that the St Clair River should be dredged to make room for ocean going “salties.” The big ships brought all kinds of invasive species that are rapidly changing the food cycle in the water column and wreaking havoc with the fisheries.

To examine dropping water levels in Lakes Huron and Michigan, the IJC formed the Upper Great Lakes Study Group. The scientists who undertook the study handed in their final Report in March 2012 along with their bill —$17 million.

In the Report, they say that the loss of water though dredging the St Clair River is minimal—maybe 5 cm. Climate change now accounts for much greater loss through year-round evaporation. Inflows, such as river water and precipitation are not enough to make up for the loss due to extreme weather—this summer’s long, hot dry spell for example.

Some change is due to isostatic rebound—that’s the land bouncing back from the weight of the glaciers—a post-glacial effect that continues today. However, none of these things add up to the one meter drop in the part of Georgian Bay I live beside.

Engineers say they can raise lake levels by constructing sills that would act like speed bumps on the bed of the St Clair River. But the authors rule this out because the sills would interfere with fish habitat in the River, particularly for sturgeon, an endangered species. Besides, the effect would be minimal and the climate is still changing.

The Report suffers from I call scientific hubris. If you remember your Greek, hubris is a word for pride. It’s something heroes needed to do their daring deeds of myth and legend. It is also the thing the gods punished by laying the hero low if his hubris got out of hand. Hubris is as close as the Greeks got to the notion of sin.

“Science” by the way, is just a Greek word for “knowing.”

Scientific hubris is a uniquely Western sin. Reading the Report through the wrong end of the telescope, we see that it betrays an unshakeable belief that we know what’s going on. We can manage it and, if it breaks, we can fix it.

Each Great Lake is its own complex ecosystem and that complexity is compounded by interaction with the other Lake ecosystems. Do something to one part and the effects ripple through all the other parts in ways (it should be obvious by now) we cannot foresee and don’t understand.

People on the First Nation side of the reserve boundary might take a look at this complexity and say, more or less, let it be. However, that perspective is absent in the Report, along with any evidence of consultation with First Nations—which, by the way, is both contrary to Canadian law and bad science.

Instead, the authors of the Report suggest tweaking the IJC’s Master Plan by incorporating “adaptive management.” But this is just a scientific way of saying, “we really don’t know what we’re doing, but we’ll study the thing as we do it anyway and maybe we’ll figure it all out.”

Aboriginal scientists would say first, do no harm. The best Western scientists would say remove the harm and let the ecosystem heal itself. To paraphrase Pogo, himself a “knower”, we have met the harm and it is us.

Some Facts - 25 million people live and work around the Great Lakes. - 98% of the water in the Great Lakes is glacial melt. Only 2% is renewable. - IJC is charged with managing for various competing interests (the first 4 are given preference): domestic, industrial and sanitary water uses; commercial navigation (shipping); hydroelectric generation; irrigation; coastal zone uses (mostly cottagers); recreational boating and tourism; and ecosystems (plants, animals, fish, etc). - Over 100 First Nations and tribes rely on the Great Lakes and their watersheds for sustenance and the expression of their aboriginal and treaty rights. - Upper Great Lakes Report via or at

A Telling Footnote

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was built for shipping and sewage. It allowed both freighters and raw sewage easy passage into the Mississippi River System. It also diverted so much water from the Great Lakes that it threatened shipping. Asian carp, which were introduced to clean up algae in Arkansas catfish farms, have found their way up the Mississippi and through the Canal and are knocking on electric fence the Corps has installed to keep them out of Lake Michigan. In 1999, the American Society of Civil Engineers named the Canal a Civil Engineering Monument of the Millennium by. In 2011, the Canal was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

  • David McLaren is an award-winning writer living at Neyaashiinigmiing on Georgian Bay, the home of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation. He has worked in government, the private sector, with ENGOs and First Nations. He established the Saugeen Ojibway Nation’s Environmental Office.


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