A Ramsar designation for the Niagara River – if approved – “signals to the rest of the world that we have this natural heritage here where we live and that we believe it is important that it be recognized.” – Fort Erie Mayor and Niagara Regional Councillor Wayne Redekop
“Good for you if this is something that makes you feel good but I am not going to support this.” – Niagara-on-the-Lake Regional Councillor Gary Zalepa at a March 10th, 2021 meeting of the Region’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, shortly before every elected member of the committee except him voted in favour of a Ramsar designation.
Niagara, Ontario’s Regional Council Will Vote Yes or No at its 6:30 P.M. Council Meeting this Thursday, March 25th, on a Ramsar Designation for the Niagara River. (To watch Regional Council meetings at home, try clicking on https://www.youtube.com/embed/MUlhI9Y_0Nw?rel=0&autoplay=1 and follow the prompts)
A News Commentary by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper
Posted March 23rd, 2021 on Niagara At Large
Can we finally do this?
Can we at long last come together as a community of communities in Niagara, Ontario and celebrate a natural treasure we should feel blessed to host – the Niagara River – and pay some homage to all of the vision and courage that generations of Niagara residents have dedicated to protecting and preserving this great river for generations to come?
Can communities on the Niagara, Ontario side of this beautiful river at long last do what our American neighbours did in 2019?
In early October of that year, they came together as local, state and federal governments, and as ordinary citizens from Buffalo, all the way downstream to Youngstown, New York, to celebrate the designation of their side of the Niagara River as a “wetland of international importance “under the umbrella of a Ramsar Convention, signed by Canada and at least another 169 nations around the world in 1971 with the blessing of the United Nations.
And there is so much to celebrate given how much healthier the Niagara River is today, and the dire straits and the communities along its shores suffered in decades gone.
Rewind back to the 1960s, for a moment, and there were all of the reports of the Niagara River being so swamped with industrial chemicals that a captain of one of the Maid of the Mist boats, piloting tourists below the falls, said the air around the boat often smelled like “airplane glue”
Forward ahead to the 1970s, to all of the reports from scientists working for Environment Canada and other agencies, showing colonies of herring gulls on that little island of rocks just above the Horseshoe Falls, and on islands downstream in Lake Ontario, with eggs so loaded with dioxin, mirex and other industrial poisons entering the river that the eggs would not hatch. The bird colonies were facing reproductive collapse.
Later in that decade, a whole neighbourhood of residents in Niagara Falls, New York, along with the public school their children attended, was wiped out by a toxic dump that became known to the world as Love Canal. The dump’s chemicals were also making their way to the waters of the Niagara River, as were chemicals from other notorious dumps known at that time as Hyde Park and S-Area.
The pollution became such a concern to communities along the Niagara River’s shores that in 1979 a large number of citizens in the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, led by an outspoken and charismatic town resident named Margherita Howe, organized a group called Operation Clean. Within a few years, the Ontario government agreed to pay for a pipeline to Niagara-on-the-Lake, all the way from the Decew water treatment plant in St. Catharines, so that the residents were no longer drawing their drinking water from the river’s mouth.
One of the individuals who knows about all of this history and who would go on to play a key role in working with provincial, state and federal governments on both sides of the Niagara River to clean this toxic mess up is Jim Bradley, a former, long-standing St. Catharines MPP who now serves as Chair of the council for Niagara, Ontario’s regional government.
Through the last half of the 1980s, Jim Bradley served as Ontario’s Minister of Environment in the government of then-Liberal Premier David Peterson, and when parties for the then U.S. federal and state governments insisted on signing a cleanup pact for the river with Canada – one that included no targets or timetables for reducing chemical pollution in the river – Bradley dug in and said no.
Bradley faced strong criticism from those parties for a while, including from representatives of Canada’s then Conservative government. Bradley was slammed by some of these parties in newspapers in Toronto and New York State, for ‘not being a team player’ or for possibly putting at least some kind of clean up deal in danger of not being signed at all.
Yet Bradley hung on and in the late 1980s, he joined the environment heads for New York State, and the federal governments of the United States and Canada in signing a cleanup pact that included a promise to reduce toxic pollution in the Niagara River by at least 50 per cent within 10 years.
Ten years later, detailed monitoring of the river’s water, and of fish and other wildlife confirmed that the target Bradley fought so hard for was met. And today, herring gulls are thriving on that island above the Horseshoe Falls and long absent bald eagles are once again nesting again along the river’s shores.
This is a cause for residents across our Niagara region to come together and do something numerous other regions around the world have done at more than 2,300 water bodies that mean something to them – celebrate the Niagara River, under the 1971 Ramsar Convention, with a designation as a wetland of international importance.
Jim Bradley, in his current role as Niagara Regional Chair, has supported such designation at regional committee and council meetings for many months now, since Jocelyn Baker, a Niagara resident, conservationist and a co-chair of a volunteer team that has been working toward this designation for more than seven years, made a presentation last year to the Region’s council.
At a meeting of the Region’s planning and economic development committee earlier this March, Bradley recalled the years decades ago when residents on the Canadian side of the Niagara River so often pointed at their American neighbours for not showing enough interest in the river as an environmental treasure.
Now that Americans have celebrated their side of the river as a globally important watercourse under the Ramsar banner, and so many parties on this side being so unwilling to do the same, the shoe seems to be on the other foot.
“Canadians often, without justification, think of themselves as more conscious about the environment than our neighbours on the American side of the river,” he said, yet they have come together from one end of the river to the other – governments, businesses, landowners and citizens – and embraced a Ramsar designation.
At least some parties on the Ontario side of the river appear “to see some kind of sinister purpose behind it. Well our American neighbours don’t see any sinister purpose behind it,” Bradley added.
Before the March 10th committee session ended, every member on it, except one, voted in favour of sending a motion on to a full meeting of Niagara’s Regional Council this coming Thursday, March 25th to support a Rasmar designation.
The only outlier was Niagara-on-the-Lake regional councillor Gary Zalepa who said; “Good for you if this is something that makes you feel good but I am not going to support this.”
Zalepa went on to suggest that a Ramsar designation “really has no function” and the regional council’s approval of it would show a lack of respect for parties in his town who have concerns about any impacts it may have on their properties or businesses.
Then he repeated; “I guess if it makes you feel good, then good for you.”
That is a pretty snarky thing to say to volunteers across Niagara who have spent the past seven years working on getting this designation through.
As for respect, what about the lack of respect Zalepa’s words show for the generations of residents on both sides of the Niagara River, including those in his own Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake who lead the charge under the Operation Clean banner, and who fought for so many years to restore this grand waterway to some kind of health?
If Zalepa doesn’t care for my criticism, I can assure him that he is just lucky that Margherita Howe isn’t alive to hear the kind of presentation he made at that March 10th regional committee meeting. If she was, his chances of getting re-elected in next year’s municipal election would be even slimmer than they may be now.
Fort Erie Mayor and Regional Councillor Wayne Redekop (whose town council, unlike the councils of Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake, is the only one right along the river to so far support the designation) responded to Zalepa’s words this way.
“Obviously, the Ramsar designation means something more than nothing, and it is unfortunate the representative from the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake feels disrespected when I certainly mean no disrespect,” said Redekop at that March 10th meeting. “If they (Zalepa and members of the NOTL council) feel (a Ramsar designation) is of no significant, then there should be no problem.”
Yet it is significant,” added Redekop. It is a signal that residents and communities here recognize that in this river, we have something “very unique.”
“It also signals to the rest of the world that we have this natural heritage here where we live and that we believe it is important that it be recognized.
The opposition to this designation is bewildering especially when it comes from a Niagara Parks Commission, created by the Government of Ontario more than a century ago with a mission to protect and preserve what it can of the natural corridor along the Niagara River. The commission’s board, which is chaired and c-chaired by Ford government appointees Sandie Bellows and April Jeffs, says its opposition is based on a legal report it received which it so far refuses to share with the public.
The councils for Niagara Falls, Ontario and Niagara-on-the-Lake have also failed to approve the designation for reasons that appear to have something to do with concerns developers have that it might block their building plans, and that it might (in the case of Niagara-on-the-Lake, in particular) interfere with water farmers draw from the Niagara River for irrigation.
In spite of continued nonsense spewed for years now by a vocal minority, there has never been any evidence that this designation would interfere with irrigation. Why would anyone want to prevent farmers in our region from irrigating their fields?
As for any concerns developers may have, there is plenty of room in Niagara for them to build without paving over what is left of the natural heritage in the Niagara River watershed.
So at long last, let us hope that this March 25th, a majority of our Niagara Regional Councillors, if not all of them, embrace Fort Erie Mayor Redekop’s words and show the world that we value this great natural treasure.
A Ramsar designation would also be a way of honouring and celebrating the many people in our region who struggled so hard over many decades to protect and preserve the Niagara River for generations to come.
To watch a video of the discusson and debate at the March 10th Niagara Regional Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting over the Ramsar designation issue, click on the screen immediately below –
To read a few related stories on the Ramsar issue that Niagara At Large has posted in the past, click on the following links –
Doug Draper began covering environment issues full-time at The St. Catharines Standard in 1979, focusing a good deal of his coverage over the next two decades on issues related to pollution and other challenges facing the health of the Niagara River and Great Lakes as a whole.
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