At the end of last year the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto played host to people from all over Canada to talk about oceans and Canada “From Coast, to Coast, to Coast” (a term, which I absolutely love, coined by the C3 expedition which saw a boat full of scientists, artists and indigenous individuals make their way from the East to the West coast of the country, via the Northwest Passage, as a mark of its 150th anniversary last year. But that’s not what this article is about).
For a vast country, Canada seems to be united by water. Its East and West coasts form the life blood of the communities who live on them, its Arctic archipelago is a spectacular and unique environment in which people and animals not only survive, but thrive. There are more lakes in Arctic and sub-Arctic Canada than in the rest of the world, and the canoe is absolutely ubiquitous in popular culture references the country over. But this conference was focused on the three big guys: the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans. How do people relate to these watery environments? In what ways do we make them our own? But also, what challenges are they facing now, in the 21st century, and what can we do about them?
The conference was made up of a series of panels focusing on ocean science; the use of storytelling in connecting the general public with ideas of ocean conservation; the necessity of creating protected zones in Canada’s waters and in particular the recently formed Tallurutiup Imanga in Nunavut, the largest zone of this kind ever created in Canada; and finally, Canada’s continued commitments to its marine environments until 2020. This conference was truly inter-disciplinary. By including perspectives from Western scientists, artists, filmmakers, free-divers, members of local government, indigenous leaders, and a key-note speech by Alexandra Cousteau, it was able to show the true diversity of the country, as well as the richness of its oceans and its people’s engagement with them.
It was also a visually beautiful conference, with a programme designed by the 2017 cohort of students studying Environmental Visual Communication in a course run by a Toronto college and the Royal Ontario Museum, and featuring photographs by Cristina Mittermeier – famous for her work with the newly set-up charity Sea Legacy, among others. We watched films which were nothing if not visual love-songs to the coastal places where they were made and finally, we heard Ta’Kaiya Blaney, a youth activist from Tla A’min Nation with a beautiful voice, sing (please look her up).
The conference’s participants did all they could to make it a joyful affair – a bringing together of people to discuss a shared love – and there certainly were positive stories to be told. The production of Tallurutiup Imanga, and Canada’s meeting its target of protecting 5% of its coastal and marine areas by 2017 rang especially happily in our ears. But then, it is hard to ignore the reality that, for the 5% that is protected, there is another 95% which is not. It is hard to ignore the salmon farms in British Columbia which do not have permission to operate on the land of indigenous peoples and which not only pump the blood of dead fish back into rivers through which wild salmon migrate, but also see the transfer of diseases from farmed to wild salmon, and show little sign of moving anytime soon. As well as this, the realisation that around 20 billion kilograms of plastic is let loose into the great global soup of the oceans each year, and the knowledge that America alone uses enough plastic straws every day to wrap around the world twice were sobering thoughts indeed.
If there was anything to take away from this conference, then, it was a mixed picture. We cannot go on as we are; that much is clear. We must find ways to work together – by not buying farmed salmon, by choosing paper straws (or rediscovering the joy of sipping a fancy cocktail straight from the glass), or by campaigning for the further protection of our marine environments. The good news is that, with each new decision we make, with each person we manage to get on board, the world becomes a healthier place for everyone. If the hundreds of knowledgeable, kind, fascinating people at this conference were anything to go by, if nothing else, we are not in this fight alone.