Giving Back: Zoomers take a Stand on Water

Photo by Bryan Adams

What’s this madman doing? Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (the Bobby Kennedy Jr., son of slain and immortalized Senator
Robert Kennedy) is precariously hoisted onto his own son’s
shoulders as Bobby tries to traverse a New Orleans floodwall, a daunting five-metre-high concrete structure, so he can see what lies on the other side. I’ve just met Kennedy, and I’ve offered to drive him around New Orleans this spring afternoon. We’ve already
been pulled over twice in the Lower Ninth Ward, once by the police as we explored a massive, off-limits graveyard of abandoned
cars and destroyed homes, then shortly after by a security team as we drove onto what we were sure was a real-life, post-Katrina devastation site that turned out to be a movie set for Brad Pitt’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

I enter medium/high stress mode as Kennedy scoots himself to the top of the floodwall, this structure meant to keep future storm surges from invading my waterlogged town. Aren’t I the one officially
in charge? This is my adopted city, after all, and so won’t I be held to blame if another police cruiser pulls up and we’re all thrown into Central Lockup? Or worse, what if Bobby Kennedy falls and breaks his leg? He has a very important speech, the keynote
address to the 2007 Waterkeeper Alliance Annual Conference
to give in just a couple of hours. People have travelled from around the globe to hear him. Any sane person would be locked in a hotel room preparing.

He stands in a triumphant Kennedy pose atop that wall, one hand over his eyes, the other on his hip. What does he see? The future of New Orleans, a new and better City-That-Care-Forgot? Or maybe the ghosts of the dead and misplaced and forgotten moaning to return home. All I want is to see what he’s seeing, too. Bobby mutters something and scrambles down with the sure-footedness of a mountain goat.

“I think we’re all hungry,” he says to me. “Know somewhere good to eat?” I want to remind him that I have to have him back to his hotel for his speech in a very short time. Instead, I ask if he likes crawfish and greens.

This is the Bobby Kennedy I’ve come to know some over the last few years, not afraid of authority’s consequences, willing
to go where he might not be welcome, pushing boundaries anyway just to see what lies on the other side. We made it back in time, and I watched that evening in awe as Bobby spoke to the hundreds gathered about the importance of water, about its fragility in the world, about its finiteness and how it isn’t our governments
or corporations who own this vital resource, but the
people. The time had come, Bobby urged, to reclaim our water rights that stretch back to the Magna Carta and the Code of Justinian.
He’s an amazing and gifted public speaker, despite a rare throat condition called spasmodic dysphonia, which causes his voice to sound strained and shaky. Regardless, he’s in control of that gift that is his family’s. The crowd seemed galvanized.

Still, I was new to this Waterkeeper Alliance thing — and a touch wary. The idea of actively participating in big environmental
movements scared me, for no other reason than I questioned how effective they were. If I became a Waterkeeper, did this mean I had to march in demonstrations, possibly throw rocks at policemen?
Would I have to boycott capitalist water pigs and splash water-based paint on their wives’ fur coats? I questioned if I really
wanted to wear the collar of “environmentalist,” feeling guilty
for running the tap too long when I washed dishes, questioning every time I peed if I should flush or let it mellow.

My friend Mark Mattson is the head of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper
(Waterkeeper came to Canada in 1999). He’s an environmental
lawyer who’s investigated cases against big boys like LaFarge Canada and the American powerhouse DTE Energy,
demanding that they be held accountable for the damages
their industries threaten to inflict on the natural world — our world — in their search for profit. Mattson’s a man to be reckoned with. His record is impressive. And he acted as a mentor, showing me that this particular organization was no pie-in-the-sky collective
preaching an approach to nature of “Look but don’t touch.”

The roots of the Waterkeeper Alliance was created in 1966 by commercial and recreational fishermen on New York’s Hudson River as the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, blue-collar men trying to defend their way of life. It merged with its affliate, the Hudson Riverkeeper, in 1986 and was known as Riverkeeper until 1999, when the brand Waterkeeper Alliance was created in order to facilitate expansion. It seems that these people understood
that both government and corporations weren’t going to protect their river, so they did it themselves. Today, Waterkeeper
Alliance is among the world’s fastest growing environmental movements, counting tree huggers alongside hunters and fishermen
in its membership.

I think that part of this popularity is due to Kennedy’s simple and sensible message: everyone has the right to clean water. And this, combined with its inclusive nature, convinced me to drop my guard some. Kennedy serves as chairman and his route to this place, like the man, isn’t typical. In 1983, the 29-year-old Kennedy
was arrested for drug possession in South Dakota. Upon his guilty plea, he was sentenced to, in part, 1,500 hours of community
service. Already a passionate environmentalist, Kennedy joined Waterkeeper in 1984 (then known as Hudson Riverkeeper)to fulfill this part of his punishment and, with typical Kennedy focus, kicked his addiction for good while becoming so important
to the organization that upon completion of his community service, he was hired as the group’s chief prosecuting attorney. He never looked back.

Today, Kennedy constantly pushes the idea that our lakes, rivers and oceans cannot serve as the dumping grounds for big business. Just as importantly, Kennedy is a free market capitalism defender, arguing that the corporations (and the governments that allow these corporations to pollute) do far more damage to our economy
with their shortsighted profiteering than most of us realize.

Clearly, his message is being heard around the world. Waterkeeper
Alliance is now represented on six continents, and it has certainly taken root in Canada. Eight active Waterkeeper Alliance member organizations now exist in our country, from the Fraser River to the Bay of Fundy, with more planned in the coming year, including Moose Riverkeeper on James Bay. I’m actually helping to start up this one with the help of Mattson, Gordon Downie, the lead singer of The Tragically Hip, and the Cree hunter and legend William Tozer, in order to help protect Ontario’s great watershed. Funny, isn’t it? Me, a guy who was wary of environmental organizations
only a couple of years ago, is now wading deep into the waters, so to speak. I realized that becoming a Waterkeeper simply entailed making the commitment to a body of water that shaped my life. And when I recognize that this is a global movement with such a fair and simple message, I in turn recognize that I’m acting in the public’s service. It feels good to give back a little.

Across Canada, such esteemed individuals as Doug Chapman, one of our country’s most experienced environmental
prosecutors, environmental engineer Meredith Brown,
environmental management expert Tim Van Hinte and former commercial fisherman David Thompson work hard behind the scenes and, because of them, Waterkeeper Alliance has seen some big victories for every Canadian who cherishes clean water: Petitcodiac
Riverkeeper battled for 10 years to encourage the removal
of the Petitcodiac River Causeway, and this will see the world’s second largest tidal river restored; Fraser Riverkeeper investigated
sewage pollution in the Vancouver area, drawing international attention to the ongoing release of untreated human waste into the Pacific Ocean; and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Alliance won a groundbreaking provincial case on industrial air emissions, forcing permits to pollute that must take into account issues like
public concerns. These victories and many more, it needs saying, were grassroots and often against massive bureaucratic inaction or big corporate machinery.

But while Waterkeeper Alliance is certainly grassroots, its 10th annual fundraiser weekend in Alberta this past January — this year’s being at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, from its usual perch in Banff — is a paparazzo’s dream. If you’re going to go head-to-head with the deep pockets of America’s corporate polluters,
don’t show up to the event that will raise the majority of your annual Canadian budget with nobodies. Alec Baldwin (this year’s returning MC), Academy Award-winner Marcia Gay Harden,
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous‘ Robin Leach, John McEnroe and Ed Begley Jr. among many other Canadian and American
A-listers, mingle with serious captains of industry, all of them converging on the gorgeous Lake Louise. Glenn Close was to co-host the event but, sadly, her father had just passed away.

Admittedly, I’m feeling overwhelmed the first two days of this long weekend. I’m thrown into this celebrity microcosm and the fun and excitement of one of the world’s most beautiful locations. My pessimism rears its tired head. Yes, this event is beneficial to Waterkeeper Alliance’s raison d’être of protecting what many claim is the world’s most important resource. Yes, famous people are skiing
down this frozen resource. Is this the new environmentalism?

Mattson ends up showing me that the real work is already taking
place behind the scenes, already happening since last year’s fundraiser ended. I find out from Kennedy that Baldwin turned down his invite to Sundance Film Festival to be here. The celebrities
tied to this event aren’t doing it for the flash of cameras but seem instead relieved at this lovely getaway. I realize that without the celebrity quotient, this grassroots organization tackling big industry’s wrongs would just be another, poorer, grassroots organization.
Why are all these stars drawn to Waterkeeper Alliance? I’ve got the feeling it has a lot to do with Bobby.

I slip away from the slopes and hunt for Krystyn Tully, vice-president
of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Alliance, Mattson’s right-hand woman and quite possibly the real brains behind the operation. She and her many workmates can’t treat this as a getaway but are working insane hours, assuring operations run smoothly for the big event on Saturday night, the real reason we’ve all gathered.

And what an event it is. Everything seems to come into focus as Baldwin takes the stage after a successful silent auction. The man’s absolutely hilarious, poking fun and cracking jokes, introducing the crowd to Marcia Gay Harden who, in turn, introduces us to Kennedy, who is to give the keynote speech.

Kennedy first thanks the people of Alberta, talks about how he’s skied across the world and this place is the prettiest. He tells the story of how Baldwin made him promise never to move the fundraiser
from Alberta. This gets me thinking: one of the elephants in the room tonight is the fact that an environmental organization is holding its gala in the heart of a province that doesn’t necessarily
see eye-to-eye with Waterkeeper or many other environmental
groups, for that matter. We’re all sitting here in the belly of Canada’s oil-based economy, gathered to reconfirm that oil and our dependence on it is one of our biggest problems. The Athabaskan
oil sands project, after all, is considered by many to be one of the most destructive technologies to water and land conservation
that Canada has ever undertaken.

Bobby doesn’t take long to tackle this elephant. He speaks about how Alberta is a fascinating paradox, much like Texas in that much of the province’s economy is dependent on extractive technologies.
But Alberta, unlike Texas, is wonderfully progressive. Men like Gary Holden (who sits at a front table) and his energy company Enmax are leaders in alternative energy technologies and development. Indeed, Holden has been behind some of the most exciting alternative energy projects this continent has ever seen. One of his visions for Alberta is to make every home a green power plant that harnesses both wind and solar energy. To have a visionary like Holden among us is the perfect strategy. Most everyone
outside of the oil business is beginning to admit to the fact that oil dependency will not be the way of the future. And progressive and realistic thinking is hard to argue with.

Clearly, the crowd is enthralled by Bobby’s words. People cheer and applaud when he speaks about the need for North Americans to lose our dependency on foreign oil, that in fact the real cost
of this is US$700 billion per annum, money that leaves our countries
forever. He presses home this urgency by pointing out that the recent American economic bailout could be paid back in one year if we were no longer dependent.

More applause comes when Bobby says, “Our system should be to reward good behaviour and punish inefficiency and waste. But right now, the system rewards the ones who waste and punishes the most efficient.” Again, hard to argue with, especially when the audience considers that recent and massive bailout.

obby speaks of how Mattson investigated DTE Energy, which was later charged with polluting Canadian waters mainly through mercury poisoning and of how Mark carries a subpoena for the company’s president around with him so that the president might be served those papers the moment he steps foot in Canada. The crowd roars. The evening begins to feel like an old-time revival, and it’s easy to get swept up in what can be described as a sense of group empowerment. We really can tackle the world’s most pressing issues as a team and emerge victorious.

Hoarse now from a half-hour onstage, his throat condition
clearly straining him (causing the audience to pay even closer attention to his words), Bobby brings his speech to its climax. “Big polluters urge us to treat the planet as if it were a business
and liquidation,” he says, raising his hand. “They want to convert our natural resources to cash as quickly as possible,
to have a few years of pollution-based prosperity so we can
generate instantaneous cash flow and the illusion of a prosperous economy. But our children are going to pay for our joyride
with denuded landscapes, poor health and huge clean-up costs that are all going to amplify over time. And they’ll never be able to pay. Environmental injury is deficit spending. It’s a way of loading the cost of our
generation’s prosperity on their backs.”

If some small part of me hasn’t been won over yet, if this weekend of fun left me wondering how time among celebrities
and captains of industry in one of the world’s most beautiful locations should make me question the new style of environmental
awareness, all of these doubts dry up. Yes, we’re here for a good time. But we’re here, just as importantly, to try and make a difference for coming generations. And we can. A standing ovation ensues.

meet Kennedy the next morning
after his photo shoot with Bryan Adams.
He’ll soon be off to Washington, D.C., for Obama’s inauguration. I ask him how he’s able to go like he does, and he tells me it’s a lot easier not being a drinker. There must be more to it than that. Kennedy’s one of those rare people, I think, who has got the fire burning inside him. We find a quiet corner in the hotel and chat.

“Canada has one-fifth of the fresh water
in the world,” he tells me. “You are a resource-rich nation but, in the long term, your most important resource is fresh water.”
He pauses then continues. “A lot of people in the U.S. believe Canada is going to be the repository of their future water supplies, especially in the West, where water
supplies are strained. It’s critical that Canadians understand this is a resource they need to steward, guard and plan for.”

Something in what Kennedy says makes me remember immediately his speech, how he dared take on the elephant in the room. I want to press him about this. Here we’re in Alberta, the cradle of Canada’s oil industry, but you’re preaching that the Albertan
oil economy is moving in the wrong direction. What of the existing tensions between your organization and Albertans whose livelihoods depend on oil?

Good environmental policy,” he answers,
without missing a beat, “is good economic policy.” He reminds me that the
planet and its resources are not for the exclusive benefit of big business, that pollution-
based prosperity is just an illusion and that it is the future generations who will suffer for our folly and greed.

“But what do you say to the Albertans,” I push, “who believe the oil sands are good economic policy?”

“The tar sands are one of the biggest boondoggles in human history,” he answers.
“The amount of energy and cost of the actual harvesting materials is so high there’s no way oil produced in the tar sands can compete in the marketplace without giant
public subsidies. You can get way more bang for your buck, more sustainable jobs and sustainable wealth by investing in sustainable
energy rather than investing in an enterprise that relies on red ink and giant public subsidies and that ends up destroying
the landscape that’s sustained generations
for thousands of years.”

He points out Holden and Enmax again, how truly sustainable energy in the form of wind and solar power is a technology we already have, and far less damaging to the planet. It all makes sense, but can it be implemented? Are humans ready for this? I guess this, for me, is the big question.

The answer, for me, lies in an environmental
manifesto that Kennedy published in May 2008 in Vanity Fair titled, “The Next President’s First Task: A Manifesto.” In it, he makes a strong, simple and powerful
statement regarding our future and energy
and what we must do to free ourselves from the cycle of destruction in which we now find ourselves. Much of that includes exploring truly green and sustainable energy
means, many of which already exist.

“While Obama was campaigning for the Democratic ticket,” Kennedy says, “I asked if he would read my manifesto. He told me, ‘Don’t worry. I’ve already read it twice.’ “

Robert Kennedy Jr. and I say goodbye but not before he invites my wife, Amanda, and me to come falconing with him at his home, just one more of his many pursuits. He’s off to witness firsthand, now, an historic
event in Washington D.C. on Tuesday.
I watch the man as he walks away, far down the hall. The sun of Lake Louise sifts through the big windows, making him shimmer then evaporate like water.

For more on Waterkeeper Alliance, go to

— Joseph Boyden

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