My Canada, 36/150: Of butterflies and Blue Boxes

Canada is awash in water¬† – one-fifth of the world’s freshwater supply. We have masses of land not occupied by people as most settlement is along a 200-kilometre-wide ribbon along the U.S. border. And whether it’s because of all that water and land, or some other factor, Canadians have led significant movements that challenge or address human impact on planet Earth.

Humans over time have had a complex relationship with how they live affects the environment around them. In researching my first Teahen Tales post on Elora, Ontario, I discovered that the now-lovely and park-like Elora Gorge in Ontario was once used as a garbage dump until finally citizens rallied to clean up the area.

In my parents’ time, there was little packaging and the “re-use” of the “Three Rs” (reduce, re-use, recycle) was second nature. Old garment fabric became quilts. Garden and orchard produce was canned in glass jars, which were cleaned and stored to use again next season. But automobiles grew larger, and their exhaust more smog-inducing. So did the average lot size for a single family home. An anchor industry in my hometown was Uniroyal, a chemical-making factory that did well by selling the pesticide DDT and the defoliant Agent Orange, until someone figured out (or revealed) the damage these chemicals caused to animal and human health.

Canadian environmental movements span the gamut from everyday, practical initiatives to eco-warriors railing against industrial polluters.

Kitchener, Ontario was the first municipality to introduce recycling “Blue Boxes” in 1983 for residents to dividing recyclable items from garbage after a couple years of pilot testing curbside recycling.

Greenpeace, now active in 40 countries, was founded in the 1971 in Vancouver, B.C. when “a small boat of volunteers and journalists sailed into Amchitka, an area north of Alaska where the US Government was conducting underground nuclear tests. This tradition of ‘bearing witness’ in a non-violent manner continues,” the Greenpeace official history states, “and our ships are an important part of all our campaign work.”

The International Joint Commission set up between Canada and the U.S. in 1909 to oversee issues around the country’s common Great Lakes and St. Lawrence waterways did a remarkable and ecology-saving shift in focus to drive both scientific and political will to mitigate pollution in the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie, contaminated in the 1970s largely due to discharges from industry along its shores.

The list of Canadian-rooted environmental organizations is a long one, from the David Suzuki Foundation to Ducks Unlimited.

My own awakening to environmental awareness came through an unusual route. As a reporter in London, ON, I had been assigned to cover stories related to religion and other “social issues”. Through my contacts, I heard about a Centre for Ecology and Spirituality based in Port Burwell, ON and decided to write a feature about the place and its work.

The centre was located on the shores of Lake Erie and the country property was once the residence of a very wealthy individual. It had been bequeathed for use as a retreat centre and was run by an order of priests called the Passionists, who also drew support from several religious sisters. There was a beachfront, a meadow, a forest, and a large, mansion-style house surrounded by other buildings that in their heyday¬† were guest houses, a stable (now the dining hall and meeting rooms) and even a “dog run” that had been converted to dorm rooms.

Retreats and study programs there explored deep questions about how our universe came to be and the role of the human amid all that complexity: what they called the “cosmic creation story.” They were inspired by the writings and teachings of Passionist priest Father Thomas Berry, author of Dream of the Earth, and physicist Brian Swimme, best known at the time for his book The Universe is a Green Dragon.

There was plenty of literal tree-hugging at the Centre, along with star-gazing, meditative walks, storytelling, great organic food and a tremendous sense of purpose. After I filed my story, I returned first as a retreat attendee and, later, a volunteer.

The Centre was along the long north-south migratory path of Monarch butterflies and photographer John Lederman took this Monarch photo in the Port Burwell Centre meadow. It was a Canadian zoologist by the way, Fred Urquhart, who uncovered that remarkable migration story.

Regrettably the Centre could not continue, squeezed by the expense of keeping up such a grand place, the desire to keep programming affordable, and the fact the priests and sisters who ran the place were aging, with no replacements in sight. The academic side of the centre lives on at the Elliott Allen Institute for Ecology & Spirituality at the University of Toronto. Its philosophy lives on in those of us who had our sense of planet-people connection awakened there.


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