Essay submitted by Alexis Kanu
Executive Director, Lake Winnipeg Foundation
As I write this, in the midst of the second wave of the global pandemic, Winnipeg’s rivers and ponds are frozen solid, snow-covered.
And yet they have perhaps never been more important. The pandemic has shown us that our city’s waterways are vital public spaces, connecting Winnipeggers across the social distances that keep us safe.
Now, when there is nowhere else to go, we are rediscovering our rivers and ponds, with skates and hockey sticks, skis and snowshoes. The Winnipeg Foundation Centennial River Trail at The Forks was a fitting celebration for such a notable anniversary. Neighbours across the city are coming together to create elaborate recreational networks on the rivers. Our winter-city spirit is so strong it has prompted city councillors to review a bylaw that currently prohibits winter activities on city retention ponds.
Winnipeg’s waterways have, of course, always been sources of connection – a hub of ancient trade routes and the fertile ground for early communities to become established. But we seem to have forgotten this in modern times.
Too often now, we treat our urban waterways with disrespect, whether it’s the refuse we drop along the banks, the trash that runs into the street gutter, or the sewage effluent we pump out of aging treatment plants. Unsurprisingly, when we treat our rivers this way, over time we come to think of them as dirty, unsightly and unsafe – creating a feedback loop that only enables further mistreatment.
Then, in an impressive act of cognitive dissonance, we follow these same rivers north to beautiful Lake Winnipeg, to play in the sparkling waves on the white-sand beaches.
The truth, of course, is that this is the same water. City water is lake water.
Over the next 100 years, four new generations of Winnipeggers will experience our city’s waterways. Unfortunately, unless we change our attitude and our approach to water within the perimeter, each generation risks holding successively lower expectations for clean, safe water, perpetuating the cycle of disrespect and disdain that accelerates environmental degradation.
Our governments have the responsibility to protect our waters, and without a doubt, they must exercise all available policy tools to keep water clean and safe for Winnipeggers, for Manitobans and Canadians. But philanthropy must help us celebrate our waters.
Water flows through all aspects of our lives, and philanthropy can provide us with the spaces and resources we need to honour these connections. Taking a lesson from our pandemic experiences, we can start our celebrations by building more new accessible public spaces along our rivers, the banks of which have too often become deserted wastelands or the domain of a privileged few. Our architecture and public art can be re-imagined and re-oriented to foreground Winnipeg’s waterways. The celebrations can continue in museums, galleries and theatres across the city, as art helps us explore our relationship to – and our inescapable dependence on – water. New recreational experiences, and new opportunities to share equipment and skills, will enable us to safely explore and enjoy our urban waterways.
Philanthropy can also support intergenerational conversations about water and natural spaces, preserving memories, inspiring new experiences and reclaiming our relationship with Winnipeg’s waterways. Winnipeg students can step outside the classroom to experience our rivers and ponds firsthand, through experiential learning opportunities in science, history, geography and art. Philanthropy can help citizens, young and old, engage in water science, monitoring, and stewardship, building respect and responsibility for the water that sustains us.
By transforming our daily interactions with water within the city, philanthropy can help us foster a culture of celebration, care and commitment – a whole new way to live with water. During the next four generations, these many small celebrations will add up to reaffirm our collective expectation for clean, safe water. In 100 years, we can all be proud of the water-city spirit we have built together.
Alexis Kanu is the Executive Director of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation (LWF). She received her Doctorate in Environmental Science from the University of Manitoba. As a student and in her early career, she gained extensive experience working with diverse organizations in the nonprofit and community-development sectors. Alexis is passionate about building healthy connections between people and the environment. A lifelong Winnipegger, Alexis grew up exploring parks and waterways both in the city and beyond the perimeter. These experiences continue to foster a great appreciation and gratitude for the natural world – and a deeper understanding of our place within it. Whether Lake Winnipeg, the family cottage in the Whiteshell, or her husband’s hometown on Rainy Lake, Ont., time at the lake is precious and formative for Alexis and her family – as it is for so many Manitobans.