By: Mike Anderson
Like a modern-day Don Quixote, Jack Gibbons is tilting at windmills. But the windmills are not imaginary giants. They are local politicians.
Mr. Gibbons is the chair of Lake Simcoe Watch, a local environmental lobby group, that is mounting an aggressive lawn sign and billboard campaign to save Lake Simcoe from environmental degradation.
“We’ve got to stop using Lake Simcoe as a sewer for Newmarket, Aurora, and East Gwillimbury,” says Mr. Gibbons, 65, who’s campaign is specifically targeting local MPP Caroline Mulroney.
“We are focussing on Caroline because she is by far the most politically prominent and powerful MPP from Lake Simcoe in the Ontario Legislature,” he says. “Caroline Mulroney has the ability to persuade the Government of Ontario to take the actions that are necessary to save Lake Simcoe.”
“Caroline, will you help save our lake?” is plastered over a billboard on Highway 12/48, just north of Beaverton. And, more than 750 lawn signs bearing the same message have been distributed to residents around the lake. Over 1,250 people have also signed an online petition at SaveSimcoe.org that generates automatic emails to Ms. Mulroney’s York-Simcoe constituency office.
But Mr. Gibbons’ campaign recently hit a major road block when a Barrie by-law officer began removing his lawn signs from residences and charged his lobby group a fine of $306 for doing so.
After a few terse emails, the mayor of Barrie backed down — only signs placed on municipal property will be removed and the original fine was also waived. However, an additional fine of $229.50 was imposed because residents placed three signs on municipal park lands – that fine still stands.
Lawn sign kerfuffle aside, Mr. Gibbons argues that elected local officials, as well as the Lake Simcoe Regional Conservation Authority (LSRCA), have failed to meet phosphorus reduction targets for the lake, and protect and expand its wetlands – two critical goals of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan (LSPP), which is due to for a legislative review this year on its tenth anniversary.
“The LSPP called for a 50 per cent reduction in phosphorus pollution and for 40 per cent of the watershed to consist of high-quality forests, wetlands and meadows,” he says. “But we have made no progress towards the achievement of these goals during the last ten years.”
The LSRCA disputes Mr. Gibbons’ claims, arguing that progress has been made. For instance, the phosphorus load from municipal sewage treatment plants around the lake has been reduced by 46 per cent since 2010.
However, according to the latest LSRCA update from 2015, the overall phosphorous load – an average of more than 85 tonnes per year — remains mostly unchanged over the past decade, considerably higher than the LSPP target of 44 tonnes per year.
“It’s quite premature to suggest that LSRCA can implement solutions to achieve the ecological target of 44 tonnes per year by 2026, a timeline suggested by Lake Simcoe Watch,” said Mike Walters, the LSRCA’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). “In the absence of an updated strategy, it’s unreasonable and demonstrates a lack of understanding of the efforts and resources needed to achieve this 50 per cent reduction,” he added.
But Gibbons remains adamant. “The government’s failure to take the actions necessary to protect the lake we love is simply unacceptable,” he says. “In 2018 all the eleven ridings in Lake Simcoe’s watershed elected Progressive Conservative MPPs including Caroline Mulroney. It is now time for Caroline Mulroney and Lake Simcoe’s ten other MPPs to provide the strong leadership we need to save Lake Simcoe.”
Remarkably, Mr. Gibbons entreaties may be working. In a recent email response to the Post, Ms. Mulroney acknowledged that she is listening to the concerns of residents.
“When I see people standing up for the lake, it strengthens my resolve and commitment to protecting it,” she said. “I look forward to continuing to work with those who are passionate about Lake Simcoe.” She also added that she regularly speaks with cabinet and caucus colleagues, from around the lake, about “our shared priority of protecting Lake Simcoe.”
Simon Clermont, 55, who lives steps from the lake in Island Grove, isn’t convinced. He wants to keep the heat on local elected officials, so much so he ordered two lawn signs for his property.
“If we don’t have a voice. If we don’t say anything, then politicians will do whatever they think is right. What their study says is right, and that’s not right for the environment,” he says. “Look at the thousands and thousands of houses being built. If they put that waste in the lake, we won’t have any fish.”
“We’re not opposed to development,” Mr. Gibbons adds. “What we are opposed to is development that lacks the proper environmental safeguards. We’ve been sacrificing Lake Simcoe to increase the profits of the development industry, and that’s wrong.”