By Mike Anderson

More than 30 former members of Ladies of the Lake, a volunteer organization formed in 2005 to raise public awareness about Lake Simcoe’s environmental challenges, reunited at ClearWater Farm on September 11 to honour four members who have since passed.

The contributions of Nancy Heidenreich (2012), Wanda Big Canoe (2014), Mary Jane Brinkos (2021) and Ros Crooks (2021) were acknowledged with a tribute luncheon that included the planting of four oak trees in their memory.

The event also offered a chance to reflect on how the grassroots organization of 60 women changed public perceptions about the lake and highlighted the impact of phosphorus pollution, which ultimately resulted in the passage of the Lake Simcoe Protection Act and Plan.

In 2006, Ladies of the Lake made a big splash with their debut fundraising calendar, which featured the ladies posing around the lake in the buff.

Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, a former member, recalls it took courage to pose naked in the calendar, but the results were well worth it.

“I still remember going back to my aunt, Wanda Big Canoe and saying, we’re going to be in this calendar for the Ladies of the Lake. And she’s like, oh, are we going to wear bathing suits? And I’m like, no, we’re not going to wear anything,” she said.

The first of two, the calendar raised a few eyebrows at the time but was a huge success, eventually raising $500,000.

But more importantly, it made Ladies of the Lake a household name and drew much-needed attention to the sad state of the lake.

Ladies of the Lake calendar

Claire Malcolmson, Executive Director of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition, also a former member, says Ladies of the Lake helped her realize that individuals can make a difference.

“The legacy of Ladies of the Lake is the ability of women to get together, to stand up for future generations and for our collective rights to clean air, clean water and a clean lake,” she said.

“They were a really powerful force, and God knows we need that powerful force right now.”

While the organization eventually disbanded, according to co-founder Annabel Slaight, it was a necessary precursor to the Ontario Water Center, an educational charity, which now operates ClearWater Farm.

“It’s been about 12 years since the Ladies of the lake have gotten together as a group,” Slaight said.

“They realized that a volunteer organization wasn’t going to be able to be sustainable. So they morphed into the Ontario Water Center. And then one of the first projects, as envisioned by the Ladies of the Lake, was ClearWater Farm.”

Slaight says that Ladies of the Lake was never intended to be a lobby group but was more about changing attitudes.

“I can remember people saying, ‘why don’t people just fix the lake?’ But, you don’t fix the lake by fixing it; you fix the lake by helping people to stop hurting the lake and helping them help the land.”

“Whatever you do, cherish the lake. Love it. And if you love it, you’ll look after it.”

Annabel Slaight
Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux

While Slaight acknowledges there are still serious environmental challenges facing Lake Simcoe, she is optimistic that the lake’s health can be restored.

However, she believes the solutions will come from the next generation. And ClearWater Farm will play a key role, installing in children a love for the environment.

“When ClearWater Farm gets going, we’re in construction mode right now; we will have a lot of things here where people can learn in a hands-on way because people telling you to do stuff doesn’t ever really work,” Slaight said.

“You can put signs up saying don’t put fertilizer on your lawn. But, that’s not nearly the same as working in the dirt, seeing with your own hands how things can be changed and how they can be wonderful.”

“Our mission is to create ripples, to help people live in harmony with nature and to do practical and real things, little and big, that are helpful to not only the lake but the land because the land impacts the lake.”

If you would like to find out more about ClearWater Farm, drop by the open house event on Saturday, October 2, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (1614 Metro Rd N, Willow Beach)