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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

A Connection to Water is Key ... and Spiritual

“Spirituality was really important and it came from a sense of place and family.” That’s how Mark Mattson described growing up in his family, living in Kingston, Ontario, and spending time at a family cabin on Wolfe Island, near Kingston and at the meeting of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. “It all came from that original inspiration or connection to that river, and that water, and the love that was formed around it, and the sacrifices that were made to give us that access.”

Mattson today serves as the President and co-founder of Swim Drink Fish, a non-profit organization based in Canada that works to connect people to water and to support them in protecting it, so that everyone has access to swimmable, drinkable, fishable water. But for Mattson personally, the connection and work started with his childhood, which “inspires everything I do today.”

Warren Dunes State Park, Lake Michigan, southwest MI

Mattson is one of seven children whose father died young. Still, every summer, his mother would take the children to the cabin that had been in their family since the mid-1800s. “We weren’t rich. We were very poor…. But we still were very privileged because we had somewhere to go to connect (to water).”

Mattson’s connection to the waters of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River would set the direction for his life and work. Early in his career as a lawyer, Mattson focused on civil rights cases. However, around 1996 and 1997, he started getting involved in environmental issues. “I looked at my own place and saw that there were condoms and needles and tampons floating up on my own shore from sewage treatment plants that weren’t being upgraded. And there was leachate getting into fish and we couldn’t eat the fish. The water, just the quality of it, was deteriorating, and I just made a decision that I needed to represent Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence, and put my education to use in protecting that water. So that’s how I really became involved.”

In 2001, Mattson, along with researcher Krystyn Tulley, started Lake Ontario Waterkeeper (LOW), which works to protect Lake Ontario as part of the worldwide Waterkeeper Alliance. Initially focusing on legislation and prosecuting violators of environmental laws, the work of LOW grew, but not necessarily the movement to protect water.

“People weren’t connecting to the laws because the laws didn’t have any meaning to the folks. We weren't really growing this movement, and I couldn’t figure out why,” Mattson said. “People didn't know what these laws were protecting… they weren’t connected to a lot of the legislation, the environmental and public health legislation that was put in place. I realized that was because we weren’t giving these laws meaning.”

“That’s when I was working with my group to start creating tools that would create that meaning,” Mattson said. “We realized that the best way to start creating meaning was with connection. You’re not going to have meaning with your lake or your watershed if you don’t have a connection to it, where you’re creating stories and meeting people and forming that bond with it.”

LOW created Swim Guide, a popular app that gives real time updates on beach conditions, providing information to help families and individuals find a good place to swim in the Great Lakes and across North America. LOW also created Great Lakes Guide, an app for people to discover where they could connect with water in the Great Lakes. Connecting people to places was at the heart of LOW’s work, and then Swim Drink Fish’s work, which became the umbrella organization for LOW and other Waterkeeper groups in Canada. But helping people articulate that connection was the next step. That step came in the Watermark Project.

The Watermark Project is an on-line effort to collect and archive stories of people’s connection to a specific body of water and even a specific moment. “What people wanted to hear first and foremost,” Mattson said, “whether it’s at the boardroom table or giving a speech, is, ‘Why do you care about this subject so much?’ So, the watermark was a really easy way to get personal very quickly. But it has a spiritual element to it. It’s not very overt. It doesn’t talk about the spiritual element, but of course it comes from the sense of love and respect. And it usually is connected to a parent or a grandparent or a friend, someone who stepped into your life and made it possible to have this connection.”

For Mattson, his Watermark is the St. Lawrence River. “It’s the most powerful part of my presentation, when I make that connection with them between who I am and why I care. And then they start thinking about why. They hadn’t thought about it before, but they start going, ‘Oh, yeah, I guess I’m here because of Pike Lake, where my parents used to pack us all in and take us every weekend, and all the sacrifices they made for us to give us that opportunity,” Mattson added. “The more they look, the more they discover that, oh, yeah, I’m connected to this waterbody, and I do have a responsibility to protect it.”

Along with Swim Drink Fish and LOW, Mattson also serves as a water quality advisor to the International Joint Commission, a board member for the US-based Waterkeeper Alliance, and a member of the Province of Ontario’s Great Lakes Guardians Council. That breadth of work has convinced him of the importance of expanding the community that feels a spiritual connection to water.

New Canadians are part of that expanding community and the future of the movement to protect the Great Lakes. Swim Drink Fish, according to Mattson, wants to “make sure they feel as welcome by the water and wilderness as other communities do that had those privileges growing up. That’s the only way we're going to have a movement that’s going to protect (the water and wilderness) moving forward. It can’t be just one slice of our demographics. It has to be broader. It has to be truly for everyone.”

Mattson also sees the importance of expanding that community to the next generation. “Life is short. I’m 58 now and I really understand that there has to be a new generation that is connected and committed to protecting water moving forward. I have a real obligation to help support those voices of the future. I have to do it now because there isn’t much time to wait. We have to continually be renewing and recreating that sense of love around the Great Lakes and water.”

“If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over these 35 years,” Mattson added, “there has to be a meaning to why we live by water, our connection to water. We have to understand that, whether it’s spiritually or not. We have to understand that important connection to water, and how it gives us life and creativity and freedom and fun and joy.”

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