By Mary McGrath
What do the Mayor of Pickering, Ontario – David Ryan, and the Mayor of Ajax, Ontario – Steve Parish, have in common, in addition to the fact that they both preside over two of the fastest-growing suburbs of Toronto?
They both attended Dunbarton High School’s first ever community forum on Sustainable Urban Design. Students presented the results of their ecological monitoring in the East Rouge River and Duffins Creek watersheds, as well as their ideas to protect these ecosystems as part of a larger debate on the future of the Seaton Lands – a green space area in North Pickering threatened by urban sprawl.
The success of this event prompted Mayor Ryan to invite the students to make another presentation at a special town council meeting at Pickering’s Town Hall the following month, where the Dunbarton students presented their data and ideas to local counselors and developers.
The students were part of the newly established Community Links and Field Studies Program, an applied Grade 11 Science course that is the brainchild of one of Dunbarton’s science teachers,David Gordon. He created the program as a vehicle to introduce students to careers in biology and ecology and to increase civic participation.
Through a partnership with Citizens’ Environment Watch (CEW) and support from GLAHNF and the local Rotary Club,Mr. Gordon engaged his students in the collection of valid scientific water quality data (using CEW’s government-recognized protocol) for the first year of a ten-year community project that aims to gather long-term scientific information to study the impacts of urban sprawl in the Durham area and to enhance local decision-making. The high school students worked directly with CEW Monitoring Mentors, who are post-secondary student volunteers trained by CEW staff to lead youth through a series of in-class and outdoor sessions to assess local environmental quality.
In addition to hands-on field work, the course provides real-world experience to the students through part time co-op positions with local community groups, municipal governments and conservation authorities. Student registration in the course quadrupled this year! CEW is now working with Mr. Gordon to develop a best-practices case study of this project to disseminate to CEW’s other participating high schools across Ontario.
As this story demonstrates, with GLAHNF support, CEW has strengthened the ability of youth in the Greater Toronto Area to protect and restore local aquatic ecosystems. They have used their data and knowledge to advocate for improved land-use planning and habitat protection, and to engage their community in environmental stewardship projects. Our program is a stellar example of an effort to build coalitions among new and diverse partners and build the capacity of local citizens to influence the development and enforcement of regulatory, permitting and assessment decisions.
Last year, due in large part to GLAHNF support, CEW was able to surpass our participation goals, engaging over 20 postsecondary student Monitoring Mentors from five community colleges and universities and more than 225 secondary students from nine secondary schools in five watersheds (Credit, Humber, Don, Rouge, Duffins Creek) in the Greater Toronto Area.
Monitoring is more than a form of active evaluation. It is a process of reconnecting people to the natural world. Like bird watching or nature photography, monitoring is an activity that engages people, especially youth, with their natural surroundings – it is a sensory, observatory experience that builds a sense of wonder and value. But it is also about more than just “being in tune.”It is about generating local knowledge so that citizens can effectively advocate for the protection and restoration of aquatic habitats. CEW’s programs validate this knowledge, making the knowledge creation process a democratic one.
Citizens’ Environment Watch (CEW) empowers people in Ontario to pay attention to their local environment. We provide education, equipment and support to monitor ecosystem health and opportunities to participate in informed community decision-making and active stewardship.
CEW makes science, ecology and data collection accessible in concept and practice to community volunteers through training workshops and field sessions, community-based sampling protocols and field guides that teach volunteers to monitor air and surface water quality using biological indicators, such as benthic macroinvertebrates, as well as chemical and physical parameters.