Saving Lake Simcoe: Ladies of the Lake Bring a Community to Action

Saving Lake Simcoe: Ladies of the Lake Bring a Community to Action

By Annette Van Gerwen

Lake Simcoe, in the Lake Huron watershed, and Canada’s fourth largest urban lake, is sick. Residents and cottagers along the lake had been watching helplessly for years as the algae and weeds were taking over the shorelines. The provincial government’s known about it for decades. Yet nothing (or at least very little) was being done to save these beautiful waters. Nothing, that is, until Ladies of the Lake came along.

Ladies of the Lake made its daring debut with the 2006 Ladies of the Lake calendar. The calendar featured everyday women posing in the buff in settings that captured the beauty and spirit of Lake Simcoe. The huge success of this “cheeky not cheesy” first project made Ladies of the Lake into a household name throughout the watershed and brought public awareness of the state of Lake Simcoe.

Ladies of the Lake is a dynamic, organic grassroots organization made up of 100 warm and friendly women who are bringing people and government together to save Lake Simcoe. Most of them live in the Lake Simcoe watershed. Some live along the shorelines. Others come from farming communities. Others are from towns like Georgina, Bradford, Barrie, Innisfil, Orillia and Newmarket. The majority of the Ladies are in their 50s and 60s. Their youngest members are thirty-something, but as the membership grows, younger members are coming aboard. The oldest member – Wanda Big Canoe of the Chippewa nation on Georgina Island – is in her 70s.

What defines them more than their age and where they’re from is their positive spirit and drive. “It’s great. It’s electric,” Ladies of the Lake co-founder Jane Meredith says of the gatherings. “It’s so much fun because everybody is just open to suggestions and ideas, and everyone wants to contribute something. There’s nothing stifled. There’s a terrific feeling of openness and cooperation and fun as well as realizing the severity of the situation.”

Evolution of Ladies of the Lake

Back in 2002 Annabel Slaight and Jane Meredith, a dynamic duo themselves, (who would later co-found Ladies of the Lake in 2004) were frustrated. Both have been cottagers and residents of the lake for over 50 years. Frustrated by the lack of action by government at all levels to stop the destruction and frustrated by the thought that, as average citizens living around the lake, there was nothing they could do about it. Or perhaps there was …

“The lake was being neglected by the politicians and really abused page 12 perhaps (putting the best light on things) people didn’t appreciate that this was a resource that couldn’t continue to be abused. People were using the lake but not caring for it. And then we decided that maybe we could do something about it.”

It started out as a small group of people from the Keswick area who thought that if they were to have any impact, they needed to bring people from around the lake together. They started calling people to invite them to a meeting about the lake. About 30 from around the lake came to that meeting in 2002. Annabel was one of them. Those were the beginnings of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition.

The Wave – Healthy Yards Healthy Water

One of the Coalition’s first educational forays was the The Wave – Healthy Yards Healthy Water project, an environmental awareness program that dispatched teams of university students to inform families in the watershed about why Lake Simcoe is sick and how they could get involved. Basically, they were educating families on how to grow wonderful lawns and gardens without using phosphorus- laden fertilizers that eventually end up in Lake Simcoe to feed the algae and weeds.

The Premise of the Wave Project: Preventing Phosphorus Runoff

If residents stopped using chemical lawn fertilizers containing phosphorus, and if they watered more wisely and began to keep yards healthy in more natural ways, this would help reduce the amount of phosphorus flowing into Lake Simcoe. What’s more, If many residents started taking action to improve water quality, it would send a strong message to others that improving the lake’s health is a priority. RLSC developed a web-based resource detailing the Wave for citizens interested in helping the lake.

The Three Waves of Success:

  • Be Water-wise.
  • Grow grass-naturally.
  • Try trendsetting.

The WAVE program began as a pilot in the Oak Meadow area of Keswick in 2004. In 2005 it reached 2,000 families around the Lake and into the watershed. The target in 2006 was 4,000 families; communities of all sizes are invited to get involved. RLSC’s ultimate goal is to involve all 100,000 families living in the Lake Simcoe watershed.

Beyond the Wave

Annabel and other members of the Coalition started asking elected officals what was being done to save the lake. The elected officals responded by saying that nothing was being done about it. It wasn’t something that they were hearing from the citizens to be important. Nobody was saying that it was an issue, so they weren’t dealing with it. That was three years ago.

So members of the Coalition started to do some research.They found that, in fact, Lake Simcoe had been identified as a sick lake needing help more than 30 years ago by the provincial government.There had been attempts to get things done, but nothing really happened. Even the conservation authority, which was in charge of the lake, had their funding cut back.

It was time to wake people up. Government wasn’t responding. The Wave program needed funding. And more needed to be done to get people and government to act.

Ladies of the Lake is Born

It was time to do something different. Annabel and Jane called their friends to come out to a meeting about the lake. Those friends called friends. Over 40 people – all women from across the Lake Simcoe watershed — came out one October day in 2004 to talk about new ideas. It was at that first meeting that they called themselves “Ladies of the Lake.”

“We were going to be a different organization.We were going to be thinking out of the box,” Jane explains. “We didn’t have ties to any one particular organization or government. We could just fire ahead with all of our creativity and we had no constraints. And we were ready to do things, ready to work, ready to get down to action.”

It was also out of that meeting that the 2006 Ladies of the Lake calendar project was launched. A sign-up sheet was sent around the meeting room, and by the end of the evening, they had more people than they could use. “People just dove in without really knowing what they were getting into,”Jane remembers. Leading up to the photo shoots, the women were “petrified”as Jane describes it, yet they braved through it for the cause. “They’re a real bunch of doers” she says emphatically.

The calendar turned out to be a great success. It sold more than 12,500 copies and raised over $247,000. Perhaps more importantly, though, it raised the profile of the fledgling Ladies of the Lake organization to a household name along the watershed and drew attention to the desperate state of Lake Simcoe.The word was out, and people came out with their full support.

Their first line of business following the success of the 2006 calendar was to get the facts about Lake Simcoe. The Ladies commissioned the Windfall Ecology Centre, chaired by Newmarket’s Hilary Van Welter, to do research in the Winter and Spring of this year to look at the science behind Lake Simcoe’s ailments. People living throughout the watershed needed to know, in very simple terms, what was causing their lake to be sick, and what they could do to help.

“The Naked Truth – Going Behind the Science of Lake Simcoe”

The resulting “The Naked Truth – Going Behind the Science of Lake Simcoe” report, released in mid-July, explains a number of issues facing the lake. According to the report, population growth and global warming are the leading risk factors for its sustainability. The issues are being caused by people, and they need to be fixed by people. Among the issues addressed in the report: the weeds, algae and lakebed goo; the declining numbers of wild trout, frogs and turtles; and more frequent “no swimming” days. The extensive eighty-eight page report bridged the gap between what the scientific community has known for years, and what the public has needed to know.

With knowledge as their power, the Ladies launched “The 2006 Naked Truth Summer of Events” in partnership with the Windfall Ecology Centre. It was an effort that would bring together over 300 citizens of the Lake Simcoe watershed to develop a plan of action. Their goal: to return Lake Simcoe back to the point where they can drink it, swim it, fish it and love it.

The Ladies organized four public events beginning in June 2006 in Orillia, followed by events in Innisfil, Barrie, Georgina, Bradford, and the Holland River area. They enlisted the support of every council and mayor around the Lake, including Georgina, Bradford, Barrie, Innisfil, Orillia and Newmarket.

In the Ladies’ true style of keeping things fun and interesting, the meetings were adventurous ones. Volunteers came out with their digital cameras to take photos for the report.They took pictures above the water, below the water, beside the water, and on the water. People were taking pictures from helicopters, canoes and kayaks, on foot and underwater. “You couldn’t really have done something like that without that level of commitment from a whole bunch of volunteers, and from right around the lake,” Annabel comments.

Out of The Naked Truth Summer of Events sessions came “The Naked Truth Citizens’ Action Plan to Save Lake Simcoe.” It was a huge undertaking involving about 450 people and companies. It was launched in October at a gala in Newmarket to a sold-out crowd of 220 people.

Annabel attributes part of the Ladies’ successful summer of events to the organic way by which this women-only organization operates.“We were inventing things as we were going along, and this particular group of women did that very well,” Annabel says. “They didn’t mind getting right up to a decision point and then deciding to go in one direction or another. That made it very exciting.”

Barely taking a breath following the Summer of Events finale in October, the Ladies are already onto other things. They’re planning more fundraising activities (no, don’t expect another calendar anytime soon), more environmental awareness programs, and better ways of getting government and citizens to work together. They are doing some preliminary research on the idea of a mentorship program in local high schools to enable kids in the senior grades to mentor the younger students on environmental issues and responsibility.We really want to encourage younger people to get involved in the health of the lake.We can learn from them.

They’re also currently working with government to get a new Watershed Council in place. Such a group would enable residents of the watershed to work together with government agencies to help manage the lake.
This Success Story is based on an article by Annette Van Gerwen, originally published in the Main Street Unionville Magazine.

For more information please contact Annabel Slaight, board member of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition, co-founder of the Ladies of the Lake, and Steering Committee Chair for the WAVE Program. Annabel may be reached at Visit the Lake Simcoe Coalition on the web at, the WAVE Program, and the Ladies of the Lake at

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.