Strong Communications Networks

Strong Communications Networks

By Mary Jo Cullen, Citizens Concerned for Michipicoten Bay – Lake Superior Basin

May is generally a time of euphoric anticipation for the small colony of artists, kayakers, and naturalists who live on the shores of Lake Superior at Michipicoten Bay: a paradise of beaches, sand dunes and ancient rocky headlands, poised at the edge of the longest essentially wild shoreline left in the entire Great Lakes. This sublime landscape was threatened, however, when a giant U.S. roadbuilding corporation purchased a 1,000 acre block of property on 2.5 kilometres of Michipicoten Bay shoreline. Residents learned of the purchase in May 2002, and within days, began a campaign to stop the quarry, or at the very least, to ensure an environmental assessment.

Armed with the miracle of electronic communication, Citizens Concerned for Michipicoten Bay (CCMB) wholeheartedly embraced the Internet and ‘e-mail’, both of which soon became the group’s prime tools for searching out essential information, developing media contacts, and discovering supporting organizations and individuals.

The response and support of environmental organizations, however, was simply too good to be true. We found that these organizations had established such a remarkable communication network, that after we had contacted one or two groups, others began calling us spontaneously, to hear our story and to offer support and advice. It was quite incredible, and the vital importance of being a part of group networks that beam out electronic alerts to their many partners became instantly apparent.

Utilizing Celebrity Support

The process of developing our own grassroots network proved enormously exciting and enervating. I remember writing to Pierre Berton way back in 2003. In the letter I asked this legendary Canadian historian, journalist, television personality, and environmentalist, then in his eighties, to lend his voice in our struggle to protect the magnificent North Shore of Lake Superior. About a week later, there was a call from Mr. Berton’s publicist who said, “Pierre wants to know what he can do.”

Mr. Berton’s celebrity endorsement gave legitimacy to our concerns, and his voice, as a member of our communication network, helped move our campaign forward.We are extremely grateful for his support. Along with all of Canada, we mourned Mr. Berton’s passing in November, 2004.

Creative ideas and opportunities were often passed on from network supporters. We thank Jane Reyer and Michelle Halley of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) for our first flamboyant publicity event: an airplane flight – LightHawk – that brought the Director of the Governor’s Office for the Michigan Upper Peninsula to Michipicoten to see first hand the true cost of blowing up this coast to pave roads in Michigan – the destination market for the quarry. The LightHawk flight was a turning point in our campaign. Press coverage sparked an interview on CBC’s Ontario Today, and began an association with the media that is ongoing.

The Power of a Letter

One day a note arrived from a network supporter on behalf of a young colleague planning a kayaking trip on Lake Superior near Michipicoten. When our visitor arrived, we were stunned to learn that he worked for Waterkeeper International and that his boss was none other than Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Thanks to our visitor, and to Lake Superior’s respected Waterkeeper, Bob Olsgard, Mr. Kennedy was both interested and concerned, and wrote to Ontario’s Minister of the Environment to say so.

Mr. Kennedy’s support coincided with an EA petition submitted to the Ontario Premier and to the Minister of the Environment, from the twenty official ‘Champions’ of Ontario’s Great Lakes Heritage Coast. The Coast ’Champs’ include some of Canada’s cherished celebrities – Pierre Berton, as well as hockey players Bobby Orr, the Esposito brothers and others.

The idea of hockey players as environmental activists appealed to Martin Mittelstaedt, top environmental reporter at Toronto’s Globe and Mail, who ran the story: Hockey Greats Team Up to Save a Natural Great. Nothing catches the attention of the Canadian public like a hockey story, and even more than a year after that story appeared, we continue to be identified with it.

Developing a Grassroots Network

To flood the Ministry of the Environment with letters calling for an Environmental Assessment, we teamed up with Notices on their website generate hundreds of letters for environmental issues. Check them out at! In addition, we set up a display at Mountain Equipment Co-Op’s award winning, environmentally designed building in Toronto. As a result, we received 7,000 signed form letters within a three week period which we delivered with great fanfare to the Ministiry of Environment office.

Despite the 8,000 requests ultimately received from the public for an EA, and despite enormous effort, the Environmental Assessment was ultimately refused. Nevertheless,we consider the strategies described here as successes in themselves, which achieved the desired objectives of educating about this speacial place, if not yet the final goal.

It is essential to make clear, for the record, that these successes were all shared. They belong as much to the many individuals and environmental organizations in our communication network whose support made them possible, as they do to CCMB. And we are immensely grateful.

With the continued support of our network we intend to carry on, more motivated than ever. We have good reason for optimism. Not only is CCMB now blessed with a strong and established communication network; but along with many other grassroots groups, thanks to GLAHNF and to Biodiversity Project, we have been given an incredible new set of communication tools to strengthen our networks even more, to direct and streamline our efforts, to increase effectiveness and efficiency and to provide the ‘edge’ so essential to success.

By Mary Jo Cullen
Citizens Concerned for Michipicoten Bay
122 Robert St, Toronto, ONT M5S 2K3
(416) 922-0151 •

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