Tom Van Dusen
Nation Valley News
CORNWALL — Like so many other agencies and other organizations, the St. Lawrence River Institute went online this week to present its 27th annual environmental symposium, normally a well-attended and informative event held in the scenic visitor centre at Robert Saunders Power Dam.
The River Institute used the Microsoft Teams online service to present a full slate of speakers Wednesday and Thursday, speaking from their homes and offices. Observers were invited to tune in for free and ask questions at regular intervals.
The online system efficiently got the information and messages across, suggesting once again that if life ever gets back to anything like the former normal, there will be many fewer face-to-face meetings, masked or unmasked. Online is simply too cost and time-effective to be abandoned post COVID. All that was missing was the free lunch!
“We did a lot of back-end tech testing to make sure the platform worked for everyone,” said River Institute administrator Christina Collard. “Such events will remain possible in future… maybe hybrid events if in-person becomes possible.”
Collard said the virtual conference exceeded expectations. There was great feedback on the presentations, with 260 people registered… higher than in the past: “It’s more accessible because people don’t have to travel or attend the whole event.”
Forced to go online or pack it in for 2020, the institute dispensed with all extras. There was little socializing or chit-chat… just information dispensed straight ahead in a compact form.
Among sessions were Dr. Jeff Ridal’s “Where’s the RAP at?” — all about the state of the St. Lawrence Remedial Action Plan in existence for decades with one of the main objectives being to clean up the cesspool surrounding the Mohawk Community of Akwesasne caused by industries on the Ontario and New York sides of the river, most of them long gone.
If anybody understands this topic it’s Ridal, executive director and chief research scientist at the River Institute for most of its existence. While much progress has been made, he said, several challenges remain including restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption due to ongoing contamination, the presence of unwanted algae in the system, and loss of fish and wildlife habitat.
Another presentation was from Dr. Leigh McGaughey of the River Institute who discussed the “Great River Rapport,” an exercise in linking scientific indicators with community stories to personalize the data and make it more accessible. For example, 81-year-old scuba diver Ron Macdonald, who completed more than 100 dives this season, was offered up as the personal connection to a segment on water clarity.
One of the highlights of the conference was the session with Abraham Francis of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne environmental office who, before a cloudy colourful backdrop, discussed “environmental violence” done to the St. Lawrence River through Seaway and power dam construction and the subsequent activities of industry which settled around his community.
An engaging, emotional and jovial speaker, Francis talked about leaving Akwesasne for better opportunities. An award-winning graduate of Cornell University, he returned to help his people “reclaim their stories” and the river “reclaim its voice.”
With chair Walter Oeggerli, a Glengarry County farmer, doing the honours, the Institute handed out its annual River Award recognizing environmental stewardship and responsibility in the community. This year’s winner is Chris Critoph known for his work in the Raisin Region watershed in tributary and shoreline rehabilitation over 20 years.
A civil engineer with a passion for nature, for more than 40 years Critoph has used his expertise to help repair damage to the regional environment. Among other credits, Oeggerli cited Critoph’s work on the wildflower gardens at Cooper March managed by Raisin Region Conservation Authority.
Normally, Collard said, planning for the symposium starts a year before hand, lining up a theme and sponsors. Traditionally, the event is held in May and, for a while, there was talk of hosting it later at Cornwall’s Ramada Inn: “With second wave data coming out, we decided we had to go virtually.”