Confessions of a Grassroots Intern

Guest post by RLSC’s valued intern, Alessia.

Alessia along with volunteers from Drawdown at the Aurora Farmers Market, Summer 2022.

It was the end of 2020, an awful year of isolation and disaster all over the world. My contract job was coming to an end and I was having nightmares of not finding another gig. I decided to apply for a Master’s degree. I felt that I had so much more to learn about what sustainability means, and also thought going back to school might put a pause on the whole “becoming an adult” thing I was supposed to be doing. 

So here I am, finishing my first year of a Master’s in Environmental Studies, lucky enough to have gotten a summer internship with the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition; a charity I never heard of before April of this year. I thought it would be an experience in skills I was already pretty “good” at: communication, outreach, social media. I was hit with a steep learning curve when faced with the challenges that came with working for a grassroots, activist organization. 

RLSC is a small organization that runs on volunteer work which meant that I was left to problem solve, and was trusted with the solutions I proposed. Despite the challenges, it was extremely rewarding being responsible for the tasks I’d undertaken, coming up with creative solutions and given freedom to follow through with my ideas.

RLSC should be the first thing that comes up when you google search  “small but mighty.” Despite limited funding and resources, RLSC seems to be the loudest in the room when speaking about environmental issues, especially those that impact the watershed. 

The Lake Simcoe Protection Act, for those who don’t know, is the strongest watershed-based legislation in Canada! And little RLSC was involved in passing this act and developing its plan. The act was passed in 2008. The act was followed by the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan to implement the protection legislated in the act. The RLSC is still fighting for the Plan to be reviewed and improved. It is important for the health of the lake for communities throughout the watershed to understand the LSPP so that the legislation is upheld and collective pressure is put on the provincial government to review and strengthen the plan. 

RLSC is working on expanding and sharing their mission with people who live around the watershed; that includes some of York Region, Durham Region, and Simcoe County. RLSC is improving their reach to new and existing audiences to strengthen their goals of improving Lake Simcoe. That’s where I’ve come in to research innovative ways to engage audiences in our work. 

If you’re familiar with the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition at all, then you probably know Claire, the Executive Director of RLSC, a quick, dedicated woman who’s last breath will probably be “WE NEED TO RESCUE LAKE SIMCOE!!!” Claire has been running the coalition, going to council meetings, speaking to politicians, leading protests, and unapologetically calling out leaders for their lack of concern about the health of the lake. Claire has also mobilized a force of volunteers who similarly seem to eat, sleep and breathe all things Lake Simcoe. 

During several community events, I worked with many volunteers who had a distinct energy to educate and inspire anyone who looked our way. I witnessed Wilma (a long-time volunteer), and Mary Jane, gracefully take on several residents who visited our booth at a community fair to share their “beef” with the coalition. I cowardly watched from the sidelines and listened to their encyclopedia of facts about irresponsible development and water pollution. Wilma and MJ were seriously fulfilling their roles as water defenders. They showed me the importance of knowing your facts and sources and not running away when someone disagrees with you. 

It has become clear to me that if I want to pursue a career in environmental outreach, I need to get more comfortable with talking to people who don’t think of the environment the same way I do. This also opened my eyes to what it means to be an activist organization, being center stage at community events and having tough conversations with people who make decisions, whether through their position on council, boards, or through their vote for government. 

As an environmental student, it is hard not to feel hopeless at times, constantly discussing the impending impacts of the climate emergency. However, being a part of an activist organization has allowed me to channel my fears and worries into manageable action that can be seen at the local level. 

An example of this is helping to campaign against the Bradford Bypass project. Having conversations with community members, working with RLSC’s member groups or other organizations, and intentionally reviewing jargon-filled public reports of the project has actually given me some feeling of hope. I have felt a fulfilling sense of belonging, and being an important part of a large community fighting against this destructive project. 

Being a steward to nature does not only mean changing your own behaviours and signing petitions. It also means having difficult, and sometimes scary conversations, to educate and defend the environment that in many ways cannot defend itself. Maybe my individual work has not put a stop to urban sprawl, or reduced phosphorus pollution in the lake, but the feeling that I might have educated a few people on these topics has encouraged me to keep fighting for change. 

Congratulations to Anna Bourgeois, Winner of a 2022 Healthy Community Award

Congratulations to our friend and volunteer Anna Bourgeois, who has just won a 2022 Healthy Community Award. The Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority bestows this award upon individuals and groups whose volunteer work increases community connections, engagement and awareness of issues confronting the health of the Lake Simcoe watershed. 

What has Anna done to merit this honour? The list of her ongoing actions is staggering, and is a testament to her refusal to leave the task of “saving the planet” to “someone else.” 

Anna is the Director of Concerned Citizens of Ramara; she is both a board member and secretary with both AWARE Simcoe and the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition, and she is an extremely active volunteer with Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition’s Laugh for Lake Simcoe fundraising team. Other organizations with whom she consistently shares his impressive skill set: Miller Quarry Public Engagement Committee; Orillia Water Watchers; Just Recovery Simcoe; Stop the Bradford Bypass; the Green Party of Ontario, and the Green Party of Canada.

Devoted to residents’ right to know whether the local environment and resources might be at risk, Anna scours Ramara Township council meeting agendas for items associated with illegal or questionable soil dumping, zoning bylaw alterations, noise bylaw and gun range infractions, municipal water supply system fragmentation and local quarry interactions such as bylaw compliance, exemptions and amendments–particularly where they might infringe on the health of water and soil.

When folks meet to protect the purest water of the Waverly Highlands and the Elmvale Flow, or to protest the Bradford Bypass and Highway 413, Anna is there. 

Always eager to share knowledge and inspire engagement, Anna regularly posts to the Concerned Citizens of Ramara, Simcoe North Green Party and Team Ramara Facebook pages, as well as Twitter.

An acclaimed professional graphic designer, Anna has created—pro bono—graphics for several campaigns and organizations, including Laugh for Lake Simcoe, Stop Sprawl Orillia, AWARE Simcoe, Orillia Water Watchers, Ramara Legacy Alliance, Sustainable Orillia–which included the Orillia Food Map, which helps vulnerable community members access food—and others.

As a farmer, Anna collaborates on decisions related to the Ontario Farmland Trust Conservation Easement Agreement on her and her husband Mike’s farm.

For Anna, environmental stewardship isn’t a sideline; it is a way of life. John F. Kennedy said: “Every person can make a difference, and every person should try.” Anna is the embodiment of that statement, and an amazing role model for all of us who are concerned about the health of the Lake Simcoe watershed and the state of our planet’s ecosystems as a whole.

By Susan Sheard, RLSC Board Member