Photo Nanor Froundjian
Suited up in skin-tight neoprene with an air tank strapped to his back, Benoit Turcotte was all set to scour through the St. Lawrence River along with a team of just under 10 divers.
“You never know what you’re going to find,” he said.
This is the second year that the Kahnawake Environment Protection Office (KEPO) is hosting a cleanup operation, a community-led initiative open to all Kahnawa’kehró:non to participate in that took place Saturday starting at 10 a.m.
The event, which hauled in more than 400 KG of trash, was meant to “encourage stewardship of the environment and really get that instilled in people,” said Cole Delisle, environmental projects coordinator for terrestrial habitats at KEPO.
Returning faces and collective action from the community made for a satisfying turnout according to Delisle, both on the terrain and underwater.
The dive was led by Nathalie Lasselin, head of Urban Water Odyssey, who joined forces with KEPO and Groupe de recommandations et d’actions pour un meilleur environnement (GRAME) for the shoreline cleanup. The day’s catches included tires, scraps of metal, styrofoam floaters, and bags full of beverage cans.
“As scuba divers, we are privileged witnesses because we can see it, and when you see trash underwater, you just can’t look away – you know it’s there,” said Lasselin. “So that’s why we keep coming back to different places to clean, to just make it what it’s supposed to be.”
Over the past decades, ecosystems in the river have deteriorated due to marine traffic, chemical dumping, and human activity. Yet the river is the source of about 50 percent of Quebecers’ drinking water.
Keeping the river clean will not only improve the quality of this drinking water, but also create a more pleasant environment for all those who enjoy it for leisurely use, Lasselin explained.
Along the long stretches of terrain around the marina, the pollution can easily go unnoticed.
“It’s an awakening to the fact that there is pollution even when you don’t see it,” said Sandrine Tessier, a communications representative from GRAME. Much like Lasselin, Tessier traces the problem of littering back to a lack of education and sensitivity about the impacts of waste on the environment.
She explained that waste pollution is an issue much larger than one that can be tackled solely by citizen-led initiatives. The fishing industry, she pointed out, is a main polluter contributing to the contamination of the St. Lawrence River.
By involving all parts of the community, Tessier hopes that educational awareness will be the most notable takeaway. GRAME recently organized an activity among high school students with the goal of helping them reshape their daily habits towards more conscious and sustainable patterns.
These habits can take the form of bulk shopping at grocery stores, correctly sorting and recycling waste at home, and simply picking up after yourself, she added. Combing through the leafy trails along the border of Tekakwitha Island, Gina Philie brought back brimfull buckets of trash; the finds included plastic bags, bottles and containers, disposable cups, beer cans, and a flip-flop.
“We’re kind of addicted to it now,” said Philie, director of La Prairie-based La Vigile Verte, who has been volunteering at cleanups since 2010. Community-led initiatives such as these allow organizations from different areas in Quebec to collaborate for a common purpose – in her case, taking small steps to better and preserve the environment.
“We can raise the awareness of the importance of keeping this wonderful river in good health,” said Turcotte, before heading into the river, his swim fins clapping against the water. “It’s a small step for humankind, but a giant one for humanity.”