An Untapped Resource

For over 200 years the people of Canada and the United States have peacefully shared and benefited from our wonderful communal resource, the Great Lakes. Though we  have a mutual commitment to open societies based on democracy, human rights and personal economic freedom, we do have differences in political structures, taxation, regulation and appropriate levels of government support. Our international border, the longest undefended border in the world of which we are so rightfully proud, obviously creates a barrier. So do the borders between individual states and provinces. Despite seminal agreements, such as the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the International Joint Commission, we suffer from an uncoordinated patchwork of solutions as we address common challenges across these borders. But as we all recognize, the natural world does not recognize borders, nor jurisdictional intricacies. A problem on one side of the border does not magically halt at the line drawn on a map. More importantly, a solution on one side of the Great Lakes benefits everyone.

Two national governments, ten state and provincial governments and countless municipal governments all play a role in enhancing the sustainability of the region we call home. But we will never achieve the integration of effort required for true sustainability without coordination across our various borders. But with our own fierce love of country and the places we each call home, how can integrated problem solving be achieved?

For nearly a decade, the bi-national Council of the Great Lakes Region (CGLR), has been working tirelessly with a sharp focus on the opportunities and challenges faced by the 107 million Americans and Canadians who call the Great Lakes Region home. CGLR has built up an impressive body of research and programming to both quantify our collective challenges and create sustainable solutions.  But those pesky man-made borders keep getting in the way of protecting our environment, building stronger communities and enhancing economic wellbeing.

I propose we tap into an underutilized human resource in a novel way. Those of us who have served in our state houses and provincial legislatures have been given a unique view into both the majesty and complexity of our shared Great Lakes Region. The insights we gained allow us to recognize what constitutes a shared problem, an effective solution and the steps necessary to move forward in each of our own respective jurisdictions. When a politician retires (willingly or unwillingly) they give up their seat in the halls of power, but not their relationships with fellow politicians and the civil servants with whom they served.

For example, the Great Lakes Region continues to deal with the challenge of water pollution. Whether it is increasing toxic blue-green algae blooms or an explosion of micro-plastic contamination, solving the problem on one side of the Lake is quixotic unless both sides of the Great Lakes watershed take the same, effective measures. Mother Nature knows no boundary.

I believe a new level of deep coordination amongst ever changing national, state and provincial governments is needed now more than ever. Collectively, we could literally spend millions of dollars attempting to coordinate intricate lobbying efforts in two national capitols, eight state houses and two provincial legislatures. But with every year being an election year somewhere in the Region, achieving effective coordination this way is all but impossible.

That is where I believe we can tap into a new, stable resource, never before used, to build coordinated consensus. A little-known fact is that former politicians and civil servants are some of the least partisan and most open-minded people in our respective countries. No longer under the pressure of strictly partisan viewpoints or government groupthink, these remarkable individuals all have a rare super-power. They not only see the complexity of our shared problems, they can judge the practicality of solutions and understand the political/legislative/regulatory pathways that must be trodden to achieve results. Moreover, they are considered as a valuable resource of institutional knowledge by both those currently serving in elected office and by the public service. Finally, they have both formal and informal networks that have allowed them to stay connected to each other.

I propose that a voluntary committee be created, made up of at least one former politician and one retired public servant from each of the eight states and two provinces in the Great Lakes Region. Their task will be to review the stellar research of the CGLR, as well as other relevant regional contributions and publications, and forge coordinated action plans to simultaneously propose to the twelve governments that represent the Great Lakes. Using their personal relationships, they will increase awareness in the halls of government and exhort their former colleagues to take the coordinated actions needed, sure in the knowledge that their action is truly part of a coordinated team effort. 

We who live in the Great Lakes Region are blessed. In a world of increasing climate change and growing political and global polarization, we must act together more than ever to steward this region. To achieve the level of sustainability that we collectively desire we must call on people to leverage their knowledge and experience and each play their unique role. So, I call on those of us who have been privileged to serve the public in the past to add their exceptional skill sets and deep relationships to once again solve the complex challenges that are faced by this wonderful Region we call home.

About the Author: John Wilkinson

Former Ontario Cabinet Minister John Wilkinson is the CEO of Wilkinson Insight Incorporated, providing strategic insight and counsel to various private and public sector clients.   

Of note, from 2003 – 2011 he was elected as the Member of Provincial Parliament for Perth-Middlesex and then Perth-Wellington. His ridings included the headwaters for four major river systems flowing into the Great Lakes. He was called to Executive Council and served first as Minister of Research & Innovation, then as Minister of Revenue, and finally, as the Minister of the Environment. While at Environment, he saw to the passage of the Ontario Water Opportunities and Water Conservation Act, 2010, and in June of 2011, the release of “Climate Ready: Ontario’s Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan”.

John currently sits on numerous corporate, not-for-profit, and advisory Boards, including the Council of the Great Lakes Region.

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