News / Toronto

Councillor wants special designation for Great Lakes

If recognized by UNESCO, the freshwater system would be the world's biggest biosphere reserve.

A lighthouse on the shores of Pickering, Ontario.

Ryan Pfeiffer / Metroland

A lighthouse on the shores of Pickering, Ontario.

Toronto city councillor Mike Layton has put forward a motion to pursue UNESCO designation for the Great Lakes. If successful, the 10-year process would make the freshwater system the world's largest biosphere recognized by the United Nations.

"Our ecosystems are under threat like never before," said Layton, referring to the Great Lakes region.

"By doing this we hope we will draw international attention to the Great Lakes," he continued, adding he also hopes it will highlight the importance of the issue to other levels of government.

There are 669 recognized UNESCO biospheres. The program provides access to global best practices for conservation, conflict resolution and integrating cultural and biological diversity. Canada currently has 18 recognized biosphere reserves, including the Niagara Escarpment, Bay of Fundy, and Thousand Islands.

The designation is meant to bring more awareness to ecologically sensitive areas and can help make the case for more research funding too.

The proposal comes as the Great Lakes appear particularly vulnerable due to both environmental and political shocks.

Cities along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River have coped with record high water levels this year, which has led to flooding in cities like Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. At the same time the Trump administration has proposed a 97 per cent reduction in the budget for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a move that has been decried by environmentalists and researchers.

Layton's motion, seconded by Etobicoke-Lakeshore councillor Mark Grimes, asks political leaders like American Great Lakes governors, the Prime Minister and the U.S. President, to back the initiative.

"We're both affected by the quality of the Great Lakes," said Layton, referring to Canada and the U.S.

"I'm hopeful that under the leadership of this mayor we can engage our international partners."

Jennifer Caddick, spokesperson for the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes, said she would have to learn more details about the motion, but sees value in the idea at first glance. "We would be supportive of any effort to draw attention to the Great Lakes," she told Metro.

"We welcome the efforts of our friends in Canada."

The member's motion will be considered by city council next week, and requires two-thirds support to bypass the typical committee process.

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