Catherine McKenna: Why Swimming Matters

Swim Drink Fish is a nonprofit organization working to connect people with water since 2001 which uses citizen science and communications technology to safeguard local waters.  They are worthy advocates for the protection and restoration of the places we love.

Catherine McKenna is a Masters Swimmer and in celebration of her 50th birthday this summer she swam in the Great Lakes, as well as the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic oceans while donating to Swim Drink Fish. Catherine says, “Together, we can restore and protect the waters we love.”

The organization recently spoke to her about open water swimming, her passion for protecting water, and more.

We at Swim Drink Fish are very lucky to have your support, but why did you choose Swim Drink Fish?

To me, there’s nothing more important than clean water and the work Swim Drink Fish does is critical. It’s not just about testing water quality either, it’s about engaging a broader audience of people so that they connect with waters and want to protect them, and that is something you guys do very well.

Why swimming when it comes to water advocacy?

First of all, I’m a swimmer. Swimming is my personal way of connecting with water. When I’m in the water doing an open water swim, it’s a reminder of how fortunate we are to have all these places. I’ve swam all across the country, in big lakes, small lakes, oceans, north, south, east, west. Beyond reminding us how fortunate we are, it’s a reminder that we need to protect these waters and keep them safe and clean.

What sparked this idea for you to celebrate your 50th birthday with this challenge?

50 is a milestone, so I wanted to do something that was fun, worthwhile, and also a little bit epic. But during a pandemic, I had limited options. Doing the swim for charity was important to me. It was a bit of a challenge. It made me think outside the box. Where was I going to go do these swims? Who was I going to do these swims with? I met a bunch of new people and reconnected with my old varsity swim team buddies from University of Toronto.

What did you discover (or rediscover) during this challenge?

If anything, I was just reminded how great the Great Lakes are. They are so awesome and big and beautiful! We rented a ship in Tobermory, and the captain told us, “You’re the first people who haven’t asked us if there are sharks!” He explained that most people aren’t used to such huge expanses of water in lakes.

It struck me how incredibly lucky we are. It’s one thing to say we have 20% of the world’s freshwater, but another thing to be able to see it and experience how stunning it is. Not just the water, but the landscapes, the sandy beaches, the rock formations, the wildness.

I felt so Canadian, and so happy to be Canadian.

How many of these bodies of water were new to you?

I’d previously swam in Lake Superior, Lake Ontario, Lake Huron, and the three oceans. Lake Erie was new for me. I also swam in Lake Michigan for the first time, this year, but that was on a separate trip from the Swim Challenge my swim buddies, when I was in the US for work.

This challenge has helped Swim Drink Fish afford more samples to monitor our waterways. What have you learned or found interesting while sampling?

It’s very fun, easy, and not all that expensive. It made me wonder why we don’t do it everywhere, all the time! There are lots of people who want to do it. So many of them have regular swimming spots, and they want to know the water quality there.

I think that if all water was tested and the results were posted, people might realize, “Oh, that’s not very good. We should be doing a lot more to keep it clean and healthy.”

Or, if the water quality is good, people might be really happy and appreciate the progress. Swim Guide is great, because it informs people about the water quality at their favourite swimming spots.

People care about water. In the summer, Canadians will do just about anything to get to it. But day to day, I don’t think we always recognize how delicate these ecosystems are. In many areas, our Great Lakes are healthier than they’ve been. But there is still much restoration that needs to be done.

One thing I love about water sampling is how it can engage citizens. Lots of people are doing it on a volunteer basis. The more you can engage people in protecting something, the more they’re going to value it and share it with their kids, with their friends, and people they know. It can create a movement of people who see clean water not as an abstract thing, but something they can see and touch.

The open water swimming community seems to be getting some much deserved attention recently. Why do you think that is?

Open water swimmers get it. If there’s a storm, there’s going to be a ton of runoff, they can’t get in the water. It’s also a demonstration of how the more you engage with something, like water, you understand how valuable it is.

Some people criticize open water swimmers who use their swims to advocate for clean water. They say that you should just care that it’s clean, regardless of if you’re using it for recreation or not. But I don’t think it really matters why people care about water. It’s a bit like climate change—I don’t care why someone decides that they’re going to do the right thing. If they’re doing the right thing, that’s awesome. If your access point to caring about clean water is that you’re swimming it, that’s awesome.

No one has done more for women in politics in Canada than yourself. Swimming seems like a really inclusive way for everyone to connect to water. Is that fair, or do you see a challenge in diversifying the swim community? 

The Gord Edgar Downie Pier is a great example of how we can inclusively connect people to water. It can be as simple as making it easier for people to get to their local waters. We need to work towards making sure nature is accessible, and free of barriers like age, class, race, physical abilities, or anything else.

We need diversity in these natural spaces! Everyone should be there. Everyone should be jumping in the water. At the Gord Downie Pier, there were seniors, there were young people, university students, kids, everyone.

Not everyone can just pack up and go out of town to find clean water, and not everyone has a cottage or access to a car. But if we can get people access to water right near where they live, somewhere they can get to on public transit or bike or foot, that’s a huge win. Especially during the pandemic, we’ve realized that our communities and connecting with nature are everything.

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