The Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell
Lieutenant Governor of Ontario
We cannot understand Ontario without the Great Lakes.
Identity: Art Inspired by the Great Lakes features contemporary artwork that connects us with the Great Lakes, building on the earlier work of beloved landscape artists, capturing our imagination and illustrating how these waters are part of our identity.
The Great Lakes define Ontario. We understand the homesickness of artist Doris McCarthy, who wrote in her journal in London, England in 1914: “This morning I felt what exile could be, how I would cry with longing for the feel of a paddle in my hand, the warmth of the Georgian Bay rocks, the cool ripple of blue water.”
Sometimes they seem just too big to comprehend. These “inland seas” truly are great. The five Great Lakes hold 21% of the world’s fresh water and unlock a route that extends 3,700 kilometres into the heart of North America. Given their size, it is not surprising that water plays a central role in the beliefs and spirituality of the province’s First Nations, who were the original people to live on the shores and travel across the Great Lakes. The Anishinaabe, who include the Algonquin, Ojibwa, and Odawa First Nations, believe that “everything is related to water”.
The arrival of the First Nations some eleven thousand years ago was the first migration witnessed by this territory born of glaciers and tectonic shifts. But it was not the last. Guided by the First Nations, Europeans left the St Lawrence River valley and began steadily moving up river. One of them was French explorer Étienne Brûlé, who is thought to be the first European to have seen Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, and Superior.
The lakes became focal points that underpinned the development of the northern part of the continent. They not only nourished the interior’s newborn communities, but also provided a way to ship the region’s first natural resources, timber and furs, down to the St Lawrence for export. And until the Grand Trunk Railway was completed in 1860, they were the routes most immigrants took to arrive in this province. The Great Lakes were key to it all.
The Great Lakes were also a battleground. They are a natural barrier to invasion from the United States, and during the War of 1812, they became the world’s biggest moat. If the Great Lakes had not helped us win the War of 1812, we would not be the independent country we are today.
In this case, war between neighbours led to peace, and to the joint use of a shared resource for our mutual economic benefit, a strategy that reached its peak with the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway in 1959. The aim was to turn the cities of the Great Lakes into seaports, bypassing East Coast ports. This ambition was never fully realized, as it was overtaken by the containerization of freight transportation.
Our relationship with the Great Lakes continues to evolve and now more closely resembles that of our First Nations, who are the original stewards of this source of life. Rather than simply exploiting these waters, governments on both sides of the lakes are improving them and preserving them for our children and grandchildren.
First there was the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to restore the integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes. Then Ontario, Québec, and eight American states signed the Great Lakes Compact to prevent the export of water outside of the Great Lakes watershed. Now the International Joint Commission is working to restore the natural rise and fall of water levels on the Great Lakes, overhauling a policy from the fifties that controlled levels for the benefit of hydroelectricity generation and shipping. This environmental co-operation between Canada and the United States helped set a pattern that encouraged the two neighbours to establish closer economic ties.
The Great Lakes also have other stories to tell. They have witnessed the rise and fall of communities. They speak of spectacular economic growth and the environmental damage it has frequently caused. Today, the region around the Great Lakes generates nearly six trillion dollars in economic activity every year. They nourish and support 33 million Canadians and Americans. The Great Lakes are essential for both our livelihood and our recreation. They have become the hub of innovation, the home to universities, colleges, and scientists and researchers who, like our ancestors, see themselves reflected in and connected to the Great Lakes.
Throughout the centuries, these remarkable Great Lakes have engaged our imagination.
Whether as the “lifeblood of Mother Earth” for the Anishinaabe, the water highway of North America for industrialists, or a water playground for boaters and anglers, they continue to shape us.
The art in this exhibition is as varied as the changes that have washed over the Great Lakes. The artists have also included personal reflections with their paintings, photographs, sculpture, and social media, expanding on how the Great Lakes have inspired them. They show there is no single view of what the Great Lakes mean to us. That diversity is a fundamental part of our Ontario identity.