Sunday morning joggers were astonished to come upon polar bears, splashing in Lake Ontario just off Sunnyside Beach. No, not the fat, furry kind, but the pale, shivering, yet nonetheless courageous variety, mobilized by the Wildlands League for their second annual Polar Bear Swim. The swim—held to raise money and spread awareness of climate change, particularly the effects that can be seen in our own province—was scheduled to coincide with the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is going on as we speak. “We can’t all be in Copenhagen, but this is one thing that we can do right here, right now to support a call for strong, timely action on climate change,” said Deegan Patterson, a George Brown College intern who helped organize the swim.
The official swim marshal was mayoral candidate and former Minister of Energy and Infrastructure George Smitherman. Smitherman got involved with Wildlands League after they sent him a stuffed polar bear to congratulate him on the Green Energy Act. This past summer, he joined several Wildlands members and This Hour Has 22 Minutes’s Cathy Jones on an epic journey to see the world’s southernmost (real) polar bears, who reside on the northern coast of Ontario. The trip involved a twelve-hour drive to Hearst (four hours north of Timmins), a two-and-a-half hour float plane flight, a five-day paddle by canoe, and a final motorboat ride, ending on the shores of Hudson Bay. “I always talk about Ontario as a place that’s remarkable because we have wine-growing regions in the south and polar bears on the Hudson Bay coast,” Smitherman told us before the start of the swim. “So to actually go on a canoe trip down this remarkable river [Sutton River] to see huge herds of caribou…two polar bears, was for me an experience I’m certain never to forget, and probably I’ll never be lucky enough to repeat.”
Mayoral candidate and official swim marshal, George Smitherman.
The source of the polar bear problem is the deforestation of the boreal forest, Canada’s most extensive vegetation zone. Anna Baggio, director of conservation and land use planning at Wildlands, explained that “carbon release from the degradation of forests and deforestation counts for about 25% of our emissions in the atmosphere, so we need to pay attention to it.” More emissions means higher temperatures and destruction of polar bear habitats.
Smitherman did not take the plunge today, citing cold water as his greatest phobia, but approximately sixty participants endured the cold water and icy rain, including many students from George Brown College, Humber College, University of Guelph-Humber, Newtonbrook Secondary, and Riverdale Collegiate Institute. Together, the entire group raised five thousand dollars, which triples last year’s tally.
In Toronto, we are worlds away from the Copenhagen summit, but as Smitherman said today, there are things we can all do. “There’s power in each and every one of us to do our part,” he stressed. “We have the opportunity as citizens to participate in the generation of electricity in a way that is clean and green, and actually in a way that is economically feasible. It’s our chance to make sure those polar bears have more of the ice they need. Not just to survive, but to thrive.”
All photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist.