Jocelyn Baker grew up in Queenston, just steps from the Niagara River.
She swam in it, spent hours drifting along in an inner-tube between Navy Hall and the sand docks as a teen, and feels deeply the need to recognize and preserve the significant body of water that has played a huge role, not only in her formative years, but also in her career in conservation.
“The work I do today is not just related to my profession. It’s related to growing up in the river. It’s something I’ve experienced for 50 years,” says Baker.
She recently spoke to The Friends of One Mile Creek in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and following that, to the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, about her efforts to have the river designated as a wetland of international significance. Her next stop, likely in January, will be in NOTL, as she looks for council endorsement under the Ramsar Convention, which protects wetlands and their biodiversity in 170 countries.
A Ramsar designation is based on a convention that was held in 1971 in the city of the same name, in Iran, Baker explained.
Since it was first signed — Canada entered into the agreement in 1981 — more than 2,000 sites around the world have been declared wetlands of international importance, with 37 in Canada and 39 in the U.S., which signed on in 1986.
The U.S. has already signed off on its side of the Niagara River as a significant wetland, and agreement on this side would make it the first trans-boundary designation, she says.
She never envisioned “Canada would not be first” in its support of designation, she says, and considers that recent step from the U.S. as being helpful in her efforts.
Baker is co-chair of the Niagara River Ramsar Designation Steering Committee, which has been working on this initiative since 2013. She is also a former NPCA project manager in the area of water restoration, but lost her job in a major shake-up before the 2018 municipal election, a subject she is unable to broach publicly.
The former NPCA staff and board members did not endorse this significant designation, so the recent support is very much appreciated, says Baker, now a Niagara College instructor who is also pursuing a master’s degree at Brock University.
The support of the NPCA “was a pretty pivotal endorsement. We feel we can move forward now,” she says.
Baker was joined for the November presentation to the NPCA by Jajean Rose-Burney, the U.S. co-chair of the steering committee. He told board members those on his side of the river are looking forward to Canadian designation.
In 2016, when the issue of the Niagara River as a wetland of international significance was discussed by NOTL town council, a decision was deferred due to “the unknown and unintended consequences” of designation, specifically from the agricultural community, which draws water from the river, a staff report to council said.
More than three years later, Baker continues to stress that while Ramsar designation would signify the importance of the Niagara River, it carries no regulations or restrictions with it — any protections are completely voluntary, with the purpose of maintaining the ecological character of the site, and ensuring its conservation.
For a site to qualify for Ramsar designation, it must meet one of nine criteria, which includes being rare or unique; supports vulnerable, endangered or threatened species; supports keystone or endemic species; supports species at a critical stage in their life cycles, such as migration or breeding; supports 20,000 or more water birds; supports one per cent of the individuals in a population of one species of water bird; supports a significant proportion of indigenous fish species; is an important food source, spawning area, nursery or migration path for fish; and supports one per cent of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of wetland-dependent species that are not birds.
The Niagara River falls within less than one per cent of the global Ramsar sites that meet all nine criteria, says Baker.
NOTL is not the only support still required. While the Niagara Parks Commission agreed to be the nominating agency on the Canadian side as far back as 2015, as an owner and manager of a significant portion of the Niagara River on this side, the commission is still undergoing a legal review of its support, the completion of which has been delayed with a new CAO and board members, Baker says.
“That report keeps getting pushed back. We’re now looking at March. They seem to have other priorities.”
Ontario Power Generation, Niagara Falls, Fort Erie, the Region and the NPCA have now given their endorsement, she added.
In addition to the pride and community support which would evolve with an international recognition of the Niagara River, there would be benefits for tourism, the wine industry, education, economic development, and resource management, says Baker.
When her committee makes its presentation to NOTL council, she is hoping, with an increased understanding of the voluntary nature of designation, the Town will be supportive.
“It isn’t interfering with anyone’s rights,” she says.