New documentary showcases local personal connections to Lake Erie

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Three Chatham-Kent residents are among the 20 stories of people from Essex County to the Niagara Region told in an online documentary photography exhibition that showcase deep personal connections with Lake Erie.

Michelle Robbins, Ken Bell, and Todd Loop were photographed extensively and interviewed by documentary photographer Colin Boyd Shafer for the project, North of Long Tail, a collaboration with Environmental Defence Canada.

The stories and photographs can be found at

Bell, a Shrewsbury resident known locally as an environmentalist, told Shafer: “The lake is alive. It’s an ecosystem full of relationships. Like the human body, it is complex; it has inputs and outputs, and illnesses. It has moods, and it is almost like it has a personality.”

Robbins, who is a descendant of slaves who arrived to freedom in North Buxton, talks about her worry for the future of Lake Erie.


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“I want to be able to have the same surroundings for generations to come. I want my grandkids to play in the water and have it be safe for them. I want to give the same great memories I have of Lake Erie to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” she said.

Loop, a third-generation commercial fisherman from Wheatley, shares his thoughts on the Lake Erie fishery.

“Many people think fishing is like a tap. You just come out here and turn it on, but it’s not like that. You might get three good days out of a week,” he said.

Keith Brooks, programs director with Environmental Defence, called Lake Erie “more than just a body of water” in a media release.

“So many people rely on the lake for so many things — to support their business, for drinking water, recreation, or just a place to unwind and relax,” he said. “When Lake Erie’s health is impacted, so are the lives of the people who live near and love the lake. We wanted to show that through this project.”

The title of the project was inspired by the translation of the lake’s name. “Erie” is derived from the Iroquoian word erielhonan that means “long tail,” which can also describe the lake’s unique shape.

For the project, Shafer travelled along the lake’s north shore, meeting with people from all different backgrounds and walks of life. They all had one thing in common: the lake is essential to them. Other stories involve a Pelee Island theatre owner, a firefighter from Port Stanley, a brewery owner in Port Colborne, and an associate professor from the University of Waterloo.


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“What I heard over and over again from people was how essential Lake Erie was to their community and local history, and how it was a lifeline for them,” said Shafer, who is from Kitchener. “Having the chance to meet these people and capture these stories has had a profound impact on me. It has given me a different perspective and relationship with Lake Erie.”

In recent years, Lake Erie and its shoreline have been impacted by climate change, erosion, plastic pollution, and flooding, said the media release.

One of the biggest threats to the lake are annual massive — and sometimes toxic — algae blooms, which can kill fish and make the water unsafe for drinking or swimming. In 2018, the federal and Ontario governments finalized their action plan to help restore the health of the lake but have been slow to implement it, the environmental organization said.

“We hope that through this project, our leaders will recognize that Lake Erie, and the people who are closely connected to it, can’t afford any further delays,” said Brooks. “Action is needed to save Lake Erie now.”

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