By Zoë Mason, Bruce Peninsula Press
A red canoe cuts through the glassy waters of Georgian Bay; the imposing face of the Niagara Escarpment looms above. The canoe is captained by Ron Gould, the Protected Area Specialist of Ontario Parks along the Escarpment, or so we are told by a familiar voice — is that Jim Cuddy?
This is Striking Balance, the latest project of husband-and-wife filmmaking duo Zach Melnick and Yvonne Drebert. A second installment, it’s the follow-up to their 2016 eight-part miniseries of the same name. This season follows in the footsteps of the first, showcasing stories of grassroots sustainability efforts across Canada by touring the country’s many UNESCO biosphere reserves. This season brought them closer to home with a segment on the Niagara Escarpment.
Close to home
Ashore, Gould takes us on a scenic hike along the base of the cliff. Gould’s duties as Protected Area Specialist include reviewing the ancient cedar forest, a task he brought the crew of Striking Balance along for. Among the ancient cedars in Lion’s Head are two of the country’s oldest known trees; he shows off the gnarled second-place cedar, which has stood on the banks of the bay for 1319 years.
Melnick and Drebert came to the Bruce because of its unique situation within the UNESCO biosphere reserve system, a United Nations affiliated honorific system of recognition.
“Biosphere Reserves are learning places for sustainable development, or laboratories of sustainable development,” explains Melnick. “They’re both an award that a region gets from UNESCO saying, ‘Hey, this place is doing really great things to do with sustainability.’ But they’re also a tool that that community can use to get further in their vision for sustainability. So it’s both the both in awards for how great the region is doing with the sustainability in their area, and a tool to use to get further in in that division wherever they want to go with it.”
Canada has 18 Biosphere Reserves, but the Niagara Escarpment is special for a number of reasons, not the least of which being scale — stretching for over 700 km, it is a vast swath of land.
“It’s definitely a big challenge and it’s always been a big challenge. When Biosphere Reserves work best is when you have a defined area that lots of people care about and they all are committed to its sustainability. So that is what’s happening on the escarpment for sure, it’s just such a big challenge because it’s so large. It almost has to be divided up and looked at in different ways.”
Here in the Bruce Peninsula, that’s exactly what the Bruce Peninsula Biosphere Association tries to do. However, size isn’t the only reason the escarpment is special. It is also one of a rare few which are not only honorific, but actually backed up by a legal structure.
“It’s not a top-down thing. There has to be an organization that maintains the designation and is working with the UN, but there’s no requirement that there’s legal enforcement of anything as part of that process,” says Drebert.
The primary prerequisite for gaining a Biosphere Reserve designation is evidence of a strong, broad-based conservation effort. But in the case of the Niagara Escarpment, outrage at the destruction of a portion of the cliff face near Milton led to a concerted political effort to recognize the importance of the region.
“[UNESCO designations] are meant to inspire people to work together towards sustainability. But because there’s the Niagara Escarpment Plan, that’s sort of a whole other ballgame,” says Melnick. “You have the Niagara Escarpment Commission, and the Plan, which actually means that what happens inside the Biosphere Reserve is governed differently than what happens outside the Biosphere Reserve. So in a way, it’s been embraced more wholeheartedly, because it’s recognized by the Ontario government as this thing that has some real strength to it, where mostly they’re just meant to inspire sustainability.”
The overarching aim of the Striking Balance project is to lend a voice to those small-town solutions for big environmental problems that can otherwise go unheard, and there’s no shortage of such stories along the escarpment. This search has taken them from sea to sea, but for Season 2, they found some right here in their backyard.
There is no end to chatter in the Bruce about the growing volume of tourists in the Bruce. Issues from highway safety to pollution have been exacerbated by the growing traffic, but one issue that has likely not crossed most locals’ minds is the future of rock climbing in the region. Perhaps that’s a credit to a group of innovators who are working to keep it from becoming a problem. Melnick and Drebert took it upon themselves to give them their due.
“we started out with a lot of potential for stories here, but we ended up sort of whittling it down. We knew we were going to want to do something about the increase in visitors because that’s the sustainability challenge,” says Melnick.
“Along the escarpment cliff face the ancient trees are one of the things that makes the escarpment biosphere an amazing place. Now, there’s been a huge increase in recreational climbing. You have people really in contact with this area for the first time, and especially at Lion’s Head, the most coveted climbing destination in Ontario. So trying to figure out what the future of climbing might look like, that’s the story we focused on there.”
Always focused on solutions, they show us some of the local changemakers working to unite this growing interest in outdoor activity with a doctrine of conservation. One such person is Leslie Timms, the owner and Head Guide at On the Rocks, a guided climbing company, who is featured in the Striking Balance escarpment episode. She offers courses which train new climbers how to interact with their environment in a sustainable manner, with the goal being to “bridge the gap between the gym and the rock.”
These stories of small successes have become a passion for Melnick and Drebert, but Striking Balance has been a long time coming.
Behind the scenes
“Zach has never actually had another job,” says Melnick. “It’s kind of crazy. He never flipped burgers or anything in high school. He just started making videos, and then eventually, it just became his full time gig.”
Melnick, today the director of Striking Balance, and Drebert, the producer, met originally in high school. For the past fifteen years, they have been filmmaking together full time.
“We started doing history projects, actually,” says Melnick. “We started with a nonprofit association that worked with communities to make documentaries about their history. It’s been a slow sort of progression into this. Striking Balance was our biggest project.”
For Melnick and Drebert, there’s practically no such thing as work life balance. They spend weeks on the road together shooting their projects; they do most of their production out of their home, sometimes with guests living and working with them; they even found their home here on the Bruce through work. They relocated from Brantford when they shot their three-part history series, The Bruce.
The enterprise has always been this way: what Drebert calls “the classic public-television-making crew of a couple of people driving around in a van for six months at a time, filming people catching fish and stuff.” The Toronto film scene was never on their radar.
“Clearly by their kind of work we do, we’re kind of into the outdoors,” she adds. “And, you know, you don’t have to live in Toronto to make documentaries.”
“We were never really part of the established way,” says Melnick. “We both grew up in a rural community. So we actually always have had that perspective, and how we got things done was actually much closer to like, starting an arts co-op in a small town versus doing a big feature film.”
It’s a perspective that informs their work.
“Toronto isn’t the only place with great stories. So part of that is embracing the stories that rural communities have to share, because that’s where our roots are,” says Drebert. “There’s so much more going on in the province and across the country than just what is happening in urban centers.”
It’s this sentiment which fuelled their interest in Striking Balance. The Biosphere Reserves provide Melnick and Drebert with a jumping-off point to connect with small, dedicated communities tackling tough sustainability issues. Drebert says their hope is that it inspires other people in rural communities to engage in grassroots organizing to start conservation initiatives. Sustainability in particular can be a tough topic to be optimistic about, but Drebert hopes to do just that.
“Our goal was to tell a hopeful story that could make people feel a little bit better about the world at this current time.”
Learning from the North
One such feel-good story is that of the newly established Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve. Tsá Tué is the only Canadian Biosphere Reserve outside the Niagara Escarpment backed up by a legal mechanism. It is also North America’s biggest Biosphere Reserve, and the only one in the world led by an Indigenous community.
Travelling to the reserve, which lays on Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories, was one of the highlights of producing this season for its crew. Melnick fondly recalls taking the nine-hour trip across the lake: “Starting at 2pm and ending at like 11:30pm and it was still light, it was July. The lake was totally glass the entire time.”
Isolated and sparsely populated, the conditions on Great Bear Lake are vastly different from those here in Southern Ontario.
“For us as people who live on the Great Lakes here, you know, of course, we have neighbors all over the place,” says Drebert. “Imagine, on Lake Huron, just having like one single community on the whole lake. It’s just like that. But the whole lake is their home, they just use the entire thing.”
And yet despite its difference, it’s also exactly the same. The isolation has preserved conditions on Great Bear Lake that disappeared long ago on the Great Lakes.
“When we were doing The Bruce we were hearing stories from elders, and [reading] accounts of historical visits of people here, and they talk about the abundance of fish and the importance of fish to the Ojibwe here on the Bruce Peninsula,” says Melnick. “And now that’s gone. Right now we’re talking about, in the deep water part of Lake Huron, between two and five per cent, or something like that, of the [original] number of large fish in the lake.”
On Great Bear Lake, the abundance remains. Lake trout remains an essential part of the local diet for the community on its shores. “It’s just sort of amazing that that still exists somewhere,” says Melnick.
Great Bear Lake has also benefited from an exceptional level of environmental stewardship thanks to the Indigenous community that calls it home. For that reason, Tsá Tué serves as a symbol of the potential of Biosphere Reserves to cultivate both sustainable practices and a community which continues to practice them.
“They’re trying to figure out what decolonized management of resources will look like in the future,” says Melnick. “That community also recently achieved self government again, so really, they have this pretty amazing opportunity, where they have the abundance of fish especially, but other wildlife as well. Now they have this sort of exciting question in front of them: how will we manage this? Will it be like our grandfathers? Will it be like our scientists? Or will it be some kind of combo? It’ll definitely be some kind of combo, but there’s a very interesting conversation going on about where that middle ground will land.”
It is this interaction between people, economy, and environment that most fascinates Melnick and Drebert, and Indigenous communities are on its cutting edge. Melnick and Drebert call it the Holy Grail: stories where people are able not only to reduce harm, but actually leave a positive mark on their environment.
It’s happening on the escarpment, and they want to celebrate it. Further South, quarries are rehabilitated using aquaculture to reintroduce essential nutrients to sterile lakes. Corporations are even trying to reconcile the aggregate extraction that does occur with its ecological impacts; at Milton Quarry, a groundwater recharge system is being tested to ensure surrounding water systems are protected.
While sustainability — and Striking Balance — are very much future-oriented, Melnick and Drebert’s backgrounds in history have led them to consider conservation through a historical lens.
“In a lot of ways, sustainability is history,” says Melnick. “I mean, you don’t know if it works unless it’s been working for a long time. So we are always interested in the really long term stuff. So as part of making this project I think we realize just how long term that that could be.”
“Sustainability can mean so many things, right?” adds Drebert. “For us, that’s the interesting part as filmmakers. It’s not just a ‘save the environment’ story. It’s about how people can live here and have a healthy economic life, and for the environment to be healthy, and then, hopefully, everybody’s better off. That’s where the best stories are. It’s not just sustainable, it’s like, the next level of conservation is better than sustainable.”
“For me, it’s about showing different perspectives about how different people can look at the same problem in different ways,” says Melnick. “If one group has empathy for the other group, and understand where they’re coming from, I think you can get to some pretty great solutions.”
As for their next project, Drebert says it’s a ways off still.
“It’s been eight or nine years. So I think we’re ready to take a couple days off,” she laughs.
But it’s with high spirits that they take their reprieve.
“I think we did accomplish what we were hoping to, which is that we hope the stories we share are going to move people to take action in their own backyards,” says Drebert. “That’s our hope and dream. I think we’re doing it, maybe.”
To watch “Striking Balance,” go to TVO Docs on YouTube.