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Massey Medal

2008 Winner - Bruce Mitchell

Bruce Mitchell. (Photo: Mathew McCarthy)

Water-wise
One may wonder why Bruce Mitchell developed an interest in water management, given that he was born and raised in Prince Rupert, on British Columbia’s northwest coast, where water shortages are seldom a concern. But perhaps it’s not such a stretch. As a high school and then university student, Mitchell worked in fish plants and as a deckhand on a troller. This first-hand experience in a resourcebased industry stuck with him. He became a geography professor at southwestern Ontario’s University of Waterloo and has spent four decades tackling the complexities of wisely governing this precious natural resource.

Mitchell’s principal contribution has been to “integrated water-resource management,” which focuses on selected variables affecting water and surrounding ecosystems, rather than the conventional approach, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, of developing catch-all policies for a river basin’s entire watershed. Collecting a broad range of scientific data for a comprehensive approach took too long to be practical, says Mitchell. In the early 1980s, he began to zero in on factors that have a significant influence on water systems.

For his critical thinking and pragmatic approach to water-management issues, Mitchell has been awarded the 2008 Massey Medal for outstanding achievement in Canadian geography.

Established by Governor General Vincent Massey in 1959, the award is administered by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

Mitchell’s integrated approach has been applied to the Great Lakes. Instead of developing policies for the entire Great Lakes watershed system — a daunting task given the huge population and multiple national, state, provincial and municipal governments involved — the International Joint Commission, which deals with waterresource issues along the Canada-U.S. boundary, has concentrated on 42 subecosystems, such as harbours, bays and estuaries.

Internationally, Mitchell’s expertise has been sought by governments and universities in Australia, Indonesia, China, Nigeria and India.

“Bruce is one of the people who first realized that it’s not, in fact, the resources that need managing — it’s us,” says Philip Dearden, a geography professor at the University of Victoria who co-authored, with Mitchell, a book on environmental science and management.

Indeed, when asked what is the most pressing watermanagement issue in Canada today, Mitchell is quick to answer that too many Canadians still believe we have an abundance of water and therefore waste it. “It’s way too easy for us as individuals to criticize the governments or industry,” he says, “but at the end of the day, we each are water managers.”

— Monique Roy-Sole

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