Portal allows public to wade into Great Lakes debate

Americans and Canadians will soon be given the opportunity to participate in an online discussion that affects 40 million people.

That’s the estimated number of residents on both sides of the border who live in the Great Lakes Basin region. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which the governments of the United States and Canada first signed into effect in 1972, is currently under review. The governments asked the International Joint Commission, a bilateral body established by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, to conduct a review of the agreement.

The IJC’s response was to conduct public meetings in 15 communities in the U.S. and Canada.

“Even though we were able to meet with residents in 15 communities – which is a large effort for our organization – there are still hundreds of other communities that we could not visit,” said Hon. Dennis L. Schornack, the U.S. co-chair of the IJC, speaking via teleconference on Thursday.

The solution was to take the debate online. The IJC has set up a “Web Dialogue” portal through San Francisco, Calif.-based provider WestEd, where interested citizens can weigh in on debates around Great Lakes environmental issues.

In the public meetings, “there was no opportunity for people in Duluth to interact with people in Quebec City, for example,” said the Rt. Hon. Herb Gray, co-chair of the Canadian section of the IJC. “The Web Dialogue provides ample opportunity for such interactions.

“This is not a conventional static chat room where you post your comments and hope someone will respond, it’s an actual dialogue. It’s like being at a conference, but you don’t have to wait your turn to get to the microphone to speak. Everyone has the same opportunity to participate,” he added.

The portal will support as many as 1,500 people – there are about 75 registrants so far – who can participate in predetermined debate topics on the Great Lakes. Among the participants will be expert panelists who will shape the debates.

There are some residents, for example, who are happy with the way the Water Quality Agreement is currently worded, said Gray, but there are others who would like to see it expanded to include issues like mercury deposition, aquatic invasive species, water diversions and global climate change.

The portal will be available from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2. It’s currently structured around pre-determined topics, but there is flexibility within the system to allow for change. “These topics are not set in stone,” said IJC spokeswoman Paula Fedeski-Koundakjian. “We expect that the discussion will take that format, but we don’t know. Maybe the discussion will take another direction and we will be able to reorganize the agenda.”

Summaries for each day’s content and discussions will be available online and e-mailed directly to registered participants. “It will be very easy for you from one day to the next to come in and get a bird’s-eye view of what was discussed before you go into each individual conversation,” said Fedeski-Koundakjian.

The discussions will also be translated into French for Francophone participants, practically in real time, and there is a library section where relevant documents can be posted. The entire Web Dialogue will be available online for a year, then its contents will downloaded and kept as a permanent record by the governments of the U.S. and Canada.

The Internet has played a part in the democratic process before, said Schornack, but “as we’ve learned from some of our own experiments, cyberspace is a big abyss.”

The Web Dialogue is designed to allow citizens to participate more fully, said Gray, and is reminiscent of what Marshall McLuhan meant by “global village.”

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