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This article was published 11/9/2018 (1100 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — A Winnipeg couple is calling on Canadians to shore up the future of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), pledging to match $1 million in donations for a unique facility that nearly sank five years ago.
"We take our water for granted," philanthropist Gail Asper said in a Tuesday interview. "It’s our responsibility as Canadians, I think, to make sure that that resource is being used to carry out that important research that will impact the world."
The ELA is a collection of 58 lakes about 75 kilometres northeast of Kenora, where scientists have conducted research on whole bodies of water since 1968. That’s meant 50 years of scientists surveying and experimenting with entire ecosystems, instead of just working in a lab.
Last Thursday, Asper and her husband Michael Paterson — who is a senior ELA scientist — called on the private sector to take the plunge and donate to the freshwater research facility.
"We want to give a challenge grant, so that we encourage and induce people to also write cheques," Asper said. "You really want to be master of your own fate, and not be dependent on one funder."
In 2013, the Harper government ceased its annual $2-million funding for the lakes, and had officials dismantle cabins used by researchers. A year later, the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) took over the ELA, with a mix of funding from the Ontario and Manitoba governments as well as private donors.
The federal Liberals restored funding for the ELA in 2016, and although Asper and Paterson praised that decision, they want to make the project less dependent on the whims of whoever’s in office.
"It was on death’s door," Paterson said. "The ELA is doing great, but my concern is for the long term, that we develop our own, in-house security rather than be entirely reliant always on governments, or other sources of funding."
Their funding aims to establish an endowment fund large enough to collect interest, which can be used to fund the ELA. For example, a $60-million fund could collect roughly $2 million or more per year, Asper said, which would take the place of government funding.
Paterson said the ELA is "absolutely unique in the world" because of the depth of possible experiments, and records dating back five decades. The IISD has boosted training programs, while research at the lakes has helped find ways to reduce algae blooms in Lake Winnipeg. The ELA has made waves for its research into the impacts of oil spills and climate change.
The couple will match donations until $1 million comes through, and they haven’t set a deadline to meet that amount. Asper said she’s hoping donors pull through during the ELA’s current 50-year anniversary. She suggests people consider multi-year pledges, which can net a bigger tax deduction.
Asper also credited this newspaper’s reporting on the ELA cuts, for boosting the public support and political pressure needed to keep it operating.
"If it weren’t for the Free Press, I don’t know if the Experimental Lakes Area would even be around," she said.