Elmira’s Henry Regier has been named to the Order of Canada, in recognition of more than half a century of work on ecosystem management and environmental conservation.
The environmental scientist said the surprise of being named to the Order was something like being struck by lightning
“Five weeks ago I got a phone call out of the blue and somebody introduced himself and told me I’d been named to the Order of Canada. He expected me to fall on the floor and I did, of course.”
Regier was a professor of zoology and environmental studies at the University of Toronto for 30 years, and later director of the school’s Institute of Environmental Studies. He’s served on the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, the Great Lakes Science Advisory Board and co-authored papers with a wide range of researchers.
“I think … I’m the designated recipient for a whole network of people who’ve collaborated over the last half-century on this issue,” he said of receiving the Order of Canada.
Regier said his interest in ecology grew out of a first-hand understanding of nature. He was born in 1930, in a log cabin built by his father in northern Alberta.
“It was the edge of civilization. For the first 13 years of my life, we kids got our fun in the bush. I’ve always felt more at home in the bush, in the woods, than in the centre of Toronto, where I lived for a couple of decades.”
His family moved east in 1943, to a house that was a kilometre away from Lake Ontario, where they went swimming. At that time, the shoreline was slumping into the lake, taking with it a series of summer cottages. And a few years later, swimming in Lake Ontario was banned because of polio.
“People were getting it – some people I knew had polio – from pollution in Lake Ontario. So I became aware of the health risks of the Great Lakes,” he explained.
Regier finished his B.A. at Queen’s University in 1954. One of the professors there, Wes Curran, was interested in conservation and encouraged him to take a job with the Ontario government studying streams in the Toronto area.
“I caught the bug to be an aquatic ecosystem freak from those surveys.”
After a short stint teaching high school, Regier completed his PhD at Cornell University in 1961 and took another job with the Ontario government, this time researching fisheries in Lake Erie.
Many of the problems facing the Great Lakes today, he first encountered in the 1950s and ‘60s.
While studying streams flowing into Lake Erie in 1955, he learned about the problems caused by exotic species. Smelt, a non-native species of fish, was moving into Lake Erie and causing problems for commercial fishers by tangling in their nets.
At the same time, dead zones started to appear in the shallow waters of Lake Erie. The colder, bottom waters were being starved of oxygen by decaying organic matter falling from the warmer surface water. Lack of oxygen forced out coldwater species such as trout. The surface water was overly fertile, fed by phosphates coming from sewage, industrial chemicals and agricultural runoff.
In the early 1970s, there were major programs to reduce the amount of phosphates ending up in the lake. Those efforts were partly successful; the dead zones were reduced in size, and coldwater fish started to come back.
In the late 1980s, a new non-native threat moved in: zebra mussels and their relatives, quagga mussels. Carried in the ballast water of ships, the mussels are prodigious eaters and rob a lake of nutrients, while depositing waste on the lake floor. A new type of dead zone started to appear.
“Just about the time the lakes were coming back from the phosphate overburdening, this thing happened,” Regier said. “The Lake Erie story is far from over. Billions have been spent on trying to rehabilitate it and many things have been done. It’s not over.”
After he retired in 1995, Regier and his wife Lynn, a psychotherapist, moved to Elmira. Regier had long associations with people at Wilfrid Laurier, Waterloo and Guelph universities, but they were looking to get away from the city. One of their daughters lived in Elmira and the other wasn’t far away in Georgetown, so they settled here.
After moving to Elmira, Regier got involved with a citizen’s group pressing for cleanup of the former Uniroyal Chemical site. He also works to restore First Nations fishing rights, which he says have been “grossly abused,” and continues to write papers and editorials.
Regier has also done work on climate change, writing his first paper on the subject in 1984 and authoring a chapter of Climate Change 1995 for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Trying to get action on environmental issues can be a frustrating prospect, he said, but there is greater awareness these days of the health cost of pollution.
“It may be that the climate change issue will be the first major environmental issue that can’t be set aside by anyone.”