Experimental Lakes Area

Experimental Lakes Area


26 December, 2016—The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) was nearly shut down by the Conservative government in 2012, which led to the project and facility being transferred to an environmental policy think tank, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), in 2014

In August 2016, the Trudeau government decided to fund freshwater science at ELA-IISD, located in the Kenora District of Ontario, for an additional two years. The Liberal government has committed to spending $850,000 thousand annually to allow further research to be conducted on environmental sciences at Kenora’s Lake of the Woods Discovery Centre. The ELA’s current budget stands at $3.6 million dollars. Ontario’s Premier Kathleen Wynne confirmed $2 million in spending until 2018, and the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans continue to contribute $250,000 thousand annually, and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister agreed to contribute $1 million in annual funds to the IISD. These financial commitments from both federal and provincial governments indicate a willingness to allow scientists to conduct research that will help us understand our freshwater resources in Canada.

The Liberal Party dedicated nearly 10% of its electoral platform to science initiatives, including the revitalization of the Experimental Lakes Area. The Liberal government announced $197.1 million investment in freshwater research over the next five years, and hopes to spend another $81.3 million on supporting marine conservations. This funding includes the $1.7 million over two years headed towards the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s Experimental Lakes Area. The devotion to water-protection appeared to be improbable, but the Liberal government has shown a small step in the right direction by protecting freshwater and oceans that were previously ignored by the Conservatives. At the same time, though, recent decisions by the Liberal government to approve oil pipelines, such as the Trans Mountain pipeline, appear to contradict their platform and has caused critics to questions their commitment to protecting Canada’s freshwaters.

What Happened

On May 17, 2012, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans informed employees that the Experimental Lakes Area, (ELA), a set of lakes comprising one the world’s most important fresh water research facilities, would be closed in March 2013.

Scientists denounced the move and a new movement called the Coalition to Save the ELA was born, lobbying government officials and educating the public about the ELA’s important contributions to national and international science. After a public and powerful campaign, the federal government entered into agreements with Ontario and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) that would permit the facility to remain open.

In April 2014, the IISD formally took over the ELA with provincial financial backing.

IISD-ELA is seeking additional funding through charitable donations.  


The ELA is a world-class environmental research facility and one of the only whole-lake labs on earth that can assess impacts across ecosystems. This living laboratory, as some have called it, is located in northwestern Ontario.

In 1968, the Canadian government set aside the lakes to create the ELA. Since then, the ELA has undertaken research on the effects of aquaculture, acid rain, nutrient pollution causing algal blooms, and the hydroelectric industry, on lake ecosystems and watersheds. Its groundbreaking work on the effects of acid rain, toxic pollutants, phosphates and climate change on fresh water systems have informed global policy on the protection of water and freshwater habitats for more than four decades.

The ELA was operated jointly by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment Canada, from the Freshwater Institute, located in Winnipeg, Canada. Researchers from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans conducted their work with a variety of partner organizations.

Cuts to environmental science

On May 17, 2012, DFO employees were called into a room for an emergency meeting and informed that the ELA would join a growing list of scientific and environmental research initiatives and facilities slated to lose federal funding. The cuts followed the 2012 budget omnibus Bill C-38, which also introduced sweeping changes to the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Species at Risk Act, the Coasting Trade Act, and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The government claimed that the cuts generated savings of $1.5 to $3 million as part of a series of broader budget constraints of $79 million imposed on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, planned to take place between 2012 and 2015. The government alleged that the ELA's work did not fit into its “new priorities” of protecting fish stocks and important habitats. However, in a letter to then-fisheries minister Keith Ashfield, the president of the Canadian Society of Limnologists, Jules Blais, called the justifications for the ELA funding cuts “palpable nonsense.”

Save the ELA

The scientists working at the ELA were instructed not to speak to the media, part of the tightening of media protocols that characterize the Harper administration, according a March 2012 editorial in the prestigious journal Nature. Diane Orihel, then a PhD student, had been conducting research in the ELA over several years. Because she was not an ELA employee, she was not affected by the media gag order. Orihel launched the Coalition to Save the ELA, mobilizing scientists and citizens alike.

The Coalition to Save the ELA was formed as a nonpartisan group of scientists and citizens concerned about the future of the ELA, explaining on its website the importance of the ELA and proposing a petition for citizens to sign.

Within a month, Orihel had collected more than 11,500 signatures and started a whirlwind media campaign. Orihel eventually collected more than 30,000 signatures and the petition was tabled in the House of Commons over 100 times. Over the next two years, the story was featured in 500 media articles across the country. International attention was sparked, and rallies were held locally and nationally to express concern. Orihel co-authored an editorial in the Toronto Star, criticizing the abysmal performance of Greg Rickford, then-minister of state for science and technology.

Attack the Scientists

In response to the critical letter, Rickford responded with a fundraising letter to constituents, using the now-familiar theme deployed against environmentalists by the Harper government, labeling the scientists as “radical ideologues” misrepresenting their work.

Scientists speak out

David Schindler, a leading scientist from the University of Alberta who directed the ELA for over 20 years, deplored that “we are losing an opportunity to improve the public's scientific literacy on water,” and added that “democracy, to be effective, needs to have an informed electorate.”

Peter Ross, a leading Canadian researcher on the impact of chemicals on marine mammals told the Montreal daily La Presse that Canada is losing its position as the leading supporter of research on freshwater and oceans in the world.

On May 21, 2012, Cynthia Gilmour, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Centre, wrote to Minister Ashfield and Environment Minister Peter Kent, asking for reconsideration of the ELA closure.

On May 30, a group of scientists from the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research institute wrote to the Canadian ambassador to Israel to condemn the closing of the ELA. "By shutting down the ELA facility, the Government of Canada is stamping out the ability of the world scientific community to conduct the research required to formulate sound environmental policies," wrote Dr. Assaf Sukenik (Winnipeg Free Press).

On June 22, former regional directors of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans addressed an open letter to PM Harper and Minister Ashfield, saying that the closure of the ELA, along with several other government policy changes, would erode crucial research on environmental protection.

Provinces pick up the tab

The Ontario and, to a lesser extent, Manitoba governments stepped up with agreements to support the ELA and funding packages to keep the facility in operation. Ontario committed to $2 million per year for five years. As well, Manitoba diverted part of the funds it was already giving to the IISD for the ELA, about $1 million over six years for freshwater research and technology at the ELA.

On September 2, 2013, the Government of Canada and the Ontario government agreed in principle to transfer the operation of the ELA to the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). The IISD is a Canada-based, international public policy research institute for sustainable development that has been working for two decades on water management issues to develop and strengthen the links between social, economic and environmental pillars of sustainable development.

On April 1, 2014, IISD formally took over the operations of the ELA.

IISD is seeking charitable donations to help keep the ELA running.  

Relevant Dates:

  • 1967: Data recording begins at the ELA.
  • 1968: The ELA becomes a research facility.
  • 1970s-1980s: The ELA conducts experiments to understand which nutrients lead to the deterioration of water and fisheries quality. As a result of these groundbreaking results, Canada becomes the first country to ban the use of phosphate in laundry detergent in 2008, and then from dishwasher soap in 2011.
  • 1970s-1980s: Starting in 1976 and 1982, the ELA discovers that acid rain dramatically reduces biodiversity in lakes but it also found that the damage is reversible.
  • 1990s: The ELA simulates the creation of reservoirs in hydroelectric projects. It discovers that the process increases the level of greenhouse gases. It also increases methyl mercury in fish, which is dangerous for human consumption. The experiment has subsequently informed policies for the design of dam projects.
  • 2000s: The METAALICUS (Mercury Experiment to Assess Atmospheric Loading in Canada and the United States) project and EDC (Hormone Mimic) project lead to groundbreaking results on the impact of mercury and hormones on fish.
  • May 17, 2012: The Harper government tells DFO employees that the ELA program will be cancelled and the field station closed by March 2013.
  • May 2012: Coalition to Save the ELA is formed. Open letters from Canadian and world scientists to the Canadian government express concern over the closure of the ELA. Efforts begin to find institutions that will take over the facility
  • September 2012: Government of Canada gives one-year notice to the Province of Ontario that is terminating the long-term agreement for the Experimental Lakes Area.
  • March 31 2013: The Government of Canada terminates the ELA as a federal public science program and the field station is officially closed.
  • 2013: Interim agreements are announced on May 9, 2013 and on September 2, 2013 to allow the ELA to remain open and to transfer operating responsibility to the IISD.
  • April 1, 2014: IISD formally assumes control of the ELA. Ontario and Manitoba agree to provide funding, and IISD begins to seek charitable donations to help keep the ELA in operation.

Role or Position

The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) is a research facility of 58 lakes in a remote area of North Western Ontario near Kenora. The ELA has more than 45 years of hydrological, meteorological, chemical and biological records. The data help to assess the potential impact of climate change on the ecology of Canadian Shield lakes and permit testing of “whole lake” impacts of fertilizers, hormones, mercury, acid rain and other pollutants on fish, aquatic life, and freshwater lake ecosystems in general. More broadly, the ELA studies the human impact on freshwater ecosystems, be it physical, biological, or chemical.

The scientific output of ELA is significant: its scientist have produced hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific articles, graduate theses, book chapters and synthesis papers, data reports, and several books. ELA scientists have been the recipients of numerous prestigious international water awards, including the Stockholm Water Prize, the International Tyler Prize for Environmental Science and the Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal for Science and Engineering.

Implications and Consequences

  • Democracy: Without good data and research on key environmental areas such as Canada's freshwater lakes, Canadians are less informed and less able to hold the government to account for the regulation of commercial, recreational, and industrial activities that have an impact on the environment.
    Moreover, while it is commendable that Ontario, and Manitoba to a lesser extent, have filled the funding gap for a specific facility, ad hoc provincial largesse cannot and should not constitute a reasonable alternative to a national funded program in shared areas of constitutional jurisdiction.
  • Democracy: The use of omnibus bills to make substantial amendments across multiple laws in substantive areas of federal responsibility is a deeply troubling practice, one that undermines the legislative process and deploys the budget process to erode major areas of federal policy.
  • Free speech: Canadian government scientists are employees and subject to obligations of loyalty and confidentiality. But they are also researchers who are the best-placed to inform the public about the environmental implications government plans, and who should be entitled to speak out without fear of reprisal. This is especially important when government decisions endanger fragile habitats and ecosystems, or threaten to terminate world-class, unique research programs that have had long-term, tangible and globally recognized results.
  • Knowledge: The decision to defund and transfer responsibility for the ELA appears to fall into a broader pattern in the federal government of cutting funding and support for environmental research and programs that do not directly support the development of industrial applications.
  • Transparency: The process used to defund the ELA is one of the many examples of secrecy and lack of transparency, topics that were addressed by former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, a non-partisan public servant who faced considerable hurdles in obtaining information on the impact of cuts and of omnibus bills.

Date published: 30 September 2012

Date updated: 22 October 2012; 27 September 2014.

Photo from the Experimental Lakes Area.

Photo for Death of Evidence, Websters Wildshots.