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Barrie community mourns well-known environmental advocate (4 photos)

'A warm and giving person,' Al McNair remembered for his booming voice, humour, and willingness to include everyone in a project

Friends, family and former colleagues are grieving after the unexpected passing of well-known environmentalist Al McNair.

McNair died Tuesday, Sept. 14 following complications from a ruptured aneurysm. He was 74. 

A professional land-use planner in Ontario since 1970, McNair was also actively involved in environmental issues with the Brereton Field Naturalists’ Club (now called Nature Barrie) since 1991, and served as Huronia regional director of Ontario Nature for seven years, beginning in 2000.

McNair volunteered with the City of Barrie’s environmental advisory committee from 2011 to 2018, was involved with Climate Change Adaptation and Age-Friendly Communities Strategies and various trail working groups. He was also an active member of the city’s active transportation and sustainability advisory committee.

Dorothy McKeown, past-president of Nature Barrie and former regional director with Nature Huronia, met McNair eight years ago when she first came to Barrie, noting he had served as a regional director for Nature Huronia.

“We still used his freely given advice on wording and laws to fight the present Ontario government's reversal of former protections on natural spaces, endangered species, and anti-pollution laws,” she told BarrieToday, describing her friend as a well-rounded person who would greet you with a hug and a booming voice. “I can’t think of anything I wouldn’t miss about him  he was such a warm and giving person.”

With three decades of friendship under their belts, Brian Gibbon told BarrieToday he's going to miss his longtime friend dearly.

“I am going to miss good humour and his caring for people. He was always very genuine in his concern for individuals and their well-being. Just a short time ago, we had a longtime active member pass away and he took it upon himself... and had a bench erected on the rail trail in his honour,’ said Gibbon.

“Al was very thoughtful and that sort of thing is what will be missed," he added. 

McNair often worked with City of Barrie officials to help them recognize the important environmental assets the city had to offer, including The Gables and Little Lake.

“Al became very active in the natural inventory of that park and putting together proposals on how the park should be structured and handled," Gibbon said. "Those recommendations were welcomed and followed by the city."

When the city was being approached by companies to log Little Lake with little concern for the environment, McNair and several other concerned citizens formed a group to try to address it.

“They took all the council and senior management on a ecological tour of the property, showed them the unique biodiversity they had in their hands and the city did an about turn," Gibbon said. "There was no logging and (the city) put through bylaws to enhance and protect the park. His input was valued. He was always very well-informed and knowledgeable.

"One of the reasons I liked working with him on a project (is) it was never 'I'  it was always 'we'. When we did this bench project, for example, he always forwarded his emails to me for comment before sending them and always made sure that I received the responses. He made sure that John's widow, Beth, was included in the decisions, such as the wording on the plaque. 

"When he felt it was appropriate, copies went out to the president or other board members that he felt should be included in the information stream or the decision making process," Gibbon added. "This is something that over the years I have found sometimes lacking within committees or groups. When he spoke to the council on behalf of the club, it was always 'the club' or 'we the members of the club,' not 'I'."

Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition executive director Margaret Prophet had known McNair for the last few years. He had served on the organization’s board for the last four years. 

“He was a planner by trade, but he had this real way of trying to see that there was always hope to do something different,” she told BarrieToday, adding McNair was instrumental in maintaining the chimney during the demolition of Barrie Central Collegiate, which had been serving as a bird habitat. “He was really proud (of that).”

McNair also worked with the coalition on the need for greenbelt expansion.

“As a planner, he would keep saying over again, 'We can’t keep doing this. We have to start thinking about what we are leaving our kids',” she said. “He would attend the Fridays For Future Rallies... and was a huge proponent of climate action and trying to make sure that our kids had something.”

A lover of the theatre, McNair could be seen on stage with Theatre by the Bay and Kempenfelt Players Community Players.

“He would always be singing. He loved (the) song Big Yellow Taxi. When we were at a Fridays for Future rally once, there were probably anywhere from 50 to 100 people there… and he led a group of perfect strangers in a chorus of Big Yellow Taxi just out of nowhere,” Prophet recalled. 

McNair was also heavily involved with Ontario Nature, as well as its local chapter Nature Barrie, serving on the board for many years. He was also involved with Just Recovery Simcoe, noted Prophet.

“Even though he was a planner by trade, which can be pretty inflexible and policy-oriented, he also saw the beauty of nature and the need for us to understand how it fits into our life and the care and concern for future generations,” she said. “He was trying to get people to wake up to the potential of the world. He was one of those people that would call you up just to say 'good job' or 'keep going'.

"He knew how difficult it could be in the environmental world, because you’re never not fighting something or not advocating and pushing. He would just say 'we got you'," Prophet added. "He was just a kind and strong leader and it’s a big loss to our community. From an environmental organization’s point of view, Al was always there to lend his knowledge and be inspirational.

"It’s definitely going to be a gap, but I guess the way we need to look at it is (that) Al and others of his generation have carried the torch this far. Now (he is) passing it on.”

McNair was the partner of Catharine Mercer, father to Drew (Lisa) and Craig (Michelle), and grandfather to Jonah, Mina and Everleigh. He is also survived by siblings Eric, Alex and Sheila, and his former wife Barb.

A celebration of life announcement is expected at a later date. 

The family is asking anyone interested to consider making a donation of blood in his honour to the Canadian Blood Services, 1-888-2DONATE. 

Online memories and condolences to the family may be made at www.peacefultransition.ca.




About the Author: Nikki Cole

Nikki Cole has been a community issues reporter for BarrieToday since February, 2021
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