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Learning to protect the environment

It's not easy being a cyclist in Scarborough.

Cars and trucks in suburban Toronto whiz by at sub-sonic speed and don't leave a lot of room for Matthias Vonarburg and his bicycle. Still, Vonarburg insists on pedalling the 15 minutes from his home to the Centennial HP Science and Technology Centre daily.
Centennial College Environmental Protection Technology student Matthias Vonarburg has only lived in Canada for four years, but already has an appreciation for our natural environment and is keen to see it cleaned up and managed properly.

In his final year in Centennial College's Environmental Protection Technology program, Vonarburg, 23, has been studying chemistry, biology and civil engineering to gain an understanding of the complex environmental problems that challenge our industrialized society.

"The environment has been neglected for so long, the importance of having a sustainable Canada is becoming clear to everyone," Vonarburg says. "Everything starts with public awareness."

Failing to address

Born in Switzerland, Vonarburg moved to the Dominican Republic with his family when he was 14. It was there that he became aware of the problems protecting the environment in a third world country. Coming to Canada to study at university four years ago, he realized advanced countries have obstacles of their own.

"Despite the perception, Canada often fails to address environmental issues properly," asserts Vonarburg, who cites the Aggregate Resources Act as one example of tough environmental rules on paper that rarely get enforced to the full extent of the law.

"About one-half of gravel pit owners never bother to remediate their sites after they've removed the resource. Some pits are left open and companies walk away from their obligation to return the land to its natural, undisturbed state," he says.

Vonarburg came to Canada as a visa student to study biology. But he left university after two years, unsatisfied with the crowded lecture theatres and lack of attention paid to individual learning. While the setting works for many others, he felt he couldn't succeed there. "The learning process was missing for me."

Reviewing some college calendars, he became curious about Centennial's environmental programs and came in to meet with the program faculty. "I knew I had to do something related to science. Centennial's program co-ordinators were very helpful in getting me started."

Two and a half years into the program, Vonarburg says it has exceeded his expectations. He particularly enjoys conducting environmental site assessments, taking soil and water samples to ensure the property is free of toxins and other potentially harmful conditions.

"It's a form of investigation work. Site assessments are common now, since banks insist on them before approving financing for commercial real estate transactions," he says.
  • Centennial offers several Environmental Protection program options: a two-year Technician, three-year Technology and Technology Co-op, and a joint degree/diploma program with the University of Toronto at Scarborough.
  • Graduates are eligible to write the Ontario Ministry of the Environment Water Quality Analyst Level 1 exam.
  • For more information about Centennial's Environmental Protection programs, visit

  • Vonarburg is confident that as Canada's cities become more congested and "green-field" construction becomes less common, environmental assessments will be standard practice -- requiring more skilled practitioners. "Our graduates are doing a lot of interesting work. Job prospects are improving as environmental concerns grow," he says.

    In addition to his studies, Vonarburg works part-time on campus helping out in the biology labs. He's also president of Centennial's Environmental Student Society, which reaches out to the local community to raise environmental awareness.


    "We host two clean up and planting events in Highland Creek annually. You can lecture all you want, but until you have residents down in the valley pulling tires out of the water, you won't have converts," Vonarburg says.

    Vonarburg was recently honoured with the Wicken Student Achievement Award, given to the best student in a Centennial English course. All the more surprising, given the fact that he only learned English when he moved to the Dominican Republic nine years ago.

    "I learned a lot of English simply by reading the caption service on TV," recalls Vonarburg, who can also speak German, French and Spanish. "And some say television has no educational value."

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