Death and rebirth on the Don River (Page 1 of 4)
After a decades-long campaign, Canada’s most urban river is nursed back to health
By Ray Ford with photography
by Lorne Bridgman
|At least 20 wetlands around the Don River have been restored organizations have planted more than half a million trees, shrubs and wildflowers. (Photo: Lorne Bridgman)
Even in those flower-child days of 1969, it was
a funeral like none Toronto had ever seen. True, there
were dozens of cars driving slowly along College
Street, a cortège that included a tearful woman in
black and a top-hatted man in a Cadillac. But diners behind
the plate-glass window of Fran’s Restaurant must have paused,
vinegar cruets above their fries, when two placard-carrying girls
pedalled by on a tandem bicycle. Instead of a hearse, the
procession was led by University of Toronto student Peter
Love’s green station wagon — best known among his friends
for the amount of beer it could carry. (Around 70 cases, Love
confirms with a tinge of undergrad pride.)
|Locate the Don River Watershed (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic) |
Love went on to a respectable career, becoming Ontario’s
first Chief Energy Conservation Officer, but on that
November Sunday, he had swapped the wagon’s usual cargo
for pails of water from Toronto’s fetid Don River. The event was the Funeral for the Don, staged by a fledgling environmental
group called Pollution Probe. Love, in his best suit,
was chauffeuring the dearly departed to its final resting place.
If you were sitting in Fran’s that day, you might have
shrugged. For more than a century, the Don had been
realigned and sullied, engineered and “improved” until its
southern reaches were lined with factories, its broad valley
a conduit for cars and trains, its waters fouled by sewage.
Mourning a river so obviously past redemption seemed,
in the words of a letter writer to The Globe and Mail,
“nothing more than grim humour.”
As The Toronto Telegram put it: “They finally had a funeral
for the Don River yesterday. Judging from the smell of the
‘deceased,’ it was long overdue.
Yet they say you never really know who your friends are
until you’re gone, and that’s certainly true of the Don. By
forcing Torontonians to confront their own reflection in the
murky waters of Canada’s most urbanized watershed, the
mourners helped resurrect the Don and its valley.
Since the funeral, more than 600 hectares of valley land
have come under public ownership, at least 20 wetlands have
been restored and conservation agencies, municipalities and
volunteers have planted more than half a million trees,
shrubs and wildflowers. Love now numbers among the
thousands who regularly walk, cycle or jog along the river.
“I can see an improvement,” he says. “I’m proud of what that Don event did to bring the issue to people’s attention.”
The funeral proved that even at its nadir, the Don still had
friends. And without friends, no urban river can survive.
An abridged history of the Don
But surviving is one thing, thriving another. The
Don’s health is affected not only by its industrial past — what
one waterfront planner calls “the sins of our fathers” —
but also by the water-fouling transgressions of everyday life.
Seen from above, the river and its tributaries appear to
branch north like an unruly shrub. Its headwaters bubble
from the gravel left by retreating glaciers on the Oak Ridges
Moraine. Dozens of small rivulets link springs and marshes
with larger watercourses, such as Patterson, German Mills
and Fisherville creeks. Eventually, they join the east and
west branches of the Don or link up near the Forks of
the Don. Thirty-eight kilometres from the moraine, the
Don makes a sluggish exit into Lake Ontario through the
graffiti-scrawled concrete of the Keating Channel.
At the time of the Funeral for the Don, the river’s 36,000-
hectare watershed was easy to divide into three regions. The
foulest area was near the river’s southern terminus. Rebuilt
in Victorian days as an industrial artery for a restless
Dominion, the lower Don was a font of goods, everything
from flour, lumber, paper, wool and brick to Coleman
lanterns, Sunlight soap, Woods tents and sleeping bags,
Gooderham’s Bonded Stock whisky and probably even the metal pails Love used to carry the deceased to the funeral. (The Don’s industrial role was no accident. Upper Canada’s
first Lieutenant-Governor, John Graves Simcoe, decided to
build the new capital of York — now Toronto — east of the
river to take advantage of its timber and the sheltered waterfront
created by a large peninsula and marsh. As a result, the
Don was close to shipping and eventually became a railway
corridor, while the larger Humber River, to the west, was
surrounded first by farms and later housing.)
The Don’s second region lay to the north, in Toronto’s
growing suburbs, where the river and its tributaries functioned
as a glorified storm sewer. Beyond the city’s margins,
plowed fields turned the water brown in the spring. Still, the upper watershed was clean enough to harbour sensitive
brook trout until at least the mid-1940s. Even today, the
endangered redside dace, a rainbow-striped minnow, leaps
out of the water to snatch insects on the wing. At the same
time, the area is reaching what planners call full “build-out.”
With a watershed population of 1.2 million and counting,
urban intensification and suburban sprawl are increasing
the strain on the Don’s waters.
It was the lower river that drew Pollution Probe’s attention.
“From the 1960s on, the Don really served as an icon of
pollution,” says historian Jennifer Bonnell, who is writing a
book about the Don. “It was a problem that was right here.
You could see it, smell it.”
The Funeral for the Don set about reframing the public
view. Chief among the mourners was arts student
Meredith Ware, dressed as Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of the
Lieutenant-Governor. Ware read sections of Simcoe’s diary
from the 1790s, when waters of Toronto’s inner harbour
were “beautifully clear and transparent,” loons swam along
the waterfront, the Don abounded with salmon and wolves
tracked deer beside the frozen river. On an expedition to
gather gooseberries along the river, Simcoe saw “millions of
the yellow and black butterflies.”
This elegiac tone was disrupted by a sputtering
top-hatted figure played by commerce major Tony Barrett.
“He was the cigar-smoking capitalist who snarled: ‘That’s the
smell of money. What’s wrong with you people?’” recalls
Monte Hummel, then a Pollution Probe organizer and now
president emeritus of World Wildlife Fund Canada. Barrett
was in mid-screed when medical student John Coombs
shoved a pie in his face.
The funeral had the air of kids concocting theatre on
a rainy afternoon, yet it worked. Photos of Ware’s keening
ran in newspapers across the country (“When I got out
of the car and saw the reporters,” she recalls, “right away
I started weeping”).
What the mourners couldn’t have known is that the
industrial Don was on the verge of a dramatic transformation
(see timeline above). When James Onyschuk
worked at a riverside warehouse in the 1960s, he’d occasionally
check to see what colour the river was: pink, maybe, or
bright blue, courtesy of the dyes from an upstream paper
mill. Today, former factories have become trendy lofts and
upscale car dealerships. North of the funeral site, the plant that provided the material for much of Toronto’s stolid
Victorian architecture has been rebranded as the Evergreen
Brick Works. It’s an environmental community centre and
tourist draw, complete with a farmers’ market and workshops
on water conservation, bicycle repairs and home canning.
Peter Hopperton remembers paddling the Don in 1971.
“It smelled pretty high by the time you got to the waterfront,”
he says. “We were paddling through sewage and
condoms and all kinds of stuff.” Now he canoes the river
during the annual Paddle the Don spring fundraiser.
“You see swans and geese and ducks and snapping turtles,”
says Hopperton. On the upper part of the river, he adds,
“you really would have no idea you’re in a major metropolitan
Unless, of course, you test the water.
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