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Once a prime location for swimming and fishing, the Don River today is a shadow of its former self, but efforts are underway to restore its glory. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail) (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Once a prime location for swimming and fishing, the Don River today is a shadow of its former self, but efforts are underway to restore its glory. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail) (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Tenth in a series

Bringing Toronto’s Don River back from the dead Add to ...

It was Canada’s “Potemkin” moment.

It was the summer of 1958 and Princess Margaret was nearing the end of an extensive Royal Tour of Canada. Her well-covered travels even included British media speculation that the 27-year-old sister of the Queen had fallen for the handsome young Montreal lawyer, John Turner, future Prime Minister of Canada, with whom she had danced and talked long into the night at a ball given at the naval base on Vancouver’s Deadman’s Island.

She had now come to Toronto where a cancer-treatment centre would take her name and where she would gather with schoolchildren at Riverdale Park. Her special train would be parked on the side of the Don River and she would have to cross over to the park via a footbridge.

The Don, The Globe and Mail editorialized on July 30, 1958, has “waters heavily polluted and laden with scum, its banks littered with all varieties of filth, and the whole sending up foul odours.”

The city had been scrambling. Workmen had been sent out to clean up the banks, painters to give the bridge a fresh coat. What, however, were they going to do about the stink?

The solution in this time long before David Suzuki or environmental impact studies was simple: Mask the stink. They poured in chlorine and, according to some reports, gallons and gallons of perfume upstream, timed to be carried by the slow current to the park area just as the Princess was crossing the bridge.

The Globe compared the plan to Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin’s 18th-century deception of Catherine II of Russia, when the Governor of the Crimea built fake villages, clean and freshly painted, to impress the Empress as she raced through the region in her royal carriage.

The Toronto Daily Star, not to be outdone, compared the plan to “courtiers waving handkerchiefs dipped in perfume before the nostrils of the king of France as he drove through the tenements of Paris, that his majesty’s nostrils might not be offended by the odour from the open drains.”

“The fact that this deception at the Don is necessary,” railed the Globe, “is a disgrace to Toronto and to this Province. The river should be cleaned up in fact; and not just for a day, but for good.”

Nothing, of course, was done. The Princess’s official visit was a resounding success, the schoolchildren delighted and the air at Riverdale Park strangely sweet – for a few hours.

Jennifer Bonnell, an urban historian at York University, believes that the Don River has been the “most-messed-with river” in Canada.

Once a prime location for swimming and fishing, the Don River today is a shadow of its former self, but efforts are underway to restore its glory. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

In her highly readable 2014 environmental history of the river and valley, Reclaiming the Don, Prof. Bonnell shows how this river, once so prized for its beauty, its mouth once blessed with one of the largest marshlands in Lake Ontario, saw that lovely mouth twisted and re-cast, its meandering route straightened for convenience, its tributaries paved and built over and often lost, its water fouled to the point where, twice, the river caught fire.

Little wonder that in the fall of 1969, a couple of hundred mourners paraded a casket from the University of Toronto grounds to the banks of the Don. The cortege included a “hearse,” a band playing a dirge, a weeping widow in black and a pie-in-the-face for a top-hatted student portraying a greedy capitalist.

Monte Hummel, now president emeritus of WWF-Canada, was a key player in that parade. He had spent his honeymoon at Woodstock – he’s the one organizing the famous mudslide in the movie – and in the summer had helped found Pollution Probe, the environmental group that came up with the idea of holding a funeral for the Don River.

“People do these things all the time now,” Mr. Hummel says, “but back then, this was a new idea – it hadn’t been done before.

“This whole notion that you could kill a river had never been thought of before. There was a poignant message that rose above the street theatre.”

It did indeed, the ceremony capturing the attention of the media.

“They finally had a funeral for the Don River yesterday,” the Toronto Telegram reported the following day.

“Judging from the smell of the ‘deceased,’ it was long overdue.”

The Don River runs in two branches from its headwaters in the Oak Ridges Moraine, about 40 kilometres north of the city. The branches merge about three-quarters of the way down to form the Lower Don, which travels alongside the Don Valley Parkway until the river empties into Lake Ontario. It was named by Lieutenant-Governor James Graves Simcoe, the founder of York, who felt it reminded him of the River Don in South Yorkshire, England.

Simcoe’s wife, Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim, particularly loved the Don, which she travelled often, painting its scenery and exuberantly describing its beauty in her diaries. The Don became an escape for the family – there would eventually be 11 Simcoe children – from the staid military culture of Fort York.

Mrs. Simcoe had a log home modelled on a Grecian temple built on the high ground to the north and jokingly called it “Castle Frank” after their youngest son, Francis, who would later be killed in the Peninsular Wars.

The art installation Passages (by Labworks) is set on a wall on the Don Mills Rd. underpass over the East Don River. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Her treasured summer retreat from the muggy heat of York can be seen as the first step north to Ontario’s “Cottage Country,” though the wealthy seasonal dwellers on Lake Muskoka would not likely see a connection with their view from the dock and the Don River.

The Don, however, was not always “heavily polluted and laden with scum.” First Nations traders found it a perfect encampment, the waters clean and the game plentiful. There was a time when the prisoners at the nearby jail protested because they were being fed too much fresh salmon from its waters.

Prof. Bonnell, in her research, discovered that the Don Valley was considered a paradise to early beekeepers. In going through the records of the Ontario Beekeeping Association from the late 1800s, she found that the valley was often sown with clover to produce sweeter-tasting honey and that the beekeepers were the first group to raise concerns about the health of the watershed.

“They were interested in environmental change because it was in their economic interest to do so,” she says. “They were among the first to speak out against insecticide poisoning. They spoke out against roadside spraying.”

But by then, of course, the Don River was quickly becoming a lost cause.

York had become Toronto and was spreading rapidly. The river was the perfect location for early grist and timber mills, then tanneries, brick works, chemical factories, oil refineries and the growing city’s increasingly busy port.

It stands today as the most urbanized watershed in Canada, with 1.2 million people living within it and roughly 90 per cent of the catchment area having residential, commercial or industrial development.

“Over the past 200 years,” Prof. Bonnell writes, “almost all of the significant wetlands within the watershed have been drained or filled to support urban development. The six tributaries of the lower river have mostly disappeared, buried by fill or encased within sewage infrastructure.”

The river and valley were once considered prime locations for such structures as the colony’s first parliament buildings, but gradually it became a place for necessary structures that the establishment might prefer a distance away. In a time of fears over cholera and malaria, the hospital was relocated from the city centre to the Don. An asylum followed, then a shelter and reformatory for the poor and vagrants – “idiots,” as well. The Toronto Jail and Industrial Farm (better known as the Don Jail) opened near the asylum.

“Linked to perceptions of the Don Valley as a ‘space for undesirables’ was its reputation as a frontier of sorts,” Prof. Bonnell writes, “a place that harboured and facilitated a certain degree of lawlessness.”

The valley became overrun with gangs, the most notorious being the Brooks Bush Gang. In late 1859, John Sheridan Hogan, a highly respected citizen of Toronto, set out to cross the Don in order to visit a friend. Hogan vanished, never to be seen again until a decomposing body wearing his clothes was found 16 months later by duck hunters. As there was neither money nor papers to be found in the clothes, foul play was suspected. The Brooks Bush Gang was rounded up.

One of the gang told police that Jane Ward had done in Hogan with a heavy stone she carried in a handkerchief and that Ward and James Brown had dumped the body over the bridge after stripping Hogan of his money and top coat.

Ward, however, was acquitted, while Brown was sentenced to hang. It led to the first serious debate – including the presentation of a petition – on capital punishment, though to no avail, as Brown was executed on March 10, 1862.

Dismissed as a place for “undesirables” and considered worthy only of industry, the Don River had no one speaking for it in the late 1880s when city council agreed with a pitch by the Canadian Pacific Railway to straighten the river out so that the railway could have a convenient corridor into and out of the city. Ironically, that initiative was called “The Don Improvement Project.” In the 1960s, more changes were made to the river’s course to accommodate the construction of the Don Valley Parkway, the city’s main commuter route.

“The Don once curved in an interesting way down toward the lake,” says Arlen Leeming, project manager of the Don & Highlands Watersheds for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, “but they said ‘We know better, and what we’re going to do is straighten it and have a straight shot right out into the lake and we’re going to get rid of all that water and crap and not have to worry about it.’

“Basically they built a runway for water, a slip ‘n’ slide right down the valley to the lake.”

Nor did it have the desired effect of sending all the “crap” well out into Lake Ontario, where it could be forgotten. The buildup of chemicals and pollutants continued unabated, particularly in the lowest reaches. In researching through the archives of the Port Authority, Prof. Bonnell discovered that the river had caught fire at least twice in the 1930s and 1940s – with barely a notice.

“It’s a totally buried story,” she says. “It’s in the newspapers but it doesn’t warrant any front-page mention. It’s just considered the cost of doing business. All they talk about is damage to bridges, to infrastructure.

“Nothing about the river itself.”

The view of the city from the Toronto Islands is nothing less than spectacular on a fine summer’s day. There are no traffic sounds, no streetlights, no streetcars, subways or electric hum of a major city. There is only the stillness that more than two centuries ago Elizabeth Simcoe found here and far up the nearby Don River.

The East Don River as it slowly flows south under the Don Mills Rd underpass. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Nearby?

The Don is nowhere to be seen. All that Arlen Leeming can do from his kayak is point with his paddle to show where it once was, where it now is – and where it will soon be.

“You see those ‘lakers’ over there?” he asks, pointing to two huge tankers anchored at port, two of the roughly 80 massive ships that call each year. “And you see where the covered tennis courts are? That’s going to be the ‘new’ mouth of the Don.”

The cost, he says, is estimated at nearly $1-billion. It is all part of a massive, hugely expensive plan to transform 125 hectares around the mouth and Keating Channel into parklands and mixed-use residential neighbourhoods. The object is to create “an iconic identity for the Don River” – words that date from a 2007 announcement by Waterfront Toronto that an international competition would be held to come up with a “world-class” plan for the river.

Some see it as a long-overdue “apology” to the poor Don.

The winning proposal, by Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates of New York, Behnisch Architekten of Los Angeles and Toronto urban designer Ken Greenberg would create, the jury said, “a spectacular and compelling vision for the area … balancing and integrating urban and natural environments.”

The winners describe it as “a new type of territory where city, lake and river interact in a dynamic and balanced relationship.”

Work has already begun, though the finished project remains years away. Once again, the Don River is being reconfigured – though for the first time with the river itself the prime consideration.

“The Don River is a story of resilience and a story of nature’s refusal to ever give up,” Mr. Leeming says. “The Don embodies that. It’s a river that, no matter what you throw at it, no matter what you do to it, no matter how many chemicals you put down it, no matter how many buildings you put on it, no matter whether you channelize it, it will never give up.

“It will find a way.”

It also had some late but much-needed help. Naturalist Charles Sauriol, who spent more than four decades at a family cottage near the forks of the upper Don, wrote exhaustively in favour of saving the river and valley. In his memoir, he talked about being a child in the early 1900s, where the river “was a wilderness at our door, an escape from home, school, discipline … which held everything a red-blooded nature-loving boy could ask for.” Mr. Sauriol died at the age of 91 in 1995, but his writings remain an inspiration for many, including Jennifer Bonnell.

The West and East Don Rivers merge near the Lower Don River Trail. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

The notion of restoring the Don took hold in a 1989 public forum at the Ontario Science Centre, where 500 people met and, later, created the Task Force to Bring Back the Don, a citizen advisory body to Toronto City Council. They hoped to make the river “clean, green, and accessible” and conducted riverbank cleanups, tree plantings and helped restore or create more than a half dozen wetlands.

When Rob Ford became Mayor of Toronto in 2010, he disbanded a number of advisory bodies, including the Bring Back the Don group. But it did not stop those involved from continuing to fight for its restoration.

For the past 23 years, the annual Manulife Paddle the Don event has been held to raise awareness and funds – as of 2016 more than $600,000 to support education programs.

This year, a second “paddle” was part of the Canadian Water Summit held in Toronto in late June. “In Canada,” Amarjeet Sohi, federal Minister of Infrastructure and Communities told the gathering, “we cannot begin to speak about improving the quality of life without improving the quality of water.”

The quality of water is still far from acceptable in the Don River. The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority’s own report card most recently listed the water quality throughout the watershed as “very poor,” awarding it an “F” grade. The remaining forests in this once tree-rich valley were also deemed “poor” and given a “D” grade. Groundwater quality in the watershed, however, was said to be “good,” with the best water found, not surprisingly, in the Oak Ridges Moraine, the source of the Don. If the river can be cleaned up as it flows south, good water will follow.

“From a funeral for the Don,” says Mr. Leeming, “where they literally brought a casket down to the side of the river, to the revitalization that has occurred since then, the health of the river today is tremendously better than it was back in the 60s.”

“There is a patch of green there now that is an inheritance of that day when we had the funeral,” Mr. Hummel says. “We were right. We were bang on. It was an extremely effective campaign.”

“It’s a pretty incredible history,” Mr. Leeming says. “There was a time when you could consider the Don ruined, but since then there have been massive recovery efforts and they have been quite successful. It does have a long way to go, there’s no doubt about that. There’s a lot of room for improvement.”

Today, there are salmon in the river. Perhaps one day Atlantic salmon will again run the waters and spawn upstream. And this spring, much to the surprise and delight of those who believe this much-abused river can come back, there was a family of mink playing along the banks of the Lower Don.

Forty-seven years after they declared it officially dead with a “funeral,” there was new birth along the Don River, new hope for the future.

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