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sixth in a series

Rob Heal, a co-owner of the Grand River Outfitting and Fly Shop, casts into the Grand River in Fergus earlier this monthPeter Power/The Globe and Mail

The year in Southwestern Ontario comes to a close, the air surprisingly – perhaps even a bit alarmingly – warm, with the sun burning off an early morning fog along the Grand River.

The air is so still the mist hovers rather than swirls. The canoe and a couple of accompanying kayaks waltz through the random swifts and riffles, all quiet until a half dozen mallard ducks explode into the air from behind a large rock in the river.

The silence is notable in that this river and its many tributaries are surrounded by roughly a million people. There are industrial cities, college towns, tourist villages, First Nations, farms, freeways, back roads, wind turbines, discount tobacco shops and, by last count, 678 bridges along the sprawling watershed of the Grand River.

At times, with no structures along long stretches of its shoreline and no roads within hearing distance, the Grand can seem – in the words of Guelph's James Gordon – almost "pastoral" as it gently twists through the rolling hills and farmland on its journey south to Lake Erie.

Mr. Gordon is a city councillor, a founding member of the Wellington Water Watchers and also a professional musician. As a solo artist as well as a member of the folk group Tamarack, he has recorded multiple songs about the Grand, tracing its First Nations history, its European settlement and its fascinating gorges.

She Is Fickle might well be the song that best captures the Grand:

"Sometimes in the past she's been

As wide as the mighty Nile,

And other times she's just as thin

As an undertaker's smile."

So thin, in fact, that in the summer of 1936, the river vanished, its bed completely dry for some 80 kilometres between its source near Dundalk and the town of Fergus.

Once pristine, once navigable by steamwheelers running upstream as far as Brantford, once subject for 19th-century landscape artist Homer Watson's bucolic The Flood Gate that hangs in the National Gallery, the Grand River was for decades so abused by waste and industrial pollution that, in 1937, Maclean's magazine described it as "an open sewer" downstream from Kitchener and Waterloo.

In a report presented at the first annual convention of the Canadian Institute on Sewage and Sanitation, held in Toronto on Oct. 18, 1934, it was said that the industrial waste from two abattoirs, three tire and rubber factories, three tanneries, a glue factory and a dye works "make the Kitchener sewage the strongest known in Canada."

And yet this late-fall day in 2015, with the fog lifting, there are other canoeists on the Grand, and flyfishers after the brown trout that today thrive in the river below Kitchener. There are ducks and osprey and, suddenly, an eagle swoops over the shoreline willows, down close to the water and away again with our breath.

It is a bald eagle. "They're coming back," says Joe Farwell, the chief administrative officer of the Grand River Conservation Authority. "They're working their way back up the river."

The return of the bald eagle is most welcomed by the people of Six Nations of the Grand River, some 13,000 of whom live on reserve near Brantford, and several thousand more who dwell off reserve.

"It's an important symbol of our culture," says Paul General, who runs the Six Nations Wildlife Management office in Ohsweken. "Our symbol is a white pine – the tree of peace – with an eagle perched on top."

It is also, of course, a symbol for the United States of America, appearing everywhere from gold coins to the presidential seal.

As metaphor, it is impossible to say whether this eagle represents the river's return to health or, as some along the Grand River claim, a huge international conglomerate seeing Canada's precious fresh water as easy prey.

Perhaps, of course, it is nothing more than a magnificent bird in search of a place to land, now that the fog has lifted.

'A source of pride'

The Grand River runs 280 kilometres through the industrial and farming heartland of Ontario. It has worn many names – O:se Kenhionhata:tie (Willow River) in Mohawk, called Grande-Rivière by the French traders, named Ouse River by early British settlers – and has a vast watershed that covers an area the size of Prince Edward Island. Its many tributaries include the Speed that flows through Guelph, the Conestogo that runs through St. Jacobs and the Nith River, where a young Walter Gretzky learned to skate and avoid the dangerous areas, a skill he later passed on to his son Wayne.

E. Pauline Johnson, the Mohawk poet known as Tekahionwake, grew up on the banks of the Grand. Chiefswood, the home in which she was born, is today a historical site. When she wrote her most famous work, The Song My Paddle Sings, she had only to look out a window to note, "The river slips through its silent bed …"

The Grand River watershed's aboriginal heritage is long and complicated. The "Neutrals," an Iroquoian-speaking tribe that refused to side with the French or the English during their multiple battles, was almost wiped out in the 17th century by the Seneca and Mohawk nations.

There is a spectacular outcropping high above the Elora Gorge called "Lover's Leap," so named because a native maiden supposedly threw herself off in despair after hearing that her intended had died in one of those long-ago battles.

Many area aboriginals fled the wars to the relative safety of the Quebec City area as well as to Kahnawake, a Catholic mission south of Montreal, where they joined Mohawks who had fled north from the New York area.

It was only after the Seven Years' War that Six Nations leader Joseph Brant, a controversial figure in aboriginal history, was able to persuade the British to make good on their promise to aid their allies. In 1784, the British Crown gave Six Nations the Haldimand Tract – land "six miles deep" on each side of the Grand River. Today but a small portion remains under Six Nations control.

In the wake of the American War of Independence, Loyalists came to the region to clear farms and begin a new life. When Ontario was opened up for settlement in the decades after Confederation, Germans came by the thousands – Kitchener was originally called "Berlin" – and there are still Old Order Mennonites who farm without the aid of electricity or mechanized implements.

The town of Fergus is named after lawyer Adam Ferguson, who set out to build a settlement for "carefully selected Scottish immigrants who possessed money and an education." It didn't quite work out that way, but the Scottish presence remains in the magnificent stone farmhouses, and even stone barns, that dot the rolling landscape.

The land was fertile, the watershed critical to prosperous farming, but the nearly annual floods damaging and dangerous. It was not until a horrific flood in 1929 that action began to be taken to control the waters. Thanks to the Shand Dam, completed in 1942, the area largely escaped the ravages of 1954's Hurricane Hazel that pounded the Toronto area and left 81 dead.

Seven more water-management dams followed, and gradually – despite one severe flooding setback in the spring of 1974 around Cambridge – the watershed became relatively predictable.

The Grand River Conservation Authority was formed in the mid-1960s and has worked to replant trees lost to forestation. With 28 million now planted, the forest cover of the watershed, which had fallen to 5 or 6 per cent, now approaches 20 per cent. The GRCA runs campsites and conservation areas, builds swimming pools and controls multiple dams, but is most dedicated to bringing back the river to a healthy state.

Success can be partially measured in the Grand being designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1994, as well as being awarded the prestigious international Thiess River prize for outstanding achievement in management.

"The river is a source of pride for people here," says Jeri-Lynn Catton, president of the Waterloo Wellington Canoe and Kayak Club. "It's so readily available. Every time I go out on the water, if it's not absolutely perfect, it's at least excellent."

The damning 1937 Maclean's article also said that "Fishing in the Grand has become a memory; trout and bass have been replaced by carp, a scavenger fish." Today, thanks to the authority and various "friends" of the river, the fishery has returned to a point where in 2009 the Canadian Fly Fisher magazine listed the Grand as the top river in the province, with casters in search of brown and rainbow trout adding at least $1-million a year to the local economy.

"It's a great trout river," says Rob Heal, a guide and co-owner of the Grand River Outfitting & Fly Shop in Fergus. "The water quality is good and there are great insects in this area – we figure 25 different hatches a season."

According to World Wildlife Fund Canada (WWF-Canada), there are today 82 species of fish in the watershed, representing about half the fish species in all of Canada.

"It's nice to see how it has come back," says Guelph's Mr. Gordon. "It was a garbage dump. But now you can catch a brown trout – and maybe even eat it."

Eating the fish is one thing – "I doubt I would," says retiree Norman Emond, fishing below the dam at Caledonia – but drinking the water is quite another. The Grand River watershed is the source of potable water for nearly one million Canadians.

There are always setbacks – several beaches were closed this August after high levels of E. coli were recorded – but the cleanup of the Grand watershed has been largely impressive. Modern waste-treatment facilities, better farming practices and changing industrial realities have all had beneficial effects.

WWF-Canada says the Grand "is now touted as one of the healthiest rivers in North America in a heavily populated area," but adds a note of caution with the release of a study that found the water quality "fair" and the overall threat from pollution, habitat loss, invasive species and overuse of water "very high."

"That's why we need to safeguard this crucial watershed," says Elizabeth Hendriks, a vice-president of the environmental group.

And why, suddenly, there is such concern growing over plans Nestle Waters, the bottled-water giant, has for Canada's most-valuable resource.

Racing 'to the rescue'

Nestlé is a multinational company headquartered in Switzerland with vast holdings and production in the United States. It is the largest food and beverage company in the world, with $100-billion in annual sales and, increasingly, is focused on the lucrative bottled-water market.

Nestlé Waters calls itself "the Healthy Hydration Company" and maintains it is distributing safe drinking water to the world, which critics say would be quite admirable were there a way to avoid the waste of the bottles. Nestlé says that the plastic bottles are 100-per-cent recyclable and they are – when people take the time and municipalities have the facilities.

Concerned residents of the Grand River watershed say they are all for safe drinking water around the world – but not by taking away the water they will need in the future. In the past decade, municipal use of the available water has increased from 35 per cent to 60 per cent, with considerable more population growth predicted in the years to come.

"We used to say we lived downstream from half a million people," says Paul General of Six Nations wildlife management. "Well, now it's a million people – and soon it will be much more than a million."

The people of Six Nations, says Mr. General, have a spiritual attachment to the river. "We're almost genetically attached to that river because we've been here so long," he says. "We're taught to speak for nature, for all the creatures of the river and for the river itself when we talk about it. We have our concerns."

Nestlé Waters has made a conditional offer to buy the Middlebrook Water Company's spring-water source near Elora. The company has applied for a permit that would allow it to test the viability of the well by pumping out 1.6 million litres of water a day and then returning it to the Grand River. If the testing proves positive, large-scale retrieval drinking water could begin.

Nestlé Waters already operates a large bottled-water factory at Aberfoyle, near Guelph. It says the Elora-area well would be supplementary to the main production facilities, to be used, for example, when the primary plant is offline for maintenance. It is not asking for anything beyond the limit that the provincial Ministry of the Environment has already imposed on the Middlebrook operation.

Further, the company says, bottled water currently uses 0.6 per cent of the available water, less than half what the area golf courses take, and bottling operations "only harvest what can be replaced by nature."

In the 15 years the Aberfoyle plant has been in operation, Nestlé Waters says there have been no issues. "Sustainable management of our spring-water source is of critical importance to us," says Andreanne Simard, the company's natural-resources manager.

Critics say the area cannot afford to gamble with any amount of water. There have been recent droughts in the area. Kitchener has a once-a-week watering policy for summer lawns. With the area population ballooning, many feel there will not be enough water to meet future demand.

The amount that Nestlé Waters plans to take out in the initial tests is roughly equal to the 1.7 million litres a day that are drawn from Elora's municipal wells. The municipality is charged $2,140 per million litres by the province.

Most industries get a free ride on water. Seven industries, from cement makers to water bottlers, are charged – since varying amounts of the water they use is not returned – but even so, they pay a mere $3.71 per million litres.

A recent report by Ellen Schwartzel, Ontario's acting environmental commissioner, has called for a more equitable user-pay system. As she warns: "We can no longer take our province's water supplies for granted."

Activist groups such as Save Our Water have been lobbying hard to have the Ontario government deny the licence. They want a three-year moratorium on such permits.

"The Grand is one of the most vulnerable watersheds," says Donna McCaw, a retired high-school teacher who is at the forefront of Save Our Water. "It's a heritage river and it empties into Lake Erie, which is also vulnerable."

By charging companies like Nestlé Waters so little, Ms. McCaw says, "That's just giving away a precious natural resource. It's just wrong-headed."

Nestlé Waters says it agrees that it would be wrong-headed to "give away" the water and contends that the solution lies in having all commercial, municipal and domestic groundwater users pay "a reasonable fee."

Ms. McCaw's group has little funding and volunteer labour only. "We're trying to race to the rescue of the water, but we've got a bicycle with two flat tires," she says.

Earlier this month, the foes of the Nestlé Waters plan held an "Our Water, Our Future" gathering where a featured speaker was Maude Barlow, the national chair of the Council of Canadians and the author of several books on water. "Don't give up," Ms. Barlow told them.

"It is always too soon to give up. It is incredibly important that you build this movement and you say no to Nestlé, that you protect the water for yourselves, for nature and future generations."

'The sound of history'

The eagle has vanished over the treetops. Here, where the Grand River slips and slides over the shallows toward the town of Paris, there is no argument to be found, just the silent pleasures of a paddle and enough water to carry a canoe effortlessly downstream.

Perhaps the last word – or note – should go to Guelph councillor/musician James Gordon:

"Listen to the river song,

That's the sound of history,

As it rolls its way along …

There's a lesson that the water brings,

Of survival and of hope …"

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