Skip to main content

If our city fathers had known that one day in the future officials would be gathering on Toronto's shores to announce the creation of a swamp, they would have shaken their whiskered heads in disbelief.

The marshland that covered much of the eastern waterfront in Toronto's early years was viewed as a threat to the city's health and welfare, a breeding ground for disease. Authorities considered it a civic triumph when they drained and filled the huge Ashbridge's Marsh at the mouth of the Don River between 1912 and 1920, creating what are now the Port Lands.

Today, we take a kinder view of wetlands, as swamps have come to be called. They filter and clean our water, help tame floods and foster bird, fish and animal life. Toronto and Region Conservation and other environmental agencies now exert themselves to protect and maintain the six "provincially significant" wetlands in the city.

They even build new ones. On Tuesday, officials gathered on the Leslie Street Spit to unveil plans for a second wetland on the peninsula. The five-year project, supported with a grant from Coca-Cola Canada, will see an enclosed bay converted to wetland by capping the existing bottom with new fill and planting it with cattails, rushes and other aquatic plants.

You can get an idea of the expected result by visiting the existing man-made wetland on the Spit. On a perfect late-spring day, red-winged blackbirds sang, ducks paddled and a egret stalked through the rushes. As if ready for their closeup, a pair of trumpeter swans sailed majestically by just in time for photographs, trailing five fluffy cygnets.

This original wetland occupies one of the pond-like areas created when fill from the construction of a growing city was dumped in the lake to create the Spit. The new, adjacent wetland will be bigger, at about nine hectares. Both will be connected to the waters of the lake by small gaps, allowing fish to come in to feed and reproduce.

The waters around the Spit already teem with fish. For Tuesday's event, conservation officials dispatched a research boat to catch a few.

The boat's crew sent out an electrical current to stun the fish below, then scooped them up in nets and deposited them, wriggling and thrashing, in plastic bins filled with water. The crew showed off a walleye, a pike, a catfish and a carp, among others.

The new wetland won't come close to replacing Ashbridge's Marsh, which was once one of the biggest wetlands in Eastern Canada. But it will be a boon for wildlife – not to mention fishermen and birdwatchers – all the same.

"You know better, you do better," says project manager Karen McDonald, reflecting on what we have learned since the days when a swamp was considered fetid wasteland, just waiting to be drained and covered. "People didn't know."

The creation of the new wetland is just one of many steps that authorities have been taking to bring Toronto's waters back to life.

On the same day that officials were making their announcement on the Spit, Grade Seven students were releasing Atlantic salmon at a conservation area in Ajax, part of a region-wide effort to reintroduce the once-abundant species.

Meanwhile, city officials were reminding the public that, thanks to years of progress at reducing water pollution, eight of the city's 11 beaches boast internationally recognized blue-flag status for cleanliness.

At a time when many people are convinced that the planet is going to hell, the natural revival of Toronto's waterfront is truly something to cheer about.