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Stanley Park’s Third Beach in Vancouver is not far from downtown, one of several lovely city beaches. But this summer, in the immediate area of downtown, the city once again wrestled with dirty water.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

"Montreal is an island that has forgotten it is an island.”

This was the declaration, striking yet obviously true, made by Denis Coderre in 2015. The then-mayor of Montreal, looking toward the city’s 375th birthday in 2017, announced three projects to bring Montrealers closer to the great river that surrounds them. Two new beaches on the shores of the Saint Lawrence were planned, as well as a swimming facility at the city’s Old Port.

Like Canada’s two other largest cities – Toronto and Vancouver – the geography of Montreal is defined by water. The downtown core of all three cities is steps away from it. Yet an outdoor summer swim at lunchtime isn’t really feasible in any of them.

Blame history. For most of the last century, our major cities had heavily industrialized waterfronts: in Toronto on Lake Ontario, in Montreal sprawling along the Saint Lawrence and in Vancouver on False Creek and Coal Harbour. No matter how adventurous one was, not even a fool would consider a quick dip in those foul waters.

The three cities have worked over the decades to transform their waterfronts. The water is generally safer for swimming, thanks to improvements to sewage and storm water systems, and better industrial pollution controls.

And on the shore, Toronto’s Harbourfront has been developed for public use, just like Montreal’s Old Port and False Creek and Coal Harbour in Vancouver. There are parks, attractions and picturesque strolls where industry once ruled.

But getting in the water and going for a swim is still another matter. That’s true even in Vancouver, despite its mostly deserved image as an urban idyll.

It’s true Stanley Park’s Third Beach is not far from downtown, one of several lovely city beaches. But this summer, in the immediate area of downtown, the city once again wrestled with dirty water. Waste overflows into False Creek are a continuing problem, as old sewer pipes carry sewage and rainwater together. During storms, excess volume pours into waterways.

The result was a spike in E. coli. The water off Sunset Beach, which is also close to downtown, was declared contaminated and unsafe to swim for almost a month. Bouts of gastrointestinal upset hit crews on False Creek Ferries, and public health officials warned kayakers and other paddlers to bathe after getting off the water. Kitsilano Beach has also been hit with a swimming closure.

Vancouver city council in late July moved to look at fixing the old sewers with more urgency – getting the job done over the next decade, rather than the current plan of over the next 30 years.

In Montreal, Mr. Coderre’s vision for new beaches to celebrate the city’s 375th birthday failed to materialize. One beach planned for the island’s eastern tip has been delayed until 2022 because the river water in the area is dirtier than previously thought. A small beach in Verdun did finally open in June, a $7-million project. It was immediately popular but also immediately plagued with swimming closures because of varying water quality. Montreal is working to better deal with sewer overflows.

Meanwhile, on Lake Ontario, whose waters still have a muddied vestigial reputation, Toronto has eight beaches with the international Blue Flag designation of clean water, safe for swimming.

Most of the Blue Flag beaches are relatively close to the centre of the city but, in the adjacent-to-downtown Harbourfront, there are only two tiny beaches, neither with water access. In any case, the Inner Harbour water’s quality is mixed, at best.

Canada’s biggest cities have brought people closer to the water. But a bigger jump can be made.

A Montreal group that promotes better access to the Saint Lawrence holds an annual “Grand Splash.” Participants hop off an Old Port pier to swim in the river; Mayor Valérie Plante has taken the plunge several times.

But it’s still just a one-day event. There is no permanent place to step into the water.

Summers in the city are sweaty. Those who can afford to, escape to distant lakes and cottages. But there are already cool waters on the doorsteps of Canada’s three biggest downtown areas. It’s time to take the leap and bring the beach, and a swim in clean water, back to the heart of our cities.

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