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The story of the Ottawa River: Priceless and precarious

To canoeist Max Finkelstein, ‘a clean river means ... having a cool refreshing drink.’ Photo by Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

"Every day on this river is an adventure.” Judith Flynn-Bedard is speaking from the stern of Pier Pressure II, the small cabin cruiser she owns with her husband, Robert, and she shakes her head at a string of memories.

There was the day a sleek boat with a menacing tiger chained to the deck pulled into the marina. There was the dawn she was awakened by a yacht full of drunks pulling in after a night of wild partying with hired strippers. There was the time she found a frogman checking the hull of her boat – in preparation for the day George W. Bush descended from the sky in the presidential helicopter on a 2007 visit.

Rivers of Canada

This is the second in a Globe series on Canada's rivers, from coast to coast. 

Part 1: The story of the Red River Valley

Part 3: The story of the Muskoka River

Part 4: The story of the St. Lawrence River

The Bedards, both retired from work in the nation’s capital, have boated along the Ottawa for 30 years. They anchor on the Quebec side, within shouting distance of Le Chateau Montebello, a resort famous for the world’s largest log cabin.

On this side of the Ottawa, you can enjoy a glass of wine during an evening cruise; on the other side, it is considered a crime to have a drink in a small vessel.

Not a lot makes sense along this magnificent river that flows past the houses of Parliament. To celebrate the 300th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s historic journey up the Ottawa in 1613, a statue was erected on a majestic point not far from the Peace Tower. Champlain is depicted making solar observations using his astrolabe. He is, unfortunately, holding it upside down.

There are so many things not quite right along this waterway, says Ms. Flynn-Bedard, but one matter bothers her more than any other. “I’ve seen human feces floating in the river,” she says. “This river is coming right out of the nation’s capital. What does that say about our politicians? If any river should be cleaned up, it should be this one.”

The Ottawa has been described as the greatest unknown river in the world. Perhaps because it is dwarfed by the St. Lawrence, which the Ottawa feeds into, the more inland waterway has failed to register much with Canadians.

It is, however, long and massive, its speed, volume and rocky descent creating a recreational paradise for rafters and kayakers, its periodic widening into dammed “lakes” perfect for sailing, its deep waters home to 96 fish species and its wetlands visited by a remarkable 300 species of birds.

On one side, you can enjoy a glass of wine during an evening cruise; on the other side, that’s a crime in a small vessel. Photo by Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The Ottawa River carried the first explorers into the interior and served as the delivery route for fur and timber. It was critical for European settlement. It was the “safe haven” chosen by Queen Victoria for the nation’s capital. The source of the river is Lac Capimitchigama, far to the northeast in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains. The flow of the Ottawa circles to the west, south and east through a distance of more than 1,200 kilometres. The watershed is twice the size of New Brunswick, with 11 main tributaries ranging from the Dumoine on the Quebec side, beloved by whitewater enthusiasts, to the Rideau on the Ontario side, a multi-lock system perfect for houseboating.

“Look at the watershed as a leaf,” suggests Chief Kirby Whiteduck of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, “and the Ottawa River as the main stem, and the veins going out as the tributaries.” The Pikwakanagan band is found 150 kilometres west of Ottawa and is one of 10 Algonquin communities recognized as part of a massive land claim stretching from North Bay to Kingston that includes much of the vast watershed.

Ms. Flynn-Bedard is far from the only person in that watershed with a serious complaint. The Algonquins of Kitigan Zibi First Nation, upstream on the Gatineau River, which joins the Ottawa across from Parliament Hill, are under an advisory to use only bottled water for drinking and cooking. The advisory has been in force for 16 years.

“I’ve seen human feces floating in the river. This river is coming right out of the nation’s capital. What does that say about our politicians? If any river should be cleaned up, it should be this one.”
Judith Flynn-Bedard

Chief Harry St-Denis of Wolf Lake First Nations near Temiskaming says natives lived in harmony with the river for millen- nia, while “it took government and industry 150 years to transform it into what it is today.” The temptation for First Nations stakeholders, he adds, is to say, “You screwed it up, you fix it.”

It’s tempting, but unlikely to accomplish anything. As Chief Whiteduck says, “You have to find the right balance.”

It was June 22, 1871. Sir John A. Macdonald, first prime minister of the new Dominion of Canada, was writing to John Sandfield Macdonald, first premier of the new province of Ontario.

“The sight of immense masses of timber passing my window every morning,” the prime minister wrote to the premier, “constantly suggests to my mind the absolute necessity there is for looking into the future of this great trade. We are recklessly destroying the timber of Canada and there is scarcely a possibility of replacing it.”

'We are recklessly destroying the timber of Canada,’ Sir John A. Macdonald once wrote, ‘... and there is scarcely a possibility of replacing it.’ Photo from Canadian Press

The enormous success of the Ottawa Valley timber trade had been due to Napoleon, whose 1806 blockade of Britain had cut off wood supplies from northern Europe. The harvesting of timber, particularly white pine, created a string of communities along the river. Fortunes were made, lives were lost – as many as 80 in a single season – and the river was forever changed.

It is impossible today to imagine the beauty that was once the Ottawa. Chats Falls, upstream from the capital, was considered a major tourist attraction second only to Niagara Falls. Today, at Fitzroy Harbour, it is a massive hydroelectric dam, the roar seemingly angry and frustrated as suppressed water boils and surges from a release gate at the Quebec end.

Chaudière Falls is an impressive set of cascades right in the heart of the capital. In 1860, the Prince of Wales visited the colony and the highlight was a ride down the Chaudière slide on a specially built timber crib guided by expert rivermen, his heart-pounding drop through the tumbling water and spray greeted by 2,000 special guests assembled on river steamboats and another 20,000 loyal citizens cheering wildly from the banks.

Today, commuters moving between Ottawa and Gatineau do not even notice what remains of the falls – long since dammed and harnessed for electricity and a variety of mills. The location, last owned by Domtar, is a 15-hectare site that Windmill Development Group and Dream Unlimited – with the blessing of the National Capital Commission – intends to turn into a $1.2-billion vision that would include condos, green space and, once again, public access to the forgotten falls.

The project, called “Zibi” after the Algonquin word for river, is intended to honour First Nations as well, and while it has gained approval from some native leaders, others – including Museum of History architect Douglas Cardinal – are fighting the proposed development.

Disagreement, unfortunately, is as common to the Ottawa River as it is to the House of Commons.

Heritage without the label

In 1984, the federal government established the Canadian Heritage Rivers System (CHRS). There are now 38 designated heritage rivers, including the Mattawa and Rideau, which both flow into the larger Ottawa – but it, inexplicably, is not counted among them.

Legendary canoeist Max Finkelstein, an Ottawa resident who once worked for CHRS, says this failure is the “gaping hole” in the national designation. “No river reverberates as strongly with the spirit of Canada,” Mr. Finkelstein says. “This river is priceless, and precarious. It has given us many gifts, including this country we call Canada. It’s time for us to give back to the river – and we should begin by properly designating the Ottawa as a heritage river.”

In 2007, approximately half the length of the Ottawa was nominated to be so designated, but the nomination, absurdly, was solely for a 600-kilometre-plus strip along the Ontario side. It was almost as if there were no far shore to the river, no other side, no Quebec always within sight of the boundary line.

“No nomination can be considered valid unless it includes both provinces,” Mr. Finkelstein says a bit wistfully.

This is a river under considerable stress, with more than 200 municipalities throughout the watershed, including one large city, making for a total population of roughly two million. There are more than 30 beaches along the Ottawa River alone, many of which have to be closed during times of heavy rain and are closely monitored for water quality. There are roughly 90 wastewater treatment plants, perhaps only half of them providing the bare essential primary treatment.

At Chalk River, 180 kilometres upstream from Parliament Hill, a nuclear research facility produces much of the world’s supply of medical radioisotopes. Its presence, and that of a nuclear power plant, have also caused concern over the years through rare-but-alarming leaks and temporary shutdowns. Although the safety record has been impressive, the reactor is now considered ancient and expected to be decommissioned in 2018.

Max Finkelstein poles his canoe July 22, 2015, on the Ottawa River in Ottawa. Photo by Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Given all this, it is nothing less than astounding that no government agency has ever had a specific mandate to safeguard the health of this vital river.

In the years before Bytown – the mill town known for its filth, poverty and drunken brawls – was chosen by Queen Victoria as the capital, an 1847 outbreak of typhoid had all but decimated the population, and cholera was a constant concern.

A paper prepared by Jamie Benidickson, a professor of environmental law at the University of Ottawa, says issues about the sawdust, lost logs and raw sewage found in the river were being raised shortly after Confederation. Yet decades later, 174 deaths from typhoid were recorded over a two-year period (1911 and 1912).

So concerned were early city dwellers about the water supply that in 1913 a consultant recommended a pipeline be built to Thirty-One Mile Lake and two other isolated lakes deep in the Quebec highlands, and that drinking water be drawn from there rather than from the nearby river. Ratepayers balked at the expense. A year later, the public health board declared the Ottawa “beyond any question, a polluted source of supply at all points in the vicinity of the city.”

Ottawa Riverkeeper has become a major proponent of cleaning up the Ottawa. In late May, Riverkeeper joined with the de Gaspé Beaubien Foundation to hold an Ottawa River Summit at Gatineau’s Lac Leamy. The irony was not lost that politicians and environmentalists were gathering at a casino to talk about the odds of something actually being done.

That something can be done is a given. Waste management systems have been built in communities on the Quebec side that lacked such facilities and, while the situation is far from perfect, it has improved. North of Mattawa, there is a large body of water known as Lac la Cave, where keen river-watchers have noted the water significantly improved from the days of logging.

“Over the past 50 years,” says Catherine Fortin, whose family has summered in a rustic cabin since the early 1960s, “we’ve seen firsthand how this portion of the river has healed itself.”

Farther downstream, at Quyon, the old fuel-driven ferries have been replaced by a brand-new cable ferry that runs on 14 large, rechargeable batteries and can carry far more vehicles across the river in about half the time. “No pollution,” says pilot Eddie Scott, who has completed approximately 100,000 crossings over the three decades he has guided the seasonal ferry.

Quyon’s new battery-powered ferry: More cars, less time and ‘no pollution,’ says the pilot. Photo by Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Back in 2009, Ottawa city council announced an Ottawa River Action Plan, a series of 17 projects aimed at reducing pollutants entering the river around the capital city. The province is a partner and, in April, the federal government committed more than $60-million toward the cleanup.

“The Action Plan is a great step forward in cleaning up the river,” Mr. Finkelstein says. “Reducing the raw sewage going into the river means that it is no longer the ‘Big Flush’ for the city of Ottawa.” But, he adds, “that’s only one slice of a cleaned-up Ottawa River, and the easiest one to achieve.” In his opinion, commitment from Quebec is equally important if one day the river is going to live up to Mr. Finkelstein’s dream.

“For me,” he says, “a clean river means dipping my cup over the side of my canoe and having a cool refreshing drink of Ottawa River water like the First Nations peoples and the voyageurs and explorers and fur traders did not so long ago.”

Should be Canada’s cleanest

It was only appropriate, then, that the mayors of Gatineau and Ottawa would open the Lac Leamy summit. Together, they called for action beyond the current projects. Pollutants from sewage to pharmaceuticals have been reduced significantly, yet some contaminants still find their way into the river.

“Clearly,” said Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, “in the 21st century, that should not be happening.” The Ottawa, declared Bernadette Conant, executive director of the Canadian Water Network, should become “the cleanest, most livable river in Canada.”

Some have called for dramatic action. Environmental analyst Daniel Brunton, a co-founder of Ottawa Riverkeeper, wants to free the rapids by tearing down the dams. The rapids, he said, “are the lungs of the river. We don’t float logs down the river any more – get rid of them.”

“For me, a clean river means dipping my cup over the side of my canoe and having a cool refreshing drink of Ottawa River water like the First Nations peoples and the voyageurs and explorers and fur traders did not so long ago.”
Max Finkelstein

Participants at the summit tabled the Gatineau Declaration, a document that says “government, business and civil society all have a stewardship role to play in solving our water challenges and that raising the level of awareness and understanding of water protection issues is essential.”

To that end, David Heurtel and Glen Murray, environment ministers for Quebec and Ontario respectively, announced a new Joint Committee on Water Management that will see the two provinces join in water management in the Ottawa River, the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. It is a beginning, though much remains to be done.

“I’m still seeing ‘floaties’ when I dive,” says Gord Black, whose company, Logs End in Bristol, Que., produces wide-plank flooring from 200-year-old logs that sank during the heyday of the timber trade.

Hopefully, he has seen the last of them. And perhaps, while they’re cleaning up the river, they might consider turning Champlain’s astrolabe right-side up.

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