Rivers, by Nature and Design

Aerial Photograph of North Leaside and Serena Gundy Park, 1983

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Jennifer Bonnell, Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto’s Don River Valley (University of Toronto Press, 2014) 

Daniel Macfarlane,  Negotiating a River: Canada, the U.S., and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway (University of British Columbia Press, 2014) 

Two years ago I moved from a city beside the Atlantic Ocean to a small town on the Susquehanna River. The Susquehanna has one of the largest watersheds in the eastern U.S., flowing from upper New York State down to Chesapeake Bay … but it isn’t the ocean. I mean, even the Georgian Bay is a bay of another lake, and you can’t see across it. The Susquehanna I can walk across in 5 minutes. Thbbft!, as they used to say on Bloom County. So, I guess I had some prejudice against rivers.

Nevertheless, when I started teaching an environmental history of North America at Bucknell, I decided to theme it to rivers. This way, I could learn more about the Susquehanna, and other American rivers, while slipping the students Canadian examples. I thought about the rivers I’ve lived near or by, and was startled to realize how many there were. The North Saskatchewan in Edmonton, along and over which remains my favourite walk to work, ever; the St. Lawrence in Montreal; the Thames in London (not that one – the other one); and the West Branch of the Don River. I grew up a block from Serena Gundy Park in Toronto, where we walked or biked or tobogganed or skied the long, sinuous trails along the Don. Apparently I’ve spent a lot of time around rivers, and never given them their due.

Jennifer Bonnell and Daniel Macfarlane want to change that. They take different approaches to river history, and environmental history, to be sure. One is primarily a biography of an urban river, the other an account of international diplomacy and engineering. One tracks a river through centuries; the other accelerates into a few years of intense negotiation and construction. But both daylight these rivers, in a way, by acknowledging the role those waterways have played in modern, industrial Canada – restoring them to public attention. And more importantly, they both show how these rivers embody a central theme in environmental history: the allure, and costs, of the imagined future.

Bonnell’s Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto’s Don River Valley (University of Toronto Press, 2014) brought back a flood of memories, but this is a different Don than the one I knew as green space with picnic tables and bike paths, or the exhilarating curves of the Bayview extension sweeping us quickly into downtown Toronto. The Don is in the heart of Canada’s largest city, and yet hidden from it; as an “urban fringe” it became the ultimate in convenience for an emerging city, which viewed the river valley by turns “as verdant wilderness, picturesque countryside, polluted periphery, predestined industrial district, restorative retreat, vital refuge, dangerous underworld” (xix). And for the second half of the twentieth century, as simultaneously parkland and parkway – a wonderful symbol of our multifarious, contradictory, attitude toward urban nature. Draining from the Oak Ridges Moraine north of Toronto to Lake Ontario, it is now one of the most urbanized watersheds in Canada.

The basic chronology here is a familiar arc of settler, industrial, and urban, but Bonnell enlivens each chapter by illustrating contemporary ideas of nature with colourful local episodes and detail. Colonial interests mapped an apparent wilderness into land grants, as “agricultural settlement and country estates, modest or otherwise” (17), while early mills (notably Don Mills, where the east and west branches came together) formed Toronto’s first industrial complex. But industry degraded the river’s appeal and, accordingly, land prices, which in turn attracted other unhealthy uses. (The descriptions here had my stomach churning. The waste dumped by the tanneries, refineries, and foundries in nineteenth-century Toronto is revolting.) As Bonnell notes, sometimes the very things that pushed some people away from the river pulled other interests there, in a cycle of remaking and revaluing. The inherent natural resources of the river combined with its proximate geography relative to the city and its political ecology to create new kinds of space. For instance, a degraded industrial zone garnered lower tax rates, which attracted rail and shipping infrastructure, working-class housing, and more physical plants, making it ever more appealing for hard industry. Further upstream, the valley offered a space for hospitals, houses of refuge, and other institutions that promised rehabilitation, or at least relocation to the periphery of the “unpleasant or unsightly” (86). As near but not of the city, nature here was to be at once psychologically and morally restorative, and a conveniently repository for the less orderly elements of society.

All this on a river you could throw a stone over (35). The intensity of use in a small area is stunning. And the more it was used, the more Torontonians confronted physical realities that threatened their investment in and “improvements” of it. Of course, the “problems” were largely of their own making: siltation, pollution, and flooding (what one observer in 1834 referred to as “alluvial disgorgings,” 45. I’m using that one in conversation the next time the Susquehanna floods.) Politicians and landowners were intent on changing not their behavior, but the river, into a “navigable and disciplined waterway” (57), though their efforts often backfired or created more problems. Improving and regulating water also meant burying streams and tributaries in the city, and I would love to know more about tendrils of the Don under and through the city. There is also a fascinating reference to an attempt by Ottawa in 1884 to call Gooderham and Worts to account by requiring them to plant a thousand trees (40) – an ineffective and yet eerily familiar punishment.

Were there other, gentler ways of incorporating the river into urban life? Charles Sauriol believed so, as the voice of the emerging conservation movement, especially as new housing sprawled up the valley in the post-war years. Bonnell does a good job of situating Sauriol’s writing within contemporary attitudes toward urban ecology and activism, including the “funeral for the Don” by the new Pollution Probe in 1969. But Frederick Gardiner, chair of the new Metropolitan Toronto, envisaged the valley not as refuge or even a place but as a corridor, a transitory space, part of a grand transportation scheme that merged (so to speak) commuter efficiency with scenery in a parkway… that nonetheless required a massive restructuring of the valley itself. While this nudges the story northward, most of the book focuses on the lower Don, below Don Mills, and the lakefront. The Don represents such a massive part of Toronto’s impressive park system[i] that I wanted to know more about how this came to be, and if there are lessons for other cities.

Reclaiming the Don is very evocative, with excellent maps (unsurprisingly, given Bonnell’s experience with historical GIS) and extremely accessible in its writing. It’s so readable that I even recommended it to my mother.

Moving earth to build a parkway, though, pales in comparison with hollowing out a seaway. Macfarlane’s Negotiating a River: Canada, the U.S., and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway (University of British Columbia Press, 2014) is very much about the negotiation and creation of an international waterway, and the technofaith that drove, and continues to drive, most industrial infrastructure in North America. It is less a genealogy of environmental thought than a study of environmental diplomacy, and a detailed, almost three-dimensional, profile of high modernist thinking at work on an unprecedented scale.

The first half of the book follows the “hydropolitics” of a half-century, as the two countries batted about the idea of a seaway and then got down to brass tacks in the 1950s. Both Canada and the United States were interested in a seaway for two main reasons: a navigable route from the Atlantic into the Great Lakes system, and the potential for hydroelectricity to serve their most populous and industrialized regions. This interest dated back to the late nineteenth century (though “an international deep waterways convention” in Victorian Toronto doesn’t sound like a barnburner). Begin as you mean to go on, as they say, and from the turn of the twentieth century, discussions about the St Lawrence were marked by a tension between mutual dependencies and national interest (so even binational committees divided along national lines). But the project moved ahead, because even different national interests shared a common faith in the power of engineering for economic gain.

As the negotiations stretched over decades, Macfarlane notes that the history of this megaproject tells us a great deal about the workings of two similar but separate federal systems, in which provinces and states (and powerful ones like Ontario, Quebec, and New York) would profit from the hydroelectricity while navigation and international diplomacy fell under federal jurisdiction. World War II intensified the value of the waterway and the bulk goods it could carry (particularly iron ore), but also spurred Canadian confidence in infrastructure projects for spatial and economic growth (49). Canada was particularly invested in the seaway and its construction as a statement of sovereignty, and continually asserted a surprisingly confident attitude and at times even a willingness (and preference!) to go it alone. Despite this new “technological nationalism,” however, any Canada-owned-and-operated project posed “too much of an economic and security threat to the United States” (76)[ii] especially in the early Cold War. It was the spectre of an all-Canadian project that finally jolted the United States into a partnership that Canada, for its part, reluctantly agreed to in the name of continental harmony.

Ironically, after a half-century of talking about it, the thing itself was built pretty quickly (1955-58) – which again suggests a shared faith in bulldozer modernism beneath any other differences of opinion. And what a thing it turned out to be. (The scale is amazing, though phrases such as “one of the monumental engineering achievements of the twentieth century” or “one of the greatest rehabilitation projects in Canada,” 111 seem to reinscribe the triumphant language of postwar engineers.) It required an elaborate infrastructure of oversight (the International Joint Commission; two federal, two provincial, and one state agency; two energy utilities, joint engineering boards, and two seaway bodies. This is both hilarious and discouraging for international environmental management.) It also required a new kind of political space, a delimited or binational zone for joint construction, which also became a tourist space (with bus tours and visitor stations!), and a colonial one. I remember the CHESS in 2010 that took us to the Mohawk reserve at Kahnawake and the sight of a shoreline just … calved off into the neat borders of a canal, as a huge barge slowly sailed past, casting us in its shadow.

The construction of the seaway is where Negotiating a River really resonates as environmental history, and where we get to have a sense of working with – and sometimes against – the river itself, its glacial till, clay, and winter conditions. The photographs of the project in process are stunning. (Did the project have a transformative effect on Canadian engineering, or R&D, I wonder?) This included dredging, building locks, and flooding hydro reservoirs – along with the “lost villages” along the shore. Macfarlane’s own photographs of the littoral – old roads vanishing into the river – are haunting, and he takes an admirably even-handed view of the “utilitarian calculus” (159) behind this decision: the genuine liberal belief in material improvement that nevertheless displaced people, animals, and habitat. He also does an excellent – if disconcerting – job describing the enormous environmental impact of the seaway, from pollution (gas tanks left underground!) to invasive species. I wonder: did anyone else share his concern, or if not, when did environmentalists begin to take note?

As for what we value, Negotiating a River poses an interesting question. What determines whether a river – or, any natural feature – will engender, or be assigned, a feeling of national possession or meaning? If the Don swings from centre to periphery (xxv) in the public mind, the St. Lawrence is always assumed to be at the centre – at least by those in Central Canada. Macfarlane points out that the United States was never as invested, ideologically, in the project (64) … but not all Canadians were, either. Newspaper coverage from Atlantic Canada was decidedly less enthusiastic than that of the west (56). Why? Was it purely functional (a route for western grain) or does this say something about the “national” imaginary? Conversely, what does it say that the communities on either side of the river did not seem to have much to do with one another? It seems as though national or jurisdictional realities outweighed physical ones and mitigated against any “shared transnational St. Lawrence identity” (176-77).

The heart of the story, though, is “the conceptual transformation of the St. Lawrence from a river to a seaway” (112), because it is about what the river will be more than what it is. Graeme Wynn, whose eloquence has introduced and elevated all the monographs in UBC Press’s Nature/History/Society Series, draws an analogy to the Keystone/Gateway pipelines (the language of hubris, the prospect of anachronistic obsolescence, xxiii-xxiv). Environmental diplomacy will only become more important with climate change, water shortages, Arctic competition, and natural disasters. What does the Seaway tell us about how we conduct such diplomacy, what we prioritize, and what we will compromise on? Will natural resources (and here I’m thinking of offshore oil) outstrip the North American partnership?

Reclaiming the Don and Negotiating a River model different approaches within environmental history, and different kinds of place biography. But they do share some key traits. For example, both scale their stories in a dynamic way, sliding up and down a spatial ladder, using local features to illustrate much larger ideas. The Don is Toronto’s river, yet it is peopled by figures from a Canadian narrative (H.Y. Hind and Sandford Fleming win cash prizes for their plans for a harbour improvement project in 1854, 47) and landscaped by ideas about urban rivers that recur in cities across North America. The Seaway – which is really a story of transnational diplomacy over a single river – reminded me of the discussion we have been having in NiCHE, about looking outward, and where Canadian environmental history fits in a global conversation. In addition, both show how environmental history operates at the confluence (so to speak) of the material and the ideological, informed by questions of political economy and technology as well as aesthetics and identity.

And both stories are ultimately about the ways in which we seek to reconfigure nature in a particular way, with particular ends – the imagined future. The rhetoric of improvement, control, and utility appears again and again, as we try to make these natural features useful, profitable, appealing, and unproblematic. As Bonnell asks, why was Toronto “so desperate to make the Don into something it wasn’t?” (71). While the rivers were frequently “improved” by technological means, residents and conservationists preferred a neo-natural or nostalgic view. Either way, though, we seem reluctant to just accept nature as is, and more to the point, as we have made it. Lastly, both scholars remind us that rivers are both profoundly important to us as Canadians, and profoundly important right now. The romance of the fur trade and exploration, of voyageurs and continental highways aside, these rivers are part of an industrial, urban Canada. Just a block away, sometimes.


[i] That’s not to say they don’t need to SERIOUSLY overhaul their transportation network and traffic mess.

[ii] My chair, from Ohio: “‘Canada’ and ‘security threat’ in the same sentence seems oxymoronic.”

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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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