Editorial Note: This is the first of our ongoing series on Heritage Rivers in Canada edited by Ramya Swayamprakash. We continue to accept proposals and entries on a rolling basis, see CFP here.
Rivers have traversed vast expanses time and landscape over millennia. As transportation networks, and routes of communication for everyone. They’re part of our heritage, the past, present, and future of where we live. What does that mean? ‘Heritage’ can be defined as a feature of a particular culture, or group, connecting their forebears with ourselves and our futures. Something that has many meanings, to be inherited, possibly seen as a tradition. Heritage can be tangible, cultural, natural, and intangible.1 Some argue that heritage is, both a product of something – an object, and a process – our way of looking at it. So, heritage is often a worldview. A river can be part of many different heritages, cultural, social, and political for the peoples in whose lives it plays a role.
The question of what is a ‘heritage river’ then is subsumed by another, more fundamental, question “what is a river’?
The question of what is a ‘heritage river’ then is subsumed by another, more fundamental, question “what is a river’? These two insights, overlay each other. Several understandings of the landscape are at issue. The most obvious insights are those of the Indigenous and the Settler peoples.
Words describing landforms and landscapes carry meanings for those who live in and on them. If we describe a river, using the terms commonly used by geographers, who might be called settler geographers, for all stages of its course we imply that a river is a person with “Youthful, Mature and Old Age”. The terms are weak literary illusions, analogies, related to the speed and velocity of the current(s), as river flows across different rock formations (geomorphologies). Songs and stories address ‘Old Father Thames’ about the Thames River in Eastern England, and ‘Ole Man River’ about the Mississippi in the US, ‘Mother of all the waters’ as in the Amazon. So, “ Youthful, Mature and Old Age” indicate that the river has a soul even though this might be a word describing flow. These terms imply that a river is capable of carrying something, in this case soil, or in the case of the Amazon ‘life itself. Mothers give birth. How does this work? Let’s look at sections of rivers designed as ‘heritage rivers’ by the Canadian Heritage Rivers System.
A “Youthful” river bubbles up as a freshwater spring, becoming a stream (often labelled creek or brook). It’s full of energy, flowing through mountains or hills creating narrow channels, as waterfalls where soft rock is overlaid with hard but fissured rock. The current is fastest near the source. It grows as water flows in from its tributaries becoming wider and deeper. An example of a ‘Young River’ is where water drains in the North and South from what’s colloquially called ‘The Height of Land” between North and South lakes (474 m above sea level) in the Boundary-Waters-Voyageur Waterway, approximately 155 miles/250 km, existing along the US/Canada border between the western tip of Lake Superior to Lac La Croix, Ontario. The name of the Miskwewesibi / Miskweyaabiziibee/ Bloodvein River, originates in Paishk Creek’s wetlands. It may have been named for the red granite stripes running through the bedrock near its source, in the granitic PreCambrian Shield of Northwestern Ontario.
A river is labelled “Mature” as the force of gravity and rate of flow decrease, it may be wide, shallow, or deep and narrow. The sluggish current means that stones and gravel can no longer be carried. Sand or gravel deposits emerge, the river leaves islands and even oxbow lakes in its floodplain. The current flows towards a lake, a sea or ocean. It is at this point where the behaviour of the Red River of the North in the US, or the ‘Red River’ or Rivière Rouge in Canada, is keenly watched by lakeshore communities threatened by floods. At its headwaters the Valley was a mere hundred feet wide. At mature stage its floodplain is the glacial-era lakebed of the former Lake Agassiz, a vast area.2 The river’s seasonal flood waters spread out the ancient lakebed, depositing silt as it meanders northwards into Canada. Catastrophic floods often occur as the spring waters are dammed by northern ice and spread out across the former lakebed. The river flows north but the snow melt naturally starts in the south, so heavy snows and rain combine with the floodplain’s saturated or frozen soils. These floods partially refill the ancient lakebed, whose gravel and sandbars provide sites for communities such as Emerson, Moorhead, Fargo, Grand Forks, and Winnipeg.
“Old Age” occurs once a river reaches the end of its journey, at the mouth of the river, the estuary which is often a delta. A delta is a large silty area where the river subdivides into numerous channels with muddy banks, as the silt is deposited as the waters enter a far larger body of water, typically freezing in winter. The James Bay Delta, in the southern end of Hudson Bay, east of the Red River system is where the Missinaibi River, via the Moose River, meets the Arctic Ocean. That delta contains both slow north-moving water and intertidal ecosystems. This delta held considerable significance for the Hudson’s Bay Company and British expansion into North America, today’s Canada. James Bay was the site of the first English colony and became the gateway to British settlements which eventually stretched to the far southwest Rocky Mountains, and Northwest to the Mackenzie River. Whether youthful, or mature, these rivers carried many people, both individuals and families, vast distances.
To what extent is our world view one which merely sees rivers as mere carriers of commodities, the Amazon as ‘rubber’ not ‘mother’. This narrows perception. Water is far far more than an economic resource, its velocities (for currents do not move at the same speed) shape and reshape our mental landscapes. But if velocity is taken out of the picture, then it would appear that a river has ceased to have life.
The idea that a river has a “life” and has distinct stages (Youth, Mature and Old Age) should not be surprising as the labels of these stages indicates that the rivers – the water and the currents within the river, has actions (deep impact) on their surrounding landscape(s). Yes, we’re discussing velocity which velocity is an active action implying, indicating, that the river is alive. If velocity, in the form of currents, wasn’t present the implication is that the river isn’t active so it would be ‘dead’ i.e. it didn’t exist anymore. This leads us back to the vocabulary used by the public to refer to rivers in many parts of the globe. People with a Western European mindset often use personal pronouns, i.e. ‘he’ or ‘she’ (see the discussion about well-known songs above) to refer to rivers. The use of these pronouns implies that the river has a personhood status and even souls. People’s lives the world over, throughout history have been heavily dependent on rivers. They diminished transportation times by five times or more. To what extent is our world view one which merely sees rivers as mere carriers of commodities, the Amazon as ‘rubber’ not ‘mother’. This narrows perception. Water is far far more than an economic resource, its velocities (for currents do not move at the same speed) shape and reshape our mental landscapes. But if velocity is taken out of the picture, then it would appear that a river has ceased to have life.
Whether youthful or mature the way we view rivers depends on our worldview. One solution to the challenge is to provide rivers with legal personhood. In 2022, the Magpie River, in Quebec’s Côte-Nord, gained legal status as had the Whanganui (New Zealand), the Klamath (US) and the Amazon in Colombia. This new status sets them on the same plane as humans, at the apex of the natural world. Will legal personhood, a new status for a river, affect what makes a ‘heritage river’ in 2023?
Rivers are the cultural and economic ‘lifeblood’ of their regions and are recognized as such by the Canadian Heritage Rivers System. Whether they are also ‘beautiful’ or ‘scenic’ is a value-laden judgement that says little or nothing about their role the past or present.
The phrase ‘heritage river’ is challenging. But for now, it exists. It raises a question. Should the concept, and status of legal personhood for any river, let alone a heritage river be applied to the hundreds of Canadian rivers? Rivers are the cultural and economic ‘lifeblood’ of their regions and are recognized as such by the Canadian Heritage Rivers System. Whether they are also ‘beautiful’ or ‘scenic’ is a value-laden judgement that says little or nothing about their role the past or present. Rivers in the northern part of the continent of North America, now known as ‘Canada’, have for centuries empowered people to use and explore the physical landscape. They enabled people to move through immense geographical regions, such as the PreCambrian Shield, which were physically impenetrable at scale before the advent of the railroad and the internal combustion engine. They dictate the presence or absence of settlements, communities, and the existence, and persistence of human activities. The Magpie River was given nine rights, including the right to be safe from pollution, to sue, and to flow. Whether the River can extend the exercise of those rights to the water that flows within its banks remains an open question. Some argue that legal personhood for rivers isn’t necessary, but it is wise to remember that without water there is no human life.
By formally recognizing rivers as persons we accept a different world view. We recognize that the post-Enlightenment worldview, some might argue the neoliberal viewpoint doesn’t value the natural world we, as humans, all come from. Perhaps we need to change perspective. To recognise that nature’s rights come first, followed by human rights, and only then corporate rights. Human life cannot exist without clean water, air, and fertile unpolluted soils. Humans are an intrinsic part of nature, the right to life stemming from the rights of nature. It is illogical in one sense, to argue that humans have a right to life or property if the rights of nature cannot be granted. What would that say, for example, to the peoples and settlements of the Red River?
Perhaps, every river should be a heritage river?
- Apaydin, Veysel, ed. Critical Perspectives on Cultural Memory and Heritage Construction, Transformation and Destruction. London: University College London Press, 2020. https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/118162. Graham, Brian, Greg Ashworth, and John Tunbridge. A Geography of Heritage. Ebook. Taylor and Francis, 2016; Judt, Tony. Chapter 5 of Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. New York and London: Penguin, 2005. Swiderska, Krystyna. “Protecting Traditional Knowledge: A Framework Based on Customary Laws and Bio-Cultural Heritage.” Geneva, Switzerland, 2006. https://www.iied.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/migrate/G01069.pdf. ↩︎
- Teller, J. T., and L. H. Thorleifson. “The Lake Agassiz – Lake Superior Connection.” In Glacial Lake Agassiz, edited by J. T. Teller and Lee Clayton, 261–90. Geological Association of Canada Special Paper 26. St John’s: Department of Geology, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1983. Teller, J. T., and J. P. Bluemie. “Geological Setting of the Lake Agassiz Region.” In Glacial Lake Agassiz., edited by J. T. Teller and L. Clayton, 26:5–20. Geological Association of Canada Special Paper 26. St John’s: Department of Geology, Memorial University of Newfoundland; Teller, J. T., and L. Clayton, eds. Glacial Lake Agassiz. Special Paper. St Johns: Department of Geology, Memorial University of Newfoundland: Geological Association of Canada, 1983. ↩︎