After decades of illness, including a cholera scare and bouts of malaria, Toronto’s Don River succumbed to mounting neglect and was pronounced dead in 1969.
A funeral procession of environmental activists wound through the city, with mourners gathering at the polluted banks of the river to pay their final respects.
After more than half a century, however, the river has roared back to life. Wildlife is gingerly returning to areas that were once the site of heavy industry. Its waters will soon become cleaner. And perhaps most unlikely of all: after decades of advocacy work from a small group of frustrated citizens, the city is spending billions to save a body of water which was long despised and feared.
Unlike other rivers bisecting a major city, the waterway, named after the River Don in Yorkshire, is neither revered nor loved. It lacks the grandeur of the Seine, the sacredness of the Ganges or the power of the Mississippi. On most days, it is little more than overgrown creek, occasionally morphing into a torrent of turbid waters in a rainstorm.
Indigenous peoples, including the Anishinaabe, Seneca and Mississauga, would fish its shores and harvest from along its banks. But the thick and wild ravine system the river flows through was hard to navigate, pushing early inhabitants westward.
For most of Toronto’s urban history, it was a dumping ground, said Jennifer Bonnell, an associate professor of history at Toronto’s York University. Tanneries, distilleries and abattoirs discharged effluent into the river and dead livestock could be found drifting in the murky water.
Walking past a lush mix of trees and marshes on a former brownfield site, Bonnell said: “Because of its proximity to the city, it served as a kind of place for refuge. And, with that a place of a place that you could get lost – but also a place where you get injured or mugged.”
Bonnell’s book, Reclaiming the Don, chronicles the river’s death and potential resurrection, including a decision to pump raw sewage directly into the river in the 1860s, and the several occasions on which the river caught fire.
In the early 20th century, the naturalist and writer Charles Sauriol described scenes of children splashing in the river under the shade of butternut and maple trees. But his passion for the waterway remained a minority opinion.
“For decades, very few Torontonians believed that this river could be redeemed at all. It was just the price of prosperity, a throwaway kind of sacrificial landscape,” said Bonnell.
When he moved from a rural American community to Toronto in 1972, John Wilson was struck by the “beautiful loneliness” of the river, which he accessed by scaling chain link fences.
Drawn in by the burgeoning conservation movement, Wilson committed himself to fighting for the river.
“I looked around at this and realized we could do better. I wanted to be a role model for my children, to give them a community worth living in,” he said.
Smith became a key figure in the Task Force to Bring Back the Don, a citizen-led group that took a hands-on approach to mending the broken river.
The group restored wetlands, cleaned their banks, and reduced the city’s use of road salt, which invariably flowed into the river each winter. But the group, staffed in large part with volunteers, was dissolved in 2010 by Toronto major Rob Ford.
Now, however, one of the Task Force’s main goals, the restoration of the river’s mouth, is nearing completion after the city invested more than C$1bn to create wetlands, levees and a new route for the Don.
The project, led by Waterfront Toronto, will add 3 hectares of new coastal wetlands and 4 hectares of habitat in a space that was once a post-industrial wasteland.
During construction, which is due to finish in a few months, beaver, mink, bald eagles, deer and coyote have been spotted in the area. The project also creates a more natural meander to the river, over-turning human attempts to “straitjacket” the river, said Bonnell.
But the biggest change is coming to the river itself. In Toronto Regional Conservation Authority’s (TRCA) most recent water quality report card, the most heavily urbanized portion of the Don River scored an “F” for its elevated levels of phosphorus, nutrients, chlorides, salt and e coli, said Sameer Dhalla, director of development and engineering services at the TRCA.
Nearly a quarter of Toronto has an outdated system of piping that combines storm runoff with raw sewage, spilling into the river when rain hits the city.
The city is spending C$3bn to build three tunnels that will route untreated sewage away from the river – the largest and costliest project of its kind in Canada. When all three tunnels are completed in the next 15 years, it will mark an end to sewer overflows.
“We’re going to really see substantial benefits in the lower Don’s water quality once they deal with all these combined sewer overflows,” said Dhalla. “We want to see the Don River swimmable. We want to see that the fish are healthy and even edible.”
Bonnell says the rerouting of the sewage will be “revolutionary” for a river pushed to its limits – a once unimaginable outcome that highlights the resilience of natural systems.
The confluence of nature and urbanization nearly always leads in one direction, from vitality to destruction. But the fate of the Don, prematurely declared dead more than half a century ago, suggests that with sustained grassroots effort – and both political and financial willpower – that a seemingly inevitable trajectory can bend.
“There aren’t a lot of hopeful signs in the wider world today. But it’s hard not to want to hope for a better life for my children and future generations,” said Wilson. “And so have to hold on, as hard as you can, to the positive things that you can see, and to those around you. This is one of them.”