When it comes to the global water crisis, aqua-rich Canada displays peculiar amnesia. A cure presents itself when a diversity of interests unites to help the Ottawa River recall aspects of its former self. Words :: Ned Morgan.
Years ago, on a wide, quiet stretch of the Ottawa River, a Pikwàkanagàn boy saw what could have been a mirage out on the gently swirling water: an empty birchbark canoe making slow revolutions as it rode weightlessly on the current. Before it passed by the beach where the boy was swimming with his brother and father on a warm summer day, he swam out and took hold of the gunwale, pulling the vessel onto the sandy bank.
That boy, Skip Ross, is today an 82-year-old Pikwàkanagàn (Algonquin) elder who still lives near his birthplace on the banks of the Petawawa, the Ottawa’s largest free-flowing tributary. “Nobody ever did claim it,” says Ross, “so my father said: ‘That’s your canoe now.’ We never knew where it came from but I know it was handmade by a First Nations person.”
Ross’s spirit name is River Running Man. His people are known for their birchbark canoe-building skills; one of Ross’s relatives, Matt Bernard, even fashioned Gitche Chee-mun, a 12-metre replica of a Voyageurs’ canot du maître, for the National Museum of Canada in the 1950s. To the Pikwàkanagàn (translated as “beautiful waters, sun shining”), the Ottawa is Kitchissippi or “Great River,” ancestral home and sacred lifeblood of their land.
Much has changed in the Ottawa River watershed since that orphaned canoe floated into Ross’s life, changes he witnessed from a bankside vantage: his grandmother tutored him in traditional Algonquin ways while his mother kept him close to home during a time when the government relocated many of his people against their will—either to residential schools, or because of dam construction.
As a boy, Ross and his family always drank water straight from the river, but he reckons the last time he was able to do so was probably back in the 1940s. “The rivers were clean and plentiful with fish then. And we had a lot of eels—a very traditional and spiritual food. You don’t find them anymore. And our lake sturgeon are disappearing.”
From the mystic roar of whitewater that Algonquin spiritualists believe contains all the sounds of nature, to the granite outcrops of sacred Oiseau Rock crowded with pre-contact pictographs, to a living-fossil sturgeon skulking unseen in the deepest pools, the Ottawa seems a place outside of time. Certainly a river’s flow lends it an eternal quality—it is always moving, always renewing itself. Except when it can’t.
Which is why Skip Ross isn’t the only one lamenting the changes on the Ottawa. Today, mutual concern for the river and its watershed has brought together a range of groups once separated by bureaucracy, borders, and fast-flowing water.
The Ottawa River flows some 1,271 kilometres from its source in the water-rich boreal forests of Quebec’s Abitibi-Témiscamingue to its confluence with the St. Lawrence River at Lachine Rapids just upstream of Montreal. The 146,300 km2 watershed, divided between Quebec and Ontario, pours into an ancient rift valley (the reason long stretches of the Ottawa bear such an oddly linear course) and includes both wilderness and a long-settled valley quilted with farmland and crosshatched by industrial development and urban centres, including the National Capital Region—Canada’s fourth largest metropolitan area encompassing Ottawa, its neighbour on the Quebec side of the river, Gatineau, and surrounding communities.
Beginning in the early 1600s, la Grande Rivière du Nord became the major thoroughfare of the colonial economy of New France. The French would later name the river for the Odawa Nation, traders who paddled it but settled mainly to the southwest. As the fur trade declined in the 19th century, the timber trade transformed the river with mills, permanent settlements and, later, locks and canals to facilitate steamboat travel. With the 20th century’s population explosion came heavy industry and pollution grave enough that in 1961 the National Film Board (NFB) released the sobering early eco-doc River with a Problem.
Dubbed the “The Sewer Wave” by local paddlers, few things are more emblematic of the Ottawa’s modern malaise—or the struggle to correct it.
A total of nine dams on the main river and over 200 on its tributaries have quelled many once-fearsome rapids, but the remaining whitewater still draws kayakers and countless rafters; numerous commercial companies run thousands of paddlers through each season. Many seek out the savage stretch known as “Rocher-Fendu” (Split Rock), a hundred kilometres upstream of the capital. Here islands cleave the water into two channels, creating an orgy of waves including the six-metre monster “Greyhound Bus Eater.” With no steep elevation drops, the whitewater is a product of volume and compression, a boon to recreational paddlers since most rapids end in a “drop-pool”—a calm collection area at the bottom of each set.
In spite of dams, paddle-worthy whitewater still roars within sight of Canada’s parliament buildings near the Champlain Bridge that links the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau. A notorious kayak-surfing wave located near the Gatineau’s combined sewer outflow can contain both storm-water and human waste after heavy rain. Dubbed the “The Sewer Wave” by local paddlers, few things are more emblematic of the Ottawa’s modern malaise—or the struggle to correct it.
The renaissance of the Ottawa began, curiously enough, with a selloff of corporate media assets. In 2000, Quebec’s Philippe de Gaspé Beaubien II sold the corporation he founded, Télémédia, which comprised magazines, television and radio stations. His family—a storied bloodline dating back to one of New France’s wealthiest citizens, fur trader and financier Charles Aubert de La Chesnaye, ennobled by King Louis XIV—then diversified into various holding companies and created the Fondation de Gaspé Beaubien, an entrepreneurial philanthropic organization focused on healthcare, families, women in business, and other fields. When the youngest generation of de Gaspé Beaubien—Louis-Alexandre, Tatianna, Aidan, and Philippe IV—were approaching university age, their grandfather suggested some new philanthropic projects to be spearheaded by the youths.
“They said, ‘You told us to pick our subject with passion,’” foundation Executive Director Dominique Monchamp explains. “‘With all respect, we are not passionate about what you’ve suggested. But we’d love to do something about water in Canada.’” Both Monchamp and the de Gaspé Beaubien elders were “a little shocked—we didn’t know we had water problems in Canada.”
Tasked with finding a worthy water initiative to partner with, the de Gaspé Beaubien grandchildren reached out to no less a water luminary than Alexandra Cousteau, founder of the non-profit Blue Legacy International and granddaughter of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the famed French explorer, conservationist and filmmaker who, from the 1950s through the 1990s, produced some of the most influential documentaries ever—including the Emmy-winning series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Jacques remains a much-admired figure in Quebec, where he led two expeditions focused on life around and under the St. Lawrence River, resulting in the acclaimed NFB films Cries from the Deep (1981) and Stairway to the Sea (1982). Cousteau suggested the de Gaspé Beaubiens start by seeking out a Quebec-focused Riverkeeper organization; the St. Lawrence didn’t have one, but the Ottawa did.
“The global water crisis is the degradation of healthy watersheds leading to water quality and quantity issues. The idea that we have to protect the watersheds that protect our water has yet to go mainstream.”
— Alexandra Cousteau
“My grandfather was the first to pull back the curtain on 70 per cent of our planet,” says Cousteau. “He didn’t start out as an environmentalist but he certainly became one when he saw what was happening.” For her part, Alexandra created Blue Legacy in 2008 and has already explored far and wide with her film production team. Their mandate is to produce short films documenting global water issues and initiatives, team with other organizations and host community action days, then sow the visuals, research and action plans widely online. Among others they’ve mounted expeditions to the Okavango Delta in Botswana (Earth’s largest inland delta), the Mekong, Ganges, and Colorado Rivers, and even the Gulf of Mexico.
Joining the de Gaspé Beaubien scions in their newly minted River Mission Project—which last summer pledged $490,000 to a three-year partnership with Ottawa Riverkeeper and Blue Legacy—Cousteau visited the Ottawa River watershed last fall to shoot three films about water quality, the impact of dams on biodiversity, and governance, including interviews with people working on these causes like Skip Ross, Jim Coffey and Ottawa Riverkeeper Executive Director Meredith Brown.
“We joined River Mission because we thought the Ottawa River has an important story to tell,” Cousteau stresses. “The city of Ottawa has invested a lot of money in reducing and eventually eliminating sewage overflow issues. We have to celebrate what people are doing right. Eliminating overflow takes a lot of money, political will, and infrastructure development. Every city in North America should be doing that, and Ottawa’s one of the first.”
Along the length of the river that defines a provincial border, Cousteau identifies a main problem as administrative, pointing to the “system of governance pertaining to the river: all the different levels from federal down to local. I’ve rarely seen something so complicated.”
If anyone can flush a case of complication out of a watershed, it’s Meredith Brown, a polymath able to switch gears between scientist (her educational background is in biology and environmental engineering), community advocate and diplomat, and long-haul wilderness canoeist. “We have this huge watershed, and many different players from all walks of life who have an interest in a healthy river,” says the Ottawa Riverkeeper supremo. “I’m working to build and strengthen this [coalition] so when we do have a major issue on the river, we have a large and diverse constituency behind us.”
Brown identifies two main critical issues: threatened biodiversity in the river ecosystem, and worsening water quality downstream of the National Capital Region. Like Cousteau, she is keen to highlight progress. For instance, the city of Ottawa’s sewage overflow woes that led to a 2008 court case actually turned out to be “very helpful—[the case] opened the eyes and ears of elected officials in Ottawa because that looks bad on them.” The unwanted publicity led the city to establish its Ottawa River Action Plan. “Now that the Plan is on the table, we’re continually helping to keep it alive in the public eye and helping [the city] get the funds from the provincial and federal governments as well,” says Brown.
The city reported an 80 per cent reduction in combined sewage overflow between 2006 and 2013, but Brown adds a cautionary note: “The city is dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the Plan and engineered solutions, while their planners are [still] letting developers fill in massive wetlands—natural capital that filters water for free.”
Across the river, meanwhile, the city of Gatineau’s sewage treatment plant is badly outdated and at capacity. “We did water quality sampling near the city of Gatineau’s combined sewer overflows,” says Brown, “and found E. coli concentrations far above the recreational water-quality guidelines.” She adds: “A lot of people have no idea how much untreated sewage is going into the river or how often; once you tell them, they’re outraged.”
Water quality isn’t an issue for the recreational rafting operations upstream of the National Capital Region, but there are other considerations. “There’s a challenging Class IV or V rapid on the Ottawa at every water level,” says guide Jim Coffey, who has paddled wild rivers in 35 countries and founded Esprit, an international paddling adventure company based in Davidson, Quebec. “This year and last we’ve seen some of the highest water levels ever—following two of the lowest water-level years ever. We’re seeing more extremes rather than the general mean we had in the past.”
Though Coffey ascribes these fluctuations to climate change, they have yet to negatively impact business. Likewise water quality: because Rocher-Fendu is isolated from heavily populated centres or industrial plants, pollution isn’t a concern for rafters or kayakers whose excursions include barrages of river water to the face. And while Coffey can’t comment on the effect of existing dams on paddling (all structures pre-date his operation, founded in 1992), he does address the continuing threat of more hydroelectric development in otherwise pristine parts of the watershed. Xeneca Power Development has proposed several dams on the Petawawa, including at paddling hotspot Big Eddy (aka Railroad Rapids). Citizen opposition to the proposal was vociferous enough to put at least some of the projects on indefinite hold. “If there was no public opposition, the [Big Eddy dam] would have gone through. And [the volunteers] were up against a lot of engineers paid big money to try to make it happen,” says Coffey, who watches such developments closely. “The public isn’t powerless.”
In much of North America, the idea of a water crisis seems remote. Yet recent droughts in western Canada and in California should make all throats feel a little drier. “We hear a lot about the global water crisis but we don’t seem to have a real understanding of it,” says Cousteau. “What I have learned from traveling all around the world in pursuit of understanding this water crisis is that it all comes down to the degradation of healthy watersheds… We have to protect the natural systems that protect our water, and this is an idea that has yet to go mainstream. But I’m seeing the conversation evolve in that direction. It’s gaining traction in the right places.”
“A lot of people have no idea how much untreated sewage is going into the river or how often; once you tell them, they’re outraged.” —Meredith Brown
If the city of Ottawa is one of those places, the environmental portfolio of the former federal government was not. “We went to Canada in 2010 and everybody was happy to speak to us, whether government employees or scientists or environmentalists,” recalls Cousteau. “[After the Conservative majority], however, I was dismayed to see that government employees and scientists would not speak to us, or, if they did, were terrified there would be repercussions. Some people wouldn’t speak to us because they were afraid they would lose their pensions if the government didn’t like what they said. I was very surprised—I didn’t think that would happen in a place like Canada.”
While such political issues lie downstream—literally and figuratively—from his own existence, whenever Skip Ross hears about pollution somewhere in his beloved watershed, he is sickened. “I do a ceremony for myself and I ask the Creator, ‘Can we not stop this? Can we not help?’ But we are not keepers of our land anymore. It’s been taken from us. In our tradition, we are keepers and not owners. We just live on the land and keep it for our descendants.”
Ross still paddles the river regularly. He often meets with the Ottawa Riverkeepers to participate in public events, performing traditional smudging and other ceremonies. Last fall he took a berth in the Riverkeepers canoe with Meredith Brown and others, leading a group of Algonquin youth from Mattawa to Ottawa to connect with various First Nations along the way. Last summer he embarked on a paddle-quest from Petawawa to Pembroke with his daughter. “We were followed by two mature eagles,” says Ross in reverent tones, “a male and a female.” After years of population decline, Ross explains, bald eagles are returning to the Ottawa watershed. “The eagle is our sacred bird, our messenger. Seeing eagles is a very great omen.”
It is reassuring to know protectors are circling the Ottawa River. During the school year, Ross travels throughout the watershed, speaking to students about his people and their unbreakable connection to land (the mother) and water (her blood). A river couldn’t hope for a more eloquent or dedicated champion.