Chronicling the history, secrets of our rivers
In Original Highways, Roy MacGregor chronicles the history and secrets of our rivers — and explores how they have shaped the nation
It’s a story about a Royal visit, a smelly river and a brilliant deception.
Of all the tales veteran journalist Roy MacGregor tells in Original Highways: Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada, the one about Princess Margaret’s visit to a reeking Don River in 1958 may be his favourite. It’s certainly the funniest. And the weirdest. It’s also one that perhaps best shows “how far we’ve come” in our thinking when it comes to the great rivers of Canada.
Because 59 years ago, it’s safe to say not everybody had the long view in mind. That was when the young and beautiful Princess Margaret was on a much ballyhooed royal tour of Canada. Her private rail car was scheduled to come to a rest alongside the Don River. She would then cross a footbridge to join thousands of cheering Toronto schoolchildren in Riverdale Park. Appropriately lavish preparations were made for the visit. But there was a problem. No amount of clean up or fresh coats of paint were going to do anything about the foul stench wafting up from the highly polluted Don. So a desperate city council put a plan into action.
“They sent their engineers out,” says MacGregor, who first heard the tale from a professor at York University. “They do all these calculations and work it out perfectly so that they know exactly when she gets off the train, exactly when she makes her way to the footpath and they time it perfectly. They dump hundreds of gallons of perfume upstream so it will pass under the bridge at exactly the moment she walks over the bridge and she won’t be offended by the smell of the Don.”
The story is used as an introduction to MacGregor’s chapter, Rising From the Dead: The Don, which turns out to be a much more hopeful tale than the introduction would suggest. It tells the story of how the Don, thanks to the perseverance of activists and conservationists, was brought back to life after decades of pollution and environmental abuse. The Don is only one of 16 rivers MacGregor covers in Original Highways. Over two years, he and his wife Ellen took a hands-on approach to research and the author sent back a series of dispatches from across Canada about his river adventures, originally for a series of stories for the Globe and Mail.
Along the way, MacGregor met with a number of characters involved in preserving or, in some cases, sounding the alarm about watersheds throughout the country. He unravels the secret histories of these waterways and their importance to Canada’ development as a nation, all in service of the overarching argument that it was our system of rivers that held the country together and remains our most precious resource.
Canadians “recognize the romance of the railroad, but it was the rivers that put those settlers out there in and around B.C. that eventually demanded the railroad,” MacGregor says. “The rivers took the Red River settlers out there who put the railroad to use in the uprising. That’s why I called it The Original Highways, that’s how people originally got across the country. Even Stephen Harper says in the books that for some reason we’ve come to take our rivers for granted or find them an annoyance to get around. Yet they are so pivotal.”
The book covers the historic battles that raged around rivers, from the Great Tax Revolt of the Gatineau River to the Red River Rebellion; to more modern conflicts such as the Dehcho First Nations’ attempts to block a pipeline on the Mackenzie and one that has pitted activists against bottled-water giant Nestle Waters over a licence to retrieve drinking water from a spring-water source along the Grand River watershed in Ontario.
MacGregor also dedicates a chapter to the Bow, tracing its importance in the creation of Calgary, to its history as “one of the most thoroughly engineered and regulated rivers on the continent,” to the great flood of 2013. As with many chapters in the book, Stresses Along the Bow is also a cautionary tale that includes warnings from activists and experts that the westward-spreading development of Calgary is destroying wetlands in a system that is already being hammered by climate change.
“To me, it’s the best example of all the rivers I’ve studied in terms of climate change,” MacGregor says. “The shrinkage of the Bow Glacier is absolutely phenomenal.”
He interviewed Canmore scientist John Pomeroy, who reports that glacial meltwater now contributes only two per cent to the Bow’s annual flow.
“The glacier has become increasingly unimportant to it,” MacGregor says. “His worry, as I write in the book, is like the line in the opera: ‘The fat lady has already sung.’ The Bow is going to run out of water. When it’s so important to the agriculture of southwestern and southeastern Alberta, the Bow is a highly significant river to all Canadians. We want to hope it has lots of water.”
MacGregor grew up in Huntsville, Ont., and spent a great deal of time in Algonquin Park and, more specifically, in canoes on surrounding rivers. A sports columnist for the Globe and Mail since 2002, he has also worked at the Ottawa Citizen and Maclean’s magazine and written more than 40 books. Many have been about hockey and almost all have touched on the Canadian experience in some way. In 2015, he released Canoe Country: The Making of Canada. All of which made him a natural candidate to write the story about Canada’s rivers. In fact, his agent Bruce Westwood had for years pressured him to consider the topic. But MacGregor figured it was too vast and would require too much time and money to do properly. So Westwood came up with an inspired solution. He went to the paper’s top brass and pitched it as newspaper series for MacGregor.
“The next thing you know (they) are paying to send me to the very places that I would have wanted to go anyways,” MacGregor says. “It was like winning a lottery. This is what I would do if I won a big lottery and was retired.”
(The Bow is) the best example of all the rivers I’ve studied in terms of climate change. The shrinkage of the Bow Glacier is absolutely phenomenal.
Veteran journalist Roy MacGregor is author of Original Highways: Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada.