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

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - ERIC VOLMERS

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.

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