Citizen Activism in Support of Toronto’s Watercourses
November 9, 2020
This post was written by John Wilson is the Co-chair of the West Don Lands Committee. He has served on numerous citizens’ groups, including the Lost Rivers Project (Toronto Green Community) and Bring Back the Don, for over 25 years.
My most compelling symbol of watershed activism and community engagement in Toronto is the large outdoor art installation overlooking the entrance to Evergreen Brick Works. Artist Ferruccio Sardella fashioned Watershed Consciousness from sinuous strips of metal representing the rivers and streams that formed the city’s characteristic ravines. The installation supports a living wall of sedums and other plants, nourished by water flowing from a representation of the Oak Ridges Moraine at the top to a symbolic Lake Ontario at the bottom – a colossal, naturally regenerating map of the watersheds that form the Toronto region. This impressive creation overlooks the Toddler’s Garden for nature play, completing the connection between caring for Nature and nurturing our offspring.
Photo credit: ferruccio sardella
Watershed consciousness – honouring, cherishing and caring for the water in our environment – has been the compelling idea that shaped community activism in the river ravines that are integral to Toronto’s park system. When I became involved in this movement in the early 1990s, there was already a rich history of public engagement. It traced through Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of the first British lieutenant governor, retreating with her children to a cabin overlooking the Don River; and through Peter Jones (also known as Kahkewaquonaby), calling his Mississauga people to revival services on the upper Don, which his people knew as Wonscotonach.
Since the early 20th century Toronto Field Naturalists (TFN) have explored and inventoried the plants and animals of our ravines while creating outdoor educational programs for youth. In mid-century Charles Sauriol’s Don Valley Conservation Association worked to protect the city’s natural systems and served as the impetus for the Conservation Authorities that manage watersheds across southern Ontario. In the first case, TFN reflects a grassroots movement that has grown into non-governmental organizations such as the Evergreen, Park People, Toronto Green Community and others too numerous to list. Expanding from Sauriol’s conservation movement are a plethora of government-supported and sanctioned initiatives like the Task Force to Bring Back the Don, the Humber Watershed Alliance and the Toronto Ravine Strategy.
Citizen activism has taken on a strong public advocacy stance in cases where urban development ignored the imperatives of living symbiotically with Nature. The first major example would be the response to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. In that flood buildings that encroached on the Humber and Etobicoke floodplains were destroyed and lives were lost or ruined. Responding to that disaster, the province institutionalized the conservation movement in Conservation Authorities with regulatory, land management and even expropriation authority to reduce catastrophic flood risk. In 1969 the environmental organization Pollution Probe publicized degradation of the Don River with its famous “Funeral for the Don” street theatre. This event inspired the widespread environmental activism that challenges public agencies and frames policy discussions to this day.
Serve Canada “Bring Back the Don” banners were installed at River and Queen. Photo credit: John Wilson
Then in the 1980s the activist stream and the institutional stream merged, starting with the Royal Commission of the Future of the Toronto Waterfront, chaired by David Crombie. The stimulus for the Crombie Commission was the listing of Toronto’s waterfront as a Great Lakes “Area of Concern” under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the U.S. Former mayor Crombie elevated the Commission above a bureaucratic exercise by opening the testimony to broad public participation with experts and officials supporting the work. Two revolutionary discoveries came from the Commission’s work: One, cleaning Toronto’s waterfront would require a watershed approach to environmental degradation, encompassing the rivers flowing to the waterfront; Two, broad citizen initiatives would be needed to clean up the waters. Toronto’s water quality was afflicted not simply by one or two rogue industrial polluters; rather, we all contribute to the problem, and we all have a role in the solution. Watershed consciousness was born.
In that context, people were inspired to clean up the waterfront and the ravines that drain to the waterfront. Visionary political leaders like Jack Layton, Barbara Hall and Marilyn Churley worked with city staffers like Dan Leckie and David McCluskey to harness a wave of public enthusiasm. In 1991, together with a wide assortment of citizens, they formed the Task Force to Bring Back the Don and empowered it to advise the City Council on strategies to bring back a clean, green, accessible Don River within Toronto. Three years later Toronto and Region Conservation Authority further contributed to the alliance of public agencies with citizen activism, conducting broad consultations and publishing 40 Steps to a New Don. TRCA followed up by creating watershed councils for all the rivers flowing through Toronto to Lake Ontario. Suddenly, from Etobicoke to Pickering, from Toronto Islands to Vaughan, people’s power was activated.
Marilyn Churley and John Wilson planting trees in Joel Weeks Park. Photo credit: John Wilson.
When I joined the movement in 1994 my motivation was future-looking and intergenerational. I wanted to help my junior school-aged children feel empowered to take action when they heard global environmental horrors like animals on the brink of extinction. We started attending tree planting events, and then I became the one needing the feeling of empowerment. I joined Bring Back the Don and eventually chaired that group for ten years.
Along the way, I have worked with remarkable people bringing a variety of skills and passions to their waters and ravines. There were Warren and Glen who cleaned the tires and shopping carts and appliances out of the streams, and David who recruited bikers to clean the slopes. Today Don’t Mess With the Don has inherited their passion. Pat was a “guerrilla gardener” who planted wildflowers in post-industrial brownfields and organized plantings along highway verges. When I see random acts of boulevard beautification I think of her. David scouted with me for wet spots that could be improved as pocket wetlands. Keri used her staff position to recruit trail builders in Crothers Woods. Helen and Peter explored lost rivers and creeks with me – watercourses long-buried in pipes but still very present in the landscape – and led public walks to heighten our neighbours’ appreciation of urban watershed ecology. Paula and Janice and John and Elyse devoted countless hours to stewarding environmental restoration sites, leading groups of mulchers, weeders and planters.
A planting in Gerrard River Park with Pam McConnell. Photo Credit: John Wilson.
So many volunteers have parlayed their activism into far-reaching professional achievement. From the outset citizens who engaged with their ravines brought a wide variety of interests. Naturalists and urbanists found common cause or discovered a forum for testing different approaches to living with Nature in a city. Those contributing to citizen activism have taken leading roles in heritage conservation and public art. Some have excelled in landscape design and urban planning, outdoor recreation and community gardening, non-profit management, natural science, green building, engineering and forestry. Citizen activists have taken leadership roles in municipal and provincial public services and at waterfront agencies.
The City of Toronto’s Ravine Strategy, adopted by City Council in 2017 and given implementation legs in January 2020, is a distillation of many of the initiatives and insights gained by citizen activists over the years. For many of us, partnership with public agencies like municipal government have provided traction for our efforts for decades. Now the principles of the Ravine Strategy – Protect, Invest, Connect, Partner and Celebrate – look remarkably familiar to the sentiments driving the 1991 Bringing Back the Don report and 40 Steps to a New Don (1994). That is not surprising, since many of the contributors to the Ravine Strategy, both city staff and citizen participants, have worked together for years, even decades, to bring our city to what is hoped will be an inflection point. This is an opportunity to strengthen Toronto’s natural linkages and biodiversity, symbolized in Ferruccio’s Watershed Consciousness.
What seems to me to have changed in recent years is the breadth of the movement, the engagement across the city and through the many communities that make up our city. Communities that have used and stewarded our ravines continue to find one another. The annual Salmon Festival celebration on Highland Creek now involves thousands who may have arrived in Canada since the Crombie Commission completed its work in 1992. Groups like the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee, the Dallington Pollinators and First Story are enlivening the ravines again. Indigenous educators are sharing their wisdom – as seen in the Moccasin Identifier project of Mississauga elder Caroline King that locates us all in Indigenous landscapes through culturally rich footwear symbols.
Whenever I walk through the ravines, as I did yesterday, I am struck by how much the landscape has changed in the past decades. I first visited the Wilket Creek Park in 1973 and I started volunteering on the Don twenty years later. Community planting sites that I raised funds for and worked on in the 1990s are regenerating forests, linked by wetlands and meadows into a re-emerging natural web. I am also struck by the timelessness of the ravines, as when a fox hunts for field mice or a hawk flies overhead. Our ravines face many challenges to thrive in the centre of a great city, but I can attest that there is much that remains and much that is getting healthier. The citizen activism that has rescued our ravines remains vital in preserving those ravines for the children of the toddlers playing in the dirt below Evergreen’s Watershed Wall.
Cover photo credit: Guy Mayer
InTO the Ravines, a program in partnership with the City of Toronto