The Story of the Don
Just over 200 years ago, when Europeans began to settle in what is now Toronto, the Don River was a clear, cold stream teeming with fish. It emptied into Ashbridge's Marsh, a vast wetland at the edge of Lake Ontario. The marsh was a haven for fish, waterfowl and many animals. The riverbanks and adjacent valleys were blanketed with forests and lush meadows, all rich with wildlife.
Today, the 38-kilometer long Don runs through one of the most urbanized river watersheds in Canada. Its sparkle is greatly subdued and much of the life it once supported is gone. Although the river originates north of Toronto, in the largely undeveloped Oak Ridges Moraine, most of the Don's 360 square kilometre watershed lies within the city of Toronto and its sprawling suburbs.
How the Don declined
From the founding of Toronto in 1793, the Don was a "working" river. One of the area's first industrial sites was Todmorden Mills, which is now a Heritage Museum and Art Workshop. Before long, mills, quarries and factories lined the river's lower reaches, providing lumber, paper products, flour, bricks, beer and liquor, meat and tallow for the rapidly growing city.
After 1850, gas works, petrochemical plants and other heavy industries followed. Much of the pollution from these industries found its way into the Don. In many upstream locations, the valley was used as a dumpsite. By the late 19th century, Ashbridge's Marsh became filthy, brackish and unhealthy.
When the river flooded, as it did almost every spring, it threatened buildings and knocked out bridges. To halt the flooding, to provide a shipping channel and to create additional industrial land near the lake, a vast scheme known as "the Don Improvement" was launched toward the end of the 19th century. The project straightened the river south of Gerrard Street, creating room on either side for railroads, roads and other urban infrastructure. Ashbridge's Marsh was drained and filled, eliminating a public health concern, while providing acres of new industrial land in the Port Lands. The natural mouth of the river was diverted into the concrete-lined Keating Channel.
The post-World War II era saw even more rapid expansion of the city. New suburbs, including Don Mills and Scarborough, sprang up along the upper reaches of the river. To serve these new communities the Don Valley Parkway and the Bayview Avenue Extension were built through the valley without regard for geological or natural features. These roads restricted access to the valley for city residents and added to environmental degradation. Although heavy industries began moving out of the valley, they left pollution in their wake, and new phenomena like urban storm run-off and smog placed additional burdens on the river's ecology.
Now the Don is reviving
The Don had its early admirers, including Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, and Ernest Thompson Seton, founder of the Boy Scouts of America. However, by the mid-20th century, the Don needed advocates and chief among them was Charles Sauriol (1904-1995). Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Sauriol was a leading figure in the Don Valley Conservation Association. He was editor of its newsletter, The Cardinal, which became a source of material for his later books, including 'Trails of the Don', 'Tales of the Don' and 'Remembering the Don'.
In 1954, Hurricane Hazel struck Toronto with terrible force, flooding both the Humber and Don rivers, taking lives and destroying property. Ironically, this tragedy gave a boost to Sauriol and his colleagues. In the aftermath of the flood, the Ontario government restricted future development on floodplains, thereby preserving much of the remaining natural space in the Don Valley. The government also merged several Toronto-area conservation authorities into what is now known as the Toronto & Region Conservation Authority. This public agency was given the mandate to acquire valley lands, regulate development and undertake projects to enhance natural river functions and lessen the impact of flooding.
As Toronto grew, new parks in the valley, like Taylor Creek and Sunnybrook, provided natural settings for people in the suburbs. Much of the valley remained an urban wasteland, inaccessible behind storm fences, used for little except to dump refuse or to store equipment. In 1969, when Pollution Probe's founders held a widely publicized mock funeral for the Don, they foreshadowed an environmental ethic that would energize renewed public commitment.
By 1989, the world had changed, and concern for the environment was high on the agenda. A public meeting on the future of the Don brought out scores of people who loved their urban river, while a Toronto magazine article about the Don served as a clarion call for a new approach to urban environmentalism. Encouraged by several city councillors, Don River advocates convinced city council to appoint the Task Force to Bring Back the Don.
The Task Force's first undertaking was a report to city council, 'Bringing Back the Don (1991)'. The report envisioned a restored Don River that was a showpiece for a new approach to city planning - one that works with rather than against nature. Restoring natural integrity to the Don River became a symbol of the city's need to find sustainable ways to move into a new millennium.
In the years since, the Task Force has galvanized interest in the Don as a natural place, one that should be clean, green and accessible. Supported by a widening circle of partners, Bring Back the Don has planted over 40,000 trees and uncounted numbers of wildflowers. Several wetlands have been created and many degraded sites have been restored to health. Today, thousands of Torontonians annually use the Don's many trails for cycling, blading and hiking. The annual Paddle the Don event brings hundred of canoeists to the river that thirty years ago seemed dead.
Despite the progress made, the fight to bring back the Don is far from over. During every major rainstorm, the river is fouled when combined sewers in older parts of the city overflow. The overflow mixes sanitary sewage with stormwater polluting the river and beaches. Run-off from streets and parking lots adds sediments, hydrocarbons and heavy metals to the river. Run-off warms the water to a temperature intolerable to many native fish. Invasive plants like dog-strangling vine, knotweed, purple loosestrife and Norway maple continue to spread through large tracts of the valley, crowding out native vegetation. Heavy off-track use by cyclists and hikers threatens parts of the valley with erosion and habitat destruction. Urban sprawl upstream threatens the purity of the Don's headwaters.
Bring Back the Don, with its many corporate, public and individual partners and volunteers, still has much to accomplish. It took a century to get the Don River to a degraded state. Many improvements and accomplishments have occurred in the past few years. We are ready to spend another century, if necessary, to bring it back.