On November 21st 2021, the Toronto hub monitoring team staff joined Don’t Mess with the Don (DMWTD), a registered charity dedicated to protecting and enhancing the Don Valley and Toronto ravines, for their Rally for the Valley event. 200 people, including MPs and local community leaders, came together to clean up the banks of the Don River and advocate for the protection of the Don’s remaining accessible green space, as it is imminently threatened by the construction of a new train facility.
The event was inspirational and the “can-do” attitude of participants left me feeling hopeful. While people were removing about 800 pounds of debris from the riverside, I was testing water quality with a youth group and John Scott, a member of DMWTD. While we were testing for E. coli (and FYI the Don failed to pass the recreational standard that day), we found a large boom. At first glance, it looked immovable, but John assured me that in previous cleanups, they have moved cars out of the river valley.
After some finagling, we untangled the boom from the trees and were ready for the next challenge: getting it out of the valley. After a few unsuccessful attempts John finally grabbed the boom and forded the Don, wading chest-deep into the CHILLY November waters, to hand off the boom to the team on the other side of the river. To say I was inspired is an understatement.
John’s passion was palpable, as was the passion of the other 200 volunteers and speakers who came together that day to protect the Don River. This collective passion gave me a new understanding of the Don as a place of value—an understanding I’m not sure I had before.
Before we dig into the complexities of advocating for the Don, it’s important to understand the socio-ecological history of the Don. Its use and development overtime are deeply intertwined with how we regard its value.
Unfortunately, the history of Indigenous peoples’ relationship to the Don is under-investigated, but we do know they lived along its banks and valleys, finding sustenance and a place to flourish.
The Wonscotonach (the Anishinaabemowin place name for the Lower Don River) was home to permanent settlements during the Woodland period (approximately 1000-1700 A.D.) where people used the lower river’s marshy land for maize plantations, fishing, and hunting. Evidence of settlements has been found on Withrow Ave. (not too far from where the DMWTD event took place!), and evidence of footpaths and wigwams across Wonscotonach indicate a long-standing relationship between First Nations peoples and the river.
However, after the British Crown bought the area from the Mississauagas of New Credit in the Toronto Purchase, First Nations communities were largely driven out and the Don’s identity changed.
Soon, the Wonscotonach was no longer a place where people gathered, respected the water and wilderness, and thrived alongside it. Formerly revered by the Indiegous people, settlers reduced it to a mere space to extract resources.
Driven by shortsighted notions of progress, the Don underwent heavy industrialization in the 1700-1800s and the ecological integrity of the waterway declined. Mills were built, the Don Valley Brickworks quarry was developed, and sewage flowed into the river. Today, the sewage is still flowing. There are currently 27 combined sewer outfalls and 19 storm sewers that empty into the Lower Don, contaminating the water for wildlife and people.
While the city of Toronto was quickly expanding, the river was quickly gaining a bad reputation as an “unsavoury” urban wasteland.
Eventually, the environmental and public health issues caused by the industrialized Don outweighed the capitalist benefits. Plans were made to fix the “Don Problem”, however many of the proposed ‘fixes’ (like straightening the river) didn’t consider the ecological complexities of the river, nor did they solve the problem in any significant way. More recently, plans have been made to properly address pollution in the Don and significant restoration work has been undertaken, yet the Don maintains its status as Canada’s most polluted urban river.
The degradation of the Don has meant that many people have become disconnected from it. They do not see it as a place to swim, drink, or fish. For some the Don is nothing more than a view from the Don Valley Parkway (the development of which is another crux in the Don’s ecological history).
I talked to Floyd Ruskin and John Scott (both members of DMWTD and passionate environmental advocates) about their connection to the Don as well. For Floyd (and I’m sure many others), the Don was the first green space they were introduced to growing up, and it’s the place they bring the next generation to do the same. For John, the Don holds meaning as the natural space he can support locally, which helps him cope with the stress of global environmental degradation.
Personally, I’ve always been aware of the Don Valley as a handy corridor for biking, but it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic that I started really exploring the Don and understanding its extensive trail network not as corridors, but as the arteries that veins of Toronto’s green heart. The Don is the place I’m able to get out of my mind, reconnect with nature, and find adventure in a way I didn't think was possible in the city.
The connections people have to the Don are what inspires them to protect it, epitomizing the meaning of Cousteau’s words when he said “people protect what they love”.
John and Floyd began protecting the Don because they recognized their connection to it and the value it holds for themselves and their communities. This kind of personal connection is what has inspired activists in prior decades. Many associate Charles Sauriol with the birth of conservation work on the Don river. His meditations in Tales of the Don recount his experience of the Don as a place for reflection, adventure, and connection.
The November event was not the first time people have come together for the Don. Just over 50 years ago, Pollution Probe organized the Funeral for the Don where advocates came dressed in black to mourn its degraded state. This demonstration was one of the first to reject the idea that the Don River was a lost cause, but it was not the last. In the past 50 years, environmental groups like the Task Force to Bring Back the Don have come together to continue this advocacy and work to restore the Don.
If Torontonians were to make our relationship with the Don Facebook Official we would likely hit the “It’s complicated” option.
Though there is a rich history of advocacy, our relationship is rocky as a result of the settler-led industrialization of Toronto. The Don has seen ecological improvement over the past decades due to the work of conservationists, yet the fight to have the Don recognized as a meaningful place rather than an area to develop persists.
Even post-industrialization, the Don Valley Parkway’s implementation in the 1950s further eliminated the valley’s greenspace and increased our alienation from it, and now the expansion of transit infrastructure will further develop the remaining sliver of natural land.
All too often, restoring and protecting the Don feels less like a continued effort and more like a starting point we keep returning to.
We find ourselves at a critical moment—a fork in the river if you will—where people are connecting with local nature more than ever. We can choose to nurture this relationship or not. We can either develop the Don with an understanding of its environmental and cultural value, or we can ignore this and develop the Don as if it was worthless, barren space. Looking back into the past, we can find momentum for either future. It’s up to us to decide which way the river will flow.
In talking to John and Floyd about the future of the Don, we all agreed on two things: our belief in the possibility of a clean Don and our understanding that restoring the Don is contingent on all of us recognizing our relationship to it. People need to care about the Don and recognize the role that it already plays in their lives in order to collectively envision its swimmable future.
I also talked to Mark Mattson, President of Swim Drink Fish (the charity behind Great Lakes Guide) about the Don. He shared many of the same sentiments as John and Floyd about the importance of caring for the Don. He also reminded me of the inscription on the Queen Street Viaduct which reads, “This river I step in is not the river I stand in”.
This Heraclitus quote reflects the history of change and persistence on Don, and provides insight to its potential future. The Don has changed depending on the values of the communities that have historically depended on it.
In Reclaiming the Don, Jennifer Bonnell describes our relationship with the waterway as “mutually constitutive” where the river has shaped us and our city, just as we have shaped it. Yet throughout its continual shaping and reshaping, the Don has always persisted as our river. But how it (and we) change depends on the connection we have with it, and the intention we have when we choose to step in, or continue standing, in its waters.
I invite you to “step” into the Don, with the intention of making it better for the next person who steps in, and for yourself to stand in cleaner waters. Perhaps when stepping in, you might also notice your feet are already wet—that you were already in the Don, and in reflecting on this, you might start to understand the Don as part of your identity, as not void space but as a place of value that must be protected.
If we can all step into the Don, I think there’s hope for its waters.