Heritage designation imminent for Ottawa River
The Ottawa River at the Pembroke Marina.
After a decade of inexplicable delay, the federal government is poised to announce the designation of the Ottawa River as one of 42 heritage rivers in Canada.
Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna, the minister of the environment and climate change, let the cat out of the bag last week at the annual Riverkeeper Gala on Lemieux Island.
Caitlin Workman, a spokeswoman for McKenna, confirmed that the minister hopes to announce the long-sought heritage designation “very, very soon,” although there’s no precise timetable yet.
Workman said McKenna “is working very closely right now with the province of Ontario and the province of Quebec” to finalize the designation.
McKenna, who participates in the Ottawa Riverkeeper’s annual four-kilometre swim across the river, “is very enthusiastic about this,” Workman said.
No new regulations or laws are created when rivers get heritage designations and any conservation actions are voluntary. But supporters argue that designation of the Ottawa River would increase awareness of its unique cultural, natural and recreational values and encourage its conservation and sustainable management.
After a river is designated, a report must be prepared annually describing changes, improvements and threats to the values for which the river was recognized. As well, an in-depth review of the river’s values must be done every 10 years.
Meredith Brown, who has been the Ottawa Riverkeeper for the past 12 years, said the anticipated designation is “a wonderful opportunity to recognize and celebrate the cultural and historical values of our great river.”
Brown said she was hopeful the designation “will enhance our collective sense of river pride and emphasize the importance of working together to protect our capital river.”
Efforts to recognize the 1,271-kilometre Ottawa River — often described as “the original Trans-Canada Highway” for its pivotal role as a transportation route for indigenous populations, explorers and the fur and lumber trades — began in 2003.
A committee chaired by the late Len Hopkins, a former Liberal MP who represented upper Ottawa Valley ridings in the House of Commons for 32 years, formally nominated the river for heritage designation in 2006.
That same year, however, Quebec opted out of the Canadian Heritage Rivers System, a federal-provincial-territorial program founded in 1984 that gives national recognition to Canada’s outstanding rivers and encourages long-term management to conserve their natural, cultural and recreational values.
As a result of Quebec’s withdrawal, only the Ontario portion of the river — a 618-kilometre section along the interprovincial border from Lake Temiskaming to just past Hawkesbury — was ultimately nominated.
In 2009, the Canadian Heritage Rivers Board endorsed the nomination, and the Citizen carried a front-page story declaring the Ottawa River’s formal designation was imminent.
Instead, nothing happened. For years, the nomination sat on the desk of successive federal ministers of the environment, including John Baird, without receiving the necessary sign-off.
In recent months, a renewed effort, spearheaded by Brown, appears to have revived the project. Quebec is still unwilling to participate in the national program, but will apparently give the Quebec portion of the river a heritage designation under its own 2012 Cultural Heritage Act (La Loi sur le Patrimoine Culturel).
The Ontario government approved the designation in 2009, so with McKenna’s signature, the way should at last be clear for the Ottawa River to receive heritage recognition.
The Ottawa is Canada’s eighth-largest river, with a watershed covering 146,300 square kilometres — twice the size of New Brunswick.
It provides habitat for more than 300 species of birds and is one of North America’s most important flyways. Its rich ecosystems sustain more than 80 species at risk, including the loggerhead shrike, the eastern cougar and the bald eagle.
The Ottawa River once consisted of a series of mighty cataracts alternating with lakes. But most of the main rapids have long since been tamed by a series of hydroelectric dams, exploiting the river’s 400-metre vertical drop en route to the St. Lawrence River.
In a story in the Globe and Mail last year, legendary canoeist and Ottawa resident Max Finkelstein described the river’s omission as a “gaping hole” in the national designation network. Ironically, two of the Ottawa River’s Ontario tributaries — the Rideau and Mattawa rivers — already have heritage designation.