Humber? I hardly knew her!

You’ll think I’m mad, but I paddled around in the Humber River yesterday. It’s not the stygian mess of discarded diapers and human waste that you think. It’s nice. It’s a small, flecked emerald in our city.

I put my kayak in near the end of Jane Street, at the bottom of a small park. A nearby impromptu campsite was covered with dumped garbage, but almost as soon as I pushed off I could have mistaken Toronto for Lake Kawartha.

Trees hang low over the broad, slow river, and there were floating seeds being carried on the wind. A deer drank at the water’s edge and we stared at each other for a few minutes until my passenger, my dog Sofie, startled her.

It wasn’t undisturbed wilderness, mind you. There was some graffiti and a few floating bottles. I could hear the highway and construction. I also saw two docks—likely illegal ones put in by nearby homeowners from Baby Point, a wealthy neighbourhood.

I don’t mind. The docks aren’t doing any harm. But, as the law stands now, I could have those docks removed with a phone call. The law, and the government, are on my side. Sometime soon, that will change. The law will be on my side, but the government will stay out of it. If I want to have the docks removed, I’ll have to sue.

Right now, the Humber is protected by a law almost as old as Canada: the Navigable Waters Protection Act of 1882. The NWPA protects any river or lake deep enough to float a canoe in, and it requires anyone—like those dock owners—who would build in a waterway to get permission.

This was a great law. Unimpeded rivers are healthy rivers. The law, written when getting around by water really mattered, had the happy side effect of protecting aquatic environments. Dams, for instance, make it hard for both fish and canoes to navigate a river. By protecting fishermen, we protected fish.

As part of the 2013 omnibus budget bill, though, the Conservative government has gutted the NWPA. There are hundreds of thousands of rivers in Canada—perhaps more than two million. The feds will now only protect 62 of them. There are at least 31,000 large lakes in Canada. Only 97 will be covered.

IMG_20130624_132844The new law, now called the Navigation Protection Act, contains a list of protected waters. The old law protected any river, wild or well-used, far or near, but the new NPA only protects the ones on the list. The rest of the rivers will be protected, if at all, by common law and local regulations.

This is a problem. Common law is the law of lawsuits. If I had tipped the feds off to those illegal docks in the Humber, civil servants would have come, removed them, and billed the owners. Under the new law, I will have to take the owners to court myself.

You can see the problems this will cause. I don’t have a lot of money. I don’t have a lot of energy. I might need to get standing and prove that the docks actually affected me, not just navigation in principle. And I, a poor Westonian, would need to take a Baby Point millionaire to court. She’ll cream me.

The docks in the Humber are small potatoes, though. The Kitimat and Fraser Rivers in BC are not on the list. The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline would cross them. Who can afford to take Enbridge to court? Tens of thousands of smaller, less known rivers and lakes are not on the list either. Nobody at all will protect them. Does our federal leadership expect trappers to take mining companies to court? Or is that the very idea—to help corporations even at citizens’ expense?

The federal NDP is pushing back against this deregulation. Our own MP, Mike Sullivan, put forward a private member’s bill to protect the Humber, and other members of his party have put forward bills to protect 26 other rivers.

This is a nice gesture. Private member’s bills never succeed, though, and we don’t need protection for 27 more rivers. We need protection for all rivers, lakes and ponds.

The Navigable Waters Protection Act was not good environmental protection. Far from it—it was ecological only as a happy coincidence. But dismantling any environmental protection is regressive. The government should rein in moneyed interests and protect the natural world. It should serve the public good; corporations can serve themselves.


Sullivan blasts Feds

York South-Weston MP, Mike Sullivan pulled no punches when he announced his private member’s bill in Cruickshank Park today. Normally, building projects that affect the Humber must undergo an environmental assessment. During last year’s federal budget, the government removed this requirement from hundreds of Canadian rivers including all of the Humber and its tributaries, north of Bloor. As previously mentioned in Weston Web, private members’ bills rarely become law because in this case, the majority Conservatives will vote against it. The tactic is commonly used to raise awareness of a concern and this appears to be the goal of Sullivan and his party, the NDP. Sullivan would like protection restored to the Humber which is one of Canada’s heritage rivers. To make his point he even waded into the river in rubber boots. Sullivan believes the reason protection has been removed from the Humber is so that companies will have an easier time when building projects on sensitive land such as the Humber watershed. Enbridge, for example will have an easier time increasing the flow rate in one of their pipelines which travels through the Humber watershed.

Mike Sullivan by the Humber.
Mike Sullivan standing in the Humber.

Toronto and Region Conservation Authority board member Mike Mattos talked about pollution entering the river from a variety of sources and the need for more protection not less.  If the pipeline ruptures, as some have in the past, said Mattos, it could take hours before the flow is stopped.

Mary Louise Ashbourne with a map of the Humber Watershed.
Mary Louise Ashbourne with a map of the Humber Watershed.

Mary Louise Ashbourne, President of the Weston Historical Society emphasized the important part that the Humber has played in Canadian history and was of the opinion that while all rivers in Ontario are important, designated Heritage rivers such as the Humber deserve special protection.

Sullivan was handing out petitions supporting his argument that he will take to Parliament. Download a copy here. A YouTube video of the news conference is available here. The transcript of the bill’s introduction by Sullivan is here.

Book Review: Safe as Houses

Safe As Houses, by Eric Walters, is ripping good story about Hurricane Hazel and its effects on three kids who are stranded in a house slowly being flooded. Weston and  Etobicoke figure prominently–Roy’s house, in fact, is only a few feet from where the story takes place, and one of the characters, David McBride, shares the name of the man who owned my house before me.

Elizabeth Hardy, the protagonist and narrator, is a 13-year old just starting to grow up. She splits her love between Donnie Davis (a boy in her class) and Elvis Presley; she babysits David and Suzie McBride every day after school to save up for his albums. The McBrides have just moved from the big city, Toronto, to the sticks, and David, the eldest, is still angry about it. His relationship with Elizabeth is strained: he is almost old enough to take care of himself, but he cannot behave well enough.

The story takes place after several days of torrential rain, just before the Humber River reaches its peak. The children walk home from school—presumably Weston Memorial—in the lashing storm and cross a footbridge, which, when it is destroyed, will separate them from rescue. What unfolds is a night of progressing horror. Elizabeth wakes up to find water up to her knees. It continues to rise, threatening and terrifying the children. Like the best horror movie monsters, the river is one dimensional, indestructible, and pitiless. It knows nothing but how to rise.

The book is written for young adults, but I enjoyed it and stayed up long past my bedtime to finish it. The story starts a little slowly and the characters are, at first, drawn a bit broadly—but suitably for a young-adult audience.

Before I read Safe as Houses, I thought of the Hurricane Hazel disaster as an abstract catastrophe that was the result, primarily, of bad city planning. This book opened my eyes. The hurricane was an epic natural disaster, and it is described grippingly in the last third of the story. The deaths of passing characters are haunting, and give a human dimension to the statistics: 32 people in Weston died, and 81 were killed in Toronto.

(If you buy the book, I make a 45¢ commission)

Humber bike path still rolling

One of the unsung gems of Weston is the lovely—absolutely lovely, astonishingly lovely—bike path along the Humber. The path runs all the way from the lake to, I hear, the Kortright Centre—although I’ve never made it that far myself.

The wonderful ride, though, gets broken in Weston. At the northern-most end of Cruickshank Park, cyclists are forced to dismount, climb up a steep hill, and then fend with Weston Road traffic, which, to put it mildly, is a total effing war zone. The path starts again beside the Dairy Queen, so we have to cross Weston, go under the narrow bridge at Oak, and then cross six lanes of traffic at the SuperStore. It’s ugly.

The Public Works and Infrastructure Committee will be trying to make it a little easier starting tomorrow. They will be working on plans to fix the “Mid-Humber Gap” in two phases. The first phase would extend the path northwards from Cruikshank Park to St Philips. This phase stands a chance of being completed in the next five years, if the Ministry of Natural Resources will give the land to the Toronto Region Conservation Authority.

The second phase would join the northern and southern portions of the path. Staff will begin planning that phase and doing a ‘feasibility study’. Some of the land is privately owned.

Thanks to Frances Nunziata’s website people for the tip.

Hurricane Hazel – Iconic Art Memorial Fades

Back in 2002, local artist Mario Noviello was commissioned to decorate the Eastern abutment of the old Humber footbridge. Mario’s concept was brilliant—to illustrate the old bridge and neighbourhood and replicate the front pages of several newspapers reporting on the disaster. All this was using remnants of the old bridge as a ‘canvas’. This is one of the many bridges swept away during Hurricane Hazel. Mario’s beautifully executed and extensive set of murals covered the abutment telling the story of that fateful night in 1954. Many more photographs of the mural are here.

Sadly, the mural has not withstood the elements well and has almost faded to the point of oblivion.

The main mural showing the old footbridge - photo taken in 2002

When I spoke with Mario in 2004 after the mural and plaques were unveiled, he told me that an anti-graffiti coating placed over the murals was already leading to a deterioration of the underlying paint.

Cutting the ribbon at the official opening, October 16, 2004; from left Rob Draper, Alan Tonks, Mario Noviello, Julian Fantino, Elaine Heaton and Frances Nunziata.



The mural as it looks today.

This corner of Lions Park is the nearest thing we have to a shrine commemorating the victims of the hurricane and, along with plaques describing the event, draws many a school group, walking tour, pedestrian and cyclist on their way through the park system. Thieves took about 5 minutes to remove the original cast metal plaques on either side of the new bridge—now replaced with plastic ones.  It’s truly a shame that the mural is in such poor shape. Hopefully, one day it can be restored to its former glory.


Humber River Flood Update

A rainfall warning from Environment Canada has prompted fears that the Humber will flood again today, especially around the Lions Park footbridge where an ice jam is damming the river. Check back to this article for updates and images throughout the day.

8am: the river is rising steadily but below levels reached last week when the Weston access to the bridge was submerged. The ice jam is still in place.

10:30am: a steady rise in the water but no sign of ice movement.

1:00pm: water still rising; ice jam holding.

3:30pm: starting to break up

5:30 Not much to report. Ice is holding in spite of a few false starts.

March 6

The ice moved about 100m past the bridge overnight without incident and water levels are subsiding. It’s amazing (and annoying) how rarely the ice moves during daylight hours. The ice jam now occupies the river at the curve in Raymore Park and continues to flood the land there.

Huge Ice Dam Blocks Humber River, Endangers Footbridge.

Looking upriver from Raymore footbridge.

It begins just south of Lawrence Avenue, a gigantic barrage of ice piling up and blocking the Humber. Water has been forced to go around the ice and flood Lions Park.
The recent thaw has compounded the blocking of the Humber that occurred in January. Large chunks of ice floated downstream as the river rose last week and they have plugged the channel forcing it to flood its banks. This latest pile of ice begins by the Lions Arena and continues south all the way to the dam and fish ladder in Raymore Park.

Looking downriver

Halfway between the two lies the footbridge connecting Weston to Etobicoke. Normally, the abutments of the old bridge destroyed in the Hurricane Hazel disaster are visible; now they are buried without trace under tonnes of ice. On Saturday, ice was brushing the underside of the bridge and today, the bridge foundations are underwater and in danger of being washed away.

This comparison gives an idea of the depth of the ice blocking the river:

Looking downriver from Lions Park

Here is the almost same view in summer:

Summer view looking downriver.

Looking upriver; notice the normal clearance of the bridge and one of the now buried abutments.

Is the bridge in danger? My guess is that if there is another thaw soon, there will be added pressure on the foundations, not from ice but from water undermining them.

Unfortunately, Thursday’s forecast is for periods of rain and a high of 6°C.