The Place of the Alders
“I always tell my students that we’re walking in [Tecumseh’s] footsteps,” said Shelley Charles, the Elder and advisor on Aboriginal relations at Humber College.
The Humber River formed an important part of the customs and teachings of Indigenous tribes who traditionally lived in Etobicoke – the place of the alders. Etobicoke was the traditional territory of the Ojibwe-Anishnaabe people, however several tribes had briefly settled in the area throughout history.
The Carrying Place, or Tamarack Trail, formed a major portage route which ran from Lake Ontario to North Bay. It was the main way Indigenous people could travel vast distances for trade and governance purposes.
Chiefs had a key place in this area where they held council meetings and talked about important issues affecting the tribes—Ishpaadina, or, the higher ground. In colonial usage, Ishpaadina becomes Spadina, the major north-south street in Toronto.
This region was part of the clan system, and the nigig—the otter—formed a major clan. Members of the nigig clan have dispersed to make up communities in places like Rama, Cape Croker and Georgina Island.
[video_lightbox_youtube video_id=”3FLwRG9Tl8s” width=”640″ height=”480″ anchor=”Hear what the Humber River means to Shelley Charles.”]
Indigenous perspectives for modern life
Charles said there is a lot that can be learned from the traditional Indigenous way of life, even though lifestyles have changed drastically throughout history.
“From a contemporary view in the world that we live in, we still have this innate sense of respect, stewardship, and looking at the water and the plants that’s something that’s alive and something that’s more of a relative, to help and to nurture, rather than to exploit,” said Charles.
“Native people generally did not leave any sort of carbon imprint from the past because they utilized all parts of a tree, all parts of the animals and took their dwellings down, and would rebuild them in certain times of the year.”
Reconciliation and understanding
A notable amount of discussion during Canada’s sesquicentennial year centered on reconciliation. It’s a concept that still has much room for growth in the minds of Canadians across the country, including its politicians. In 2007, the United Nations released its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Canada was one of only four countries to reject the declaration, and took nine years before agreeing to it in May 2016.
Charles said there are many factors which led to the delay and ultimate adoption of the declaration. These included the impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as the growing knowledge of the residential school system.
“There’s also a very real corporate interest in terms of resources: water, fracking, gas, oil; that for some reason impede, [or] potentially impede the acceptance of that—the UNDRIP,” said Charles.
The use of the term reconciliation implied rebuilding a previous relationship with Indigenous peoples; however, due to Canada’s colonial history Charles said it became more about “building or creating a new relationship with native people.”
Charles added that knowledge was the beginning point for reconciliation. “One of those first steps would be to actually learn about the history in this country, in this region where we live.”
The Native Canadian Centre of Toronto is located at 16 Spadina Road, a fitting address which harkens to the historic Ishpaadina council meetings. It offers numerous resources for learning about local Indigenous history, and makes for an important starting point on the journey to reconciliation.
A falling out
Colleen Dodds had a problem. Metre by metre, her backyard was falling off the cliff that separated her yard and the Humber River.
“I could see a crack opening up on the other side of our chain-link fence between the fence and the trees,” said Dodds.
[video_lightbox_youtube video_id=”u3_sgZAynR4″ width=”640″ height=”480″ anchor=”The Tell-Tale Clothesline”]
She was not alone.
The residents of Denison Road West in Toronto’s suburb of Weston have been long-time sufferers of the ceaseless power of running water. Erosion has been a major concern for the many residents who live along riverbanks, especially around curves.
Where the river bends
Dodds eventually had to sell her property to the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), and relocate her family. Her home, situated right at the exit point of the curve, faced the brunt of the river’s force—especially in the spring melt.
But according to Dodds, the curve in the river never used to be there.
“After Hurricane Hazel, it was supposed to be a temporary reroute that the river had made that huge curve. And originally it was to be put back where it had originally been ,” said Dodds.
[video_lightbox_youtube video_id=”Ux1Pl7eWRyo” width=”640″ height=”480″ anchor=”Colleen Dodds shares some memories of her life on Denison Road:”]
Dodds and her husband requested that the city of York fix the curve, as it had allegedly promised to do. According to Dodds, her husband managed to convince Etobicoke to reroute the river if the costs were shared with the city of York. However, York allegedly showed no interest.
Dodds said “they felt that the value of the property wasn’t worth it because we were the only property affected. And so, nothing was done and our only option was to sell it to the conservation authority.”
Human intervention is a tricky subject when it comes to waterway management. According to a TRCA report on the Humber River, waterways were “realigned and straightened to facilitate development, changing aquatic habitat and intensifying channel instability.”
The report also mentioned that realigning rivers increased their downward slopes which, in turn, sped up the water flow and led to more erosion.
In the case of Denison Road West, the erosion continued. In 2009, the TRCA commissioned an erosion study at the site. It later produced a plan to reinforce the bank, strengthening existing erosion control structures. That work was completed within the past year.
“Our problem, not theirs”
For the residents who have demanded action for decades, dealing with the government has left them cynical.
“It’s frustrating; the bureaucracy rules,” said Dodds. “You get the feeling, ‘well, what’s the use?’”
Dodds’ old property at 54 Denison Road West is now a vacant lot. The erosion came up to where the house once stood. From the street, it’s hard to imagine a house once stood there.
Remember Dodds’ chain-link fence from the 1973 photograph? It cost a lot to put in, especially for the young married couple. But Dodds got her money’s worth from it—when she had to move, she took the fence with her and had it installed at her new home.
Although its curve slowly moved away from Dodds’ old property, the Humber River then set its sights on her neighbour, Margaret. Her willow tree’s roots became half-exposed as it teetered on the cliff edge. She also had her share of dealings with the city, most of which ended in disappointment.
“It’s so frustrating. It doesn’t lead to anything, it’s just a waste of time,” said Margaret.
Managing the Humber River is a never-ending process.
As the manager of flood infrastructure and hydrometrics at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), Craig Mitchell knows this process well. The TRCA has been performing major work on flood control in the city since Hurricane Hazel devastated Toronto in 1954.
Toronto has had an official flood control plan since 1959. A significant portion of that plan includes the construction of dams, dykes and channels, all designed to direct and manage the flow of waterways in the region.
The West Humber River is home to one of TRCA’s major flood control structures: Claireville Dam. It’s been managing river flow in the Humber watershed since its completion in 1963.
“The dam is designed to hold flood flows in the reservoir and then release them after the storm events have passed,” says Mitchell.
Ensuring the structures are sound takes a considerable amount of work as well.
“We have a very rigorous dam safety program. All our dams are inspected—this dam is actually inspected daily. We have a dam operator who comes over and ensures that the dam is stable and there’s no signs of instability or stresses on the structure,” says Mitchell. He adds that more-intensive monthly and annual inspections are also conducted at TRCA’s dams.
“Redundancy is a key part of dam safety,” says Mitchell.
At Claireville, that means a triple-redundancy system: if power fails, a generator will engage to provide electricity. Should that break down, there is an extra gas motor which can be attached directly to the dam gates to drive them up and down.
In a power loss situation, “if we were conservative with fuel we could probably last two to three weeks.” That time could be extended indefinitely as long as there is access to fuel.
Preparing for floods
To ensure that flood events can be dealt with immediately, TRCA maintains real-time rain and stream gauges to monitor stormwater in the city.
“Within a 15-minute span, I know how much rain has fallen in a particular part of the city,” says Mitchell. TRCA also employs a flood duty officer who monitors urban waterways around the clock. “Their phone will actually send them a message saying that the water level has exceeded this elevation in whatever watercourse in the city,” says Mitchell.
TRCA makes its real-time monitoring data available to the public on its TRCA Gauging website.
Land use management and the worst-case scenario
Dams are expensive to both build and maintain. As a result, TRCA implements other options to control urban watercourses that are less invasive on the existing environment and involve getting people out of the river’s path.
“We regulate the type of development that can happen within the theoretical floodplain. So as a result of that, TRCA was actually able to prevent a lot of new building occurring in the floodplain downstream of this dam. As a result of that, if this dam were to fail, very few structures are at risk downstream,” says Mitchell.
But the dam’s failure is far from a daily concern. It’s been built to withstand a Hurricane Hazel-sized event and its regular maintenance keeps it in good repair.
TRCA maintains flood inundation maps to model a worst-case scenario in a major weather event. Its interactive floodplain map also gives a general sense of which course Toronto’s rivers would take during times of high water.
If a major flood event were to happen, Mitchell says residents would definitely be warned about it. It partners with the Toronto Office of Emergency Management to push out messages, as well as operating a number of distribution channels on its own.
“We have RSS feeds, we have fax, we have emails—there’s a variety of ways of getting messages in terms of flood emergencies,” says Mitchell.
The Humber River Recreation Trail runs along the riverbank for much of its length. One branch follows the main Humber route, while another branches off and follows the West Humber River to Claireville Conservation Area. These are some of the notable places on the journey along the Humber.