After Ottawa River gets heritage designation in Ontario, focus turns to Quebec

Politicians from both sides of the Ottawa River dove into its choppy waters Saturday morning and emerged talking up the benefits of its recently-bestowed heritage designation in Ontario — while also suggesting Quebec would soon follow suit.

Politicians from both sides of the border dive into historic river Saturday for annual race

More than 130 people swam from Nepean to Parc des Cèdres in Aylmer on Saturday — one week after the Ontario side of the Ottawa River was recognized by Parks Canada as a "heritage river." (Trevor Pritchard/CBC )

Politicians from both sides of the Ottawa River dove into its choppy waters Saturday morning and emerged talking up the benefits of its recently-bestowed partial heritage designation — while also suggesting Quebec would soon follow suit.

More than 130 swimmers took part in the annual four-kilometre race put on by Ottawa Riverkeeper, the first held since the river's Ontario side was designated part of the Canadian Heritage River System (CHRS) late last month.

The heritage designation applies to 590 kilometres of the river, stretching from Lake Timiskaming north of North Bay to East Hawkesbury near the Quebec border. It comes after more than a decade of advocacy work.

"It's symbolic in an important way," said Will Amos, the Liberal MP for Pontiac in west Quebec. Amos who grew up swimming in the Ottawa River and took part in Saturday's race for the first time.

 "And it also helps brand the river and it helps recognize the incredible historic importance of this river."

Designation pitched more than a decade ago

Archaeological evidence suggests Indigenous people have lived along the river for as many as 6,000 years. After the arrival of Europeans, the river served as an important transportation and trading hub, and played an intrinsic role in the development of Canada's lumber industry.

The Ottawa River's historic importance was first put forward by a group of volunteers in the early 2000s, who advocated for a heritage designation on the grounds that it would both promote conservation efforts along the river and boost tourism.

Parks Canada gave the Ottawa River Heritage Designation Committee's proposal conditional approval in 2006, but it would take another two years until former Environment Minister John Baird — along with Donna Cansfield, Ontario's then-minister of natural resources — endorsed the nomination.

It doesn't bring binding conditions. But it does mean that there will be a management plan.- Environment Minister Catherine McKenna

"It lagged a bit, but it was a priority for me," said current Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, an avid swimmer who emerged from the river Saturday after one hour and 17 minutes — a time she said was "actually not bad because I didn't train this year."

According to Parks Canada, before a river can received heritage designation, either the provincial or territorial government must approve a plan that will "ensure that the river's development, management and use are consistent with CHRS objectives and guidelines" and "conserve the river's heritage and recreational values."

Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources approved the Ottawa River's plan in 2009.

"It doesn't bring binding conditions," said McKenna, who also represents Ottawa Centre.

"But it does mean that there will be a management plan, where citizens can provide input as to how we protect it and keep it clean."

Federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna took part in Saturday's race, finishing with a time of one hour and 17 minutes — "which is actually not bad because I didn't train this year." (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

'Great first step'

Ensuring the river's cleanliness has been a major priority for Ottawa Riverkeeper, the stewardship group that's hosted the race for the past three years.

One of the organization's primary concerns has been the issue of sewage overflows, said Patrick Nadeau, the organization's executive director. Both Ottawa and Gatineau have systems that overflow at least "dozens" of times each year, spilling untreated sewage into the river, Nadeau said.

If that heritage designation can help with that problem, Nadeau said, he'd be thrilled.

"We've been talking to stakeholders up and down the river, and this designation, for them, was one of the top priorities," said Nadeau.

"We really need to sort of increase the pride and recognition that this river is not just any river. Sure, there's a big part of symbolism in the designation, but it's a great first step to some concrete action to improve our water quality."

Pontiac MP Will Amos, who took part in the Riverkeeper 4K for the first time, says there's a "willingness" to have the Quebec portion of the Ottawa River receive heritage designation as well. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Focus turns to Quebec

The July 28 designation means that the 1,271-kilometre river, the country's eighth longest, joins 38 other Canadian rivers as part of the cross-country heritage network — although for now, only that only includes the Ontario portion.

But that could change: Nadeau said the Quebec government is studying an Ottawa Riverkeeper proposal that would grant the river heritage status while "using Quebec tools" to accomplish that goal.

"They're very much interested in doing that," he said.

Amos, an environmental lawyer before being elected last fall, said the fact the heritage designation only applies to the Ontario side shouldn't be taken as a sign that Quebec is uninterested in protecting the river's historic character.

"My understanding is Quebec is on board with protecting this as a heritage river. They just haven't determined whether they want to do it through the federal heritage river program, or whether they want to do it through a provincial mechanism," said Amos.

"Either way, there is certainly a willingness to protect it."