Windsor

Kimberly Simmons is fighting to make the Detroit River a UNESCO world heritage site

A Detroit woman has spent eight years trying to get the Detroit River recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Detroit-based historian and researcher has been working on UNESCO effort for eight years

A Michigan woman has been pushing for the Detroit River to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Geoff Nixon/CBC)

Kimberly Simmons has spent eight years trying to get the Detroit River recognized on a world stage.

Specifically, she wants it to become a UNESCO World Heritage site, on account of its role in the underground railroad decades ago.

And while the Detroit historian, researcher and author has done a lot of work already, she still has a long way to go to seeing her dream become a reality.

"We are eight years in and I really would like to see the mission completed within the next couple of years," Simmons recently told CBC Radio's Windsor Morning.

She estimates that about 30 people have had a hand in working on the effort so far, though Simmons is the only person working on it on a daily basis.

More than 1,000 around the globe

There are 17 sites in Canada with a world heritage designation, according to the UNESCO website. In Ontario there is just one — the Rideau Canal. Others in Canada include the L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site and Alberta's Dinosaur Provincial Park.

The United States has just under two dozen sites on the world heritage list. There are more than 1,000 of these UNESCO-recognized sites across the world.

In order for a site to make the list, it has to be considered to have "outstanding universal value" and it must meet at least one of 10 selection criteria.

In the case of the Detroit River, Simmons believes it can be recognized in the category for its traditional land or sea use that is representative of a culture.

"It's a natural border shared by two countries and drove [20,000] to 25,000 people to come here to find freedom," said Simmons.

'You have to convince the world'

Part of the process to getting a world heritage designation involves providing evidence of a site's history. And Simmons said there is a high bar for making that case.

"In order to get a designation of world significance to happen through the United Nations, you have to convince the world that what you say is true," said Simmons.

Kimberly Simmons, a Detroit-based historian, researcher and author, has been pushing for the Detroit River to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Submitted)

The effort is further complicated by the fact that it would be a designation shared by both Canada and the United States. That implies a need for buy-in on both sides of the border.

"We are talking two governments, along with just the people that surround it, that have to make this happen," said Simmons.

Simmons sees some big economic benefits for both sides of the border if the Detroit River could obtain the designation.

"Our river has the opportunity, not to just draw people to see a pretty river, but to draw big tourism dollars," she said.

For Simmons, there is a personal element to her quest to win a designation for the river, as some of her ancestors travelled along the underground railroad.

"My family has moved not very far from where they first landed in Sandwich, close to 180 years ago and therefore, the river has always been very, very significant to me and to the family," she said.

With files from the CBC's Tony Doucette and CBC Radio's Windsor Morning

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