Science

Quebec entrepreneur, 93, donates cherished island after protecting it from city sprawl

For most of his adult life, Thor Vikström watched the seasons change and the birds come and go from the small island he owned. At 93, he says he's at peace knowing the land nestled between Montreal and Laval will remain protected long after he's gone.

Nature Conservancy of Canada will protect Île Ronde habitat for birds and vulnerable turtle species

Thor Vikström, 93, gazes out at Île Ronde from his dining room window in Laval, Que. He bought the island in the late 1960s and refused to sell it to the parade of developers who knocked at his door. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

For most of his adult life, Thor Vikström has watched the seasons change and the birds come and go from the small Quebec island he's owned that sits opposite his riverside home in Laval, Que.

At 93, he says he's at peace knowing the land — nestled between Montreal and Laval — will remain protected long after he's gone now that he's donated it to the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Called Île Ronde, the seven-acre island is a nearly untouched habitat in the middle of an urban centre. It sits in the middle of Rivière-des-prairies, near Lake of Two Mountains, where the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers meet.

Wedged between two major cities, it's easy to miss. But its forest and marshland are teeming with biodiversity. 

As urban development in the area progressed over the years, many of the surrounding shores were built up — but the island has remained in its natural state.

Île Ronde, the small island in the centre of this drone shot, remains virtually untouched with its natural shoreline intact. Many of the shores nearby are built up and lined with concrete walls, which make them inaccessible to turtles. (Claude Duchaîne/Nature Conservancy of Canada )

Vikström has owned and cared for the land since the late 1960s, when he built his family home in Laval and fell in love with his view of the island. He convinced its former owner to sell, so he could keep it untouched.

His recent donation ensures it will be protected for generations to come.

"I trust my children; I'm sure they'll protect the island. But what happens after my children [are] gone?" Vikström said in an interview with CBC News at his home in Laval, Que.

"It's just a good feeling in my heart. I know this will be there forever."

Dismissed all offers of 'stupid money'

Thor Vikström, shown here during his younger days, founded Scanada. A specialist in slipform technology, used to build highrises, towers and agricultural silos, he was consulted on the building of the CN Tower. (Scanada.com)

Vikström is the sort of person who knows what he wants and goes for it. He cracks a joke as he introduces himself.

"My name is Thor. And you know what that means? The Thunder God."

Vikström says he knew he was going to marry his late wife the moment he met her — and told her so.

The couple moved to Canada from Sweden with their first-born son in 1962 and built a life in Quebec, eventually founding Scanada, a successful family company.

As an entrepreneur in the hydraulics industry, Vikström was in the business of building up; he was even consulted on the construction of the CN Tower. 

But he has refused to let city sprawl onto his treasured island. Though an incessant stream of developers knocked on his door over the years, asking him to sell, Vikström turned them all away. 

"I bought the island because I couldn't see it destroyed," said Vikström.

"Nature was more important than some stupid money in my pocket," he added. "I said, 'This is something [that's] got to be preserved,' and I kept my word."

A family legacy

Thor Vikström smiles with his son, Hans. In the distance behind them, winter is setting in on Île Ronde. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

For the Vikström family, the island was a getaway over the years; they had a cable ferry built to access it, and often invited neighbours and friends to join them there.

Hans Vikström, Thor's son, says instead of a cottage up north, they had the island next door.

"We'd camp there. We kind of grew up on the island and it was our getaway place — a place to relax and enjoy as kids," he said.

"We'd go over there with our friends and we'd make a little fire. And [my dad would] get mad at us because we left a Coke bottle on the island."

At one point, they kept sheep on the island for grazing. Thor Vikström said he had the idea that the animals would keep the bushes and weeds at bay, and remembers how he would hear them calling in the distance.

Nowadays, Île Ronde has mostly been left to its natural state. Strolling in his backyard and gazing out at the island, Thor Vikström points out the small cabin and birdhouses that he built.

Good news for vulnerable turtle

The northern map turtle, pictured here, is named for the patterns on its shell which resemble a map. It's listed as a species of special concern at the federal level and in Quebec, it's considered vulnerable. (Ryan Bolton/Nature Conservancy of Canada)

As Canada works toward its goal of protecting 30 per cent of land and water by 2030, Vikström said he is glad to have played a part.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada is also helping, through gifts of land, like this one, and purchases. The private, not-for-profit organization recently acquired a large parcel of grassland in southern Saskatchewan and more than 18,000 acres of Ontario's Manitoulin Island.

The conservancy called the Île Ronde donation terrific news, saying that it sends a message of hope.

The island is home to the northern map turtle, a species that is federally designated as being of special concern and as vulnerable in Quebec.

Biologist Sébastien Rouleau researches map turtles and has visited Île Ronde in the past. He co-ordinates research and conservation at the Zoo Ecomuseum in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que.

He said the donation of Île Ronde, with its natural shoreline, is particularly great news for the turtles, which are sensitive to human activity.

"Turtles don't climb concrete walls really well, so having access to the natural shoreline will give them natural nesting sites, as well as basking opportunities, which is essential for their living," Rouleau said.

The island, seen here from an aerial view captured by a drone, is mostly forested, with a small marsh in the middle. (Claude Duchaîne/Nature Conservancy of Canada)

The island is also home to a unique tree species, called the shagbark hickory, as well as a variety of waterbirds, including wood ducks, American wigeon, and gadwall.

While the island's financial value is relatively low today because it's located in a flood risk zone, the Nature Conservancy says what counts is its value for flora and fauna.

"I think we can pack a lot of biodiversity in a single hand — and imagine an island of that size," said Joël Bonin, associate vice-president of development and communications for the Nature Conservancy of Canada's Quebec chapter.

Though winter has now set in on the island, Vikström said he is already looking forward to watching the migratory birds return in the spring — as he has for more than 50 years.

WATCH | A Quebec entrepreneur's lifelong quest to protect an uninhabited island from urban sprawl:

A Quebec man's lifelong quest to protect an uninhabited island

5 months ago
Duration 3:59
A virtually untouched island between Montreal and Laval, Que., Île Ronde will remain free from urban development because of the dedication, love of nature and stubbornness of Thor Vikström.

With files from Alice Hopton

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