Our Rivers: Threaded through Canadian culture

By Tony Maas

When we think about Canada it is hard not to think about fresh water – about the millions of lakes dotting the landscape that add a blue hue to the map of the country; about hundreds of thousands of kilometers of rushing rivers that like so many threads weave the nation together. We are known globally for our wild and watery environment.

As Canadians, we hear increasingly too, that water is fundamental to our economy. It is critical to the billions of dollars of global trade that move through the St. Lawrence Seaway each year, to the productivity of the pacific salmon fishery that is so fundamental to west coast livelihoods, and to the agriculture that keeps food on tables here at home and around the world.

But water is also deeply embedded in Canadian culture. Think Canadian art and you think Tom Thomson …and the lakes of Algonquin Park. In his non-fiction book Seven Rivers of Canada, Hugh MacLennan, one of our nation’s great novelists, wrote: “To know the rivers is to know Canada, for much of the nation’s character and experience is bound up with them.”

Canada’s rivers are woven through the narratives of many of MacLennan’s fiction works, as they are in many contemporary Canadian novels. The St. Lawrence – or more specifically,  the changes to the river and its shoreline communities resulting from the construction of the Seaway – form the backdrop for 2010 Giller Prize winner Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists. For much of the novel, her characters are around or on the waters of the St. Lawrence.

Rivers are also the setting for Anne Michaels’ remarkable The Winter Vault: the St. Lawrence, where the book’s central characters Jean and Avery meet during the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway; and also another of the world’s great rivers, the Nile, where the story moves as Avery works to rescue the ancient Abu Simbel temple from the rising waters of Aswan Dam.

And in Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce, we follow Will Bird up and down northern Ontario’s Moose River, and follow his niece Annie from the wild waters of the Moose to wild life of the island of Manhattan in the Hudson River.

2011 marks the fiftieth anniversary of MacLennan’s Seven Rivers of Canada. Fifty years ago the St. Lawrence Seaway, which dramatically transformed the economy of Canada, and the ecology of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence system, had just opened for navigation. Fifty years ago the pristine waters of the Athabasca – what MacLennan referred to as one of the two great tails of the mighty Mackenzie River – had only just been put to use to develop the oil sands, the world’s largest reservoir of crude bitumen.

These works of art are reminders of our deep relationship with fresh water in Canada. But, at least for me, they are also reminders that when we transform our rivers and lakes for economic development we influence more than our ecology and environment – we influence our culture.

Canada Water Week is a good a time to explore water and culture, to remind ourselves that our rivers and lakes were central in forming the Canada we know today, but also to envision how water will play a role in the future of our environment, our economy and our culture.

Tony Maas is the Director of WWF-Canada’s Freshwater Program, a presenting organization of Canada Water Week.

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  1. You, me, and our heritage | Our Living Water - March 15, 2011

    […] of it, our economic wealth.  Water across Canada connects us socially.  It threads through our culture and it is also our history.  I recently travelled through India and one day while I marvelled at […]

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