Noni Brynjolson is a writer and curator from Winnipeg who is interested in public and socially engaged art. She is a recent graduate of the Master’s program in Art History at Concordia University in Montreal and currently works as the Distribution Coordinator at the Winnipeg Film Group. She writes art reviews for Akimbo, and can be followed @NoniBrynjolson on Twitter.
In 1969, a funeral was held for the Don River in Toronto. The river had been dying a slow death for a long time, and according to the Toronto Telegram, the funeral was long overdue. The river was contaminated by raw sewage, effluents from heavy industry, and high levels of nutrients and E. coli. From the late eighteenth century onwards, factories, tanneries, breweries and mills began to line the Don river. They used it as a source of power and as a quick way to dispose of waste. In 1886, parts of the riverbank underwent a massive reconstruction that involved straightening the course of the river to reduce flooding, improve rail access and increase the value of surrounding land. This was referred to by the city as an ‘improvement,’ although all that was improved was the human ability to exploit the waterway more efficiently.
People treated the Don as a dumping ground and sewer. It was valued for its ability to enhance business and industry, not for its natural qualities. It was not just heavy industry that was to blame for the death of the Don, though, but the everyday actions of Torontonians over more than a century. Like many urban rivers, it became a cesspool of contaminants from pesticides, detergents and other products. It was muddy brown some days, and bright colours other days, when dyes from the paper mill were dumped into the water.
In 1969, a group called Pollution Probe formed in Toronto. Environmental action groups were forming across North America, and Pollution Probe was the first of its kind in Canada. One of their first actions was a funeral for the Don River. They put up posters which said “Pollution Probe regrets to announce the untimely passing of the Don River and invites all grief stricken parties to weep and gnash their teeth at a funeral.” Many of the group’s members were students at the University of Toronto. Among them was Peter Love, who would go on to be Ontario’s Chief Energy Conservation Officer. Several hundred people attended the funeral. A cavalcade of cars made its way from the University of Toronto, to the Prince Edward viaduct along the Don River. Love’s station wagon led the unusual group of mourners and served as the hearse, carrying pails of dirty river water instead of a body.
A funeral service was then held on the banks of the Don. Several members of Pollution Probe wore 18th century period costumes, and told stories about the days when the river was clean and healthy. Meredith Ware was dressed as Elizabeth Simcoe, who was the wife of John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. In the 1790s, Elizabeth Simcoe had written in her diary about the beauty of the river, and its abundant supply of salmon. She also made drawings and sketches that captured a very different scenery from the current Toronto landscape. Ware read from Simcoe’s diary about the beauty of the river, and her speech served to remind those in attendance that the Don had not always been sick. Another Pollution Probe member was dressed up as “Sir Simon Greed,” a wealthy industrialist who spoke about the necessity of polluting the river in order to further the development of industry and commerce. Near the end of the funeral, Greed was pied in the face, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd.
Pollution Probe’s funeral for the Don River was an action borrowed from the tradition of street theatre, which became a popular mode of protest in the 1960s. The environmental movement was new in Canada at that time, and for many people, the funeral for the Don River would have been an introduction. Pollution Probe succeeded in drawing attention to the issue, and the event was covered by newspapers and media stations across the country. Pollution Probe could have used other means to deliver their message – they could have published a study or lobbied city politicians. Instead, they chose an unorthodox method that was meant to turn heads and get people to take notice. Their artistic action was, in part, a well calculated attempt to gain media attention, but it was also a symbolic gesture meant to stir emotions and emphasize the gravity of the issue. The performance took place in public space, and suggested to those in attendance that while the demise of the river had been caused by political will bending to economic interests, the will of the people could generate change and perhaps turn things around for the Don.
This is exactly what happened in the decades following the funeral. The Don River has seen a partial rebirth, with wetlands surrounding the river now in the process of being restored, and millions of trees having been planted along the river. Thousands of people use the river for leisure purposes, walking, cycling or runnings along its banks. Canoeing and kayaking is becoming more popular. The diversity of plant species lining the banks has increased, and there are sections along the river where it is difficult to believe that one is actually still in Toronto. Parts of the Don now look like they did when Elizabeth Simcoe painted her watercolours more than two hundred years ago.
While the water quality has improved, it could still be much better. It is not safe to swim in the Don, since there are high levels of E. coli, phosphorus and chloride, which leak into the river through urban runoff. However, thanks to the cumulative actions of individuals and groups like Pollution Probe, there is more public awareness about the pollution issues that affect the Don River. There is also a stronger public understanding of what needs to be done immediately and in the long term in order to improve water quality. Environmental groups have significantly helped to influence public opinion, making the restoration of the Don River an issue to which governments have been forced to respond. As an example of this, the City of Toronto implemented a 25 year plan in 2003 that aims to deal with flooding, and would greatly reduce the level of contaminants that make their way into the river system.
Pollution Probe’s mock funeral helped to bring attention to a polluted river. The action they performed was humorous, poignant, and engaging. It was an interruption in the everyday lives of urban dwellers, and it encouraged Torontonians to reconsider the relationship between themselves and their natural environment. The Don River still needs rehabilitation, but thanks to actions like this one, it now has a pulse.
- Ford, Ray. “A New Don: The Resurrection of Canada’s Most Urban River.” Canadian Geographic. June 2011. 26-38.
- Don River blog: http://donwatcher.blogspot.ca/
- Elizabeth Simcoe’s diary at the Archives of Ontario (digitized) http://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/100/205/301/ic/cdc/ElizabethSimcoe/default.html
- Pollution Probe’s website: http://www.pollutionprobe.org/
Talking Water Project|Noni Brynjolson (2013)