It’s the Ottawa River in English, the Rivière des Outaouais in French, and to the Algonquin people who first lived on its banks and canoed its waters—Kitchi Sibi. No matter the name for the Ottawa River, it has another distinction. It was recently designated a Canadian Heritage River by the Canadian Heritage Rivers System, an agency jointly managed by provincial and federal governments. The mostly symbolic designation is given to rivers that have a prominent place in the natural environment, history, culture, and economic development of Canada. The Ottawa certainly fits into all of those.
From its source in northern Quebec to the St. Lawrence River near Montreal, the 790 mile/1,271 km river was a highway of discovery and trade for everyone from the Algonquin through French explorers like Samuel de Champlain to fur traders and lumber barons. The only other Canadian Heritage River in eastern Ontario is the Rideau River. Not even the Canadian banks of the St. Lawrence are included.
There are a couple of things lacking in the Heritage River designation though. It doesn’t add any further environmental conservation regulations or protected territory. The designation also only applies to the Ontario banks of the river.
Meredith Brown of Ottawa Riverkeeper, a conservation group that keeps a close watch on all things related to the river said the Quebec government does not participate in the Canadian Heritage Rivers program. Quebec considers its rivers to be completely under provincial jurisdiction, so it’s cooperating with Ottawa Riverkeeper on a separate heritage designation for the Ottawa River that will be announced next year. Meredith Brown said that although the Heritage River designation carries no legal weight, it does help create a sense of “river pride” and brings the different groups of people together that have a close connection with the Ottawa River. These include conservationists, recreationists, and indigenous people.
Many of these same groups lobbied for the past seven years to have the Ottawa made a Canadian Heritage River. Brown said the new designation was never intended to bring additional environmental and historical protection, but it instead is meant to raise awareness for the future.
Brown said the biggest challenges facing the Ottawa River right now are challenges to water quality and biodiversity. Raw sewage and waste from pulp and paper mills affect water quality, and the 19 hydroelectric dams along the river disrupt the health of fish species. There are no extensive protected areas in either Ontario or Quebec aside from a few small provincial parks. The contrasting uses and activities on the river definitely contribute to these challenges. The following photos highlight the various activities and uses of the Ottawa River.