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Canada’s Rivers, Canada’s History

The Canadian Heritage Rivers System and Historic Places

The rushing waters of Canada's majestic rivers have shaped the land and its history. With June comes Canadian Rivers Day, a time to celebrate the importance of our country's heritage rivers and to reflect on their contribution to Canadian identity and history.

Many important rivers across Canada have been given national recognition through the Canadian Heritage Rivers System (CHRS), a collaborative program between federal, provincial and territorial governments. Established in 1984, the CHRS is dedicated to conserving and protecting Canada's river heritage for future generations to enjoy. The program is committed to engaging the public and encouraging Canadians to experience and appreciate what the country's rivers have to offer, including stunning vistas, thrilling adventures and captivating history. Today there are forty-one rivers within the CHRS, and the list keeps growing!

Certain heritage rivers, such as the Kazan River in Nunavut, are designated for their natural heritage. These pristine waterways are valued for their undisturbed Fall Caribou Crossing, Parks Canada / Passage-de-Caribous-en-Automne, Parcs Canadabeauty and have been designated to ensure that their natural integrity is protected. Flowing 850 kilometres northward from the northern border of Saskatchewan to Baker Lake, the Kazan River is set within a rugged landscape rich in Aboriginal history and tradition. The Caribou Inuit lived on the rocky banks of the Kazan for centuries, depending on its water and on the caribou migration that traversed nearby rough terrain. As an important resource for the Caribou Inuit, the Kazan River has escaped destructive human impact, leaving an unspoiled northern landscape.

Rivers in northern Canada are less likely to suffer from the consequences of human development due to the more sparse population. The Yukon River, part of which is a recognized Heritage River, is an example of a river rich in history and natural beauty. Stretching 3,200 kilometres from British Columbia to Alaska, the Yukon was the primary means of transportation during the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush. The section designated as a Heritage River in 1991 was dubbed "The Thirty Mile" by those who navigated its treacherous rapids and shoals, and is representative of the vegetation, wildlife and landforms found all along the Yukon River. Visitors to the area can paddle in striking blue-green waters, visit the historic town of Dawson City, snap pictures of bears and migrating salmon, and relive the gold rush experience.

Other heritage rivers are designated for their cultural heritage. Although the landscape surrounding these rivers is often majestic, the impact of human contact has compromised their natural integrity. Rivers near towns, cities or throughways have often been altered by riparian development or engineering works, such as bridges or dams. As sources of transportation and power, rivers are important resources, and the interaction between people and their waters are essential to maintain healthy lives. Cultural rivers tell fascinating stories of human development and can be enjoyed as heritage rivers while also maintaining ecological balance. The CHRS helps maintain this delicate balance through the development of management plans that define how these heritage values will be presented and conserved for future generations.

The Rideau Waterway, for example, which encompasses the man-made Rideau Canal, was nominated to the CHRS for its cultural heritage. Designated in 2000, Smiths Falls Bascule Bridge / Pont-Basculant-de-Smiths Fallsthe Rideau Waterway is a combination of natural rivers and lakes, built canals, locks and dams, spanning 202 kilometres from Ottawa to Kingston, Ontario. Conceived and constructed from 1826-1832 to aid in the defence of Upper Canada, many of the lockstations along this historic waterway are intact and functional, offering an exceptional understanding of 19th century engineering works. Today, the Rideau Waterway remains an important tourist destination, valued by visitors who come from around the globe to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2008, the National Geographic Society declared the Rideau to be the second most "authentic, sustainable destination" in the world.

The bucolic Hillsborough River, which nearly splits Prince Edward Island in two, was also added to the CHRS in recognition of its extensive cultural heritage. Overlooking the Hillsborough in Charlottetown is the historic Government House, an early 19th-century Neoclassical residence built for the Lieutenant-Governor of the colony. During the 1864 Charlottetown Conference, delegates and future Fathers of Confederation were invited to Government House after their discussions for elegant social soirées. The delegates arrived at the conference from ships docked in the harbour of the Hillsborough River. In 2013, Charlottetown will proudly host the 7th Canadian River Heritage Conference, an opportunity for international participants to share experiences, ideas and best practices in the areas of river heritage conservation, restoration, science and education.

The Grand River is the largest river in southern Ontario. This award-winning Canadian Heritage River flows   300 kilometres from its source near Grand Valley into Lake Erie. In 2000, the Grand River was recognized with the Thiesse International Riverprize in Australia as the best managed river in the world, based on its Canadian Heritage River Management Plan. As Upper Canada opened its interior to settlers after the War of 1812, the Grand lived up to its name. Stately mansions, expansive farms and industrial towns lined the inland waterway. The historic places that have survived along the Grand River reflect the diversity of cultures that have settled along its banks. Archaeological sites speak to aboriginal occupation dating back 10,000 years, while such places as the Waterloo Pioneer Memorial Tower commemorate the influx of Pennsylvania-German immigrants to the area during the early 19th century. Chiefswood, an Italianate villa built near Ruthven Park, Parks Canada / Ruthven Park, Parcs Canadathe river by Mohawk Chief George Henry Martin Johnson in 1853-1856, is said to have represented a bridge between the Six Nations and white settlers. Ruthven Castle, a dignified Greek revival style villa set on a high point of land overlooking the Grand, is representative of the picturesque country estates built in area by affluent families in the 18th and 19th centuries. Fortunately, for travellers along the Grand - whether canoeists or Sunday drivers - the Grand River Conservation Authority has created an impressive searchable database of the cultural resources using some of the CRHP's SoS information.

The Fraser River is the largest river in British Columbia and the longest river in the Canadian Heritage Rivers System at 1375 kilometres in length. The river flows from Mount Robson Provincial Park in the Rocky Mountains to its outlet in the Strait of Georgia, and its watershed is home to over half of British Columbia's population.  Located at the river's mouth is the Gulf of Georgia Cannery, a large complex of wooden buildings which are an illustration of industrial fish processing and canning during the Gulf of Georgia Canneryfirst half of the twentieth century. Designated for its outstanding natural, historical, and recreational value, the Fraser River is best known in the world for its salmon. With the most productive salmon fishery in the world, the Fraser River has been a focal point in sustaining a comfortable lifestyle for centuries, particularly for the First Nations.  With settlement, industries and urban areas grew along the river to the point where today the economic activity within the Fraser River Basin accounts for 80% of the provincial and 10% of the national gross domestic product.

Rugged and untamed, or pastoral and calm, Canadian Heritage Rivers reflect the rich history and diverse nature of the country. While many heritage rivers are remote and difficult to reach many others are easily accessible from major Canadian cities. Along many of these rivers, there are historic places listed on the CRHP to visit and appreciate. Take the time to enjoy our heritage rivers. They are an important and meaningful part of Canada's history and landscape.


Canadian Heritage Rivers System