Once upon a time there were many little creeks and streams meandering through the area we now call Toronto. As the city grew, and sanitation standards rose, these waterways became buried; built over and forced into culverts, they were gradually forgotten. Their rediscovery began in 1995, when Helen Mills started the Lost Rivers walks – a joint project between the Toronto Green Community and the Toronto Field Naturalists that sought to retrace the old creeks through a series of guided walks. Over 2 decades later, Mills is still leading walks and working to make Toronto a greener, more sustainable city.
You came to Canada from South Africa when you were in your teens. How did Toronto seem to you when you first moved here?
Well, I came first to Calgary, and that was kind of like dying and going to Hell after Hell froze over, you know? Coming from a warm country… But three years later we came to Toronto, which – having been treated to the Calgary weather for three years, and it was the three coldest years in the previous one hundred years – Toronto was like moving to Florida. It was really wonderful. I very quickly felt at home in Toronto.
You encountered Toronto’s lost rivers soon after you moved here.
We were up near Eglinton, and I used to go to the local park – Eglinton Park – to swim because it was boiling hot when we landed. And I just had the strangest feeling at that park… There was just this little ripple of awareness about something’s wrong with this picture. What is this weird squared off depression, with flat playing fields at the bottom? It was subconscious almost subliminal. And then I just filed it away ‘oh that’s just how Toronto is’. I had many of those experiences. The same thing at Ramsden Park and Christie Pitts. Just a feeling of discomfort or ripple of awareness about something about the structure of that landscape was a bit disturbing. And then, when I finally discovered that in fact, these parks are on buried creeks where there were either brickyards or sand and gravel quarries, everything fell into place, you know?
You ran across lost waterways without knowing what they were for years. How did you finally find out about them?
When I was doing my first-year geography lab about rivers, physiography and urban form, I happened to walk through the faculty of architecture at U of T, and saw this exhibition that superimposed the rivers on the city grid, and it was just this huge moment of recognition and I was horrified, of course. I was very sorry – even though I understood that this is good; we don’t have cholera, right? There’s lots of places around that would really love not to have cholera and would like to have sanitation and clean water to drink. But it was kind of a devastating thing to experience. That these [rivers] were just gone.
Would you say that you were an environmentalist back then?
Let’s just say that when I was 15, I became horrified about the state of the world and the environment. And I wanted – even at that early age – to put wheat between the streetcar tracks on Queen Street. I dreamed of green cities and doing something, but I didn’t feel that I really had any tools. I was almost paralyzed by depression and dread at the situation in the world. So when I went back to university in my 30s, and I did physical geography and botany, it gave me a handle, gave me something where I had enough knowledge that I felt I could do something.
And that ‘something’ became the Lost Rivers Walks?
I learned about the lost rivers and I wanted to do environmental art and do blue lines along the roads and up over the buildings and down the other side. And name them, and bring them to the surface of people’s awareness, and that sat on my back burner for ten years. Then one day I saw this hokey little green poster in Pusateri’s, saying ‘The North Toronto Green Community: come to a community meeting. Tell us your dreams’. And I stopped and turned around three times and said ‘that’s for me’, and off I trotted to this meeting – which oddly enough was facilitated by Kathleen Wynne.
There were about 70 people there on a bitterly cold February night, and I got into a group talking about water, and I said “Well I think we’re sitting on a buried creek” – which we were, it was Eglinton Park – “and we should figure out where our creeks are“. And basically the Green Community handed me a license to carry out my dreams. And it morphed into the Lost Rivers walks very quickly.
You did a few garden-related projects, as well?
I was also very involved in getting the first community garden going in Eglinton park, and then a few years later helped to found the Green Garden Visit, which was a little home eco visit for people. We’d look at your garden through the lens of water waste, energy, food, etc, and help you to have a more eco-friendly garden. That morphed into a little social enterprise called Green Gardeners Community Collaborative that spun off from the Green Community.
Actually, the gardening has been a continuous thing alongside Lost Rivers, and there’s an obvious connection, because a river is not just a blue line on a map. It’s a whole matrix, a mosaic of landscape uses in the watershed surrounding the river. And everything you do anywhere in that watershed has an impact on the river. So really, to solve our water problems, we have to go right back to the watershed and begin to change the fabric of the city. Rain gardens are one simple thing that an individual can do to that can make a very big difference in the water cycle – if enough people do it.
What were the first Lost Rivers walks like?
Kind of like they are now… but longer. I think on the first walk there was a geologist, a local historian, Peter Hare – who later did the Lost River website, and had been involved in the Royal Commission on the waterfront and the Don council. He’s a forester. And members of the Toronto Green Community and the Toronto Field Naturalists. And the amazing thing is, there were 35 people on that walk. No idea where they came from but they just have never stopped coming.
Have the walks changed much since then?
They’re evolving through the Rivers Rising Ambassadors. The idea for Rivers Rising is to bring together the Indigenous community and the Newcomer community, in the framework of lost rivers and community gardens, and culture and story-telling and food. Which sounds like a mouthful, but you know, you can think of the Lost Rivers as a sort of organizing principle. As you walk along them, you may find gardens, you may find restaurants, you may find something else, and you definitely will find people who bring their stories and their connections.
The number of people on a walk can vary quite a bit, and apparently averages about 33. Can you describe a particular walk that really took off in popularity?
We used to walk along Highland Creek every year and this wonderful engineer from the City used to explain the work he was doing in restoration on the river, because it was ripped apart in a flood quite a few years ago – I think it was 2005. And then one year there were salmon! So the fish ladder that he built had worked. And for the next year we said ‘come see the salmon run on Highland Creek’, and there were fifty people. And the next year there were a hundred and fifty people, and the next year there were five hundred people, and it just kept growing.
One year there were over a thousand people that did the walk. And then they stopped doing that format altogether, and now it’s a festival with the TRCA and park people involved, and thousands of people go to that. They have a fish expert, and they bring in a frozen salmon just in case there isn’t areal one available that day. And they do the little fish talk. But people just love coming and running by the river and looking for the salmon.
You’ve traveled a fair bit. Have you compared the lost rivers in any of the other cities you’ve visited?
I’m fascinated by the fact that this Lost Rivers thing is now a phenomenon. All over the world, people are looking for their lost rivers and finding them. It’s a common characteristic with any large city. Even Cape Town has some lost rivers that they’ve found. And London, and wherever you go, somebody’s probably looking for a lost river.
Are there any policy changes you’d like to see applied to dealing with Toronto’s waterways?
There’s a huge question! Well, you know, I think it took us two hundred years to mess up our rivers. I think we need a 200 year plan to undo the harm we’ve done. And by that I don’t necessarily mean that we’ll dig up the Eaton Centre to get Taddle Creek back, but that we will start to learn from nature, and model our practices in the city on natural cycles, and use closed loops in our thinking about water and energy and waste.
You’ve defined ‘watershed thinking’ on the Lost River website as “recognizing the relationship between humans and their natural environment”. Should this be taught in schools?
It is taught in schools. It’s in the public school curriculum. But the funny thing is, it doesn’t seem to go in very much. It’s interesting. And I can tell you from my own experience, the word ‘watershed’ doesn’t mean anything to people. And even if you define it, we’re so disconnected from landscape that it’s very hard for people to apply that idea in the context of the city.
Perhaps the really difficult trick is getting people to care.
They only have to change their behavior. They actually don’t have to care. There’s an interesting idea that attitudes actually follow behavior. If you change one small behavior, it sets a snowball going of bigger and bigger attitude changes and engagement. So whatever that small thing is – whether it’s getting a blue box or planting a tree or turning off the tap when you brush your teeth – it’s an action. And attitudes and feelings follow the action, not the other way around. That’s one theory, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that.
I do think that there is a kind of environmental religion, and we’re all missionaries in our own way, right? And I’m not at all sure that the environmental religion approach works very well.
I think what works is when people are engaged and connected with their neighbours, and where there’s a sense of community and belonging and role models around them and it becomes a thing. Fashion works really well. People are engaged with fashion, and fashions, and trends, and they want to be on trend.
When you talk about an ‘environmental religion’ and missionaries, does that mean that environmentalists can come across as self-righteous and preachy?
Yeah. You know what? I actually had a friend – when I was first involved in the Green Community – and she was completely dumbfounded, because she did have that image of the angry environmentalist: confrontational, fighting the government, protesting to say something. And then she was around the Green Community, and it was just these happy people, being in a community and doing things that felt wonderful – like gardening and walking. And it was the positiveness of it that really really blew her away, because she just had such a preconception of environmentalists as being very judgmental and serious.
I think one of the things that drew me to the Green Community model is that it is based on the idea of community-based environmental action that relates to people’s actual needs in the neighbourhoods where they live. And that’s a very different model.
I think environmentalism is perceived as a set of puritanical religious behaviors that are painful to implement. ‘Somebody’s going to take my car away! Oh my God! I can’t possibly live without it!’ And I actually think that what works is when people are engaged in a positive way with something that moves them… that this peer engagement – I don’t want to say pressure, because I think pressure is the thing that doesn’t work – but the joy works. A sense of community works. The love between neighbours works.
Is this where the Lost River Walks come in?
I do believe that something does happen with Lost River walks, even though they probably attract, on balance, a pre-converted audience, but I think it’s a profound experience. There’s something about walking, and being together in a group, and being aware of what’s around you and being contemplative and thoughtful. There’s a very profound deep thing that goes back to the dawn of humanity; two legs, right? We’ve been wandering around the Earth in little groups forever, so it’s a kind of fundamental thing that people do. And it is a way of being in the environment that I think is valuable in and of itself. And we don’t get enough of it. Especially kids with their computers.
Did you ever get around to doing environmental art?
We did once. We painted all the lost rivers between the lake and the former boundary of the old city of Toronto on Yonge, when Yonge street was closed for Yonge 200. There’s a bunch of poets who we call the Lost River poets, and they lead poetry walks on the rivers, which is a profound and very different experience. Very ecstatic. And we’ve done the walks with music and walks with people painting on a canvass, activities like carrying water and then pouring it into the lake. So yeah, we’ve dabbled in all that stuff. With kids we’ve done graffiti at the Mud Creek where it goes underneath the 401 – on the wall of the 401.
Do you have any advice for people feeling powerless in the face of the world’s many environmental problems?
Start close to home. And actually, if you want to start a neighbourhood Green Community group, there’s a new network of neighbourhood green communities, which is a great way to start, come to think of it.
Do you think people often overlook the small, simple actions because they don’t seem big or meaningful enough?
I actually think that the young people get it more than the older people. One of the most wonderful things for me is being around the young people who are in the environmental community. It’s mind-blowing. They are the most amazing human beings. And I think they really do get it. Partly, you know, a lot of them have studied Environmental Studies, so they understand the thinking behind ‘local’ and ‘neighbourhood’. And again, I think local is super trendy. People really understand that now.