August 25, 2013
Rouge River: Activist Lois James inspires river’s protectors to keep fighting
Lois James has devoted half of her 90 years to what is now the city’s most protected river, the Rouge.
In the last of a four-part series, the Star looks at the rivers of the GTA, their history, their guardians and their future.
Down a windy, tree-lined road, past hiking trails and farmstands, Lois James has built her life atop the Rouge River.
James, who is affectionately called the “mother of the Rouge” by fellow Rouge River crusaders, has devoted half of her 90 years to what is now the city’s most protected river.
“Once you live there, and you know no one’s going to protect it, why you’re quite ready to begin to save things,” she says. “That’s how it starts.”
Awarded the Order of Canada in 2003, James has been championing the Rouge as a volunteer, activist and Green Party candidate. Although she now walks with a cane, James still camps in Haliburton’s nature reserve to swim, hike and canoe.
Almost every day, James visits Hillside Outdoor Education School on Meadowvale Rd. in Scarborough, the former one-room schoolhouse her children attended and current home of Friends of the Rouge Watershed, to share her “opinions,” rummage through the fridge or make a cup of tea.
Jim Robb, general manager for Friends of the Rouge, remembers the first time he saw her at an all-candidates meeting for the 1978 Scarborough mayoral race.
“I was in my early twenties and I remember thinking how visionary and ahead of her time she was,” Robb says. “I remember thinking she probably won’t get elected but it’s a pity because she probably could make a big difference.”
Having grown up in Detroit, along the banks of the Detroit River, it wasn’t until 1964 that James first saw the Rouge. Her husband, Bob James, had moved the family to Scarborough to found the sociology department at the fledgling University of Toronto Scarborough.
The family eventually settled in James’ current home along the banks of the Rouge. Already an avid volunteer and political activist, James quickly joined up with other people connected to the university who were bent on saving the Rouge from what they considered to be unbridled development.
At the time, development in growing Scarborough threatened to spread close to the Rouge’s river banks and building practices were far from environmentally friendly.
In order to keep rivers from moving into developed areas, banks were hardened with cement, killing the natural habitats — like grounds where turtles lay their eggs.
“A river moving is a natural thing and a good thing,” said Maria Papoulias, who works for Rouge Park.
The group quickly realized there was no organized effort to conserve the river that flowed right through campus, where its unofficial headquarters was located. Eventually, the informal group of volunteers would found the Save the Rouge Valley System to lobby government.
“It’s just hard to come into a place that you suddenly know has to be saved and find nobody prepared to work on it,” James says.
When James and her fellow volunteers started advocating for environmental conservation in the 1960s, they didn’t have the funds to fight development.
“Can’t beat them on that ground,” she says.
Instead, the group would sit in on committee meetings, take minutes and distribute detailed flyers to every door in the neighbourhood. One of their goals: to see a public park built along the river to protect its natural habitat.
In 1995, that idea became a reality. Rouge Park was built and now encompasses about 12 per cent of the watershed, making the Rouge the most protected river in the city. With more than 12,000 acres, the green space gives local wildlife like turtles and oven birds, as well as the river, a home.
Now the Rouge River, which begins in the Oak Ridges Moraine and flows 250 kilometres south, is one of the cleanest rivers in Toronto.
But while the development of Scarborough threatened the river in the 1960s, it’s the development of the northern part of the watershed that threatens the river now.
Already, signs are clear that urbanization in the northern parts of the Rouge watershed is taking its toll. After June’s heavy rains, massive blockades of trees have dammed up parts of the river.
When the Pickering airport was first conceived in the 1970s, James fought hard against it — and seemed to win.
The airport never materialized and much of the land originally intended for a Pickering airport became a part of Rouge Park. But just this June, just as the feds lauded the creation of a national Rouge Park, they reaffirmed their plans to build the airport.
“Same things, just a different generation,” James says with a wizened sigh.
Robb says the biggest problem with the airport is its extension into the Oak Ridges Moraine — the water source for not only the Rouge, but the Don, the Humber and Duffins Creek.
He’s concerned that toxic de-icing solutions and polluted air will seep into the soil and water, leaching into source waters for Toronto’s greatest rivers. And without forest cover, rainwater just rolls off cropland and pavement, causing downriver flooding that destroys water quality and properties.
“The forests are nature’s filter for air and water,” Robb says.
According to a government report on water policies in the Great Lakes area, a watershed needs a minimum of 30 per cent forest cover and 10 per cent wetland cover to stay healthy.
Despite the park’s protection, the Rouge River has just 13 per cent forest cover and only 1 per cent wetland cover.
Robb wants farmland land near the Oak Ridges Moraine to be reforested. But Conservative MP Paul Calandra says these lands, which were expropriated from farmers in the 1970s for the airport and re-leased to them later, should stay farms.
“It’s a very, very important part of our heritage here in this community,” Calandra says.
And so the battle for the Rouge — and its lands — rages on. But no matter the outcome, Robb says the Rouge conservation movement is forever indebted to James.
“Lois became an amazing mentor to me, but it wasn’t just me, there’s literally hundreds of people,” he says.