Jennifer Bonnell’s Disseration on the Lower Don River Valley

By Ashlee McMillan

Jennifer Bonnell’s dissertation, Imagined Futures and Unintended Consequences: An Environmental History of Toronto’s Don River Valley, “explores human interactions with Toronto’s Don River Valley from the late eighteenth century to the present, focusing on the period of intense urbanization and industrialization between 1880 and 1940.” 


Bonnell has written about the history of Toronto with a focus on the Don River and the impacts it has had on Toronto’s development. The way people have interacted with the Don River and the river’s responses to these interactions have evolved over the last century.The Don River has been a place of industrial development, settlement and attraction for more than a century.

Her dissertation begins with a story about Princess Margaret’s visit to Toronto on July 31, 1958. After arriving in Toronto, her highly choreographed visit included a train ride from the airport and a night spent “aboard the train in a quiet spot in the Don valley between Rosedale and Don stations.” Local residence and politicians alike were outraged at the dirty conditions of the Don River and what a poor impression this would make on the Princess. Bonnell includes a poignant exert from the Toronto Daily Star editorial: “The mayor and other officials of Toronto have good cause to be ashamed of the filthy condition of that section of the Don river along which Princess Margaret will be driven to Riverdale park. With belated zeal they have rushed a crew of laborers armed with rakes and pikes and disinfectants to tidy the ground and sweeten the atmosphere that Her Highness may not learn how Toronto has befouled one of its beauty spots.”


History has a way of changing the facts, and this event has become somewhat of an urban legend. Many people believe that the city actually perfumed the Don River to mask the stench for the Princess’ visit. Although there is no evidence to prove this happened, we do know that “trying to make a grossly polluted urban waterway presentable for a moment in time—the Princess’ walk across the footbridge—city officials applied a band-aid solution to a real and serious problem.”

On your last visit to the Lower Don River, did you take a moment to reflect on how the river may have looked when the first European settlers found it? The perception of this place has changed with every new generation and today it is often thought of as a smelly dumping ground surrounded by concrete and traffic. Why has this place, that was once an industrial powerhouse, become neglected and polluted? In the rise of the river-side industry in the mid-1800’s the Don River was the site of more than 40 mills but by the late 19th-century the river had become little more than an open sewer. Bonnell’s work tries to explain how this river’s purpose has evolved over the years and why the river eventually became a dumping ground for undesirables and a refuge for Toronto’s homeless.

Paddling the Don

The Don Valley Girls will be participating in this year’s Paddle of the Don on Sunday May 4th. This event gives participants a first hand look at the Don River today. All donations from this event will go towards helping environmental regeneration projects that are of environmental benefit to Toronto’s watershed.


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