The Cree called it Kisiskâciwanisîpiy—the swiftly flowing river. For the Blackfoot, it was omaka-ty—the big river. It starts in the Columbia Icefield, at the toe of the Saskatchewan Glacier, and cuts the province in half as it flows through Banff and Jasper national parks, northeast to Edmonton, then east-by-southeast across the Saskatchewan boundary. It divides Alberta. It defines us. The North Saskatchewan River carries our stories.
For centuries, the river sustained the First Nations, a source of water and food, a corridor that made connections. Later, it brought fur traders west—and carried furs back to Hudson Bay. It was the river that brought some of the first settlers to Alberta, the riverside where people farmed or built mines and brickyards. Canoes and York boats, paddle wheelers and ferries plied its waters.
When I was growing up in Edmonton in the 1970s the river was seen as something dirty, off-limits. Everyone loved the river valley’s parks. But the river itself was something your mother warned you to stay away from.
Just as only Nixon could go to China, perhaps only a conservative rural county could convince skeptics that heritage designation isn’t a central Canadian plot.
Over the last decade there’s been a cultural shift. We’re rediscovering the river as a place where people (and dogs) can swim, as a place for kayaks and dragon boats. Cycling and hiking trails, footbridges and boat launches have brought the water closer. But as Albertans all through the watershed develop a new relationship with their river, the challenge is to strike the right balance: to make the river accessible for recreation while still protecting it as a riparian ecosystem, an essential wildlife corridor and a reliable source of safe drinking water.
Now the County of Smoky Lake, in northeastern Alberta, is stepping up with an answer.
The county, with its population of just 4,000, is leading a buoyant and strategic campaign to have the North Saskatchewan designated a Canadian Heritage River, as part of the Canadian Heritage Rivers System. This program celebrates the natural, cultural and recreational values of historically important rivers across Canada. So far 40 rivers have been given national recognition, including the Saint John River in New Brunswick, the Ottawa River in Ontario and BC’s Fraser River.
The North Saskatchewan has partial designation: the 49 km of the river that fall within the boundaries of Banff National Park were added to the program in 1989. But Smoky Lake has a bigger idea: to designate the entire river through Alberta.
Kyle Schole, an avid kayaker, is the planning development and heritage assistant for the County of Smoky Lake and the infectiously enthusiastic champion of the heritage designation project. For months he’s been meeting with the province as well as with counties, municipalities, Indigenous leaders and not-for-profits up and down the river, building a remarkably broad—though not quite unanimous—consensus of support. It hasn’t been easy. Some environmental groups worry heritage designation doesn’t go far enough to protect the river. Some municipalities worry designation goes too far, and might make future developments harder. Schole has also had to deal with a certain bred-in-the-bone Alberta resistance to anything that smacks of Ottawa interfering in Alberta’s environmental decision-making. Just as only Nixon could go to China, perhaps only a small-c conservative rural county could convince skeptics that heritage designation is not a central Canadian plot to take over our river.
Schole’s sales pitch is simple. He sees a golden opportunity for smaller towns and villages. “It’s an opportunity for rural municipalities to tell the stories of our communities, of our founding and of where we’re going,” he says. “All the different cultures in this landscape? You’ll find them at the river’s edge.”
For Smoky Lake, that means partnering with the Métis Crossing Cultural Centre, the Victoria Settlement Provincial Historic Site and the local Ukrainian–Canadian community to tell tales of the county’s rich multicultural history, using the river as the connecting link.
Designation won’t make the river valley into a national park or preclude future recreational development. It does, however, commit communities and organizations along the river to work together on environmental stewardship, planning and river monitoring. And it could give the river national profile and marketing cachet—a new way for Alberta to attract visitors.
Smoky Lake County plans to submit the final application for designation this September or October, for approval by Environment Canada and the Canadian Heritage Rivers board.
Meantime, Kyle Schole will keep spreading his love of his eternal and ever-changing North Saskatchewan, the river he wants everyone to discover and rediscover and see through new eyes. “It’s so different and various from zone to zone,” he says. “You stop and you take a pause and you allow yourself to be present, and it overwhelms you.”
Paula Simons is an independent Senator, a former columnist for the Edmonton Journal and a long-time Albertan.