Send submissions, inquiries or comments to the:   BCCP mailbox

The Black Creek Conservation Project: The Early Years

By Sandy Agnew, Co-founder

In the late sixties I began taking a serious interest in the environment. At the same time development was beginning to march north of Wilson Ave. Every new development seemed to result in serious degradation to all watercourses including Black Creek. Straight trapezoidal ditches seemed to be the norm when it came to any work around streams. And of course the local solution to Hurricane Hazel was the huge concrete channel on Black Creek.

The CNR had gone through past our family farm just north of Steeles resulting in more of the creek being channelized and piped. During the seventies new development on Jane St. south of Hwy 7 was resulting in illegal filling of the valley and nobody seemed to be doing anything about it, in particular the then Metro Toronto and Region Conservation Authority or Ministry of Environment.

In the late seventies I began looking around for like minded people who wanted to take action. After a year or more of talking to various groups and individuals I ran across John Maher who lived near Jane and Lawrence. John is a fisheries biologist and was also appalled by the degradation of Black Creek. He worked at Ontario Hydro and had many contacts in the environmental field. Within a few weeks we had a small group of people willing to work on the creek. In 1982 we formed the Black Creek Conservation Project of Toronto. In order to get official not-for-profit status we had to add Toronto to the name because there are several Black Creeks around the province.

The first few years were spent mainly advocating for more protection for the creek during the design and construction stages of development. Our first major fight was with a huge 1200 acre industrial development on Jane St. north of Hwy 7. The storm water detention plans called for the complete obliteration of the Carolinian woodlot at the northeast corner. With the help of the Toronto Field Naturalist we were able to produce a woodlot inventory that contradicted the inadequate and misleading inventory produced by the developers and I should add, accepted by both the Town and MTRCA. We also threatened an appeal to the OMB, and by taking advantage of a political split on Vaughan council, were able to save the woodlot.

Our first work project was to renaturalize the channel behind the Dalziel barn on MTRCA property. The creek had been channelized during construction of the pond behind the barn. This was another particularly irritating channelization because it was done on MTRCA property and could have easily included a naturalized channel. We spent a day or two moving stone with wheelbarrows and planting trees. That section of creek looks like a jungle now.

When government grants started becoming available and the BCCP began hiring staff we formed an alliance with MTRCA (now TRCA). The administration and accounting help of TRCA has proved to be essential to functioning of the group.

The BCCP membership has never been large and numerous people have come and gone over the years. We remain a small but dedicated group working to protect and enhance a small urban stream.

Return toTable of Contents  

Black Creek Meanderings

I have had an interest in Toronto ravines and "lost rivers" since my childhood in the 1970s, when I first met Helen Juhola of the Toronto Field Naturalists. At various times when school or other adolescent distractions abated, I would wander off to explore different places that caught my interest when first spotted on a map. This has not abated; it is still my life's work as a field biologist.

In the spring of 1983, the Black Creek came to my attention. On one foray I found golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) at Trethewey Park, and cup-plant (Silphium perfoliatum) at Coronation Park. The former disappeared very early on, years before the wetland at Trethewey Park was constructed in 1991; the latter probably still persists.

On another day that summer, I called up Sandy Cappell (also with the Toronto Field Naturalists) to check out a nearly-forgotten tributary ravine near the then-stockyards. Perhaps it didn't even exist anymore. We agreed to meet at the corner of St. Clair and Keele, and shortly found ourselves in a landscape of macabre fascination. Tucked in under hydro lines and brooding factories was a little ravine that did indeed still exist. So unregulated was the land use that the backs of some of the industrial buildings hung over the edge of the ravine on stilts. Part-way down the slope, tucked below the industry, was an abandoned railway line with ties and a few rails still visible. Metal barrels and a tar-like substance tumbled down the bank from the Universal Drum Reconditioning Company. On the opposite side, the ravine had been graded into a terrace for use as a snow-dump. A concrete-lined ditch ran along the bottom of the ravine. Further investigation revealed a couple more short unpiped sections of creek, milky and malodourous with bacterial growth, behind ABC Lumber on Weston Road and a short distance further east across the railway tracks.

Over all, the heavy odour of the stockyards and meat-packing plants mingled with the toxic sweetness of various chemical exudates.

That was my introduction to Lavender Creek. Here, I thought, was Toronto's very own Love Canal. I became interested in cleaning up and restoring this Black Creek tributary. I also discovered that not only was the City of Toronto operating the snow dump there, it also was planning to expand it, filling in the ravine and relegating the creek to a sewer pipe. The Toronto Field Naturalists directed me to a new group that had formed: the Black Creek Conservation Project. We joined forces and gave deputations at the City of York civic centre. Jean MacDonald from the Toronto Field Naturalists went so far as to don a cardboard cylinder to protest the creek's impending demise. In the end, we succeeded in saving the creek, by pitting York against Toronto (two separate municipalities in those pre-megacity days). "Deal with your own snow on your own territory", was in effect the council's conclusion.

Thus, I became acquainted with John Maher, Sandy Agnew, Mary Lockhart (the local champion of Lavender Creek), Barb Scott, and others. We would meet at Sandy Agnew's ancestral homestead, an 1870 farmhouse just north of Steeles, or at other venues including John Maher's home, the Weston Rod & Gun Club, the Mount Dennis Legion, or the Institute for Environmental Studies at U of T. We continued to strategize about pollution and greenspace protection.

The early years of the Black Creek Conservation Project were more advocacy-oriented; later the focus shifted toward restoration and stewardship, with wetlands constructed at Trethewey Park and under the hydro right-of-way north of Steeles and numerous native plantings, the first of which are now young forests, along the headwaters in Vaughan around the Edgeley woodlot and in the lower reaches along the Black Creek Parklands. Before I had switched to strictly local native stock in plantings I get involved in, we used some Carolinian species native to localities a bit south or west of Toronto, including blue ash, tulip tree, and hackberry. I don't know if the slope below Alliance Avenue east of Jane Street is still called "Hackberry Hill", as Richard Mirka dubbed it. Climate change is now making people reconsider the possibility of importation of southern species under carefully monitored conditions in restoration plantings.

The Black Creek Conservation Project was one of the first watershed-based groups in Ontario, predating the Task Force to Bring Back the Don and the various watershed councils that sprung up in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I think that Save the Rouge Valley System began a bit earlier than the Black Creek Conservation Project, but that is the only one I can think of.

A number of people who began their environmental employment with the Black Creek Conservation Project entered the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, several of whom are currently there; Dan Clayton and I still collaborate on various natural heritage data collection and analysis initiatives.

Gavin C. Miller

Return toTable of Contents