Waterways and Shorelines

Canada’s Capital is a waterfront capital. It is located at the confluence of three rivers: the Ottawa, the Gatineau and the Rideau. This location was critical to the trade route of the First Nations, then much later to the decision to make Ottawa the national capital and the site for Parliament. The Ottawa River—which formed the border between Upper and Lower Canada—is an important unifying element in the region’s history. Its Ontario side was designated as a Canadian Heritage River in 2016.

The Rideau River and Gatineau River flow into the Ottawa, forming one of Canada’s largest river systems—measuring 1,271 kilometres in length, with a watershed of approximately 146,000 square kilometres. The Gatineau River, almost 400 kilometres in length, was an important logging waterway from the north. The Rideau Canal traverses over 200 kilometres of the Rideau and Cataraqui river systems, stretching from Ottawa south to Kingston’s harbour on Lake Ontario. In 2007, UNESCO added the Rideau Canal to its distinguished family of World Heritage Sites.

The Ottawa River continues to form the boundary between Ontario and Quebec, flowing through the centre of the National Capital Region. In earlier times, the river was the main transportation route into the hinterland. The confluence of the Capital’s three rivers is in the heartland of Algonquin Anishinabeg traditional territory. The configuration of the rivers and the portage routes were the geographic base for the region’s first permanent settlers and the starting point for the exploration of the continent by Europeans.

The efforts to beautify the Capital that began soon after its proclamation in 1857 resulted in the gradual conversion to parkland of the industrial sites along these riverbanks. With the decline of the lumber industry in the Capital during the early 20th century, new opportunities arose to reclaim more of the shore for public use. Successive planning visions resulted in the creation of publicly accessible banks along the Ottawa and Rideau rivers, as well as the Rideau Canal. The creation of the Canal Driveway (now the Queen Elizabeth Driveway) and its picturesque setting graced the Canal with accessible paths and gardens. Construction of the Rockcliffe Parkway (now the Sir George-Étienne Cartier Parkway) coincided with the creation of Rockcliffe Park, which offers residents and visitors a bucolic setting and recreational space overlooking the river. Gréber’s plan for the national capital called for the relocation of active industry and railways to the periphery, to further embellish and modernize the Capital.

The region’s waterways provide recreational opportunities to local residents and visitors. They offer magnificent natural vistas, and provide a unique opportunity to come into contact with our heritage and the natural world that surrounds us. Treasures to be preserved for future generations, these waterways convey multiple meanings that will be expressed in the various settings along the shorelines.

The environmental health of watersheds and the protection of water quality are of the utmost importance when considering the long-term conservation of waterways and shorelines. While some areas will be actively used, there are vast areas of shoreline to be protected, restored and naturalized.

In 2067, a reimagined shoreline system will improve public access and enjoyment of the waterfront lands. High-quality views and vistas along waterways will be protected and enhanced. A defining feature of 21st century cities is the fact that they are turning their sights and focus toward public use of waterways and shorelines. Federal lands will play a vital role in restoring the quality of the waterways such that they are liveable, swimmable and ecologically diverse.

The shorelines will harbour lively places for cultural events, nautical activities, and places for people of all ages, abilities and walks of life to feel warmly welcomed in the Capital. Several key rest points will offer the opportunity to reconnect with nature, access the waterway, meander along an interpretation path or picnic in a unique scenic setting. Public ownership of the shorelines enables the rediscovery of historical uses of the region’s waterways, in conjunction with the interpretation of sites for visitors and residents. The promotion of water-based recreational activities such as boating will further contribute to the active use of these waterways. The value of parkways as green infrastructure will increase exponentially with the growth of the region.

Collectively, these improvements will reimagine the water culture that once existed in the region. Providing access to waterways and the addition of amenities along shorelines will be kept in balance with the need to safeguard the health of waterways in the Capital Region.

Key policy directions for the next 50 years

  1. Riverfront green spaces will remain primary public green spaces, but will incorporate new structures and partnerships to foster greater public access, activity and amenities, while improving the quality of natural habitats in areas that are not actively used. Along the Ottawa River, in the core area and along the green linear parkway corridors, more places will provide access to and contact with the water for people to enjoy.
  2. Today’s parkway corridors will be transformed to establish linear green spaces serving a dense urban core as places for people in riverfront parks. These spaces will showcase the Capital’s natural scenic, cultural and recreational qualities through better access, as well as greater active mobility and enjoyment of the waterways.
  3. A major destination of the Capital, Nepean Point will be renewed and improved as a striking landmark and lookout, and part of a continuous riverfront promenade from the Rideau Canal to the Rideau River.
  4. The NCC will continue to work in partnerships to allow activities that are compatible with existing waterfront parks and maintain sites available for national programming.
  5. The NCC will prepare specific plans for riverfronts to outline how land use can promote enhanced public access, while protecting sensitive ecological elements, cultural landscapes, and archaeological and built heritage.
  6. The NCC and its federal partners will improve waterway lands to reimagine the flourishing water culture that was lost over the past century. The NCC will invest in riverbank modifications to offer mooring and wharves outside ecologically sensitive areas, and new passive open spaces providing better access to the water for the use of watercraft and soft, or low-impact, recreational activity. The NCC will enhance connections to islands in the rivers, although some will remain untouched as natural preserves.
  7. The transportation systems along the shorelines will provide greater capacity for pedestrians and cyclists. This includes creating new safe crossing points on transportation corridors. The parkways will continue to be part of the Capital’s urban green system, forming a chain of linear park-like spaces and corridors, providing access to the river shores and Capital institutions.
  8. The NCC will work with its agricultural tenants to improve farming practices and reduce environmental impacts on nearby watercourses.
  9. The NCC’s continuing development of LeBreton Flats will encourage more activity at the riverfront.
  10. The protected linear corridors will help preserve floodplains and river shorelines, protect water quality, safeguard cultural landscapes, provide passive recreation, offer scenic opportunities, and connect open space systems of the urban and broader Capital Region.
  11. As shoreline infrastructure (such as storm outfalls, electrical infrastructure and heating/cooling stacks) comes up for life cycle replacement, federal departments and agencies will seek alternatives that are minimally visually intrusive on picturesque riverbanks, or provide visual screening, particularly in the core area.
  12. The NCC will cooperate with the municipalities to improve best practices for the management of stormwater, particularly by progressively improving techniques to manage water quality and initiate remedial work. Runoff rates will be managed to avoid the degradation of creek and river corridors. The NCC will implement the policy to frame the use of its lands for new water quality control infrastructure. This applies when the municipality has no alternative but to use federal lands.