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People You Should Know: Heritage Heroine, Activist & Artist Madeleine McDowell

Madeleine McDowell’s love of the Humber River and the land, people and structures that once surrounded it and currently border its banks started in her early childhood.

While overlooking the “phenomenal little river” on its east bank at Old Dundas Street earlier this week, the artist, activist and local historian recalled how, when she was a child, her parents would load her into a canoe – her father in the stern, her mother seated at the bow and Madeleine in the middle – and paddle through the marshes, observing wildlife.

“There were cliff swallows nesting in the sand pits on the east bank of the Humber and people would climb up and look at them. I desperately wanted to do that,” she said.

Her parents would stop at the shore and look up but they’d never let her climb up for a closer view of the animals, so as not to startle them.

 “I’ve never forgiven my parents for denying me that up-close-and-personal look at the birds,” she said, half jokingly. “On the other hand, they were absolutely right. And they taught me well.”

McDowell, who appears to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the people and events that have shaped the area, has spent decades fighting to preserve both the physical and natural heritage around the urban river.

“I try to speak for the Humber,” she said.

The river has tremendous historical significance. McDowell noted La Salle began his expedition to the Mississippi — “one of the three most important voyages of exploration in North American history,” she said — on the Humber in 1680.

“It’s the beginning of the voyage to the mouth of the Mississippi … That’s all here, only people in Toronto don’t know about it,” she said.

Heritage Toronto is presenting McDowell with its special achievement award in a ceremony Oct. 5 at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

McDowell’s passion for the environment and local history is matched by her modesty. She said she’s not sure why she’s being honoured and noted she’s always had a hard time accepting flattery.

“You step out the door and you see what’s going on and if something’s going wrong, you see if someone’s doing something about it. If not, then get involved. I’ve always done that,” she said.

“It isn’t what’s there, it’s what’s left to be done. It’s sort of on to the next and you forget about all the rest.”

McDowell was one of the activists that thwarted the complete demolition of the historic Lambton House – a hotel and tavern built in 1847, which is the last remaining vestige of the Lambton Mills period on the Humber –  and has worked to have it restored; she and her mother successfully campaigned to have the Humber designated as a National Heritage River; she continues to lead workshops and walks for students and the public on local history; she sat on the committee that helped to pass the city’s anti-idling bylaw; she was very active in the women’s movement and fought for equal pay for work of equal value legislation in the early 1970s and she also helped to establish a downtown shelter for homeless women called the 416 Drop-In.

She also wants to have the city recognize an approximately 260-year-old white oak on Jane Street at Weatherell, just north of Bloor, as a heritage tree.

McDowell’s activism and appreciation for the environment was fostered by her family. She was named after French-Canadian heroine Madeleine de Verchères, who, in 1692 at the age of 14, thwarted an Iroquois attack on her family’s farm. By the age of six or seven McDowell marveled at the fact that explorer Étienne Brûlé, in 1615, had trekked past the site where her home on Humbercrest Boulevard sits while making his way along the ancient Toronto Carrying Place Trail – an aboriginal route between Lake Simcoe and Lake Ontario, at least 4,000-years-old. Her great uncle gave her a copy of “An Illustrated History of Canada” to study.

“Canadian history, both the aboriginal history and the French history and the other stuff since — I’ve been brought up with it all my life,” she explained.

McDowell said a love of the environment is likely present in all people, but it needs “encouragement”. She believes a deeper understanding of our local history may prompt a greater appreciation of the city’s natural heritage.

“Toronto, if it’s a Huron word, it means a place of many, a place of plenty. Plenty of animals, plenty of fruit, plenty of water, a richness … a good place to live,” she explained.

“It’s a good place to come to, it’s a good place to live, but we’ve got to know why. We have to know why and remember it.”

Others we’ve introduced you to:

Suresh Joachim, Canada’s #1 World Record Breaker
Yvonne Bambrick of the Toronto Cyclists’ Union
David Anderson, artistic director of Clay & Paper Theatre
Jason Gibbs, bee researcher

Anyone you’d like to know? Send your suggestions here.

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