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Alberta's North Saskatchewan earns heritage river status

The North Saskatchewan River is shown in southwest Edmonton. (David Bajer/CBC - image credit)
The North Saskatchewan River is shown in southwest Edmonton. (David Bajer/CBC - image credit)

The governments of Canada and Alberta have declared that the entire portion of the North Saskatchewan River flowing through Alberta is now recognized as a Canadian Heritage River.

A 49-kilometre stretch of the river, coursing through Banff National Park, already holds designation under the Canadian Heritage Rivers system.

The remaining 718 kilometres of the river's path within the province, including Edmonton's river valley, is now included in the Canadian Heritage Rivers System.

The Canadian Heritage Rivers System is a national program for recognizing the cultural and recreational values of waterways. It was established in 1984 and there are 41 heritage rivers recognized across the country.

Smoky Lake County has been a driving force behind the multi-year project to get the North Saskatchewan River designated since 2019.

Kyle Schole, vice-chair of the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance, has been meeting with the province, Indigenous leaders, as well as with other counties and municipalities to build support for the designation project.

Signage and maps around the water, opportunities for eco tours and river watch, are effective ways to balance conservation with recreational water use, Schole said in an interview with CBC News.

"Having a designation like this acts as a vehicle for [municipalities] to convene and collaborate," Schole said.

The waterway flows through 16 municipalities in the province, including Smoky Lake County.

The designation will allow communities along the river to work together to do environmental monitoring.

"It establishes this vision of how we want to work together to steward it so future generations are going to be able to enjoy the river like we do and like our ancestors did," he said.

Edmontonians enjoy rented kayaks and canoes on the North Saskatchewan River.
Edmontonians enjoy rented kayaks and canoes on the North Saskatchewan River.

Edmontonians enjoy rented kayaks and canoes on the North Saskatchewan River. (Stefan Voelker/Edmonton Canoe)

The North Saskatchewan River is a traditional gathering place, travel route, and home to Indigenous peoples including the Cree, Blackfoot, Dene, Métis, among other Indigenous communities.

Andrea Sandmaier, president of the Otipemisiwak Métis Government of the Métis Nation within Alberta, said the North Saskatchewan River was a main waterway for Métis fur traders dating back to the 1600s.

"Today, many Métis still canoe or kayak on the river, and harvest in nearby communities," Sandmaier said in a statement to CBC News on Saturday.

"Our government fully supports the decision to have the entire portion of the river through Alberta declared a Canadian Heritage site," she said.

The challenge now is to make the river accessible for recreation and tourism, while still keeping environmental conservation in mind, according to independent Alberta Senator Paula Simons.

In Edmonton, Simons said focus should be on further connecting the city's network of bicycle and hiking trails along the river.

"For so long, we turned our back on our city's most beautiful asset," Simons said.

"For those of us to get off the bank of the river, and actually in the river, whether that's in our bathing suits, or in a boat, is an opportunity to literally see the city from a different perspective."