Student Report on Ghost Rivers in the Urban Anthropocene

Reported by Cody Schmidt, class of 2025

This talk was hosted by HRC’s Citizenship Lab. The Citizenship Lab seeks to understand the transformation of citizenship and the ways in which citizenship is expressed through ecological, temporal, and spatial terms.

Professor Kregg Hetherington from Concordia University joined Duke Kunshan’s Citizenship Lab on February 17th to deliver a presentation titled “Ghost Rivers in the Urban Anthropocene.” Moderated by Citizenship Lab co-director Robin Rodd, the lecture recounted the story of the St. Pierre, a river that once ran through Montreal and nourished the city in its foundation, now considered a “ghost river.”

Professor Hetherington began his presentation by recounting the funeral of the last open water flow of the St. Pierre, killed by sewage from the city. He described the degradation as “smell, followed by disease, followed by burial,” with the river dying before the community’s eyes and culminating in this mourning. The somber funeral was complete with bagpipes and speeches honoring the life of the river. Hetherington observed the funeral as “a new social genre, about slow violence [and] colonialism.” The flow was then built over by a pipe, becoming another victim to the industrialization and settlement of Montreal.

The Ethnography Lab at Concordia sought to rebuild the story of this open flow, retracing the story of the St. Pierre back to the 17th century when settlers began affecting and redirecting the flow of the river. As Montreal became more colonized, the health of the river deteriorated, becoming “an open sewer that had to be covered” between the 19th and 20th centuries. It was subsequently buried and integrated into the city’s infrastructure in the form of underground sewer piping. Its history and importance was buried with it, and “ceased to matter except for the mysterious precursor to a pipe.”

Decades later, a piece of the St. Pierre was rediscovered in what was then known as Meadowbrook Creek, a piece of green space between residential development and a golf course. The creek had begun to smell, indicating disease, and burial appeared imminent. The Friends of Meadowbrook, the local conservation group discovered that their creek was at the mouth of the sewer used to cover the St. Pierre, contaminated from improperly connected pipes. Corruption in Montreal’s city planning and infrastructure facilitated this contamination, leading to the death of this last piece of open water flow of the St. Pierre. With this discovery, the Friends of Meadowbrook rebranded to the St. Pierre. The group advocated for its conservation, and hosted the funeral upon its burial.

The complex effects of colonialism were present at this funeral. The advocates were mostly white and middle-aged, stumbling over performing a land acknowledgement and incorporating ideas and language from indigenous struggles into their advocacy. They sought to curb an effect of colonialism, to try and save a piece of land from development and preserve Montreal’s original environment, but the process was not without clumsiness as the activists reckoned with their own past and privilege, as well as the appropriation of indigenous activist ideas in predominantly white, suburban environmental movements. They mourned, which Professor Hetherington believed was “submitting to a transformation” of their own relationship with the city and the environmental movement, recognizing the root causes of the modern struggle.