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14 March 2022

5 Facts About Canada’s Amazing Rivers

Salmon in the Adams River, British Columbia

March 14th is International Day of Action for Rivers — a day to learn about the important role rivers play in our water ecosystem and to understand (and therefore mitigate) the stress placed on these vital waterways.

In Canada, we are lucky to house 7% of the world’s renewable freshwater and rivers are a vital part of that system. By supporting biodiversity and providing us with drinking water — not to mention the many historical, cultural and recreational uses — rivers are the rockstars of Canada’s ecosystem.

To celebrate the beauty and importance of rivers, we are bringing you cool facts about rivers in Canada:

Mackenzie River. Photo by: Colin Field/NWT Tourism

1. Canada’s longest river is the Mackenzie

The United States has the mighty Mississipi but we Canadians are lucky to have the mighty Mackenzie. While its American counterpart is slightly longer, the Mackenzie River, that flows from Great Slave Lake in the southern part of the Northwest Territories all the way to the Beauford Sea in the Arctic Ocean, is Canada’s longest river. While the Mackenzie itself is said to be just shy of 1,700 km long, its enitre river system actually runs for 4,241 km and forms Canada’s largest watershed, draining an area of nearly 2 million square km.

It is believed that more than 10,000 years ago, human migration followed the Mackenzie valley route from Asia to North America, thus being the first lands settled by Indigenous people in North America. The Mackenzie, named after a Scottish fur trader, goes by many names: the Dene name for it is Deh Cho, the Inuvialuktun name is Kuukpak and the Gwich’in name is Nagwichoonjik.

French River. Photo courtesy of Ontario Parks.

2. Ontario’s French River was the first designated Heritage River in Canada

The Canadian Heritage Rivers system was established in 1984 as a way to identify and protect the country’s important rivers. The French River — located just south of Sudbury — became the first river to earn that designation. Today there are more than 40 designated Heritage Rivers all around Canada with more are being nominated and added each year.

In Ontario, the French River has been joined by many other rivers important to the province, including the Grand River and the Thames River, both located in Ontario’s Southwest.

An aerial view of the community of Powell River, British Columbia. Photo by Andrew Strain/Destination BC.

3. The shortest river in Canada is on the Sunshine Coast

British Columbia is home to the Powell River, which at 500 metres long has the distinction of being Canada’s shortest. It flows through the community of the same name (seen above) and drains into the Salish Sea. It is just one of many rivers that drain into the vital Salish Sea on BC’s west coast.

Liard River Hot Springs. Photo by Megan McLellan/Destination BC

4. Canada is home to many wild rivers

Wild rivers, or free flowing rivers, are those that have remained untouched by human activity, such as the building of dams or the introduction of invasive species. These rivers are becoming scarce throughout the world, but Canada’s north is home to many and they are vital to supporting the diversity of wildlife and combating climate change.

The World Wildlife Fund recently identified 10 of Canada’s longest wild rivers as a way to call attention to the need for their protection. You can read the list here but number one on that list is the Liard River which flows in a u-shape between the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and British Columbia. It is 1,210 km long and supports much wildlife, including grizzly bears, moose, wood bison, caribou and chum salmon.

The Athabasca River flows north. Photo by: Travel Alberta / Phil Copithorne

5. Most of Canada’s rivers flow north

Even though 85% of Canada’s population lives along the southern border, most of our freshwater actually flows north. Nearly 40% of our water drains into the Hudson Bay and another 35% goes into the Arctic Ocean. Only about 15% and 10% respectively flows into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This means that many of our rivers actually flow south to north.

The Arctic drainage basin is dominated by the Mackenzie River (as noted above), while the St. Lawrence River is the largest river flowing into the Atlantic. In the west, The Fraser, Yukon and Columbia rivers all drain into the Pacific.