What farewell gift do you give a woman whose job for the past 15 years has been to protect, promote and improve the Ottawa River? How about a canoe, for paddling off into the sunset.
One suspects, however, that outgoing Riverkeeper Meredith Brown will instead opt to use her new boat for some flatwater fun in the aquatic playground that borders Ontario and Quebec.
Some 200 volunteers, donors and supporters of Ottawa Riverkeeper gathered Wednesday at the waterfront Mill St. Brew Pub to honour Brown for all her hard work and commitment.
Under Brown's leadership, the organization has grown from one to a dozen, with hundreds of volunteers.
Brown has decided to leave her long-held position at the end of the year but will stay on as a board member with the non-profit organization.
“You are the ones who inspire me, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart,” she told the room. “When people started coming together to protect that river, that kept me going.
"It's not an easy task to protect and defend a river as big as the Ottawa. I set about to build this amazing river community because I knew that's what it would take.
“It’s been an incredible honour and privilege to be the Riverkeeper for 15 years. I couldn’t have imagined doing anything better and I couldn’t imagine a better river to defend.”
Joining her at the party were her husband and two kids, whose support she acknowledged in a heartfelt way. “Really, everyone should be thanking my husband, Ronnie,” said Brown.
In honour of her tireless efforts, the organization is establishing the Meredith Brown Water Leader Apprenticeship Award.
On hand were Riverkeeper executive director Patrick Nadeau and such board members as Bridgehead Coffee president and CEO Tracey Clark, Fiona McKean, co-owner of The Opinicon resort and restaurant in the Rideau Lakes area, and Colleen Westeinde, accompanied by her husband, Jeff Westeinde, president of Zibi Canada. The company is co-developing a sustainable downtown waterfront community on Chaudière and Albert islands, on the Ottawa River.
Guests also included Jean-Michel Lemieux from the leadership team at Shopify, Thyme and Again's Sheila Whyte and Michael Moffatt, Liberal MP (Pontiac) Will Amos, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna, and Brown's mentor, Mark Mattson, founder and president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper.
Outgoing Ottawa city councillor David Chernushenko was down to his final days as chair of the municipality's environment and climate protection committee. “Where better to spend them than among kindred spirits and drinking beer,” he joked before presenting Brown with a framed Letter of Commendation on behalf of the mayor and city council, thanking her for her valuable contributions in promoting and improving the health of the Ottawa River and its tributaries.
Political journalist Evan Solomon, host of CTV’s Question Period, emceed the formal part of the evening, and very nicely summed up the love and appreciation everyone was feeling for Brown that night.
“You are one of those true leaders with quiet charisma,” he told his good friend. “You’ve left an organization much stronger than you found it. You’ve built teams. You’ve built resilience. In a sense, you’ve embodied what a river does: carry people along.”
Board chair Geoff Green, president and founder of the Students on Ice Foundation, could not attend but he did deliver a tribute via video. “The river would not be the same if it wasn’t for you and the work that you’ve done in the last 15 years,” he told Brown. “We all want to make a difference with our lives, and you have. You have. And I know you’re going to continue that in the years to come.”
Green joked about re-naming the Ottawa River in Brown’s honour. Unfortunately, the Meredith River is already taken, in Tasmania. There's also a Brown River, in New Zealand, Quebec and Papua New Guinea. That leaves the Meredith Brown River. “That’s got a ring to it,” he quipped, while sarcastically minimizing the necessary bureaucracy and paperwork required to make that happen.
On the gala scene, the Ottawa Riverkeeper has become known for its annual late-spring, outdoor, waterfront party. “It’s the most beautiful and original event of the year in Ottawa,” opined Solomon, who puts his public speaking talents to good use as the gala's emcee.
The gala volunteer committee includes Tania Kratt, who runs her own interior architecture and design firm, as well as Lara Van Loon and Penny Schroeder. They were honoured for the massive amount of work they put into making the Riverkeeper Gala such a memorable and successful fundraiser.
Van Loon reacted to her moment in the spotlight by randomly sinking to the floor in full-on splits. It was in keeping with the fun and carefree spirit of the party, which featured author Phil Jenkins singing on guitar, as well as James Van Loon and Jerome Marty crooning on guitar and accordion, respectively.
There was the big unveiling of a lightweight canoe from Echo Paddles, a Wakefield-based company owned by Andy Convery that makes high-end wood and composite canoes and canoe paddles. Convery also crafted the paddles previously presented to former Riverkeeper Gala honourees Mark Carney, Stephen Poloz, Kevin Vickers, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, Sen. Murray Sinclair, and Henry Burris.
The canoe had been bought for Brown with money pooled together by Ottawa Riverkeeper's current and past directors.
The organization has more than 500 volunteers who cumulatively spend thousands of hours each year helping to protect the Ottawa River, the room heard. The volunteers are: families, professionals, students, teachers, retirees, policy makers, Anglophones, Francophones, Indigenous people, paddlers, swimmers, boaters, anglers, surfers, sailors, sunset cruisers, romantic-shoreline walkers, and lazy river floaters, said Katie Shafley, events and volunteer coordinator for Ottawa Riverkeeper.
“Our volunteers all have one thing in common: their love of the Ottawa River and their drive to protect it for future generations," she said.