Environmentalist Geoff Green on how Ottawa Riverkeeper is inspiring next generation of water leaders

Non-profit organization prepares to host first large event at its new headquarters inside the newly restored NCC River House

Ottawa Riverkeeper
Ottawa Riverkeeper board chair Geoff Green with his daughter, Nellie, at the 2022 Ottawa Riverkeeper Gala, which is taking place next week on the Ottawa River, at the NCC River House. Photo by Martin Lipman
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Next week will mark the first time Ottawa Riverkeeper hosts a large gathering at its beautiful new headquarters, located at the freshly restored NCC River House on the Ottawa River.

The non-profit organization is planning to welcome hundreds of business and community supporters to the 10th anniversary of its signature fundraiser, the Ottawa Riverkeeper Gala. Canadian R&B singer Jully Black is headlining the May 31st event while Algonquin Elder Claudette Commanda is this year’s 2023 Honorary Riverkeeper.

Partygoers will trip-trap across the new pedestrian bridge on their way to the three-storey structure. It’s a strikingly handsome heritage boathouse, clad in white wooden siding with red trim. It features a massive wrap-around deck that overlooks one of our country’s great rivers, Kichi Sibi, which means Great River in the Algonquin language.

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NCC River House

The NCC River House, located along Sir George-Étienne Cartier Parkway, is owned by the National Capital Commission (NCC), a federal Crown corporation.

Among those excited to show off Riverkeeper’s new aquatic address is Geoff Green, long-time chair of the board, expedition leader, educator, and environmentalist. “It’s going to be just awesome to share it with everybody,” he said during an interview at the NCC River House.  “We notice when we bring people here, the second they walk across the bridge, everything changes. There’s something about being on water and being close to nature.”

Ottawa Riverkeeper board chair Geoff Green on the new pedestrian bridge that leads to the NCC River House, where the non-profit organization is now based. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Green’s involvement with Ottawa Riverkeeper stretches so far back that even he doesn’t know how many years he’s been chair of the board. Fourteen years is his best guess. He’s been on the board for even longer.

He attributes his staying power to the people and the cause, which is to protect, promote and improve the health of the Ottawa River and its tributaries and lakes. “Being on the board and part of this organization has been an honour and a real joy. It’s been great to watch the organization grow and increase its impact, and to see how respected it’s become. I’ve never heard of anyone that doesn’t love the Ottawa Riverkeeper.”

The married father of two is now ready to let someone new take the stern and help keep the organization pointed in the right direction. Green will step down this fall, after his work with the River House project is done. “I wanted to get it to the finish line, or you might say the new starting line,” said Green, who will continue to champion and support the organization in an advisory role.

Ottawa Riverkeeper chair Geoff Green presented Senator Rosa Galvez with the Water Leader Award during last year’s Ottawa Riverkeeper Gala. Photo by Martin Lipman

Ottawa Riverkeeper’s monumental move into the NCC River House was years in the making. It spent a decade looking for a suitable spot near the waterfront (most recently it was operating out of landlocked office space in the downtown core). It expressed interest in 50 Sussex and Westboro Beach but neither location panned out.

It got its big break when the NCC informed it, some six years ago, about plans to renovate the century-old boathouse, an historic landmark and former home to the Ottawa New Edinburgh Club. “The wheels started turning, and here we are,” said Green of an undertaking that has spanned three Riverkeepers: Meredith Brown, Elizabeth Logue and current Riverkeeper and CEO Laura Reinsborough. 

This large room, which features a sprung dance floor, is where Canadian R&B singer Jully Black is performing May 31st during the Ottawa Riverkeeper Gala. Photo by Caroline Phillips

“The entire board was involved,” said Green of the hard work that went into the River House project. “It was a real team effort, for sure.”

The NCC is now in the final stages of restoring the building to its original glory. There’s landscaping on the mainland to finish, as well as the installation of docks to allow for a safe public swimming area. The NCC is also making the property universally accessible.

First tenant for NCC River House

Ottawa Riverkeeper is the first tenant to move into River House. It has office space on the third floor and will run its seasonal public outreach, education and research centre on the first floor. The organization has a $5-million campaign to help with the expansion of its education and research programming. “We’re definitely hoping the gala is going to be a catalyst for people to understand what it’s all about and how their support is going to make a difference for Ottawa, Gatineau, the entire watershed and beyond,” said Green.  “As a convening hub, River House will inspire partnerships, awareness and action on freshwater issues with regional, national and international significance.”

For more than 20 years, Green has been leading educational expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic through his non-profit Students on Ice (SOI) Foundation. His commitment to fostering generations of ecologically conscious citizens has earned him the Order of Canada, l’Ordre national du Québec, the Explorer’s Club Citation of Merit, as well as an honorary doctorate degree from Nippising University.

And while he’s a renowned and respected global leader in ocean, polar and environmental education, he views Ottawa Riverkeeper as a local cause that citizens and businesses can get behind because it allows them to contribute to the environmental well-being of their community.

“Quite often, we’re so focused on big global environmental challenges, such as biodiversity loss and climate change, but here’s something really tangible that people can connect to, maybe more than some of the big global issues that can seem so daunting.

“With Ottawa Riverkeeper, people of all ages can really make a difference, on a more local scale, that still impacts the whole.”

The Ottawa River Watershed is huge. It stretches from Mont Tremblant to Temiscaming, down to the Rideau Lakes and over to Montreal. “It’s bigger than some countries and is shared by two provinces,” said Green, who resides along the Gatineau River in Chelsea, Que.  

“The watershed includes tributaries, lakes, creeks, wetlands, and aquifers. It all eventually winds up in the Ottawa River before connecting to the St. Lawrence and to the Atlantic Ocean”, said Green.

A room with a view at the Ottawa Riverkeepers’ new headquarters, located in the NCC River House on the Ottawa River. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Water plays a major part in our lives, he stressed. “We drink the water, we swim in it, we skate on it. It’s part of our health, it’s part of our economy, it’s part of our recreation, it’s part of our history. What would Ottawa and Gatineau be without the Rideau, Gatineau and Ottawa rivers? We wouldn’t be here.”

Green is particularly excited about the work Riverkeeper is doing to kick its educational activities into high gear at the River House. Introducing young people to the natural world can change their lives, believes Green, who, through his SOI Foundation, has funded and led 4,000 young people from 55 countries on educational expeditions to the planet’s polar regions. The youth have been from six continents, developed and developing nations, inner-city areas, small island states, and Indigenous communities from coast to coast to coast.

His own love of the outdoors began with a creek that practically ran through the backyard of his childhood home in rural Ontario. He grew up near Orono, about an hour east of Toronto. As a kid, his parents gave him almost total freedom to play, explore, sail, fish and swim in Wilmot Creek and Lake Ontario. 

Like many of his generation, Green also grew up watching Bill Mason’s ‘Paddle to the Sea’, the Oscar-nominated 1966 NFB short film. It’s about a small wooden canoe, carved by an Indigenous boy, that travels from a small creek into Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean. In 2017, when Green sailed coast to coast to coast as part of the extraordinary Canada C3 expedition, he had the original carving from ‘Paddle to the Sea’ on board with him, generously on loan from the Mason family.

“That film, that little creek, and the early lesson about how this planet is so interconnected are reasons why I’m standing here with you today,” said Green. “You give opportunity, inspiration, connection and experiences to young people at the beginning of their lives and their whole future can be different.”


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