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Rivers of Canada

Saint John River (Atlantic region)

Source: Northern Maine
Mouth: Bay of Fundy at Saint John, New Brunswick
Direction of flow: southeast
Length: 673 kilometres
Origin of name: named by Samuel de Champlain and Pierre Du Gua de Monts on June 24, 1604, the feast day of St. John the Baptist
Maliseet name: Wolastoq, meaning "good river" or "beautiful river"

The largest river system in the Atlantic provinces, the Saint John starts out as a wilderness river coursing through the forests of northern Maine. It forms the border between Maine, Quebec and New Brunswick. In northwestern New Brunswick, it flows tamely through farmland, then tumbles into steep gorges where it is harnessed by hydro dams. Near Fredericton, the river is wide and tranquil as it enters its estuary of islands, marshes and pastures. At the city of Saint John, the river ends its journey in a dramatic show of nature’s force: the Bay of Fundy tides cause the river to reverse its flow twice a day in a narrow rocky gorge, a phenomenon called Reversing Falls.

River life
The Furbish’s lousewort is a very particular plant. The only place in the world it grows is in a few select spots along the banks of the upper Saint John River in New Brunswick and Maine. In New Brunswick, it has been found in five locations, all between Grand Falls and Perth-Andover. A perennial herb with small, yellow flowers that resemble a snapdragon, the Furbish’s lousewort is an endangered species protected under the Species at Risk Act.

The Furbish’s lousewort tends to flourish on unstable, semi-shaded riverbanks that are subject to erosion by flooding and scouring ice. These natural disturbances periodically remove competing vegetation from the shoreline, allowing the lousewort to grow. Over the past 50 years, a significant amount of the plant’s habitat has been lost. Since most lousewort are found on private property, landowners are key to protecting this rare flora.

Cultural legacy
The Maliseet were the first inhabitants of the Saint John River valley and among the first aboriginal people to establish trade with the French in the 17th century. Samuel de Champlain explored the mouth of the river in 1604. Fort La Tour, the first European settlement on the river, was built on the site of present-day Saint John in 1632. Acadian communities dotted the lower Saint John in the 17th and 18th centuries, before falling under English control in 1759.

The Saint John Valley provided refuge to Loyalists fleeing the American War of Independence in the 1780s, forcing Acadians farther north to the upper reaches of the river in the Madawaska region. In the early 19th century, the timber industry developed; logs were driven downriver from northern New Brunswick to the thriving port of Saint John. Forestry is still key to the Saint John Valley’s economy, as are agriculture and hydroelectric power generation. Hemmed by the Trans-Canada Highway, the river remains an important link through New Brunswick.

Current state
Runoff from New Brunswick’s largest agricultural area, municipal waste and effluents from five pulp and paper mills and several large food processing plants enter the Saint John River as it winds its way through the heart of the province to the Bay of Fundy. Five major hydroelectric dams harness its power. The Canadian Rivers Institute has been investigating the cumulative effects of these sources of pollution on the river’s fish populations since 1999. While the river is in better shape than it was in the 1960s, the study has found that fish are significantly affected by agricultural activities and food processing plants.

The mouth of the river is of particular concern. It is home to New Brunswick’s largest urban population. About half of Saint John’s municipal waste and sewage is still discharged into the harbour untreated. The harbour is also polluted by Canada’s largest oil refinery, thermal plants and shipping, a situation complicated by the Bay of Fundy’s tides and the reversal of flow at the river’s mouth.


Lousewort This animation creates a self-guided tour. It contains photos of the Furbish’s lousewort and its unique habitat that can be explored by zooming in on detail and moving the viewfinder around. A map depicts the locations it can be found, and two graphs illustrate man-made threats to the plant’s habitat, such as commercial development and recreation.


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The Fraser River basin covers what percentage of British Columbia?