Parks Canada and Windsor explore possibility of new national urban park

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Map showing Detroit in relation to the location of the proposed new national urban park in Windsor. Image: City of Windsor

By Nicolas Simon

Parks Canada and Windsor are exploring the possibilities of transforming some of the city’s most environmentally sensitive areas into a new national urban park.

But a dispute between the city and the Windsor Port Authority stalled the project.

The national urban park project was announced last summer and has a budget of $ 130 million ($ 105 million) drawn from $ 2.3 billion ($ 1.86 billion) in funding. to help Canada reach its goal of preserving 25% of the country’s waterways and coasts by 2025..

The goal of the project is “to expand Canadians’ access to nature” and to represent “the next evolution of Parks Canada,” according to Daemen Wall, who works for media relations at Parks Canada.

According to Parks Canada, COVID-19 has increased both the relevance of the park system and the demand for more outdoor recreation spaces.

“Many Canadian cities are experiencing unprecedented growth in population and density,” Wall said, “putting pressure on their existing park systems. At the same time, Canadians are increasingly looking for parks nearby – especially since the physical distancing associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ojibway Prairie Complex intends that the Detroit River has over 600 acres of undeveloped land. Image: City of Windsor

The Ojibway Prairie Resort site is a 10-minute drive south of downtown Windsor and includes over 600 acres of undeveloped land, including ancient trees and native grasslands.

Such sites are extremely rare in southern Ontario. Essex County, which encompasses Windsor and the surrounding area, has less than 6% of its original natural forest cover and less than 0.5% of its prairies intact, according to the Prairie Complex website.

City officials say they believe the national partnership offers a “unique opportunity,” according to Mayor Drew Dilkens.

The park complex has been a personal priority for him for years.

“The community has valued this land for many, many years and would love to see us add to this space, but also create a beautiful park in this urban environment,” said Dilkens.

The resort is named after the indigenous Ojibway people, known as the Anishnaabeg, who are part of the Anishinaabe nation.

The location of the park was also the site of one of the first European settlements along the Canadian side of the Detroit River.

In 1701, the commander of the newly created Fort Detroit, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, described the natural state of the region:

“There are such a large number of swans, that the rushes among which they are massed could be mistaken for lilies,” said Cadillac. “Golden pheasant, quail, partridge, woodcock, swarming turtledove swarm in the woods and cover the open countryside cut and interrupted by thickets of mature forest trees.

The “golden pheasant” and “turtledove” mentioned in this dispatch are now known as the great prairie chicken, which is no longer found in Canada, and the carrier pigeon, which became extinct in the early 1900s.

Map showing ownership of parcels of land in the park area. Image: City of Windsor.

Despite widespread habitat loss and rapid industrialization of the surrounding area, the site is home to an abundance of native plants and animals, including over 160 species that are threatened, endangered, or found in Canada only in the Ojibwa complex. , according to the park’s website.

Efforts to protect the area from development have been going on for decades. The city purchased the land for ecological preservation in the 1950s, according to city officials.

“They acquired this land because the council at the time realized the environmental sensitivity and the desire to preserve this land in its natural state in perpetuity,” said Dilkens.

Despite this foresight, land transactions and acquisitions over the following decades left the park made up of multiple complexes and amenities separated by industrial estates and residential areas.

City officials hope the partnership with Parks Canada will help combine these features into one cohesive park.

“The idea is to bring it all together to create a seamless experience that really helps create trails and a complete infrastructure (for biking) where you could be in this national urban park without even thinking that you are in a city because you are in such a large wooded area, ”Dilkens said.

This delicate land use situation has also caused tension between the federally-run Windsor Port Authority and city leaders over the status of a 20-acre piece of land known as Ojibway Shores, which is “the last considerably underdeveloped piece of waterfront in Windsor,” said Steve Salmons, the president and CEO of the port authority.

The Port Authority acquired this land in a land swap with the city in the early 2000s, when the city swapped Ojibway Shores for land further north.

Later, the port authority commissioned an ecological study after a public meeting indicated a strong desire to keep the land undeveloped. The report found several species of plants and animals that would be negatively affected if the site were developed.

City officials like Dilkens also agree with the need to preserve Ojibway Shores, which he calls the “most difficult room” on the way to future developments.

This is because the land is environmentally crucial for wildlife to both drink and to enter and exit the park complex from the river.

“To give certainty to the concept of national urban parks, what we are asking the federal government to do is to transfer this land from the port authority to Parks Canada, which would then give certainty to our residents that this land will be added to the Ojibway prairie. complex to preserve, ”said Dilkens.

The port authority sees the problem differently and has refused any deal that it believes does not pay it adequately.

“They never gave it to us, so I don’t know why we would give it to them,” Salmons said. “We gave them $ 3 million worth of goods for Ojibway Shores, so why would we give them back for free?” “

Over the summer, the port authority claimed it had received a fair deal that would transfer ownership, the first the city had proposed in decades. The land sought by the Harbor Authority was a smaller piece of land which was found to be economically viable due to its proximity to Windsor Airport.

The city withdrew its proposal the day before the vote, a move that Salmons said baffled port officials.

“We thought it was a victory for the community, the port, the city, and we got completely lost in trying to explain the current position of the city,” said Salmons.

Canadian Transport Minister in charge of port operations, Omar Alghabra, said any land transfer must be made between the city and the port authority, and not because of federal government intervention, according to Salmons.

“We support the preservation of this property and we support that the property be incorporated into national parks.” said Salmon. “But as the federal government has said, the city has to make a deal with us.”

Still, Windsor officials say this is an opportunity for the federal government to show support for the program, saying they hope Parks Canada’s beaver logo will help cut the remaining red tape.

“From our perspective, the fact that the lands are under the control of Parks Canada gives the people who live here the certainty that the federal government is serious and that it was not just an electoral ploy.” , Salmons said. “It would be a significant sign that this land is going to be preserved for our residents forever. “

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