The collapse of the Ontario-Ottawa joint plan to create Canada’s first urban national park is interpreted by some as a victory for the environment at the expense of the Harper government, and by others as a crude policy on the part of Queen’s Park. We will side with this latter group. Ontario’s rationale for pulling out of the deal does not hold up to scrutiny.
The proposed Rouge National Urban Park in the east end of Toronto would combine Rouge Park, a provincial park, with adjacent federal lands, some of which have agricultural tenants, as well as small amounts of municipal property. To make this work, Ontario initially agreed to transfer Rouge Park to Ottawa, which would operate the site as a 5,665-hectare national park. It’s over 14 times the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
It seemed like a done deal until last fall, when Brad Duguid, Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development, Jobs and Infrastructure, started hedging. In September, he wrote to Ottawa complaining that Bill C-40, the law that created the federal park, did not include adequate environmental protections.
Last week, after C-40 passed the Senate without the amendments Ontario wanted, Mr. Duguid wrote a second letter to Ottawa saying the province would no longer transfer its lands to Ottawa.
It’s partly a matter of language. Bill C-40 states that Ottawa must “consider the protection of [the park’s] natural ecosystems and cultural landscapes and the maintenance of its native fauna and the health of these ecosystems. Ontario says “consider” is not strong enough; he wants Ottawa to explicitly state that the health, maintenance and protection of the park’s ecosystem is the top priority and that all environmental standards will meet or exceed existing provincial standards.
But let’s remember that this is an urban park. It doesn’t take place in the Canadian wilderness; it contains private residences and businesses, and is criss-crossed by highways, roads, rail lines, transmission lines, and utility lines, all in one concentrated area. Federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq pointed out that if Ottawa grants the new park the same protections as federal wilderness parks, complications could ensue. For example, if a forest fire were to occur, it should be left to burn, because that is how natural ecosystems work. Not exactly a realistic idea in the middle of a big city.
Moreover, if the rules were too rigid, Ottawa could not return any land to the province if it needed it for new infrastructure – a specific request from Ontario when the two parties signed a memorandum of understanding on the project. in 2013.
In other words, Ontario says the environmental protections in federal law must be absolute, but those protections must be flexible enough to allow it to build a transmission line through the park in the future, or a new road, or whatever it is that decides Ontario’s needs at that time.
Contrary to Ontario’s rigid position, Ottawa’s bill creating the park is a reasonable compromise. It specifically protects flora and fauna, as well as any endangered species. It prohibits hunting, dumping, mining, logging and other non-park-like activities – some of which, like logging, are still permitted in Ontario provincial parks . There would be full-time Parks Canada rangers to enforce the rules.
In addition, Ottawa has committed $143.7 million to the project over 10 years, far more than the province has ever promised for Rouge Park. It is a good law, given the particularities of a national park in the heart of the Greater Toronto Area.
Mr. Duguid, however, will not recognize it. It seems his government’s interests do not include letting the federal Conservatives announce a new national park in the GTA during this election cycle. “There are federal elections this year,” Duguid told reporters last week. “I expect that after that, whether this government is re-elected or there is a new government elected, there may well be a change of heart by then.”
Mr. Duguid has the support of some national and provincial environmental groups, which echo his concerns that the protections in federal law do not meet or exceed provincial standards, and are even lower than federal standards. The groups also argue in a letter to Ms Aglukkaq that the law is not sufficiently compelling about the government’s duty to preserve the park for future generations, and that it does not specifically call for “scientific” management.
These are not compelling concerns. There is no doubt that the Harper government has been no friend to environmental groups, particularly in disputes over natural resources. Moreover, we have repeatedly criticized Ottawa for its willful silence on Environment Canada scientists. And it has a poor record on the overarching environmental issue of the time, climate change.
But the Rouge National Urban Park project cannot be lumped into a big non-green pot. Ottawa’s plan has the support of a number of local environmentalists who have been associated with Rouge Park for decades. To them, Ottawa offers a long-awaited chance to preserve and expand an unlikely natural treasure.
There is no doubt that the Harper government also has its eyes on the election and would like to see it happen as soon as possible. But at least his position is consistent. Ontario is playing games and jeopardizing a historic project in the process.