A coalition of worried environmental groups is calling on Premier Kathleen Wynne to refrain from transferring provincially owned land in Scarborough to Ottawa over fears that ecological protections in Bill C-40, the Rouge National Urban Park Act, are substantially weaker than those already in place.
Days after the federal Conservatives called C-40 for second reading debate on June 19, Environmental Defence, Ontario Nature and Friends of the Rouge Watershed issued a joint release saying the bill from Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq “fails to meet the standards needed for a sustainable national park that respects conservation science.”
The bill also falls well short of meeting the “ecological health and integrity objectives” of previously approved Rouge Park Management Plans, they argue.
As part of Ottawa’s plan to build a National Urban Park first announced in the 2011 Throne Speech from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Queen’s Park was expected to hand over roughly 10,000 acres of land worth an estimated $80 to $100 million. Much of this space is already protected by an array of provincial legislation, including the Greenbelt and Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Acts and Great Lakes Water Quality Improvement Plans.
“It would actually take us a giant step backwards in terms of protection,” said Jim Robb, spokesman for Friends of the Rouge Watershed in an interview. The existing Greenbelt Act and Oak Ridges Moraine plan developed by the province “are much stronger and much more visionary than the myopic plan put forward by the federal government.”
“The minute the provincial government transfers the land it’s a blank slate. Federal law would trump any provincial law once the ownership changes,” according to Robb.
Ottawa is coming to the table with 5,000 acres of land to add to the park, in addition to more than $143 million in funding over the next decade and $7.6 million annually after that.
“This legislation would establish the Rouge national urban park as a new model of protected area in Canada,” said Colin Carrie, Conservative MP and parliamentary assistant to the environment minister. “The legislation would ensure that all these natural, cultural, and agricultural landscapes are protected and managed in an integrated way to the benefit of Canadians, now and for generations to come.”
But the crux of the problem comes down to three words: “take into consideration”.
Clause 6 of Bill C-40 spells out how the park will be managed and what role the Minister will play in its oversight:
The Minister must, in the management of the Park, take into consideration the protection of its natural ecosystems and cultural landscapes and the maintenance of its native wildlife and of the health of those ecosystems.
“This clause looks like it makes sense on the first reading of it. It looks like it is a responsible measure,” said NDP MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan from Scarborough—Rouge River. “However, the language is weak compared to the existing legislation, which has stronger language.”
During her lead off presentation for the federal New Democrats in late June, Sitsabaiesan rattled off a litany of existing pieces of legislation currently governing parks in Ontario and across Canada that bind governments to uphold bolder and beefier protections for ecologically sensitive areas.
The Canada Parks Act says protecting ecological integrity will be the “first priority of the Minister” while the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act says the parks “shall be managed to maintain their ecological integrity.” Plans for the Greenbelt from the province and the existing Rouge Park from the City of Toronto also offer similarly stronger language than that used by Ottawa.
“What the government is doing is weakening the protection of my and the people’s park in Scarborough,” Sitsabaiesan said. “The government talks about protection, but in reality it weakens the protection for the park.”
The NDP’s environment critic Megan Leslie agreed. “How is taking consideration of a natural ecosystem actually going to fulfill the focus of all these other policies and pieces of legislation?’ she asked Carrie during second reading debate.
“‘Take into consideration’ is not a plan,” according to Liberal environment critic John McKay.
“Let me just sketch a scenario. The minister goes to the Province of Ontario and says, ‘We would like your thousand acres, or two thousand acres’—or whatever the number is—’and we want to know how you’re going to manage this plan and this park’. The minister says, ‘Trust me.’ Well, ‘trust me’ does not cut it,” he said.
But Carrie disagrees. “The bill would give the Rouge the highest level of ecological protection it has ever had,” he said in his opening remarks.
In response to a question from Scarborough NDP MP Dan Harris about Jim Robb’s concern, Carrie said “there appear to be certain single-focus groups out there that may or may not have some misunderstanding of what exactly is going on with the new act.” Carrie acknowledged that Robb did travel to Ottawa to speak with him about his concerns regarding the legislation and that he will be meeting with Robb “in the near future” to help answer his questions.
Parks Canada, the agency tasked by the Minister with maintaining the park, released a draft management plan for the park in late June. Public consultations are expected in Toronto, Pickering and Markham in July, August and September of this year.
Part of the problem is that public land in heavily developed southern Ontario is extremely rare, so the impetus to get it right the first time is crucial, according to Anne Bell, conservation director with Ontario Nature. “The opportunity to protect these lands won’t come again,” she said in an recent interview.
Queen’s Park has a big bargaining chip in refusing to hand over this land to Ottawa given provincial greenspace makes up more than two-thirds of the projected park the Tories are claiming will be 16 times larger than Central Park in New York City, Bell said.
Wynne and newly minted provincial Environment and Climate Change minister Glen Murray would be wise to use that leverage to ensure the best protections are kept in place for the Rouge.
More on this to come.