In May 2012, the federal government announced $143 million in funding for a new national park on the eastern edge of Toronto, in the Rouge Valley. The announcement, by then-Minister of Environment Peter Kent, was greeted by both provincial and local politicians as the culmination of decades of activism to protect the Rouge.
Two years later, advocates for the Rouge say Ottawa has abandoned the park's core purpose, and the Ontario government is threatening to withhold the land it owns from the eventual national park. How did things fall apart?
The fundamental problem, both Queen's Park and Rouge activists say, is in the text of Bill C-40, the government's proposed law to create the new national park. (The Rouge's urban context made it a poor fit for Canada's existing parks legislation.) They say the bill, which is currently waiting to get its third reading in the House of Commons in Ottawa, doesn't make protecting nature the main priority for the park.
"You're basically not creating a protected area if you're not giving priority to conservation. It's just like everywhere else if it's not a priority," says Jim Robb, general manager at Friends of the Rouge Watershed.
In particular, activists believe the Rouge National Urban Park can play a vital role for wildlife in the region, allowing a green corridor for animals to travel from Lake Ontario north into the Oak Ridges Moraine. Robb, as well as the group Save the Oak Ridges Moraine, say Bill C-40 won't properly protect the corridor.
While Bill C-40 does mention "ecological integrity," it appears as just one of several objectives for the park's management.
The Conservative government says that prioritizing ecological integrity in an urban park is unrealistic. Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq told the parliamentary committee the bill couldn't prioritize ecological integrity because "conservation strategies that have ecological integrity as their goal must also allow processes that reflect the ecosystem's natural conditions."
"That means such ecological processes as wildfires, flooding, and pest outbreaks would need to be allowed to run their natural course, which is not desirable and realistic in an urban setting."
Rouge advocates say the federal government's reasons are red herrings, and that what they're really looking for is the government to monitor the ecological effects of the farming that will continue in the park no matter what.
The Rouge Park lands were originally expropriated in the 1970s. Ottawa and the province each confiscated large tracts of farmland for different purposes: the federal government wanted to build an airport, and the province wanted to build a highway. (Metro Toronto also had an interest in building a municipal landfill.)
All of the plans for the Rouge were later dropped in the face of community opposition, though the federal government has recently announced plans to go ahead with a new large airport in Pickering.
Since the 1970s, farmers have been allowed to continue leasing land in the Rouge area and continue farming — something Rouge advocates say they have no problem with. What they're looking for, they say, is regulation of farming's environmental impacts.
"Everyone knew when this park was announced that farming would be part of it. That's great. But let's make sure we know what the impact of that farming activity is, and mitigate the impacts if we need to," says Tim Gray, Executive Director of Environmental Defence, one of the other environmental organizations that's criticizing Bill C-40.
"I don't think farming should be phased out. The purpose of the park should be to highlight the role of agriculture in southern Ontario and have a place for it. If there are problems around particular practices, we'll have to do something about that. But the idea of removing farming isn't something that anyone I know has been talking about."
Robb agrees, saying that the Rouge Park can be a showcase for environmentally sustainable forms of farming.
The farmers, for their part, say they already practice environmentally sound management practices, with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture saying that farming choices should be left to the farmers themselves.
It's not just environmentalists criticizing the government for the lack of clear ecological protections in Bill C-40. It's also become yet another front in the battles between Ottawa and Queen's Park. In November, Economic Development and Infrastructure Minister Brad Duguid wrote to Aglukkaq (in a letter provided to The Agenda) to say that he could not recommend the province transfer its lands to the federal park, given the current state of Bill C-40.
The House of Commons briefly debated Bill C-40 before rising for the Christmas break last week. During the debate in the House, Conservative MP Paul Calandra repeatedly said the bill "would return this land to the farmers” that was expropriated 40 years ago. Calandra's characterization might be exactly what advocates fear.
Gray says he's not optimistic about the bill being changed in the Senate. Both he and Robb concede that it may take a change in government for the bill to be fixed. The NDP, Liberals, and Greens in Ottawa have stated they will vote against the bill, but that alone won't keep it from becoming law.
"One of the big problems I have with their legislation is it has no grounding in science. It doesn't live up to the provicial or national park legislation," Robb says. "The only way a stronger bill will pass is if there's a change in the balance of power in the next year."
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