Airplane over Field Pickering A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Photo © Jörg Hackemann \ Fotolia.com

Residents opposing the Pickering airport have come to expect the unexpected.

In their 40-plus years of struggle against a development many feel prioritizes business interests over prime agricultural farmland, the story has unfolded in fits and starts. Long periods of inactivity on the part of the federal government are punctuated by seemingly random, unanticipated announcements, jump-starting worried citizens waiting for the struggle to begin again, as it recently has.

The history of the struggle against an airport in north Pickering, a growing suburb to the east of Toronto, suggests that until a firm and unequivocal commitment is made by Ottawa to abandon the project full stop, the citizen activists central to the struggle to halt the development can never be sure the project won’t find new life, at some distant moment, under yet another government.

Most frustrating for those who oppose the project is that in their estimation, no one, in more than 40 years of discussion, has presented an adequate explanation for why Pickering needs its own Mirabel, a Greater Toronto Hamilton Area equivalent of Montreal's white elephant airport that has become synonymous with poor air transportation planning in Canada.

When the Liberal government of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau announced that 18,600 acres of Southern Ontario class one farmland northeast of Toronto was to be set aside for an airport in the GTHA, the shock that rippled through the community that stood in the way was palpable.

“The announcement of expropriations was literally out of the blue,” said Mary Delaney, a resident activist involved with Land Over Landings, a group now central to the continued struggle against the airport. “The Reeve of Pickering Township heard about it on the news as he drove home that day.”

That day was March 2, 1972. Projecting rapid population expansion in the GTHA would necessitate further access to air travel, the federal Minister of Transport, Donald Jamieson, said publicly it would be “criminally negligent” if the area did not have another airport to serve Southwestern Ontario by 1980.

In response, People or Planes rose up immediately to protest an airport many felt was unjustifiable and unnecessary. Moreover, no one bothered asking local residents who would be impacted by the development what they thought about the proposal.

Sandra C. Budden, an active member of People or Planes, wrote an editorial for Alternatives Journal’s Fall 1972 edition as part of the group’s effort to educate the public about the project; the piece details the history of the struggle, explaining why the airport protest had nothing to do with property values or preserving unobstructed views.

“As we launched ourselves into the fray, we soon became aware that this issue was not just a regional one concerning the high-handed treatment by a government of its citizens,” she wrote at the time.

“It was a national, indeed a world-wide, issue, challenging the thinking which creates a kind of growth which now threatens civilization.”

To Delaney, their grassroots opposition “was awe-inspiring, really,” she told A\J recently.

“They rallied by the thousands and it really became a national movement. Most of the people who lived there did the organizing through party line telephones, knocking on doors and letter writing campaigns,” she said. “It’s almost inconceivable now in the day of Twitter feeds.”

While the land was set aside by federal decree, People or Planes knew the provincial government of Progressive Conservative Premier William Davis could play a vital role in halting the development if his government could be convinced the issue was a large enough local and provincial concern.

Davis, who took office on March 1, 1971, would eventually show himself willing to respond to environmental issues, though only if there was significant public enthusiasm for a proposed change. If it could garner votes for the Tories, Davis would consider it.

People or Planes set to work. The group resorted to media-seeking stunts on the front lawn of Queen’s Park, the seat of provincial power in the province; protest marches and mock hangings of Trudeau and Davis garnered the press attention so vital to informing the public of the impacts another GTHA airport could have on food production and air pollution.

To make national headlines, one Planes or People member even flew his hang glider to Ottawa, landing on the grass in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa, an act inconceivable now in a post 9/11 world.

But a plethora of research and quiet diplomacy was occurring behind the scenes, Delaney said; in fact, research conducted by local lawyers, economists, rural and transportation planners and aviation exports remains in use to this day by the new generation who inherited the ongoing dispute.

“Some of the initial researchers are still doing work on this issue,” Delaney said. “And the research they compiled will outstrip all of what the federal government has done to prove there is a business case to be made for the airport because there is no business case to be made; there never was, isn’t now and never will be.”

By 1975, years of political agitation from concerned citizens groups like People or Planes, coupled with the federal government’s inability to effectively demonstrate the economic value the airport would bring to the region, had eroded local government support.

Premier Davis, sensing a political win to be had in siding with the public’s environmental concerns, declared his government would not approve construction of the sewage and water lines to the site, effectively killing the plan.

People or Planes had helped squash the plans, though they could not have known at the time they had won only the first phase of what would prove to be a long-term, ongoing fight against the Pickering airport.

Phase two began more than 25 years later when the federal government under Prime Minister Jean Chretien blew the dust off the airport project, again without warning. Transport Canada announced in 2001 they would begin examining the development because of insufficient capacity at the GTHA’s existing airports in Toronto, Buttonville and Hamilton.

“Nothing really happened for 25 years or so,” Delaney said. “Every now and then they would talk about selling the land or there would be a protest and governments would come and go. But it wasn’t until after 2000 that they started getting really into the demolitions of structures onsite, and that’s when I got involved.”

Though People or Planes had waged a hard-fought three-year campaign against the airport, the organization effectively ceased to exist after Davis pulled the plug in 1975. But once Transport Canada announced plans were once again under examination, local opponents realized the issue was dormant, not dead, and something had to be done.

“Many of us met and said we need to form a new group that combined together concern over farmland, air and water pollution and the destruction of heritage buildings,” Delaney said.

“But we knew it was not enough to be against something like an airport or development ­– you have to be for something,” she said.

“We realized after all these decades of opposition and with heritage communities like Altona destroyed, that what’s still here is the land and the water, and that’s worth fighting for.”

Land Over Landings, a loving homage to their predecessor, was the result of that collaboration, founded in 2005.

Another decade was to pass in the ongoing phony war with the federal government, as little was said about whether Ottawa intended to continue with the project. But the latest surprise in the four-decade struggle came in June 2013. At an announcement on the transfer of lands in Toronto and Pickering towards the creation of the Rouge Valley National Urban Park attended by federal finance minister Jim Flaherty and provincial transportation minister Glen Murray, Flaherty dropped a bombshell that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was committed to ensuring the Pickering airport was operational by 2017.

“I’m here to confirm that the uncertainty ends today,” Flaherty told reporters. “The Harper government is moving forward with a responsible and balanced plan for the development and preservation of the Pickering lands.”

But Murray later told reporters he had been blindsided by the federal commitment, believing he and other officials were there to participate in a parks announcement.

If Ottawa intends to move forward with developing the land set aside for an airport, this is not the way to go about it, Murray said in June. “You cannot bring airports in if you provoke and confront the people who live in that area. If you’re going to start the debate you have to have a conversation first about whether or not and how this should happen. And this isn’t happening today.”

Whether the latest chapter in the ongoing Pickering airport saga proves to be the last remains to be seen, but history would suggest the issue is far from resolved. Yet for people like Delaney and others who have fought the airport in their spare time for years – decades, even – the process is beginning to wear on them.

“We’ve been fighting longer than People or Planes did from 1972 to 1975,” Delaney said. “You get tired and weary and worn out and despondent sometimes. But one of our members described us as a flock of geese; the lead goose falls behind when they get tired and another takes over for a while. So we hold each other up and you keep on keeping on,” she said.

Land Over Landings is continuing the public engagement their predecessors began in 1972, reaching out to local political leaders, other citizens groups fighting different but comparably contentious developments and the general public to spread the word.

Delaney thinks this is an issue leaders of all stripes can take up for different reasons. Right-leaning Toronto Mayor Rob Ford could support their cause as airport development funds could be used to fund Toronto-area subway and transit projects; provincial premier Kathleen Wynne, who also serves as agriculture minister, could appreciate the value of preserving class one farmland and encouraging the production of local food for consumption in the country’s largest market in Toronto; and federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau could right his father’s wrong by standing with the people of Pickering against an airport that remains as unnecessary now as it was then.

Delaney is adamant people will appreciate the basic argument Land Over Landings has been making since 2005; beyond there being no business case for the airport, clean water and local food will always be more vital than easy access to yet another area airport.

The people who make up Land Over Landings are not blind to the importance of growth in Durham Region where Pickering is found, or against development when done in a complementary or sustainable way.

“You can have a combination of agriculture, park land, human habitat and business uses on this land,” Delaney said. “They can work together for the benefit of all, but it needs political will to succeed,” which has been lacking to date.

“But this land is so important that shame on us if we don’t protect it.”

Andrew is an award-winning environmental writer based in Toronto with a Masters in Geography from the University of Toronto. Andrew covers environmental politics for the A\J Current Events blog and on his own blog, The Reeves Report. Follow him on Twitter.

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