Little Rouge River Lookout, Toronto

Little Rouge River Lookout by John Vetterli. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

A standoff is brewing east of Toronto in the Rouge Valley between Queen’s Park and the federal government over the proposed Rouge National Urban Park.

Ontario Infrastructure Minister Brad Duguid made it clear to federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq that the province would not hand 5,400 acres of land it owns, stretching from Lake Ontario to Markham, over to Ottawa to create the new 10,000 acre park.  

At issue is the wording of Bill C-40, the Rouge National Urban Park Act, which began second reading in June. Much of the 5,400 acres Ontario controls are currently protected by the Oak Ridges Moraine Act or Greenbelt legislation which stipulate ecological protection must be the top priority for the agency that controls it. If the province transfers ownership of their land, it would instead be governed by the new Rouge National Urban Park Act.

In June, a coalition of environmental groups urged the provincial government not to do so, citing their significant concerns with the lack of environmental protections built into the new legislation. Ontario came to share their concerns earlier this month.

But ecological concerns are certainly not the top priority in the legislation as written, according to Tim Grey, executive director of Environmental Defence and one of the groups urging Ontario to hold out for a better bill.

“The trend over the last number of years with park legislation … is to prioritize ecological integrity in the legislation to ensure that management is for that [purpose], [but] the draft federal legislation for the Rouge just says [the Minister] ‘shall have consideration for the natural values,’” Grey told A\J.

The difference between “shall consider” and “must consider” may not sound significant to the average person, Grey said, but it could prove a big deal down the road if Ottawa proposes less-than-desirable developments for the park.

“‘Shall have consideration’ means ‘Yeah, I considered [ecological protection] as the Minister and I decided to instead build a big condo in [the park],’” Grey said.

The best course of action would be to move towards a science-based approach to measuring the ecological integrity of the park. That way, as future developments are proposed, the community has a benchmark to measure the impacts of any development on the health and well-being of the parklands.

But Aglukkaq responded to Duguid’s September 2 letter with a volley of her own, saying Ottawa was “disappointed” and surprised that Queen’s Park was only now raising these objections which hadn’t previously been stated.

“This decision is surprising as there has been no previous indication from your ministry that the policies or legislation for the Rouge National Urban Park would prevent your support for the transfer of the provincial land,” wrote Aglukkaq in a letter printed in the Toronto Star.

Aglukkaq also argued the prioritizing of ecological integrity may make sense in how National Parks are managed, but a National Urban Park must be governed in a unique way to balance the needs of people already on the land. In the case of the Rouge, federally-owned acres set to become part of the park are currently farmed by farmers with short-term leases issued by the federal government.

“In practical terms, the concept of ‘ecological integrity’ as it applies to Canada’s national parks is simply unachievable in an urban setting,” said Aglukkaq in her letter.

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.

In order to gauge attitudes towards the park, Parks Canada held four public consultations in Markham, Scarborough, Pickering and Toronto in mid-September but refused to allow attendees to question senior agency staff on Bill C-40. Instead, concerned residents were told to take their thoughts on the legislation directly to their Member of Parliament.

Anne Bell, Conservation Director with Ontario Nature, said in an interview this week that since the Rouge National Urban Park legislation is the first of its kind and could become the template for how similar parks are created across Canada, there is an even greater imperative to get it right.

On Ottawa’s decision to hold steady, her organization is disappointed, “but we’re still going to fight,” Bell said. “Why would we hand [the lands] over if we weren't sure that the federal government is going to take care of them?”

Ontario appears to have little interest in creating a provincial park with the lands, nor are they seeking to pick a fight with Ottawa, Minister Duguid told A\J this week. He remains confident the province can find a compromise with the federal government palatable enough that Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government and the environmental community can get onboard.

“The province owns two thirds of the land,” Duguid said, “so for a National Park to be even remotely meaningful, the provincial lands would need be included.”

Andrew Reeves is an environmental writer completing a book about Asian carp in North America. He is a contributing editor at Alternatives Journal and This Magazine’s environmental columnist. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights.

Follow him on Twitter.

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