A railroad crossing in Rouge Park

Railroad Crossing in Rouge Park by Stefan Ogrisek  CC BY-SA 2.0

GTA Candidates Weigh in on Rouge Park

Supporters of the Rouge National Urban Park are banking on a change of government October 19 to get needed ecological protection

A survey of candidates in 16 Greater Toronto Area ridings last week revealed the New Democrats, Liberals and Greens are overwhelmingly in favour of improving the weak Rouge National Urban Park.

A survey of candidates in 16 Greater Toronto Area ridings last week revealed the New Democrats, Liberals and Greens are overwhelmingly in favour of improving the weak Rouge National Urban Park.

In September, Friends of the Rouge Watershed circulated a five-questions survey to candidates from all political parties asking whether, if elected, they would prioritize ecological integrity and address other failings in the existing legislation. Opposition candidates from Scarborough east to Whitby and north to Aurora stated their unequivocal support for, beyond enshrining ecological integrity into the bill, implementing the 1994 Rouge Park Management Plan; approve construction of a “main ecological corridor” to boost ecological diversity; work with the province to enlarge the park by 100 square kilometres; and remove the “dangerous misnomer” — “Urban” — from the park designation.

While the New Democrats and Greens responded affirmatively to all proposed amendments, the Liberal Party refused to remove the word “Urban” from the act. “Our priority is strengthening the Rouge National Urban Park Act to provide the Rouge Watershed with the same standard of ecological protection afforded to National Parks across the country, regardless of whether Rouge Park is urban or not,” wrote Jane Philpott, Liberal Party candidate for Markham—Stouffville.

No Conservative candidates participated in the survey.

“It is encouraging that so many federal candidates are willing to act locally to amend the Rouge National Park legislation to prioritize ecological integrity and respect conservation science,” said Friends of the Rouge Watershed President Kevin O’Connor. His organization has worked tirelessly to preserve the ecologically significant parklands nestled between Scarborough and Pickering stretching north to Markham and Uxbridge. Agricultural and natural features meet in the park, home to 1,700 species of mammals, insects, reptiles, birds and amphibians and Class 1 farmland.

Friends of the Rouge Watershed and other organizations like Ontario Nature had been advocating for the park to be designated a national park since the 1990s. Their dream came one step closer to reality when the 2011 Speech from the Throne included a promise from the Tories to offer 5,000 acres of federally-owned land to create the park, in addition to $143 million in funding over the next decade and $7.6 million annually after that.

But problems emerged soon after Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government began debating the bill in June 2013. Environmental groups and opposition parties seized onto three words in the bill — “take into consideration” — which many felt fell far short of the guaranteed ecological protection offered by provincial legislation that governed much of the Rouge lands. Why create a federal park with weaker ecological protections than those afforded by existing provincial laws, argued Jim Robb with Friends of the Rouge Watershed. “It would actually take us a giant step backwards in terms of protection,” Robb told Alternatives Journal. The existing Greenbelt Act and Oak Ridges Moraine plans developed by Queen’s Park “are much stronger and much more visionary than the myopic plan put forward by the federal government.”

The Conservatives refused to amend the legislation and, in March 2015, Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne signalled her government wouldn’t add provincial land to the Rouge Park because of a dispute with Ottawa over how the land would be governed. Since then, proponents for a more fulsome Rouge National Urban Park have advocated for whichever party wins the October 19 election to amend the legislation to address its shortcomings.

The goal of the survey was to engage with community leaders about the park and gauge the level of support for the kind of changes FRW is advocating for. “We’re very encouraged by the results,” Robb said. Perhaps they should be. The Friends of the Rouge Watershed survey suggests that, should the current opposition parties unseat the Conservative government, the ecological protections so badly needed in Rouge Park could be on the way.

Andrew Reeves is the Editor-in-Chief of Alternatives Journal. Overrun, his book about Asian carp in North America, will be published in Spring 2019 by ECW Press. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights. Follow him on Twitter.