Ford and Trudeau governments ‘come to an agreement’ on Highway 413

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The future of the Ford government’s signature Highway 413 project could soon be clearer, with an agreement between Ottawa and Queen’s Park almost final — after a pause on building work lasting almost three years.

The massive highway project, set to run from Milton, Ont., to Vaughan, was frozen in May 2021, after the federal government arrested its progress until protections for certain endangered species were guaranteed.

The freeze was applied under the Impact Assessment Act, which a recent Supreme Court of Canada opinion suggested may not be constitutional.

On Thursday, both Ontario’s transportation minister and attorney general said the Trudeau and Ford governments had agreed on the future of the project.

That agreement was sent to a court on Wednesday to be ratified as a consent order.

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“We have come to an agreement,” Attorney General Doug Downey told reporters. “We filed the consent with the federal court. And of course, because it’s in front of the courts, I can’t say more than that.”

Transportation Minister Prabmeet Sarkaria said his government was “working together” with the federal government over the future of the proposed highway.

“What I can say this moment is it’s still before the courts,” he said. “We’re working together with the federal government on it. And it has always been our priority, as everyone knows, to build Highway 413. And we’ll have more to say as the process evolves.”

A spokesperson for Sarkaria added: “Ontario and Canada have mutually agreed to resolve this litigation and have asked the federal court to issue a consent judgement. As this matter is before the court, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”

Global News contacted the federal government for comment but did not receive a reply in time for publication.

Environmental Defence, the advocacy group that initially asked the federal government to freeze Highway 413, announced Thursday morning the joint consent order had been filed.

The group said the consent order would “cancel” the current federal environmental assessment process, which is the delay to the highway.

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“The federal government needs to urgently introduce legislation that updates the Impact Assessment Act and that re-designates the Highway 413 project under it,” said Laura Bowman, a lawyer at Ecojustice, which represented Environmental Defence over the 413, said.

“Revoking the designation before a new Impact Assessment Act is in place was irresponsible and unnecessary.”

Downey said the process now lay in the hands of the courts.

“The court will look at the consent that we’ve filed and they’ll approve it or they won’t,” he said.

Some advocates and communities have staged demonstrations against the proposed Highway 413 route. The Canadian Press Images/Stephen C. Host

The proposed highway is a signature Ford government policy and was a key wedge issue during the 2022 provincial election.

Despite winning under a pledge to build Highway 413, the province has been unable to begin any kind of construction.

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While planning has been taking place behind the scenes, shovels have not been able to enter the ground since Ottawa used the Impact Assessment Act to pause the provincial highway plan in 2021.

The process meant Ontario could not begin building the route until the federal government was satisfied the province had dealt with ways the highway could hurt protected local species.

Under the Impact Assessment Act, Ontario had to file detailed explanations of how it would protect the species. Once the explanations were filed with the federal government, a timeline would begin which would ultimately decide if Ontario could keep building the route or if the Trudeau government would take over.

Before the consent order, Ontario had not announced that it had submitted any formal paperwork to the federal government to kickstart that process, although it had exchanged drafts and communications.

Provincial officials had blamed the federal government for moving the goalposts, while federal figures said Ontario had been dragging its heels.

A Supreme Court of Canada opinion in 2023 had cast large parts of the Impact Assessment Act into doubt.

In the latter half of the year, Ontario’s attorney general went to court to ask for the opinion — which is different from a Supreme Court decision — to be enforced and for Highway 413 to be unfrozen.

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“It began with a press conference downstairs a little while ago saying that we are not happy, we’ve since come to an agreement with the federal government, we filed (a) consent (order) and we’ll see what happens to that,” Downey said.

He did not say when an agreement with the federal government had been reached or when the result of the consent order process would be finalized and public.

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