Canada’s first national urban park up in the air as Ontario threatens to withhold lands

WATCH ABOVE: Ontario minister Brad Duguid on the federal government’s Rouge Park bill

OTTAWA – The Ontario Liberals are in a final standoff with the federal Conservatives over the future of Canada’s first national urban park, with the province threatening to kill Ottawa’s plan unless the Senate strengthens environmental protection.

A bill to create the Rouge National Urban Park in Toronto, 16 times larger than Manhattan’s Central Park, has already passed in the House of Commons and is set for study at the Tory-dominated Senate environment committee on Thursday.

But the province, which owns a majority of the land that runs north of the Rouge River in east Toronto and Markham, says it won’t hand over its share unless changes are made.

“We will not transfer those lands and their park will be a shell of a piece of legislation to protect the Rouge, that doesn’t even touch the Rouge,” Brad Duguid, Ontario’s minister of economic development, employment and infrastructure, said in an interview.

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“Without these amendments and without two-thirds of the land, their park will be frankly a waste of everyone’s time.”

In a letter to Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq this week, Duguid asks for three amendments, expected to be introduced by the Senate Liberals on Thursday:

  • In a section about establishing the park, replace the term promoting a vibrant farming community with “agriculture community”;
  • Ensure the environment minister gives priority to protection of the park’s ecosystems;
  • Create an advisory committee to manage the park, including a scientific panel.

Duguid, who is the MPP for Scarborough Centre, also suggested the issue could impact the Conservatives in the upcoming federal election. The Tories won a majority of seats in 2011 in the Greater Toronto Area.

“Do they want this to be an election issue in the next election? Or do they want to be the government that actually creates the Rouge Park and works with all of us to make it happen?” he said.

Bill C-40 would expand the park to 15,000 acres, and creates the first protected urban area for some 1,700 species of plants and animals.

According to a Parks Canada poll, 88 per cent of respondents support the concept of establishing the urban park, which would be in close proximity to 20 per cent of Canada’s population. More than 150 provincial, municipal, aboriginal, and community groups were consulted on its creation.

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‘Farmers come first’

But the province’s concerns about environmental protection have dogged the project, first announced in 2011.

The Conservatives argue there needs to be a balance between protecting nature and the concerns of farmers who use about half of the fertile parkland for agriculture.

Watch: Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq responds to Ontario’s criticisms

“Farmers matter. People matter. And (Duguid’s) proposal is putting plants before farmers. I will not shut down (the) farming industry in support of the Liberal government’s amendments,” Aglukkaq said in an interview.

Aglukkaq said the bill creates higher environmental standards by enshrining into law the use of fulltime enforcement officers, by banning mining and hunting, and fines for illegal activities such as poaching.

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The federal government has also pledged more than $140 million over 10 years for the park’s protection and development, and $7.6 million per year after that.

Aglukkaq said Duguid is not living up to his government’s promise when Ontario signed a memorandum of understanding.

“It is unfortunate that he is playing politics with this very important issue, and we will continue to go forward and make sure we move forward in balancing the needs of developing a park as well as the needs of the citizens that live in that region,” she said.

Duguid and Aglukkaq were set to speak about the bill in a phone call on Wednesday.

It’s not the first time Duguid has asked Aglukkaq for changes to the bill, which passed in the House of Commons without any amendments and without support from either the federal Liberals or NDP.

Aglukkaq said she’s only heard about Duguid’s concerns through the media, but letters provided from his office show he’s been writing since at least last September.

The province has since toned down some of its demands – including a reference to ecological integrity, which the Conservatives have painted as too restrictive in an urban setting.

Jim Robb, general manager of the environmental group Friends of the Rouge Watershed, believes the current legislation is too weak to ensure full protection for the environment.

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“I think from the province’s perspective, what’s being put forward is reasonable and fits with the general provincial policies that are there for Rouge Park now,” he said.

“We’re still concerned that within a park’s boundaries, nature conservation (is) given priority. And we’re not totally sure that this compromising wording contains that. We’re hoping it does, but we’re not sure about that.”

Kim Empringham, a farmer representing the York Region Federation of Agriculture, testified at a Parliamentary committee last October that farming communities have been caring for the land and growing food for the past 200 years.

“For the farms to be environmentally and economically sustainable in the park, it will be important to ensure that farmers will not have unnecessary regulations or restrictions placed on them,” Empringham said.

“They cannot be put at a competitive disadvantage compared with other farms across the province.”

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