In the midst of an election campaign in Ontario, the one thing that’s not really up for debate by any party is that Canada’s history should never be paved over – much less by a highway.
But that is precisely what some residents fear is about to happen in an area known as the Lower Landing, on the Holland River about 60 kilometres north of Toronto.
Home to a navy depot during the War of 1812, the area is part of a bigger agricultural zone all too familiar to commuters and cottagers as they’re stuck in traffic entering and leaving the city. A new highway is about to speed things up – at the expense of the delicate land beneath it.
The Bradford Bypass is a 16.2-kilometre, four-lane stretch of road that the government of Ontario has already committed to – even before its own environmental studies are complete.
It’s designed to connect the congested north-south arteries of Highway 400 and the 404. The Bradford Bypass’s proposed route passes over the Holland River and cuts through part of the Holland Marsh, which has some of the province’s richest and rarest soil.
Even farmers who nominally support more roads to move their goods say this region is no place for a highway — though not all think that way. Some farmers and farm groups insist a highway is needed to deal with traffic congestion, which costs farmers money as they try to move their goods to market.
The Ford government is staking its electoral fortunes on infrastructure, which includes repairing or building highways and bridges. But in a province that’s grappling with massive health-care and education needs, including a multi-billion-dollar backlog for fixing schools, this is madness, critics say.
‘No place’ for a highway
Caught in the middle of the battle over the future of rural Ontario is Thomas To, a former city dweller who decided to move with his family 13 years ago to this still-idyllic region of unspoiled farmland and country lanes.
“I’m right in the line of fire,” To told Global News.
He and his neighbour, East Gwillimbury resident Bill Foster, are working feverishly to block the bypass.
They both concur that the region needs better transportation links. But they, along with many environmental groups, say the process for putting a highway has been totally flawed, with very little consultation.
“It just seemed very secretive,” To told Global News.
Trudging through the swampy land on his 24-acre lot, one hears the diligent clatter of woodpeckers and the discreet murmurs of a river.
“I would like to pass (the land) onto not just my two children, but even to future generations. Because if we wreck it, it won’t come back,” To says.
It’s beautiful and pristine – and even farmers who support building more roads to move their goods say this is no place for a highway. The type of soil found in the Holland Marsh, says Milton-area farmer Brandon Saliba, is “very, very rare” and preserving it, he says, is key.
“I think it would be a huge blow to the province to have that paved over,” Saliba adds.
Following the money
It’s hard to say exactly how much the Bradford Bypass will cost, but it’s estimated to be at least $800 million.
Whatever the cost, it’s a lot of money, says Randy Robinson, the Ontario director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, at a time when, he says, “Ontario schools need over $16 billion worth of repairs.”
Fixing schools or increasing spending on programs, which is the lowest in the country per capita in Ontario, would be better places to start investing public dollars, Robinson says.
Then there are the ‘unseen’ costs, including vehicle emissions, noise pollution, salt runoff into Lake Simcoe – and sprawl.
Read more: Urban noise and the dangers to our health
“It’s completely the opposite of what we need to be doing,” says Margaret Prophet, who heads the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition, a group opposed to the highway.
She says plans for the highway come straight out of “a 1950s development playbook,” ignoring everything that’s now known about the impacts of the climate crisis and sprawl.
Plus, she says, “it’s in the middle of nowhere.”
Don’t tell that to farmers who support the highway. They say they have to schedule their shipments to avoid gridlock, which costs them money.
“It’s a much-needed piece of infrastructure that we have been advocating for quite a while,” says Quinton Woods, the chair of the Holland Marsh Grower’s Association.
“Our farmers are having to deal with occurrences where they can only farm during certain hours because they actually can’t even get their tractors out on the road,” he said.
Some communities also insist the highway will ease congestion on their local streets.
In a statement to Global News, Wayne Emmerson, the Chairman and CEO of York Region, north of Toronto, said the new road “will help manage the projected growth of both York Region and Simcoe County, while also supporting the economic vitality of our communities, reducing congestion on local roads and improving the work-life balance of our residents.”
The Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury, which takes a slightly more cautious approach, said it supports the project “provided that all required environmental studies and public consultation programs are completed.”
The problem, say environmental groups, lawyers, and concerned residents, is that the Ford government has exempted the Bradford Bypass from Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Act, and is relying instead on the original assessment done in 1997 to justify proceeding with the project.
“I think it’s pretty clear that they’re intending to move ahead with the project, otherwise the exemption would not be required,” says Laura Bowman, a staff lawyer with the environmental law firm Ecojustice.
The Ford government points to 16 new environmental studies that are being completed for the Bypass.
But the fact the highway is exempt from the Environmental Assessment Act means there won’t be any senior environmental decision makers weighing in on its merits when those new studies are completed, Bowman insists.
“A decision to go ahead with the project has already been made,” she told Global News.
Bowman calls the process “window dressing,” and adds that the government has “basically just taken the Ministry of Environment completely out of the equation.”
Gord Miller, who served as environmental commissioner of Ontario from 2000 to 2015, agrees.
“This is a masterpiece of convoluted stuff that is … written to find ways to frustrate the channels of concern,” Miller said, referring to the exemption regulation.
‘Boondoggle’ highway projects
Bowman adds that “there are powerful forces – concrete, construction, developers and aggregate folks, all of whom benefit enormously from boondoggle highway projects.”
All over southern Ontario, developers and land speculators have gobbled up rural agricultural land in the Greenbelt, as well as so-called ‘whitebelt’ areas along the urban boundary. That land gets leased back to farmers until the developer decides it’s time to build on it.
To that effect, critics, including the former environmental commissioner, point out that the Bradford Bypass isn’t just a 16-kilometre highway. It’s a series of interchanges, plus the highway.
“Why are there interchanges in all these rural areas, on farmland?” Miller asks.
He believes it’s because interchanges spur development – and development fuels economic growth, often at the expense of the environment.
“Suburban sprawl is the driving money-making force that is causing (the government) to undermine the sophisticated land use planning and environmental protection that we have built up in this province.”
And while the province has virtually committed to building the road – even awarding a contract for a highway bridge – opponents of the Bradford Bypass aren’t going without a fight.
They’re pressing the federal government to do its own review of the project, which so far, Ottawa has refused to do.
“We just want it done correctly,” says Thomas To.
But, in this case, Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation, he says, is putting the cart before the horse.
The most challenging aspect, To says, is being stuck in limbo, not knowing what’s going to happen to a piece of property that’s been a point of pride for him and his family for over a decade.
“The worst feeling about it is, if the government wants to expropriate your land, you don’t have a choice.”