Citizen brings charges against former Bracebridge mayor for violating Endangered Species Act

Blanding's Turtle Photo by Agnieszka Bacal/Shutterstock

Ontario’s new Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry is being accused of violating the Endangered Species Act.

On June 21, Bracebridge citizen Michael Opara charged Graydon Smith, the MPP for Parry Sound-Muskoka, with allegedly playing a role in endangering one of Ontario’s at-risk species, the Blanding’s turtle. The incident in question occurred during Smith’s tenure as Bracebridge, Ont.’s mayor, a position he held from 2010 to 2022.

Opara laid the charges three days before Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced Smith as one of his new cabinet ministers. Opara also brought charges against the town of Bracebridge, the town’s director of public works, Geoff Carleton, and the town’s chief administrative officer Stephen Rettie, all in relation to endangering Blanding’s turtles and their habitat.

Opara alleges that between June 8, and August 25, 2021, the town’s public works department disturbed a group of Blanding’s turtles, damaging their habitat by performing grading work on Peace Valley Road, where Opara lives. The site is a 15-minute drive northeast of Bracebridge.

Opara sent an email to the town on June 27, 2021, alerting Mayor Smith and a town councillor to the Blanding’s turtles in the area. Rather than putting a halt to the grading work, the public works department responded by changing the methodology, timing, and frequency of roadway operations where there was a risk of disturbing sensitive habitat, and erected turtle crossing signs in the area to advise equipment operators of the existing habitat, Bracebridge CAO Stephen Rettie wrote in a letter.

The charges have yet to be tested in court, but a Justice of the Peace did sign off on them, setting a court date for September 21 at the Bracebridge Courthouse.

In response to the allegations against the town of Bracebridge, Sarah Hahn, the town’s legal representative, wrote in an email that “these charging documents do not set out the details of any of the alleged offences and we are confident that they will be thrown out once a Justice of the Peace reviews the matter…The fact is, and the evidence will show, that the Town acted diligently and appropriately in completing required road works within the vicinity of the turtle habitat. It is unfortunate that town resources must now be used to respond to these baseless accusations.”

Despite repeated attempts to contact him, Graydon Smith did not respond to a request to comment on the allegations by the time of publishing this article.

David Donnelly, an environmental lawyer based in Toronto, says that the Justice of the Peace signing off on the charges and setting a court date proves that there is legitimacy to the charges. “The Justice of the Peace cannot and should not swear any information or issue process in cases that are lacking evidence,” Donnelly says.

Donnelly is not involved in the Bracebridge case but has participated in similar prosecutions, many of which have proved to be successful and resulted in changes to the law.

Once the accused appears in court on September 21, it is possible that charges could be dropped, if the individuals, such as Smith, can demonstrate that they weren’t involved in the decision-making relevant to the case, Donnelly says.

“But under the Endangered Species Act, it’s important that anyone who was responsible for the actual act or the decision making leading to the destruction of the endangered species be held accountable,” Donnelly says.

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