Toronto Zoo, Parks Canada voice concerns over planned development of the Greenbelt

save the wetlands sign at protest in Pickering Photo by Bob Hilscher/Shutterstock

The province’s decision to remove 15 sections of protected land totalling 7,400 acres within the Greenbelt for housing development has been met with vigorous opposition from citizens and environmental and indigenous groups. Protests have erupted around Ontario as stakeholders voice concerns about the environmental impacts of developing the Greenbelt and point out that Ford promised he wouldn’t touch the Greenbelt during his re-election campaign. A series of missteps on the province’s part could thrust it into a series of legal complications.

Parks Canada issues letter in response to removal of Greenbelt lands

As part of its Greenbelt proposal, the Ford government plans to open a section of the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, an area of protected land in Pickering, for development. This section of land is adjacent to the Rouge National Urban Park, which falls under Parks Canada’s jurisdiction.

During the public consultation period for the Greenbelt amendment, Parks Canada submitted a letter to the Ontario government, pointing out that if the province developed this land without consulting Parks Canada, it would be breaking a Memorandum of Agreement between the provincial and federal governments.

The letter went on to say that a Parks Canada analysis found that developing the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve could cause irreversible harm to the wildlife, natural ecosystems, and agricultural landscapes within the Rouge National Urban Park.

“Parks Canada looks forward to productive discussions on the issue with the province,” said a spokesperson for the agency in an email.

Toronto Zoo concerned about how developing the Greenbelt lands will affect endangered species

Developing so close to the Rouge National Urban Park could also endanger Blanding’s turtles, which are protected under the federal government’s Species at Risk Act. To help the species recover, the Toronto Zoo, in collaboration with Parks Canada, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), has been raising Blanding’s turtles and then releasing them into the Rouge National Urban Park.

“Since 2012, 603 Blanding’s turtles have been released into the Rouge watershed,” said Dolf DeJong, CEO of the Toronto Zoo. “It’s a really challenging narrative for us because we usually don’t share the locations where these animals are put back publicly. We do that to reduce the threat of poaching and unintentional habitat damage from people trying to see them. But there are 149 of these animals that have been released adjacent to where they’re talking about developing with the proposed amendments to the Greenbelt Act.”

DeJong pointed out that the Rouge National Urban Park acts as a corridor for these at-risk species, connecting Lake Ontario to land north of Highway 407.

“Our research is suggesting home range lengths can be between just under a kilometer to over three kilometers, with maximums over seven,” he said. “Having linked spaces that connect wetlands and wild spaces, as well as underpasses and natural corridors that ravines, valleys, and rivers provide is so important for [the Blanding’s turtles] to connect and mix.”

The Rouge National Urban Park is also home to other at-risk species, including three types of bats: the northern myotis, the little brown bat, and the tricoloured bat.

According to the Species at Risk Act, a corporation that damages an at-risk species’ habitat could be fined up to $300,000.

Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation say they were not consulted

On December 5, Pickering held a city council meeting to discuss endorsing staff recommendations to support the province’s decision to remove the lands in Pickering from the Greenbelt under Bill 23. In 2019, Pickering’s former mayor, Dave Ryan, wrote a letter to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, asking them to repeal the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act so that the city could develop on the land.

On November 16, 2022, newly elected Pickering mayor Kevin Ashe, communicated the same sentiment, writing a letter to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing indicating support for the removal of the Duffins-Rouge Agricultural Preserve from the Greenbelt and the repeal of the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act.

The December 5 city council meeting allowed Pickering residents to voice their opinions on whether the city should support the province’s removal of the Duffins-Rouge Agricultural Preserve from the Greenbelt. The meeting lasted approximately six hours, dragging into the early morning of December 6. A succession of 30 speakers stepped forward, the majority opposing the proposal.

One of the meeting’s biggest revelations came around the fifth hour when Chief Kelly LaRocca of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation (MSIFN), whose reserve is in Port Perry, northeast of Pickering, addressed council.

“Just for a bit of background,” she said. “It’s the province’s constitutional duty to provide informed and meaningful consultation to First Nations when its rights and land would be impacted by Crown decision-making. It must be noted that MSIFN were not consulted by the province in advance of its decision to pass Bill 23 or amend the Greenbelt and Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act. These legislative and regulatory changes are, therefore, in our view, unconstitutional.”

LaRocca went on to accuse both Pickering and the provincial government of pursuing symbolic gestures during “this time of reconciliation,” rather than engaging in meaningful action and consultation.

“We submit the city should not pursue any significant planning reforms until such time that the province addresses its consultation failures and the municipality engages in informed consultation,” she said.

In the end, Pickering’s council voted against supporting the removal of the Greenbelt lands and also repealing the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve. However, the Province has since passed Bill 39, repealing the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act and effectively leaving the lands without legislative protection.

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