Ottawa pushed to decontaminate, cede Saint-Maurice shooting range in Terrebonne, Que.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society is calling on the federal government to decontaminate and protect the Saint-Maurice shooting range in Terrebonne, Que. Almost three times the size of Mount Royal Park, the site has been closed for over 50 years.

Land almost three times the size of Mount Royal Park has been closed to public for over 50 years

The entrance to the Saint-Maurice shooting range in Terrebonne.
This land, which is almost three times the size of Mount Royal Park, is home to some 20 special-status species. (Hugo Lavoie/Radio-Canada)

Echoing the demands of elected officials and citizens, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society is calling on the federal government to decontaminate and protect the Saint-Maurice shooting range in Terrebonne, Que., which has been closed to the public for more than 50 years.

This 650-hectare space is located north of Highway 640, at the junction of Terrebonne and Bois-des-Filion. The place is fenced and signs warn that entry is strictly prohibited.

While it was once home to members of the Canadian Army, who tested weapons there during the Second World War, this site has not seen any military activity since 1967. But the Ministry of National Defence, which owns the land, blocked access to the site due to the potential presence of unexploded ordnance.

Except for a Hydro-Québec station and a snowmobile trail, the shooting range has been sheltered from visitors for more than 50 years. The risk level has also discouraged developers looking for a large piece of land to carry out real estate projects.

As the region around the site was developed over the years, inventories conducted by Ottawa and Quebec have documented the rich biodiversity found there. More than half of the land is made up of wetlands, conducive to hosting many species of birds and amphibians.

In addition to deer, foxes and otters, moose also roam there, which makes the Saint-Maurice shooting range one of the few places where you can observe them in the Montreal Metropolitan Community (CMM).

A biodiverse landscape

Map of Saint-Maurice shooting range site
The site is located north of Highway 640, in Terrebonne, near Bois-des-Filion. (Radio-Canada)

The site has nearly twenty special-status plant and animal species, including the four-toed salamander, "an extraordinary amphibian that is likely to be designated as a threatened or vulnerable species in Quebec," said Bernard Tendeng, a biologist at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS Quebec) who works on urban conservation.

This organization, which is also involved in protecting the territory of the Mont Saint-Bruno shooting range, views the Saint-Maurice case as the greatest conservation opportunity on public land for the entire CMM.

"We invite the federal government to act very quickly, especially in collaboration with local actors, from Quebec and from the municipal sector," Tendeng said.

He added that opportunities to create "nearby protected areas," which prevent people from driving before going for a walk in nature, are rare in the Greater Montreal area.

The Montreal Metropolitan Community, which has vowed to protect 30 per cent of green spaces by 2030, has so far converted 10.1 per cent of its territory into protected areas. Granting the Saint-Maurice shooting range protected status would allow Montreal to make a considerable leap toward its goal, according to CPAWS Quebec.

In addition to concerted action between the various levels of government, socioeconomic impact studies and a rigorous update of the fauna and flora inventories — whose most recent data dates back to 2015 — will have to be carried out.

Land to be decontaminated

But before having its status changed, the site would need to be decontaminated to make access safe for visitors.

In mid-February, the Bloc Québécois MNA for Terrebonne, Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagné, demanded that the land be decontaminated at federal expense before being ceded to the City of Terrebonne or the Quebec government. On social media, she had urged citizens to sign a petition addressed to the Minister of National Defense, Anita Anand. As of April 3, nearly 1,400 signatures had been collected.

On Feb. 24, Terrebonne, Que., Mayor Mathieu Traversy's supported Sinclair-Desgagné's request and asked Ottawa to make the shooting range a safe and protected territory.

According to the Ministry of National Defence, assessments of the site are underway to measure the extent of the decontamination activities to be carried out there.

"Preliminary estimates indicate that major work, spread over many years, would be necessary before we can consider a possible transfer or [a possible] sale of this 652-hectare property," said Andrée-Anne Poulin, a spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defence.

The presence of wetlands and species to be protected is one of the main concerns raised by the ministry.

Once the work is completed, the federal government will plan consultations with provincial and municipal governments, as well as with Indigenous communities and other interested parties, to decide on the future of the Saint-Maurice firing range.

Based on reporting by Radio-Canada's Valére Boisclair