Toronto

Proposed changes to Greenbelt risk 'irreversible harm,' Parks Canada says

Parks Canada has issued a stark rebuke to the province’s plan to open up sections of protected Greenbelt land for housing development, saying the move risks “irreversible harm” and that proper consultation on the proposal has not taken place.

Ontario government's proposal comes as part of plan to build 1.5 million homes

A hiker starts on a high graded hill climb at the Rouge Urban National Park, in Toronto on June 15, 2021. Parks Canada says proposed provincial changes to the greenbelt pose a 'probable risk of irreversible harm to wildlife, natural ecosystems and agricultural landscapes within Rouge National Urban Park thereby reducing the viability and functionality of the park's ecosystems and farmland.' (Giordano Ciampini/The Canadian Press)

Parks Canada has issued a stark rebuke to Ontario's plan to open up sections of protected Greenbelt land for housing development, saying the move risks "irreversible harm" and that proper consultation on the proposal has not taken place.

In a letter submitted to the provincial government Monday, Parks Canada listed issues for consideration for the proposal to remove lands from the Greenbelt in the Greater Toronto Area, particularly when it comes to lands in and around Rouge National Urban Park.

"Should these lands be removed from the Greenbelt and developed as proposed, Parks Canada's analysis suggests that there is a probable risk of irreversible harm to wildlife, natural ecosystems and agricultural landscapes within Rouge National Urban Park thereby reducing the viability and functionality of the park's ecosystems and farmland," the letter reads.

News of the letter was first published by The Narwhal and The Toronto Star.

Parks Canada says provincially protected Greenbelt lands next to Rouge Park provide important habitat and for dozens of at-risk species, as well as "vital ecosystem services for nature, water and agriculture," which are critical to the health and function of the park. 

The organization says the importance of these lands is laid out in a memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the province and Parks Canada, which includes a section that says Ontario must consult with Parks Canada about any changes proposed to the Greenbelt plan.

"It is our opinion that, to date, the province has not met the consultation requirement of this MOA as the Province has not yet reached out to discuss these matters with Parks Canada," the letter reads.

Rouge National Urban Park as seen in October 2018. (Sue Reid/CBC)

PC House Leader Paul Calandra told reporters at Queen's Park Tuesday that Parks Canada is "absolutely wrong" in its interpretation of the situation. He said he was a federal MP in 2015 when the Rouge National Urban Park Act was passed, and is "very familiar" with the issue as he helped draft it.

"We have an agenda to ensure that we build houses for the people of Ontario," Calandra said.

Province aiming to build more homes

The province's proposal for the Greenbelt, which was released last month, aims to build homes on more than a dozen tracts of land currently considered protected, while adding roughly 2,000 acres of protected land elsewhere. This is all part of the province's plan to build 1.5 million homes over the next decade to alleviate Ontario's severe housing shortage.

The government's proposal has drawn criticism from Opposition politicians and numerous environmental and housing advocacy groups alike, among others.

Bonnie Littley, co-founder of the Rouge Duffins Greenspace Coalition, told CBC News she hopes Parks Canada's intervention will help push back against the province's plans.

"What's happening is outrageous," she said. "This is probably the most protected land in all of Ontario, about to be wiped out with the stroke of a pen, after years and years of community effort."

As recently as last year, provincial officials said they would not open Greenbelt lands for development. Premier Doug Ford reneged on that promise last month, justifying the proposal by saying the province's housing crisis has worsened — and that it will become more dire now that the federal government has unveiled a plan to bring in half a million more immigrants a year.

"We have a housing crisis that we didn't have four years ago," Ford said at a news conference last month. "We are going to make sure we get housing built."

Parks Canada seeking meeting

In a statement sent to CBC News in November, Victoria Podbielski, press secretary for Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark, said the province is "acting decisively" to fix the housing supply problems.

"We are considering every possible option to get more homes built faster so more Ontarians can find a home that meets their needs and budget," Podbielski said.

"The proposed changes to the Greenbelt would lead to the creation of at least 50,000 new homes, while leading to an overall expansion of the Greenbelt. This is particularly important given the population growth our province is expecting over the next decade especially when taking into account the new immigration targets set out by the federal government."

In its letter, Parks Canada also says it has specific concerns about the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, which borders the Townline Swamp Wetland Complex found in the Pickering area of Rouge Park.

The organization says the complex is "arguably the most ecologically-sensitive area" in the park, and is home to dozens of federally and provincially endangered and threatened species, including the bank swallow, wood thrush, monarch butterfly and several species of bats.

Parks Canada says it does not think the consultation requirement surrounding the changes to the lands has been met, and has asked for a meeting with the province to discuss a host of concerns.

With files from Katie Nicholson

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