Plowing a highway through the green heart of Ontario when the natural world has been our pandemic oasis
There are no treasure chests buried in Ontario’s Greenbelt, but the land is filled with riches – flowing on the calm, cyan shores of Tobermory; shimmering in the streams meandering through southern Ontario; concealed in canopies of lush maple forests; carried on the pine-scented air of cottage country.
The Greenbelt is the world’s largest quilt of protected green space, stitching together 2-million acres of farmland, forests, lakes, rivers and wetlands.
From Tobermory to Lake Ontario, Ontario's protected spaces provide valuable benefits to local municipalities.
It’s where the headwaters that feed the land occupied by more than half of Ontario’s residents are protected.
The pandemic has been a reminder of how sacred our land is.
The stars shine at night, suddenly visible even over areas usually filled with too much light pollution and poor air.
River valleys are filled by those seeking respite from their closed-in spaces.
Local parks and nearby trail systems have become a mental escape for the tired and weary (almost all of us).
But a fight is building over the surrounding land, one that has played out for decades. Our natural world in one corner, the profits to be made from it in the other.
“The better you know your enemy, the better you are to fight them,” says Jim Richards of Orono, Ontario.
He has been at the centre of one of these battles – over an ecologically significant wetland along the shores of Lake Ontario that was once being eyed for profit.
For the Greenbelt, another threat comes from a proposed highway – if successful, it could have potentially devastating effects, not only on the sensitive biosphere that is effectively the green heart of Ontario, but for all the municipalities that reap the benefits of these protected sanctuaries.
The direct economic benefit of this protected land to Ontario is estimated at over $3 billion. When the indirect benefits – the ripple effects of jobs and services on local economies and the public health system – are factored in, the estimate jumps to more than $9 billion. These lush forests and species habitats generate approximately $11,000 in economic value per hectare.
Ontario's Greenbelt, the world's largest collection of protected green space.
Growing stacks of health research now prove how good green spaces are for us – physically and mentally – which means preserving them is good for us too.
This land also plays a heroic role in the ongoing story of climate change. The worsening impacts – flooding, air pollution and food scarcity to name just a few – are all mitigated when irreplaceable green space, the lungs and soul of our planet, remain untouched.
But we no longer walk lightly on the land. Our First Nations understood the basic spiritual connection to the powers of nature that give us life and sustain our well being.
But just like the treatment they suffered, the land protected by our First Nations for millennia was also ravaged by the colonizing Europeans driven by constant expansion and the almighty quest to dominate Earth’s resources.
We have learned little from history.
It is an accepted fact that climate change and the continued destruction of ecosystems will worsen the flooding already wreaking havoc across Peel Region and many other big Canadian cities. It’s just one of many impacts mitigated when we protect our green spaces.
Health Canada estimates approximately 6,700 people already die prematurely each year due to air pollution. As more CO2 is pumped into the atmosphere, more strain is put on an already stretched healthcare system and premature deaths continue to rise. The World Health Organization estimates in the 2090s, more than two-billion people will be breathing polluted air beyond levels considered “safe”. Green spaces not only sequester carbon and slow warming, they filter the already polluted air and reduce harmful carbon levels.
The economic benefits in reducing global warming by protecting our natural world are too great to factor, as researchers have pegged the figure well into the trillions.
With so much at stake, it raises questions about why Premier Doug Ford and his PC government are moving forward with a highway designed to create sprawl. It will hasten the destruction of species habitat, sensitive ecosystems, our already reeling watersheds, while adding to the 43-billion tons of CO2 humans already send into our atmosphere each year.
Doug Ford and his PC government want to build a 400-series highway, just like this one, up Brampton's west side and right along the Greenbelt.
After the 2016 Paris Climate Accord, this number increased. We are using more carbon, not less.
Last year tied 2016 for the warmest year on record since 1880, according to NASA, and the five warmest years on record have all been since 2015.
According to the UN climate programme, we have to reduce our carbon emissions by 55 percent before 2030 to limit global temperature increase to 1.5-degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels (the goal of the Paris Accord) or 25 percent to keep the temperature increase from exceeding 2 degrees.
We are heading in the wrong direction. The Paris Accord’s ambitious target is almost certainly no longer achievable, according to NASA, the Climate Research Unit and the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Severe weather events are becoming more of a norm. If global warming exceeds the 2-degrees-celsius threshold, the more than 6,000 international scientists who contribute extensive research to the IPCC predict catastrophic planetary consequences.
Large parts of the cryosphere in the Arctic have temperatures that are four-degrees higher compared to the 1880s and the ability to capture carbon in the far north is rapidly diminishing, while the rate of sea-level rise due to the melting of polar ice caps means entire coastal areas of the globe will be wiped out before the end of this century. According to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, the loss of coastal real estate in America alone will be valued at $14.3-trillion (US) by the end of the century.
But Ford and his PCs live in the now.
And right now, despite the ongoing destruction of our environment, there are still profits to be made.
The GTA West Highway is a multi-billion-dollar taxpayer funded project that will put hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of developers.
It will drastically alter the Greenbelt by driving a major thoroughfare mostly along – and sometimes through – its southern edge. The project has been labelled a “highway to nowhere” by opposition leaders. Both the provincial NDP and Liberals have vowed to scrap the plan should they take over government after the next election. It has been called unjustified and redundant by environmental advocates who have detailed the significant impacts it will have on forests, rivers, and wetlands in the area, including the loss of approximately 1,000 hectares of prime agricultural land in the Greenbelt.
This is before even considering the environmental degradation caused by the sprawling suburban-style developments that will follow right behind the arrival of the early highway infrastructure.
It’s a pattern seen across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area since the '60s.
The proposed route of the GTA West Highway, which runs directly along, and sometimes through, the Greenbelt's southern edge
The PCs stand steadfastly behind the refuted benefits of the new infrastructure, stating it is “essential to the competitiveness of our economy” and will help Ontarians by alleviating congestion on other 400-series highways, including the much-maligned Highway 401. A 2018 independent study commissioned by the former Liberal government found the $6-billion highway (with some recent projections that put the cost at twice as much) could save the average commuter 30 seconds.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it clear in several alarming documents that land use planning – the responsibility of local and provincial governments in tandem – will be a crucial factor in the success or failure of the world’s battle against climate change. The construction of a highway that will trigger the destruction of life-saving green space, replacing it with sprawling subdivisions is not only backward planning, experts say, but could trigger environmental ruin for much of southern Ontario.
Richards doesn’t know why he was so fascinated by birds’ nests. As a kid he couldn’t help but look for them.
While on fishing trips with his father, the constant casting and waiting was not enough to entertain his young, active mind.
When boredom got the better of him in the tight confines of the family boat, his father would steer to a nearby island, allowing his son to hop off and explore while he went back to fishing. Richards would immediately drop to his hands and knees, scouring the forest floor.
“I’d crawl around looking for birds’ nests,” Richards recalls.
He graduated to collecting eggs, storing them in a gauze-lined box, before spending time in Oshawa’s Second Marsh, watching and admiring the many species of waterfowl that roosted in the wetland along the coast of Lake Ontario. It wasn’t until he read a news article that Richards realized a fight was taking place over the marsh.
The year 1975 was a record one for the Oshawa Harbour Commission.
Salt and sugar, two of the port's most lucrative commodities, were unloaded from ship to shore at levels never before seen.
By the following year, as development boomed across the GTA and sprawling subdivisions began to carpet the area surrounding Toronto with single-family homes, the need for construction materials became frantic.
The Oshawa port became a key pipeline for the flow of these materials into the GTA – steel in particular.
But there was a problem, one that was repeatedly stressed by both the harbour commission brass and the local Longshoremen’s union.
“Oshawa harbour has to turn away business because it is too small,” read a headline in the Oshawa This Week newspaper at the time.
Oshawa's Second Marsh
It was a common refrain, but it was typically met with similar unease from local politicians and residents. An ongoing battle had seen local environmentalists take a stand against the harbour commission, which wanted to push its expansion plans forward, and this meant encroaching into the Second Marsh.
For port and union officials, the choice was simple. As the union president posed at the time, what’s more important, “[to] feed the birds, or our own men?”
According to then-Harbour Commission chairman Bill Selby, it was practically the port’s destiny to take over the Second Marsh.
“It would seem almost that Mother Nature had intended this small stretch of Lake Ontario shoreline for just such a purpose since bedrock in the marsh is at about 30-foot level, which is ideal harbour depth,” he said at the time.
In response, Richards joined forces with other conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts in the area to form the Second Marsh Defence Association (SMDA). It was the beginning of a fight that would last for decades.
The calls for expansion began to grow louder in the years that followed. Selby, writing in the Oshawa Times newspaper in 1977, tried to avoid the similar conservationist backlash that had continued to put up roadblocks to expansion, but stood steadfastly behind the growth plans.
“In the past there have been certain individuals and groups who have tried to give the impression that the Oshawa Harbour Commission was bent upon expansion for expansion’s sake with little thought for the environment or the wellbeing of the community. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Selby wrote.
Despite this, the harbour had banned conservationists from accessing the marsh to conduct valuable duck banding studies, and critics alleged the harbour commission was deliberately trying to destroy the marsh by depositing silt at an outlet where the marsh previously drained into Lake Ontario. This raised water levels in the marsh, forcing wildlife out.
With each new plan from the port, Richards and the SMDA were successful in fighting off the expansion through strong advocacy before politicians and the public. Their persistence paid off. In 1991, after nearly three decades of protest, the port backed off and eventually transferred the land back to the city to be preserved.
Jim Richards helped form the Second Marsh Defence Association in the 1970s, which changed its name to the Friends of the Second Marsh after they successfully saved the valuable coastal wetland from development.
It’s clear from the harbour commission’s rhetoric that environmental impact was the least of its concerns. It’s inconceivable to advocate for the destruction of habitat through port expansion while also saying protection of the environment is a priority.
The same logic is being deployed today by the PC government.
The GTA West Highway remains in the environmental assessment phase. It doesn’t take a watershed expert to know that driving a highway through an area frequented by wildlife and filled with streams and waterways would be damaging to the environment – but one can certainly put the degradation into startling perspective.
“When you're converting land for transportation, you're basically taking away natural conditions, soil conditions, and replacing it with a hard surface, like a road,” says Andrea Kirkwood, an associate professor at Ontario Tech University who holds a PhD in environmental microbiology.
This changes the way water flows through the area, or its ‘hydrology’, with potentially cascading effects on the surrounding environment.
“With climate change, we're going to be getting more intense and frequent rain storms in the summer, for example. So when the water hits that road, it has to run somewhere. It can't infiltrate the soil anymore,” Kirkwood explains. “No one can refute the fact that when you convert soil to pavement, there's going to be an impact.”
Part of the provincial environmental assessment, which the PCs are now trying to expedite to get the project started even faster, will look at mitigating some of those impacts, whether through culverts or other measures to try and maintain the natural hydrology of the area, but Kirkwood says even the best efforts cannot maintain the normal state of things. In the same way the human body identifies a sliver in your finger, the natural environment will register the strip of pavement as unnatural and the resulting adaptation will force changes to the surrounding ecosystem.
Already, report cards prepared by the local conservation authorities on the health of local watersheds show a clear trend. The northern, less developed areas of Peel Region have better preserved watersheds, more forest cover and healthier habitats. However, as you travel south, those ratings decrease as urbanization degrades water, forest and habitat quality.
Studies in the Credit Valley watershed, one of many that could be impacted by the proposed highway, have already shown how things like water quality degrade as it flows from north to south toward lake Ontario.
If a highway is driven through those healthy green northern reaches, including the headwaters that feed the entire western part of the GTA, reducing those ratings, it will trigger a reduction in health across the board, especially in water quality as water flows north to south. In essence, the GTA West Corridor could trigger a sweeping domino effect of environmental degradation from the Greenbelt all the way to Lake Ontario.
“As we move towards the Greenbelt and the Oak Ridges Moraine, we're getting closer and closer to the actual headwaters,” says Kirkwood. “It's the headwaters that have that kind of clean water, that as it flows down to Lake Ontario is providing the cooler water temperatures and the cleaner water for the organisms like the fish.
“So absolutely we would expect there to be an impact,” Kirkwood says. “When you follow these tributaries from where they start up in the spring, all the way down to Lake Ontario, they're all going through urban areas, and so they're already really impacted by the time you get into Brampton and Mississauga and so forth.
“We have to be really mindful if we're going to be adding now another urban type of infrastructure to a system that's already stressed out. It could really tip the scales for these systems.”
One particularly prevalent side effect of the highway would be the new presence of road salt — chlorides — in the area. Elevated levels of salt in local waterways makes the streams and rivers undesirable and unsafe for local fish and aquatic life. Road salt has had significant impacts on the GTA’s watersheds over the last two decades, something which many municipalities are now trying to mitigate. Both the Toronto Region Conservation Authority and the Credit Valley Conservation Authority, which cover Peel Region, are aware of the local chloride levels, which remain consistently above safe levels for organisms and have already reduced aquatic bug and fish populations.
A Government of Canada study done in 2012, five years after a new code of practice for managing salt use was introduced, found that little had changed.
“The results show that in surface water (lakes, rivers and streams), especially in urban areas, and in the Great Lakes, chloride concentrations have not decreased since the Code was introduced,” the study states. It shows once an ecosystem is damaged by human activity, it takes decades to fix itself.
Other chemical pollutants, including intentionally deposited toxins (often dumped illegally) and other contaminants that leak into the watershed from built-up residential and industrial areas, also cause profound damage to surrounding water systems overwhelmed by development.
The potential degradation of the region’s waterways is not the only side effect of running this giant runway of pavement through the area. If completed, the 413 Highway, as its known, would bisect a north-south corridor that is well-used by wildlife to access the Greenbelt. It’s estimated that 78 of Ontario’s over 200 at-risk species live within the Greenbelt. With the new highway, these key parts of the intertwined local ecosystem would need to undertake a deadly road crossing to reach some of the last remaining pristine habitat in the area.
Protected animals under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act that call the area home include a long list of amphibians, insects, birds and fish like the Jefferson salamander (endangered) the bank swallow (threatened) the barn swallow (threatened) the bobolink (threatened) the Cerulean warbler (threatened) the eastern meadowlark (threatened) the monarch butterfly (special concern) and the American eel (endangered), to name just a few.
Aside from the urbanization of the Greater Golden Horseshoe and the loss of habitat, one of the largest threats to animals nearing extinction is the fragmentation of the lands they call home. Many animals move over long ranges either to feed or breed – having a massive asphalt corridor run directly through this range opens up the risk of them ending up dead on the side of a highway.
Each loss of animal life represents an inching closer to complete species loss. It’s a rapid progression, and one that has been happening across Canada, and the globe, for decades.
In Canada, bird populations have decreased by 12 percent since 1970, mainly due to loss of habitat like grassland and wetlands these birds rely on for breeding. Some of the largest declines are seen in migratory shorebirds.
The PC government under Premier Ford has made it clear that protecting species and habitat are not on its priority list.
But for the City of Brampton, a number of strategies and plans approved by the current and past councils should dictate that support of the GTA West Highway is in opposition to the city’s needs, and is counter intuitive to the goals in these documents.
The city has introduced a suite of strategies to protect its natural areas, including the Natural Heritage Restoration Program (2018), the Natural Heritage and Environmental Management Strategy (2015), the Grow Green Master Plan and the recently approved Eco-Park Strategy.
These documents point out a number of significant elements of Brampton’s natural areas and their importance to the city. They include restoration programs which label valley lands and city watercourses as the “backbone of the natural heritage system” and highlight the importance of preserving the city’s remaining wetlands. However, the City of Brampton and its local politicians have yet to take a strong stance against the highway.
Tim Gray, the executive director of Environmental Defence points out that, much like Kirkwood explained, Brampton will not be able to avoid the environmental consequences of building this highway, which will run along its western side and then directly above it, through the watersheds that feed the city’s vast network of green spaces.
“In the long term, it’s going to enable and encourage more development and sprawl all around this highway. So, I think you can look forward to seeing all the areas there that are not in public ownership, the private farmland stuff all tracking towards development,” Gray says.
It’s a potential future that Dan O’Reilly is very much hoping to avoid.
Some 65 acres of land have been in O’Reilly’s family since 1842, and like the roots of an ancient tree, his connections run deep into the ground.
As a child, he watched his father sell off a small portion of the land, including a thick forest of maple trees. The new owner ripped out the trees, and the forest was destroyed. The loss still stings.
It’s all happening again as a small piece of O’Reilly’s property stands in the proposed path of the GTA West Highway.
“We seem to have gone backwards,” O’Reilly says.
The long-time Caledon resident, who has made tireless efforts to preserve many pieces of local history, including pioneer cemeteries, has also taken action to stop development on his own land, placing a conservation easement on the title. That will do little to stop a government expropriation, and he’s well aware of this.
But O’Reilly is hoping for enough backlash to force the PCs to back off the project. He views the highway as “old-style planning” which will do nothing to alleviate the traffic congestion the government is touting.
“You build a highway, it just fills up, doesn’t matter,” he says. “You could build two more of these and they’d just fill up.”
There’s no denying traffic congestion is a massive problem in the GTA, as many who commute into the City of Toronto will tell you.
Caledon resident Dan O'Reilly whose land sits in the proposed path of the GTA West Highway.
But study after study has found building more highway capacity guarantees more and more congestion. Smart transportation design is the answer, experts say, not another outdated 400-series highway that is the problem in the first place.
A report from the Toronto Region Board of Trade in 2018 found the congestion on GTA roadways was costing shipping companies between $500 million and $650 million. It’s not just businesses either, lost time and money from commuting is also part of the issue, especially in Brampton and Mississauga where large portions of the population are commuters.
An independent panel formed by the previous Liberal government to study the merits of the GTA West Corridor found it would not solve any of these issues.
“The EA did not demonstrate that a new corridor that crosses protected lands was the only reasonable option to address future transportation needs,” the study reads. The document has since been removed from the MTO website by the Ford government. “The panel concludes that the bigger picture […] can best be addressed through the development of an integrated multi-modal regional transportation plan.”
So why continue to push forward with a plan that experts have ruled would not solve the issue it set out to? A plan that would cause irrevocable damage to surrounding habitats, damage that could trigger a domino effect, harming watersheds all the way from the environmentally crucial and sensitive Greenbelt to Lake Ontario?
Green spaces across Ontario are disappearing, despite their ability to protect us from the worst impacts of climate change.
Much evidence has come to light highlighting Premier Doug Ford’s close connections to the development industry, a sector that has a lot of skin (and money) in the game. Those developers that have already assembled land along the GTA West Corridor are desperate to see shovels in the ground, so there is no going back.
Premier Ford’s cozy relationship with the development industry has been a flashpoint for public concern. Notably, ahead of the June 2018 provincial election, a video was released showing him promising developers at a private meeting in Markham that he would open up a “big chunk” of the protected Greenbelt for development, if elected. Captured in the leaked video, Ford tells the group of men that after talking to some of the “biggest developers in the country” it was their idea and his as well: “Give us property and we’ll build and we’ll drive the costs down”.
Following a considerable backlash, Ford retracted the private statement before the election and noted he would not open up the Greenbelt, which, because of its watersheds and other important ecological features, is protected by provincial legislation – a concern for those developers who had already assembled lands in and around the protected areas, and donated to the PC’s election campaign.
Ford was again set to give developers a boost with Schedule 10 of the proposed Bill 66 in 2019, which would have given municipalities the power to override provincial protections on sensitive lands by enacting “open for business” bylaws. Following another public outcry, the government back-pedalled on the proposal, saying those clauses would be removed from the draft bill.
Schedule 10 was scrapped, but the PC government, under the guise of its COVID-19 economic recovery bill was able to gain a small victory for the development industry by effectively removing much of the power held by Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities in the development process.
Through its Bill 229 - Protect, Support and Recover from COVID-19 Act, the Ford-led majority government pushed through a number of amendments to current legislation late in 2020. The bill creates a veto power for the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry to make decisions on development applications, regardless of what the conservation authority, and its team of experienced scientists say about the risks, or the proposed development’s impact on the surrounding environment.
In the past, when such an application was forced through by a municipality, conservation authorities had the ability to appeal decisions to the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal if that development contravenes environmental protections or could put further pressure on strained species or ecosystems. The PCs have stripped away that power.
Facing mounting public anger and increased political pressure to stop the 413 Highway plan, this past week municipal affairs and housing Minister Steve Clark attempted to confront the backlash. He announced the expansion of the Greenbelt and committed to protections already legislated by previous Liberal governments.
“We’re looking to expand and further protect urban river valleys and increase the Greenbelt’s footprint into high-density, urban areas,” he said. “I want to be clear. We will not in any way entertain any proposals that will move lands in the Greenbelt, or open the Greenbelt lands to any kind of development.”
The claims were immediately dismissed.
Mike Schreiner, Ontario’s Green Party Leader called Clark’s announcement a cover for the PCs' commitment to “environmental destruction”. If Ford’s government really wants to protect the Greenbelt, it would immediately scrap the 413 Highway, he said.
Schreiner called for the immediate restoration of powers the PCs stripped away from conservation authorities.
“This feels like an effort in distraction and just cover up the agenda the Ford government has brought forward in destroying many environmental protections,” he said.
Ontario's Green Party leader Mike Schreiner during a summer visit to land threatened by the GTA West Corridor.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath also dismissed the announcement as a public relations stunt, repeating her pledge to scrap the highway if elected in 2022.
“We should be investing in public transit. We should be investing in mass transit. We should be finding ways to save farmland, to support farmers and rural communities. Not to run a highway through them.”
Steven Del Duca, Ontario’s Liberal Leader, also said on Wednesday that if elected he would cancel the highway project.
The PCs, despite their claim of wanting to save the Greenbelt, did not address the widespread damage the 413 will do to the legally protected area.
The GTA West Corridor is now being viewed as an even bigger prize to the development industry players who donated significantly to the PCs ahead of the 2018 election and are looking to build in and around the large corridor. It would open up massive swaths of agricultural land that have been in limbo for years, triggering sprawling development to the edge of the Greenbelt and possibly beyond. It would go against recent amendments to provincial growth legislation enacted to curb sprawl and create a much more compact, transit friendly urban footprint across Southern Ontario – urban planning principles seen as key in mitigating the impacts of climate change.
The success of Jim Richards and the Second Marsh Defence Association in saving Oshawa’s beloved marsh, is unfortunately a rare good-news story.
As a result of Ontario’s booming growth, the majority of the province’s wetlands — 68 percent — were destroyed before the early 1980s. A further 4 percent has been lost since then, the majority in major urban centres.
While the end result in Oshawa may have been rare, the fight between profit and the environment is not, and has been playing out in some form or another for decades.
Protecting what remains is more important than ever. Projects like the GTA West Corridor threaten to move the needle in the wrong direction, irreversibly, and not only have the potential to create environmental destruction on a wide scale across Southern Ontario, but further hinder Ontario and the country’s ability to mitigate the worsening impacts of climate change.
The lifeline of Southern Ontario’s green spaces, so coveted during this pandemic that continues to offer powerful lessons for our future health and well being, is being choked off by a government bent on giving developers, not the people, what they want.
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