Conservative candidate Michael Ras clarifies position on GTA West Highway
An election event hosted by the Mississauga Board of Trade Friday was relatively calm, other than a remark made by local candidate Michael Ras.
A resident asked if the gathered candidates, a mix from ridings across the city representing the different parties, would support or oppose construction of the GTA West Highway, which the federal government is currently reviewing after the Doug Ford PCs rammed the controversial project through the provincial legislature.
The NDP, Liberal and Green candidates responded with a range of views, none of them willing to offer support for the highway, but Mississauga—Lakeshore Conservative candidate, Michael Ras replied with a remark that caused concern among many who agree with the City of Mississauga’s official position, that the highway would be an environmental disaster, would have few benefits and should be permanently scrapped.
“It is a provincial responsibility, provincial decision, largely there is the impact assessment that the federal government is doing,” Ras replied.
“I think that's prudent, I would just ask that that type of work be done expeditiously, cut as much red tape as possible, cut the time needed as much as possible. From what I've seen so far, personal opinion, not government opinion, not party opinion, necessarily.”
He then said the highway might be able to meet conditions established by the local conservation authorities, which have to assess the viability of proposed projects to make sure a number of environmental, ecological and watershed requirements are met. If not, these authorities can reject an application.
Mississauga candidates take part in Friday's debate.
Ras’s wife, Karen, is the chair of the Credit Valley Conservation Authority, which has assessment jurisdiction over the proposed highway, along with the Toronto Region Conservation Authority. She is also an elected member of Mississauga City Council, which voted earlier this year to reject the highway, along with most of the other municipalities across the western GTA that did the same, calling for the Province to scrap its plan.
The Conservative candidate continued with his response to the audience member’s question.
“Because I think as well, one of the things that we faced in this region is a housing emergency as much as we face a climate crisis and other pieces as well, and so opening up parts of the GTA, past the Greenbelt… [for] more housing is probably going to be needed, we need to get in and allow for people that live in other parts of Ontario to get around… I'm new to politics, but I know this much.”
“Mr. O'Toole is in Mississauga later today, where he'll be announcing our particular proposals for the GTA. And so I know well enough not to step on his announcement and also I'll leave it at that for till he comes in later today.”
The comments caused some confusion and The Pointer received calls from readers concerned that Ras supports the highway’s construction, and because the federal government’s assessment agency is currently reviewing the project with the power to either scrap it or allow it to move forward, some expressed frustration that a Conservative government might green light the controversial plan.
The Pointer reached out to Ras for clarification.
“Before taking any final decision on the future of the project, I would expect there to be discussions and consultations with the different levels of government, the impacted communities and residents, and other vested stakeholder groups,” he stated in an email Friday evening.
When Erin O’Toole, the Conservative Leader, arrived in Mississauga after the board of trade event, for a separate gathering early afternoon Friday, he did not address the GTA West Highway.
O’Toole repeated his pledge to build one million new homes in the first three years of a Conservative government (on a per capita basis this would mean almost 200,000 in the GTA). He emphasised the need for more housing in the GTA region. Whether the plan would force construction into the Greenbelt, and along the proposed GTA West Highway, is unclear. O’Toole and the party have not offered specifics around how and where exactly the homes would be built.
Environmental groups have made clear that building more sprawling subdivisions is not the answer, and it would force development into the Greenbelt, as the urban boundary is currently already built up to the edge of the protected, environmentally sensitive lands that surround the GTA.
O’Toole and the Conservative platform stress that density and smart growth will be the philosophy of the new-home construction plan and the Party has said growth will be focussed around transit hubs.
The GTA West Highway plan contradicts this, as an expert panel commissioned by the previous Ontario Liberal government stated it would be the catalyst for more sprawling residential subdivisions and low-density, spread out commercial properties such as warehouses and big-box retail stores, a model pushed by the same developers aggressively lobbying for the construction of the highway. Many of these developers have already assembled land along the approved highway corridor and are now relying on the Doug Ford PC government to pay off their investments.
The next federal government could decide on the future of the massive transportation corridor.
The MBOT debate offered each political party a chance to send one of their candidates to the table. Omar Alghabra (the only incumbent) for the Liberals was present, along with Ras for the Conservatives, Teneshia Samuel of the NDP and Green candidate Chris Hill. They are running in different ridings across the city.
When the question about whether or not they would support the GTA West Highway, also known as the 413, was asked by the audience member, candidates offered a range of views.
Samuel highlighted the fact Canada is in a climate emergency and constructing another highway would likely lead to more emissions.
“I see it as a possibility for alleviating the stress of commuting, the stress of transportation. But I also would like to see if it is going to be moving forward, to use that resource as an incentive to help Canadians use public transit a lot more.”
Alghabra said, “I have been speaking with Mayor Crombie about this... I can tell you that the federal government is undertaking now an environmental impact assessment. So it will be included and we can offer an opinion prior to the assessment.”
He suggested a position would be put forward after the federal assessment agency has completed its review of the environmental impacts of the project, along with other issues that are being examined by the federal body, following a request by law group Ecojustice and Environmental Defence, which asked the federal government to step in following the Ford government’s hasty push to approve the project last year.
Hill from the Greens was the only candidate who firmly stated his opposition to the construction of the highway.
“We opened highway 407 about 25 years ago, and the idea here was this is going to reduce congestion, particularly across Mississauga, and hasn't done one bit of good for that. I don't see how another highway is going to help here as well.”
The GTA West Highway has been a hot button topic for many in Peel, Halton and York, where it would run, coming up from the 401 at Milton, through the western edge of Brampton and then across Caledon right below the protected Greenbelt, to Vaughan. The impacted regional and municipal governments have either voted to scrap the plan or have the federal government make a decision on its future.
As Alghabra said, the federal government is doing its own assessment to determine if at-risk species protected federally will be impacted by the construction of the project and whether or not other pieces of environmental and ecological policy prevent the plan from moving forward.
The proposed route of the GTA West Highway.
(Map from Environmental Defence)
Other topics unabated Friday at the MBOT event included pandemic recovery and support for businesses, housing and affordability, gender equity and climate change.
MBOT represents and advocates for the city’s business community, and a pressing question for any entrepreneur is how to recover from the continuous lockdowns and other restrictions needed to curb the spread of the virus.
Ras opened the discussion by referencing the Conservative plan for economic growth and prosperity to move the country forward. He said the Party has a number of industry and employee-friendly initiatives to help invest in job creation and small and medium sized businesses.
“One of the initiatives is to pay 50 percent of the salary of new hires for six months following the end of the Canadian emergency wage subsidy,” Ras said.
Samuel, who uses they/them pronouns, chose to focus on workers.
“Our commitment is to support our workers, especially during this pandemic supporting them, health wise from an intersectional standpoint,” Samuel said, “[T]hat begins with a full review of what supports our workers socially as they work for the top companies that are represented here in Mississauga.”
Samuel comes from an activist background and chose to focus on those who have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic. In Peel Region, many workers in large manufacturing and warehouse industries faced conditions that put them in contact with the virus. Many workers in these industries have low wages and couldn’t afford to skip a day of work even if they were sick.
Those close to the poverty line chose between a day's pay or putting food on the table for their families. With massive job losses across the country and in non-essential industries, workplace spread occurred across Peel, which became a national hotspot.
Hill blamed the region’s problems on poverty, not necessarily the pandemic.
“Poverty is expensive, and already costs taxpayers $20 billion each year. So let's end poverty and all of the painful and just life destroying effects caused by it. Let's get this issue done,” he said.
Hill and his Green Party are advocating for a permanent guaranteed livable income for all.
Alghabra focused on the Liberal’s narrative of how much the government accomplished despite the lack of preparedness for the pandemic. Throughout the campaign, Liberal candidates have highlighted how quickly and how much the party in power assisted Canadians over the last 18 months, and Alghabra kept pressing this point.
“We've done it in collaboration and cooperation with businesses, including businesses here in Mississauga,” the Liberal incumbent said, “where I was available, and my colleagues were available on a regular basis, hearing directly from businesses.”
Samuel pushed back, questioning why the Liberals failed to support enhanced measures proposed by the NDP, on issues such as rent relief.
“I wonder why there is this talk about this presence that the Liberal Party of Canada has for Canadians and working Canadians and small businesses, when they've been doing the bare minimum,” Samuel said.
Alghabra responded. “Canadians know who delivered, Canadians know who had their backs and Canadians also remember that the Conservatives were critical of all the support that the government had provided.”
Ras defended his party, saying “simple administrative changes” Conservatives were focused on would have made subsidies better for small businesses. The candidate did not offer specifics on the types of changes.
On the topic of green innovation and the economy, all candidates offered concrete ideas from their respective platforms and how they would advocate on behalf of their riding and municipality.
“The NDP sees us [Canada] as resource rich, not just with respect to the natural resources we have, but the brain power that we have to make a digital transformation possible. This is our pathway into a clean, green future,” Samuel said.
Ras offered similar views. “I agree with much of what you said, exactly and especially about the need to bring every resource to the table.”
Alghabra took the opportunity to show the “stark” contrasts between the Liberal and Conservative plans on climate action. He said the private sector needs to be involved but the government has to play a leading role to set certain standards.
The incumbent used a similar line brought out by Justin Trudeau during the English language debate on Thursday. The Liberals have claimed “private sector analysts” reviewed their climate plan and gave it an 8 out of 10.
“The NDP plan got two and the Conservatives’ plan got five. It's actually been assessed through experts, independent experts, that our plan is the best plan for business and for climate action,” Alghabra said.
The Green Party and many others have questioned the Liberals about who these experts are and whether or not they have ties to the Liberal Party. Trudeau and the Party leadership have not provided details around these experts and the rating that is now routinely being used by Liberal candidates.
Hill answered a question about how his party will address the talent shortage and gaps in labour capacity along with the need for more skilled trades. He brought the conversation back to what he said is the root of the issue: the lack of access to education and training.
“[The] Green Party proposes to make university tuition free, so that the largest number of students can become qualified at a university level in order to fulfill these very important jobs that are necessary for Canada's future,” he explained.
The NDP’s Samuel said, “I love the Green Party's idea about making tuition free.”
Samuel continued to explain how access to education in green industries is the reason for the talent gap. They also explained how it is important to direct opportunities at “disenfranchised groups,” like women, LGBTQIA2S people and visible minorities.
The MBOT debate concluded with the moderator reminding the public voting day is on September 20.
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