Has Ford’s ‘end run’ around environmental protections to build highways handed Trudeau a perfect opportunity?
Standing on the damp, mud-crusted edge of the Holland River in late fall, the flurry of preparation is a sight to behold.
Birds flit through the bare tree canopy — a maze of skeletal branches — searching for berries and bugs to help survive the coming cold stretch. Squirrels and chipmunks bounce over the soggy carpet of freshly fallen leaves, plotting and hiding away their winter food stores. Turtles, no longer basking in the sun’s summer warmth, search the deep waters of nearby lakes for soft loam to burrow in for a long seasonal nap.
Amid this scene from Mother Nature’s glorious canvas, a Government of Ontario surveyor walks through the trees, knotting thin orange ribbons to empty limbs.
He is marking the path of a future highway.
If built, it will turn this millennia-old picture, unspoiled by man, into a grey corridor of sprawling concrete.
For now, the squirrels, birds, and reptiles — some critically at risk — go about their preparations using knowledge embedded deep in their consciousness by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and animal instinct.
The surveyor goes about his business, under the whims of the latest provincial government.
Portions of the Holland River watershed that will be bisected by the Bradford Bypass are home to an array of different wildlife, including many species at risk.
(Images from Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer)
Premier Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservative Party are attempting to raze this area to install the Bradford Bypass — a four-lane highway that will span 16.2 kilometres between Highway 400 and Highway 404 while bisecting the provincially significant Holland Marsh wetland complex. Aside from the PCs’ other revived highway project, the GTA West Corridor (or Highway 413) the Bypass is one of the most egregious examples of habitat fragmentation (the biggest threat to species at risk in Canada) this province has seen in decades.
The project has seen very little pushback from local municipalities in the area. But this year, that has slowly changed.
The Bradford Bypass is trodding the same path as Highway 413: both pulled from a dusty planning shelf at Queen’s Park, gaining new life as a PC pet project with little study or reasoning; then sold to members of the public as a gridlock-busting mega project that will solve congestion, bring more jobs to Ontario and be a boon to help the economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic — the PCs have used COVID-19 recovery bills in Queen’s Park to disguise many of their more damaging environmental decisions. The stripping of power from conservation authorities was a catalyst to later degradation.
After its reintroduction in 2018, the narrative around Highway 413 quickly soured in the GTA. Many municipalities began to re-think their support for the environmentally destructive corridor once public backlash reached council chambers.
A similar trend is now slowly unfolding with the Bradford Bypass. But with the PCs forging ahead on an RFP for “early works” on the highway set to begin next year, will the opposition grow loud enough to keep shovels out of the ground? Following a second request for the federal government to step in, will Ottawa change its mind and designate the project for a potential federal impact assessment? This intervention would force the Province to hit the pause button on any work, according to the Environmental Impact Assessment Act.
“The proponent of a designated project must not do any act or thing in connection with the carrying out of the designated project, in whole or in part, if that act or thing may cause effects within federal jurisdiction,” the federal government’s website states.
Ahead of Highway 413’s designation under the Act, critics pointed out the project was previously scrapped by the Ontario Liberals after an independent panel concluded it would not solve the problems it was initially designed to address, i.e. congestion, and the money would be better spent on improving the province’s inadequate public transit system. The incredibly destructive potential of paving a 400-series highway along, and sometimes directly through, the protected Greenbelt in the midst of a global climate and biodiversity crisis was not lost on the panel members.
It now seems most residents across the arc of the protected space feel the same way.
A November EKOS poll found that 87 percent of 905 residents believe the Ontario government needs to do more to protect the Greenbelt.
Local advocates opposed to the highway, using intense grassroots organizing, managed to get the attention of organizations like Environmental Defence and the David Suzuki Foundation — who then amplified their message to a much wider audience. Municipalities began to pay attention, and eventually reconsidered their support for the project that has been described as a “highway to nowhere” which would destroy the habitat of nearly 30 endangered, threatened or at-risk species.
Nearly every municipality along the route of the GTA West Highway has pulled their support for the project. In an early December vote, Markham council became the latest, joining Vaughan, King Township, Mississauga, Orangeville, Region of Peel, Region of Halton, Halton Hills and Toronto, all of which are telling the PC government, “we don’t want this.”
The shift in opinion has become so glaring that advocates are wondering, who actually wants this highway?
The strong opposition did not solidify overnight. For years, these municipalities, without proper information, supported the project. It was only after local opposition became too hard for politicians to ignore that they flipped their views on an archaic idea that clearly offers no benefits to commuters, but will do immense damage to the climate and sensitive local ecosystems which are supposed to be protected under Ontario legislation.
Protests have been ongoing throughout most of the year against Highway 413 (left) while councillors in local municipalities along the route have taken to social media to voice their disdain (right).
(Images from Environmental Defence/Twitter/Map from Government of Ontario)
In Bradford, a similar tide is turning against the Bypass. It’s an idea birthed decades ago that would connect Highway 400 and Highway 404 while plowing directly through the provincially significant Holland Marsh wetland complex; destroying hundreds of acres of prime soil and farmland; eliminating the habitat for at least 11 species at risk; and threatening the sensitive balance of Lake Simcoe’s uniquely delicate ecosystem with chloride and other contaminant loads that could see the province’s “sixth Great Lake” become effectively dead by 2050 due to astronomically high salt levels.
A request from the Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury — one of the loudest supporters of the Bypass — sent out earlier this year asking surrounding municipalities to support the Province’s push to get the highway built — has been met with mixed opinions from councillors around the lake. The councils of 7 municipalities around Lake Simcoe declined to accept the suggested motion’s wording, instead crafting their own, requesting further study on the project before work moves forward.
“We’re doing all of these things at what cost? What cost to our future? What cost to our children? What cost to our grandchildren? Herein lies my problem,” stated Innisfil Councillor Bill Van Berkel during the May 26 town council meeting.
Since May, Barrie, Newmarket, Brock, Scugog, Ramara and Adjala-Tosorontio — a group of municipalities that govern approximately 300,000 residents around Lake Simcoe — have passed motions demanding further study on the project before any more concrete steps are taken, marking some of the strongest political pushback to the Bradford Bypass since the idea for a highway through the Holland Marsh was first conceived in the 1970s. At the Town of Innisfil, the vote to pass Bradford West Gwillumbury’s motion supporting the highway lost on a tied 4-4 vote.
Scugog, Ramara, Newmarket and Adjala-Tosorontio all explicitly requested the federal government intervene in the project to conduct an environmental impact assessment. This is a much more stringent process than that conducted at the provincial level — especially after the PCs modified the EA process for the Bypass, exempting it from crucial studies — part of a concerted effort to weaken Ontario’s environmental assessment regime for new developments.
At the end of November, the PCs filed another amendment to the Environmental Assessment Act, which is currently active on the Environmental Registry Office website for public comment, and would change the types of projects that are required to be put through comprehensive environmental assessments. If passed, highway projects under 75 kilometres would only require a “streamlined EA process” and not a full, comprehensive EA. If approved, these new rules would allow a new highway to be constructed, for example, from Mississauga to Hamilton without requiring a full environmental assessment.
“Environmental assessments (EAs) play a key role in protecting people, nature and water in Ontario. They should be strengthened and made more robust, not weakened,” stated Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner in a November press release. “We can develop without harming nature by building communities that are livable and affordable and connected by transit. Doing an end run around proper oversight threatens people and communities while harming nature and farmland. This is not the way forward.”
The proposed highway will run practically over top of this sign, placed at the edge of the Holland River.
(Photo by Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer)
Both Barrie and Brock asked for a “comprehensive impact assessment” to be completed by the Government of Ontario. These motions were approved before October of this year when the PC government approved the exemption for the Bradford Bypass that allows it to skirt certain requirements of the Environmental Assessment Act, including a detailed study analyzing potential traffic relief measures that could be constructed as alternatives to the Bypass. This study could be the pin that punctures the PCs’ inflated claims about the Bypass’s benefits, as the Province’s own traffic studies have shown it will not solve the congestion issues of the area — something the PCs have refused to admit to the public. Any further study would only serve to highlight how alternative measures like changes to traffic signalling in the downtown area, changes to on-street parking, or widening existing roadways, could all serve to potentially solve Bradford’s existing traffic issues. It’s unclear whether these local municipalities will now double down on their calls for further study after the PCs weakened the EA process for the Bypass.
There is still support among the Bypass’s core municipalities, including Georgina, Bradford West Gwillumbury and East Gwillumbury. However, motions approved in these councils make demands of the Province that can no longer be met.
For example, in May of this year, Georgina council reaffirmed its support for the Bypass, contingent on the Province completing a list of studies, including a Transportation Environmental Study Report (TESR). This study is no longer being completed. It’s unclear whether Georgina council will reconsider its position in light of the October exemption, or if the demand for environmental studies was simply a ruse to try and appease environmentally conscious citizens.
Earlier this year, the federal government designated Highway 413 for a potential federal assessment. The agency responsible for the ultimate decision is currently waiting for the PC government to respond with its plan for addressing concerns related to species at risk and the impact on Indigenous communities. Once that plan is submitted, the federal government has 180 days to make a decision on whether the project will be fully designated — a step that could eventually see Highway 413 thrown back on the scrapheap.
That request, championed by Environmental Defence and EcoJustice, received close to 350 submissions to the Impact Assessment Agency, the vast majority supporting designation in order to prevent the environmentally destructive new highway from being constructed. The two groups also sought designation for the Bradford Bypass at the same time. That request was supported by 23 different environmental and local organizations and petitions against the Bypass received approximately 18,000 signatures.
While former environmental minister Jonathan Wilkinson decided Highway 413 required further attention, he dismissed concerns around the Bypass, deciding the environmental assessment process underway by the Province would be enough to mitigate any environmental or cultural concerns. The decision was a curious one — and widely criticized by environmental advocates — as identical concerns listed as reasoning for designating Highway 413 (species at risk, concerns about impacts on Indigenous communities) very much exist with the Bypass as well.
One of the key sticking points on Highway 413, and why Ottawa justified taking a closer look, is the impact on the Red-headed Woodpecker — a species listed as endangered by the federal government — and the loss of its habitat. Ontario’s Natural Heritage Information Centre has recorded sightings of the woodpecker along the route of the Bypass within the last 6 months. According to reports from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) the independent advisory panel that informs the federal government on species at risk, population estimates suggests there are fewer than 6,000 Red-headed Woodpeckers left in Canada — mostly in Manitoba and Ontario — and they are increasingly more vulnerable to the impacts of urban sprawl.
“There is a risk of continued habitat loss and degradation due to urbanization, particularly in natural treed areas adjacent to developed areas, or in sparsely treed anthropogenic habitat the species is frequently found in, such as parks, campgrounds, cemeteries, and golf courses,” COSEWIC’s 2018 status report on the bird reads. “Research in Illinois suggests avoidance by Red-headed Woodpeckers of highly urbanized areas for nesting; this avoidance is likely driven by a lack of nesting and feeding habitat.”
For more on the impacts on species at risk caused by Highway 413 or the Bradford Bypass:
The federal government’s decision came a few short months before the PCs made the reckless decision to exempt the project from requirements under the Environmental Assessment Act in October of this year.
Advocates in the Bradford area, and 63 different environmental organizations, are now supporting a second request for designation — to newly appointed environment minister Steven Guilbeault — demanding Ottawa take a second look at the Bypass following the PCs’ decision to remove crucial studies from the project’s timeline.
“We are asking for federal intervention to help ensure that alternatives that can better address the underlying traffic problems in a more environmentally friendly way are properly assessed,” reads a letter spearheaded by Bill Foster, the head of local advocacy group Forbid Roads Over Greenspaces (FROGS), Bruce Craig of the Concerned Citizens of King Township and Tricia Hulshof with Stop the Bradford Bypass.
“Red-headed Woodpecker habitat is exposed to potential destruction. Water Crossings may occur without Fisheries permits, chloride pollution will increase in the Lake Simcoe watershed and the Holland Marsh provincially significant wetland with potentially devastating results, and a greenhouse gas intensive land use pattern will be locked in for decades to come, exacerbating already ballooning transportation emissions and jeopardizing GHG reductions for generations.”
An orange survey marker affixed to a tree along the route of the Bradford Bypass. At right, Bill Foster looks out over the Holland River.
(Photos by Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer)
The Provincial government says a list of 15 crucial studies will be completed for the Bypass ahead of any shovels hitting the ground. These studies include: impact assessments for agriculture, air quality, archeological sites, cultural heritage, drainage and hydrology, and erosion control. The Province says it will also be studying the impacts on fish and fish habitat, groundwater, vegetation, wildlife and species at risk. It remains unclear whether the impacts on climate change targets, or the ripple effects on the Lake Simcoe watershed, key concerns for local advocates, will be studied adequately ahead of construction.
“The 15 studies will be completed prior to construction,” Jordanna Colwill, a spokesperson for Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney, told The Pointer.
It’s a statement that raises many questions, especially with the Province’s existing timeline. An RFP for early works is expected to be awarded in March 2022, and work to begin on the project in the fall. Even if the majority of these studies have already begun, a little over a year’s time is not nearly enough to study the potential impacts on wildlife and their habitat.
A comprehensive study would take place over multiple seasons, recording wildlife population numbers, breeding patterns and migratory movements. A single season, if that, is not enough to provide an accurate picture of the potential impacts of the Bypass. This timeline also provides little time for the public to comment on any proposed mitigation measures.
Is a single year enough time to get a good idea of how a species at risk, like the Red-headed Woodpecker, will be impacted by the Bradford Bypass?
(Photo from Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)
“I think they want people to latch onto the idea that all of these studies are being done, but nobody is really asking, what does ‘done’ mean? What is that going to involve? And how is the public consulted? How is the mitigation possibly going to be done when you’re constructing before the assessments are done?” says Margaret Prophet, the executive director of the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition.
“They seem to be wanting the early works to proceed ASAP so that the project is substantially commenced, which would prevent the federal government from stepping in to do an Impact Analysis,” says Claire Malcolmson, executive director of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition. “It would be impossible in winter to conduct the studies, and also to use them to change anything about their plans. As I understand it, they have changed the rules so that the studies only have to be considered - they will not change their plans overall.”
The Ford government has already broken the law once, violating Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights when it did not properly consult with the public on the expansion of the highly controversial Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO) tool. Little changed followed the Ontario Superior Court ruling, which described the minister of municipal affairs as acting “unreasonably and unlawfully”. The PCs continue to show complete disdain for detractors, and their shredding of the public consultation requirements under the Environmental Assessment Act — a key piece of the democratic process — shows they care very little for what Ontarians think is best, and it is literally their way plus the highway.
Premier Doug Ford and his PC caucus love the month of December.
Not for the warm holiday parties spent with family, or the rich turkey dinners followed by piles of sweet cakes and cookies for dessert. It’s not even the calm that seems to fall over the province as people settle into a brief holiday slumber.
No. The PCs love this time of year because it’s the perfect opportunity to try and ram through unpopular legislation while the Ontario public are distracted.
In 2018, it was Bill 66 and the controversial “open for business” bylaws, pushed onto the legislature floor on December 6, just as MPPs were getting ready to disband for the year. The bylaws would have allowed municipalities to approve developments regardless of whether they complied with provincial legislation, such as the Greenbelt Act. The Ford government back-pedalled after strong public backlash. In 2020, it was Schedule 6 of the PC’s thick omnibus COVID recovery bill that stripped power away from conservation authorities, limiting their ability to intervene in development that could harm their watersheds. The Bill, along with several amendments to Schedule 6 that received no public consultation, received Royal Assent on December 8, 2020, despite fierce opposition from environmental advocates. This year, the PCs are putting the pedal to the floor on the Bradford Bypass, issuing an RFP to try and find an interested builder to start construction on “early works” for the project early in the new year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created the perfect smokescreen for the PCs to push through unpopular projects and amendments with little or no public knowledge. This year is no different as many Ontarians have been left reeling by the Omicron variant, struggling to find booster shots and rapid tests to provide a small piece of mind ahead of gatherings with family.
It’s hard to focus on large existential problems like climate change, or environmental destruction when you’re trying not to get sick, or keep your family from getting sick, as an incredibly contagious virus works its way at a rapid clip across much of the country.
But this year is different in one crucial way. Residents on the coast of Lake Simcoe are not forgetting about the Bradford Bypass.
A recent poll of voters in three key ridings around Lake Simcoe, completed by Oracle Research and commissioned by Lake Simcoe Watch, found that 48 percent of voters do not support the Bypass, compared to 29 percent who want the highway and 23 percent who are undecided.
The poll results are drastically different from a 2016 poll completed by the Town of Bradford West Gwillumbury which claimed 85 percent of residents wanted the highway.
The Oracle poll comprised of 900 telephone surveys with residents — 300 people from each of the three ridings included in the poll: Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte, Barrie-Innisfil, and York-Simcoe — and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percent 19 times out of 20.
“The plurality of voters in the three major ridings in this area are pretty against it and even if you look at the ones that are for it, which tend to be more conservative, even they’re saying —I think it was about 25 percent — we’re saying, ‘we still want to make sure there is no net impact to Lake Simcoe,;” Prophet says.
The strong number of those opposed to the highway will be a concern for the three PC MPPs who currently hold those ridings with an election just over six months away. Two of the ridings are held by key players in Ford’s cabinet, including Mulroney, the minister of transportation (York-Simcoe), and Doug Downey, the attorney general (Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte). PC MPP Andrea Khanjin holds the riding of Barrie-Innisfil.
While these three ridings are also held by Conservatives in Ottawa, it will be the Liberal government’s decision that will set a precedent for these projects moving forward.
In recent statements, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made it abundantly clear that climate action will be a priority for his government moving forward.
“To create a more resilient economy, create jobs, and grow the middle class, Canada must take strong and bold climate action,” he said following November’s Speech from the Throne. “Together, we need to go further and move faster on climate action, not just to protect our environment, but to grow our economy in a way that leaves no worker behind.”
But words are empty without action. Full designations for both Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass would send a strong message to Ford and his PC government that Ottawa will not tolerate archaic land use planning that will no doubt compromise Canada’s ability to meet its ambitious climate change targets and reach net zero by 2050.
“I think it’s a very, very important cautionary tale for, what are the feds going to do, and what precedent does that set for the province,” Prophet says, adding she is concerned that if Highway 413 does not receive full designation, it will receive the same exemptions from the EA process as the Bradford Bypass — something the Ford government attempted to do before Ottawa stepped in this past May. “If they have all the same exemptions waiting for the 413, just like they do have all those exemptions now for the Bypass, and the feds go, ‘actually we’re pretty happy with the process’, I would be concerned.”
If Prime Minister Trudeau cared about the climate as much as his public statements would suggest, it would be an easy decision for him and his government to get involved in these two projects.
Aside from the prime land that would be lost — eliminating natural climate solutions that help us battle climate change free of charge — these two highways would add untold amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. An earlier study completed by Environmental Defence estimated Highway 413 alone would add 17 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere by 2050. The government of Canada’s most populous province is actively working against Canada’s climate goals through not only these two highway projects, but its entire environmental agenda that places developer interests over that of wildlife, greenspace and wetlands.
“This is a government that would pave the Greenbelt if we took our eyes off them,” NDP MPP Jennifer French, Opposition critic for Infrastructure, Transportation and Highways, previously told The Pointer.
The NDP have been vocal critics of both highway projects — committing to scrapping them if elected in 2022 — and have also requested auditor general Bonnie Lysyk investigate the planning and procurement processes for the two projects.
“I am not impressed with the Government’s lack of planning for and transparency on these projects, in particular because estimates suggest their total costing could be upwards of $10 billion,” wrote NDP MPP Catherine Fife in a letter sent to Lysyk earlier this year. “I believe Ontarians deserve to know exactly how these projects have been proposed and prioritized over so many important infrastructure investments this province desperately needs.”
The two highway projects and the PCs' continued push to weaken environmental protections also ticks another of Trudeau’s stated “priorities” — the protection of democracy. Make no mistake, the continued erosion of the environmental assessment process, the PCs' absolute disdain for any public consultation on its decision making, and its spending of public money without any accountability, is an attack on the democratic rights of Ontarians — and not just those who care about the environment.
“Preventing and fighting corruption remains a critical component of democratic renewal. To address and fight corruption globally, Canada will convene a high-level roundtable in 2022 to examine effective ways to strengthen international legal frameworks to combat corruption globally,” a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office reads, following the early-December Summit for Democracy.
“At home and abroad, the Government of Canada remains steadfast in its commitment to democracy, which is best suited to tackling the great challenges of our time and addressing the issues that matter most to Canadians. Together we will continue to advance democracy at home and around the world so we can build a better future for everyone.”
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