PCs trumpet funding to protect natural areas while conservation authorities struggle
Ontarians might remember Premier Doug Ford’s back and forth on electric vehicle production before investments into the crucial transition away from carbon-based automobiles began to flow from Queen’s Park.
Almost immediately after being elected for the first time in 2018, Ford and his PC government scrapped provincial subsidies for EVs and halted planned investments into charging stations across Ontario. Fast forward to the June 2022 provincial election, the premier’s stance seemed to shift, announcing $91 million for charging infrastructure along the province’s major 400-series highways and a target of 400,000 EVs manufactured in Ontario by 2030.
Statistics Canada data shows the provincial policy to scrap subsidies for buyers looking to purchase an electric car had a significant impact on uptake as Ontario, which had been a leader, suddenly fell behind the national rate of EV sales. In the first half of 2022, across the nation, one in 14 new registered vehicles were electric. After Ford cut the subsidies, only approximately 1 in 20 new vehicles sold were electric.
But while the Ford government has announced some promising investments into EV production, including the roughly $5 billion just committed to Stellantis for its new Windsor battery production operation and more than $4 billion to Volkswagen for its St. Thomas battery production project, it still refuses to budge on policies that could significantly increase sales across the province: the government will not reintroduce electric car subsidies or make changes to the Building Code requiring new structures be equipped with EV chargers.
Premier Ford appears to be much more interested in building highways and large houses than supporting conservation or a clean energy transition.
(Government of Ontario)
The PCs’ approach to electric vehicles is questioned by critics who say you can’t create production without the infrastructure and cars to actually grow EV use in Ontario.
The same detached approach is used by the PCs in other areas of environmental action.
While Ford has never made the claim that he cares about the environment, and he has never made environmental protections a key part of his platform, there is concern his policies are causing long-term harm, even though Ford and his PC colleagues highlight investments into sustainability.
“The concern here is that climate change is accelerating,” Mississauga Councillor Alvin Tedjo, who sits on the board of Conservation Halton, said. “We're getting to the point where what we're doing can't stop the change, we can try to slow it down. And we can try to make it not as bad as potentially forecasted if we continue down the path of investing and prioritizing climate change. What we also need to do now, is to start planning to adapt to a future that has significant climate change.”
Two weeks ago, the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) announced $14 million for the Greenlands Conservation Partnership to “expand the protection of ecologically important natural areas and preserve the province’s natural diversity,” according to a provincial press release.
The increased funding will help organizations such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and the Ontario Land Trust Alliance (OLTA) take action to protect and restore vital wetlands, grasslands and forests. The NCC works to combat the world’s two most severe environmental crises — climate change and biodiversity loss — and has brought people together coast to coast to restore and conserve over 15 million hectares of land since 1962. In Ontario, the organization has successfully protected 243,000 hectares — almost four times the size of the City of Toronto. The Greenlands Conservation Program has contributed to over half of this protected land since the program’s emergence in 2020.
“These conserved areas help protect communities against the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss and ensure accessible green spaces,” Mike Hendren, regional vice president of Ontario at the NCC, said in a press release by the provincial government. “NCC is grateful for Ontario’s ongoing support of the Greenlands program through which more natural areas, including forests, wetlands and grasslands, will be conserved and restored for people and nature.”
The $14 million investment adds to the $38 million that has been invested through the Greenlands program since its conception, contributing to conservation across the country.
“We’ve seen widespread success over the last three years by working in partnership with organizations like the Nature Conservancy of Canada and the Ontario Land Trust Alliance to increase our impact and create opportunities to protect nature. That’s why we’re increasing our investment in the Greenlands Conservation Partnership program,” David Piccini, Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, said in a press release. “Together, we’re protecting sensitive natural areas and ensuring a healthy environment Ontarians can enjoy, now and in the future.”
The Ontario government’s $14 million investment into conservation was made while PC legislation has stripped conservation authorities of their authority.
The statement was met by skepticism from those who have opposed the PCs’ cuts to conservation authorities and their mandates to protect Ontario’s greenspaces. Tedjo said that while the investment appears sizable, and is a positive step, in terms of the money needed for effective conservation, it is just a start. The NDP continue to point out that sweeping changes to development legislation in the form of Bill 23, Bill 97 and changes to the Greenbelt Act, will negate any benefit achieved through this investment.
“Certainly the government hasn't always put the environment or conservation at the forefront. So it's good to see that this investment exists,” Tedjo said. “However, as good as the investment is … they have not included conservation authorities to be eligible to participate in the program. I would certainly like to see that given the mandate of conservation authorities and their importance on protecting the watershed, especially with climate change, taking a more destructive role in our system.”
Although widespread attention was brought to the plight of conservation authorities when much of their mandates and jurisdiction were stripped after Ford first won office in 2018, the PC government has been silently waging a battle against the province’s 36 CAs throughout their time leading Ontario.
In December 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the PC majority passed Bill 229 with Section 6, peeling away layers of power from conservation authorities. Section 6 gives the Ontario government the power to force a conservation authority to issue a development permit despite the responsibility to protect people and the environment over development priorities.
While conservation authorities were finding workarounds for the changes brought by Bill 229, the Ford government came down heavy-handed with Bill 23, repealing 36 regulations in the Conservation Authorities Act that once allowed these agencies to oversee the development process. The changes weaken conservation authorities’ ability to do what they were intended to since the ‘50s, in the wake of Hurricane Hazel, one of the province’s most costly natural disasters: monitor and protect the increasingly damaged watersheds across Ontario. Bill 23 places a great deal of responsibility on municipalities, which now have to follow planning authority transferred to Queen’s Park, and erodes much of their previous partnerships with conservation authorities that ensured towns and cities developed sustainably.
Through subsequent legislative changes, it has become evident the PCs favour development over environmental protection, scrapping many safeguards in the name of building 1.5 million homes across the province by 2031.
“It's unfortunate, because I think conservation authorities have a very important role to play,” Tedjo said. “The provincial government needs to make sure that they keep conservation authorities whole, and that they are not using the bill as a way to cut back on [them].”
The erosion of conservation authorities comes as climate action is needed to avert severe consequences.
The map depicts surface water quality throughout the Credit Valley Watershed. Grades range from ‘A’ meaning ‘excellent’ to ‘F’ meaning ‘very poor’.
(Credit Valley Conservation)
Conservation authorities publish summaries of the status of the watersheds they protect in the form of a watershed report card every five years. The grades that appear on these reports show the actions needed to protect our natural ecosystems. While the report card from the Credit Valley Conservation Authority (CVC), which protects the Credit Valley watershed spanning much of the western belt of Peel Region, shows improvements in some categories such as surface water quality as a result of limiting phosphorus entering the watershed; overall, the grades in the report are mainly in the “fair” to “poor” range.
“The important thing to remember about these report cards is that we use this information to really highlight where there are areas of concern and this helps us really focus our efforts on improving those conditions,” Kata Bavrlic, a senior analyst at CVC, said on an episode of The Pointer’s What’s the Point podcast.
According to the CVC’s 2023 report, two of the biggest threats facing the watershed currently are climate change and invasive species. Invasive species pose a severe threat to local biodiversity. Climate change, in turn, will impact precipitation levels and temperatures altering the wetland ecosystems that support many crucial species as well as our drinking water.
Tedjo said a crucial piece in securing funding and support for conservation efforts is catering to people’s values by stressing that these efforts are not only beneficial for the environment, but they also help support sustainable economies and societies.
“[It’s] not just the environmental need, but the economic need, the need for communities to have investments like this. It'll be a net benefit,” he said. “The same way that investing in EVs is a boost to the economy, investing in CAs helps businesses transition to cleaner energy or helps those businesses operate better. So if we change how we talk about these pieces in a way that is more appealing to the PC government, I think that'll help.”
While Tedjo did say he has hope that more funding will trickle down, a much more steady stream of investment and active support is needed from the PCs to work toward a permanent provincial sustainability mandate.
“We need to be leaders in fighting climate change and working with business and working with municipalities. And that means support from this government.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated conservation authorities publish watershed report cards on an annual basis. These reports are only published every five years.
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