Maitland River. Photo credit: Maitland Conservation Authority
In spite of public outcry, including the mass resignation of half of the provincially appointed Greenbelt Council, the Ontario Government passed another budget omnibus bill (Bill 229) in early December 2020 containing fundamental changes environmental legislation. Called the “Protect, Support and Recover from COVID-19 Act (Budget Measures)”, this bill uses economic recovery from the pandemic as the cover story for further undermining environmental protections.
Budget bills don’t require public comments, and so the government has limited the say for the people of Ontario by using an omnibus budget bill to change environmental legislation. However, WCS Canada scientists have been working to highlight the damage these changes will do in the few windows that are available, including creating this page to keep you up to date on these – and possible further – changes.
In particular, we have major concerns about a number of measures that will destroy valuable wetlands and woodlands in southern Ontario. But the government is also pushing through other worrying changes, including the opening of the far north of the province for mining development, and unscientific and unproven new approaches to endangered species protection – a course that was set in motion by sweeping changes to the Endangered Species Act 18 months ago, in another omnibus bill.
Buried in Bill 229 were drastic changes to the role of Conservation Authorities (CAs), including a new ability for developers to ask the province to override CA decisions. Conservation Authorities play a critical role in protecting the few remaining woodlands and wetlands in the most developed and highly populated part of the province. The focus of CAs on watershed-wide protection is even more vital as a conservation tool today than it was when the first authorities were established in 1946. A telling example of what the government’s changes will mean is already unfolding in a provincially significant wetland just to east of Toronto, in Durham. A proposal to build a warehouse in a provincially significant wetland would normally have to be approved by the local CA. But the province has instead stepped in to downgrade the wetland’s status, based on no scientific evidence, thereby forcing the CA to approve the development.
Further amendments have been introduced that would allow the province to issue Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs) that override decisions made by CAs to protect against flooding, erosion, or to assist endangered species. Previously, MZOs were rarely used, and designed to address only urgent planning issues of “provincial significance”. Now, the government is MZOs routinely – more than 35 in the last year alone – to approve subdivisions and shopping malls. These orders cannot be appealed, and require no public consultation.
A troubling example of the consequences of indiscriminate use of MZOs is unfolding in King Township, just to the north of Toronto. A religious order with a number of trustees involved in the land development industry has asked King Township to apply for an MZO to allow the development of a hotel and conference centre, among other things, on an 812-acre property fully within the Oak Ridges Moraine and Greenbelt, which is supposed to off limits for this kind of land development. The site also includes a provincially significant wetland, which previously would have meant any development plans would have to be approved by the local Conservation Authority (and would likely be denied). Now, an MZO could be used to get around these safeguards.
The government justifies all these changes on the basis that they are necessary for economic recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. As scientists familiar with the data, and with insights into the long-term impacts of these shortsighted policies, our experience suggests that measures like these will actually lead to significant costs to society in the future. This will come about through by damaging ecosystems and the natural services they provide, such as flood protection, clean air, clean water and opportunities for recreation.
Conservation Authorities manage some of the highest quality habitat remaining in southern Ontario, and have long-standing records of working productively with the development industry to find ways to facilitate projects, while safeguarding important natural areas. In fact, rather than assuming that removal of these important ecosystem protection measures will lead to efficiencies, the government could learn from important ecosystem protection measures. For example, instead of razing the watershed-wide protection mandate of CAs, the province should be embracing watershed-level planning as a model for landscape management throughout the province. The CA model makes the link between the health of natural systems and our health a top priority. WCS President Dr. Justina Ray joined Dr. Craig Stephens, a population health epidemiologist and professor at the University of British Columbia, to talk about how CAs could be a model for a much-needed One Health approach to both conservation and protecting public health in a piece for the Hill Times (subscription required). Justina also addressed the important role of CAs in protecting public health in an interview with CTV news.
Watch this space for more insights and recommendations from our Ontario scientists on proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act and the Far North Act. At a time when we are all living with the consequences of a deteriorating natural environment and climate, the lesson we should be taking away is not to dig a deeper hole, but to reverse direction, and to recognize that protecting the health of natural systems is critically importance for health and the economy.
Photo credits: Banner | William Halliday © WCS Canada