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A green champion

Kevin Thomason recognized by Environmental Defence

Waterloo Chronicle,
James Jackson,
March 16 2016

Kevin Thomason settles down into a black recliner in his living room, excitedly recounting a scene he witnessed just half an hour earlier on the road to his home near Sunfish Lake.

“How many people have ever seen a dozen deer standing in a field with wild turkeys running between their legs – in the City of Waterloo,” said Thomason with his trademark enthusiasm. “No one is going to believe this is happening within the city limits.”

If you’ve been to a council meeting anywhere in this region over the past decade, or attended any public meeting related to land-use planning, light rail transit or environmentally sensitive landscapes, you know Thomason. Often dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, the slender 46-year-old always has time to discuss the snapping turtles or endangered salamanders in the region.

He’s made a name for himself as a passionate defender of the environment not only in Waterloo Region, but across the province, and he was recognized earlier this month by Environmental Defence, a non-partisan environmental advocacy group based in Toronto, when he received that organization’s Green Champion award for his work promoting the provincial greenbelt and its expansion to Waterloo Region.

Thomason is grateful for the award, but said he works with a group of passionate volunteers and politicians who have helped him along the way.

“It never ceases to amaze me – we have 74 environmental groups in Waterloo Region alone. Some are focused on cycling, some are focused on air pollution, and everyone has their own little niche,” he said. “There are so many great volunteers doing so many great things.”

He’s traveled across the province and around the world advocating for greenbelts, LRT systems, urban intensification and other measures to limit sprawl and protect farmland and vulnerable ecosystems.

He said Waterloo Region is lucky to have such progressive politicians and policy makers – without them, he’d simply be shouting into the wind.

“You do look around the province and see great activists, advocates or environmentalists who face an abysmal council that just doesn’t get it,” he said. “We sometimes take the good government we see here for granted.”

Thomason remains active throughout the province as the president of Ontario Nature, secretary for Youth Challenge International, and as a member of the Grand River Environmental Network, the regional ESL liaison committee, the Sunfish Lake Association and co-founder of Smart Growth Waterloo Region.

Raised in a suburban home in Thornhill, about 30 minutes north of downtown Toronto, Thomason wasn’t born an environmentalist.

He was a tech guy who worked with Apple and KPMG before graduating from Wilfrid Laurier University with a double major in business and psychology, and was among the first employees at local marketing and communications firm Quarry after he graduated in 1993.

It wasn’t until he bought his home on Sunfish Lake on the outskirts of the city 19 years ago that he gained an appreciation for the local environment.

“I realized I was seeing critters here (at Sunfish Lake) that I don’t see at my cottage 500 kilometres north of here in Northern Ontario,” he said. “I was seeing owls and otters and osprey here, right on the edge of the city, that I wouldn’t see up there.”

What began as a fight against an application to sever one of the lots on the lake for additional homes turned into a battle to create the regionÂ’s environmentally sensitive landscape (ESL) policy framework.

“That was right after Walkerton, and all of a sudden the region realized we get 80 per cent of our drinking water from the ground (and) Walkerton could happen here,” said Thomason.

In 2004, he took what was supposed to be a one-year sabbatical from Quarry to help protect the Waterloo Moraine and create the ESLs, the first of its kind in Ontario. It turned into a three-year fight to create the ESLs, which now protect 15,000 hectares of land in this region.

Thomason has become a known commodity for councils across the region, and not everyone sees eye-to-eye with him.

“Sometimes it’s a benefit to have someone with his passion, and sometimes it’s a thorn in your side because his passion rubs against the things that we want,” said Wilmot Township Mayor Les Armstrong.

The two have differing opinions on the fate of Wilmot Line in particular. Armstrong wants the dirt road to be tar and chipped for safety, while Thomason argues the dirt road helps deter traffic and protects the wildlife that crosses the road every day.

“It’s great to see his dedication,” Armstrong admitted. “I appreciate the work he does.”

Regional councillor Jane Mitchell, who has known Thomason for about 16 years, said the award is well-deserved and that Waterloo Region has benefited from his passion.

“You need people in the community to come forward and protect what needs to be protected,” she said.

Thomason’s latest push is to see the provincial greenbelt expanded to include Waterloo Region as part of the 10-year review promised by the Liberal government when it was established in 2005. Thomason wants to see Waterloo included in the 7,200-square-kilometre stretch of protected land.

“He really gets the whole picture of why we need to build smarter communities to protect our countryside,” said Susan Lloyd Swail, smart growth program manager for Environmental Defence.

Thomason got married for the first time last September, and with a baby on the way this July, he expects his work protecting the environment and creating a better future will take on a new perspective.

“Sometimes youth notice things that we don’t, like the simplest little robin chirping,” he said.