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Canada’s Liberal government putting nature first in Greater Toronto’s Rouge National Urban Park

Scarborough Mirror
Mike Adler
June 9, 2016

Canada’s Liberal government moved Thursday, June 9 to rewrite the law governing Rouge National Urban Park, to the delight of environmentalists who had pushed for change.

The federal Conservatives announced the park in 2012, but failed to convince Ontario to hand over 9,000 acres it owns in Scarborough’s Rouge Valley.

A stand-off began between the Liberal province and Stephen Harper’s government, with prominent conservation groups such as Ontario Nature, Environmental Defence, the David Suzuki Foundation and Friends of the Rouge Watershed supporting Ontario’s refusal to transfer its lands.

At the heart of the dispute – which former Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent insisted was political – was concern over the Conservative vision of Rouge Park as a place where nature and farming had equal protection.

After talks with the province and park stakeholders, Federal Environment Minister McKenna said she tabled amendments to the Rouge National Park Act to “ensure that the ecological integrity of the park is the first priority.”

Conservation groups understand these amendments will mean Canada’s first national urban park will “meet or exceed” Ontario’s environmental protections for the Rouge, said Erin Shapero, Greenbelt and Smart Growth program manager for Environmental Defence.

It was important, said Shapero, a former Markham councillor, “to ensure nature has its rightful place at the centre of the legislation.”

Until now, she said, “there wasn’t an assurance the land would be managed in a way that respects nature.”

The Conservatives passed their park legislation in 2015, promising to defend the rights of tenant farmers who occupy most of its federal land in York Region. They never actually controlled Rouge Park south of Steeles Avenue.

It’s expected after the amendments are passed and reviewed by the province, the Rouge NUP will finally be more than a national park on paper.

McKenna, who toured the park in February, committed the Liberal government to match the Conservative’s proposed contribution to the Rouge, $170.5 million over 10 years and $10.6 million a year after that.

She also said federal authorities will offer “greater certainty,” including leases of up to 30 years, to farmers who continue to lease park land.

Farmers in the Rouge and Pickering Airport lands have for decades complained short leases and arbitrary decisions by federal and provincial agencies gave them no security.

In a release, McKenna said farming in the park can continue, “providing an important source of locally grown food to the Greater Toronto Area.”

Brad Duguid, Ontario’s infrastructure minister and the man who refused to hand the Rouge land over to Ottawa, thanked the new federal government in a statement Thursday.

“The new legislation is a significant improvement that both elevates ecological integrity as the guiding principle, yet remains sensitive to agricultural interests in the park,” said Duguid, also a Scarborough MPP.

“Ontario has been and remains incredibly supportive of establishing the Rouge National Urban Park.”

In a tweet, Kent, re-elected as a Conservative MP in Thornhill, pronounced the amendment process a “waste of time.”

Shapero said conservationists hope to see the park expand further into federal lands in Durham, and hope the federal move can be a first step to cancelling the long-stalled plan for an airport in Pickering.