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Saving the Rouge, Canada’s Largest Urban Park

Alternatives Journal,
Andrew Reeves,
September 28, 2016

“WE’RE WILLING TO work with you but we’re not willing to go backwards,” Jim Robb shouted over the commotion*. Robb, head of Friends of the Rouge Watershed, a Rouge Park advocacy group, was part of a packed crowd at a recreation complex in Pickering, Ontario. More than a hundred other residents arrived in September 2014 to voice their fears over how Conservative Party legislation could traumatize their beloved Rouge Park.

Parks Canada, the federal agency set to take command of the controversial park on the eastern edge of Toronto, had convened the meeting to gather public feedback on a new concept for the parks system: a national urban park, a new designation intended to carve out national park space for nature in the country’s densest population corridor. And the Rouge, running from Lake Ontario north to the Toronto bedroom community of Stouffville, would be the first of its kind.

Yet it was difficult to believe that Parks Canada took the consultation seriously. Rather than provide an open forum for residents to voice concerns, the meeting clustered participants at a dozen tables for group work. Blown up photos of the park stood on easels beside large paper sheets with softball questions looking to elicit praise for the agency’s plans. Participants were asked to use heart-shaped stick-it notes to share what they loved about Rouge Park. “Oh, please,” one of the residents sighed. The busy-work limited the time anyone would have to question agency staff about their Rouge draft management that some found depressingly problematic. Perhaps, some whispered, that was the idea*.

That summer, the Federal Conservatives called Bill C-40, the Rouge National Urban Park Act, for second reading. “The legislation would ensure that all these natural, cultural, and agricultural landscapes are protected,” said Colin Carrie, Conservative MP and parliamentary assistant to Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq. Few outside the government believed Carrie or others within Parks Canada who claimed the “new and bold” plan outlined in Bill C-40 afforded “the strongest protection for Rouge in its history.”* Environmental heavyweights from across Canada condemned the proposed plan, claiming the Tories had failed to prioritize protecting Rouge Park’s ecological integrity. “There is a…fundamental issue that needs to be addressed,” said Éric Hébert-Daly, National Executive Director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) “which is that nature conservation be clearly identified as the overarching priority for managing the park.” Hébert-Daly told a legislative Standing Committee in October 2014 that conservation is the essence of a park. Without it, he suggested, the Rouge would be little more than a multi-use zone.

“Urban parks are defined as delineated open space areas, mostly dominated by vegetation and water, and generally reserved for public use. Urban parks are mostly larger, but can also have the shape of smaller “pocket parks”. Urban parks are usually locally defined (by authorities) as “parks” – worldurbanparks.org

The Tories weren’t swayed. Armed with a majority in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper ushered C-40 through the legislature. By January 2015, the bill passed third reading and was en route to the Conservative-dominated Senate where it soon became clear there would be no sober second thought afforded by the body. Buoyed by provincial support for their ecologically-minded anxieties about Bill C-40, Jim Robb appeared before a Standing Senate Committee in March 2015. He told Senators that getting the Rouge right had lasting implications beyond any one park and that future governments would use the new designation to anoint other greenspaces in other cities as national urban parks. “This is nation building,” Robb said. “Let’s not put in pathetically weak legislation…that has to last for centuries.”

But pleas to amend the legislation went nowhere. Three years after the idea of creating the urban park was first touted, Liberal Senator (and former Toronto mayor) Art Eggleton addressed the Senate. “The Conservative government and the majority of senators on the committee rejected all the amendments” aimed at making Rouge Park stronger. “They rejected creating a truly great national urban park,” Eggleton continued, “if Bill C-40 passes today as is, then we will have a shadow of a park.”

That afternoon, on April 2, 2015, Canada’s Senate passed the Rouge National Urban Park Act without amendment. The Act would receive Royal Assent on April 23rd of that month, and would officially come into effect as law on May 15th, 2015.


MOST ONTARIANS EXPERIENCE the Rouge in flashes of emerald forests and the deep ultramarine of Lake Ontario. It’s jarring to see such greenery emerge from the sprawl that characterizes the dense Lakeshore East corridor from Toronto to Oshawa. Yet if the park is a calming break from the hurly-burly of rush hour as it hurtles past the GO Train window, on the ground it’s positively serene.

Totalling 79.1 square kilometres, Rouge National Urban Park contains multitudes of wildlife, rivers, flora and fauna. People have lived in the Valley since 10,000 BCE that sustained paleolithic nomadic hunters, Iroquois farmers and early European settlers. Markers of these early communities persist, especially at the Bead Hill archaeological site. There, the remains of a 17th century Seneca Village were designated a National Historic Site in 1991. More recently, traces of private residences and campgrounds in the park’s northern reaches that were abandoned or destroyed after 1954’s Hurricane Hazel still dot the Woodland Trail* and the farming of Class 1 land – the best Canada has – remains on tenanted operations.

But it is the ecological wallop packed by the Rouge that stands out. Over 1,700 species of birds, plants, mammals, fish, insects, amphibians and reptiles make the park home, including numerous species-at-risk like the milksnake, wild ginseng and the blanding’s turtle. It’s an enormous diversity of species, said Alison Woodley, national director of CPAWS’s Parks Program. “The fact that it’s imbedded in a landscape with a city grown around makes it all the more precious,” she said.*

Beyond what lives in Rouge Park are the connections the coordinated greenspace makes possible. Protecting the area’s natural vegetation and wildlife corridors has been central to the health of the park since the Rouge’s first management plan was drafted in 1994. “There is no ecological integrity without the corridor,” Robb told me in an interview; “there is no healthy watershed without it.” This ecological corridor is meant to spread visitor use out while connecting the Lower Rouge Valley ecosystem near Lake Ontario with ecosystems in the Oak Ridges Moraine. In many respects, Robb said, the park is a crucial artery to connect the Great Lakes to the 7,200 square kilometres of the Ontario Greenbelt.* Lake Scugog to the east; Lake Simcoe to the north; the Niagara escarpment to the west – it’s this contiguous ribbon of protected land that gives the park life, binds these places together and enhances their ecological value.

It is this contiguous ribbon of protected land that gives the park life, binds these places together and enhances their ecological value.

Protected areas alone can’t safeguard all species, “there’s a need for wildlife to have room to roam through the landscape beyond the boundaries of a park,” Woodley said. Birds, deer – even a bobcat, “they need that kind of corridor to move through,” she said.* Preserving ecological corridors is especially vital in southern Ontario. Once blanketed in Carolinian forest, southern Ontario retains just 15 percent of the highly biodiverse Carolinian land it once did. “Fly across southern Ontario today and the occasional woodlot or tree line along a stream are about all that remain of the Carolinian ecosystem,” wrote author Chris Wood on the vanishing ecozone for The Tyee. The scraps of marginal forest remaining are so fragmented and miniscule they’re almost useless. It wasn’t until 1984 that the Rouge Valley was formally recognized as a critical slice of Carolinian forest. Today, Rouge Park remains, next to Point Pelee National Park, one of the largest intact Carolinian zones left in Canada.


“IN THIS, THE 100th anniversary year of our national parks system, our Government will create significant new protected areas,” read Canada’s Governor General David Johnston during the Speech from the Throne on June 3, 2011. “It will work with provincial, regional, municipal, Aboriginal and community stakeholders toward establishing an urban national park in the Rouge Valley.” The creation of an entirely new type of park would go beyond mere recognition to celebrate the urban nature of the (public transit-accessible) space, one criss-crossed by hydro lines, multi-lane highways and railway tracks that was squeezed between tract housing and Smart!Centres.

The new moniker, like the new park, was applauded across party lines with members sharing warm memories of the Rouge. Liberal MP Arnold Chan described during debate on Bill C-40 how the park afforded him his first real taste of nature as a child. The New Democrats also supported the park. “The promise of this national urban park is certainly something for all of us to get excited about,” said Scarborough Southwest NDP MP Dan Harris, calling the new designation “a new type of park for a new era.” Eighty percent of Canadians live urban lives, Harris said: “We need to have some national urban parks.”

Yet the Rouge National Urban Park emerged at a dark time for the environment (and environmentalists) in Canada. Throughout 2011, 700 jobs at Environment Canada were chopped as part of a larger $222.2 million budgetary slash. In December, newly minted Environment Minister Peter Kent shocked the world in announcing that Canada wouldn’t renew its commitment to the Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters crowded Parliament Hill to oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline and dozens were arrested for their acts of civil disobedience. In a year with lamentable environmental losses, the creation of something lasting in the Rouge was welcome news. The bipartisan chorus that had called since 2009 for the publicly-owned land to be moulded into a national park would finally be heard.

Throughout 2011, 700 jobs at Environment Canada were chopped as part of a larger $222.2 million budgetary slash. In December, newly minted Environment Minister Peter Kent shocked the world in announcing that Canada wouldn’t renew its commitment to the Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse gas emissions.”

In response to Hurricane Hazel’s destruction of 2,100 homes citywide, Toronto expropriated its river Valleys for floodplain protection, including the Rouge. Kept in a state that Toronto City Councillor and Deputy Mayor Glenn de Baeremaeker called “benign neglect,” not much would happen with the parkland until the late 1980s. Then, under pressure from the Ontario Realty Corporation, Scarborough city councillors discussed rezoning 5,000 acres of Rouge land for subdivisions. Alongside former Minister of State for the Environment Pauline Browes, de Baeremaeker began musing publicly about the possibility of creating a national park in the Rouge just as the parkland came under assault from developers. Rallying hundreds of concerned residents to oppose the rezoning, de Baeremaeker helped defeat the motion 14-1. “People in the region stood up and said no to urban sprawl taking over the Valley,” Woodley of CPAWS told me in an interview. The community’s success was solidified in 1990, when Browes introduced a private member’s motion on Parliament Hill to create a national park in the Rouge Valley. The Bill had Ontario Premier David Peterson draw a boundary around 1,821 hectares of Rouge land. It became a joint municipal/provincial park five years later.

Ontario has always been a big player in the Rouge. Over 4,000 hectares of park land (nearly two-thirds of the total property) is owned by the province. Ottawa owns the lion’s share of the remainder, including 7,486 hectares expropriated between 1972-1975 by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau for a still contentious (and still debated) Pickering airport. Toronto and Markham also own small plots of Rouge land. Blueprints for the national urban park always included provincially-owned land the Liberals seemed willing to sell for “adequate compensation”, something in the ballpark of $80 to $100 million. Many environmentalists, meanwhile, argued alongside de Baeremaeker and Browes that the Rouge should kill the zombie airport plan by allowing Ottawa to save face and transfer the property to Parks Canada to become part of the park.

In the fall of 2011, Harper directed Parks Canada to undertake a massive consultation with municipalities, Queen’s Park, environmentalists, community groups and the public on transforming the Rouge. More than 150 stakeholder groups were heard, in addition to 11,000 Canadians who submitted comments. The result was a draft management plan from Parks Canada, the basis of which would inform the earlier discussed Bill C-40. Many watching the process believed the agency would rely on historical precedent in determining how best to conserve nature in a national park, urban or otherwise. Both the Canadian National Parks Act and the Ontario Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act prioritize ecological integrity as their raison d’être. There can be other principles at play in a park, Woodley discussed with me, but nature must come first. A protected space as defined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature makes clear that prioritizing nature is a “fundamental principle of a protected area,” she said, a gold standard worked into Rouge management plans previously drafted by Queen’s Park.

Despite existing federal and provincial models putting nature first, the framework laid out in Bill C-40 did not.* Early enthusiasm for the Rouge plan quickly soured among many once-enthusiastic groups. It call came down to three simple words: “take into consideration”.


“TAKE INTO CONSIDERATION has no legal meaning,” he said. Jim Robb was desperate to halt Bill C-40 in the Red Chamber. He was frustrated and beginning to question his ability to communicate to the Tories why the legislation was so menacing to the Rouge.* He pressed on. “Take into consideration is what we do everywhere,” he told Senators in a March 2015 committee hearing. “In an open pit mine we take into consideration the environment. In an oil field development, we take into consideration.” The phrase was dangerously meaningless.

While similar parks legislation in Canada and Ontario insist the Minister responsible must prioritize the land’s ecological integrity, Clause 6 of Bill C-40 holds the Minister to do little more than “take into consideration the protection of its natural ecosystems…the maintenance of its native wildlife and…the health of those ecosystems.” Environmental NGOs worried the new legislation would offer weaker protections for the Rouge than those already granted by existing provincial laws like the Greenbelt and Oak Ridges Conservation Moraine acts, in addition to Great Lakes Water Quality Improvement Plans. Friends of the Rouge Watershed teamed up with CPAWS, Ontario Nature and Environmental Defence in June 2014 to ask lawyers from Ecojustice to investigate.

What they found, Ecojustice counsel John Swaigen told me via email, was that Bill C-40 was “significantly less protective of nature” than either the Canada National Parks Act or Ontario’s Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act.* “If “take into consideration” is all we have in the legislation it doesn’t meet the basic principles of a protected area,” Alison Woodley from CPAWS told me; “Prioritizing nature is what distinguishes a park.”* Within weeks, the coalition released a statement claiming the legislation failed to meet the standards of a sustainable national park that respected conservation science and ecological integrity.

Opposition to the Rouge plan continued in the House of Commons. “This clause looks like…it is a responsible measure,” said NDP MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan from Scarborough’s Rouge River. But the protections the legislation spoke of were a mirage. “What the government is doing is weakening the protection of my and the people’s park in Scarborough,” she said. The Liberals agreed. “”Take into consideration” is not a plan,” Liberal MP John McKay noted, suggesting the Tories simply wanted the public to trust their environmental bona fides. “Well,” McKay said, “”trust me” does not cut it.”

The once vaunted Rouge National Urban Park plan was in shambles. By August, Queen’s Park signalled it wouldn’t transfer its Rouge lands until ecological gaps in the legislation were addressed. After a contentious second reading the bill went to committee. In an act of “mindless tribalism” that Green Party MP Bruce Hyer likened to a virus, the Conservatives voted down every amendment. “They stubbornly refused every bipartisan attempt to improve ecological protection in the park.” New Democratic MP Megan Leslie told a media junket of Rouge Park in November 2014 how strange it felt that her party would vote against creating a national park in an area so desperately in need of one.


THEY DOUBLE PARKED on the road’s shoulder and sat on the floor. Or they stood like a living jigsaw puzzle to make room, shifting until the pieces fit. It was January, 2015. At the invitation of Land Over Landings, a citizen’s group fighting the Pickering airport, more than 150 people packed Brougham Hall in north Pickering to discuss the government’s plan to update its Greenbelt legislation. I found Robb at the back of the hall. In a few weeks he would travel to Ottawa to speak on amending Bill C-40; he spoke that night as if it was all a done deal. Yet if the Senate wouldn’t improve the bill, he mused, perhaps things might change after the fall’s federal election. “The opposition parties have said the current legislation is so flawed that they plan…to revise it and bring in something different,” Robb told me. “This may come back.

Not much changed in the Rouge after the government”s park plan received Royal Assent on April 23rd, 2015. Ontario remained resolute that its existing laws protected the Rouge and its watershed far better than the National Urban Park Act did. They kept their land. Parks Canada, despite taking command of the Rouge, maintained a light touch in managing the space. With the majority of already scant signage in the area still calling the Rouge a city park, pilgrims expecting a Visitor’s Centre, interactive displays or even washrooms would leave disappointed. A guest would be lucky to find Parks Canada information on a portable sandwich board fastened by bike lock to (in some cases) the old signage.* During the election campaign beginning that summer, Harper announced that some of the airport lands first expropriated by Ottawa in the 1970s would be transferred to the park, expanding its size to 79.5 square kilometres. Yet despite its growing size, some environmentalists lamented that the park still failed to meet international standards for protected areas. The stink of disappointment clung to any discussion of the Rouge. Those who advocated for an ecologically protected space reaching upwards of 100 square kilometres must have wondered what could have been.

As the summer wore on, Robb’s hope that the opposition Liberals or New Democrats might amend the legislation began to feel less like a pipe dream. On Oct 19, 2015, Canadians voted for change in the form of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and gave his party a majority to boot. Within six months the amendments so long coveted for the Rouge were tabled as Bill C-18 on June 9, 2015 by Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna. There, front and centre, was a definition of ecological integrity and a repeal of Clause 6 and its taking nature into consideration. “Maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity,” the bill states, “through the protection of natural resources and natural processes, must be the first priority of the Minister.” The bill also enshrined the transfer of airport land that Harper promised on the campaign trail and extended the leases of tenant farmers from one year to 30.

Ontario”s environmental community rejoiced. “We were absolutely delighted to see [the ecological integrity issue] resolved in the new bill,” Woodley told me. “It gives a strong foundation for managing a park into the future that’s well conserved and enjoyed.”* Environmental Defence, alongside Ontario Nature and the David Suzuki Foundation, applauded the government for strengthening nature protections. While they would have preferred the entirety of the airport lands to become part of the Rouge, the fundamental flaw with Bill C-40 was rectified. The happy ending brought on by Bill C-18 seemed picture perfect when Trudeau, accompanied by his wife Sophie and daughter Ella Grace, joined CPAWS at their annual Paddle the Rouge event in June. Hopping aboard a wooden canoe and heading upriver, the Prime Minister’s actions and presence at the park signified a new beginning for the Rouge after decades of inaction and unexpected setbacks.


But the work of making the Rouge worthy of its designation as Canada’s first National Urban Park isn’t over. As positive a step as the introduction of Bill C-18 was, Robb doesn’t believe the controversial “ecological integrity” conundrum has been solved. Committing Parks Canada to protect the ecological integrity of the Rouge was a “fantastic step,” Robb told me; but other weaknesses remain. A sizable ecological corridor running through the park has been a mainstay of Rouge management plans for 26 years, Robb said; yet Trudeau’s government failed to guarantee this corridor. “If you really support ecological integrity you need a strong ecological corridor,” he noted, otherwise the promise of the new bill rings hollow.*

The Tories old legislation also committed Parks Canada to drafting an entirely new management plan for the park within five years of operation, despite several management plans for the Rouge already existing. Trudeau’s park plan ignored this redundancy. “We’ve got all this good work already done,” Robb said. The time to correct this flaw is while the legislation remains flexible, he feels. Hoping the see these changes made while the management plan is drafted is dangerous – political pressures often overwhelm sound policy and scientific evidence. “Without support for the park plans built over the last 26 years,” Robb told me, the new legislation that the environmental community pinned its hopes to is “fatally flawed.”*

It’s too early to tell if Robb’s lasting fears for the park will be realized. The legislation may begin second reading as early as this fall when Parliament resumes sitting; after that, committee hearings, third reading and passage in the Senate are needed for C-18 to become law. With a Liberal majority in charge of committees, Friends of the Rouge Watershed’s lingering concerns may find a sympathetic audience yet.

Meanwhile, it’s proverbial springtime in the Rouge. In June, a partnership between Parks Canada and the nearby Toronto Zoo saw 36 baby Blanding’s Turtles released into wetlands soon to be part of the park. A further 31 turtles have been released since 2014, part of a larger species-at-risk restoration effort. And the Blanding’s Turtle project isn’t an isolated incident. Pam Veinotte, the Field Unit Superintendent for Rouge National Urban Park, told me via email that her agency has completed 15 ecosystem restoration and farmland enhancement projects in the park to date: More than 16 hectares of new wetlands were created; stream banks were stabilized; fish habitat was bolstered; 18,000 native trees and plants were planted; and park infrastructure was  improved so wildlife can move between habitats. “A full suite of monitoring, assessment and reporting tools specifically developed for Rouge National Urban Park” have been deployed so Parks Canada can “ensure the ecological integrity of the park,” Veinotte said.*

The visitor experience is also improving. Welcome areas housed in oTENTik outdoor lodges have opened with agency staff on-hand. Year-round programming is now available in the Rouge, including programs aimed at teaching urban kids how to camp and fish and hike and mountain bike and identify frogs and birds and howl like a coyote at the moon. Parks Canada aims to expand programs and facilities to include new orientation centres, welcome areas, camping facilities, signage, washrooms and a comprehensive trail system – the bric-a-brac that visitors have come to expect from Parks Canada country-wide.

The Rouge remains a rare thing – a massive, wild(ish) place that, for transit fare, can transport you to one of the rarest forests on the continent in the largest urban park North America has ever known.

It’s a work in progress, yet the Rouge remains a rare thing – a massive, wild(ish) place that, for transit fare, can transport you to one of the rarest forests on the continent in the largest urban park North America has ever known. The love that locals had for the space may have saved it from rapacious developers in the 1980s, but it didn’t make the Rouge a household name. In some ways, the park’s greatest shame is that so few who live in the Greater Toronto Area today enjoy its rivers, wetlands, forest trails, scenic country drives over one-lane bridges and panoramic views of the Toronto skyline. So be it. The park’s existence is more vital than the public’s visiting it. And protected now by a legislative focus on preserving its ecological integrity, the land abides, as it always has. But if you’re looking for a place to get outside in the city, there are few better.

* Facts and quotes noted with an asterisk were obtained by the author’s direct conversation with sources via email, telephone, and/or in-person interview and occurred between 2014-2016. 

Andrew Reeves

Andrew is an award-winning environmental writer based in Toronto with a Masters in Geography from the University of Toronto. Andrew covers environmental politics for the AJ Current Events blog and on his own blog, The Reeves Report. Follow him on Twitter.