Stratford is one of the many communities across Ontario struggling with the unwelcome imposition of a Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO) to fast-track development. In Stratford’s case, the MZO is to make way for a glass factory on 175 acres of prime farmland at the edge of the city.
Issued by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, MZOs override requirements for public consultation under the Planning Act and the Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993. They’re thus a tool that allows the government to escape public notice and scrutiny when it approves the destruction of precious wetlands, forest and farmland. And once an MZO is in place, the public has no opportunity for appeal. As noted by the Auditor General of Ontario, there has been a “sharp increase” in the use of MZOs over the past year. This includes the Stratford MZO issued in July, 2020.
The Stratford MZO story begins somewhat earlier in November 2018, when the municipal government quietly signed a letter of intent with Xinyi Canada Glass Limited to build the factory. That letter, as well as the city’s correspondence with the provincial government regarding the MZO, have been shrouded in secrecy. As noted by local farmer, Jamie Gibb, prior to the approval of the MZO, “there were no Planning Act applications, no notices relating to a potential change in zoning, no reports and no public meetings or information sessions relating to the glass plant.”
But late last year, when Stratford residents discovered what was happening, their response was fast and furious. Two community groups quickly emerged to raise awareness and oppose the MZO – Get Concerned Stratford and Wise Communities, the latter founded by singer and song-writer Loreena McKennitt.
Coordinating their efforts, the two groups have commissioned research on environmental impacts; raised awareness through social media, videos, lawn signs and pamphlets; conducted polling; and organized public demonstrations. Residents Lesley Walker Fitzpatrick and Peggy Coffey have also organized a daily vigil (every day except Sunday) on the front steps of City Hall. People drop by to discuss the issues and record video comments for social media.
The issues of concern highlighted by the groups include: the loss of prime farmland, air pollution (including a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions), impacts on local water supplies, and lack of consultation with Indigenous peoples. They have garnered considerable attention from local and national media, ensuring that elected officials are feeling the heat. Indeed, according to their polling:
Two thirds of Stratford residents oppose the glass factory;
Three quarters disagree with Council’s decision to seek an MZO; and
Two thirds claim that Council’s decision on the factory will affect how they vote in the next municipal election.
Little wonder that Mayor Dan Mathieson voiced regret to the CBC in December about his decision to seek the MZO: “Seeing the challenge it has brought to the community, there’s some concern around it … I think it’s safe to say we would probably love to rewind and work at this again. … I’m sure everyone would have liked to have this done differently.”
Stratford Council has yet to make a final decision on the glass factory, citing the provincial lockdown and emergency stay-at-home order as the reason for delay.
Meanwhile, despite the limitations on public gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Get Concerned Stratford and Wise Communities continue to make their message heard. In January, for example, they organized a novel and visually striking “boots on the ground” rally, inviting people to “stand” in Market Square by sending a pair of shoes or boots to attend the event in their place.
It is exactly this sort of grassroots ingenuity, determination and leadership that are needed to turn the tide on the unwanted proliferation of MZOs that threaten farmland and natural areas across Ontario. Kudos to the people of Stratford for setting such a shining example of resistance!