Environmental activists ask Ottawa to intervene on controversial GTA West Highway

·7 min read

After being ignored by Queen’s Park, environmentalists have taken their concerns to Ottawa.

Several Ontario advocacy groups, including Environmental Defence and the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition, have written to the federal government asking it to do what Queen’s Park will not.

In a correspondence penned by legal group Ecojustice, a plea for help has been sent to Ottawa, requesting comprehensive environmental assessments (EA) of the GTA West Corridor and Bradford bypass.

The move comes after the PCs passed legislation to “streamline” vital assessment work to expedite the GTA West Highway as part of an omnibus Bill in the summer.

The groups say the Province has weakened critical safeguards in the planning process that put rare birds, fish and watersheds in critical danger. With Ontario neglecting its duties and responsibilities for environmental protection, Environmental Defence and others say the stakes are too high for Ottawa not to step in.

“This unneeded highway will cause irreversible environmental damage within federal jurisdiction, including harm to fish habitat, multiple [federally protected] species at risk, and dozens of significant wetlands, forests, and important ecosystems,” a media release by Environmental Defence reads. “The Province’s proposal to weaken their EA process for this highway would prevent proper study and mitigation measures for these impacts prior to construction, nor any consideration of the climate change impacts of the project.”

The request, which has been drafted by Ecojustice and sent to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Jonathan Wilkinson, argues several factors allow the feds to step in.

The Federal government would normally only initiate an EA for projects 75 kilometres or longer. At 52 kilometres, the GTA West Corridor falls short of this requirement, but environmental lawyers argue the associated road widenings for the project would push it close to or over the threshold.

“The ‘project’ as defined in the EA also includes associated highway widenings along unknown lengths of other 400 series highways,” the letter written by Ecojustice says. “Associated highway expansions along the 410 and 427 corridors to connect them with the new GTA West highway would bring the GTA West highway project to over 60 kilometres of new, undeveloped right of way.”

Impacts on emissions, significant land encroachment and the impact on local species, alongside public outcry, are also being pushed as reasons MPs and cabinet should take notice. Ontario’s protected Greenbelt, the largest ecosystem of its kind in the world, would also be threatened. Environmental Defence has today launched an online action campaign, facilitating engagement from concerned residents to their local MP.

Sarah Buchanan, Ontario climate program manager for the group, told The Pointer she hopes the federal government can put a spotlight on the issue and use its significant resources to show exactly what the highway will do. If the government is able to complete comprehensive environmental assessments, it may reveal further dangers of the highway before it is too late, she says.

“What we’d like the Federal government to do is to help to explore the potentially devastating environmental impacts of this highway,” Buchanan said. “We would like them to shed some light on how this highway could impact the ecosystems and the wetlands and the endangered species and the water sources that people rely on. As well as, for example, some of the cumulative effects of losing that much farmland.”

At the heart of the push for help from Ottawa is the potential impact two new highways could have on Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. As the Liberals made clear through the rollout of the carbon tax, it is Ottawa, not Toronto, that must take responsibility for emissions on the global stage.

Environmental Defence’s decision to spearhead an approach to the federal government shows a change of heart from the summer. In August, The Pointer asked the group’s programs director, Keith Brooks, if he thought the federal government could intervene. “I just don't think that [they] would intervene and go outside of their jurisdiction,” he said at the time.

Buchanan says it was Ecojustice that pushed for the latest move. The group’s research and understanding of interjurisdictional relations meant Environmental Defence was willing to change its mind and get behind the ambitious plan.

“They came to us with some pretty strong evidence that this could actually fit the federal criteria,” she explained. “They got some disclosure documents that we had never seen that led them to believe there were going to be more impacts than we ever knew about. Once those impacts, for example on fish habitats, were discovered through Ecojustice’s thorough work, we changed our minds.”

The environmental threat from the GTA West Corridor is threefold, at least.

If built, it would irreversibly replace natural space with asphalt through years of invasive, messy and carbon intensive construction activity. The reality of induced demand also means the new highway, however empty it is on its first day, will soon be as gridlocked as the 401, 410, 427 or any of the other routes constructed with similar plans. The sprawling developments that will pop up along the route will further degrade the surrounding natural area and force more residents into cars.

“The Ontario government has repeatedly demonstrated disregard for environmental protections in Ontario in favour of development projects. Now they are trying to do it again by pushing through two highway proposals that will lead to significant, irreversible impacts on important habitats, wildlife, and watersheds in the province,” Laura Bowman, an Ecojustice lawyer, said.

Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and balancing the tightrope that is a minority government, the Liberals have doubled down on their environmental policy. In December, Ottawa announced plans to dramatically increase the carbon tax to $170 per tonne by 2030, saying the move was important to make sure Canada meets and exceeds its climate commitments.

“This achievement is necessary to ensure our kids and grandkids can live in a world with cleaner air and water and to ensure our businesses maintain and gain a competitive edge by producing the low-carbon products the world wants to buy, well into the future,” Wilkinson said in November, talking about his government’s climate policies.

A spokesperson for the Government of Canada said the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada would assess the request and make a determination. If Wilkinson decides to get involved, he will issue an order.

“Upon receiving a request, the Agency will prepare a recommendation for the Minister of Environment and Climate Change that will be informed by science, Indigenous and community knowledge, input from the proponent, and consultations with other jurisdictions, as applicable,” the spokesperson said. “The recommendation would consider whether the carrying out of the project may cause adverse effects within federal jurisdiction or adverse direct or incidental effects, and public concerns related to such effects. In addition, the recommendation would consider the potential impacts of the project on the rights of the Indigenous peoples of Canada.”

In several responses to The Pointer through the latter half of 2020, the Province has maintained its changes to the EA process will not endanger the integrity of the work. In July, a government spokesperson said the regulations would reduce the “administrative burden for transportation projects” and the Province would still ensure “environmental protections by setting out a new streamlined assessment process”. It has not explained how the streamlining will work and what specifically will be done to shave time off the crucial assessment process.

Later, in November, talking points provided by Mississauga—Lakeshore MPP Rudy Cuzzetto regarding plans to exempt the Credit River crossing from the EA process made similar claims.

But the Province has failed to reassure some groups, which now hope the federal government can take up the torch. After banging the drum continually, Environmental Defence has allies in the NDP, which promised to scrap the highway if elected in 2022, Halton Region and a series of environmental activists.

Email: isaac.callan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @isaaccallan

Tel: 647 561-4879

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Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer