Protesters voicing their opposition to a proposed development project that would destroy the Lower Duffins Creek wetland in Pickering gathered Thursday outside the offices of the company that owns the land.
The demonstrators denounced a ministerial zoning order (MZO) issued by the Ford government last fall that would allow the Triple Group of Companies to build Canada's largest distribution centre on the wetland, located south of Highway 401 near Pickering's border with Ajax.
While the province said MZOs are needed to streamline the approvals process for economically necessary development, the protesters said the government is using the provincial orders to steamroll the concerns of Pickering residents and environmentalists.
"I think they're being used very cynically to push in development that hasn't had a chance to be looked at by the public and by environmental specialists," said Cathy Brown, a member of the Green Sanctuary Committee.
"You can't just streamline that; that takes time," she said.
Premier Doug Ford's government has ordered the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) to issue a permit to allow the Triple Group of Companies to build a distribution warehouse of up to four million square feet on the protected wetland.
The TRCA must issue the permit by Friday — the same day that a hearing will be held for the authority to attach potential conditions to the development.
Last week, the government introduced legislation to rewrite provincial law retroactively to clear the way for the controversial development and to bolster its case against environmental groups trying to persuade a court to thwart the project.
Brown said a problem with these fast-track laws is that they override advice from the TRCA, they drown out the public's voice and they signal that big money is more important than proper planning.
She also noted there appears to be "a lot more going on politically behind the scenes," since the TRCA approved development on the golf course less than a kilometre to the east of the wetlands.
'It's like a rigged chess game,' environmentalist says
Lisa Dost, who's with Environmental Action Now Ajax-Pickering, said she is "very, very concerned" with the government changing the law so they can build on what she says is one of the few remaining wetlands in the Greater Toronto Area.
"It's like a rigged chess game," she said of the potential destruction of this provincially protected land. "If the government can get away with this, what more can they get away with?"
Dost said wetlands act as a buffer for flooding, filtration of water, habitat for wildlife — just some of the long list of reasons why the site matters and why setting this potential precedent is dangerous.
The Triple Group is offering to give the TRCA $3.5 million, plus a 38-hectare agricultural property about 12 kilometres to the north in exchange for the destruction of the wetland. The TRCA says the compensation is inadequate because a maximum of five hectares of wetland could be created on the agricultural property, barely one-quarter the size of the wetland that would be paved over, and it has declared it is issuing the permit under duress.
"You cannot replace a wetland; you cannot put a dollar amount on [it]," Dost said.
TRCA hearing scheduled on Friday to propose conditions
The TRCA has said the province's order "conflicts with TRCA's mandate to further the conservation, development, and management of natural resources in watersheds within our jurisdiction."
Dost said the hearing that is scheduled for Friday will end in a permit for Pickering Developments Inc., but it doesn't mean the live-streamed hearing is pointless.
While the authority's hands are tied, Dost said they do have a fighting chance to issue some conditions regarding the development.
Douglas Buck and Kate Chung, who said they took a walk along the wetlands surrounding Lower Duffins Creek a day before attending Thursday's protest, says they believe the TRCA should impose conditions that stop the development entirely.
"We're killing the planet; I would like a planet for my grandchildren," said Chung. "They're destroying our environment to make a buck."
Environmental groups Ecojustice and Environmental Defence have said while it's impossible to recreate what will be lost, the authority should ask for $3.5 million from the developers to create a wetland of similar size elsewhere.
If the developers don't like the conditions imposed at Friday's hearing, they could appeal the decision to the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Legal action is also currently before the courts, as Ecojustice filed a motion-to-stay order with the Ontario Divisional Court on behalf of Environmental Defence, with the goal of stopping construction before it starts.
The hearing for the stay motion is on Monday, March 15..