Ottawa will scrutinize GTA West Highway plan, citing concerns about at-risk wildlife

·14 min read

The federal government has moved closer to taking control of the controversial GTA West Highway approval process from Queen’s Park.

In a statement Monday, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Jonathan Wilkinson, confirmed he would designate the project to qualify for a federal assessment, making a federal takeover of the crucial environmental approval mechanism increasingly likely.

The decision comes after Ecojustice and Environmental Defence asked Ottawa to take over the assessment process in February. In a request, the two climate groups cited concerns the route could impact federally protected species and climate targets, asking the federal government to put a steady hand on the tiller.

“We are really pleased with the decision to designate Highway 413 for a federal impact assessment,” Sarah Buchanan, Ontario climate program manager for Environmental Defence, told The Pointer.

With the project now officially designated, Queen’s Park will be required to submit a project description. This document will lay out the PC government’s plans to mitigate the negative impacts the highway could have on three endangered species: western chorus frog, red-headed woodpecker and rapids clubtail (a small dragonfly).

After Ontario submits its project description, the planning phase of the assessment will take place, legislated to last 180 days. During this period, the federal government will decide if a full Impact Assessment is necessary. The decision to take on a full impact assessment or not is an “agency-led” process, not a cabinet decision.

If the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (IAAC) is satisfied with the measures the Province proposes, control over the project could be returned. If its solution is found wanting, a full review could take place.

An agency-led assessment could last 300 days and a panel-led assessment review could be as long as 600.

There has been widespread concern that Premier Doug Ford and his government did not resurrect the previously scrapped highway to meet legitimate transportation needs and other growth-related issues that have to be addressed, but rather to help particular development companies that have lobbied aggressively for the highway, which would increase the value of their assembled properties along the approved route by as much as ten times.

Buchanan and her team at Environmental Defence have coordinated a public campaign along the highway’s route, offering lawn signs, organizing information sessions and encouraging locals to speak out against the project. In total, 22,000 people signed up to an action plan organized by the group, helping residents write to elected officials, prompting 1,670 members of the public to submit official comments to IAAC through a web portal; 90 percent of them opposed the project.

“The push here came from the people who spoke up in their communities who live in the 905 and will be impacted by this highway,” Buchanan added. “These people, when they heard about the potential impacts of this proposed highway, they spoke up to their local elected officials … and they did not stop speaking up, they are still speaking up. All of the work they did to mobilize their neighbours, to talk to their friends, to communicate to their governments and to depute at council meetings, all of that work, that’s the work that needs to be celebrated here.”

The GTA West Highway was originally scrapped by the Ontario Liberals in 2018, after an expert panel found it would deliver minimal commuter benefits and risked significant negative environmental impacts.

After winning a landslide majority government, Ford and his PCs restarted the route's environmental assessment and, last summer, passed legislation designed to put shovels in the ground for the project significantly faster. It could allow early work on the project, including the construction of bridges, to begin before the rigorous scientific study to inform an environmental assessment is completed.

The highway’s route was approved last summer and would run from Milton to Vaughan via northwest Brampton and south Caledon. The Region of Peel and the City of Mississauga voted to oppose the route’s construction, while Brampton and Caledon backed calls for Ottawa to step in to assess the plan.

“The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada and other federal departments have identified clear areas of federal concern relating to this project,” Wilkinson said in his statement. “My decision is based on their findings that this project may cause adverse direct or incidental effects on federally-listed species at risk, and the uncertainty that officials have brought to my attention around whether those effects can be mitigated through project design or existing mechanisms.”

In a statement, Caroline Mulroney, Ontario Minister of Transportation, pushed back against the decision. Questioning the need for federal involvement, she said, “as recently as March 2020, the experts at the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada reviewed the evidence and declined to take further action on the GTA West”.

She forwarded a letter from the IAAC, sent to the Ontario transportation ministry more than a year ago. Mulroney’s characterization of what the federal agency stated in its letter is misleading.

The Province submitted its own set of information to the agency and was told that according to what it provided, it did not “appear” to warrant the need for an “initial description of the Project to the Agency.”

It’s clear that the IAAC did not do its own initial review, and now, after this has been done, with the input of outside expert stakeholder groups and thousands of local residents, the agency has decided it will have to get involved.

Mulroney’s tone suggests the PCs will not back away from the controversial highway project.

“At this point, it is unclear what the scope of a federal impact assessment would be, or whether a full impact assessment would be warranted,” she said. She added that her government’s assessment is “among the most stringent” processes. “That said, we also believe in the principle of ‘one project-one assessment’ and will work with the federal government to address their newly-found concerns around the potential adverse effects on the western chorus frog, red-headed woodpecker and rapids clubtail.”

While community activism and broad environmental concerns raised the issue to the top of the agenda, the federal ministry has officially cited federally protected and endangered species as its key concern.

“The Minister has reached the decision that the designation of the project is warranted as the project may cause adverse direct or incidental effects on the critical habitat of federally-listed species at risk that may not be mitigated through project design or the application of standard mitigation measures, or through existing legislative mechanisms,” the IAAC decision reads.

A recent investigation by The Pointer found nearly 30 at-risk species lie within the approved corridor for the highway, many of which would face serious adverse impacts.

The investigation confirmed 29 species either listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern have been spotted along the highway’s route in the last 6 months, 21 of them inside the areas where proposed interchanges could be built, transforming valuable habitat into a hub of automobile traffic and human activity.

This includes 6 species listed as endangered, 7 as threatened, and 8 species of concern. In many cases, the species are named on both provincial and federal government at-risk species lists, meaning their habitat is usually protected under government legislation. While species of concern don’t receive such protection, they are closely monitored as they could become threatened or endangered.

The recent IAAC analysis cited three species in particular; the westerm chorus frog, the red-headed woodpecker, and the rapids clubtail dragonfly, and concerns around the destruction of their habitat, noting there is concern the project would be unable to mitigate adverse effects on these species at-risk, or these species are not adequately protected under provincial legislation. Under Ontario’s recently weakened Endangered Species Act, which was eroded by Ford’s PCs the same year they approved the route for the 413, highway infrastructure is exempt from any requirements to preserve habitat.

The IAAC’s early analysis of the highway plan also refers to a number of other species, including the endangered redside dace (a ray-finned fish), which appears in streams and waterways all along the proposed route. The report explains that “stringent requirements” will need to be met for any permit to be issued under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, including “requirements to assess reasonable alternatives, and all feasible measures to minimize the impact of the proposed activity on the species or its critical habitat.”

Many of the species found in The Pointer’s investigation were spotted in areas where multiple interchanges would be constructed, meaning the impact on them could be even more severe as the highway would destroy multiple habitats they rely on in one fell swoop, including the bobolink, the eastern meadowlark, the endangered butternut tree, the redside dace and the rapids clubtail dragonfly. The latter is one of the species the federal government has cited as a concern.

“This is welcome news,” Anne Bell, the director of conservation and education with Ontario Nature, said of the IAAC decision. “It’s about informed decision-making and taking a careful look at potential harm to species at risk and other environmental and social impacts. It’s refreshing to see the federal government step up.”

The damage to species would also not be limited to those directly in the highway’s path. Experts have detailed at length the incredibly devastating impact the GTA West Highway would have not only on the corridor where the highway is to be paved, but potentially on entire watersheds across the GTA.

“The statement Minister Wilkinson released was rooted in the impacts that Highway 413 would have on federally at-risk species, and while that’s important, it’s not enough for us to feel like the government truly understands the importance of shifting away from car dependency and environmentally destructive projects to protect our futures,” Divya Arora, a member of Peel-based youth advocacy group Community Climate Council, told The Pointer. “Youth can’t be expected to create this much noise in opposition every time for every project that we know goes against what we want and need for the health of our environment. So, true climate leadership from the government is still lacking, I believe.”

The highway is planned to drive straight through the healthiest portions of watersheds that run north to south, into Lake Ontario, and the area that serves as the headwaters for many rivers and streams throughout the basin that connects to the Great Lake. Reducing habitat and destroying ecological chains that create the overall health of the area will trigger damage to the natural environment across the board, especially in water quality as streams, creeks, rivers and small tributaries flow north to south.

The GTA West Highway could trigger a sweeping domino effect of environmental degradation from the Greenbelt all the way to Lake Ontario.

“It's the headwaters that have that kind of clean water, that as it flows down to Lake Ontario is providing the cooler water temperatures and the cleaner water for the organisms like the fish,” Andrea Kirkwood, an associate professor at Ontario Tech University who holds a PhD in environmental microbiology, previously told The Pointer.

“Absolutely we would expect there to be an impact,” Kirkwood said. “When you follow these tributaries from where they start up in the spring, all the way down to Lake Ontario, they're all going through urban areas, and so they're already really impacted by the time you get into Brampton and Mississauga.”

Another concern voiced by experts is the impact the proposed highway could have on Indigenous communities. During its consideration of the request for a federal designation, IAAC consulted several groups, including the Huron-Wendat Nation, Métis Nation of Ontario and Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.

"This is good news,” said Sheila Boudreau, a landscape architect and planner who co-authored a piece in The Pointer recently detailing how the planning process has failed Indigenous people. “It is my understanding that the federal government absolutely must uphold it's legal responsibilities towards First Nations' interests regarding land and water, even if this means overstepping the Province when it fails to do so. Despite what any Member of Parliament may believe, ultimately, nation-to-nation dialogue is required in these instances.”

In Peel Region, the decision has been welcomed by advocates and local politicians. Mississauga Ward 5 Councillor Carolyn Parrish, who brought forward motions at the City and Region to oppose the route, called the announcement “incredible news” on Twitter.

“I am very hopeful this will lead to a full impact assessment of the project,” Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie said in a statement. “I want to thank Mississauga and Peel councillors for showing leadership by taking a strong stance on this issue, as well as the various environmental organizations throughout Ontario and Canada that have been vocal in their opposition of the GTA West Highway.”

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, who recently bragged about being the person who put the GTA West Highway on the PC election platform in 2018, before he stepped down as leader, did not respond to a request for comment.

“The heat is really on with our councils, they now have to move from talk to action,” Rahul Mehta, the founder of Sustainable Mississauga, told The Pointer, referencing the need for cities to approve smart growth, transit-oriented roads and stop planning around the car.

Mehta says campaigning to stop the GTA West Highway galvanized grassroots advocacy and has put locals in a stronger position to hold councillors to account. “I was distributing some of those signs that you might see on people’s lawns saying ‘Stop the 413’ and I’ve actually met a lot of residents coming curbside to my house to pick up signs. I have had dozens of conversations with residents I have never met,” he said. “It’s a more diverse group of people, which is so important.”

In many ways, the decision to oppose Highway 413 was a low bar for local politicians to step over.

Wilkinson’s decision to designate the project is one step on a carefully legislated route toward a full federal takeover of the decision making process. The Province will now be required to prove its plans will protect the environment sufficiently.

Although Queen’s Park hasn’t lost authority over the approval process for the project, yet, the move Monday will have a slowing effect. For a provincial government that passed legislation specifically to speed up the highway’s delivery, this will be a frustration.

Ottawa’s move means, at the very least, the GTA West Highway could become a major election issue in 2022, instead of the PCs steamrolling ahead with their expedited environmental process, which they announced last year. They have failed to explain how the EA would be sped up and what studies would be “expedited” in order to get shovels into the ground as fast as possible.

Now, Ford and his party colleagues might face the will of voters who will cast a ballot while the future of the 413 highway is still up in the air.

Groups like Environmental Defence had hoped the federal announcement would convince Ontario to walk away.

“It has also given Ontario a chance to step back and we hope that they will make a decision to simply cancel this highway,” Buchanan said. “If this doesn't happen, we feel very relieved that the federal government will be doing a more thorough review of its impacts.”

Email: joel.wittnebel@thepointer.com

Twitter: @JoeljWittnebel

Email: isaac.callan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @isaaccallan

Tel: 647 561-4879

COVID-19 is impacting all Canadians. At a time when vital public information is needed by everyone, The Pointer has taken down our paywall on all stories relating to the pandemic and those of public interest to ensure every resident of Brampton and Mississauga has access to the facts. For those who are able, we encourage you to consider a subscription. This will help us report on important public interest issues the community needs to know about now more than ever. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you.

By Joel Wittnebel and Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer