Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to be able to rise today to discuss this important bill, Bill C-18, which deals with Rouge Park, a bill that makes some amendments to some work that was done under the previous government; and, in the context of this bill to talk about some important underlying principles in terms of the way we deal with and manage parks within the context of preserving the environment, and relate that back to some of the things happening in my own constituency as well.
What I want to do to start is share a bit about a national park near my own constituency, really as a way of building into some broader principles around environmental preservation.
My constituency, Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, is just east of Edmonton. It borders with Elk Island National Park, which is just outside of the riding and it is to the east side of Strathcona county right on the border. Elk Island National Park is 35 kilometres east of Edmonton. It is fairly easy to access along the Yellowhead Highway, so I encourage any members who are in the area to take advantage of visiting Elk Island National Park. It is Canada's eighth-smallest park in area, but it is actually the largest fully enclosed national park. It has an area of close to 200 square kilometres, so it is an interesting place in that context. There are plenty of opportunities for camping, and the park has a mix of different kinds of prairie ecosystems.
In terms of the unique history of this park and in terms of the principles that I want to draw out of it for this debate, the history is very closely linked to the story of the preservation of bison within western Canada.
Historically, before European contact there were vast bison populations on the western prairies. Bison were very important for the livelihood of indigenous people, and there are stories of early wagon trains going through the west, and for days on end the people constantly seeing bison and always being in their line of sight. Regarding the early relationship that our indigenous people had with bison, part of what was interesting to me was that at one point in time they did not use horses for hunting at all. They had to develop innovative techniques for hunting bison, and in some cases that involved great personal risk because they did not have the safety associated with being up on a horse. After the time of European contact there was a significant decline in the bison population as a result of over-hunting and this sort of thing, and the way in which the animals were used which was quite different from how they were used by the indigenous communities.
The story of Elk Island National Park is closely tied to the restoration of plains bison in the area. It was an important place for preserving habitat, a space for bison to live. In 2007, when the last estimate was done in terms of numbers in the area, there were about 300 wood bison in the park. This is not a huge number, but certainly an important number, and an important step for the preservation of an important part of our ecological history and of our human history in terms of the relationship that our indigenous communities and subsequent settler communities had with bison. We have taken a large step back from where we were in terms of population but at the same time, in the 20th century we have seen significant progress.
There is an important underlying point here about the history of Elk Island National Park, which is relevant very much to the discussion we are having about Rouge Park and the way in which we understand the human relationship to that park in the context of an urban environment. Some people would take a negative view of all human interaction with the environment. They would almost go so far as to describe the human relationship with the natural environment as being parasitic, but that is obviously not reflective of reality. There are many cases of human interaction with nature not harming nature, where resources can be managed well and where a proper balance can be struck that benefits all and has a positive impact on conservation.
I spoke, in the context of bison in western Canada, about how the resource was well-managed by indigenous people, and subsequent efforts in the 20th century in terms of conservation and trying to bring back some population of bison. The attempts did not always work, and there were hiccups along the way in terms of efforts at conservation. That is clear from the specific history of Elk Island National Park.
However, human interaction with nature is not a negative. We are part of nature and we can make a positive contribution to the environment that we are in. Human beings are an important part of the natural world. We are not the problem. I regard nature as a good but not a good that is in inevitable conflict with a belief in the dignity and importance of a human being as part of nature and the importance and legitimacy of using nature to meet our immediate and long-term needs. There is nothing wrong with recognizing an appreciation of the value that nature provides while also recognizing the legitimacy of the human use of the natural environment to meet our immediate as well as our long-term benefits.
I do not often refer directly to Catholic social teaching in this House, but I think it provides an interesting and unique perspective when it comes to understanding the roots of a cohesive, robust, pro-human environmentalism. I would encourage all members in this House who have a particular interest in environmental issues to take a look at Pope Francis's still relatively recent environmental encyclical where he talks about environmental preservation. The title is Laudato Si. I do not agree with everything in it, but at the same time I see it as an insightful and original reflection on environmental protection. It is not quite what most of either its proponents or its detractors perhaps described it as in some of the heated media conversations that followed its release.
Let me share a few quotes from it that speak to at least a certain kind of perspective on environmentalism that I think is worth reflecting on.
Human beings too are creatures of this world, enjoying a right to life and happiness, and endowed with unique dignity. So we cannot fail to consider the effects on people’s lives of environmental deterioration, current models of development and the throwaway culture.
This is another instance. It states:
Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. [Nothing] is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God. The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good. Anyone who has grown up in the hills or used to sit by the spring to drink, or played outdoors in the neighbourhood square; going back to these places is a chance to recover something of [our] true[er] selves.
I will read a couple more quotes that I think are interesting and instructive.
An integral ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics. The common good is “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment”.
This is the final instance. It states:
Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of an “ecology of man”, based on the fact that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will”. It is enough to recognize that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation.
Those are a few quotes from that document. I know that many members here will perhaps disagree with some of the fundamental philosophical presumptions there, but I think those quotes and the broader document present us with an interesting way of thinking about a kind of integrated and balanced environmentalism, one that recognizes the good that exists in nature and the importance of preserving and protecting it.
It should also be one that recognizes the natural and proper place within it of human beings and how human beings can and should enjoy nature, make legitimate use of it, and seek its preservation. We are not alien to the natural world. We are very much part of it. There is a continuum in terms of respecting the dignity of individuals and the value of the natural world we inhabit.
To summarize, some discourse around environmental issues suggests that we should be able to do whatever we want with the environment. This ignores the value inherent in nature and the benefits to human beings that accrue from nature. The other extreme, which denies any human engagement with or use of the environment, fails to recognize the importance of the common good, the well-being of human beings in that context, the place of humans within the natural environment, and the way in which we can facilitate conservation and the improvement of the environment.
That is the intellectual context of my perspective on the environment. Let us talk specifically about the history of Rouge Park, because the creation of urban parks speaks very specifically to another concern raised in Laudato Si, which is the fact that people in urban areas may not have the same opportunities to engage with nature as people perhaps in other times or people in rural areas. Not everyone has easy access to the wilderness parks we have at points today discussed.
The creation of urban parks is, in a particular sense, for the people in and around them. This is evident in the vision, in terms of the creation of Rouge Park, that we would preserve natural spaces and the beauty of nature inside, or in very close proximity to, urban settings. This enables the enjoyment of nature, the use and observation of nature, and the personal enrichment that comes from being present in nature by people who live in urban centres. Obviously, the proximity to Toronto means that a very large population of people in that area have access to that park. They are really going to benefit from the decision the previous government took in terms of proceeding with the creation of this urban park.
I am proud of the Conservative government's record with regard to moving forward with the establishment of this park and the significant dollars invested in it. This is Canada's first nationally protected urban park.
I will provide a few facts about Rouge Park. The park is on the border of Pickering and Toronto. It is about 50 square kilometres, and as has been noted by my colleagues, compares favourably to other urban parks. It is 19 times larger than Stanley Park, 22 times larger than Central Park in New York, and close to 50 times larger than High Park in Toronto. It protects about 12% of the Rouge River watershed. It is a beautiful area. My dad actually grew up in Scarborough, and my grandparents lived there until quite recently, so I am somewhat familiar with the area.
When we talk about an urban park, we are not talking about untouched wilderness. We are dealing with land with different kinds of uses, such as agricultural uses. We are not talking about a wilderness park, as might be the case with certain other national parks that exist.
When we look at the decision of the government, through this amendment, to introduce language on ecological integrity, there is legitimate concern on our side of the House about the implication of this for those important principles in terms of human engagement and interaction with the natural world, which is the purpose of having this urban park. It is not the only purpose, I should say. It is one of the purposes, which is the human experience of the natural world and the human benefit from it as well as the continuation of those other important uses, such as agriculture.
It is interesting to listen to the speeches government members have made maybe seeking to clarify that ecological integrity is not in any way intended to create a problem for the agricultural use of some of the land in the park.
We have to think not only about the good intentions, which I am sure exist, of members in this House but about what that terminology actually means and could be interpreted to mean going forward. From many of the comments government members have made, it sounds like what they would like to see in the park, in some sense, is the preservation of the status quo uses of the land, perhaps with ecological advancements in the sense of the increasingly effective use of the land, from an ecological perspective, but in a way that continues in the mode of the existing uses.
I agree that there are ecological ways of farming. It is part of the natural and proper interaction between people and the natural environment. However, I think government members should acknowledge the concern that using that word introduces some potential problems in terms of how this park is going to be understood and how it is going to be used in the future.
Indeed, we have seen from governments before that what starts as maybe a well-intentioned phrase may move in the direction, subsequently, of expropriation and efforts at reforestation and other things that would not be sensible uses of the land in the context in which it has been set aside as an urban park.
The language risks creating that slippery slope. That is why I think it is important that we address this issue and do everything we can to preserve and strengthen the park but recognize that it is to be a place for interaction, for a meeting of people with nature.
I should say, as well, that this is part of the broader vision for national parks. Obviously, that is walked out in different contexts. Maybe the way people are interacting with nature in a wilderness park is going to be different and perhaps more limited than in an urban park. However, it is important, even for getting general public buy-in, support, and appreciation for the value of nature, that we maintain these opportunities for interaction. I would be concerned about the way ecological integrity is defined and the way it could be used in the present and in the future.
I believe the principle here is that parks have to entail a balance between the non-human, natural uses, the preservation of the environment, and the use of areas by human beings for their own well-being and the advancement of the social common good.
As Conservatives, we very much believe in the environment, and we advocate a balance. We advocate a balance with an eye to the economy, and more broadly speaking, with an eye to the common good, with a recognition of the value of the natural world and the value of the interaction between people and the natural world.
I think about the policies of the government in general with respect to the environment. I can say that in many cases, they may reflect a laudable goal, which is the advancement and protection of the environment, but they do so in a way that is out of balance with the human dimension and the need for the protection of the social common good.
The good intentions may not always be there. It may just be an excuse to talk about the environment when the government is undertaking measures that are not related to the environment. I am willing to assume that at least for many of the government members, there are good intentions there.
I think about the situation in my own province of Alberta. In the name of the environment, we have the imposition of significant new taxes that are going to be deeply injurious to the common good and deeply injurious to the well-being of people who are trying to get jobs and are trying to get on their feet. We can see the negative consequences of job losses and even the expansion of social challenges for people that result from job loss.
The government is presiding over these problems, yet it is imposing new taxes simply on the basis of an environmentalism that I would submit is disconnected from these broader questions of human good.
As we talk about Rouge Park, as we think about the situation in my home province, as we think about our broader perspective on the environment, let us remember the importance of an integrated perspective, one that considers the environmental good in the context of the common good, the social common good, and the economic common good. Those things do not have to be in conflict with each other. Indeed, they can work together. However, when we see policies that are out of balance, it is important for us, as the opposition, to object and call us back to a more balanced approach.