Madam Speaker, I am delighted to speak to the subject of the Rouge National Urban Park, because this is a park that I was pleased to see our government get established. As the former House leader, I had some challenges in getting the legislation through because the Liberals were resisting it, and I will say a bit more about that in a short period of time.
It was a tremendous accomplishment by the folks at Parks Canada and by many people in the community who worked in alliances over many years to make it happen. Those efforts to establish this national park, believe it or not, can trace their roots to the Mulroney government era, when one of our predecessor parliamentarians, the Hon. Pauline Browes, was a member. She played a consider role as the member for Scarborough Centre in beginning to champion this issue. I can say, as someone who was active in politics in the Progressive Conservative Party in that day and age, that she was a force to behold as she went hither and yon, from person to person, lobbying and setting the agenda and saying that this was an important priority, that the Rouge Valley was a natural gem, that it was important to protect it, and all kinds of efforts had to be made, and the objective should be to have a national park established there, the first national urban park. Her work, along with that of many others in the community, continued for many years. Even after she left this chamber in 1993, her work continued in the community, as it did with so many other volunteers, so many folks from different organizations who cared about it.
That work made slower progress under the Chrètien government, but when we once again had a Conservative government, there was a good solid ear to the notion to establish this park. I was so pleased that the work was able to come to fruition, notwithstanding that the bill was filibustered, delayed, and obstructed by the Liberals as much as they could, as some members may remember. It was necessary, unfortunately, for us to use time allocation to get it through and adopted, but we were able to do that and get the park established.
However, as I said, there were some problems. Some political games were played. The Liberal government at Queen's Park, which I thought had more than its fair share of troubles and did not need to go looking for trouble, did go looking for trouble and created the basis for that delay and obstruction by its Liberal friends in Ottawa. It was fairly transparently understood by most people in the GTA and that was reflected in polling. They wanted to see the park, and they saw it as an effort to simply keep it from happening under the Conservative watch.
The argument was the notion of ecological integrity needing to be the guiding principle. I will remind members that the development of the park, the process, goes back to the 1980s and carried forward into the 2000s. We are talking about almost three decades of work. To throw out that three decades of work—including the agreement that existed between the province and the federal government—with this sudden curve ball at the end was objected to by many of the stakeholders who were an important part of developing the balance. It was unconstructive and unhelpful.
The provincial government went so far as to try to seek some kind of compensation before it would put its lands into it. It wanted to see all of the rules rewritten. It wanted standards that were higher than the ones it already applied to the regional park that it took care of there. It was an unusual circumstance, but the political motivation was transparent and understood by all. I was pleased that we succeeded and got through it. This legislation exists to provide a bit of cover for that kind of shameful piece of history on the part of the Liberal Party and what it did.
Where does this come from? Why do we even have this land in the first place? It actually goes back to another unusual chapter in big government liberalism back in the Trudeau area when lands were assembled for a Pickering airport that was apparently urgently required. The government expropriated the land for the purpose of this airport, all kinds of farmland, thousands of acres of high-value, high-productive, prime farmland in what is now the greater Toronto area, in Durham region primarily and a bit in York region. It was devastating to the local economy. The uncertainty continues to have an impact in that local economy.
The chair of Durham region would always point out the differences with Peel region, where there were highways hither and yon in every direction, but all they had in Durham region was a whole bunch of frozen land and the inability to do anything, an inability to have any kind of economic activity take place. It was a great source of frustration to the municipalities, it was a great source of frustration to the residents, but no greater frustration than to those farmers who lost farms which had, in many cases, been in families for many decades. They were productive, good, and valuable farms.
How egregious was this kind of high-authoritarian approach of the Liberal government at the time in establishing it? Well, we can look at Mirabel, the Montreal example where the government actually went so far as to shut down that airport. Those land issues still remain a sensitivity. Here we are talking decades later, almost half a century later, and there is still no airport even built.
The government got to the stage where it understood the amount of land was so much more, so it just protected the stuff it would need if there actually was an airport built. A footprint was established and lo and behold, thousands of acres extra was available, which had been taken from farmers. It was then rented to the farmers who were willing to do it on a yearly lease; a year-to-year uncertain situation. Anybody who is involved in agriculture knows that it is not a good way to farm. One is not necessarily a good steward of the land if one might be kicked out the next year. There is no great incentive to make the kinds of investments that farmers make to the land they own themselves.
I know that those who do not understand farming do not understand the concept of how one invests in the land, but those are very real things to people who farm the land in this day and age, and I will say a little bit more about that.
In any event, the government concluded that there was an opportunity to do this, and that became part of the federal government's contribution, starting, as I said, back in the Pauline Browes championing era: Let us get this federal land contributed, let us get the provincial land that it had also put together in the area, as well as some municipal contribution to create this wonderful urban park. This is how we got to where we were, and the park was being established. Then along came this curve, and it is now being dealt with through the bill before us, of the notion that ecological integrity must be made the guiding principle for all decisions regarding the management of the park.
It sounds really good. If I were to think of a national park, I would say that, yes, ecological integrity should be a pretty important consideration. However, should it be the overriding and guiding principle? Well, when we start getting into the case of an urban park, things are little bit different.
Let us not make a mistake. This is not Central Park. It is not surrounded by high-rises on four sides. This park is kind of at the urban fringe in areas. There are parts of the park that are going to be a little more surrounded by urban development, but as I said, parts of it are farmland and surrounded by farmland. However, we see a whole range of activities. Going through it are things like major highway corridors, pipelines, transmission lines, and so on.
Therefore, if a new pipeline is to be established, is that going to run into trouble there? If the 401 and 407 have to be expanded at some point in the future, is that going to violate the ecological integrity? Members can bet their boots it will.
Are we putting ourselves into a straitjacket that will continue the punishment of this part of the greater Toronto area through its inability to grow, and to deal with the normal contingencies of urban development, population growth, and economic development that occur? Are we going to put it in that economic straitjacket? I think that is one of the concerns.
I am going to focus on that one activity that I was talking about so much, which is farming and farmland.
To those who are saying not to worry about this consideration, farmland is protected, they are quite right. In the establishment of the original park, farming was a protected activity. That was part of the careful negotiated balance between all the interests. There were some farmers who did not even want it, but people were pragmatic and flexible. They were willing to give and take, and they came to the give-and-take on the understanding that farming would be a protected activity and ecological integrity would not be the overriding principle.
Why is it a concern to a farmer on their land if the overriding principle on their land is ecological integrity?
Guess what? The simple act of ploughing land is not respecting the ecological integrity. The normal process of agriculture is aimed at protecting the crop a farmer is growing, and we are just talking about cash crop and not other agricultural activities. The normal approach is that of eliminating competition for resources, such as competition from other plants, which farmers would call weeds, and competition from pests, such as insects and other animals that are going to consume a crop.
That is the normal ecological process for those weeds to go in. Would the spraying of a pesticide or even something a bit more benign like the use of Roundup as a fairly low-impact herbicide something that would be prohibited because it is interfering with the ecological integrity? Members can tell me that their opinion is no, but what would happen if an activist group starts taking farmers to court to challenge their ability to do this on the basis of a law that states that ecological integrity is the primary principle, and that means they cannot use Roundup on their land in their agricultural activity because it would interfere with that? We might say there is no need to worry because they would win the case. However, where would farmers get the money to fight the case to defend themselves against these activists who would try to assert this ecological integrity principle? It is not even land that the farmers own but land they are renting from year to year.
In the olden days, farmers would grow hedgerows and have fences because they had a lot of livestock, and so on. This land is now largely out of livestock and mainly cash crop. Now the normal practice is the removal of hedgerows. Ecological integrity would mean leaving those things alone and letting them expand to eat up the agricultural land. If they cut trees and seedlings at the edge of the field, are they violating that ecological integrity?
If farmers create driveways or pathways for agricultural equipment between adjoining fields because they have rented another one, are they violating that ecological integrity principle and, lo and behold, could face some private lawsuit asserting that they have broken this law in the National Parks Act, and have to defend themselves against that?
These are the kinds of things that farmers are quite legitimately concerned about. I could use all kinds of other examples, such as tile drainage or any kind of alteration of the land to ensure drainage. In the normal process, farmers who farm in an area with clay soil, as we find here, notice from time to time that through their plowing they have altered the grading a bit and have water pooling in their fields. They need to grade them to restore drainage to prevent it from happening again. Would that be objected to? Would farmers be forced to have their hands tied and lose all of their crops in a wet field condition in a wet year? I am quite sure that they would not be allowed to put in tile drainage as that is something that ecological integrity would dictate is not allowed.
Even if we changed it from yearly leases to giving farmers greater certainty and perhaps 10-year leases or something that would make it worthwhile to make that kind of investment, they would think twice or might not do it at all simply because of the fear that this would hurt them.
Let us suppose that farmers want to change what they grow, or even grow what they do now. Would they face activists who do not like genetically modified organisms or who do not like the use of genetics to produce better products? There are some in this House who feel that way. Would they suddenly get active and say, “If you're farming in this area where ecological integrity is the main principle, can you use some kind of new genetically modified crop, a new soybean or corn, that can resist a certain pest?” No, they cannot use it because that is not respecting ecological integrity. That is what the argument would be. These are the risks that farmers would face.
We can say offhandedly, “Don't worry, everything is going to be fine because the parks administrators will make sensible decisions”, and I do not doubt that as good, professional public servants they would make reasonable decisions because that is what we see happen, but we know that they are not the only players in the world out there. When we are talking about this park in particular and some of the players who have been involved on this issue of asserting this, we have some fairly aggressive folks willing to spend resources to assert their objective of ecological integrity. There are some people who think that what that means is achieving an end condition that is the prior condition, before we had European settlement here, meaning a Carolinian forest throughout this area. That is a wonderful idea, but there is no way that the transformation of this to a Carolinian forest can be considered consistent with protecting the rights of those farmers to continue their activities.
I say with respect that it is not a foregone conclusion that making ecological integrity a guiding principle will not hurt people. Other people talk about letting forest fires continue. I have talked about things like road widenings, or changes to putting guardrails along a road with a steep grade. Will that violate the ecological integrity, because if we put in a guardrail, are we suddenly keeping the deer or other wildlife from their normal migration route or travel route? Are we reducing the connectivity that the environmentalists say is so important as part of the ecological integrity? That is a life safety issue. Are we doing that, and putting those lives at risk by making that kind of activity?
When we are doing an urban park we have to do something different from when we are doing something like Nahanni National Park. We have people. We have economic activity. We have the agriculture I talked about, roads, all kinds of stuff going on. All of these things have to be taken into account, and I think that was the genius of the work of the Conservative government in this case, a couple of ministers of the environment and going, as I say, all the way back to the initial efforts of Pauline Browes to make this park happen. It was a genius that took into account all those stakeholders, all those different circumstances, the real challenges of an urban park, and tried to create a framework that respected that this is indeed different.
In fact, I can say, as House leader, as we were shepherding the legislation, we got it in later than I wanted because of some of the efforts to create an entirely separate category with separate criteria. The imposition through this amendment of ecological integrity, designed to create some patina of legitimacy for the obstruction and delay efforts and the kind of juvenile behaviour from the Ontario Liberal government on this over the past couple of years, is putting at risk all of that hard work of so many people and so many stakeholders, and, I think, creating a lot of unnecessary uncertainty.
I can simply conclude by saying that the Rouge National Urban Park is a tremendous accomplishment, something we are very proud of. Is this amendment a meaningful step forward? If it gets the Liberal government to co-operate and finally make the contribution that they were originally obligated to in terms of lands that would become part of this park, I suppose that is a gain. My concern is the price that is being paid for that gain, a largely symbolic one for those people with little consideration of the real consequences as a potentially, significantly negative impact.
I just want to conclude once again by going back to talk about Pauline Browes. She continues to be active on this issue. When we were dealing with it in the previous Parliament, she was right there, continually making calls, continually shepherding the process, continually making efforts to see that it would happen. I think that is a lesson to all of us about what it means to be a member of Parliament and have some kind of legacy, pick up a cause and continue with it, even after a member leaves this place, but using the wisdom they have, the knowledge they have and quite frankly the networks they have developed to continue to pursue that issue and achieve it for the sake of the public good. Doing something like this, a national urban park, has never been done before in a place where a lot of people have different ideas about what could be done. That is a pretty challenging thing to do.
Of course, in the case of government doing anything, it is often much easier to not do anything than to do something, but it was the persistence of the efforts of the Hon. Pauline Browes over all those years that got us to the point where we are today where we have the Rouge National Urban Park. I just want to pay tribute to her and all her work over those many decades of her public service as a member of Parliament and her time since. I hope the record will show that the role she played was very significant. I hope that the public will keep that name prominently in their minds as they reflect on this tremendous jewel, the asset that was created during our previous Parliament of the Rouge National Urban Park.