Mr. Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to speak to this most worthy bill.
Rouge national urban park will be a place that protects not only natural but also cultural and agricultural resources. It will be a place that provides access to landscapes and experiences that help to define us as Canadians. Bill C-40 would help make this vision a reality.
Rouge national urban park, a Canadian first, would see the creation of one of the largest and most diverse urban parks in the world. There are currently no other places that can compare to it.
This proposed national urban park is so big that it will house 79 working farms with views of Toronto's downtown core. That is something many urbanites rarely get to see, let alone experience, in our 21st century world.
The park would give urban children and youth a chance to learn about their region's heritage, from first nations' presence beginning at least 10,000 years ago to the more recent farming heritage dating back to the late 1700s. It would give them a chance to discover where the food they eat comes from. This would educate young Canadians and enable them to become tomorrow's informed stewards of agriculture and our precious natural and cultural resources. Indeed, this is perhaps one of the strongest selling points for the bold new legislation before us.
Among its benefits, thousands of acres of prime category one agricultural lands in York region would be added to the current regional Rouge Park as a result of this expanded mandate. Sixty-two per cent of the land set aside for Rouge national urban park would be agricultural, and it is not just any farmland. With the creation of Rouge national urban park, the Government of Canada would protect and keep in production some of the country's rarest and most rich and fertile soil. This is important, because farms in and around the greater Toronto area are fast becoming an endangered species.
Given that only 1% of all farmland in Canada is rated as category one, protection of these lands is vital, particularly since over two million acres of farmland have been lost in southern Ontario over the past 30 years due to urbanization and land zoning changes. Without the highest level of legislative protection afforded under Bill C-40, millions of Torontonians, Ontarians, and Canadians would lose access to this valuable farmland. Official park designation means we could preserve land that produces food for surrounding urban neighbours while also achieving amazing results in conserving native plants and animals and providing visitors with innovative farm, recreational, and visitor experiences.
In the lead-up to the tabling of the bill, Parks Canada consulted with thousands of Canadians and hundreds of community groups, organizations, and different levels of government.
Beyond public consultation, the bill before the House today was referred to an all-party committee process, which examined each and every aspect of the bill before carrying it forward in its present form. The Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development heard from 11 different public witnesses and experts, including senior Parks Canada officials; a former chair and members of the former Rouge Park Alliance, the now-disbanded provincially appointed group that helped to manage the Rouge for nearly 20 years; farmers; and environmental groups. Of these witnesses, the vast majority supported the bill as is, including representatives from the Rouge agricultural community.
Some have tried to suggest that the government was playing politics by not accepting any of the proposed amendments of the bill. This is just not true. The truth is the majority of the amendments proposed by the official opposition and the Green Party called for ecological integrity to be included as a leading priority in the bill, despite the fact that only two out of the committee's 11 witnesses supported or espoused ecological integrity. To be clear, 81% of the witnesses present did not ask for ecological integrity to be included.
Moreover, two of the environmental groups presenting supported Parks Canada's concept of ecological health over the concept of ecological integrity. This makes it incredibly difficult to understand why the official opposition and the Green Party would put forward so many amendments that included ecological integrity. I wonder why these members chose to listen to only two of the witnesses. Even more concerning is why these parties chose to ignore the vast majority of the witnesses.
Many have asked why the government does not support the application of ecological integrity in Rouge national urban park. For those who are familiar with the subject matter, according to the Canada National Parks Act, which is the law governing national parks in Canada, “...“ecological integrity” means...a condition that is determined to be characteristic of its natural region and likely to persist...” and evolve without interference.
In plain language, ecosystems have integrity when they have their native components intact, including ecosystem processes such as free-flowing rivers and streams, and when there is continuation of natural processes such as fire, flooding, pest outbreaks, and predation. For ecological integrity to persist, the ecological footprint of humans in and around a park would need to be minimized.
While ecological integrity is a noble concept and one that works well in national parks such as Banff, of which 96% is still wilderness, the principle of ecological integrity as applied by Parks Canada in Canada's national parks is not appropriate for Rouge's urban setting, its infrastructure realities, and the future infrastructure needs of the Province of Ontario and adjacent municipalities. Nearly 80% of the park area is considered disturbed or severely altered from its natural state, and this calls for a very different conservation approach.
Given this incredibly unique urban context, Parks Canada has developed a more suitable concept of ecosystem health and will apply this concept to achieve the highest level of conservation and protection in the Rouge's history by integrating the conservation of natural heritage values with human health and well-being, including air, soil, and water quality enhancement; food production; and recreational and educational opportunities.
Quite simply, ecological integrity, as it applies to Canada's national parks, does not work in a landscape that is fragmented by Canada's busiest highways, roads, rail lines, hydro corridors, parcels of private lands, homes, working farms, communities, and provincial and municipal infrastructure. This unique urban context makes Rouge unlike any other national park in the country, and that is why the Government of Canada decided to create a new category of protected area: a national urban park.
In practical terms, if the government were to apply the concept of ecological integrity to Rouge national urban park, the consequences on local communities, municipalities, residents, farmers, and other businesses would be harsh and severe. Applying ecological integrity would mean that most types of new infrastructure, including those for any potential future above- and below-ground needs of the Province and local municipalities, would not be allowed.
Ecological integrity would also mean that in-stream control structures that prevent flooding would most likely need to be removed. Natural stream channels would also need to be restored, regardless of their path through the landscape, and floods and the movement and evolution of rivers and creeks would be required to proceed naturally. Ecological integrity would prevent the use of environmentally friendly farming techniques, such as agricultural tile drainage.
Even more concerning, adapting ecological integrity in the Rouge would see many Rouge farmers evicted from working farms that have been in production since as early as 1799. There are reasons we do not see farming in places like Banff National Park or Gros Morne National Park. It is because active farming in itself is considered incompatible with ecological integrity as it is currently defined in the Canada National Parks Act. That is why anyone who says that he or she supports both farming and ecological integrity as it is legally defined by the Canada National Parks Act is at best naive or misinformed or at worst simply trying—without success, I might add—to appease the farming community.
Additional proposed amendments to the bill would have seen natural heritage conservation prioritized over cultural and agricultural heritage, and I would like to take a few moments to address this idea.
From the onset of this great project, the government has clearly stated the need for an integrated approach to conserving the Rouge's rich and diverse landscape and uses. The Government of Canada and Parks Canada have always made it clear that Rouge national urban park would prioritize equally the protection and celebration of nature, culture, and agriculture and the goal of connecting Canadians to this heritage. Again a majority of the witnesses called to committee supported our integrated approach, one that protects natural heritage but also extends these protections to the Rouge's cultural and agricultural heritage.
Despite this, the official opposition and the Green Party put forward amendments that would see one component of the park, natural heritage conservation, take precedence over another element of the park. Did the official opposition and the Green Party mean to suggest that somehow 10,000 years of rich cultural and first nations history and heritage, as well as hundreds of years of agricultural heritage, should be second class? Are they suggesting that these other park components are somehow less important or deserve second-rate treatment?
Again, why did these members of Parliament ignore the majority of committee witnesses and opt instead to propose untenable and divisive amendments? Perhaps these members failed to read the Province of Ontario's very own and much vaunted Greenbelt plan, which does not place agriculture as a lower or second priority to nature.
It is clear that in putting forth these amendments, there was actually little regard for the public interest. Rather, it was an example of listening and catering to a narrow segment of the population. This is what leads to cynical public attitudes towards our political process.
The legislation before the House today is strong and will provide the Rouge with its highest legislative protection in its history. For some to suggest that this bill would somehow weaken the protection currently in place is simply wrong.
Should we be expected to believe that loopholes in Ontario's Greenbelt Act and Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act, loopholes such as grandfathering environmentally destructive practices, allowing exemptions so that endangered species can be killed if a net benefit is provided, loose permitting systems, and incredibly, self-monitoring of development projects, suggest the highest standards in law and policy that Parks Canada should adopt or strive for in the Rouge? These loopholes allow for significant commercial and industrial development, the dumping of toxic fill, and the killing of species at risk. These very same practices have been severely criticized by the very same organizations that are suggesting that somehow the bill before us today presents a step backwards in the protection of the Rouge.
Just this week, a tribunal in Pontypool, Ontario, listened to claims from concerned members of the public that industrial development on the supposedly provincially protected Oak Ridges Moraine will cause “serious and irreversible harm to plants, animals and the environment, particularly the Oak Ridges Moraine”.
These are serious allegations and concerns being levelled against the same provincial legislation the opposition parties are upholding as examples of the best protection.
The bottom line is that Parks Canada would provide protections that would safeguard for perpetuity the Rouge's plants and animals, waters, cultural landscapes, and farmlands and would not cause them irreversible harm.
I emphatically suggest to members that the bill before the House today would meet and exceed any current or past protections in place for the Rouge, and it is shameful, given the strength of this bill and Parks Canada's international renown in conservation and ecological restoration, that anyone would begin to suggest otherwise.
In the Rouge Park of today, if one steals a fossil, kills an animal, vandalizes a national historic site, pollutes the waters, or dumps garbage and toxins in the forest, there are no law enforcement officers with a direct presence in the park to apply the law and safeguard this most incredible of resources. Rouge national urban park would have a full complement of year-round, dedicated law enforcement wardens in the park to enforce one strong and clear set of park laws and regulations and would have the ability to impose stringent fines and penalties to effectively enforce the law.
Apart from not knowing where the food on their plates comes from, many Canadians likely are unaware that farmland can play a role in preserving and restoring wetlands, forests, and grasslands that protect a wide array of species. Progressively managed farms support native biodiversity through good cropping practices, maintenance, and restoration of hedgerows, fallow fields, and woodlots by creating vital habitat that supports nesting and migratory birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.
Farmland in the Rouge contains important natural heritage and hydrologic features, and the stewardship of these farms can help facilitate both environmental and agricultural protection. Farms in Rouge national urban park would therefore be integral to the long-term sustainability and health of the park.
It is for precisely reasons like these that Rouge national urban park would include and protect agricultural lands. The Rouge would require and promote sustainable farming practices to support the continuation and viability of farming and would contribute to natural and cultural resource protection, healthy ecosystems, and a quality visitor experience.
This Canadian-first approach would embrace working farms as a unique feature of the park and would integrate agriculture into the park's vision. These objectives would be confirmed in the legislation.
Parks Canada would continue to work with the farming community, academic institutions, and other stakeholders to define how this long-term farming presence could best be accomplished. For the first time in decades, farmers would be given long-term leases contingent on meeting the highest standards of sustainable farming practices. As long-time stewards of the land, the agricultural community has made evident its commitment to achieving the vision for the national urban park.
Equally important is that as older farmers retire there will be opportunities for a new generation of farmers. New and young farmers would join existing farmers, and all would have a chance to apply leading, innovative techniques that improve land stewardship and protect prime farmland for optimal use while maintaining time-tested traditions that make farming such an important part of our heritage. In the future, this will lead to increased diversity in farm types and sizes and in the crops grown in the park.
Beyond the direct interests of farmers and food production, agricultural themes would be woven into the visitor experience. For example, visitors to the park could become involved in farm tours, workshops, and other programming. They could also take advantage of fresh food sold at farmers' markets or take part in agricultural fairs.
This would present a win for everyone. The legislation would facilitate ways for people to continue to live and work in the park, enhance their livelihoods, and work collaboratively in achieving the overall vision of the park. It would encourage sustainability and beneficial land management practices, ensuring the long-term health and well-being of the land protected by the park.
Rouge national urban park is a project that should be uniting Canadians, not dividing us. It is a park that has truly been developed by Canadians for Canadians. This is cause for celebration, not just in the greater Toronto area but from coast to coast to coast, as all Canadians would be able to access this one-of-a-kind national urban park.
Canadians strongly support our approach, which safeguards and promotes healthy ecosystems, respects local farmers, and creates unprecedented opportunities for new and urban Canadians to experience the richness and beauty of Canada's treasured federal heritage areas. Let us all work together in the interest of all Canadians and create a lasting legacy for our children's great-grandchildren.
It is with utmost humility and sincerity that I call on all parliamentarians to demonstrate their full support for this landmark legislation.