On November 5th, The Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) Party presented Bill 229 to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, a proposal which claimed to be designed to help protect, support and help the province recover from COVID-19. The proposal was followed by weeks of debate and dissatisfaction from Ontario Liberals, NDPs and Greens, believing that this bill would not accomplish enough to support struggling Ontarian families and small businesses. The most substantial effect this bill would have is the active suppression of environmental protection efforts, which may have lasting affects on Ontario communities.
Consisting of 44 sections or “schedules”, Bill 229 makes amendments to the Conservation Authorities Act in Schedule 6. These amendments undo the original Conservation Authorities Act of 1946, which created the role of conservation authorities in Ontario.
Conservation authorities are tasked with observing and collecting data on Ontario’s watershed-based ecosystems in order to, “protect people and property from flooding, and other natural hazards, and to conserve natural resources for economic, social and environmental benefits”. They hold the power to determine whether Ontario wetlands and other watershed areas ought to be safeguarded from development considering the lasting effects on both the environment and on local residents. President of the Nottawasaga Steelheaders, Gary Christie, called conservation authorities “our guiding light as to what to do to improve these watersheds”.
Bill 229 plans on altering this role, giving Ontario’s 36 conservation authority agencies less power in prohibiting the destruction of protected wetland ecosystems. Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence told The Toronto Star, “They can still give advice, but a developer can say, ‘Thanks, but we don’t have to listen to you.’”
The decision-making power of whether or not Ontario wetlands are suitable for development will instead be placed in the hands of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, a department which is currently headed by John Yakabuski, a member of the PC Party. As the conservation authorities had no official political affiliation, one has to question whether political influence may play a role in the future of decision-making in this area. Leader of the Green Party of Ontario, Mike Schreiner, stated online: “Essentially, we are moving from science-based decisions to, possibly, or likely, political-based decisions”.
The Canadian Environmental Law Association in an analysis of Bill 229, called it a “disturbing trend…of using omnibus budget measures bills to make substantive changes to environmental laws and thereby sidestepping the public’s (Environmental Bill of Rights)”. The statement references the controversial action taken by the Ford Government in the field of development. The government has felt backlash from their increased use of Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs), a method permitting development without any outside consultation, issued by the Government of Ontario. The Western Canada Wilderness Committee states on their website; “The increased use of MZOs by this government is a disturbing abuse of power, especially when applied to override environmental protections”. Tim Gray went on to tell the Toronto Star, “This legislation has taken away all the teeth the conservation authorities had to protect the environment”.
Bill 229’s projected change of authority when it comes to environmental protection could be detrimental, not only to the loss of Ontario’s wetland biodiversity, but also poses as serious threat to Ontario suburbs.
For example, developers are currently planning to bulldoze and pave over the Lower Duffins Creek Wetlands Complex, 20 hectares consisting of wetlands, forests and meadows, located between Ajax and Pickering. Plans have been made to build a new casino and warehouse complex on this land. This plan would put local residents at flood risk, as these wetlands served as drainage basins, preventing flooding in the nearby low-altitude suburban neighbourhoods.
Flooding has been one of Canada’s most expensive, and increasingly common natural disasters, which, according to a statement by leader of the Ontario Greens, Mike Schreiner, cost insurance payments of over $1 billion over the past 12 years. Schreiner also states that flooded basement repair costs Canadians $43,000 on average. This risk of flood damage comes after years of destruction and development on wetlands, to a point where only 25% of southern Ontario’s original wetlands remain.
WHEN YOU PAVE OVER WETLAND, THERE IS NO PLACE FOR FLOODWATER TO GO. It can only go into our streets.– Mike Schreiner, Leader of the Green Party of Ontario
One study done by the University of Waterloo found that conserving wetlands would reduce the financial costs of flooding. The report states that the financial cost of flooding in “rural and urban areas would be 29 and 38 per cent lower, respectively, with wetlands in their natural state vs. being lost due to development”. Professor Blaire Feltmate stated in this same report: “With the ever-increasing financial burden of flooding to Canadians, it is remarkable that a practical and cost-effective means to alleviate flood risk is readily available — that is, simply leave natural wetlands natural.”
The Green Party of Ontario is currently calling for Ontarians to contact their local MPPs to demand that they, and the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, allow conservation authorities to retain their jurisdiction in the field of wetland protection, for the good of both the environment and of Ontarians.
If you are an Ontario resident and believe that Ontario wetlands need to be protected, please click here to contact your local MPP.