Winds of Change Blow Through Ontario

Winds of Change Blow Through Ontario

Most Ontario environmental and conservation groups are breathing a sigh of relief since the provincial election of October 2, 2003. As Premier Dalton McGuinty, the new premier, has said, Ontarians “chose change.” What exactly that change will mean for Great Lakes aquatic habitats remains to be seen in the coming months and years, but the Federation of Ontario Naturalists and other non-governmental organizations are optimistic that the new government will make moves to undo the damage to Ontario’s natural heritage wrought over the past eight years, including massive cuts to the budgets and staff of key ministries such as the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Natural Resources.

One of the Liberals’ election promises was the creation of a permanently protected, 600,000-acre greenbelt of environmentally sensitive land and farmland from Niagara Falls all the way around the western end of Lake Ontario at Hamilton and through the Greater Toronto Area to Lake Scugog well east of Toronto. It would include the Niagara Escarpment, the Oak Ridges Moraine, the Duffin-Rouge Agricultural Preserve and two-thirds of the provincially-owned Seaton lands in Pickering (just east of Toronto).

Other Liberal party election promises of interest to Great Lakes aquatic habitat advocates included:

  • Reducing urban sprawl by investing in public transit through earmarking two cents per litre of the provincial gasoline tax to municipalities to shore up their transit systems.
  • Discouraging sprawl by providing infrastructure funding to priority growth areas such as city centres and urban nodes rather than to greenfields, and by working with developers to get urban brownfields developed.
  • Implementing every recommendation of the Walkerton Inquiry, which examined the deaths of seven people and illness of 2,300 more in the year 2000 from municipal well water in the town of Walkerton tainted with a virulent strain of the E. coli bacterium – an inquiry that directed some of the responsibility for the tragedy to provincial budget cuts. A key recommendation was water source protection by undertaking comprehensive watershed planning across Ontario.
  • Reviewing Ontario’s groundwater supplies before the government issues a single new commercial water-taking permit for bottled water and, if the government is convinced that there are sufficient supplies for Ontario’s needs, ensuring that water bottlers pay for the water they pump (which they now obtain free).
  • Giving the Ontario Municipal Board clear planning rules to ensure that it follows provincial policies in hearing appeals of municipal land use decisions.

 

Amidst environmentalists’ optimism about the new provincial government are at least a couple of causes for concern. One is that before elected, Mr. McGuinty openly supported the proposed Red Hill Creek Expressway in the City of Hamilton. Many groups have called on the new premier to cancel provincial funding for this expressway, which would irreparably damage Red Hill Creek and the last large green space left in Hamilton. The previous government has promised to pay half – about $122 million, at least – of the cost of the expressway.

Furthermore, former premier Eves had campaigned on the basis of a balanced provincial budget for this year. When the Liberals took power in late October and examined the books, they found a budget deficit for the current year of $5.6 billion. This unexpectedly high deficit will likely mean that some of their environmental promises from the election campaign cannot be met nearly as quickly as they had anticipated, such as increasing the budgets of the environment and natural resources ministries. Still, most environmentalists expect the new Liberal government to accord more attention and sensitivity to environmental concerns than their predecessors did during the 1995-2003 period.

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.