There is a valley at the western tip of Lake Ontario that stretches to join sparkling bay with towering cliffs. Once, the fishery in this bay was the largest of all the waters of Lake Ontario. Today, the commercial fishery is long forgotten. Once, the creek that ribbons its way down from the escarpment had thirteen brothers and sisters, each fuelling our lake with their waters. Today, they are buried, forgotten. Just this one remains.
In 1929, the city said, “Enough. This valley “shall be parkland that is outstanding on this continent.”
Barely had their promise been uttered when new voices rang out. “Progress!” the prophets of 1951 cried. The park became a highway-in-waiting, biding its time until the architects of tomorrow could tame it.
The city plotted. It consulted. It studied. And by 1985 it had a plan – “Pave it!” the councilors did not look to Toronto, where a waterfront expressway choked off access to beaches and forced local businesses to close. They did not learn from Moncton or Boston, either.
No, instead, the city lined up its permits and waited. Fourteen years rolled by and the city found itself in court. PCBs, it seems, were leaking from one of its old landfills into the one remaining creek. The city knew about it, but stayed silent. “Guilty,” they plead and paid one of the largest environmental fines in Canadian history.
“No more public consultation,” said the province, then promised $110-million to help the project along.
Today, the city is blasting gaping holes in the towering escarpment, though it promised it never would. It is plotting to dig up that old, once leaking landfill and to ship the poisons to someone else’s community. It is tearing up trees by their roots, calling those who object, “losers,” and putting those who come near into jail.
This city that plead guilty to poor guardianship in the valley now uses lobbyists to capture the ear of Queen’s Park – at $375 an hour. This city that once promised, “parkland that is outstanding on this continent” now sues, or tries to sue, people or government agencies standing in the way of progress.
So,Waterkeeper wrote to the provincial government with our concerns. Surely a criminal record and a well-documented history of environmental insults warrant some independent scrutiny? They should, we wrote, under Ontario law. It was a compelling argument – but it may have fallen on deaf ears. Laws, it seems, are not enough. Speaking in 1961, Robert Kennedy said, “All the high rhetoric … all the high-sounding speeches … are meaningless unless people – you and I – breathe meaning and force into them.”His meaning has never been clearer.
The citizens have done their part, bringing administrative challenges, civil actions, holding celebrations and protests, even living in the trees for 105 days. They have been ridiculed, intimidated and, by the media, ignored. All because they want a say in the future of the place where they live.
435 days have passed since Waterkeeper wrote its first letter to the Minister of Environment.We are not asking for favors or for special consideration, just noting that the law, in this valley, is being ignored – and asking that this wrong be righted. The expressway has not yet been built. There is still time. Yet, the province has been silent.
When we wrote, the trees were still standing.The escarpment was whole, the landfill untouched. Today, the valley is raw. And the silence from Queen’s Park speaks volumes.
To see the devastation of the Red Hill Valley, please watch our video from August’s Literary Fest under the “Multimedia” section, www.citizenlab.org.