LETTER: Ford government ‘dismantles’ province’s environmental laws

‘Many outstanding concerns about this (Bradford Bypass) project have not been fully and properly addressed,’ says former environment commissioner

OrilliaMatters welcomes letters to the editor ([email protected]). The following letter was submitted on behalf of former Environmental Commissioner of Ontario Gord Miller (2000-2015) on the concerns surrounding the Bradford Bypass project.

Now is the time to put a stop to the Ford government’s rampant dismantling of environmental laws, policies and approvals that have protected Ontario for 50 years.

This system was meticulously put in place – started by Progressive Conservative governments – to ensure the orderly growth of our economy and infrastructure while minimizing environmental damage and maintaining a social license for development. The system has served us well and made Ontario prosperous and wealthy while avoiding major environmental failures.

But this system has been attacked by this government for some time. The frequent insults to our planning system – including a storm of zoning ordinances from Minister Let-‘er-rip – have been piling up lately. Things came to a head when the government abandoned all caution, wisdom and caution in a mad rush to start building the Bradford Bypass before the June provincial election.

The Bradford Bypass is a 16 km four to six lane highway that would cross 28 waterways in upper Lake Simcoe and bisect one of the largest and most important wetlands in the Belt of greenery, the Holland Marsh.

Many outstanding concerns regarding this project have not been fully and properly addressed. They include endangered species habitat, fishing impacts, water quality and stormwater management in the already stressed Lake Simcoe watershed.

Despite these issues, the government exempted the highway from Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Act (EAA). Therefore, construction of portions of the road should begin before various impact studies are completed or approvals are considered or issued.

This violates one of the fundamental tenets of sound environmental planning: you don’t start a project until you’ve done the work to find out what the environmental consequences will be.

The other major issue that this government action threatens is the public’s right to consultation and participation in important environmental decisions.

The Ford government has shown a tendency to avoid hearing what the public has to say. This is highlighted in the recent Auditor General’s report. Additionally, it dissolved the Office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, whose primary role was to ensure that such public involvement took place.

More recently, it ignored public notification and consultation requirements for major changes enacted by a bill that downgraded forest management, among other legislative changes. In this case, Earthroots (an environmental group that I chair) and others had to sue the government in Divisional Court to get a ruling that they had indeed violated the Environmental Bill of Rights.

In the case of the Bradford Bypass, the EAA exemption means that full public notification and consultation will not occur on many aspects until the project is well advanced, if at all.

The purpose of the Environmental Assessment Act is “the betterment of the people…of Ontario by providing for the protection, conservation and wise management of the environment in Ontario”.

This is how environmental planning is supposed to be done in Ontario. This is largely how it has been done successfully for 50 years. Clearly, the rush to bypass Bradford, proceeding under an exemption from the law, is reneging on this commitment.

Unfortunately, there is no other recourse in the provincial regulatory system for Ontarians who believe their government has abandoned “people’s betterment”.

But there is an option at the federal level of government. A coalition of citizens’ groups has called on the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Honorable Steven Guilbeault, to designate this project under the Federal Impact Assessment Act and to implement a full and comprehensive review.

There are many outstanding issues that fall under federal jurisdiction, such as fisheries, endangered species and migratory birds. And, there are legitimate concerns like greenhouse gas emissions and consultation with First Nations.

It is time for the federal government to step in and do the job that the province will not do.

Gord Miller
Earthroots Canada, President