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The GTA’s beautiful Greenbelt is worth fighting for with everything we’ve got

The Greenbelt is precious and beautiful and we’re very lucky to have it, Shawn Micallef writes
Nov. 21, 2022
Shawn Micallef

Farmsteads are plenty, recently-harvested crops are in some fields and languorous cows munch on grass in others. The area is a vision of rural life that’s often celebrated and mythologized -- when politically convenient, that is. That sign also reads “Part of the Greenbelt” and is similar to other “Entering the Greenbelt” signs that have become comfortingly ubiquitous to anyone who travels in and out of the Golden Horseshoe or along the Niagara Escarpment.

A comfort knowing that open space, whether wild or rural, isn’t so far away. The Duffins Rouge preserve is about 30 kilometers from downtown Toronto and part of northern Pickering, though it would be easy to think it is quite far away from the GTA.

Wide open, big sky, keep-it-beautiful Ontario. But not for long, perhaps.

As part of the Ford government’s sweeping changes, Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark recently tabled legislation that would, in part, repeal the 2005 Duffins Rouge Agricultural Reserve Act in order to open it to development under the pretense of removing “barriers to building much-needed housing in Pickering.” The preserve is just one of many areas of the Greenbelt the Ford government wants to remove from protection, some that a joint investigation by the Toronto Star and The Narwal found was recently purchased by various developers with apparent ties to the PC government.

The Duffins Rouge preserve is a massive tract, some 1,902 hectares of “prime agricultural lands,” according to the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. Last weekend, I walked 10 kilometres of it, partially on the Seaton Trail, starting in Whitevale, a cute hamlet that dates back to the early 1800s. It, too, feels a long way from the GTA.

The Seaton Trail begins north of Whitevale at Highway 7 and is nearly 13 kilometres long, meandering south alongside Duffins Creek, ultimately connecting to other trails that lead to Lake Ontario. It’s like a mini-Bruce Trail, varied in landscape and well maintained.

Photos taken in and around the Seaton Trail and Whitevale area, north of Pickering, in the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Reserve, land that is part of the Ford Government's Greenbelt changes.

Further downstream by Highway 401 and closer to Lake Ontario is a wetland in the Duffins watershed. Contested as a development site for more than two years, it was recently bulldozed under questionable circumstances, yet another breaking link in the natural landscape that sustains the GTA’s urban ecosystem.

The Seaton Trail, from Whitevale south to Taunton Road, sometimes meanders close to the creek, other times is high above it with panoramic views from canyon-like cliffs. It’s a dramatic topography that might surprise anybody who thinks the GTA and Ontario are flat and boring. There was much evidence of busy beavers at work too, with gnawed tree stumps along the way.

While it’s likely the trail itself won’t be developed as some of it is in the creek’s floodplain -- though I wouldn’t place any bets on what can or can’t happen in Ontario at this point -- it also passes by adjacent fields.

Corn grew in many of them, but they’re really fields of gold if the Ford government takes them out of the Greenbelt. Real estate can be the creation of money out of thin air or, in this case, from some of the best farmland in Canada. Farmland is a non-renewable resource: once it’s gone, it’s gone. As transportation costs go up and climate change makes sourcing our food closer to home wise, it’s reckless to pave all this over.

That the government is using the housing crisis as an excuse is egregious. There’s ample room to reach the GTA’s housing targets by adding density to the existing urban fabric. Every neighbourhood will have to do its share, and housing advocates had hoped the government’s Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act 2022, would make this easier by allowing various kinds of density in all neighbourhoods, but that was watered down and instead the government has targeted the Greenbelt.

Never mind that in 2018 Ford himself promised he would maintain the Greenbelt in its entirety, saying “the people have spoken.” So much for the man of the people and his word.

When the Seaton Trail reached Taunten Road I walked back to the parking lot in Whitevale along highways and gravel roads as dusk became night. Thousands of geese were in those recently harvested corn fields, feeding on the leftover cobs, presumably fuelling up for the flight south. Their honking was louder than the fast-moving traffic and it was perhaps the most geese I’ve seen in one place, an awesome sight and sound. These feeding grounds would disappear too if the farmland is lost.

There’s conflict on a number of fronts in Ontario right now. Health care. Schools. Ontario Place. Municipal governance. The Greenbelt may seem an abstract thing we’ve taken for granted for a long time. Just a sign on the highway.

Walking it reveals it’s precious, beautiful and that we’re very lucky to have it though. It’s worth fighting for with all we’ve got.