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Province puts brakes on plans for country's first national urban park

The province of Ontario is refusing to hand over land to the federal government for the Rouge National Urban Park after months of political wrangling.
March 12, 2015
By Robert Benzie

The province of Ontario will not hand over land to the federal government for the Rouge National Urban Park despite months of political wrangling.

“As a direct result of their refusal to listen to our concerns, I will not recommend to our cabinet that Ontario transfer the provincially controlled lands that would have made up two-thirds of the park,” Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid said Thursday.

“Clearly, the current federal government never intended to find a resolution in this matter,” Duguid said after the Conservative-controlled Senate rejected Liberal amendments to the legislation creating the park.

“It appears to me the federal government has blown a great opportunity here to work with the provincial government, work with environmental stakeholders and agricultural stakeholders in a very compromising, constructive way,” he said.

Queen’s Park refusal to transfer 5,400 acres of parkland to Ottawa due to ecological concerns will derail the creation of an urban preserve 16 times the size of New York City’s Central Park.

“I don’t see this as the end of the efforts to build a Rouge national park,” said Duguid, adding the federal government’s “obstinacy has gotten in the way of us being able to do that today.”

“We will see a Rouge Park one day; it just may not be the Harper government actually can make it happen,” he said, alluding to Prime Minister Stephen Harper facing an election later this year.

Ontario controls about two-thirds of the 58 square kilometres of land in what would be Canada’s first urban national park, which includes a large swath owned by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority that cannot be sold without provincial approval.

The remaining third of the land is owned by the federal government, while the cities of Toronto and Markham hold small parcels.

Federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq blasted Duguid.

“Your assertion that the provincially controlled lands are better protected under the current provincial legislation is false,” Aglukkaq told him in a letter.

“Your approach thus far has called into question your sincerity with respect to working together constructively to find a solution. I am not interested in playing political games at the expense of farmers and the environment,” she wrote.

Aglukkaq reminded Duguid that Ontario should abide by the “clear terms ... in the legally binding 2013 federal-provincial land transfer agreement.”

But a joint statement from environmental groups - including the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, and Friends of the Rouge Watershed - supported Queen’s Park.

“The (federal) bill fails to meet the fundamental requirement that a protected area must prioritize nature conservation as laid out in international standards, and fails to meet or exceed the environmental policies of the existing Greenbelt, Oak Ridges Moraine and Rouge Park Plans,” it said.

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society-Wildlands League and Ontario Nature also signed the statement that decried the federal park legislation as “flawed” and “a missed opportunity to effectively protect an ecological treasure for Canadians today and in the future.”

Ottawa has pledged $143.7 million over 10 years and an additional $7.6 million annually for operating costs after that to create the park.

With seven million people - a fifth of Canada’s population - living within an hour’s drive, it would be the most accessible wilderness retreat in the country.