A beloved park in Ontario, Canada underwent an arduous political and territorial process before finally becoming an urban park for preserving ecology and wildlife. During this process, Rouge Park weathered changes in political parties, stalemates, and clashing priorities.
A detailed look at the journey of the park here:
Parks Canada, the federal agency set to take command of the controversial park on the eastern edge of Toronto, had convened the meeting to gather public feedback on a new concept for the parks system: a national urban park, a new designation intended to carve out national park space for nature in the country’s densest population corridor. And the Rouge, running from Lake Ontario north to the Toronto bedroom community of Stouffville, would be the first of its kind.
Yet it was difficult to believe that Parks Canada took the consultation seriously. Rather than provide an open forum for residents to voice concerns, the meeting clustered participants at a dozen tables for group work. Blown up photos of the park stood on easels beside large paper sheets with softball questions looking to elicit praise for the agency’s plans. Participants were asked to use heart-shaped stick-it notes to share what they loved about Rouge Park. “Oh, please,” one of the residents sighed. The busy-work limited the time anyone would have to question agency staff about their Rouge draft management that some found depressingly problematic. Perhaps, some whispered, that was the idea*.
That summer, the Federal Conservatives called Bill C-40, the Rouge National Urban Park Act, for second reading. “The legislation would ensure that all these natural, cultural, and agricultural landscapes are protected,” said Colin Carrie, Conservative MP and parliamentary assistant to Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq. Few outside the government believed Carrie or others within Parks Canada who claimed the “new and bold” plan outlined in Bill C-40 afforded “the strongest protection for Rouge in its history.”* Environmental heavyweights from across Canada condemned the proposed plan, claiming the Tories had failed to prioritize protecting Rouge Park’s ecological integrity. “There is a…fundamental issue that needs to be addressed,” said Éric Hébert-Daly, National Executive Director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) “which is that nature conservation be clearly identified as the overarching priority for managing the park.” Hébert-Daly told a legislative Standing Committee in October 2014 that conservation is the essence of a park. Without it, he suggested, the Rouge would be little more than a multi-use zone.
The Tories weren’t swayed. Armed with a majority in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper ushered C-40 through the legislature. By January 2015, the bill passed third reading and was en route to the Conservative-dominated Senate where it soon became clear there would be no sober second thought afforded by the body. Buoyed by provincial support for their ecologically-minded anxieties about Bill C-40, Jim Robb appeared before a Standing Senate Committee in March 2015. He told Senators that getting the Rouge right had lasting implications beyond any one park and that future governments would use the new designation to anoint other greenspaces in other cities as national urban parks. “This is nation building,” Robb said. “Let’s not put in pathetically weak legislation…that has to last for centuries.”
But pleas to amend the legislation went nowhere. Three years after the idea of creating the urban park was first touted, Liberal Senator (and former Toronto mayor) Art Eggleton addressed the Senate. “The Conservative government and the majority of senators on the committee rejected all the amendments” aimed at making Rouge Park stronger. “They rejected creating a truly great national urban park,” Eggleton continued, “if Bill C-40 passes today as is, then we will have a shadow of a park.”
On Oct 19, 2015, Canadians voted for change in the form of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and gave his party a majority to boot. Within six months the amendments so long coveted for the Rouge were tabled as Bill C-18 on June 9, 2015 by Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna. There, front and centre, was a definition of ecological integrity and a repeal of Clause 6 and its taking nature into consideration. “Maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity,” the bill states, “through the protection of natural resources and natural processes, must be the first priority of the Minister.”
Ontario’s environmental community rejoiced. “We were absolutely delighted to see [the ecological integrity issue] resolved in the new bill,” Woodley told me. “It gives a strong foundation for managing a park into the future that’s well conserved and enjoyed.”* Environmental Defence, alongside Ontario Nature and the David Suzuki Foundation, applauded the government for strengthening nature protections. While they would have preferred the entirety of the airport lands to become part of the Rouge, the fundamental flaw with Bill C-40 was rectified.