By John Bacher
Posted May 27th, 2016 on Niagara At Large
On Tuesday June 14th, from 5 to 8pm at St. Catharines’s Performing Arts Centre at 250 St. Paul Street, the Ontario government is going to hold its Niagara Public Open House as part of its four provincial land use plans co-ordinated review.
People who show up to this gathering will be honouring the memory of one of the founders of provincial land use planning, Niagara, Ontario’s own Mel Swart.
It is appropriate that one of the proposals being discussed at the Open House – the addition of Lake Gibson, a source of drinking water for many Niagara residents – to the protected Greenbelt zone – was the subject of Swart’s last presentation to Thorold City Council following his retirement from politics more than 20 years ago.
While serving as a Niagara area MPP in the Ontario legislature in the 1980s and 90s, Swart worked closely with a current provincial cabinet minister and MPP for St. Catharines, Jim Bradley, on championing land use protection issues.
One of the reasons a good turnout is needed on June 14th is that unlike additions to the Greenbelt south of the Niagara Escarpment in Thorold and Grimsby, there are a lot of proposals being put forward for consideration that would diminish Swart’s legacy.
Part of the current round of consultations are proposed two massive urban boundary expansions in Niagara Falls. These are now protected by the Greenbelt and the Niagara Escarpment Plan but their status could change in 2017. One concerns a vineyard north of Mountain Road.
Another is an enormous forested tract owned by the federal government and declared surplus to the needs of the Seaway. It is coveted by developers who want it within the urban boundary.
Swart’s many years as a conservationist and champion of provincial land use planning are covered in my new book, “Mel Swart, Ecojustice Champion – 1919-2007.” It was recently published by the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society as part of its 40th anniversary celebrations.
Part of Mel’s strength was that he was willing to listen the views of people concerned about protecting the environment.
Shaped by his long service on municipal councils before he went to Queen’s Park, Swart had favoured protecting the Escarpment through local zoning. He was convinced of the folly of this approach, however, from a fellow legislator, Marion Bryden.
Bryden’s husband Kenneth had served as Deputy Minister of Labour in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, (CCF) government of Tommy Douglas in Saskatchewan before it became the New Democratic Party of Canada in 1962.
Bryden’s Saskatchewan experience caused her to view the massive protests against the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC), held in Orangeville, Ontario, as something akin to the demonstrations doctors once mounted against introducing Medicare in Canada.
She viewed the cries of “Break the NEC” as fronts “for wealthy and powerful land development interests and gravel pit operator” opposed to rules for protecting escarpment lands
One passage in my book “Ecojustice Champion” details Swart’s finest hour. It reads as follows; “Seeing the foes of escarpment protection essentially being empowered by great wealth and corporate power, Bryden saw Swart’s approach of municipally administered planning controls as unfeasible. She explained to him that to change the course of municipal councils would require a mobilization of NDP supporters, such as its affiliated labour movement, on a scale that had never taken place in Ontario.”
“She (Bryden) convinced him of the need to support strong provincial planning for the Niagara Escarpment as the only way that environmentally sensitive lands could actually be protected. Swart had his greatest hour from the seven stressed-filled year, when the Niagara Escarpment Plan was finally adopted in 1985. “
At the Orangeville protests in 1977, Swart stood up to taunts from supporters of turning the Escarpment into subdivisions and pits. Part of the tragedy of this incident is that to appease the demonstrators, the province’s Escarpment Plan was radically reduced in its coverage. Before the protests its area extended from the Escarpment to the Welland River.
One of the goals of the Preliminary Proposals of the Escarpment Plan that ignited the Orangeville protests was to save the large urban forests of Niagara Falls north of the Welland River.
These are the very focus of the current debate over the Thundering Waters Secondary Plan.
Tragically, one of the early signs of the impact of the Escarpment Plan’s reduction was the running of a massive drainage ditch through the heart of the old growth forest swamp with giant oaks and engendered Black Gums that ecologists are now battling to save.
This is illustrative of the need for people to get engage to prevent future blunders of this kind.
John Bacher is a veteran conservationist in Niagara, Ontario and long-time member of the citizen group, Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society. A past contributor of posts to Niagara At Large, his most recent book is called ‘Two Billion Trees and Counting – The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz’. John also works with the Greenbelt Program Team at the Sierra Club of Canada Foundation.
His latest book on Ontario NDP icon Mel Swart is called ‘Mel Swart, Ecojustice Champion – 1919-2007 ‘. The book can be obtained from the Niagara, Ontario based Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society (PALS) for $15 by sending a cheque or money order to PALS at Post Office Box 1413, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, L02 1J0.
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