In Ontario, Wynne Government Has Already Turned Its Back On Citizens Concerns Over Watershed Protection in the Great Lakes Basin
A News Commentary by Doug Draper
Posted March 4th, 2017 on Niagara At Large
As shocking as it may seem – and it shouldn’t be given who is now in charge in Washington – the Trump administration is moving to slash programs focused on restoring the health of the Great Lakes by a devastating 97 per cent, according to Trump budget documents leaked to the American media.
Cuts that dramatic could go a long way to undo most of the progress that has been made since the early 1970s Canada’s then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and then-U.S. President Richard Nixon (believe it or not, Richard Nixon on Watergate fame) signed the first in a series of Great Lakes Water Quality Agreements – environmental protection pacts which, to this day, remain among the progressive of their kind agreed to by any more or two nations in the world.
Trump, who campaigned for the U.S. presidency with a repeated promise to get rid of his country’s top environment body – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – is now expected, a few strokes of the pen, sign executive orders in the days ahead that undoes most of that and, while at the same time, shreds most of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s climate change initiatives.
“The level of the cuts would be devastating,” Chad Lord, a policy director for the U.S. citizens group Healing Our Waters – Great Lakes Coalition, was quoted saying in a front-page story in The Buffalo News this March 4th under the heading; “Sharp EPA cuts threaten recovery of area waterways.”
“These cuts will essentially stop restoration (of the Great Lakes) in their tracks,” Lord said.
“A tremendous amount of progress has been achieved (and) that would be lost with these cuts, with so much work left to be done,” added Niagara Falls, New York Mayor Paul Dyster.
U.S. Congressman Brian Higgins, a Democrat representing people in the Buffalo, New York area, said “we (meaning people of all political stripes and walks of life) need to be ready to fight” these cuts.
Unfortunately, the only provincial politician on the Niagara, Ontario side of the border who has been openly speaking out on citizens’ concerns over what may or may not be happening with Great Lakes watershed restoration efforts on this side of the border is Welland Riding MPP and New Democratic Party member Cindy Forster. And she has recently been threatened with legal action from a private business that has done contract work for the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Work for some of the questions she has raised.
As for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and her Liberal government, she has so far washed her hands of any concerns citizens have raised over watershed conservation programs, and may be dong worse.
In the fall of 2015, Wynne attended an event in China with Niagara Falls, Ontario Mayor Jim Diodati and a group of China-based developers where she joined in signing her name to a “Memorandum of Understanding” for the China-backed firm, GR (CAN) Investments Inc., to move forward with plans to site residential and commercial buildings on a portion of some 480 to 500 acres of land in Niagara Falls, known to many as Thundering Waters and now hosting wooded areas, wetlands (including some designated as “provincially significant” for protection) and savannah grasses – all located in the Niagara River watershed.
Wynne then issued a media release in November 2015, highlighting that her trip to China had drawn Chinese investment to the province, including, as highlighted in the media release, the Thundering Waters project.
By early 2016, the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) was moving forward with seeking provincial approval to try something called “biodiversity offsetting” for wetlands (meaning in part, attempting to replace wetlands covered for development by growing something comparable somewhere else) and using wetlands on the Thundering Waters site as a possible pilot for this.
In April of 2016, Niagara’s regional council, with 10 members of the council sitting on the NPCA board, entertained a motion that would ask the province to look favourably upon biodiversity offsetting for wetlands. The regional motion mentioned that Wynne had signed the Memorandum of Understanding for the Thundering Waters project.
The regional motion was not passed and some regional representatives later said that Wynne did not approve the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the project by lending her signature to it, but only witnessed it – a claim that remains open to question because the MOU has never been made public despite requests by this journalist and others to have it disclosed so that citizens have a clearer idea of what understanding the China-based developers may have been given by officials in our region and province as to their future plans for the Thundering Water lands.
More recently, Wynne’s Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, Kathryn McGarry, sent a letter to several local municipalities in Niagara and the City of Hamilton, deflecting their call on the province to launch a forensic/value for money audit and full investigation of the NPCA’s operations in the wake of growing public concerns and questions over how the Conservation Authority is using millions of dollars of tax money and how focused it actually is on protecting ecosystems in a key watershed in the lower Great Lakes.
In what many citizens in Niagara regarded as a dim-witted and insulting reply to local municipalities call on Wynne’s government to take action and investigate, McGarry directed local municipalities in Niagara and Hamilton to take their concerns back to those appointed (a majority of which were appointed by Niagara’s regional government) to the NPCA board – a board, by the way, that has launched a lawsuit against a private citizen in Niagara who has been calling for an independent audit of the NPCA.
Then this February, the chair of Niagara’s regional council, Al Caslin, sent a letter to Wynne, asking her for support in moving the Thundering Waters project around. Rather than informing Caslin that her government intends to see this proposed project through subjected to the planning scrutiny, including any future proceedings through the Ontario Municipal Board, Wynne replied by saying he would pass the contents of Caslin’s letter on to McGarry and others, before signing off to the regional chair with her “best wishes.”
Best wishes, by the way, is far from what Toronto Mayor John Tory got from the premier when he proposed imposing tolls on some main roads for commuters in order to help pay for maintaining the roads and encourage more people to get out of their cars and use public transit, and Wynne came in and said “No” to the tolls, despite the fact the roads were owned by the city.
Wynne certainly exercised power to tell the mayor of Toronto what he can and cannot do with roads owned by the city, but she and her Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry claim they have no power to audit the operations of an NPCA which exists under a piece of provincial legislation called the Ontario Conservation Act.
To compound all of this, the Wynne government is continuing to provide funds totalling $100,000 a year to the NPCA to oversee a long-running “Remedial Action Plan” for watersheds on the Ontario side of the Niagara River. This despite the fact that a professional watershed expert who was on the staff of the NPCA – a staff member named Jocelyn Baker who was held in high respect by citizens and environmental officials on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border – was recently let go by the NPCA for reasons that many outside the Conservation Authority fail to understand.
The NPCA is apparently in the process of replacing Baker, but why replace someone who has been held in such high regard by environment project workers in Environment Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Environment and others? It is just one more in a growing book of concerns around the way the NPCA does business, yet the Wynne government seems to have no trouble continuing to fund this body to do Remedial Action Plan (RAP) work the Canada-U.S. International Joint Commission considered important to the restoration of the Great Lakes.
And now, along with all this disappointing business with the Wynne government on the Ontario side of the border, we have Trump reading to virtually gut Great Lakes restoration efforts, in a freshwater basin vital to the health of tens of millions of people in both countries.
Like Congressman Higgins said, we all have to fight this because we all have a stake in keeping these Great Lakes and the watersheds that feed them safe for present and future generations.
Niagara At Large will have more on the Wynne government’s failure to deal responsibly with environmental protection issues in the Niagara/Hamilton region in the week ahead.
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