Community groups and angry citizens from Pickering, Ontario are going up against what one news report calls “a billionaire and a business-friendly government” to try to stop the Lower Duffins Creek Wetland, a provincially significant local green space, wildlife habitat, and buffer against climate impacts, from being bulldozed for a massive warehouse and entertainment complex.
They’re organizing blockades, reaching out through student networks, and hosting at least one “shoe strike” at Pickering city hall to symbolize the mass protest they’d be bringing together if not for pandemic restrictions, according to multiple local news reports. And they’re backed by a request for judicial review in Ontario Divisional Court, launched by Ecojustice on behalf of Toronto-based Environmental Defence and Ontario Nature.
“Wetlands are key to reducing the impacts of floods and droughts. They also clean our water, offer homes and food for wildlife, and provide recreation areas for people,” Environmental Defence Executive Director Tim Gray wrote in a post last week.
So “it’s important to protect all wetlands—and crucial to protect the few remaining in the Greater Toronto Area, especially when they are being attacked by the government Ontarians entrust to protect them.”
The provincial housing and municipal affairs ministry “approved development in this area to accommodate a warehouse facility through a Ministerial Zoning Order (MZO) in late October,” the Pickering News Advertiser reports. “The development dubbed Project Lonestar is part of the Durham Live development at Squires Beach Road and Bayly Street in Pickering.”
But concerns about the project “came to a head recently, as several groups voiced opposition,” reports DurhamRadioNews.com. “Officials say the 240-acre site in Pickering will include a casino, performing arts centre, film studio, hotels, restaurants, convention centre, and more.”
While Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan maintains the site will be “functionally disconnected” from the wetlands, local councillors in nearby Ajax have been expressing concern about the project. In November, Ajax accused Pickering of cutting it out of negotiations on the development.
The “shoe strike”, in which campaigners will place rows of empty shoes at Pickering City Hall, will send a “symbolic message” about the scale of protest the town would have seen if concerned citizens had been able to gather in person, DurhamRadioNews says.
Local campaigner Ginny Colling, who lives north of Port Perry, said the development will destroy habitats for migratory birds and many other species.
“This was a provincially sensitive wetland, which meant that for 25 years any construction and development was prohibited in that area,” she told the News Advertiser. But “the drilling trucks have been going in this week,” prompting Environmental Action Now Ajax-Pickering to mount a blockade at a site where the local paper says “drilling has begun, gravel access roads have been built, and heavy machinery has been making its way onto the land.”
“What is most at stake is the future of our green spaces,” said Ally Zaheer, one of two university students who began reaching out to their former high school friends in Pickering when they heard about the project. “They’re just going to get into this cycle of paving over things, and it’s going to be too late before they realize what’s done.”
Zaheer and her friend Devin Mathura see the fight “as part of a larger battle over public participation and the future of conservation in Ontario,” TV Ontario writes. “They’re not alone. In a recent letter, 96 environmental organizations slammed the Progressive Conservative government’s use of MZOs to overrule protections for provincially significant wetlands and called for the Duffins Creek MZO to be revoked.”
The ministerial orders are at the core of the problem, TVO notes.
“Since 2019, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark has issued more than 30 MZOs,” the provincial TV network states. “In comparison, a total of 49 MZOs were issued between 1969 and 2000. Clark has said that MZOs are a tool that can cut through ‘red tape’ to help communities struggling financially during COVID-19. Pickering’s city council has focused on the 2,000 to 3,000 jobs the warehouse is expected to bring,” plus another 10,000 at the Durham Live entertainment complex.
Until December, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority could have blocked the MZO, and it intended to, TVO says. But then the province issued Schedule 6, a section of a provincial budget bill that gutted the province’s network of conservation authorities, stripped them of their authority to respond to MZOs, and “elicited nearly unprecedented levels of outrage from Ontarians, inspiring about 50,000 letters to Ontario’s MPPs within a month.”
TVO adds that these wetlands are particularly significant to the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation, “as they were part of Mississauga territory until 1923, when the Canadian government stripped Mississauga peoples of about 13 million acres of land through the Williams Treaties. In 2018, the federal government apologized for that and for the ‘insufficient compensation’ it had provided.”
MSIFN Chief Kelly LaRocca told TVO the province failed to consult on the project, in what amounted to “a paternalistic encroachment of our sovereignty” that violated the community’s rights under Section 35 of the Constitution.
“Our Treaty rights guarantee us a spot at the decision-making table—a right which was repeatedly violated throughout this affair,” she wrote. “Instead, our rights were dismissed in favour of reckless wetland destruction.”
But in November, the province said it planned to speed up development of the entertainment complex. “Our government has been clear that we are going to bring shovel-ready projects online faster, to start us down the road to economic recovery during this very difficult period,” Clark said in a release. “We are proud that this project will create more than 10,000 jobs—has the support of the City of Pickering and the Regional Government in Durham.”
TVO goes into extensive detail on the local impacts and issues in the case.