Canada

Open for business

Environmentalists take issue with Ontario’s new ethos

John Nicol May 24 1999
Canada

Open for business

Environmentalists take issue with Ontario’s new ethos

John Nicol May 24 1999

Open for business

Environmentalists take issue with Ontario’s new ethos

Canada

John Nicol

Osprey Links is a golf course and housing development on Lake Nipissing, in the town of Callander where Ontario Premier Mike Harris grew up. The 200 hectares, which boast an osprey nest and sit above sensitive walleye spawning grounds, are being developed by some of Harris’s best friends, and in early 1998 their subdivision application was held up by the ministry of natural resources because of environmental concerns. But “Ontario is open for business,” as Harris vowed after the Conservatives’ 1995 election victory, and an agent for the owners contacted Finance Minister Ernie Eves, the MPP for the area. Last March, the housing ministry approved the development without the resources ministry’s blessing—and without its concerns about the development’s potential effects on

the spawning grounds being satisfied.

The story is typical of the province’s new ethos. And the Tories’ pro-business approach is not limited to what critics say is an unprecedented weakening and dismantling of Ontario’s environmental laws and institutions. The province’s Red Tape Commission has been busily eating away at the mass of regulations that govern economic activity. But activists say the effect has been particularly noticeable in the environmental sector—and it is a theme they are trying to introduce into the provincial election campaign before voters go to the polls on June 3. There is an enormous gap between what the government says it is doing for the environment, and the reality, says Eva Ligeti, Ontario’s independent environment commissioner (appointed by the premier, she answers to the legislative assembly). Bureaucrats want to do their job properly, Ligeti told

Macleans, “but they don’t have the resources. I’m sure a lot of people, who for years have tried their best for the environment, are heartbroken.”

Others have taken notice. Ontario was once one of the leading North American jurisdictions in protecting the environment. Now, for two years running, it has placed third, just behind Texas and Louisiana, in the annual ranking of North Americas worst polluting states and provinces (Ontario is likely to place second or third in the next ranking, due in July). Earlier this month, Paul Tonko, head of the New York state assembly’s energy committee, and the New York state branch of the American Lung Association, sent letters to Harris complaining that feeble Ontario smog regulations are contributing to health problems and air pollution in their state (in Ontario, the provincial medical association says that air pollution causes 1,800 Ontarians to die prematurely each year). Ligeti, meanwhile, produced a stinging report last month, stating that the province is “moving away from better environmental protection,” ignoring, among other things, pollution prevention— especially in hazardous wastes.

Environment Minister Norm Sterling simply says Ligeti is “wrong”—and that Ontario’s land, water and air are cleaner than when the Conservatives came to power in 1995. Complaints from south of the border notwithstanding, the Tories point to their commitment to cleaner air as a sign they take the environment seriously. On April 1, the government launched Drive Clean, a program designed to test cars (and as of Sept. 1, trucks and buses) for emissions; vehicles that fail are required to undergo repairs or lose their licences.

But the program has been criticized for being unreliable. Dan McDermott, director of The OntAIRio Campaign, a coalition promoting clean air, says fostering public transit, reducing urban sprawl and, most significant, cutting back emissions from coal-fired generating stations would do more for the environment. Instead, the Tories have cut the environment ministry budget by 63 per cent (to $194 million), leading to a 32-per-cent reduction in staff and, consequently, a drop in environmental fines collected, to $864,000 in 1998 from more than $3 million in 1995. Industries have been encouraged to monitor themselves—which one of

the provinces first environmental investigators, Allen Baldwin, equates to “giving motorists tickets to fill out every time they speed.”

Even more damning, say environment ministry bureaucrats, is a confidential 406-page document, prepared by ministry officials and called “Delivery Strategies,” which advised employees last year to ignore hundreds of infractions, from reports of bad drinking water to the illegal dumping of sewage from pleasure boats. Says one ministry official about the document, which was obtained by Macleans: “It doesn't jibe with caring about the air.”

One of the more contentious environmental battlegrounds has been the Niagara Escarpment. When the Conservatives came to power in 1995, vocal members of the party wanted to abolish the 17-member Niagara Escarpment Commission—entrusted with protecting the last continuous ecosystem in southern Ontario, a stretch that includes 1,000-year-old trees, rare flowers and rocky cliffs from Niagara Falls to Tobermory on Georgian Bay. Insiders say the commission’s death was a pen stroke

away, and it was saved mainly because the United Nations had designated the escarpment a protected biosphere in 1990. But Sterling’s predecessor, Brenda Elliott, ignored the commission’s advice and decided to expand wrecking yards on escarpment land, permit radio towers and allow quarries to become industrial dumps. Then in the spring of 1998, Harris filled many vacancies with development-oriented appointees.

The results are planning decisions that have left environmentalists reeling. A January decision to allow a 56unit condo-style resort on the select wine-growing lands in Vineland, east of Hamilton, stunned commission member Robert Boraks, an architect and University of Guelph professor who was appointed under NDP Premier Bob Rae and reappointed under Harris. “Our goal of trying to protect a jewel has been replaced by a probusiness ethos,” said Boraks. “It’s death by a thousand cuts.” He is also concerned that developers who have been turned down by a previous government are returning with even more grandiose ideas, such as an unprecedented at-

tempt to take land out of escarpment commission control for a subdivision in Milton, Ont.

Harris has tried to win over environmentalists with his Lands for Life program, which will set aside a huge area, much of it in remote Northern Ontario, for preservation. But activists claim the province has not been up front about side deals giving mining and forestry companies access to the lands. Nor has the Harris government publicized its hopes to increase annual earnings from the sale of Crown land, to $200 million this year from $6 million a year.

Commissioner Ligeti says the sale of those lands, much of them “environmentally sensitive,” is part of what she calls a penny-wise and pound-foolish approach to the environment. “You can’t have a healthy economy or a healthy society,” she said, “without a healthy environment.” Sterling counters with the observation that the struggling states of the former Soviet bloc left behind a wasteland “because their economy wasn’t strong—you can’t have a healthy environment if you don’t have a healthy economy, too.” El!