Ottawa’s move to assess Hwy. 413 plan brings ‘credibility’ to process, critics say

This article was written by Noor Javed and was published in the Toronto Star on May 4, 2021.

The proposed Highway 413 has sparked protests by people concerned with the province’s streamlined approval process.

The federal government announced Monday it was taking over environmental oversight of the proposed GTA West Highway, temporarily putting the brakes on the province’s efforts to fasttrack the controversial project.

In a statement Monday afternoon, federal environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson said “after consideration of the available science, evidence and other relevant information gathered by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (IAAC) … I have decided to designate this project under the federal impact assessment process.”

The 60-kilometre highway, also known as the 413, would connect Milton from the 401 to Vaughan, ending at Highway 400. The proposed highway would raze 2,000 acres of farmland, cut across 85 waterways and pave nearly 400 acres of protected Greenbelt land in Vaughan.

In pushing for the highway, the province says that by 2051, the population of the Greater Golden Horseshoe will grow to 14.8 million people, and without strong action growth will overwhelm current infrastructure. It says the highways in York and Peel regions are forecast to be operating overcapacity by 2031, even with significant investments in transit.

The potential impact of the highway on the GTA’s environment has led to strong opposition from environmental groups, residents and municipalities.

While Ottawa’s decision may not kill the 413, the federal oversight could significantly delay the project, which had been revived by the Doug Ford government in 2018 after the provincial Liberals shelved it.

Environmental groups and critics of the proposed highway say federal oversight will bring “credibility” to the process.

In February, Ecojustice, on behalf of Environmental Defence, asked the federal government to conduct an environmental assessment of the GTA West highway and the Bradford Bypass — a proposed highway that would link the 400 to the 404 in northern York region, citing the potential effect of the projects on species under federal jurisdiction.

In March, Ottawa received a similar request from the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.

Environmentalists also expressed concern about the province’s streamlined environmental assessment process for the GTA West highway, which would allow for the construction of bridges and transit infrastructure before its completed.

Wilkinson said that the IAAC had identified “clear areas of federal concern related to the GTA West project” namely three species: the western chorus frog, red-headed woodpecker and rapids clubtail.

“The agency is of the view that the project may cause adverse direct or incidental effects on the critical habitat of three federally-listed species at risk on non-federal lands,” according to the 32-page report by the IAAC.

Ottawa’s move “doesn’t mean we are saying that the project can’t go ahead,” said Wilkinson. “But what does say is that it is important for the federal government to have a role to play in assessing the project and determining whether or not those potential impacts can be mitigated.”

The Bradford Bypass does not have the same impacts on species under federal jurisdiction, added Wilkinson.

In a statement, provincial Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said it is “unclear what the scope of a federal impact assessment would be, or whether a full impact assessment would be warranted.”

Mulroney said that as “recently as March 2020, the experts at the IAAC reviewed the evidence and declined to take further action on the GTA West project.”

Mulroney also added that “the GTA West project is already subject to a robust provincial Individual Environmental Assessment, which is among the most stringent assessment processes on record.”

But she said the province would “work with the federal government to address their newly found concerns.”

Sarah Buchanan with Environmental Defence said her group is pleased with the federal government’s move.

“This action is necessary due to the Ontario government’s dangerous plan to undermine the environmental reviews of this highway and race to its construction,” she said, adding that it’s too early to say the project is dead.

“We are much closer today to this multibillion-dollar waste of money being abandoned once and for all, but we are not there yet,” Buchanan added.

The IAAC received more than 1,670 comments on the project on its website, and many more through email. Of those received, 90 per cent were opposed to the project.

Wilkinson said that the provincial Ministry of Transportation will be required to submit an initial project description that, once accepted, will begin the planning phase of the assessment process.

“The provincial process is not done. In fact, it hasn’t even really begun,” he said.

At that point, the federal government will have 180 days to consult with the province and hold public consultations to see if there are ways for the impacts to be mitigated.

“If we believe there are still significant concerns, then we will essentially move into a fullblown federal environmental assessment which will take another 300 days,” he said Brampton regional Coun. Martin Medeiros, who represents a municipality that will be impacted by the highway, said he was pleased to see the government’s decision.

“It’s been highlighted that there have been competing interests on this project, such as developer interests. So there hasn’t been full credibility to this process,” he said.

“What the federal (environmental assessment) does regardless of outcome … is that it will give people satisfaction that we had another level of government doing a proper study of its impact.”

He noted that this would leave the land along the proposed highway locked until a decision is made.

“I think it would reassure people that the project is not being influenced one way or another,” added Medeiros.

A recent Star/National Observer investigation explored the money, power and influence behind the government’s push to build Highway 413. The investigation showed that eight of Ontario’s major land developers own 3,300 acres of prime real estate conservatively valued at nearly half a billion dollars near the route of the proposed highway. The value of those lands could rise dramatically if the highway goes ahead.

The chief of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation said he was “very happy” the federal government decided to intervene.

“There’s a potential impact to so many of our creeks and our watersheds,” Chief R. Stacey Laforme said. “Without a federal assessment I’m afraid that a lot of these things are going to get glossed over.”

The Mississaugas of the Credit are a small First Nation of about 2,600 members with a reserve located next to Six Nations near Caledonia. But the Mississaugas of the Credit hold rights under two treaties to about 3.9 million acres (1.6 million hectares) of land in southern Ontario, including the area covered by the proposed 413 highway.

Laforme said he isn’t necessarily opposed to the highway but “I just want to make sure it’s done properly.”

Author: Ray Nakano

Ray is a retired, third generation Japanese Canadian born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario along with his 4 younger sisters. He resides in Toronto where he worked for the Ontario Government for 28 years. Ray currently practises in 2 Buddhist traditions: Jodo Shinshu and that of Thich Nhat Hanh. Ray is passionate about climate action and very concerned about our Climate Crisis. He has been actively involved in the ClimateFast group (https://climatefast.ca) for the past 3 years. He works to bring awareness of our Climate Crisis to others. He has created the myclimatechange.home.blog website, for tracking climate-related news articles, reports, and organizations. He is always looking for opportunities through the work of ClimateFast to reach out to communities, politicians, and governments to communicate about our Climate Crisis. He is married and has 2 daughters and 2 grandchildren. He says: “Our world is in dire straits. Doing nothing is not an option. We must do everything we can to create a liveable future for our children, our grandchildren, and all future generations.”

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