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Feds and Ontario fight over Rouge National Urban Park

MP wants farmers to continue farming the land, while the province and opposition groups want to reforest Class 1 farmland

By Amanda Brodhagen, 

The Ontario government said in an article published in the Toronto Star, that it plans to pull the plug on a federal and provincial partnership to create the Rouge National Urban Park – home to about 5,000 acres of prime (Class 1) farmland located in the GTA.

Minister Brad Duguid, the provincial minister in charge of the file, argues that the proposed federal legislation is too lax on environmental oversight. This is the main reason why Mr. Duguid says he will no longer recommend to Cabinet the transfer of the provincial portion of the designated lands to create the national park.

The news of the provincial government’s change of heart came as a surprise to federal government officials. “We had an agreement with the provincial government and they turned their back on that agreement,” Paul Calandra, the M.P. for Oak Ridges-Markham said in an interview with

According to Calandra, the agreement was made upon consultation with farmers, the province, the federal government, and Parks Canada. He said the government was prepared to make an announcement finalizing the park deal this past spring but the provincial election prompted a delay. The federal government cannot make any announcements in a province where there is an election being held. But despite the setback, the feds thought things were on track to make the project official by December.

Calandra says the federal government first found out about the province’s plan to withdrawal its commitment to the Rouge National Urban Park in the media. It was later followed up with a hard copy letter sent a day later addressed to federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, outlining new demands.

The demands are made up of wishes from environmental groups including Friends of the Rouge Watershed, Environmental Defence and Ontario Nature.  They want to see the farmland reforested, and conventional farming practices replaced with small-scale organic farms. Clandra argues that Mr. Duguid is siding with environmental groups, who have been “absolutely brutal to farmers in this area,” with this call for massive reforesting of the lands that have been farmed for hundreds of years.

“This is adding insult to injury,” he said. The lands were expropriated from farmers in the 1970s for the Pickering Airport. Since then farmers have been working the land based on year-to-year leases, making it difficult to make conservation-related investments to the farmland.

“What galls me the most is this attitude that somehow farmers aren’t the best stewards of the land,” he said with frustration. “ I am so tired of hearing this from supposed environmentalists.”

Calandra made a pledge before he was elected in 2008, that he would work hard to address farmers past grievances and ultimately come up with a liveable long-term solution for all the stakeholders involved.  He is fed up with  the status quo “farmers in this area have consistently been treated like crap.”

The Rouge National Park was aimed at “for the first time in generations reversing their [farmers] treatment and allow them to do what they do best – farm,” he explained. The concept of the national park was to provide farmers with long-term leases, offering them more security while providing a place to bridge the gap between rural and urban communities.

“We are going to move forward,” he said firmly. “We are going to protect farmers on federal lands and at the same time we are going to continue to fight to make sure that farmers that happen to be on the provincial lands in that area aren’t abandoned.”

Approximately, 2/3 of the farmland for the proposed Rouge National Park is currently controlled by the province, while the remaining is owned by the federal government. Ontario is home to half (52%) of Canada’s Class 1 farmland. This classification of land has the highest productivity for a wide range of crops.  “On a clear day, over one-third of Canada’s best agricultural land can be seen from the top of Toronto’s CN Tower.” Statistics Canada, 1999.

“At some point we need to stop attacking the people who put food on the table. We would never to this to any other segment of our economy. It’s just plain insulting,” he said.

Editor’s note: Several provincial ministries were contacted, but did not respond to requests for comment by press deadline.

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